From 1961 to 1975, the Korean director Lee Man-hee made an astonishing 50 films, 11 of them dating from 1967 alone. His life was literally his work—during the editing of what would become his final film, A Way to Sampo (1975), he coughed up blood on his own editing table and collapsed, only to protest later from his hospital bed, “I have a film I have to make, so keep me alive at least until I finish it.” A few days later, he was dead, of a cirrhotic liver, at 45.
A popular and acclaimed moviemaker in his day, Lee is now a virtually unknown figure both at home and abroad. So the retrospective first presented at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival and now surfacing (in abbreviated form) as part of the New York Korean Film Festival (August 25 through September 3, ImaginAsian and BAM) proves that, in an age when seemingly no cinematic stone remains unturned, there are still major careers to be reclaimed from obscurity. Though Lee’s heart was in the war movies and noirish thrillers that account for some three- quarters of his output, he was also—like many of the American and European B-movie directors he emulated—a chameleon who could adapt to a wide range of subjects and genres. In the domestic meta-melodrama A Road to Return (1967), the unhappy wife of a paralyzed Korean War vet plays out a destiny that mirrors the tragic heroine of her husband’s latest manuscript. The Devil’s Stairway (1964) is a startling bit of psychological horror in which an ambitious doctor torn between two women bumps one off to be with the other, only to suffer the paranoid consequences. And in the ravishing Water Mill (1966), the strange romance between a vagabond and a village widow leads to startling eruptions of jealousy and murder: One sequence in that film is missing its dialogue track, making it all the easier to appreciate Lee’s vivid backgrounds and seductive moving camera. If Lee was, as the title of his Pusan retrospective suggested, a “poet of the night,” he was also one of nature, both human and elemental, always preferring a downpour to a drizzle and a full-force gale to a gentle breeze, as if the emotions of his characters were so virulent as to infect the weather.