The Past Unearthed: The Second Encounter: A Collection of Chosun Films in the 1930s Review

The first thing you are probably going to want to know if you are taking the time to read a long review of a set of obscure early talkie Korean films from the 1930s is whether the film’s themselves are any good or are whether they are just of historical interest. Well, the answer to that, straight off the bat, is that all three films are good and very accessible, with intriguing approaches to strong dramatic situations in a typically Korean melodrama way, making them well worth your time, as well as being fascinating social and historical documents.

As is now evident from the films made in Korean post-1940 Dark Age under the Chosun Film Production Corporation, seen in the first Past Unearthed collection, A Collection of Feature Films in the Japanese Colonial Period, films made in Korea during the Second World War were subject to the production and distribution restrictions that limited their freedom of expression and demanded the incorporation of a high quotient of pro-Japanese wartime propaganda. While the impact on films made prior to 1940 still shows the direct influence of the Japanese occupation to some extent (most of the directors would at least have been sent to Japan to learn their filmmaking techniques or learnt their craft as assistants to Japanese directors), the propagandistic elements are not as evident here and have little obvious impact on the stories themselves, which are much more in the traditional Korean form of tragic melodramas.

Even within this context however it is intriguing to examine the attitudes and issues that were uppermost in the minds of a Korean society under Japanese rule at this time, issues that certainly arise to the forefront of the three films included in this set: Sweet Dreams (1936) by Yang Joo-nam, Military Train (1938) by Seo Gwang-jae and Fisherman’s Fire (1939) by Ahn Seok-young. The presentation of these three films on DVD is supported by fragments of other lost films from the period in this three disc boxset, all fully subtitled in English, the set also including a booklet with extensive production notes and essays on each of the films and the context in which they were made, also translated into English. The only caveat is that, due to the nature of the scarcity of original materials and the manner in which the films were made, the prints have not been well preserved. This is a period in Korean history that many would rather forget and films made at this time under the watchful eye of the Japanese censor have often traditionally been discredited, the three films included here only recently having been recovered from film archives in China and Russia. Even restored, their condition is far from perfect, but all three films are largely intact and feature some of the greatest stars of early Korean cinema in thrilling films long believed lost but happily now unearthed.

Sweet Dreams - Yang Joo-nam, 1936

Sweet Dreams features one of the earliest stars of Korean cinema, Moon Ye-bong, in an uncharacteristically unsympathetic role as a spoilt housewife, Ae-soon, who wants to live the free life of a modern woman. Demanding a new dress, she sets out for a department store but loses her purse there to a thief in the store. The man who has stolen her purse however, Chang-geon (Kim In-gyu), returns it to her as a means to strike up an acquaintance, saying that he has found it after she had misplaced it.

The encounter evidently leads to something more and, when Ae-soon returns home, her husband (Lee Kuem-ryong) throws her out of the house, suspecting her infidelity. Chang-geon (Kim In-gyu), installs her into an expensive hotel and takes her out to the theatre, but the unfaithful woman’s audacity has no bounds and she takes a fancy to one of the company’s leading dancers. The sweet dreams she is living as a modern woman is obviously an illusion and out of place with the traditional role of a wife with her family, her daughter in particular being cruelly neglected in this broken family. In an ironic twist of fate however, Ae-soon inevitably pays the price for her actions.

There’s certainly a sense of Sweet Dreams being an instructive film with a clear moral line in the melodramatic developments that occur within a Korean family broken-up through the selfish demands of the mother to have a modern independent life. An early 7-reel talkie – the third talking film in Korean film history – the film even manages to exploit the capabilities of the cinematic medium by incorporating a lesson on road safety into the storyline and promote a leading Korean dance company with an excerpt from their show.

More than this however, the director Yang Joo-nam manages to bring a strong sense of genuine craft in the filming with editing that accentuates and drives the film’s dramatic edge. The director clearly knows how to capitalise on the uncommon casting of early film superstar actress star Moon Ye-bong, drawing in on close-ups for moments of intense inner emotional turmoil, yet letting the surprisingly mobile camera remain fluid when necessary to drive the events forward, creating an effective sense of urgency to a couple of climatic scenes at the end of the film and catching the final moments of the film in a dramatic pan of the camera.

Military Train - Seo Gwang-jae, 1938

Made in 1938, a year after the commencement of the Sino-Japanese war, the patriotic pro-Japanese propaganda subtext of Military Train is obviously to the forefront of Seo Gwang-jae’s film, but yet again, as with Sweet Dreams the instructive messages are not necessarily to the detriment of the film’s dramatic and filmmaking qualities.

Once again, it’s a woman Young-sim (who else but Moon Ye-bong?) who, this time indirectly, threatens the rightful order of things, and it’s the sleazy qualities of Kim In-gyu as a Chinese spy who provides the opportunity for good Korean citizens to be led astray. Young-sim is engaged to be married to a fine upstanding young man called Won-jin (Dok Eun-ji), but in order to free herself from the mistress of the geisha house where she works, she has to pay the debts she owes for her training. 2,000 won is a lot of money, but out of his love for Young-sim, Won-jin is tempted to take the money from a group of Chinese spies in exchanges for information on the troop movements on the military trains that he is able to get from Young-sim’s brother Jum-yong (Wang Pyong).

Showing how easy it can be to betray one’s nation and oneself out of the most noble of motives, the mix of military propaganda and relationship drama is laid on fairly thick. Unlike later films made during the Japanese occupation of Korea during the second World War however, films like Volunteer collected in the first Past Unearthed collection, the drama of Military Train is not an afterthought tacked onto a crude propaganda film, but treated with equal importance.

Although it is indeed acknowledged as the first pro-Japanese government-patronised film in Korean cinema and the only film directed by Seo Gwang-jae, the director shoots the action as if it were an early Hitchcock spy thriller in the vein of Secret Agent. Attractively photographed, using shadowing, irising and spot lighting to present an amorphous image rather than a strictly rectangular one, the film captures the beauty of the Chosun peninsula as well as the majesty of the train driving through the landscape and the nobility of the fine Korean working class men who operate this vital task for the good of their nation and the Japanese cause. The film nonetheless captures a dynamic interaction between this and the romantic and the thriller elements of the film. Inevitably, the path that this train runs leads to typically melodramatic and tragic results, but it’s impressively and dynamically achieved.

Fisherman’s Fire - Ahn Seok-young, 1939

Even though the central dilemma is that of a young woman from the country driven to seek disreputable work in the big city on account of her family’s financial difficulties, there’s less of a sense of obvious moralising or pro-Japanese propaganda in Ahn Seok-young’s Fisherman’s Fire, but on the contrary, a suggestion rather that the film is referring to another kind of lost innocence, that of a formerly peaceful nation and its people.

The young woman facing such a dilemma in the film is In-soon (Park Rho-kyeong), the daughter of a poor fisherman. Her father (Yoon Book-yang) owes a debt to a wealthy landowner Mr Chang (Na Woong), but with broken fishing nets and difficult circumstances, he cannot earn enough money to pay it back in full and is forced to go out to sea in dangerous weather. When he fails to return from one fishing expedition, Mr Chang suggests that the debt can be paid by giving In-soon to him as a concubine. Mr Chang’s son Cheol-soo (also played by Na Woong) however pays the debt for the family, (using his father’s own money) and agrees to take In-soon instead to Seoul where she has been told by her friend Ok-boon (Jeon Hyo-bong) that work can easily be found. Cheol-soo however takes advantage of the young innocent girl, who ends up working as a geisha.

The days of youth will never come back”, recites In-soon’s boyfriend Chun-suk (Park Hak) from a poem at the start of Fisherman’s Fire, a film that opens furthermore with documentary-like footage of the singing of Anchor Light and traditional celebratory dancing of the fishing community. The implication would seem to be that the loss of innocence is that of the Korean people and traditional ways, as well as that of a young woman in the big city, but the reprising of these scenes at the end of the film perhaps suggest that the old ways can be regained. Within this structure, the editing and filming may seem less dynamic than the other films in this collection and more naturalistic, but the heart of the story is correspondingly purer and just as appropriate to the film’s content.

The same qualities of the depiction of nature and the Chosun landscape here in Ahn Seok-young’s earlier film can also be seen in his 1941 film, Volunteer, but with a dedication to the Governor General and filled with Japanese militaristic propaganda, Fisherman’s Fire’s hopeful message of a nation regaining its purity is ironically twisted into putting the military needs of the Japanese nation first.

The Past Unearthed, The Second Encounter: A Collection of Chosun Films in the 1930s is released in the Korea by Taewon in conjunction with the Korean Film Archive as a box-set containing three films, each progressively encoded on single and dual-layer discs. Sweet Dreams is on a dual-layer disc, while the relatively shorter Military Train and Fisherman’s Fire are on single-layer discs. The DVDs are in NTSC format and are region-free. The three films are presented on individual discs in a double gatefold digipak. They are packaged within a strong box that also includes 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.

In most cases believed long lost, the quality of the recovered elements inevitably leaves something to be desired, but largely intact and clearly restored as much as possible, all of the films are still quite acceptable.

Sweet Dreams in particular has been well restored and, relatively speaking, it looks well. The contrasts are a little blown-out with whites flaring a little and the image is somewhat soft but, progressively encoded, the image is surprisingly stable and shows adequate levels of detail. Most of the print damage has been corrected leaving only occasional ripples and some thicker vertical tracking lines that extend over a couple of reels. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1 and the frame is slightly windowboxed.

Military Train doesn’t have the same level of restoration as Sweet Dreams and is heavily lined with vertical scratches and tramline damage. Some larger marks can also be seen but the image is largely stable and free from flicker, slightly on the dark and strongly contrasted side, but it’s relatively clear and detailed and certainly more than acceptable. The aspect ratio is about 1.25:1 with a black-bar down the right-hand side.

Fisherman’s Fire has a few sudden jump cuts suggesting truncated scenes, but the narrative of the film seems largely intact. The ordering of some of the reels is however questionable, particularly what seems like a misplaced visit to a shrine by In-soon and Cheol-soo which seems to take place during their journey to Seoul. This seems to be better positioned in the thirteen-minute fragment found in the Gosfilmfond version of the film (included in the extra features), which also contains the important symbolic spilt-wine seduction of In-soon that is missing in the fuller version of the film. Heavy scratching is again noticeable here, but there are few other problems with the presentation of the film other than some purple/yellow cross-colouration indicating an analogue intermediary source.

Although the image was well-restored for Sweet Dreams, the audio elements were obviously is worse condition. The sound is sometimes quite muffled, sounding thin and strained in some sections and almost inaudible in others. Other elements of noise and distortion can be heard in the background. Noise reduction has clearly been vigorously applied to the extent that quieter sections in between dialogue sound eerily silent. An indication of the problems that were corrected can be investigated in the full unrestored version of the film also included on the DVD.

The audio tracks on Military Train and Fisherman’s Fire are in much better condition, the latter seemingly post-synched, demonstrating good range, tone and clarity, with little hiss or noise trouble other than a couple of faint clicks and pops.

Due to the nature of period that the film were made, they all include original fixed Japanese subtitles which are displayed unobtrusively down the right-hand side of the film. Optional English and Korean subtitles are included in a white font. The English subtitles are full and accurate, translating the films well with no evident spelling or grammatical problems. The subtitles on Fisherman’s Fire are not quite as fluid as the other two films, but it’s only a matter of occasional slightly awkward phrasing. All extra features are also fully subtitled.

Sweet Dreams contains the Previous version of Sweet Dreams before restoration (47:50) in full, which may be excessive, but it’s interesting to compare. Most viewers may however settle instead for the briefer Image comparison before/after restoration (3:18) impressively showing all the levels of cleaning and correction that have been applied using the latest restoration technology. There is also a Film Image Gallery of 14 stills taken directly from the film print.

Military Train contains a fragment from another lost film Scenes from I Will Die Under My Flag (8:41). The elements are good, showing an intriguing film with a lush romantic score and beautiful cinematography, but other than it showing the women (including Moon Ye-bong) working the land for the good of the fighting troops (fighting presumably for Japan), there isn’t enough here to get a sense of how the narrative develops. A Film Image Gallery contains 11 stills from Military Train, again taken directly from the film print.

Fisherman’s Fire contains a Gosfilmfond version of Fisherman’s Fire (13:14), a fragment of a print in better condition than the one used in the main feature which , as indicated above, seems to have a more accurate running order and a couple of missing shots. A Gosfilmfond version of Shim Cheong (13:26) is also presented here, a film from 1937. The fragment however is not enough to get any real sense of what the film is about. The instability of the telecine however shows just how well transferred the other films are. A Film Image Gallery shows 12 stills taken directly from the film print.

The boxset contains a full 80-page booklet containing articles in Korean and in English translation. As well as full production notes, synopsis and director information on each of the films, there are Film introduction commentaries on each of the films, looking at their origin and content in a historical context as well as informative and invaluable essays on Chosun cinema of the 1930s, and on the styles and film techniques employed by the filmmakers.

A collection of obscure, battered, almost-forgotten films from the early days of talking movies in Korea is not going to appeal to everyone, but I would have little hesitation in recommending all three films in The Past Unearthed, The Second Encounter: Collection of Chosun Films in the 1930s as fine examples of early filmmaking, as well as being documents of immense historical interest and importance. That recommendation extends to the presentation of those films on DVD, with the best possible transfers of material that has not been well-preserved, fine supporting supplements and rare footage, as well as excellent introductions and informative essays that make the films even more accessible.

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Last updated: 01/05/2018 07:18:15

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