Black Hair (검은 머리, Lee Man-hee: 1964)

The boss of a gang of smugglers discovers that his wife Yeon-sil has been having an affair so, in line with the law of the gang he arranges for her to be thrown out of his house and for her face to be cut so that she’ll never be attractive to other men again. With a scarred face the wife, Yeon-sil, is forced into prostitution. As an outcast, even within the company of street walkers, she meets a taxi driver – a kind man who says that he will look after her, but despite his own actions Yeon-sil’s own husband hasn’t quite forgotten her yet….

The late Lee Man-hee (1931 – 1975) was a prolific director and popular director who died at the young age age of forty-five but nonetheless managed to direct over fifty films. Best remembered for his films The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), Full Autumn (1966) and The Road To Sampo (1975), in the years following Lee’s death his films were not circulated widely and so their popularity faded. Over the last few years several of Lee’s films are being rediscovered through festivals, screenings and DVD releases – including Black Hair which was digitally restored from a damaged print by the Korean Film Archive in 2009. While the opening eight minutes of the restored version of Black Hair displays some print damage, its a film which grabs you from its opening scenes and after a few minutes you’ll barely notice the strange ghost-like movement of the restoration during that opening. It’s a fine introduction to Lee’s work…

Black Hair is a film noir which plays out its gangster drama in a slightly different to expectations. It begins with a familiar feeling premise – a wronged gangster sets about punishing his wife – and immediately delivers some recognisably dark characters and visual images. Working within this is a narrative in which a gang boss (played by the convincingly tough-looking Jang Dong-hui) attempts to live by the groups own set self-created rules – even when these rules mean that he is, essentially, punishing himself and someone that he loves in order to save face and avoid displaying any sense of weakness. It’s here that Black Hair proves to be the most generic – the gang ‘laws’ fail to benefit anyone or anything and only to prop up the thin guise of a ‘system’, albeit a broken one. When the gang members themselves break these ‘rules’ the logic of the group falls apart, underlining the farcical nature of the group.

On the other side of Black Hair‘s narrative is the arguably more interesting plot thread – following the exploits of the scarred wife Yeon-sil, played by an excellent Moon Joeng-sook. Forced into prostitution and shown touting for customers, Yeon-sil gets a raw deal however she maybe resigned to a difficult life but has equal amounts of determination. While her husband keeps up his position of power by adhering to the laws of the underworld. Yeon-sil displays her own strength through her ability to do what she needs to do to survive. Yeon-sil’s further relationships with an opium addict and a taxi driver are key to the unwinding plot of Black Hair, but it’s her relationship with all three men that is the key to keeping our interest, more so than the inevitable melodrama that follows. Throughout all of this Lee Man-hee juggles his cast with some strong visuals – despite the gritty subjects of gangsters, prostitutes and drug addicts this is no attempt at realist cinema, there’s a more detached approach to the material which suggests its key influences are trashy novels and gangster cinema (the dialogue is, at times, hackneyed but this adds to its likeability) as well as a sense of the cinematic spectacle (with a strong use of location and framing). While Black Hair seems to take influences from multiple genres, it manages to merge enough ideas, visuals and performances which make it quite hard to define but keeps it interesting for its swift hour and forty-five minute running time.

There’s a pervading sense of the inevitable throughout – which leads to a satisfying finale

While there’s much to admire in Black Hair – and it’s certainly never dull – its interesting visuals and strong performances can’t quite cover the fact that the dramatic twists and turns never quite make complete sense. There’s a pervading sense of the inevitable throughout – which leads to a satisfying finale – yet some of the plot twists of Black Hair are stretch plausibility to breaking point – and then some. Coincidence is piled on top of coincidence which unfortunately has a distancing affect on the overall narrative and some of the peripheral characters, although everything is pulled back together by the final credits. Despite this Black Hair rewards repeat viewings – particularly to examine the way that Lee Man-hee makes interesting use of repetition and contrast. An obvious example of this is the title of the film itself – both the signature of Jang Dong-hwi’s thug boss as well as a reference to Yeon-sil’s dark hair which she uses to cover up her scarred cheek. Likewise there’s reocurring references to ‘evil’: despite the gang boss’s attempts to enforce his self-damaging code of honour he’s also painfully aware, and seemingly regretful, of his own moral vacuum. He delivers two lines at different points in the film which summarise his characters mindset – the first being ‘I didn’t choose evil. Evil chose me.’ while later he says ‘I chose evil.’ This is typical of the ideas thrown up throughout Black Hair – Lee Man-hee utilises some occasionally obsurd soap opera antics to shortcut his way to bigger ideas – the mindset of the gang boss is doomed at almost Shakespearean levels (his almost inevitable fall from power is his own doing) yet Lee undercuts this by allowing events to ride to ridiculousness levels, therefore showing a man fooling himself as he destroys himself by hanging onto illusionary (or delusionary) ideas of a grandeur. On a surface level Black Hair is an interesting and gripping film, yet beneath the surface there’s more ideas and themes bubbling away than your typical throwaway soap-opera-melodrama theatrics and it really deserves to be more widely seen.

검은 머리 (Black Hair)
Directed by Lee Man-hee
Produced by An Tai-sik
Written by Lee Man-hee, Han Wu-jeong
Starring Moon Joeng-sook, Jang Dong-hui, Lee Dae-yub, Kim Win-ha

Black Hair Image © Korean Film Co, Ltd

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