Friday, March 25, 2011

Kim Johg-han

Shinhan Bank is the descendant of Hanseong Bank, the first modern bank in Korea. It was established by Kim Jong-Han in 1897, but began operating around 1900. It was originally located in a small house with only two rooms. One room was for the president, Yi Jae-Won, and the other room was for the staff. The bank operated by borrowing money from Japanese banks at low interest rates and then loaning it out for twice the rate to the Korean market. The Bank was successful because despite lending out money at twice the rate it borrowed it at, the bank's interest rates were still far lower than what could be obtained elsewhere in Korea at that time.[1]

In an anecdotal story the bank's first property to use as collateral on a loan happened to be a donkey. The bank staff were challenged to feed and care for their collateral as the loan was out.[2]

The bank's early president, Yi Jae-won was a Japanese sympathizer. The bank itself was also had close ties with Japan as that was their parent lender. As a result the bank was often the victim of nationalist backlash, but endured, thanks in part to the low interest rates they provided.

From The Japan Times


Another side to Japanese-Korean history

NEW YORK -- Historian George Akita recently sent me a brief essay that appeared in the December issue of the monthly Nihon Rekishi (Japanese History). He had told me of a full-length article he'd written on alternative views of Japan's rule of Korea between 1910 and 1945. The essay, titled "New Currents in the Studies of Korea under Japanese Rule in English," appears to be a precis of that article.

What Akita does in it is to list, with a few comments, some of the more notable books and dissertations on various aspects of the Japanese rule written in English in recent years, some by people of Korean ancestry, to suggest that, if you take a less than overtly nationalistic stance, the Japanese-Korean relationship during those 35 years may not have been a simple one of oppressor and oppressed but one that was "ambiguous and nuanced."

So, on Japan's contribution to Korea's modernization -- a subject that I understand only creates anger in Korea -- Akita tells us that Carter Eckert in "Offspring of Empire: The Ko'chang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism" (University of Washington Press, 1991) and Gi Wook Shin in "Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea" (University of Washington Press, 1996) argue that Japan helped agricultural reform and capital formation in Korea, although it did so out of necessity. Eckert is a professor at Harvard University and Shin a professor at Howard University.

Similarly, Akita cites Brandon Palmer's Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Hawaii, "Koreans Mobilized for War by Japan, 1937-1945," another sore point for Korean people. Palmer closely analyzes various laws to show Japanese legislators strove to be fair under the circumstances. Apart from his overall argument, of course, most Koreans of a certain age know that not all the mobilized Koreans were draftees. A sizable number became field-grade officers -- majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels -- or were graduates of Japan's military and naval academies, many of whom formed the top echelons of their country's intelligence and military services following its independence in 1945.

South Korean President Park Chun Hee, who was assassinated in 1979, was one of them. In the early 1970s, when a group of Japanese military officers visited South Korea, I hear, South Korean officers kidded them that Japanese soldiers had lost Yamato-damashii, the quintessential Japanese fighting spirit, even as Korean soldiers kept it up.

The Imperial Japanese Army also had a Korean lieutenant general, Shiyoku Ko (he romanized his name in Japanese pronunciation). Although he met an unjust death as a result of the military tribunal in Manila, he was a graduate of Japan's War College in the 1920s. That, of course, is nothing for the Japanese to boast of. Ko is said to have been among the first to compare Japan and Korea to England and Ireland, and Park's assassin was the chief of his intelligence service.

The Japanese acceptance of Koreans may not make Japan much better than the United States in its acceptance of blacks before and during World War II. But the Japanese military and institutions of higher education were not bastions of discrimination as some Koreans today seem to believe. Nor were all Japanese racially prejudiced. After all, the Japanese government told its citizens to maintain the spirit expressed in the old Chinese expression yi-shi-tong-ren, "regarding everyone with equal humanity," vis-a-vis "the new Japanese," namely, Koreans, Taiwanese and others. Yes, it might have been as hollow as the Jeffersonian motto "All men are equal" in the U.S., but still.

I have no desire to "justify (Japan's) history of invasion and occupation," let alone "its intention to realize its hegemonism again," as Korean President Roh Moo Hyun put it in an address to his nation last March 23. Akita quotes Roh at the start of his essay. He also quotes Jung Suk Koo, who asserted that the Japanese fail to understand "the deep scar that the country suffered over the 36-year-long colonial rule." Jung, an editorial writer of the Hankyoreh newspaper, said that during a symposium held in Tokyo a week earlier (The Japan Times, March 31, 2005).

But if I do not understand the second part of Roh's statement, I wonder about Jung's sweeping observation. As he must know, many Japanese "intellectuals of conscience" are vocal in expressing their sympathy for "the ongoing pain" of that scar. Foremost among them is the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe. Another historian friend of mine, Richard Minear, once said to me on a similar subject: it depends on which Japanese you are talking about.

In his books Chung Daekyun, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, suggests that the Koreans who focus on taking Japan to task for its pre-1945 rule of their country often fail to pay heed to some important facts. The pandering willingness of some Japanese intellectuals, such as Oe, in accepting their condemnation doesn't help. At the least, there should be a distinction made between Korean nationals living in Japan and people of Korean ancestry in Japan, Chung argues.

Chung, who was born in Japan in 1948, should know. After studying law at Rikkyo University, he studied ethnic issues at the University of California at Los Angeles, then taught at a South Korean university for more than a dozen years before taking up his current post in Japan. The situation may remain hopeless for some time to come. Not just that Korean schoolchildren are taught what an undeserving country Japan is as the perennial recipient of Korean cultural and other largess; they are actively encouraged to hone their anti-Japanese (Ban-il) sentiments, or so Chung tells us.

Then there is one speech I am unable to forget. A dozen years or so ago, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye came to New York to talk about his recent visit to South Korea. At one point in his talk, he recollected, with some bemusement, how the South Korean officials he met in Seoul told him that Japan was the greatest threat to their national security. How? Inouye asked. The answer was: Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea. The senator had to think a moment to remember history. But didn't that happen four centuries ago? Yes, was the answer.

In comparison, Japan's colonial rule of Korea ended a mere six decades ago.

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist who lives in New York.

Japanese and allies opions about Korea

Andre Schmid's Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919 gives a description:

...the colonial authorities sought to disseminate to the West the rationale for their growing Asian empire... To this end, an elaborate propaganda campaign was launched by the Resident General Office and, after 1910, continued by the Governor General Office. For a Japanese-speaking colonial administration seeking to gain the West's support for its endeavors in Korea, this plunged the office into the task of preparing foreign-language materials about its endeavors. It's premier series, begun in 1907, was a glossy yearbook written in English entitled Annual Report on the Progress and Reforms in Korea, a less than subtle promotion of colonialism. During the first decade of publication, the yearbooks' format was a "before and after" presentation offering explanatory, pictorial, and statistical evidence of changes Japan had made on the peninsula since establishing the Protectorate. This approach could be applied to almost any topic, from hygiene to road systems, with the contrast achieved through the judicious choice of adjectives. Accordingly, the peninsula's financial condition before annexation was in the "wildest confusion," and expenditures were "wasted to no purpose". But after Japan's reforms, the foundation of Korea's finances was "firmer," and details of how these achievements had been accomplished were buttressed by reams of statistics. This contrastive effect was also captured in photographs, as in the case of two pictures of the Han River south of Seoul. A photograph of a bridge built under the new Japanese administration was placed next to a second photograph showing a few boats moving back and forth across the river, labeled "before the construction of the Iron Bridge."[emphasis added]

Korea's Fight For Freedom":
Then Japan sought to make the land a show place. Elaborate public buildings were erected, railroads opened, state maintained, far in excess of the economic strength of the nation. To pay for extravagant improvements, taxation and personal service were made to bear heavily on the people. Many of the improvements were of no possible service to the Koreans themselves. They were made to benefit Japanese or to impress strangers. And the officials forgot that even subject peoples have ideals and souls. They sought to force loyalty, to beat it into children with the stick and drill it into men by grueling experiences in prison cells. Then they were amazed that they had bred rebels. They sought to wipe out Korean culture, and then were aggrieved because Koreans would not take kindly to Japanese learning. They treated the Koreans with open contempt, and then wondered that they did not love them.

One important factor is discussed in Korea's Fight For Freedom (1920), where F.A. McKenzie wrote this of Japan's actions in the years immediately prior to Korea's annexation:
They had carefully organized their claque in Europe and America, especially in America. They engaged the services of a group of paid agents--some of them holding highly responsible positions--to sing their praises and advocate their cause. They enlisted others by more subtle means, delicate flattery and social ambition. They taught diplomats and consular officials, especially of Great Britain and America, that it was a bad thing to become a persona non grata to Tokyo. They were backed by a number of people, who were sincerely won over by the finer sides of the Japanese character. In diplomatic and social intrigue, the Japanese make the rest of the world look as children. They used their forces not merely to laud themselves, but to promote the belief that the Koreans were an exhausted and good-for-nothing race.

At any rate, after undertaking a great deal of pioneering research in the field of psychology, and retiring from Yale, Ladd and his wife made their third trip to Japan in 1906. On the first page of his book, Ladd tells two stories related to the Russo-Japanese War he heard while en route to Japan, and explains why he's telling them:

...they are repeated here because they illustrate the code of honor whose spirit so generally pervaded the army and navy of Japan during their contest with their formidable enemy. It is in reliance on the triumph of this code that those who know the nation best are hopeful of its ability to overcome the difficulties which are being encountered in the effort to establish a condition favorable to safety, peace, and prosperity by a Japanese protectorate over Korea.

While the first page alone already gives the reader a pretty clear idea of how he feels about Japan regarding its relationship with Korea (in fact, Burgeson characterizes the book as "an answer in search of a question, one in which the author's mind about his subject has been fixed at the outset, and refuses to open itself to any changes or new discoveries."), he goes on to explain that while he had planned to lecture on philosopy and psychology, as he had done on his previous trips in 1892 and 1899,

The thought of seeing something of the "Hermit Kingdom" (a title, by the way, no longer appropriate) had been in our minds before leaving America, only as a somewhat remote possibility. Not long after our arrival in Japan the hint was several times given by an intimate friend, who is also in the confidence of Marquis Ito, that the latter intended, on his return in mid-winter from Seoul, to invite us to be his guests in his Korean residence.

Homeless Angels

The emperor and his homeless children

A while ago I wrote a post on the 1941 film Volunteer, which was included in the box set "Unearthing the Past", which Mark over at Korea Pop Wars first brought to my attention. I finally got around to watching another film in the box set, Angels on the Streets ("Homeless Angels" is the direct translation). A synopsis and discussion of the film can be found here, which tells us that it is "based on the real-life story of the boys who lived in Hyangrinwon, Bang Soo-won's home for vagrant youth located just outside Kyeongseong in Hongje-ri." Hongje-ri was likely where present-day Hongje-dong is, which is in Seodaemun-gu north of Yonsei University. The location of the Hyangrinwon in the film appears to be in the Banpo area, as they have to cross the Han river to reach downtown.

Above is a shot of the view from the beach in front of Hyangrinwon. At left is Namsan; towards the right is Bukhansan. Other shots in the film show what Seoul looked like at the time, such as this shot of a stream:

Perhaps the stream above is Cheonggyecheon, but it's worth remembering that there were dozens of streams in Seoul that were covered up in the twentieth century by both Japanese and Korean governments.

Notice what appear to be street stalls in the photo above. Below is a shot of a flashing night scene:

The story begins as a sister and brother who are selling flowers on the streets enter the tavern seen above, where a kindly, drunken doctor gives them money without taking a flower.

When the sister allows the brother to buy some taffy, their minders catch him and take them 'home'. Exactly what the situation is between this disreputable group and the siblings isn't entirely clear, but it's obvious they are in the group's debt (perhaps they even 'belong' to them). The sister is cajoled into working in a 'bar', with the promise that they'll withhold punishment from her brother. Her brother instead escapes.

He then is rescued from a beating by the kindly Bang Seong-bin, who takes him to his house to stay with the small group of rescued street children already living there.

The kindly doctor from the beginning turns out to be Bang's brother in law, who helps Bang set up a home for wayward boys. Bang finds another recruit for his home when a boy tries to steal from him, and he saves him from being dragged away by the police (a Korean police officer, mind you).

The doctor takes in the sister as a nurse, and she is eventually reunited with her brother before the boys have to fight off the hoodlums who come to get them back. Though it's all rather tame today, the conditions the street children live in, and the fear the boy shows as he's being grabbed by the police officer, for example, do not really reflect an entirely happy colony.

The liner notes for the DVD tell us that it was invited to Japan to win a prize but was then rejected by the ministry of defense, who objected to the fact the film was entirely in Korean, and several cuts were made (whether these cuts were only made in Japan or in the version released in Korea isn't really clear). The director chose poor street kids as a way to protest against Japan, and included the pro Japanese ending to allow the film to be released. KOFA's notes on the film criticize this to some degree:
Near the end, there is a scene in which the film's characters recite in Japanese a pledge of allegiance to Imperial Japan. This scene constitutes a critical flaw in recognizing Homeless Angel as a representative film in Korean cinematic history. Nevertheless, the reason why KOFA cites Homeless Angel among the 100 representative works of Korean cinema is because it is one of the very few surviving movies from the Japanese colonial era. Indeed, the fact that the propagandistic sequence is inserted irrespective of the plot and thus does not pose a substantial threat to the text's actual subject, as well as the fact that the film shows the highest level of sophistication among contemporaneous works, both contributed to its inclusion on the list.
I could argue that having the pro-Japanese ending isn't a "critical flaw" and that it is in fact precisely the reason why it should be recognized as a "representative film in Korean cinematic history," seeing as it reflects so clearly the time in which it was made. That might not be the most popular assertion among some people, and there is certainly a desire in the popular realm to wring all the complexity out of the colonial era and either try to forget it happened or turn it into a simple morality play populated by independence fighters and colonialist traitors. There's so much more going on in this film, however, and I almost had the feeling that whoever wrote the notes above watched a different movie than I did. To quote again:
[T]he propagandistic sequence is inserted irrespective of the plot and thus does not pose a substantial threat to the text's actual subject.
Let's remember that this film was made in 1941, after Japan had been at war with China for 4 years, and then see if anything else in the narrative could be seen as being militaristic.

After Mr. Bang has arranged for living quarters for the boys, he and his family move to their new home in the countryside with the boys, who fall in behind a cart and walk in a line single file while the lead boy plays a martial tune on a bugle.

After arriving at their new home, the boys work outside. In the photo above they are cheering and pointing at an airplane flying overhead.

They are awoken in the morning by a bugler, seen here juxtaposed with the flag in the background.

Upon rising, Mr. Bang has them assemble and talks to them.

If you want to suggest they look like they're just at school, it's probably worth noting the degree to which militarism affected the school curricula and organization at that time.

They're later taught how to take apart and reassemble a machine gun. Just kidding - they're taught how to make noodles with the press brought to them by Mr. Bang.

Later, when the thugs come to recapture the brother and sister, the boys try to chase them away as a group:

That said, the pro-Japanese moment (which lasts three of the last six minutes) is worth having a look at.

One of the boys recites the pledge of allegiance:

"Pledge as citizens of the empire:
We are citizens of the great Japanese Empire.
We are loyal with all our heart to the Japanese Emperor.
As citizens of the empire we train to become an excellent and strong citizen.
Another young boy recites their daily creed : "Honesty, courage and love."

Thus ends the propaganda sequence. The point at which they leave for their new home is just over twenty minutes into a movie with a running time of 1:13, and from that point until the last six minutes (when the pro-Japanese moment appears), there are several scenes at the boys' home which suggest militaristic organization. That said, and after looking at the photos above, does the propaganda scene actually seem so out of place?

The epilogue is actually almost as fascinating as the "propaganda sequence". After hearing the boy recite the daily creed, the kindly doctor applauds and approaches the boys.

Then the doctor speaks and describes how he felt after arriving at the orphanage:
"At first I thought you were all incurable. My mind was set that you were impossible to help. But today I am actually ashamed of myself". Speaking of one of the boys, he says, "When I first saw him, I thought he had an evil mind and I thought he would never act like a decent human, but today he did a good deed. I am very happy". To help his friends, one boy "sacrificed himself".

"I was glad for all of you. You are here to become excellent people. And trying hard to become one by listening to your teacher. Do you know whose effort all of this is? Pointing to the man who has provided for them, this is [his] power of love. I believe you are the happiest children. You are all trying hard to become a great person, and it's all because of [him]. Now that the whole world knows about this, and the media is raving about it all around the country, I'm very happy. It's now that [his] great power, his great work has finally bore fruit. So now listen well to [his] words and become a great person. I hope you will be of great service to our country."
The first thing I thought of when I heard that speech was, "What would happen if you replaced the boys with "Koreans", and their teacher with "the Emperor"?
My mind was set that you [Koreans] were impossible to help.[...] "When I first saw [them], I thought [they] had an evil mind and I thought [they] would never act like decent humans, but today [they] did a good deed.[...] I believe you are the happiest children. You are all trying hard to become a great person, and it's all because of [the emperor].
I think with that speech, it becomes pretty clear what the boys are supposed to represent, and just how much of the movie is imbued with a militarist spirit.

Is it just me, or does the doctor look like Kim Il-sung?

With that, the doctor bids farewell and leaves with the sister, who will train under him as a nurse. Having made up with the thugs, they leave together:

The children wave goodbye as the troop ship boat departs, the flag fluttering in the air above them.

To put it simply, the propaganda in this film is not just limited to the last six minutes, "irrespective of the plot," but is actually embedded in the plot and is a part of the "text's actual subject."

1941 Volunteer

1941's "Volunteer"

Somewhere in Korea, 1941

I’ve been watching films from the box set "Unearthing the Past", which Mark over at Korea Pop Wars brought to my attention awhile ago. The box set consists of four of the oldest films still in existence. Three are from 1941, and the other is from 1943. These, of course, are all films made during World War II, and were thus made when Korea was a colony of Japan. Needless to say, these films are windows into the past like no other. You get to see what Korea looked like at that time in moving pictures, but, since film was used as a propaganda device, especially in wartime, you also get to see how the Japanese tried to mold Koreans into good imperial citizens ready to sacrifice for the empire.

What follows is a look at Volunteer (Jiwonbyeong), from 1941. While obviously a propaganda film, it’s also a very well crafted film. Director Ahn Seok-young and especially cinematographer Lee Myeong-woo really deserve credit – some of the shots are really well composed, and the film makes use of numerous tracking shots – not bad for a film shot in the countryside in 1941. A number of the screenshots below were chosen to illustrate how well composed many of the scenes are.

The film begins with a people waiting to see a troop train off at a station in the countryside. The main character, Choon-ho, talks with his friend who wants to become a driver, and then meets his fiancé Bun-ok and talks about wanting to get away from the countryside. He is then called to Seoul where the absentee landlord, (whose father respected his father) turns over the job of overseeing the land to the crafty Kim Deok-sam. The landlord’s sister, who obviously has a thing for Choon-ho, reproaches her brother for this decision, as she realizes this will affect Choon-ho’s financial situation negatively. Choon-ho returns home, and on his way sees young students doing military training in a field; he looks on wistfully.

He arrives home with gifts from Seoul and, while sitting with his mother, sister, and Bun-ok, has this exchange with his sister, who asks

- Did you buy a comfort kit?
- Yes. So you can write your name on the cover and send it.
- I have something to show you. I wrote a letter to a soldier at school the other day. He replied.
- [reading] “I am moved by your innocent, sincere letter.” Would you like it if I became a soldier too?
- That would be so nice. You would be a Korean soldier then?
- Yes, if I became a soldier
- Then I would write you a letter and send you a comfort kit.

But in a conversation with his friend after leaving a building with flags out front after a ‘lecture’, he reveals why he cannot become a soldier.

- The annexation is complete now, but young koreans should serve the empire at war too. Even if we want to, we are not allowed to do so. We are not eligible. How can we really work in unity like this?
- If such a time comes, are you willing to step forward?
- Don’t you know me yet? […] We have our duty.

The accompanying essay in the DVD set calls this scene “a rupture in the militarist propaganda film”, because it reveals that discrimination exists in the empire, which bars Koreans from joining the military. Have no fear; this will later be "surtured".

The landlord’s sister comes to visit and when Bun-ok sees her (a city girl) and Choon-ho together, she trails behind them, feeling rejected.

After seeing the sister off, Choon-ho runs into a Japanese friend who shows him a newspaper announcing the news that Koreans can now volunteer.

The smile on his face after reading this news disappears after he sees his friend, who was trying to hit on Bun-ok, sitting next to her.

After staring at each other for a full minute (in a scene that's unintentionally funny, recalling as it does so many TV dramas), they all part ways. Bun-ok then hears the crafty Kim Deok-sam trying to get her father to forget about Choon-ho and marry her to one of his sons. The following scene in his house is quite fun, as he’s obviously the ‘bad guy’ whose greed and lust are readily apparent (not for nothing is the chain of restaurants named after Nolbu, right?).

Meanwhile, Choon-ho is sitting at home in front of a map of Asia.

In one of the more bizarre, yet fascinating scenes, Choon-ho, dreams of joining the army. What follows are numerous shots where the soldiers march by in rows (several tracking shots are used), and the nature of this scene, with its military order and repetition, is utterly different from the rest of the film.

After this abrupt fetishization of the military, Choon-ho’s friend apologizes to Bun-ok, and she and Choon-ho eventually make up. In a nicely composed shot, the camera pans from her walking down the road, down to her shadow, which is joined by his, and back up to the couple again.

He admits that he will join the military. The results of the recruitment exam are published in the newspaper, which the landlord sees when shown it by his sister.

- Choon-ho passed the exam.
- See. You treated such an able man unkindly.
- I never knew.
- Who will look after his family after he joins a training camp?
- I should change my mind. I will help.

And just like that, joining the army is the deus ex machina which solves all the problems which arose from the landlord giving Kim Deok-sam the overseeing position.

The film ends as it began, with a crowd of people at the train station seeing off a troop train, except this time Choon-ho is on board. Bun-ok and his sister are there to see him off. What’s interesting is how stoic they are. His sister looks neither happy nor sad.

"Go off and die for the empire then, jerk."

In the final shot of the film, Bun-ok’s face is just as mysterious. Again, she’s neither happy nor sad, though perhaps the beginning of a smile can be discerned. Is this failure to cheer of bemoan his departure an example of sullen resistance to the Japanese propaganda effort (and censorship)? Or does it reflect a time when people were less likely to show emotion in public?

Whatever might explain the above shot, this shot is worth looking at:

The Japanese character (the one who told Choon-ho about the opening of the military to Korean volunteers) would likely be termed a caricature of a Japanese person today, except that this film was made at the height of the Japanese military control over every aspect of society in the Japanese empire. What the censors missed was this: in the final shot showing the Japanese character, he’s standing next to the crafty Kim Deok-sam and his sons, who were so clearly identified as the ‘bad guys’. Perhaps, in 1941, that was as much resistance as anyone could hope for.

It would get worse, however. In the aforementioned box set, three of the movies, including Volunteer, are from 1941. The other, Straits of Chosun, is from 1943, a year after it was deemed that every line in every movie had to be spoken in Japanese.

This film (like the other film from the box set I've seen so far), likely began as a typical story - in this case, of a man who loses his position and tries to get it back - which the Japanese authorities insisted be changed to add military propaganda elements. Those elements, which have all been described above, are easy to see in the film because they're so abruptly added in, often interrupting the flow of the story. Choon-ho's conflict with Kim Deok-sam likely would have made for a more interesting story, but the film as it stands is still well made, and is fascinating to examine as a piece of propaganda. It's because of these propaganda elements, however, that this film will never be considered a "worthy" piece of Korean cinema history. It certainly doesn't appear in the Korean Film Archive's top 100 films. Unfortunately, nationalist criteria seem to trump artistry or historical importance every time.

Up next: 1941's Homeless Angels, which weaves military themes into the story in a much more subtle way.
Korean filmmaking during the period of Japanese occupation went through radical changes during the war years of 1940-45. Many of the country’s actors and filmmakers, having been encouraged to travel to Japan to study and learn their craft, found that their film work and expression was further restricted when they returned home in order to contain war-time propaganda elements. This period also saw the production of films regulated by the Chosun Film Corporation, which in effect became the country’s only production company since no film could be made without their certificate of approval. Such was their authority that the Chosun Film Corporation even controlled the distribution of actual film stock. There appeared to be little attempt on the part of the filmmakers to resist or challenge these restrictions, though strict censorship would have made any but the most subtle efforts at subversion almost impossible. Many of the films made during this period were consequently lost and almost forgotten about, never considered a part of the Korean national cinema.

Seven of the films made during this Dark Age of filmmaking however were recently discovered, restored by the Korean Film Archive and retrospectively exhibited at the 2006 Pusan Film Festival. Subtitled ‘A Collection of Feature Films in the Japanese Colonial Period’, The Past Unearthed DVD boxset contains four of the rediscovered films, along with extensive English-friendly extra features to place them into context. Collectively, they present a fascinating historical document of an important filmmaking period.

Angels On The Streets - Choi In-kyu, 1941

Partly based on the real story of a man who set up his own orphanage to look after street children, there’s an air of social-realism about Angels on the Streets. Having already been living under Japanese occupation before the Second World War, Korean filmmaking consequently shows characteristics that would come later in Italian neo-realism, but filmed while the country was at war and scripted by a Japanese writer, the heavier restrictions of censorship and propaganda placed on Korean filmmakers also makes its mark on Choi In-kyu’s 1941 film.

Cruelly treated by one of the criminal gangs who exploit orphans and children living on the streets of Jong-ro in Seoul, Yong-gil (Lee Wook-ha) is separated from his sister Myung-ja (Kim Shin-jae) when he runs away. The young boy is taken in by Bang Seong-bin (Kim Il-hae), a kindly man who has helped many children in a similar predicament, much to the despair of his wife (Moon Ye-bong) who wonders where they are going to house them all. Seong-bin arranges with his brother-in-law Doctor Ahu (Jin Hoon) to rent a larger place in the country and, with apparently no consideration for social services or concern about child labour laws, sets up a noodle workshop so that they can pay for their expenses. Initially finding the country dull after living on the city streets, the kids soon come to appreciate this new life – but for Yong-gil, it only reminds him of how difficult things must be for his sister. Problems arise however which reunite them, but also bring trouble to their door.

Well made and performed with conviction by the cast, Angels on the Streets is for the most part great drama in the style of Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman, De Sica’s Shoeshine and the Chinese classic Street Angel. Suddenly and quite bizarrely however the propaganda elements creep in towards the end of the film, the children all line-up and bow down before the Japanese flag, pledging allegiance to the great Japanese empire. This has the impact of making what appears to be a standard drama something different entirely, showing young Korean’s working to rebuild a better world where even the most hardened cases can be transformed by solid Japanese values.

While ideologically there are evidently problems with such a viewpoint, it doesn’t detract from the overall dramatic construction and entertainment value of Angels on the Streets, but rather places an intriguing slant on the historic context in which the film was made.

Spring of Korean Peninsula - Lee Byeong-il, 1941

Focussing on the movie industry itself, the case of Spring of Korean Peninsula tells us even more about the circumstances in which Korean films were made during the years of 1940-45. One of the six films approved in 1941 (two others Angels on the Streets and Volunteer are included in this set, the others are still undiscovered), Spring of Korean Peninsula was the debut feature of Lee Byeong-il, a Korean director who had dutifully learned his craft after seven years of study in Japan.

This method of educating Korean actors and filmmakers and the influence this has on their work is quite evident in the film’s story of a small production company’s attempt to make a period film of the classic folktale Chunhyang. The production runs into difficulties when its star Anna (Baek Lan) threatens to leave and Mr Han, who has been financing the film refuses to put up any more money. The producer Young-il (Kim Il-hae) takes a risk in obtaining further funds, and also in replacing Anna with Junghee (Kim So-young), the sister of a friend. While director Heo-hoon is able to finish the film, Young-il however faces the consequence of his financial mismanagement and also the romantic fall-out of being caught between Anna and Junghee.

The story certainly has a lot of potential with its movie-industry drama entangled in a tragic romantic melodrama, but the director never manages to convincingly carry it off. It’s no doubt hampered by the heavily didactic elements such as the intrusion of a Korean movie executive who makes a speech about role of filmmaking to contribute to the “cultural enlightenment of the people” and through cooperation instil the principle that “Japan and Korea are one” – but Lee Byeong-il’s handling of the romantic elements is rather inept, and it’s not until the situation reaches a crisis point that the viewer is even aware of the nature of the love triangle that has developed.

At the very least however, Spring of Korean Peninsula provides a valuable insight into the working of the Korean movie industry during the war years, the restrictions it had to operate within, the “education” in Japan that the filmmakers were obliged to undergo, and makes quite explicit the nature and the intentions of the Japanese to use the cinema as a vital propaganda tool.

Volunteer - Ahn Suk-young, 1941

As the title suggests, and “dedicated to the Governor General”, the Japanese militaristic propaganda elements of Volunteer would appear to be central to the purpose of Ahn Suk-young’s film of a young Korean man finding a real direction and meaning in his life when he is finally able to join the army and serve the Japanese nation. So heavily does this theme weigh on the film that the sketchy romance and love-triangle elements that should support it come across almost as an afterthought.

After the death of his father, the stewardship of the land he looked after has been left to his son Choon-ho (Choi Wun-bong), who cultivates it well, but is not really cut out for the peasant life. The landlord Park Chang-gi (Kim Il-hae) therefore dismisses him from the post and appoints the more experienced Kim Duk-sam. Choon-ho believes that he can better serve his land and people by fighting in the war, but it is only when regulations that prevent Korean troops from joining the Japanese army are relaxed that he is able to realise his dream and enlist.

In the middle of this propaganda film, there is the inevitable love-triangle misunderstandings as Choon-ho’s fiancée Boon-ok (Moon Ye-bong) becomes suspicious of his relationship with Soo-ae, the sister of landlord Park. Choon-ho for his part becomes jealous when he sees Boon-ok with another land-worker Chang-sik. The situation is muddily handled in the film, but seems to be there primarily to show that Choon-ho is out of place working there as a peasant on the land and can achieve more as a Korean citizen by progressing Japanese ideals in the army. Such dedication of purpose is of course rewarded and Choon-ho need not worry about leaving his mother behind, as the landlord Park does his duty and rewards the young man’s enlistment by agreeing to look after his family in his absence.

Volunteer is attractively photographed with a good eye for the country landscapes, the Korean shore and the people working on the land – but the drama and motivation of the characters within this lack conviction. I don’t know whether at 57 minutes the film is completely intact, but the way that some scenes lead nowhere, it does often feel like a couple of reels have gone missing. Historically however, the film has a number of points of interest, not just in the depiction of the period, but also for an appearance here by Moon Ye-bong, the most famous movie star of the period, as Boon-ok.

Straits of Chosun - Park Ki-chae, 1943

Straits of Chosun would seem to be the film which presents the most difficulties for Korean film historians in their consideration of what constitutes national cinema. Primarily there is the fact that the film is spoken entirely in Japanese, but made under the Chosun Film Corporation, founded in 1942, it therefore had to conform to ever stricter guidelines, censorship and the necessity of containing a strong propaganda element. Despite the restrictions, Straits of Chosun is the most accomplished piece of filmmaking in this set, integrating its war elements much more smoothly into the storyline than previous crude propaganda efforts.

Most importantly, the dramatic element of the story – melodramatic though it may be – is captivating and convincing, delicately depicted by director Park Ki-chae. A young man from a rich, noble family, Sung-ki (Nam Seung-min) has incurred the wrath of his parents by running off with Kinshuku (Moon Ye-bong), a woman from a poor family, against their wishes. When his brother dies in the war, Sung-ki repents his actions and decides to make amends by leaving Kinshuku and joining the army, unaware that she is pregnant. With a baby about to be born, Sung-ki’s sister Kiyoko tries to bring about a reconciliation between her family and Kinshuku, but the war and the stubborn pride of the noble family make this difficult.

Extremely well photographed, artistically directed with a delicate touch that belies the melodramatic content, Straits of Chosun is by far the film that best achieves a balance between the its war message and the lives of ordinary people, between honour and duty to the family and the Japanese nation - although it is debatable whether this should be considered a good thing or not. The death of his brother serves as an effective catalyst for Sung-ki joining the army to atone for his disgrace – it’s only the fact that he goes to fight for the Japanese army rather than the Korean army that is politically problematic here. The film even features actual war scenes, which are highly dramatic and, interweaved with scenes at the factory where Kinshuku is working, they serve to raise the tension of the domestic situation considerably.

Divorcing the political message from the dramatic content does cause problems and make viewing and evaluation of Straits of Chosun rather difficult. The artistry on display in the direction and photography however is clearly evident, as are the performances, which tend to underplay the melodrama, making no fervent declarations - either in propagandistic terms or in the relationship conflicts. For better or worse, it’s this degree of subtlety that only makes the film that much more effective as a propaganda tool as well as a drama.

The Past Unearthed is released in the Korea by the Korean Film Archive as a box-set containing four films, each progressively encoded on dual-layer discs. The DVDs are in NTSC format and the set is not region coded. The four films are presented on four discs in a double gatefold digipak. They are packaged within a strong box that also includes a booklet of the complete screenplay for Angels on the Street (in Korean), and a booklet of essays on each of the films and the historical context in which they were made. This booklet is in both Korean and English.

There are evidently a lot of problems with the quality of the source materials, but considering Korean history and particularly the troubled period and dubious propagandist content of these films, it is a miracle that they even exist at all. Angels on the Streets shows a few abrupt cuts now and again, perhaps missing occasional lines of dialogue – notably one during an encounter between a street urchin and a Japanese soldier - could possibly be put down to censorship issues (the film was heavily censored by the Japanese authorities, despite the apparent harmlessness of the content, mainly for just being spoken in Korean). The image is heavily marked, riddled with lines, scratches, dirt and reel-change marks, which would suggest that there hasn’t been a great deal of restoration done here – or else that the issues are beyond restoration, at least within funding limits. I suspect however that much work has gone into making these films watchable, since the image is remarkably stable and free from any serious flaws and the black-and white tones are well-defined and free from brightness flicker.

Spring of Korean Peninsula has its share of problems also, but many of its reels are certainly in a better condition than Angels on the Streets. The amount of scratching is variable, but you’ll find marks of one sort or another on nearly every frame of the film. Some scenes however are only troubled by little more than persistent tramline scratches. Again, the image is fairly stable throughout, with only one or two scenes having problems with telecine wobble. Tones again are relatively strong, allowing a good level of detail to remain visible, though whites are occasionally glaring and some sections of the frame can appear somewhat blurred. There appear to be a few missing frames and jump cuts, but overall, there is little here that presents any problems with the viewing of the film.

Volunteer is often as heavily marked as the other films in the set, but it also has some larger problems with frame damage, including one tear in the negative which at one point seems to open up the film and swallow Choon-ho. There is also one small digital glitch in an early scene where Choon-ho gazes forlornly at the railway tracks. Elsewhere though the film has adequate clarity and tone, with reasonable stability – though dark night-time scenes can be quite murky. Overall, the quality is more than adequate.

The quality of Straits of Chosun is variable from scene to scene. Some reels look quite faded, with tones greyish and whites washed out, while others show strong blacks. Similarly, there is heavy marking in parts of the print, with hundreds of little lines and tramline scratches, leaving the image looking rather soft, while other scenes remain relatively clear and show good detail. One scene seems to have some digital transfer problems where the lines break-up and look like a jagged video-monitor image, but this is brief. Overall, like the other titles in this set, the image is largely smooth, progressively transferred and presents no serious viewing problems.

The audio elements are in poor shape on each of the films, but they were never great quality in the first place and are at least largely audible. The tone on Angels on the Streets - the only film which used synchronous sound, is particularly muffled and somewhat distorted in places, with crackles, pops and buzzing most of the time being louder than the actual dialogue. Considering the testimony from one of the young actors in the extra features about the placing of the microphones, this is not surprising. The other films use post-synchronous dubbing and dialogue is consequently generally clearer, but there remains a low level of analogue noise and some crackles. There may be some lip-syncing issues, but these more than likely can be attributed to the dubbing. I’m not sure that anything better could reasonably be expected of these films, and in practice, the audio problems rarely become a distraction.

English subtitles are provided in a white font for each of the films, and – unusually for a Korean R3 release - for all the extra features also. This is tremendously important for these particular releases in helping viewers outside Korea understand their historical importance and context. There are one or two flaws with the translation and it doesn’t always read perfectly smoothly or grammatically, but for the main part, the meaning is clear and seems to be accurate (though less so on the extra features).
Each of the films – except for Straits of Chosun which is spoken in Japanese - also contains fixed Japanese subtitles burnt onto the print for their intended audience. These are positioned to the right of the screen and are completely unobtrusive. (One wonders why they are no so positioned on modern Japanese releases, as it seems a much more natural place for them).

Kim Il-hae Special Documentary (50:39)
Kim was a major film star of the period and appears all of the films in this set. Now 97 years old, he isn’t able to provide much information in an interview, but film historians talk about the context in which each of the films were made during 1940-45, and his subsequent career as a director. This same feature is included on each one of the discs. It includes English subtitles.

Song Hwan-chang interview (27:20)
One of the child actors on Angels on the Streets, Song provides a lot of information on the period and how films were made then, giving an indication of the censorship restrictions.

Film historian Kim Jong-won provides introductions to set the context of each of the films - Angels on the Streets (7:59), Spring of Korean Peninsula (7:41), Volunteer (5:41) and Straits of Chosun (7:07).

Stills Galleries
Each of the films has a set of 10 stills - promotional images for Angels on the Streets, though the others appear to be taken directly from the film (including all the tramline scratches).

Made while Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, subjected to severe censorship and regulation, and forced to integrate crude propaganda messages, it’s difficult to objectively evaluate the qualities of the four films included here and divorce them from their political content and context. It’s also difficult to judge how much restoration has gone into the films, but the fact that these long lost, neglected, unwanted and largely forgotten about films exist at all is remarkable. From a historical viewpoint – both in terms of political and film history – they are certainly fascinating documents, but they also have artistic and dramatic qualities and although there are inevitably problems with the condition that they are in, they remain highly watchable and are well presented on DVD with relatively fluid progressive transfers and good English-friendly extra features to help understand the period and context they were made within.