A Desolate Flute Is Heard: Korean Films from the Japanese Colonial Period By Chris Fujiwara
Some of the most exciting films at the 11th Pusan International Film Festival could be found in the Korean Retrospective section, which featured a new restoration of Shin Sang-ok’s outstanding 1962 melodrama Arch of Chastity (Yeolnyeomun), along with seven recently rediscovered Korean feature films made during the Japanese occupation. The historical importance of these seven films — the only Korean features from that period that are known to survive — is, of course, inestimable, but all seven are rich and interesting aesthetically, formally, and ideologically. They are all films of ambiguity and internal contradiction. Here are some first impressions of these films.
Some generalizations: all the prints have Japanese subtitles (they were shown at Pusan with English subtitles also). The earliest, Yang Joo-nam’s Sweet Dream (Mimong, 1936), was made in the year after the advent of sound-film production in Korea (with the 1935 version, currently lost, of the traditional epic Chunhyangjeon/The Story of Chunhyang). In almost all the films, the sound is largely or entirely post-synchronized: the lip-synching is erratic in the earlier films, which also use little or no ambient sound and only specific, isolated sound effects, but the later Homeless Angel (a.k.a. Angels of the Streets/Jipobsnun cheonsa , by Choi In-gyu) boasts a soundtrack more in conformity with worldwide standards of the period. Some of the films were coproductions between Korean and Japanese companies and used Japanese production personnel. An interesting aspect of the films is that whereas the dialogue is generally in Korean (except in Park Ki-chae’s Straits of Chosun/Choseonhaehyeob , whose upper-class characters speak only Japanese), sometimes the characters switch to Japanese, not only for official and public occasions, at which the use of Japanese language was obligatory, but also during intimate dialogues.
Of the seven films, I would name Spring of Korean Peninsula (Pandoui pom, 1941), by Lee Byung-il, as the most distinguished. It deals with the making of a film version of the Chunhyang story. During the troubled course of the low-budget film-within-the-film, the leading actress quits, to be replaced by a demure young girl newly arrived from the country to study filmmaking. The record-company executive who is funding the film pulls his support when the new star spurns his advances, and the director shuts down the production. Then the film is resumed as the first project of a newly formed company, whose founding, during a ceremonial dinner, is said to mark the new historical opportunity for “modernization” afforded by the “unification” of Korea with Japan. At the end of the film, after the successful premiere of Chunhyang, its screenwriter and star depart for Tokyo, where they are to study Japanese production methods.
Scholars in Korean film and history will have to address the contradiction in Spring of Korean Peninsula between the affirmation of Korean cultural tradition (in the choice of Chunhyang as a subject) and the project of forging a new identity for Koreans as subjects of the Japanese emperor. I’d suggest that the overt propaganda in the film is thwarted internally in at least two ways: through the critique of male authority and economic power in the behind-the-scenes melodramatic plot; and through the emphasis on the figure of the film director (a serious man with a lean and hungry look) as a silent witness to history. During the ceremonial dinner, he remains characteristically reserved, even sad; at the end of the film, a low-angle forward tracking shot isolates the director among a group of people seeing off the writer and the star at the train station, and the firm camera movement and the director’s fixed stare combine to produce a moment that is ambiguous and heartbreaking. (Another film in the retrospective, An Seok-yeong’s Volunteer/Chiwonbyeong , though described by Cho Young-jung in the festival catalogue as “the most straightforward propaganda film,” strikes me as a case in which a mood of overwhelming dejection drains the overt propaganda of all persuasiveness.)
Throughout Spring of Korean Peninsula, the acting is low-key, subtle, and natural — something that is also true of most of the other films, and here the director uses acting style to create a mood at once tender, sober, and slightly distanced. This mood is heightened by the measured pace of the narrative, which finds room for several dialogueless interludes during which characters walk down stairs or along a street. (A slow, sparse narrative movement characterizes all seven of these films, even — and perhaps especially — the 47-minute Sweet Dream, an intense, almost Dreyerian melodrama of infidelity.) Lee’s visual style is spare and assured, creating a delicate unity of tone that even encompasses two scenes from the Chunhyang film: one a short prologue, the second an extended sequence (the scene chosen is the leavetaking between Chunhyang and her lover, a moment that resonates with the end of Spring of Korean Peninsula and emphasizes the current of longing that runs throughout the whole film). Because all reference to the moviemaking context is excluded (until the last shot of the sequence tracks back to reveal the movie camera and the crew), the sequence plays as if the Chunhyang story posed both an alternate universe and an alternate set of terms for transposing the actual political and economic situation that underlies the main narrative.
As a document on Korean filmmaking of the period, Spring of Korean Peninsula is a treasure — though scholars will have to tell us to what extent the straitened and casual production conditions depicted in the film (the director earns so little he can’t pay the rent on his apartment, and the first lead actress turns out never to have signed a contract) reflect actual historical circumstances, and to what extent they were exaggerated to heighten the positive effect of Japanese “modernization.” By the way, a scene showing the filming of Chunhyang indicates that someone has the job of writing down everything the actors say, confirming what is evident from the films in the retrospective, that the norm in Korea at the time was to shoot silent and to post-record dialogue. Another point of interest in the film is the presence of posters from 1930s French and German films on the walls of some sets: among them, Robert Siodmak’s Mister Flow, Fyodor Otsep’s Amok, Willy Forst’s Burgtheater, and Karl Hartl’s So endete eine Liebe.
I hope for a later chance to write at more length about all seven films, but in the meantime I’ll just add a note on one of them. Anchor Light, also known as Fisherman’s Fire (Eohwa, 1939), directed by An Cheol-young, is a melodrama in which a poor fisherman’s daughter follows a friend to Seoul and becomes the target of a sleazy seducer who installs her in a room and puts the moves on her. The print, which runs 52 minutes, appears to be missing footage: when the seducer starts to reach for the girl, a cut finds the same couple on the same set ten days later. The abruptness of this cut suggests that it is the result of censorship; with other awkward transitions, it’s hard to tell. At any rate, the story moves swiftly, and the film is made with flair. In the rural scenes, short shots of the sea and sky are inserted into dialogue scenes or scenes of action in a sometimes quite arbitrary way, which suggests that Korean directors and editors of the period enjoyed much scope in the figurative and suggestive use of images (something confirmed by Seo Kwang-chae’s Military Train [Kunyongyeolcha, 1938]). In one striking shot, the heroine looks down into a river where, in the right side of the screen, the face of her village lover appears (in her mind’s eye) superimposed over the current, as he recites a verse about the fading of youth (a theme since the beginning of the film, which features a peasants’ song on the subject of making merry while the sun shines). In scenes of village life and labor, the compositional use of fishing nets, clothes on a line, piers, and masts creates a rich texture, while the Seoul scenes take on a kind of Narusean curtness in shuttling from street to business office to domestic interiors. Even the minimal sound work sometimes achieves considerable power: throughout a long scene in the restaurant where the heroine has started work as a kisaeng, a desolate flute is heard. The flute could serve as the emblem of this group of films, in which mood and expressive force are so obstinate and so affecting. One hopes for the recovery of more now-missing Korean films.