The Devil's Stairway [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - South Korea - Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (21st July 2019).
The Film

"The Devil's Stairway" <魔의階段> <마의 계단> (1964)

Dr. Hyeon Gwang-ho (played by Kim Jin-kyu) is a senior surgeon at a local hospital who is looking further his career by becoming the leader of the establishment. He has the opportunity by marrying the Jeong-ja (played by Bang Seong-ja), the daughter of the head of the hospital, Dr. Oh Sang-gil (played by Choi Nam-hyeon). The courtship is moving forward with a blessing, but Dr. Hyeon has been secretly having a relationship with the nurse Nam Jin-suk (played by Moon Jeong-suk) who cannot believe that he would give up on love for her and instead follow his business and power desire. Things get more complicated when she tells him that she is pregnant with his child. From there comes unfortunate accidents, murderous intentions, and delusions into complete madness...

"The Devil's Stairway" is a story that at first plays as a fairly standard moral melodrama of sorts. A man that has to choose between two paths while also going through a moral dilemma. There are soap operatic moments of dialogue and situations, but there are also moments of American film noir with the femme fatale character and the morally skewed male. But in the second half it turns towards a suspenseful horror, in the way the doctor's paranoia kicks into full gear with nightmarish images, jump music cues, and a rising tension throughout until the climax. Director Lee Man-hee was only three years into his career as a director in 1964, but by the end of the year had completed fifteen feature films and six of them within just 1964. He was already an extremely versatile young filmmaker, establishing excellent craft in various genres such as war in "The Marines Who Never Returned" in 1961, and the masterful film noir gangster story "Black Hair" in 1964, and many other works in other genres in the forthcoming years. "The Devil's Stairway" was a suspense film and it's surprisingly effective in its execution, from the setpieces to the storytelling.

The unsettling title comes from the central setpiece where multiple tragedies occur, the staircase inside the hospital with the frail wooden handrail that causes more trouble than it should. When Jin-suk falls from after breaking the handrail and falling a meter, it comes with the cost of her fracturing her leg as well as the loss of her unborn child with Dr. Hyeon. Later in the story there are other repeated accidents that seem to point to an almost omen within, though it could easily be pointed at a fairly inept carpenter or management that doesn't seem to care to put safety as priority, but then again that would not cause the story to come full circle with the evil stairs. With Jin-suk unable to walk and now being without child, to the rest of the staff besides Hyeon they are all questioning who the father of the child was as she was unmarried. Hyeon cannot let the secret out and ruin his chances of success and plans the unquestionable by drugging her to sleep, carrying her unconscious body out of the hospital, and forcibly drowning her in the large pond behind the building, making it seem like a suicide or an accident. But with the body not turning up for days on end, his paranoia sets in. What if she washed away and survived? The thought of a former lover who might seek vengeance takes a toll on his sanity, and the results are some fairly great shock moments though with a few questionable and strange ones as well.

There are many works that "The Devil's Stairway" takes inspiration from. "A Place in the Sun" (1951) has a man that must choose between two women where one would lead to power while the other was his true love. "MacBeth" and all its incarnations such as "Throne of Blood" (1957) shows the paranoia that builds once the path of power is decided, including the intention to kill to cover tracks. "Diagolique" (1955) also confronts the consequences of murdering a loved one as well to incredible effect. And one cannot forget the inspiration of staircases in works such as "Psycho" and "The Haunting" (1963) to menacing effect. Lee was able to craft quite a suspenseful piece with the use of light and shadows, European film score cues, and gothic horror imagery, as well as with the performances of the leads.

Lee Man-hee was born in 1931 and was only 34 years old at the time of making "The Devil's Staircase". Making his directorial debut in 1961, his career was cut short with his death in 1975 at the age of 43 due to cirrhosis of the liver. He died during post production of "The Road to Sampo", released posthumously in 1975. In 1968 his film "A Day Off" was shot but remained unreleased due to government censorship and was mostly unknown and unseen until the Korean Film Archive's restoration and release in 2005 and declared a bleak lost masterwork, which in turn also raised awareness of the director's past filmography. Kim Jin-kyu as Dr. Hyeon is not exactly the most likeable character as he shows a cold heart through the entire piece. Calculating and precise as a doctor, his shortcomings become his eventual downfall and Kim plays the part very well, considering that the character is essentially the "bad guy" yet the audience is glued to what may happen. Kim had quite a long career in film, debuting in 1955's "Piagol" and continuing acting until the 1980s. He had memorable parts in "Dongshimcho" (1959), "Rhee Syngman and the Independence Movement" (1959), "The Housemaid" (1960), "Aimless Bullet" (1961), and "Goryeojang" (1963) before working on "The Devil's Stairway" and continued much after until his death in 1998 at the age of 76. Moon Jeong-suk as the haunting and tragic figure of the nurse basically has a limited role but makes quite an impact in the early scenes. Somewhat of a spoiler, but her appearances later on and especially the final scene is a bit contrived but Moon does quite a memorable job as the doomed lover. Appearing in over 200 films in a lengthy career, Moon appeared in works such as "Holiday in Seoul" (1956), "The Bell Tower" (1958), "Drifting Island" (1960), "Aimless Bullet" (1961), and also played in director Lee's "Black Hair" released the same year as "The Devil's Staircase". She was married to Lee Man-hee from 1967 until his early death in 1975. She worked well after his death, with her last film released on the year of her death in 2000 at the age of 71.

The film was released on July 10 1964 in South Korea and for years has been basically a footnote in Lee's filmography as it was not a major awards winner and overshadowed by his busy year. Thankfully the film's original negative survives and is held by the Korean Film Archive, which gave it a 4K restoration and a Blu-ray release in 2019.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray

Video

The Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino present the film in the theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The original 35mm negative was restored in 2K by KOFA. There are many positives to the restoration but one glaringly strange choice was also made. On the positive side the image is quite clean, with many instances of damage marks such as scratches and cuts on the image carefully removed, though there are a few speckles that can be seen on close inspection. Apparently brightness was very unstable in the original negative and that has been balanced out in the restoration, reducing the amount of flicker. The digital restoration keeps the film grain intact and is very clean looking, but one unusual problem is the "color" of the black and white film. Rather than being in pure black and white there is a hint of sepia in the image resulting in a light brown image throughout. Although the restoration notes state that the color was based on a US subtitled print that KOFA has, it's extremely odd that a South Korean film from the mid 60s would use tinting on a print. As the director and cinematographer have passed away and there are no notes to refer to, it is an odd choice.

The film is uncut with a runtime of 109:02 and unusually for a restored KOFA release, no additional restoration credits are included.

Audio

Korean LPCM 1.0
The original Korean audio track is presented in its original mono form. The restoration came from a 17.5mm sound negative. Unfortunately the sound is not as pristine as the image with quite a few issues. It is fairly loud which fidelity becomes an issue. High pitch tones are distorted, loud music cues are overblown, and especially in music cues there are noticeable hiss and crackle that can be heard. Dialogue is still fairly easy to listen to and there are no issues with things such as dropouts or errors, but it still feels lacking altogether.

There are optional English, Japanese, and Korean subtitles for the main feature, each in a white font. The subtitles are well timed, easy to read and without spelling or grammar errors to speak of. The opening credits are written in the Chinese characters and the Korean subtitle track actually captions them in Hangul form for modern audiences not accustomed to the older form of formal writing.

Extras

Audio commentary by Kim Hae-ry (film critic)
Film critic Kim Hae-ry of Cine21 gives an insightful commentary for the production, as she points out various aspects of the film and its cast and crew. She compares the film to Lee's film "Black Hair" which came out the same year as well as other films with similar themes of murder, rise in ranks, and neurosis such as "A Place in the Sun", "Diabolique", "Purple Noon", and "A Simple Favor" in addition to cast and crew bios, aspects of the storytelling and cinematography, as well as pointing out the film's flaws and inconsistencies.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English and Korean subtitles

"GV Clip with Kim Hyung-seok (film critic) and Yim Pil-sung (director)" lecture (32:52)
This lecture conducted at the Korean Film Archive on May 2, 2015 features film critic Kim Hyung-seok and filmmaker Yim Pil-sung. Unfortunately there are no subtitles making the extra useless for non-Korean speakers. There are no film clips or cutaways, with the static shot being focused on the pair talking to an audience, and strangely it is in the standard size 1.33:1 aspect ratio, an odd choice for something shot back in 2015.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

48-Page Book
As with all Korean Film Archive DVDs and Blu-rays, there is a lengthy booklet included. The 48 page book is nearly half in Korean and half in English with identical content. First there are film credits, a brief synopsis with spoilers, and restoration notes. Next there are biography, filmography, and awards listings for Lee Man-hee. An essay entitled "A Scheme of Coincidence or a Trick of God: Bizarre Time and Space of The Devil's Stairway" by film critic Huh Moon-yung discussing about the film and its place in Korean cinema. There are also stills from the film as well as commentary participants pictured.


The extras are a little on the sparse side. The commentary is great and probably the lecture is too, but with two of Lee's films on Blu-ray now, it is unusual that the hour long Lee Man-hee documentary (available on the "Lee Man-hee Collection) has not been placed on either of the Blu-rays as a bonus.

Packaging

Packaged in a standard size blue Blu-ray keep case (rather than the clear ones that KOFA used to package them in), it is housed in a sturdy slipcase which holds the keep case and the 48-page booklet along with four artcards. The slipcase, is labeled "016" on the spine as the 16th Blu-ray release from KOFA.

Overall

"The Devil's Staircase" is an excellent suspense piece with thrills and shocks plus the standard Korean melodrama. There are some flaws in the narrative but the cinematography and direction are absolutely great, giving classic Korean cinema fans some definite smiles. The 4K restoration looks very clean and sharp but the slight tint is a little unusual in the transfer. Still comes recommended.

The Film: B+ Video: B Audio: C Extras: C+ Overall: B

 


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