Coachman, The (1961)

This Silver Berlin Bear winner is one of the great tear-jerking melodramas from the Golden Age of Korean cinema, depicting the struggles of a working-class family as they find their self-respect and dignity constantly being attacked. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,059

Dir. Kang Dae-jin
1961 | South Korea | Drama | 100 mins | 1.37:1 | Korean
PG13 (passed clean)

Cast: Kim Seung-ho, Shin Yeong-gyun, Hwang Jeong-sun
Plot: An elderly single father living with his adult children makes a living with a horse-drawn cart.
Awards: Won Silver Bear – Special Prize (Berlinale)
Source: Korean Film Archive

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Working-Class, Dignity
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Shaw KinoLounge – Korean Film Festival
Spoilers: No

The Golden Age of Korean cinema is still pretty much unknown to international audiences, which is fairly ironic as its modern incarnation continues to make great strides in popular culture. 

Here we have The Coachman, made in the early 1960s, with its Silver Bear win at the Berlinale apparently the very first time a Korean film had ever won a major international award. 

In the tradition of cinema centering on the working-class, The Coachman can be a depressing watch as it chronicles the struggles and sufferings of a poor, debt-ridden family whose bleak future threatens to tear everyone apart. 

The titular character Chun-sam, the widowed patriarch who earns his keep by using a horse to ferry goods from point A to B, is desperate for fortunes to change—he has high hopes for his filial eldest son to finally pass his law exam after a few unsuccessful attempts, his thieving youngest son to turn over a new leaf, and an unmarried daughter to find a suitable job and perhaps a suitor for the future. 

Another daughter of his, who is mute, is married to an abusive, promiscuous husband, a subplot that brings about some of the film’s most painful moments. 

Kang Dae-jin’s direction is very much assured, bringing out an extraordinary performance from Kim Seung-ho as Chun-sam, and keeping the narrative beats well-paced. 

Even though Chun-sam’s self-respect and dignity are constantly being attacked by the affluent, elitist members of society, his commitment to protecting his family is admirable.

It’s not all doom and gloom as Kang inserts, through sub-plotting and little dashes of humour, the elusive warmth that occasionally envelopes these characters, if only momentarily.  As a tear-jerking melodrama, The Coachman is excellent. 

Kudos to the Korean Film Archive for the wonderful restoration—slowly but surely, they are bringing the world one step closer to their country’s rich cinematic legacy. 

Grade: A-

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