By 1941, Korea had been under Japanese colonial rule for over 30 years and was subject to the same kinds of increasingly oppressive militarism as Japan itself. This of course included tightly controlled censorship of the arts which eventually edged towards the suppression of all Korean language cinema. Nevertheless, even while superficially obeying censorship directives, conflicted directors were able to subtly undercut the desired effect by foregrounding other concerns. Choi In-kyu’s Angels on the Street (집 없는 천사, Jibeopneun cheonsa) is a case in point in its focus on impoverished children and the Christianising forces which eventually “save” them.
The two youngsters at the centre of the tale, teenage older sister Myeong-ja (Kim Sin-jae) and her little brother Yong-gil (Lee Wuk-ha), seem to be orphans and have been taken in by a street family led by Mr. Kwon who forces them to sell flowers and other small items in return for food and shelter. The kids get into trouble when Yong-gil spends some of the money on sweets rather than bringing it all home for which he is severely punished, leading Mr. Kwon and his wife to further press Myeong-ja to become a bar girl so that her brother won’t be hungry anymore. Hearing Myeong-ja give in, Yong-gil runs away hoping to spare his sister such an unpleasant fate. While he falls in with a troop of street kids and is eventually “rescued” by a socially minded minister, Father Bang (Kim Il-hae), Myeong-ja eventually finds an ally in a drunken doctor who often comes into the bar where she sells flowers and offers to take her in as a trainee nurse.
What is clear is that poverty and its associated problems are rife leading to a large number of orphaned, abandoned, and runaway children living on the streets where they remain extremely vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous adults like Mr. Kwon. Then again, the kindly intentions of Father Bang are in themselves not unproblematic. As in many of these kinds of films, Father Bang is only interested in rescuing boys whom he later sets up in a kind of dorm/commune where he can “reform” them into upstanding, respectable young men filled with Christian virtues. His end goals allow him to overlook that his approach is also exploitative in that he requires the boys to fix up a barn he has borrowed from his embittered brother-in-law Dr. Ahn (Kang jeong-ae) to make it into a place fit for habitation and thereafter expects them to work, in this case making noodles, to provide economic support for the entire enterprise.
Father Bang seems to have spent at least some time in Germany, as has his brother-in-law, and has a deep seated protestant work ethic that perhaps leads him to feel that “hard work” is the best way of reforming these otherwise feral children whom he sees as lazy and selfish. Nevertheless, he is profiting directly from their labour in much the same way as Kwon even if his end goals are different. Like Dr. Ahn, who seems to have become cynical and embittered after losing his wife in believing that the children are beyond saving and all Bang’s efforts merely futile, Father Bang has committed wholly to protestantism in so far as giving both his children European Christian names while his wife has also taken the name of Maria (Moon Ye-bong). This seems like a fairly controversial step when many Koreans are being encouraged to abandon their birth names in favour of adopting new Japanese ones, let alone that militarists might not be keen on the introduction of religious themes which, sometimes but not exclusively, conflict with their prevailing ideology.
That aside, Bang appears to align himself with the colonial elite rather than native Korean nationalism. When introducing Yong-gil to his new “brothers”, he points out the smallest one as a promising bugler who will one day make a fine volunteer soldier. Later the same boy is pictured blowing his bugle with the Japanese flag flying somewhat heroically above him, while the boys who generally speak Korean with one another freely reel off the Imperial Rescript with relative ease. Choi subtly undercuts the essential propaganda effects of including the pledge in having Bang add a post-script of his own credo which is essentially repackaged Christian virtues but allows the implication to remain that Bang is preparing these young men to become muscle for an imperial power even if inculcating in them a notion of moral goodness (indeed, there is also perhaps the implication that these boys stand in for a “Korea” in need of moral education which can be earned through exerting themselves to become more “Japanese” as in Ahn’s final assurance that they will become “excellent people” “of great service to our country” if they continue to heed Bang’s teachings).
“Goodness” however seems to win out as even the villainous Kwon is made to renounce his life of exploitative criminality and Dr. Ahn’s sense of social justice is reawakened on seeing the effect Bang has had on the previously directionless boys. After completing Angels on the Street, Choi would refuse to make any more pro-Japanese films for the next three years before being convinced to return by committed rightist Han Hyung-mo, filming a trilogy of similarly compromised dramas before doing a complete about face in 1946 by directing the very first post-liberation film Hurrah! For Freedom which, ironically enough, celebrated the activities of the Resistance during the final days of occupation.
Angels on the Street was screened at the Korean Cultural Centre in conjunction with the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at the BFI Southbank. It is also available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed box set (currently OOP). Not available to stream online.
Short scene from the end of the film featuring the Imperialist Rescript (Japanese with Korean subtitles )