The Comedic And The Tragic Meet In Lee Man-hee’s Final Film, 1975’s “The Road To Sampo”

road to sampo

The Deranged Road Film That Is Lee Man-hee’s The Road To Sampo

Before reading any review of the 1975 film, The Road To Sampo, one must first gain an appreciation for the film’s director, Lee Man-hee, who holds the dubious distinction of being the first South Korean director to be arrested for violating his country’s National Security Law.

By 1965, Lee, an awarded Korean War veteran himself,  had become the godfather of the post-war government funded, anti-Communist war film with such popular efforts as 1963’s YMS-504 Of The Navy and Marines Are Gone when he set out to make The Seven Female POWs which depicts a North Korean officer who, while transporting seven female South Korean nurse prisoners, kills a unit of allied Chinese soldiers who attempt to rape the women. The North Korean officer then convinces his unit defect to South Korea to avoid possible court martial from his superiors. Upon seeing the full film, censors imprisoned director Lee as they felt that The Seven Female POWs  humanized the North Koreans while simultaneously showing the American soldiers as unsympathetic. Lee was subsequently released on probation after the South Korean film community protested his arrest but as part of his probation agreement, Lee was forced to edit over forty minutes of the final cut which made the final film virtually incomprehensible that led to the first negative reviews of his career. The arrest did damage Lee’s reputation, but he still ended up directing some thirty six films in the following ten years before his untimely death at the age forty five in 1975 during the editing of his counterculture road film, The Road To Sampo.

It should be noted that similar to American actor Robert Mitchum’s 1948 scandalous arrest for marijuana possession, which temporarily forced the actor out of contention for glamorous films into a career where he took more salacious roles like Harry Powell in Night Of The Hunter and Max Cady in Cape Fear, the Lee Man-hee’s arrest opened the director up to more experimental methods and themes away from the traditional filmmaking that marked his early career. What then followed in 1966 were Lee’s The Water Mill and Late Autumn: two groundbreaking and critically heralded films that depicted a never before seen open eroticism with the latter effort, Late Autumn being shot using a minimally written script that relied more on improvisation than scripting to create a film of palpable sensuality. In 1974, after almost a decade of pushing the creative envelope and with his health waning, Lee began to direct the iconic film, The Road To Sampo, which incorporated his desire for experimentation with bold sexuality along with his wry social commentary during one of the darkest eras in South Korean cinema.

Released a year after French director Bertrand Blier’s revolutionary anti-establishment road film Les Valseuses, The Road To Sampo similarly takes a pair of lost male protagonists through their homeland’s countryside where they engage in a myriad of rudderless, soul-searching situations through an economically depleted era where they soon encounter an equally lost woman whom they decide to take in on their adventures. The essential difference with Lee’s film is that the woman becomes the catalyst of change for our two men who are not only looking for good times and quick cash like our “heroes” in Les Valseuses but also for some sense of stability and place in a South Korea which at the time was growing but also still reeling from years of war.

Young-dal is a wandering construction worker wandering aimlessly through the snow covered landscape looking for work until he meets the middle-aged Jeong, who has just spent a dozen years behind bars and now only seeks to return  to his hometown of Sampo, a seaside town that Jeong describes as abandoned during the winter. The pair begins their journey together, and soon they descend down a hill to a small village where they grab a meal and listen to the proprietor’s lament of being understaffed as her waitress slipped away without her knowledge but with her purse which contained a lot of money. The desperate proprietor offers Young-dal and Jeong  substantial money to find her runaway waitress, and, as they are without a cent, they decide to take the job, and after a short search they discover their waitress, a frantic, hostile, but brightly clad young woman named Baek-hwa who claims to have not stolen any money despite bragging about her former bosses’ purse which she has in her possession.  Our men quickly realize that Baek-hwa carries more sadness than a potential for profit so they soon become a trio and head out towards Sampo.

Drawing further comparison to Les Valseuses, except with the gender roles reversed, our Baek-hwa is a fountain of overt sexuality. Baek-hwa wears the mantle of a prostitute with pride and boasts of her exploits as well as a proclivity to become undressed around Jeong and Young-dal who exhibit no sexual aggression towards her.  Jeong left an eight year old daughter in Sampo before his ten years in jail, so he becomes an almost father figure to Baek-hwa, and Young-dal brags of his days as a successful street vendor of rat poison but suggests that his wife may have died from accidentally ingesting the poison that he sold.  Needless to say, Young-dal is in no way looking for a woman and wishes to just work until he gets on his feet, which means that Baek-hwa’s endless sexual innuendos towards him mean virtually nothing as they travel onward.

Their intentionally loosely connected exploits include a hilarious scene where the three, who have not eaten in days, visit a village and crash a funeral in hopes of getting a meal, but they are  discovered when Baek-hwa gets plastered and begins to sing and dance, much to the chagrin of the actual mourners who turn violent as they are there to grieve.  In another scene, Baek-hwa leaves the group to work in a brothel but becomes violent when the johns start to assume that she is there for a sexual tryst.  The three seem always out of their element and become a sad reminder of a 197os South Korea which was full of post-war homelessness and run by a harsh government that was rapidly trying to build an infrastructure but in the process is also leaving many who cannot move with the pace behind. Baek-hwa, Jeong, and Young-dal are hopelessly out of synch with the real world, so as the narrative moves forward, the film goes from comedy to heartbreaking melancholy as you begin to see their time together coming to an end as there is no place for them. Director Lee gets wonderful performances from our leads, especially Suk Mun, who played Baek-hwa and starred in the director’s last three films. Suk’s performance is beautifully textured as she creates the emotional framework for a young woman who can be alternately hysterically gleeful as she is vengeful while eminently real and vulnerable.

 The Road To Sampo Complete Film w English Subs

In 2015, Suk Mun returned to acting in Jong-Teol Baek’s award-winning film, The Beauty Inside after a forty year absence during which time she only starred in one film post Lee Man-hee’s passing.  As for director Lee, his entire body of work was screened at the 2005 Pusan International Film Festival that occurred on the thirtieth anniversary of his passing. That festival sparked a national resurgence of his catalog. and an long-overdue appreciation for a director who took his moment of government produced strife in 1965 and turned it into an daring collection of work.