Sunday, September 03, 2023

Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: The Devil’s Stairway

There is no way Dr. Oh’s hospital is up to code. The first and second floors are connected by a rickety staircase, with a banister that constantly falls apart. There is also an incredibly steep fire escape out back. Frankly, old Satan would probably approve of either and they both contribute to the skullduggery in Lee Man-hee’s The Devil’s Stairway, which screens as part of the film series, Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: The 1960s.

It is Dr. Oh’s hospital, but since he has no sons, he hopes his chief surgeon, Dr. Hyeon Gwang-ho will take over when he retires, assuming he marries Oh’s flighty youngest daughter, Oh Jung-ja. Hyeon has had the same idea, which is why he has kept his affair with Nurse Nam Jun-sik on the down-low. However, when Dr. Oh’s succession plans become known to the general hospital, Nurse Nam makes it clear she is more than willing to cause a scandal for Hyeon. While they are “discussing” the matter, Nurse Nam “falls” through the rotten banister.

The good news is Nurse Nam is already at the hospital, so she receives immediate treatment. The bad news is Dr. Hyeon will be her attending physician. Frankly, there is a good chance she will not survive her convalescence, but then again, maybe it isn’t quite that simple. There will indeed be a lot of twists and turns, which is why the copy for the series justifiably invokes Clouzot’s

is definitely a noir thriller, but Lee and cinematographer Seo Joeng-min often play with the visual language of horror, especially as Hyeon’s paranoia warps his perception of reality. Admittedly, cineastes who have seen Clouzot, Hitchcock, and similar masters will probably guess what is going on, but it is jolly entertaining to watch. Lee triples and quadruples-down on atmosphere and the first act’s lurid sexual tension would have been considered risqué for Hollywood movies of 1964, its original year of release.

The cast is also perfect, starting with Kim Jin-kyu, who is slimy and slithering as a snake playing Hyeon. Moon Jung-suk is sympathetically fierce as the scorned Nurse Nam, while Jeong Ae-ran is terrific as the senior nurse, who might understand what is afoot and empathize more with Nurse Nam than she lets on.

Of course, the morality of
The Devil’s Stairway is decidedly murky. That is why it is so much fun. Today, some of the best cinematic thrillers come from Korea. This film shows they were doing it quite well back in the 1960s too. Highly recommended, The Devil’s Stairway screens this Friday (9/8) and next Friday (9/15), as part of Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade.