The Flower in Hell [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - South Korea - Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (30th December 2020).
The Film

"The Flower in Hell" <地獄花 (지옥화)> (1958)

Dongsik (played by Choi Hae-won) arrives in the bustling streets of Seoul fresh from being discharged from the military, but is immediately robbed and beaten by some thugs. He is looking for his older brother Yeongsik (played by Kim Hak), who unbeknownst to his brother is making a dishonest living by stealing goods from the US military base to sell on the black market. In addition he is in love with Sonya (played by Choi Eun-hee), a prostitute making a fair living by selling herself to the passing American soldiers. Though she takes some interest in Yeongsik's forward requests for a relationship, she disregards his proposal for marriage to keep her ways and independence. When Dongsik finally encounters Yeongsik and pleads with him to come back home, things become even more tense and awkward for the two estranged brothers.

"The Flower in Hell" is a unique piece of South Korean cinema in regards to the time period, as it depicts people in the lower class struggling in less than ideal situations in a postwar environment. In essence, a mirror image for the restructuring South Korean society. In the period following the end of the Korean War, emphasis was placed to rebuild the country and that included arts and entertainment. The film industry was growing steadily and in 1958 there were 78 South Korean film productions released in cinemas, which was double that of the year prior. During this period more emphasis was placed on melodramas and historical features, showing a sense of fantasy and escapism rather than reflections on societal woes. "The Flower in Hell" showed American GIs roaming the streets of Seoul in their jeeps and in uniform. Prostitutes pleasing the GIs which meant much better pay and treatment in comparison to the average South Korean male. Gangsters and thugs making a living by working with the black market. While these may have been secretly the norm for society in the late 1950s, it was far from an escape in the cinematic world.

Director Shin Sang-ok was still a fair newcomer to the world of cinema, debuting as a director in 1952 with "The Evil Night" and directing four additional films before "The Flower in Hell". The film has a lot more in common with American film noir as well as Italian neo-realist films in comparison to Korean cinema. There is the femme fatale character of Sonya who uses her seductive charms to get what she wants whenever she wants. The seductive sequences of ladies bathing in swimwear, the nightclub sequences with the sexy dancing with a lot of leg and cleavage showing are closer to what gritty American post WWII cinema was frequently showcasing. In addition, the male characters have moral swaying between comfort and duty, with many dilemmas being in a greyzone rather than purely right or wrong. The environment of a damaged nation taking effect on social understandings and people's interactions are definitely found in the landmark Italian films of the 1940s and 1950s. Written by Lee Jeong-seon) who only has a handful of credits to his name, "The Flower in Hell" is a fairly simple story on the surface. Two brothers that are not close anymore, yet both share the shame of wanting to return home due to how their lives have become. A love triangle with a strong and tempting woman at the center.

The characters are not the strongest parts of the film, as there are certain gaps that are unfulfilled. Why Dongsik wants his older brother to return to their hometown is not gives enough backstory. What was their relationship like before the war? What is their relationship like with their mother? In addition, the two of them meeting very coincidentally in the city is of course too good to be true. As for Sonya, why she has a pseudo-relationship with Yeongsik and why she starts to fall for Dongsik isn't very fully realized. And with Dongsik only visiting Seoul with no cash in hand and no job at all, it doesn't seem like he would be the person she would immediately fall for. Of all the characters Dongsik is the most honest, and Sonya does see him as a person that could possibly lead her away from her immoral work life in the future, without judgment others might give. As for supporting roles, the other prostitutes, the other members of Yeongsik's gang are given little to no time at all. What does shine better is the situation and the themes the film presents. The situations that the characters must go through, the ugliness that people have to face, as well as the exciting heist sequence and the mud drenched tragic climax are all wonderful highlights of the film.

"The Flower in Hell" was not a major hit when it was released in cinemas on April 20th, 1968 in South Korea. It was not a failure either, but in comparison to Shin's "A College Woman's Confession" released in July the same year, there was no comparison as the latter film became the third highest grossing South Korean film of the year and put Shin's name greatly on the map. His next three film which all released in 1959 were major hits, Shin Films became one of the most prolific production companies in the country, and his works became highly revered in critics circles as well. It's been well documented about Shin and wife Choi Eun-hee's abduction to North Korea and their dangerous escape after years in captivity. After they safely were able to return to South Korean in 1999, there was a retrospective for the director held in Deauville, France, where new appreciation was given to his many works, including "The Flower in Hell", especially from filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. It was a rare time capsule of South Korean society of the postwar period that did not try to sugarcoat the situation, or try to give a happy ending to the unfortunate characters. Many of Shin's works were praised during his life as well as after his death in 2006, and it's a wonderful thing that one of his earlier works was given a second look so many years later.

The film was first released on DVD by the Korean Film Archive as part of the "Landscape After the War" 4-film boxset in 2011. In 2020 the film was given a 4K digital restoration, and this Blu-ray from the Korean Film Archive marks the first time this restoration has become available on home video.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray

Video

The Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino presents the film in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. This transfer comes from a 2020 4K digital restoration from a 35mm master positive, performed by the Korean Film Archive and the Image Power Station. The two best elements were a 16mm duplicate negative and the 35mm master positive, both donated to the National Film Production Center of Korea in 1986. Due to better condition of the 35mm element for both sound and image, this was used as the source for the restoration. Strangely the image is slightly windowboxed with thin black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, limiting the full resolution slightly. The black and white image looks quite excellent but still imperfect. Grey levels are very well balanced, with rich blacks in darker sequences and bright whites in others. Details on characters' faces are sharp as well as details in the backgrounds. Damage marks such as scratches and cuts have been digitally removed while flicker and shakiness has been stabilized as well. There are some minor damage marks, some flickering of light still visible at times, but in comparison to the older transfer from the 2011 DVD, the image looks remarkable. Some sequences might have more flickering and grain than others depending on lighting and location, but overall it looks absolutely great and there should be little to complain about.

The film's runtime is 87:54 which also includes a brief text introduction of the restoration.

Audio

Korean LPCM 1.0
The original mono audio is presented in uncompressed form. The optical track from the 35mm master positive was used for the restoration. Like almost all South Korean productions of the period, sound was entirely overdubbed in post production rather than recording and using on-set sound. For the most part lip synchronization is good, but there are some instances where it might not look or sound as natural as it should. The original sound material had a lot of hum as what the restorers stated sounded like an air conditioner in the background. Much of the hum, crackle, pops, and other sound errors were removed and the soundtrack restored for a cleaner sound. Inconsistent levels were also rebalanced so dialogue and effects could be stabilized. The result is a clean soundtrack, though there are some issues with fidelity and echo as well as some muffled effects. In comparison to the DVD's soundtrack it is much better, though imperfect as it is.

The main feature includes optional English, Japanese, Korean subtitles all in a white font. They are easy to read, with no issues of grammar or spelling errors. The minor portions of English spoken are also captioned in the English subtitle track.

Extras

Audio commentary by film critic Chung Sung-il
In this new commentary track, the film critic who has done a few commentaries for KOFA in the past gives a solo guide for the film. Unfortunately the commentary is not subtitled.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Audio commentary by filmmaker Kim Il-rhan and film critic Song Hee-jeong
In this new commentary track, the two women give their perspective on the film. Again, this commentary is also not subtitled.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Digital Restoration: Before & After" featurette (1:38)
This silent featurette has various split screen and side by side comparisons of before and after the restoration. As there is no sound, there are no examples of the sound restoration here.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, with English and Korean text

Image Gallery
Eight stills from the production as well as pictures from a pamphlet and poster are presented in a manual slideshow.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4


Booklet
A 48 page bilingual Korean and English booklet is included. First are the film credits and the synopsis. This is followed by a filmography and biography of Shin Sang-ok. Restoration notes for the film are also printed in detail. The included essay is "Fascination and Creative Hybridity: Auteurism and Genre" by Prof. Park Yuhee of Korea University, discussing "The Flower in Hell" and its importance as well as Shin's directing and style in the following years.


Considering that KOFA used to frequently subtitle their extras including commentaries, it's becoming a disappointment that their more recent releases have been skipping on having them, and only subtitling the feature film itself. The 2011 DVD only had the image gallery as an extra, so the commentaries are welcome additions for Korean speakers.

Packaging

The Blu-ray is housed in a standard clear keep case, which also holds 3 postcards with stills from the film. The case and the booklet are housed in a slip box. The box is labeled #21 as this is the twenty-first Blu-ray release by the Korean Film Archive.

Overall

"The Flower in Hell" is a fascinating look at the post Korean War woes from one of South Korea's premiere filmmakers in his early career. The story and characters may be basic, but the themes presented and the visuals are a must for classic Korean cinema fans. The 4K restoration looks great even with the very slight windowboxing, but the lack of subtitles for the extras might be off-putting for non-Korean speakers.

Note the film available to watch for free with optional English subtitles on KOFA's YouTube channel, though it is the older transfer, which was used for the 2011 DVD release and not the 2020 restoration found on the Blu-ray.

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

 


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