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A Different History, As Told Through Film

February 2nd, 2009 (08:32 pm)

© 2009
D. Gordon
The Museum of Modern Art in New York, in conjunction with The Korean Film Archive and the Korea Society of New York, just concluded a film exhibit featuring several once lost, recently restored films dating from the Japanese annexation of Korea in the early 20th century.

Quickie history lesson here: Japan occupied and annexed Korea, officially in the early twentieth century, unofficially for several decades prior as part of the regional power struggle for dominance in the Far East. The Japanese were thorough and sometimes very harsh occupiers: they destroyed or altered many Korean heritage sites, they heavily suppressed dissent, they co-opted the royal family (and murdered some members who resisted; for example, Empress Myeongseong, aka Queen Min, is considered a national hero today), and they made sure to indoctrinate the population in how to be loyal subjects of the Emperor as citizens of the Chosun province of Japan.

Today both countries and both peoples are very different; and while animosity can be found in various corners, they exist peacefully. But prior to Japan's surrender at the end of World War II the reality on the ground was quite different. And, dating from the 1930s and 40s, these films were part of that occupation reality.

So expectations going in weren't very high (I've seen early Soviet films, and they ain't too pretty that way). I figured these films would sing the virtues of the Empire to Korean audiences, with production values, acting, and any sort of artistry a second thought. They'd be interesting from an historical viewpoint, but any actual entertainment value would be negligible.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Fortunately reality turned out to be different.

Don't get me wrong. There is definitely propaganda in the films: patriotic military service rears its head; children make vows to the Emperor and the Empire under a Japanese flag; and "traitors" - as in underground guerrilla groups fighting the Japanese - serve as convenient villains. The films often alternate between Japanese and Korean, although all original subtitling implies Japanese as the audience's primary language. But the films often focus on being Korean, getting through life, working within the confines of a conservative Buddhist society. They showed the conflict of tradition with modernization, the effect of social caste on personal actions, trying to survive when you're poor and hungry. It's very likely that the absence of any real Korean dissent speaks volumes about the films; but they aren't all banzai, all the time.

Interestingly enough, there are also traces of elements common to current Korean films. There's the melodrama of life, especially when it includes all sorts of love polygons. Signs of Korean culture peek through, although the images (some folk dancing, a scene filmed at the water pavilion of Gyeongbok Palace) are very carefully controlled. And still - there's the son choosing a bride whom the family rejects, and the couple are forced through some great trial to win acceptance.

Only seven films from this period are known to exist; all seven made up the exhibit. A brief synopsis of each:

  1. Spring in the Korean Peninsula (1941), directed by Lee Byeong-Il: melodrama and the clash of tradition and the modern world among a production of Chunhyang
  2. Straits of Chosun (1943), directed by Park Ki-Chae: social standing collides with love, and a young man must figure out how to resolve his two worlds
  3. Fishermen's Fire (1939), directed by Ahn Chul-Yeong: country girl vs The Big City...
  4. Volunteer (1941), directed by Ahn Seok-Youn: why can't Koreans serve in the army, too?
  5. Angels on the Street (1941), directed by Choi In-Kyu: Boys Town comes to Seoul - or at least leaves Seoul to be set up.
  6. Sweet Dream (1936), directed by Yang Ju-Nam: independent, unsatisfied women never come to any good end...
  7. Military Train (1938), directed by Seo Kwang-je: the military train must get through, even if information on troop movements might be a way of saving someone else's soul...

Some were short, short enough to wonder if they were incomplete. My understanding is that these films were found in a Chinese film archive, and that the Korean Film Archive is now considering a search of other national archives for other missing films. Not a bad idea; the Library of Congress has been the source of a number of films thought lost, and the Moscow Film Archive produced a number of gems after the fall of the Soviet Union. Other films from this period would help add historical perspective to a very complicated era.

The films weren't in very good shape, even with restoration. There were a number of technical issues: the focus was lost for sustained periods in a few, the sound came and went in places, scratches abounded. But it was definitely worth seeing a slice of history and a bit of light shed on the day-to-day existence of occupation.