One of the most important Korean filmmakers in the 1960s and 70s, Lee Man-hee established his reputation as a master of genre cinema, at a time the industry had yet to embrace horrors and thrillers, which have since become staples of the local film scene.
Born in 1931 as the youngest of eight children, Lee took part in the Korean War as a codebreaker before entering the film industry in 1956, working as an assistant director for filmmakers such as Ahn Jong-hwa, Park Gu and Kim Myeong-je. He debuted as a filmmaker in his own right with <Kaleidoscope> in 1961, which featured the famous actor Kim Seung-ho. His film, <Call 112> (1962) brought Lee commercial success and his next task was to revolutionise Korea’s genre scene, notably with the horror <The Devil’s Stairway> and the film noir <Black Hair>, both in 1964.
Not one to stick to one formula, Lee also made a mark as an artistic filmmaker, helming the classic love story <Late Autumn> (1966), which, though it has since been lost, has been remade by the likes of Kim Ki-young and Kim Tae-yong. He continued his winning streak with <Homebound> in 1967 and <A Day off> in 1968, which have both stood the test of time. As the industry began to falter, fewer opportunities came his way but he remained busy in the early 70s, ending his career with the road movie <The Road to Sampo> (1975). He collapsed while editing this film on April 3 1975, and died on April 13. The film was edited by the production company and released in the Kukdo Cinema, and went on to win 7 awards, which included Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor at the Grand Bell Awards in 1975.
The Road to Sampo is a road movie and is therefore something of a rarity in the Korean cinema history. Road movies have distinctive features such as accidental events and meetings occurring in the path of characters’ lives, and the characters maturing through this process, which is unlike typical genre films based on solidly pre-structured plots and characters. The Road to Sampo carefully embraces their life stories and delivers them to the audience. Such warm attention given to working class people, our neighbors is one of the prominent features of Lee Man-hee’s films. On the other hand, Lee carried out various cinematic experiments within the typically simple and loose structure of road movie, which were done neither for the sake of experiment itself, nor for mere novelty value. This makes viewers feel cinematic moments beyond the simple story, leaving an unidentifiable lingering resonance even after the end of the film, which is perhaps why The Road to Sampo is more than just an ordinary popular film of the time.