Hurrah! For Freedom (自由万歲 / 자유만세, Choi In-kyu, 1946)

hurrah for freedom posterAttempts to foster a Korean film industry had often been frustrated during the colonial era throughout which aspiring filmmakers found themselves dependent on the Japanese film industry for financial and technological assistance while forced to produce increasingly overt Imperial propaganda under the ever tightening grip of the militarist colonial government. Hurrah! For Freedom (自由万歲 / 자유만세, Jayu Manse), the first film produced after the liberation, was then an aptly titled chance to start anew, create a new film language for a new young nation finally free of what some saw as decades of brutal oppression which made successive attempts to erase a national character.

Sadly, we cannot quite know exactly what director Choi In-kyu intended to create with this the first truly “Korean” film because so little of it survives intact, not because like much colonial cinema it was simply lost but because it bears witness to the next chapter in Korea’s unhappy 20th century history in undergoing severe editing during the oppressive era of Park Chung-hee’s military government who decided to remove scenes featuring popular pre-war actor Dok Eun-gi who, like many in his position, eventually defected to the North after the Korean war. As for Choi himself, he perhaps felt he had some atonement to do for having remained complicit with the Imperial machine. Following the completion of 1941’s Angels on the Street, he’d vowed to never to direct another pro-Japanese film but was eventually persuaded to return by the right-wing Han Hyung-mo (also the cinematographer on this film) and made a further three propaganda movies the last of them in 1945.

Nevertheless, Hurrah! For Freedom opens with a tribute to those brave Resistance fighters who gave their lives for liberty. Our hero is cell leader Choi Han-joong (Jeon Chang-geun – also the film’s scriptwriter) whose friend is killed while fleeing from Japanese police after being denounced by collaborator Nam-bu (Dok Eun-gi). Forced into hiding, Han-joong is lodged with a friendly nurse, Hye-ja (Hwang Ryuh-hee), who seems to have become fond of him though he remains distracted by his Resistance activities even if he does eventually notice the flowers that she bought him as a token of affection. While saving another comrade from the police and rescuing some explosives in the process, Han-joong ends up taking refuge in the flat of none other than Nam-bu’s main squeeze Mi-hyang (Yoo Kye-sun) who also develops a crush on him.

Though Nam-bu, an obvious bad guy antagonist, is sidelined by the demands of ‘70s censorship, the main thrust of the drama is conveyed by the melancholy figure of Mi-hyang who eventually becomes a symbol of betrayed, thwarted ambition and the relative impossibility of redemption for those who made “weak” choices during the colonial era (as you could perhaps accuse Choi himself along with the entire film industry of having done). Mi-hyang, having fallen for Han-joong’s passionate intensity, decides to betray Nam-bu by giving valuable information she has obtained from him to the Resistance, little knowing she has been weaponised in a plot laid by her vindictive former lover.

Nevertheless, her true love confession is rejected by Han-joong whose only lover is the revolution. Han-joong, reminding her that he is a man who could be killed at any moment flits between talking of his bright future and his dark end. He reassures Mi-hyang that, despite her past, she like everyone else has the right to start again but coldly insists that she does not have what it takes to join the cause and should return to her hometown and safety. Denied the right to be by his side in life, Mi-hyang affirms that she will be the one to tend Han-joong’s grave, suddenly returning this talk of new beginnings to the nihilistic struggle which seems to define Han-joong’s existence.

Nevertheless, in contrast with the defeated figure of Mi-hyang who must pay not only for her “weakness” in complicity with the colonial regime but also for her sexual transgression with an “enemy”, the saintly Hye-ja remains pure and brave – a brighter mirror for the gloomy Han-joong who seems surely destined to be her romantic hero as the pair of them fight earnestly for a freer future. Sadly, this is where we leave them – in media res as the film cuts out just at its most climactic moment as if affirming that this is a revolution very much in progress. Choi, shifting away from the realism that defined his earlier work, seems to be reaching for a new cinematic language with which to begin a new era free of colonial constraints. History, however, would defeat them all as this short period of hard won liberty would lead eventually to another conflict and another oppressive dictatorship. Choi himself went missing during the Korean War, presumably either killed or fled to the North. Nevertheless, what we can discern from the extant lessons of Hurrah! For Freedom is that there was perhaps more appetite for nuance than might have been expected even if sympathy for the collaborator does not quite extend to forgiveness.


Hurrah! For Freedom was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. Also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Military Train (軍用列車 / 군용열차, Seo Gwang-jae, 1938)

Military Train still 2Though there had obviously been increasing pro-Japanese sentiment in Korean cinema throughout the colonial era, 1938’s Military Train (軍用列車 / 군용열차, Gunyongyeolcha), a co-production with Toho, is accounted as the first government backed propaganda film. Military Train is in fact the only film ever directed by Seo Gwang-jae who began his career after winning a contest run by the Chosun Film Art Association which selected 20 people for a one year film course, later becoming an actor and film critic before debuting with his first and only feature. Prior to travelling to Japan to train with the Tokatsu Kinema in Kyoto, Seo had been a member of the left-wing Korea Proletarian Artist Federation, but it appears that by the time he came to make Military Train he had abandoned his socialist ideals and embraced militarism.

Taking advantage of the heated political context of 1937 following the break out of the Sino-Japanese war, Military Train was produced to promote the important work of the Chosun Railway running soldiers and supplies to the front lines. The hero is train driver Jeom-yong (Wang Pyong) who longs to get the opportunity to drive one of the military trains which all the men look on at with envy as they pass them by. Jeom-yong is best friends with his roommate, Won-jin (Dok Eun-gi), who is also dating his little sister Young-shim (Moon Ye-bong). Young-shim is currently working as “gisaeng” or bar girl – an occupation she took up some years ago to support her family after her father died. She and Jeom-yong have another older brother who is currently in Manchuria trying to make his fortune so he can comeback and redeem Young-shim.

The drama occurs when Young-shim’s madam informs her that there is a client interested in purchasing her contract. Young-shim obviously does not want this to happen as she is intending to marry Won-jin as soon as she is released from her life as a gisaeng. Though she assures the madam that her brother will shortly be returning from Manchuria cash in hand, there is little she can do about the fact that she will likely be sold unless they can gazump the wealthy client. This awkward situation provides an in for a shady looking man who’s been hanging round the railway. Overhearing the drama in a cafe, he approaches Won-jin and offers him a large amount of money in return for information on the movement of military trains. At his wits end, Won-jin agrees but is ambivalent about his betrayal of his country and endangerment of his friend.

This being a propaganda film, the obvious message is that Won-jin’s selfish decision to pursue his romantic desires over the national good is an unacceptable act of treason. Nevertheless, Seo’s framing of Won-jin’s dilemma is perhaps not quite the one which might be expected in that it’s only latterly that the national betrayal becomes the paramount issue. Won-jin’s primary conflict is in his betrayal of his friend, who he later hopes will become his brother-in-law, in the full knowledge that what he’s doing places them all in danger from the authorities as well as the Independence Movement while also placing Jeom-yong in the direct line of fire seeing as he may very well be aboard one of the trains blown up by the Resistance.

Then again, it is surprising in itself that the existence of the Resistance movement is even hinted at even if not directly named within the film (the suspicious-looking man is referred to only as a “Chinese spy”). This would seem to undermine the “one nation” idea that Korean cinema has been intent on pushing and explicitly enforces in the final stretch of the film in which Jeom-yong gets to drive a military train and is reminded that he does not belong to himself but to the Japanese citizens. The film carries this idea to its natural conclusion in casting a number of Japanese stars alongside their Korean counterparts including Jeom-yong’s pretty girlfriend Soon-hee (Nobuko Sasaki) and his boss at the railway. Nevertheless, Won-jin’s eventual letter of contrition further makes plain his “mistake” as he instructs Jeom-yong to do his best to preserve the Chosun Railway in order to preserve “peace in Asia”.

The action concludes “positively” from the point of view of the colonial regime as Won-jin’s treachery and subsequent reconsideration allow them to bust a Resistance cell before it can prove effective. Young-shim is eventually saved by her older brother’s return from Manchuria where he has apparently made something of himself thanks to the benefits of empire while Jeom-yong prepares to drive the shiny military train North towards glory leaving his sister behind in the pre-modern past as he prepares to enter a new age of modernity and prosperity as symbolised by the coming of Japan.


Military Train 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.

Straits of Chosun (朝鮮海峽 / 조선해협, Park Gi-chae, 1943)

Straits of Chosun still 1Following a period of increasing censorship, the Colonial Government banned Korean language cinema altogether in 1942. Nevertheless, cinema was still a major propaganda tool even if much of the audience was not quite ready to receive its messages offered only in a language they may already have felt hostile towards. 1943’s Straits of Chosun (朝鮮海峽 / 조선해협, Joseonhaehyeob) was shot entirely in Japanese and is fully committed to the “one nation” ideals which had marked Korean Cinema in the colonial period but it also faces a somewhat interesting battle in paradoxically arguing for a kind of liberal modernity in which “love” overcomes centuries of tradition and becomes the driving force enabling the continuing forward propulsion of the Japanese empire by means of war.

The film opens with its hero, Seki (Nam Seung-min), making a melancholy offering at the altar of his older brother recently fallen in war. For reasons of which we are not yet aware, Seki is thrown out of his familial home and seems to be at odds with his father who insists he has shamed them. It turns out that Seki’s crime is not of the kind one might expect, but only of having selfishly married a woman of his own choosing without his family’s consent. Kinshuku (Moon Ye-bong), his wife, is now pregnant and the couple seemingly have no money. In order to impress his father, Seki enlists in the army leaving his pregnant wife behind, alone, and with no real idea where he is or whether he’s ever coming back.

Whichever way you look at it, Seki’s abrupt enlistment is an extremely selfish and irresponsible action seeing as Kinshuku appears to have no family and will have to find a way support herself financially even when the baby’s born – though Seki refers to her as his “wife”, their exact legal connection is not quite clear and it does not seem she is getting any of his military pay (or, perhaps he just chooses not to send it to her). Nevertheless, his primary goal in enlistment seems to be proving himself a man worthy of respect by honouring his father’s wishes in the hope that he will eventually relent and give his blessing to their marriage. Strangely, while he does this he cuts off contact with Kinshuku while she adopts the role of the patient wife offering spiritual support from afar and serving the nation by working in a factory (later resolving to raise her son to become a fine soldier like his dad).

In fact, Straits of Chosun is extremely reminiscent of the earlier Japanese film So Goes My Love save for complicating matters with the addition of a baby and a war. Released in 1938, So Goes My Love is a mildly anti-militarist melodrama in which a spoilt son of a wealthy household has defied his family to marry a young woman of humble means and been disowned in the process. As in Straits of Chosun, it is the anxious sister (Kim Sin-jae) who eventually becomes the bridge bringing the traditionally minded parents and earnest daughter-in-law together. In both cases, the sister is the voice of reason speaking for the rights of youth to determine its own destiny – a desire which would become more prominent in the post-war world but was already growing even in the ‘30s.

The Colonial Government had realised that the major stumbling block to increasing recruitment was the reluctance of noble families to risk the end of their family line in sending their childless sons off to war. What they needed to break was centuries of patriarchal traditions which placed familial authority solely in the hands of the father when they needed that authority to belong to the nation. Thus Seki’s compromise, like that of the son in So Goes My Love, requires some give on the part of the parental generation who must cede some of their authority to their son, who will then transfer it not to his own family or his own will but to the forces of empire. Seki goes to war to bring glory to his father’s name, but his father must then accept the choice that he has made to defy his authority by marrying a woman of his own choosing without seeking permission. Of course, having a guaranteed heir in the form of a new, legitimised grandson is an ideal bridge to just such a compromise in neatly unifying Seki’s twin obligations.

Compromised as it is, Straits of Chosun does its best to push the one nation idea in insisting that each and every Korean must do their bit in order for Japan to secure peace in Asia. Thus Kinshuku works herself into nervous collapse in service of her nation just as Seki is injured on the battlefield, neatly symbolising their continuing spiritual connection. Kinshuku’s selfless love is, in a sense, the force which serves to underpin the expansion of imperialism, as uncomfortable as that idea eventually seems to be. Nevertheless, despite its propaganda aims and naive defence of imperialist goals, Straits of Chosun accidentally makes an argument for liberal modernity in which men and women are equal partners in their shared endeavour, the class system has collapsed, and the individual has the right to determine their own destiny free of familial obligation.


Straits of Chosun 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.

Spring of the Korean Peninsula (반도의 봄, Lee Byung-il, 1941)

Spring on the Korean Peninsula posterExamining the few films which have survived from the colonial era, signs of resistance are few and far between even if there is often a degree of subversion detectable in foregrounding of background issues such as continuing poverty or patriarchal oppression. 1941’s Spring of the Korean Peninsula (반도의 봄, Bandoui Bom), however, appears much more complex than it might at first seem. Ostensibly a tale of the trials and tribulations of would-be-filmmakers in underpowered Korea, Lee Byung-il’s debut feature undercuts its eventual slide into one nation propaganda through the background presence of its sullen director who is forced to bear all stoically while seemingly dying inside.

The action begins in the contemporary era (and not) as we see the heroine of the film director Heo Hoon (Seo Wol-young) is trying to make strum a gayageum before her lover arrives and the camera pulls back to reveal that we are on a film set. Attempting to film another version of the famous folktale in which the scholar Mong-ryong falls in love and secretly marries the lowborn daughter of a gisaeng, Chun-hyang, only for their romance to be threatened by a corrupt and lecherous lord, Heo has several problems to contend with, the most serious being a severe lack of money and the second being the unhappiness of his leading actress, An-na (Baek Ran), who eventually quits the production without warning.

Meanwhile, film producer Yeong-il (Kim Il-hae) welcomes an old friend en route to study in Tokyo who has brought along his little sister, Jeong-hee (Kim So-young), who is desperate to get into films. Rather than immediately ask her over to his film set, Yeong-il fobs Jeong-hee off by advising she continue her music career, offering to introduce her to a record producer he knows, Han (Kim Han), who is actually bankrolling his film as a vehicle for An-na who is his current main squeeze. Unfortunately for everyone, Han is a serial womaniser who takes a liking to Jeong-hee which causes a rift in his relationship with An-na who quits movies to go back to bar work. Jeong-hee gets the part (without really understanding why) but when Han declares himself out of money (at least, out of money when it comes to Heo’s personal expenses), Yeong-il makes a fateful decision in misappropriating some funds in the belief that he can make up the money when a cheque he’s expecting from a competition eventually comes through.

Despite the setting there is relatively little overt mention of the Japanese until the film’s conclusion when a new film company has finally been formed leading to a speech from the chairman to the effect that they now have a new duty to sell the one nation idea to the masses as loyal subjects of the Japanese empire. Lee Byung-il, like the majority of directors in this era, had himself trained in Japan and perhaps shared Heo’s envy in the established nature of the Japanese film industry which was well funded, economically successful, and technologically advanced. The more positive of Heo’s colleagues hope that the new collaborations with Japan will lead to an upgrade in the positioning of the Korean film industry but Heo is not so sure. Seated at the dinner and listening the propagandistic speeches he sits impassively while staring sadly into the middle distance as he watches Yeong-il prepare for his mission to Japan in which he is supposed to tour the film studios and bring what he’s learned back to Korea.

Meanwhile, Heo can’t pay his rent and is living on scraps and passion. His story is, however, somewhat peripheral as we become embroiled in the central melodrama of the love quadrangle developing around Jeong-hee, Yeong-il, An-na, and Han. An-na, who is looked down on as people suspect her of having worked in the sex industry in Tokyo which is probably where she met Han, is aware that he will soon tire of her and has fallen for “nice guy” Yeong-il who remains completely oblivious to the fact that both she, and the little sister of his best friend Jeong-hee, have fallen in love with him. Han, meanwhile, is a serial sexual harasser as his assistant tries to signal Jeong-hee even while being unable to prevent her getting into his car on her own.

Interestingly enough, “bad girl” An-na only speaks Japanese, while “nice girl” Jeong-hee only speaks Korean and dresses mostly in hanbok though many of her scenes feature her playing the heroine of Chun-hyang who, it could be argued, is a kind of embodiment of “Korea”. The choice of Chun-hyang is in itself subversive in its obvious “Koreanness” let alone the persistent subtext that positions the retelling as that of a purehearted Korea struggling against the “corruption” of the Japanese colonial regime as embodied by the piece’s villain. Nevertheless, the love square resolves itself in unexpected fashion as the two women bond over their shared love of Yeong-il. An-na, forced to reflect on her “problematic” past, eventually makes a pure love sacrifice to clear the way for the two “nice” kids to get together, becoming a figure of intense sympathy as she absents herself from the frame to exorcise the kind of “corruption” she has been used to represent from the innocent romance of Jeong-hee and her real life Mong-ryong Yeong-il.

Lee would make no further films during the colonial era. In 1948 he left Korea to train in Hollywood and then sat out the Korean War in Japan, only returning to Korea in 1954. After setting up his own studio, Donga Film Company, Lee went on to direct Korea’s “first” comedy The Wedding Day and thereafter to a hugely successful career. Like Heo, it seems he remained pessimistic and conflicted about the Korean film industry’s increasing dependence on Japan (despite his personal experiences). Nevertheless, his debut strikes a surprising note of discordance in its subversive themes and melancholy closing as its director stares ambivalently into an uncertain future, left behind as his emissaries ride off in search of a new and more modern world.


Spring of the Korean Peninsula was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. Also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Fisherman’s Fire (漁火 / 어화, Ahn Cheol-young, 1939)

vlcsnap-2019-02-18-01h49m56s589Late 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.

Volunteer (志願兵 / 지 원병, Ahn Seok-yeong, 1941)

volunteer still 1Despite a severe lack of manpower, Japan delayed opening its armies to potential soldiers from outside of the mainland until late in the war. A valuable propaganda tool, Korean cinema had become increasingly invested in the one nation idea, but convincing young men that they should willingly enlist to offer their lives in service of an imperial power was a much bigger ask. 1941’s Volunteer (志願兵 / 지 원병, Jiweonbyeong) was produced as a pure propaganda film designed to raise awareness of the volunteer soldier system the Colonial Government had instituted and thereby help to convince young men who felt oppressed or hopeless that their best chance for advancement lay in embracing rather than opposing the colonial regime.

The hero of the tale, Choon-ho (Choi Woon-bong), is a reluctant farm boy who has inherited his father’s estate and with it his position as the tenant farmer. Choon-ho’s big project is cultivating some land on the side of a hill next to his fields which has previously been left fallow. However, Choon-ho is a poor farmer and woefully inexperienced (a fact which can perhaps be forgiven given his relative youth). He is a constant source of resentment and consternation in the local farming community with many old hands throwing their weight behind his rival, Duk-sam, who has been agitating for the position of tenant farmer since he and Choon-ho’s father were young. Eventually the landlord, Mr. Park, decides to fire Choon-ho and promote Duk-sam, leaving him dejected and hopeless. That is until, of course, he is bitten by the patriotism bug and realises that his demotion is really a good thing because now he can devote himself fully to serving his nation.

Well, perhaps not quite – at this point Korean men are still not permitted to join the army, something which seems to irk Choon-ho, adding to his deep seated sense of personal inadequacy in being deemed not quite a proper citizen and definitely not equal to a man born on the Japanese mainland. Nevertheless, the film opens with a joyous celebration of locals sending off a troop train filled with young men who are able to serve. Flags are flown, chants are shouted, and the men inside the train are feted like heroes as they prepare to defend their country with their lives if necessary.

To Choon-ho, who now feels as if he has failed on almost every level as a man, the army offers a very real opportunity to prove himself someone worthy of respect. Not only has Choon-ho failed at farming, he also risks failure at romance in dallying over his long delayed marriage to beautiful fiancée Boon-ok (Moon Ye-bong) who has been waiting patiently for the last few years. Duk-sam, not content with wrestling the tenancy position away from Choon-ho, is also intent on having Boon-ok marry one of his sons and has a very real chance of breaking the engagement now that Choon-ho is no longer in such a privileged position.

Meanwhile, it also seems that Park’s younger sister Soo-ae, who is now a fancy modern lady living in Seoul, has a soft spot for Choon-ho, arousing a degree of hopeless jealously in Boon-ok who believes she is not really good enough for him owing to her lack of education and unsophisticated country ways. The real drama however occurs as Choon-ho falls out with his best friend when he suspects him of attempting to woo Boon-ok in one of her lowest moments. His friend’s “transgression” not only disrupts their relationship, but further exacerbates Choon-ho’s sense of wounded masculinity as he faces the fact another man might have been about to steal his girl out from under him.

The army has always been a prime path to advancement for young men from disadvantaged backgrounds, offering a steady pay check, career path, and training in valuable skills but ideologically speaking these benefits are unlikely to convince many to risk their lives in service of a colonial power they may privately feel to be oppressive. Then again, the army was not particularly looking for ordinary young men from the fields but for middle-class, well educated ones like Choon-ho. It is therefore doubly interesting that Choon-ho is sold not on the benefits of army, but on his own inadequacy and on militarism as its cure. Watching boys playing soldier, he begins to fantasise about himself as an almost faceless component of a perfectly oiled machine marching relentlessly forward into an ordered future free of the burden of choice or personal responsibility.

When the army opens itself up to Korean men, Choon-ho feels seen and whole, a fully fledged citizen with rights and duties to which he now intends to devote himself entirely. Mr. Park, who demoted him for his failure to make an impact, now suddenly respects him on seeing his name among those of the volunteer soldiers listed in the paper. So that we can be sure that Choon-ho’s decision is not “selfish” or unfilial, Park decides to support his family while he’s away serving so that his mother and sister will be well looked after and he won’t need to worry about them. Meanwhile, Boon-ok, wearing a sash denoting her as a member of the patriotic women’s association, is happy and relieved that Choon-ho has found his purpose, urging him to go on to be a great soldier serving his nation. It’s her face, rather the cheering, flag waving masses, that Ahn leaves us with as she watches the man she loves ride away towards a supposedly brighter future, staring directly into the camera with something that looks like pride mixed with mild accusation.


Volunteer 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 First Encounter box set. Not currently available to stream online.

Sweet Dream (迷夢 / 미몽, Yang Ju-nam, 1936)

Sweet Dream still 2The picture one gets of the 1930s is largely one of fear and oppression, especially in Korea under the increasingly brutal Japanese colonial regime, but then it was also a time of intense social flux in which the continuing influence of Western culture and the effects of the great depression placed the traditional way of life into question. 1936’s Sweet Dream (迷夢 / 미몽, Mimong, lit. “delusion”) is, at the time of writing, the oldest extant sound film, and perhaps attempts to kick back against the “corruptions” of the modern age in telling a tragic story of ruined motherhood in which a young woman’s desire for material wealth and a social freedom eventually draws her to her doom.

Our “heroine” is Ae-soon (Moon Ye-bong), a married wife and mother who resents the restrictive nature of her life and attempts to escape it through embracing the “modern” hobby of shopping – with her husband’s money of course, while neglecting her young daughter Jeong-hee (Yoo Seon-ok) whom she perhaps sees as a symbol of the forces which make her a prisoner of her own home. It’s on a shopping trip that she begins her descent into ruin when she’s spotted by the extremely suspicious-looking Chang-geon (Kim In-gye) who swipes her handbag while she’s busy wrapping up purchases only to give it back to her as a kind of meet cute. Nevertheless, Ae-soon is smitten, especially as she believes that Chang-geon is extremely wealthy. Kicked out by her husband for her increasingly unacceptable behaviour, Ae-soon moves in with Chang-geon at his hotel and embarks on the fun loving and fancy free life of her dreams.

As might be expected, the film does not end there and Ae-soon will pay for her “selfish” choice to pursue pleasure in her own life rather than channelling all of her hopes and desires into her family as a woman is expected to do. Truth be told, Ae-soon is not a particularly sympathetic woman, especially as her husband Seon-yong (Lee Keum-ryong) is portrayed as kind, sensitive, and devoted to his daughter who is clearly his primary point of concern in his dealings with his wife. It is therefore difficult to sympathise with her dissatisfaction in her married life which, externally at least, appears comfortable, stable, and close to the ideal that many young women would hope for in a society which continues to favour arranged marriage.

What Ae-soon wants is something which a woman is not allowed to have – freedom. Then again, the film asks us to set aside the natural desire to be free and see Ae-soon’s refusal to conform as a corruption born of excess modernity. Rather than abandon her home to pursue a career or a dream, Ae-soon leaves in pursuit of a man and even then she pursues him not for reasons of love or desire but greed. No sooner has Ae-soon begun to discover that Chang-geon is not all he claimed to be than she’s planning the next conquest in chasing a famous dancer she quite liked the look of at the theatre the previous evening when Chang-geon skipped out to meet a “business associate” leaving her feeling neglected. Unable to chase material success off her own bat, she chases it through men by using her sexuality which places her at the wrong end of just about every social code going even while she herself continues to abide by the tenets of those social codes by remaining in a monogamous relationship with Chang-geon which is in reality not so different from her marriage save for the absence of her daughter, the fact they live in a serviced hotel, and the illusion of having more money and with it more social power.

Ae-soon is no Nora. Her decision to abandon her daughter isn’t born of a sudden awakening to the destructive effects of patriarchy (which the film otherwise belittles in its casting of Ae-soon’s dissatisfaction as a dislike of housework), but of “mistaken” ambition which, paradoxically, she pursues through trading up her sexual partners in order to increase her material wealth and social standing. Ae-soon rejects her maternity and with it her daughter because she wishes to assert her own identity and finds it impossible to maintain both within the society in which she lives, but allowing a woman to reject the ideas of home and family, as Ibsen had done 50 years previously, is too dangerous an idea for the Korea of 1936 and so Ae-soon’s “sweet dream” is in effect a siren song which will lead her down a dark path towards the only redemption possible for a woman who has betrayed the very idea of what society believes a woman to be.

Strangely enough, Sweet Dream was commissioned as a public information piece sponsored by the Choman Traffic Office as the first “traffic film” intended to increase awareness of traffic safety which is why the subject features so prominently throughout culminating the heavily foreshadowed traffic accident that provokes Ae-soon’s reawakening to her latent maternity. Understandably unhappy, the sponsors requested that the next traffic film be “more cheerful and artistic” yet what could be more symbolic (except perhaps a train) of the dangers of modernity than a speeding motorcar? Ae-soon should perhaps have learned to look both ways and cross when the going’s clear, but then again the film seems to insist that the safest place for her to be is inside the cage, that the only path to “happiness” lies in learning to accommodate oneself within its confines as any attempt to deviate from the accepted course will lead to disaster not only for the individual but for society as a whole.


Sweet Dream 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, as well as online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.