The Flower in Hell

European Premiere | Out Of Competition | Restored Classics | 50/50: Celebrating 50 Years of Korean Film Preservation


The opening sequences of Shin Sang-ok’s 1958 classic The Flower in Hell often resemble documentary footage of postwar 1950s Seoul. Shots of U.S. soldiers in particular predominate among these images – this was an era when Korean society was desperately poor, and one of the few ways to secure a decent living was to forge some kind of connection to the U.S. army base (located right in the center of Seoul) and its soldiers, who carried hard currency.

The petty criminal Young-shik (played by Kim Hak) is one such example; he earns cash by stealing building materials from the U.S. army base and re-selling them on the black market. He lives with his girlfriend, a prostitute who calls herself Sonya and who caters to American soldiers. A classic femme fatale figure, Sonya is played with daring abandon by Shin Sang-ok’s wife, the acclaimed actress Choi Eun-hee.

However The Flower in Hell is told primarily through the eyes of Dong-shik (Jo Haewon), Young-shik’s pure-minded and somewhat naive younger brother who arrives in Seoul after being discharged from his military service. Hoping to convince Young-shik to return to his hometown (and a morally respectable lifestyle), Dong-shik moves in with him. Nonetheless, his entreaties fall on deaf ears, at the same time as he starts to be seduced by the worldly Sonya.

Few Korean films of this era present the hard realities of day-to-day existence with such directness as The Flower in Hell. The focus on the lower classes, and on the sexual trade between U.S. soldiers and Korean prostitutes (such women were often derogatively referred to as “Western princesses”), must have raised more than a few eyebrows in its time. The depiction of Sonya in particular is fascinating; she comes across as predatory and dangerous, but also self-confident, capable and alluring. Viewers of the day, who were used to seeing Choi Eun-hee as a pure-hearted, demure woman both on and offscreen, were reportedly shocked and uncomfortable to see her in this role.

The Flower in Hell also represents Shin Sang-ok at the top of his form as a director, despite the technical hurdles he faced (reportedly the ARRI camera he borrowed kept breaking during the shoot). Although the entire film is suffused with energy and momentum, two sequences in particular stand out for their audacity. Midway through the film, Young-shik orchestrates a daring theft of materials from the U.S. army base as the soldiers are being entertained by a group of dancers. The erotically-charged performance (shot in a real life setting), intercut with shots of the theft being carried out, make for a tense and memorable scene.

Yet it is the penultimate scene, a extended life-and-death struggle that spills onto a vast field of mud, that justifiably remains the most famous. It is a striking blend of sound and image, as the two mud-covered figures grapple in seeming slow motion, and also a suspense- filled nail-biter as we wait to see the final outcome. No other Korean film of this era contains a scene that is so viscerally striking, and which continues to feel so modern.

Darcy Paquet
Film director: SHIN Sang-ok
Year: 1958
Running time: 88'
Country: South Korea
02/05 - 4:20 PM
Visionario, Via Asquini 33
02-05-2024 16:20 02-05-2024 17:48Europe/Rome The Flower in Hell Far East Film Festival Visionario, Via Asquini 33CEC Udine
Online in Italy until the end of the Festival