How a master filmmaker channeled Hitchcock with ‘the James Stewart of Korea’
On the afternoon of Jan. 22, 1952, two young men approached a Korean village in a secluded area of Pyeongtaek. They were both 16 years old at the time. Their names had changed, but the two men who approached this quiet farm after lunch had changed little in the years since they were born and were now going to change the course of Korean literature, at least if they survived the mission that they had set themselves.
In the spring of 1951, when the American forces began their push toward North Korea and their withdrawal from South Korea in September, the two Korean villagers, one with a penchant for poetry and the other with an eye for film, met in secret in a small village along the Han River in the middle of Pyeongtaek, a city in southeast South Korea. Since the Korean government and its newspapers were under communist control, these two boys’ secret encounters over coffee and cigarettes were their first opportunity to share any personal, confessional dialogue with the outside world. It was their first real moment of freedom. And it would be their only moment of freedom.
The two young men, Kang and Lee, did not know each other when they walked onto the beach in the spring of 1951. But over the course of the next four decades, their friendship would become the greatest story in Korean cinema history. In 1953, just two months after the Korean War ended, Lee Kang wrote a letter to the editor of a small monthly magazine titled Seoul that detailed the two young men’s exploits in secret. He wrote about them meeting at a rural cafe in Pyeongtaek, Lee Kang’s hometown. He remembered being invited backstage to join them during their performance:
There were two young people in there, young people, and we were introduced as our names. I looked at Lee Kang, and I thought he was a good-looking man, but he didn’t look like a playboy. I remember he looked older than me, but wasn’t. I had never seen his face before. Actually he looked like a man who was born under a lucky star. I was impressed by him. He acted very well in playing the male lead in the play. I was taken aback by his looks, his acting ability and his talent as a poet. He looked like a dream, really. I thought he would be a wonderful poet. His poetry