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Korea Blog: Before There Were Korean TV Dramas, There Was Lee Hyeong-pyo’s Under the Sky of Seoul

More literally translated, the original Korean title of Under the Sky of Seoul (서울의 지붕밑) would be “Under the Roof of Seoul.” Whatever it lacks in mellifluousness, that version hardly seems inapt during the film’s opening sequence, which offers a series of views of the South Korean capital as it looked in the early 1960s. A near-total absence of high-rise buildings makes the first of them almost unrecognizable to those who’ve only known the city in the 21st century. But subsequent shots focus on more familiar sites: Tapgol Park with its Buddhist pagoda, the United States Embassy designed by Kim Swoo-geun (an architect to whose work I’ve paid more than a little attention here on the Korea Blog). What most catches the eye, however, are the roofs, and specifically those with the curved tiles and lines of the traditional hanok courtyard house.

There were more hanok in Seoul 60 years ago than there are now. As Under the Sky of Seoul depicts it there were many more indeed, but the film needs them for their symbolic value as built representations of the old order. For almost every episode of this highly episodic narrative deals with one theme above all: the coming of industrial modernity and the socioeconomic changes brought with it. To do so requires not just un-modern homes but un-modern men: hence protagonist Kim Hak-kyu, a traditional doctor who has prescribed herbs and performed acupuncture (scoffing at the very idea of disinfectant) in the same hanok for 30 years. In only a few scenes does he actually practice medicine; the rest of his time he seems to pass eating, drinking, and playing baduk with his similarly middle-aged buddies, one a destitute real-estate agent and the other a fortune-telling reader of physiognomy.

The blustery, out-of-touch patriarch is a standard figure of fun in Korean film and television today, but even in 1961 he was getting his supposed comeuppance onscreen. Despite his own struggles, or indeed due to them, such a character must be fiercely defensive of his family’s social position. So it is with Hak-kyu: early in the movie he examines the daughter of a local tavern owner attempting to conceal an obvious pregnancy, only to find out later that — much to his chagrin — his son is the father. He’s already been keeping a wary eye on his own daughter, a war widow fancied by the young doctor who recently opened up a practice across the street from her hair salon. Outfitted in Western suits and possessed of advanced medical equipment, this suitor is, irritatingly, not just a Johnny-come-lately to the neighborhood but a personification of the new, modern Korea.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.