Considered one of the most realistic films about daily life in postwar 1950's Seoul, "The Flower in Hell" is a truly great film that highlights the circumstances of the lower classes during the era in the best way. Director Shin Sang-ok had shared an apartment with a prostitute in order to live more comfortably rather than sharing a one-room evacuation apartment with several families, giving him insight in the subject of the production.
Yeong-sik is a petty criminal who earns his living by stealing supplies from a U.S army base and selling them in the black market, along with his group of "misfits". He lives in a house in an area occupied mostly by prostitutes, along with his girlfriend, Sonya, who offers her "services " to the American soldiers. Eventually, his younger brother, Dong-sik, arrives to Seoul in order to bring Yeong-sik back to their village, as per their mother's requests. His brother, however, has other plans, mostly involving him making a fortune and taking Sonya away from her current life. Dong-sik also does not back down, but soon finds himself in the "grasp" of Sonya, who proves much more than just a beautiful woman.
Shin Sang-ok directs a film that unfolds in two levels. The first and more evident one revolves around the erotic trio, and particularly Sonya, a genuine femme fatale who is willing to stop at nothing in order to achieve her goals. Her presentation benefits the most by Choi Eun-hee's performance, Shin's actual wife, who presents a woman who uses all the weapons in her arsenal (beauty, intelligence, confidence, and calculating nature) to make the people around her dance to her tunes. The way she seduces Dong-sik is probably the highlight of a great performance.
In that fashion, Kim Hak as Yeong-sik and Jo Hae-won as Dong-sik play characters that eventually become her victims, despite their radically opposite nature, since the former is a disillusioned thief and the latter a "country-bumpkin" who knows very little of the capital's ways. Shing Sang-ok stresses this difference from the beginning of the film, which shows the elder brother stealing and the younger mugged. Both actors perform quite well in their respective parts, with the chemistry of the three being one of the production's best assets.
The second axis, and the underlying one, focuses on everyday life of the lower classes in 50's Seoul, with Shin Sang-ok presentation focusing on realism, with the amount of detail reaching the borders of the documentary. As Korea's economy after the war was destroyed, US money was the only source of income for the poor (to say the least), with the film making a point of showing that all the money came from the American soldiers: prostitutes selling themselves to them, criminals stealing for them, while the entertainment industry focused on their tastes. This fact is highlighted by a scene in the middle of the movie taking place in a night club, where scores of US army soldiers enjoy themselves as Korean musicians play mambo and local female dancers perform in the tune, as sensually as possible, while, at the same time, Yeong-sik's crew steal from their base.
Technically, and despite the technical problems Shin faced (reportedly the borrowed Arri camera kept breaking during the shoot) (Source: koreanfilm.org), the movie functions quite well. Kang Beom-gu's cinematography captures the essence of the era and the setting to perfection, with a distinct focus on realism, while Kim Yeong-hui's editing allows the film to move with a rather fast pace, mostly through fade-outs/fade-ins. The production values of the film however, find their apogee in the climax of the story near the end, with the fight in the mud being the most impressive in the movie, both in audiovisual and context terms.
"The Flower in Hell" is a great production, one of those movies that stay relevant forever , through a combination of artistry and realism.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[Guest Film Review] "The Flower in Hell" + Full Movie"
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