1931 - 1975

Director Lee Man-hee: His Life and Movies

Korean Film Archive

Lee Man-hee is not only a great artist but also a remarkable one. His films are godsends, well beyond what film makers could ever create at their best. -- Huh Moon-young, a movie critic

Lee Man-hee (1931-1975)

Lee Man-hee was born in Seoul in 1931. After graduating from high school, he fought in the Korean War and then continued serving in the military for five years. In 1961, he made his directorial debut with the film Kaleidoscope. Until his passing in 1975, he had made over 50 films, approximately three to four films per year.

Prior to the mid-2000s, Lee Man-hee had been primarily known to public only for his few select works such as Marines Are Gone (1963), Full Autumn (1966), and The Road to Sampo (1975). However, the revisits of Lee’s entire body of work at the 10th Pusan International Film Festival (now known as “Busan international Film Festival”) in 2005 and the memorial film exhibition hosted by the Korean Film Archive in 2006 brought him to light both nationally and internationally, as one of the core directors who have greatly contributed to Korean film history.

Six of his films, only one short from the top director Im Kwon-taek’s seven, are on the list of the 2013 edition of The 100 Korean Films by the Korean Film Archive.

In his films, Lee Man-hee often featured characters who fight against and overcom with their own will the hardships that destiny has put upon them. His war films and female-led melodramas make the best of these characters and his own unique aura presented in them.

Director Lee Man-hee
Among all the directors of the 1960s, Lee Man-hee is one who created the most outstanding, “cinephile” screen scenes. -- Kim So-yong, a movie critic
What sets Lee Man-hee apart from other directors is that he constantly experimented with his films. Whether big or small, whether in terms of structure or content, isn’t the artist’s own unique voice the life force of what we so call art? Art should be original; different from American films, different from the works by other directors, different from his own other movies--ones from the past and even ones that he will make in the future. Lee Man-hee believed in the value of originality in his films. -- Screenwriter Baek Gyeol
It is remarkable that one single director [Lee Man-hee] could direct such a wide range of films in terms of structure and genre. I cannot help but simply be attracted to the gloomy universes and their images created in his films. -- Jo Hye-jeong, a movie critic

Lee Man-hee was born in Seoul in 1931. He, the youngest, was born to his father Lee Se-geun and his mother An Won-deok along with his seven siblings. Two of the siblings passed away at young; Lee grew up as the youngest mostly with the remaining five and the parents. By working with the skills that they had acquired from Japanese during the Japanese Annexation of Korea Era, his two brothers brought family some decent income, enough for Lee Man-hee to attend school and afford education.

“He was born a free spirit, not being restrained and instead being happy. Rain? No class. Snow? No class. And he would rather do something else on his own,” says actress Lee Hye-young, a daughter of Lee Man-hee.

Young Lee Man-hee and his sister (late 1930s)
Lee Man-hee in his middle school years (1940s)
Lee Man-hee in his high school years (1940s)

After serving in the military from 1950 through 1955, including fighting in the Korean War, Lee Man-hee worked as an assistant director for Ahn Jong-hwa, Park Gu, and Kim Myeong-je and gained experience in the film industry. Then, in 1961, he made his directorial debut with the film Kaleidoscope. Kim Seung-ho, one of the most bankable actors at that time, was cast for the lead character; it is said that Kim who had known Lee in his assistant director years had particular interests in him and his future endeavours and helped him with his directorial debut. Unfortunately, the original print of the film has been long lost and there are no copies present; however, according to records, it is believed to be a family drama film.

Lee Man-hee (far right, behind an actress) in his assistant director years (late 1950s); Kim Seung-ho (far left)
Kaleidoscope (1961), Lee Man-hee’s directorial debut film

Call 112 (1962)

It was Lee’s third film installation Call 112 (1962) that introduced Lee as a director to the public. It featured a story line of three men going after a woman with great inherited wealth and them playing cat and mouse with one another. Now regarded as the film that opened up the genre of thriller in Korean film history, Call 112 received critical acclaim from critics and became a commercial success. Lee himself made two more remakes--Six Shadows (1969) and A Triangular Trap (1974)--of the film.

Chang Dong-he and Park Nou-sik in Call 112 (1962)

The film [Call 112] moves at a fast speed as if we were seeing a Hollywood movie. Each film scene is vibrant and refreshing. Lee’s mastery of creating thriller films and crafting their details is outstanding. -- The Chosun Ilbo, August 9, 1962

Marines Are Gone (1963)

1963 was a year of Marines Are Gone. Largely sponsored by the Marine Corps, Lee was able to produce the film at a grand scale--”grand” by standards of its time; it became the highest-grossing film of the year in Korea. In the aftermath of the Korean War, anti-communism had become a governing ideology throughout the nation. Marines Are Gone, at its surface an anti-communist film, directed a sharp-edged critical gaze on war itself. Unlike other anti-communist propaganda films, it emphasized elements of humanism and questioned the very nature of the Korean War, with both Koreas being collateral damages of the Cold War between the superpowers.

Marines Are Gone (1963)
Lee Man-hee and cinematographer Seo Jung-min at a shooting scene for Marines Are Gone (1963)

I still believe that all of Lee Man-hee’s war films, beginning with Marines Are Gone (1963), have much more depth in artistic accomplishment and gaze on humanism than any other war films that have been made by current directors. This is remarkable considering that all war films in Lee Man-hee’s era were burdened with the theme of anti-communism. -- Huh Moon-young, a movie critic

Black Hair (1964)

Captivatingly recreating the world of gangsters with its dark alleyways and secret hideouts, Black Hair may well be described as the most “noiristic” of Korean films. The character of Dong-il (played by Jang Dong-hee) whose Oedipus-like fate is to confine and punish himself with self-made rules is an archetype in Lee Man-hee’s films. Among those credited as the co-writers of the screenplay, “Chu Nam” is Lee’s nom de plume.

A shooting scene of Black Hair (1964)

The dark alleyway settings, stylishly installed in Black Hair, create the sense of danger in urban areas that were being imagined in the 1960s. The performance by Moon Jung-suk, roaming the streets of the city with her long black hair down, is quite impressive. - Kwon Eun-sun, a movie critic

Moon Jung-suk in Black Hair (1964)

The Devil’s Stairway (1964)

Both Black Hair and The Devil’s Stairway are now considered bold films that raised the bar for Korean noir films and horror films. While it is difficult to judge definitively, considering the lack of films that still have survived from the director’s early career (with the sole exception of his war movies), these two films showcased in full-fledged form the distinctive mis-en-scene and, further, the distinctive cinematic world of Lee Man-hee. Particularly, in The Devil’s Stairway, the eye of the camera, which moves through the narrow hospital corridors with a life of its own, somewhat recalls the films of Hitchcock, but the level of cinematography on the whole is astounding for its time.

The Devil’s Stairway (1964)
Poster of The Devil’s Stairway (1964)

In February 1965, with the release of The Seven Female POWs, Lee Man-hee was arrested for violating the National Security Act. This was the first case of a Korean film receiving pro-communist criminal charges, among which the primary one against Lee was the film portraying North Korean soldiers as actual human beings. Lee was released on probation only after he promised to delete/edit the problematic scenes; thus, the film was released to public in a seriously censored condition.

A news article (February 5, 1965) about Lee Man-hee being arrested for the charge of violation of the National Security Act

The Seven  Female POW’s (1964)

Han Wu-jeong, the screenwriter of The Seven Female POW’s, attests that approximately 4,000 feet (or 40-minutes length) of the film were censored. The final scenes of the film, according to cinematographer Seo Jeong-min, were not even directed by Lee Man-hee. Consequently, the film became a commercial failure and received negative reviews from critics. However, those who had watched the original film prior to its censorship called it a masterpiece.

The Seven Female POW’s (1964)

Lee Man-hee foresaw the future of Korea and Korean cinema. He was a director with the modern worldview that we, those who are living here and now 40 years after his time, are holding. He already knew that the two Koreas are one; that foreign forces would soon lose their control over the Korean Peninsular; and that the two Koreas would be united. --- Lee Hae-ryong, an actor

Shooting of The Seven Female POW’s (1964)

Since the events of The Seven POW’s, Lee Man-hee’s film world underwent serious evolvements. His new films since 1966 still continued possessing his unique cinematic characteristics, but unlike his previous works, they portrayed Lee Man-hee as a director of his own artistic worldview. One who helped Lee create such new films was the screenwriter Baek Gyeol. He accompanied Lee until 1970 as his screenwriter. Also Lee Suck-ki was appointed as the new cinematographer for Lee’s films.

Cinematographer Lee Suck-ki
Screenwriter Baek Gyeol

A Water Mill (1966)

A Water Mill is a debut piece for Baek Gyeol as screenwriter. The film is based on Na Do-hyang’s short story of the same title, but it is distinctive in that it borrows virtually nothing from the original literary text. At the time of its release, A Water Mill gained attention from the public for its approach of blurring the line between real and virtual and its unusually high level of eroticism.

A Water Mill (1966)
A Water Mill (1966)

Full Autumn (1966)

Full Autumn, released in 1966, is, with screenwriter Kim Ji-heon’s adaptation and cinematographer Baek Gyeo’s artistic touch, Lee Man-hee’s most well-known work. Also, it is one of the most representative, core Korean cinemas. With its entire screenplay being only about a half size of of a normal screenplay, Full Autumn’s narrative moves rather slowly. However, the film successfully portrays the private yet desperate desire and lust that the lead characters Hun (played by Shin Seong-il) and Hye-rim (played by Moon Jung-suk) have for each other. The film, an experimental piece, performed very well at the box offices and received critical acclaim from critics. Unfortunately, the original print of the film has been long lost and there are no copies present.

Shin Seong-il and Moon Jung-suk in Full Autumn (1966)
Shin Seong-il and Moon Jung-suk in Full Autumn (1966)

Searching for copies of Full Autumn and Arirang (1926) has become an obsession for many. There have been rumors circulating, regarding whereabouts of those films. Even then, we have checked each and every rumor in the hope of finding the films.  -- Jo Young-jeung

Whistle (1967)

Lee Man hee’s Whistle (1967) received acclaim from critics for its experimental “no music, no setting” approach. However, it was accused of having plagiarized the Polish film Pociag [Night Train] (1959). (At that time, in the aftermath of the Korean War, Korea saw Poland, a part of the Eastern Bloc, as hostile.) It took almost a year for Lee Man-hee and the screenwriter Baek Gyeol to be exonerated from the accusation of plagiarism. Thus, the film lost chances of being reviewed fairly by audiences and critics at that time; instead, the film was reviewed retrospectively and is now considered one of Lee Man-hee’s masterpieces.

Whistle (1967)

Homebound (1967)

Homebound, a female melodrama at its surface, is a controversial, experimental, modern melodrama. In the film, the internal landscape of the “she” (played by Mun Jeong-suk) is superbly externalized by the contrast between the stifling, bourgeois, two-story house in Incheon and the wide-open urban spaces of Seoul. Lee Man-hee's films, whether they are war movies, crime capers, or melodramas and whether the character is male or female, commonly feature: A character placed in extreme circumstances and his or her choices in surmounting those circumstances; and the self-made decision to take responsibility for those choices and the self-fulfilling morality.

Homebound (1967)
Poster of Homebound (1967)
Homebound (1967)

[In Homebound], multiple narratives, in the form of literary modernism, of art imitating life, life imitating art, fiction imitating life, and so on, are interwoven (i.e., “frame story”) correspondingly within one another. -- Kim So-yong, a movie critic

Holiday (1968), a film that came to light 37 years after its initial production

In 2005, while going through its archive in preparation for hosting a retrospective of Lee Man-hee’s work at the Pusan International Film Festival, the Korean Film Archive came across an unknown film. It was a copy of Lee Man-hee’s Holiday. The film had never been released in theatres due to censorship, and instead had been simply stored at the Archive. Through the memorial exhibition at the Pusan International Film Festival, the rediscovery and restoration of the film Holiday, and the Korean Film Archive’s screenings of Lee Man-hee’s entire body of work, Lee instantly became an iconic figure in Korean cinema. Prior to these incidents, Lee Man-hee had been known to public only for few films of his. Then, he came to us again just like Holiday was unexpectedly brought light to.

Holiday (1968)
Holiday (1968)
Holiday (1968)

After having been lost for 37 years, Holiday unexpectedly reemerged to the surface. Since I ever watched films, I have never been excited this much. As many have already said repeatedly at the retrospective, upon the rediscovery of Holiday, Lee Man-hee’s entire films now must be reevaluated. -- Huh Moon-young, a movie critic

Life (1969)

This experimental film is based on the true story of the miner Yang Chang-seon (played by Chang Min-ho), who was trapped underground in a mine collapse and communicated his will to live to the people above over the telephone lines. National attention was paid to the story. (The film was made in a rush for Lee Man-hee to fulfill the studio’s minimum quota.) The plot is rather simple; the focus in the film is on sympathy for the life of the lone miner.

Life (1969)
Assassin (1969)

Assassin (1969)

Among the entire body of Lee Man-hee’s work, Assassin is the most experimental. The film cuts between characters--a hostage taker and an adopted daughter who is left alone; and a general who is the target of the assassination and a female college student. The cross-cutting carries both narrative strands--the narrative between the daughter and the hostage taker and the narrative between the general and the college student--and the assassination journey along in endless parallel. The film is so experimental; the plot holds no importance in the film.

The Goboi Bridge (1970)

In 1970, Lee Man-hee directed The Goboi Bridge. By the start of the 1970s, the director was in a full-blown crisis. One aspect of this was his breakup with Moon Jung-suk, who had been both his lover and his onscreen persona. Another factor was his partying ways with screenwriter Baek Gyeol and cinematographer Lee Suck-ki. (For this film, Lee Man-hee wanted to appear in a supporting role as a combatant officer, and Baek and Lee Suck-ki opposed it.) Coincidentally, the Korean film industry began declining rapidly. Lee who insisted on making experimental films was given only few opportunities.

Lee Man-hee (left) as an actor in The Goboi Bridge (1970)

With The Goboi Bridge as his last work, Lee had a year-long hiatus. It was the longest gap in his career as a director. His films such as Holiday, Life, and Assassin all failed to be released in theatres or became commercial flops due to their extreme experimental characteristics. Investors and studios avoided putting Lee in charge of future film productions. During this time period, Lee also had some financial difficulty. Then, with Break up the Chain (1971), Lee returned to making narration-oriented films.

Break up the Chain (1971)

Break up the Chain is a Korean-style western film whose genre was popular for a short period of time in the late 1960s. The film is set in Manchuria, Northeast Asia. It is not as artistic as Lee’s previous films and instead is entertainment-oriented. The film is also known for being an inspiration for the film The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) directed by Kim Jee-woon.

Poster of Break up the Chain (1971)
Break up the Chain (1971)

The Midnight Sun (1972)

In the form of a cop movie, The Midnight Sun revolves around the story of four families and couples who come from different backgrounds and then who reconcile and come together. The lead character happens to be merely a cop; the film has no mystery nor thriller elements. Instead, Lee Man-hee carries out and maintains the display of warm feelings throughout the film. The film is an example that shows how deep Lee Man-hee’s empathy for social outcasts has become.

The Midnight Sun (1972)

4 O’Clock, Nineteen Fifty (1972)

It is 4 a.m. on June 25, 1950. (The title of the film refers to the time that the Korean War broke out.)  Heavily armed North Korean forces have crossed the 38th parallel in an invasion of South Korea. On an unidentified plateau at the 38the parallel, a lone army of South Korean soldiers in a deserted foxhole that has collapsed in a bombing is now on the fence about staying put for a rescue or fighting off the enemy to make their way out. About a half of the film scenes takes place in the foxhole. Lee Man-hee himself stars in the film as an intelligence officer and his acting is somewhat amicable.

Poster of 4 O’Clock, Nineteen Fifty (1972)

Lee Man-hee sought to make commercially spectacular films in order to survive as a bankable director. Then, all of a sudden, he produced this war film. 4 O’Clock, Nineteen Fifty, a formulaic war film, yet with the complex inner worlds of the characters projected in it, is one of Lee Man-hee’s masterpieces, as well as a real gem in Korean cinema history. -- Huh Moon-young, a movie critic

The Wild Flowers in the Battle Field (1974)

The Wild Flowers in the Battle Field was a large-scale, government-commissioned, anti-communist war movie produced in 1973 and released in the following year. The film was directly handled by the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation on a large budget. However, director Lee’s interests went beyond simple anti-communism propaganda. Despite the abundant pressure from the government for him to make an anti-communist war film, Lee’s version lacked such propaganda messages. (Instead, the film was more an anti-war film than an anti-communist film.) Thus, the government and the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation disapproved him of directing the film, and Lee was eventually taken away from his editorial rights for the film. Consequently, the released version of the film was far from what Lee had initially intended; there were too many protagonists in the film; the dialogues were incoherent and scattered sporadically all over the film and the overarching narrative was shaky. In a way, the film itself was, just like that, a war itself. If Lee Man-hee had been allowed to finish the film, a masterpiece war film could have been born in the history of Korean cinema.

The Wild Flowers in the Battle Field (1974)

I was not directly involved in the argument, but Lee Man-hee and then-chief of the Ministry of Culture Yoon Ju-young fought regarding the film. I even hear that Lee threw a copy of the scenario at him. Then, eventually Lee gave up on the film. His interests and what the government was asking him to do could not coexist. -- Lee Suck-ki, a cinematographer

The Wild Flowers in the Battle Field (1974)
The Wild Flowers in the Battle Field (1974)

If someone asks what the war means to Lee Man-hee, the answer is this: Violence, small or big, exists in the world. A gang member beats a random pedestrian who is passing by; that is a form of violence. A dictator regime oppresses the people; that is also a form of violence. Violence at its extreme is the war. Whether justified or not, the war is in the end, a violence. That is Lee Man-hee’s view. -- Baek Gyeol, a screenwriter

The Road to Sampo (1975)

In 1975, Lee Man-hee’s films A Girl Who Looks Like the Sun and A Triangular Trap were released; the former in January and the latter, a remake of Call 112 (1962), in February. Then, The Road to Sampo was released on May 23rd. (It premiered at Gukdo Theatre.) The female lead actor of all these three films was Moon Suk. Lee Man-hee collapsed during the editorial phase of the last film The Road to Sampo. He was admitted to hospital, and soon passed away. And the film was released posthumously. Although the overall tone of the film is somewhat inconsistent, due to an unbalanced mix of experimentation and sentimentality, triteness and novelty, it is hard to deny the emotional impact delivered in the film by Lee Man-hee’s uniquely profound and affectionate gaze.

The Road to Sampo (1975)
The Road to Sampo (1975)

I think that Lee might well have known that he would not live to see The Road to Sampo completed. No one knows better than him about his own health. And so did Lee. The film has Lee Man-hee-esque experimental elements. But then, If you look at it closely, you would see Lee Man-hee doing his best at his final moments. It’s like an old marathon runner who has used up all his energy, desperately trying to keep running. -- Baek Gyeol, a screenwriter.

Lee Man-hee’s funeral (1975)

You side with soldiers who are crawling in bombings; you side with lovers who continue loving even after a heartache; and you side with the youth who had to become strong against violence. -- Lee Man-hee, on his tombstone

FILMOGRAPHY (51 credits)

Kaleidoscope (1961)

A Disobedient Son (1961)

Until I Die (1962)

Call 112 (1962)

Han Seok-bong (1963)

Soldiers of YMS504 (1963)

The Twelve Nyang Life (1963)

Don't Look Back (1963)

Marines Are Gone (1963)

Black Hair (1964)

The Devil's Stairway (1964)

Where Can I Stand? (1964)

Myohyang's Elegy (1964)

The Chaser (1964)

The Intimidator (1964)

The Seven Female POW's (1965)

The Market Place (1965)

Heukmaek (1965)

Heilong River (1965)

A Hero without Serial Number (1966)

Full Autumn (1966)

A Water Mill (1966)

Unforgettable Woman (1966)

A Spotted Man (1967)

Homebound (1967)

The Starting Point (1967)

Horror of Triangle (1967)

Heat and Cold (1967)

Swindler Mr. Heo (1967)

Harimao in Bangkok (1967)

Whistle (1967) 

Legend of Ssarigol (1967)

Oblivion (1967)

Outing (1968)

A Journey (1968)

Living in the Sky (1968)

Holiday (1968)

Confess of Woman (1969)

Assassin (1969)

Six Shadows (1969)

Life (1969)

The Goboi Bridge (1970)

Break up the Chain (1971)

4 O’Clock, Nineteen Fifty (1972)

The Midnight Sun (1972)

Japanese Pirate (1972)

The Wild Flowers in the Battle Field(1974) 

A Triangular Trap (1974) 

Cheongnyeo (1974) 

A Girl Who Looks Like the Sun (1974)

The Road to Sampo (1975)

Credits: Story

Curator — Cho Jun-Hyoung, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
English translation — Lee Han Nool

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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