Bellmaker Seok-seung (Heo Jang-kang), whose most famous handiwork is the legendary bell of Goryeong Temple, is living out his old age at a temple with a young woman named Young-sil (Moon Jeong-suk) as his n...展开eighbor. One day, Young-sil hears about Seok-seung's past.
The grandson of a famous bellmaker, Seok-seung works as a servant. He promises his lover Ok-bun (Moon Jeong-suk) that he will make a bell with the most beautiful sound in the world, and when Ok-bun suddenly dies, he sets about fulfilling his promise to her. He studies bellmaking for over a decade. Wandering the country following his teacher's death, Seok-seung meets a widow (Moon Jeong-suk) and settles down with her. His grandfather had committed suicide after losing to a rival bellmaker; Seok-seung steals the bell made by the rival artisan along with his grandfather's bell and runs off with them. While he is endeavoring to create the world's finest bell, his wife dies in childbirth. Continuing his pursuit of the perfect bell, Seok-seung finally succeeds in forging the most beautiful-sounding bell in the world by melting his grandfather's bell and the rival artisan's bell together, but he loses his daughter.
Meanwhile, as she listens to Seok-seung's tale, Young-sil begins to wonder if he is actually her long-lost father. Growing up as an orphan, she remembers hearing that her father was also a bellmaker. At the time, Japan is fighting in the Second World War and commandeering all the iron in Korea for its military campaign. The bell at Goryeong Temple also comes under threat of seizure. Fearing for its fate, Seok-seung tries to remove the bell and hide it, but falls down a cliff in the attempt and draws his last breath in Young-sil's arms.
Alternating between present and past through Seok-seung's and Young-sil's flashbacks, The Bell Tower relies on voice-over narration by each character to tell the story of their lives. This device gives the audience the impression of listening to an old tale. The Bell Tower may well be the first major Korean film to employ a structure that combines voice-over narration with flashback sequences. As revealed in film reviews of the time, The Bell Tower affords glimpses of the considerable effort the filmmakers put into, instilling something "uniquely Korean" in its content and imagery. It is an impressive movie that unostentatiously depicts the premodern artisan's stubborn passion for his work and the realizations and regrets brought about by time. The performances of Heo Jang-kang and Moon Jeong-suk, the latter delivering an impassioned turn in three different roles, also make The Bell Tower a standout. It is the first Korean film to be made for submission to foreign film festivals.