Nothing goes according to plan in this iconic 1964 gangster noir from genre master Lee Man-hee. Jang Dong-hui, an actor well known for his tough-guy roles in many war and action films of the 1960s, plays an embittered gang boss who rules over his organization with an iron-clad list of commandments. Despite smuggling deals gone wrong and tensions among his men, he manages to keep the gang together. But when his wife Yeon-sil is raped by a scheming drug addict, her “transgression” technically violates the gang’s code of ethics. Under pressure from his subordinates, the Boss reluctantly calls for her punishment. After scarring her face, the men cast her out to live on her own.
Some time later Yeon-sil is working as a prostitute, the junkie continues to blackmail her and the Boss is plagued by guilt. At this point a taxi driver befriends Yeon-sil and offers to help her out of her predicament. His actions then set off a chain of events that put him in danger, and ultimately threaten the gang’s very existence.
Stylish, engaging and innovative, Black Hair features some unusually complex and memorable characters. The role of Yeon-sil is taken by Moon Jeong-sook, one of the great actresses of her generation and a frequent collaborator with Lee Man-hee on films like Homebound (1967) and his lost masterpiece Late Autumn (1966). Yeon-sil is cast to the very bottom of society, but her survival instincts and inherent sense of dignity keep her from unraveling. The Boss, meanwhile, is a contradictory figure with a bit of the air of a tragic Greek hero. With another director at the helm this character might have come across as ridiculous, but Jang’s committed performance and Lee’s nuanced direction instead make him a fascinating combination of ruler and outcast, light and dark.