Korean Cinema Retrospective: Opening a New Phase of Korean Film History By Cho Hye-jung
by Cho Hye-jung
The 12th Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) welcomed guests from all over the world with a broad variety of programs. My interest in this year’s PIFF was the Korean Cinema Retrospective. This program opened a new phase of Korean film history, by searching out lost films, restoring them, and finally re-discovering old Korean films. The retrospective consisted of two sections, “Kim Seung-ho: Face of Father, Portrait of Korean Cinema” and “Making New Culture: Special Screening of Films Registered to the Cultural Heritage”.
The section “Kim Seung-ho: Face of Father, Portrait of Korean Cinema” presented eight films in which Kim Seung-ho starred, who has since become a father figure in Korean cinema. The eight films were: The Stableman (Mabu, 1961, by Kang Dae-jin) which was awarded the Silver Bear at the 11th Berlin Film Festival, Romance Papa (1960, by Shin Sang-ok), Money (Don, 1958, Kim So-dong), Mr. Park (Park Sa-bang, 1960, by Kang Dae-jin), Under Heaven in Seoul (Seoului jibungmit, 1961, by Lee Hyeong-pyo), A Pig Dream (Dwaejikkum, 1961, by Han Hyeong-mo), A Third–Rate Manager (Samdeung gwajang, 1961, by Lee Bong-rae), and The Dead Volcano (Sahhwasan, 1969, by Young Nam Ko).
Kim Seung-ho was an actor who expressed the figure of a Korean father, in particular a portrait of the lower middle class father lost in the gap between tradition and modernity. Kim seung-ho was an established actor who could play a wide variety of roles, and as such he sometimes portrayed an ignorant and sly country man (Money), sometimes a cowardly and servile middle-aged head of the family (A Third-Rate Manager), but his true colors come out from the figure of the lower middle-class father who inadvertently but comprehensively exposes deep feelings toward his family and the sorrows of an incompetent father straying behind the times (The Stableman, Mr. Park). In his character, there is jocularity without frivolity, and a deep shade of pathos.
Korean people in the 1950s and 1960s, due to the consequence of the Korean War, poverty, and the swift inflow of western modernity, not only wanted to hold onto the nostalgia for tradition, but also had a fascination and fear of modernization, and anxiety about the age at the same time. In this period, Korean people found reconciliation in the traditional notion of family and the head of the family (mostly the father) was portrayed as a figure who had to go through an emotional conflict between the responsibility to protect his own family and the pressures of the stern and harsh realities of society. Kim Seung-ho portrayed this figure of the Korean father, and Korean people of the age found solace in his figure.
“Making New Culture: Special Screening of Films Registered Cultural Heritage” was the section which retraced Korean film history. The Korea Cultural Heritage Administration designated seven films as cultural heritage this year: Sweet Dream (Mimong, 1936 by Yang Ju-nam), Viva Freedom! (Jayu Manse, 1946, by In-kyu Ch’oe), A Prosecutor and a Teacher (Geomsawa Yeoseonsaeng, 1948, ba Yun Dae-ryong), Hometown in My Heart (Maeumeui Gohyang, 1949, by Riyong Gyu Yun), Piagol (1955, by Lee Kang-cheon), Madame Freedom (Jayu Buin, 1956, by Han Hyeong-mo), and The Wedding Day (Sijibganeun Nal, 1956, by Lee Byung-il).
In Korea, many old films were lost and there are hardly any old films left. In particular, among the films which were filmed during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea (1910-1945), only 7-8 films were found intact, the number of films still undiscovered, only meager. Despite several reasons for the films being lost, the historical factor that one can refer to is the influence of the specific circumstances under Japanese imperialism as well as the lack of understanding of film as a culture. Therefore, the existence of films that are able to retrace the history of Korean film is much more important due to its rarity value. These films registered as cultural heritage were selected on the merits of their historical and aesthetic value among those films from the period of Japanese occupation to the 1950s.
Sweet Dream, a film which depicts the desire of a woman, was directed by Yang Ju-nam. What makes this film interesting is that it focuseson a woman’s desire, a relatively private domain at that period, keeping its distance from ethnic or national/militarism ideology under Japanese occupation. Another point is that it questioned the traditional model of a woman during the times when fidelity and maternity was considered as a virtue in Korea and in Korean films. The heroine runs away from home and abandons her husband and daughter for money and her desires, and enthusiastically embraces the pursuit of pleasure. Mun Yae-bong, who later became a first rate actress in North Korea, released her charm as the femme fatale. This film is impressive in terms of the provocative picture of a woman’s desire and pleasure portrayed twenty years before the film Madame Freedom (1956).
Viva Freedom! is the first independence film made after the Korean Liberation in 1945. This film is not only about the liberation movement against Japan, but also about the atonement of the director In-kyu Ch’oe for his own previous propaganda films made under Japanese rule. A Prosecutor and a Teacher was made as a silent film because of the harsh film-production environment during the Korean Liberation period. In 1935, Korea opened the age of the talkies with Chunhyangjon, but went back to silent films just after the Korean Liberation. Because A Prosecutor and a Teacher was produced as a silent film, it needed a ‘benshi’, a person who did a role of mediation between audience and movie as a film interpreter. Yun Dae-ryong, the director of the film, was a former benshi as well.
Hometown in My Heart, directed by Riyong Gyu Yun, is a lyrical and delicate work. The film, which tells of a little monk who misses his mother, is called an archetype of Korean Literary Film and is celebrated for its refined images of lyrical scenery and the contemplative rhythm that was rare at that time. Piagol, directed by Lee Kang-cheon, reveals the false ideology through conflict, disruption, and betrayals of partisans in hiding on Mt. Jiri, and through it reconfirms and redefines the true value of humanism at the same time. This film is different from the so-called anti-communism films in that it keeps an objective view as much as it can even though it deals with the tragedy of the division of Korea to South and North.
Madame Freedom, by Han Hyeong-mo, and The Wedding Day, by Lee Byung-il, both reflect Korea in the 1950s. In particular, the two films portray catastrophe and disturbance caused by the desire for money; the former as a melodrama representing housewife’s infidelity, while the latter is a comedy. In a capitalist society, money signifies success and the means to realize people’s desires. Korean society, that struggled to get out of poverty in the 1950s, glorified money. The historical interest of the two films is that they touched a phase and unconsciousness of Korean society.