Tales of collateral damage: To The Last Day 이 생명 다하도록 (1960)

By Mark Morris

News category: General

To The Last Day (Shin Sang-ok). Image courtesy of The Korean Film Archive

The year 1960 marked a dramatic turning point for Shin Sang-ok and Korean cinema. His new production company Shin Films was up and running. It would produce five films that year, three directed by Shin himself. Shin Film soon became, and for almost 15 years remained, the most stable and successful cinematic enterprise in South Korea. 1960 was also a momentous year for the nation. In April of 1960 a series of protests driven by a new generation of post- Korean-War student activists managed to dislodge the corrupt and autocratic Syngman Rhee (Yi Seung-man) from the office of president. The following year may have been marked by political compromises, confusion and social uncertainty but it was as well a time of hope for a better future in a freer country. Although, the coup d’etat headed by Park Chunghee in May of 1961 did put an end to uncertainties and most hopes for a more open society. 

In the gap between that April ‘revolution’ and Park’s imposition of a military regime appeared some remarkable films. Yu Hyun-mok’s Obaltan/Aimless Bullet (1960) was one, with its grim neo-realist portrait of a family sinking under the poverty and social dislocation of Rhee’s damagingly wasteful years in power. Another was the weird and wonderful Hanyeo/ The Housemaid (1960) by Kim Ki-young: another family in strife, but strife brought on by the disruptive force of sexual anarchy set loose in a fragile bourgeois household. Both of these films have long been recognised as masterpieces; they regularly vie for top spot on most critics’ lists of unmissable Korean classics. 

Shin Sang-ok’s To The Last Day was released in July of 1960, pretty much in the middle of this interregnum period. It seems safe to assume that, as was the case with the two films mentioned above, it was a de facto moratorium on censorship over these hectic months which permitted such a potentially controversial film to be screened and find its public. Once Park’s censors had set up shop, films such as these would not find favour. The new regime tightened the screws on almost every aspect of film-making as the years rolled by. 

To The Last Day (Shin Sang-ok). Image courtesy of The Korean Film Archive

To The Last Day packs into its running time a bundle of topics any one of which could have attracted unwanted attention from censors in more settled times. Korean Army captains are supposed to be brave leaders of men in battle: our Captain Kim is knocked out of the fighting within minutes of the beginning, and faces life as a paraplegic. He will openly consider suicide, not any lingering patriotic duty to carry on. His wife is loving and understanding but can only take so much of his self-pitying complaints: she argues right back. He is utterly dependent on her when they escape the Chinese advance of Seoul: she takes charge of the fate of the family. They take refuge south of the capital where, while selling goods in the local marketplace to keep the family afloat, she grows close to an attractive younger man: she has changed, even tries to smoke a cigarette (horrors), and is ready to sleep with the nice young fellow when fate intervenes. She and her husband recognise bitterly that neither society nor the government will help when they try to organise a workshop for impoverished widows, women left to fend for themselves. Etc.

One thing that, for all their differences, all three exceptional films from 1960 share in common is actor Kim Jin-kyu. Kim appeared in hundreds of films from the time of his debut in 1955. That first film was Piagol (1955), one of the earliest classics we featured in the last LKFF in 2019. Kim once again played the role of a traumatised retired officer in another great film from last year’s festival, the powerful Lee Man-hee melodrama Homebound (1967). 

It is worth noting that another famous actor portrayed a paraplegic ex-soldier, in this case at the very beginning of his career in cinema – Marlon Brando. The Men was released in August of 1950. Two months into the Korean War, the fine director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, 1952, From Here to Eternity, 1953, etc.) presented a study in the slow-motion disaster of young men left in the wake of WWII with only half-functioning bodies. In the dark of his hospital room, Brando’s character Lieutenant Wilcek muses over a tragic sentiment shared fully by Captain Kim of To The Last Day: ‘I was afraid I was going to die, now I’m afraid I’m going to live’.

To The Last Day (1960) is available to watch on the KCCUK YouTube channel from Friday 8 May, 6pm.

Mark Morris is a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. For the past 40 years he has been teaching and researching East Asian culture, with a special interest in Korean Cinema. He is an advisor to the London Korean Film Festival and participates regularly in a wide variety of film events in the UK, Europe and South Korea.