The Past Unearthed: A Collection of Feature Films in the Japanese Colonial Period Review

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 Collectively, they present a fascinating historical document of an important filmmaking period.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.

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