Late into the colonial era, Korean Cinema became heavily invested in selling the “one nation” idea. Signs of “Koreanness” such as language, dress, and customs were actively discouraged if not directly suppressed while censorship regulations prevented any negative comment on the Japanese empire. Back in Japan, however, there was an appetite for an exoticised view of the colonial landscape which in part played into the idea of Korea as a “backward” land in need of Japanese sophistication. 1939’s Fisherman’s Fire (漁火 / 어화, Eohwa) was directed in Korea by Ahn Cheol-young as a collaborative project between the studio he had co-founded, Keuk-gang Film Company, and the well established Japanese studio Shochiku where it is was “supervised” by Yasujiro Shimazu who prepared the film for Japanese audiences.
Like many Japanese films of the 1930s, Fisherman’s Fire revolves round a young woman from the country who is mis-sold dreams of freedom and urban sophistication only to be misused and betrayed by unscrupulous men. In-soon (Park Rho-kyeong), a fisherman’s daughter, is in love with local boy Chun-seok (Park Hak) but her family is poor and her father has taken on a huge debt from the local lord, Mr. Jang. In-soon longs to follow her friend Ok-boon (Jeon Hyo-bong) to Seoul where she might be able to earn money to help repay the debt but her family aren’t keen for her to go and even though Ok-boon has apparently been able to make an honest life for herself other girls gossip about those who went to the city with big dreams but ended up pressed into sex work.
When her father is lost at sea in a storm, Mr. Jang pressures In-soon’s mother to give him In-soon as a concubine in exchange for the debt. Horrified, In-soon doesn’t know what to do but is unexpectedly saved by Jang’s son Cheol-soo (Na Woong) who gives her mother the money to cancel the arrangement. In-soon ends up going to Seoul, where she has arranged to meet Ok-boon, with Cheol-soo but when she gets there discovers that he has ulterior motives. He traps her in his apartment for 10 days while claiming he has been unable to contact Ok-boon, eventually taking advantage of her before she is able to (temporarily) escape.
In-soon’s sorry tale is one familiar from Japanese cinema of the 1930s – that of a young woman who has been betrayed by an inconsistent level of modernity from which she receives only the dangers and none of the benefits. Then again, her village home was not so innocent – she was after all about to be sold as a concubine to a lecherous old man, meaning that this isn’t simply tale of the pastoral innocence versus urban sophistication. As we discover, Ok-boon found herself in a similar situation to In-soon but was able to escape it and not only that, she has also become “financially independent” which is what she encourages In-soon to become as the only way of freeing herself from the clutches of cads like Cheol-soo who press their patriarchal privileges in order to take advantage of naive girls like In-soon who haven’t been made aware they have the power to refuse.
Unlike the heroine of Sweet Dream whose desires of leading a more fulfilling life eventually lead to nothing but a dead end, In-soon is in a sense allowed to leave her disappointments behind in the city and, as Ok-boon surprisingly advises her, forget about what happened with Cheol-soo and live her life. Traumatised and shamed by her experience, In-soon eventually ends up in sex work, attempting suicide when confronted by a leering Cheol-soo, but discovers that her friends and family have not changed their opinion of her and though she may be looking at it with new eyes, her village is still as beautiful as it has always been.
The village’s visual beauty is, in a sense, the point in that the film was quite obviously made to showcase the idyllic country landscapes of the colonial territories along with the charming local customs which is perhaps why the film is bookended with documentary-style scenes of the fishing community singing and dancing to folksongs as well as including minor details like a shrine visit. Indeed, some Japanese critics felt the film had “failed” in its aims precisely because of In-soon’s eventual journey to the city which loses the feeling of local flavour they regarded as its selling point. What the Japanese audience craved was an exoticised vision of ultra-Koreanness that was in fact entirely created in Japan – something many felt the film did not sufficiently offer which is why it did not prove popular with audiences or critics. Supervised and prepared in Japan for Japanese audiences by Shochiku’s Yasujiro Shimazu, edited by Kozaburo Yoshimura, featuring music by the Ofuna Orchestra (repurposing a traditional Korean tune), and utilising a narrative familiar from domestic films, Fisherman’s Fire is an attempt to sell a manufactured vision of Korea as charmingly unsophisticated and rooted within the romantic pastoral past.
Nevertheless, it has its surprising elements such as the startlingly progressive Ok-boon whose independent city life is praised rather than criticised even if In-soon eventually retreats back to her idyllic village home. Cheol-soo, the feckless landlord’s son, gets a comeuppance for his wicked ways in being fired from his job for unreliability and incompetence which stands in for a kind of karmic punishment for his cavalier misuse of In-soon and other women like her in his attempt to assert his feudal entitlement in the improper environment of the modern city. Unlike the conservative Sweet Dream, Fisherman’s Fire finds scope and possibility for the young women of a new society and is prepared to be forgiving of them even when they fail.
Fisherman’s Fire was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. It is also available as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed: the Second Encounter Collection of Chosun Films in the 1930s box set. Not currently available to stream online.