Ticket (티켓, Im Kwon-taek, 1986)

Ticket posterThe times may have changed but the double standard is still very much in existence in Im Kwon-taek’s Ticket (티켓). Set in a tabang ticket bar – a delivery coffee establishment in which customers may by “tickets” for unspecified “services”, Ticket follows five ordinary women in Kangwon Province who’ve found themselves trapped in the world of casual sex work for various different reasons but each dreaming of finding something better in the difficult mid-80s economy.

Im opens with stern madam Ji-suk (Kim Ji-Mi) selecting three pretty girls from an employment office to work at her bar in rural Kangwon Province. As she explains, the cafe is located in a quiet port town and mainly caters to seamen and tourists. Ji-suk views refinement as one of her selling points and so she expects her ladies to mind their manners and avoid vulgarity. The girls were given an advance on their wages as a signing bonus, but are technically indentured servants until they pay it off which may take some time seeing as Ji-suk is fond of adding fines onto their accounts should they break any of her rules or request any additional advances for work related expenses such as medical fees, clothing, or cosmetics.

While two of the new recruits, Miss Hong (Lee Hye-young) and Miss Yang (Ahn So-young), have had experience of this type of work before, Se-yeong (Jeon Se-yeong) is much younger and struggles to come to terms with the nature of the job, frequently incurring Ji-suk’s wrath by running out on clients who get fresh. Miss Ju (Myeong Hui), who has been working at the tabang for three years with ballooning debts, tries to warn the girls that in order to avoid her mistakes they should abide by three rules – cash only, no mercy, and no repeats. All quite sensible rules in theory but difficult to enforce in practice.

Unlike Miss Hong and Miss Yang who’ve come from impoverished rural backgrounds, Se-yeong is from Seoul but has found herself responsible not only for her immediate family but also for her down on his luck student boyfriend Min-su (Choi Dong-joon) who is currently studying to become a teacher but struggling to support himself. Min-su, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, hasn’t quite figured out that the girls don’t really just deliver coffee but in any case remains conflicted over his dependence on Se-yeong for money. Still struggling to accommodate herself to sex work, Se-yeong eventually decides to seduce a friendly sea captain as a means of easing herself into it while also trying to get Min-su a job on his boat.

Meanwhile, Miss Yang dreams of becoming an actress and is naive enough to think sleeping with a famous actor will help, and Miss Hong concentrates on being the best but usually ends up getting herself into trouble. Miss Ju, a divorcee, misses her son while Jin-suk turns out to have a sad story of her own in which she was driven into sex work after her husband, a dissident poet, was picked up by the authorities in less liberal times. Unable to bear the shame she left him, but still harbours hope he may find her again only to have that hope cruelly dashed with the stark message that life is like a bus – if you miss it, it won’t come back for you. Each of these women has, in a sense, already missed a bus and is stuck in Kangwon for the foreseeable future with no clear way out.

Though Jin-suk seemed the toughest and the least sentimental of the ladies, it’s she who wants “forgiveness” most of all which is perhaps why she goes to the trouble of taking Min-su to task for his unreasonable treatment of Se-yeong. Pointing out that nobody chooses this way of life freely, Jin-suk snaps on realising that there really are no sympathetic men and all now view her and her girls as “dirty” while continuing to use their services. Im closes with an improbably happy ending, if ambiguously, which promises a more positive future for each of our ladies as they manage to find ways out of the rural sex industry and into something more hopeful but even this abrupt tonal shift only serves to reinforce the miraculous nature of their sudden opportunities in a society which appears to remain hostile to their very existence.


Ticket was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Promise of the Flesh (肉体의 約束 / 육체의 약속, Kim Ki-young, 1975)

Promise of the flesh poster 1Lee Man-hee’s Late Autumn is one of the great lost gems of ‘60s Korean cinema and despite its unavailability has been remade three times in Korea and once in Japan. Kim Ki-young’s version, Promise of the Flesh (肉体의 約束 / 육체의 약속, Yukche-ui Yaksok), arrives two years after the acclaimed Japanese remake directed by Koichi Saito and takes a decidedly different, frustratingly ambivalent approach in which its heroine’s imprisonment is directly linked to emotional frigidity and a refusal to submit herself to the social conventions of womanhood which include home, family, and being sexually available to men.

We first meet Sook-young (Kim Ji-mee) taking a train to meet someone she is fairly certain will not be coming. While travelling she recalls a previous journey during which she met a man who changed her life – the very man she is now travelling to (not) see. Before that fateful day, however, Sook-young had endured an extremely troubling history of long term sexual abuse at the hands of various men all of whom expected her to surrender her body to them to do with it what they wanted. Eventually Sook-young snapped and killed a man who was trying to make love to her, getting herself sent to prison where she gradually fell into suicidal despair. In an effort to reawaken her sense of being alive, a kindly prison guard (Park Jung-ja) agreed to escort her to visit her mother’s grave which is how she met Hoon (Lee Jung-gil) – the first man we see being “nice” to her, which in this case extends to buying her a box lunch on the train.

Kim has a noticeably ambivalent attitude to female sexuality which eventually embraces the socially conservative, casting Sook-young’s plight as a great moral wrong but also insisting that her salvation lies in unwanted sex with a “nice” man as if that would somehow show her that “not all men” are violent sex pests and thereby make it possible for her to fulfil her “natural duties” as a woman by marrying and raising children. “A woman’s role is raising a child – everything else is pointless” Sook-young is instructed by a man who turns out to be, once again, deceiving her. Gradually we get the feeling that Sook-young has wound up in prison not because, as she later claims, the weight of all her degradations suddenly crushed her but because she attempted to live a life without men and is being punished for it.

At her first job interview, undertaken because her parents passed away and she had to leave university, Sook-young is advised to guard her body until she can “cope with men” otherwise she’ll “become a whore like all the others”. Shy and nervous, she is bullied into sex by a belligerent customer who turns out to have done it as some kind of rape revenge on behalf of a slighted friend to whom he later passes her on. Just about every man she meets, until Hoon, is after her body and nobody seems to think Sook-young has any right to refuse them access to it. Kim may lament the subjugated position of women in Korean society in condemning the actions of these “bad men”, but still insists that Sook-young needs “fixing” through finding a good man as a means to curing her despair.

This is why the prison guard enlists Hoon to teach Sook-young that “a woman needs a man” and that there is joy still in the world. Originally reluctant, Hoon decides to do just that by convincing her that she is wrong to be so mistrustful because human beings are basically good. Unfortunately he chooses to this in exactly the same way as all the other men she’s ever known – by pushing her into a dark corner and attempting to seduce her. In this case however it seems to work. Claiming she is too lonesome to ignore him, Sook-young is swept into Hoon’s rather romantic view of the world, little realising that he too is a fugitive from justice and will also have to pay for having become involved with the wrong people. Nevertheless, through meeting him, Sook-young affirms that she has been able to find a new capacity for living and convinced herself that “the meaning of life is to marry a good guy and live well”.

Socially conservative as it is, the message is undercut by the persistent melancholy that defines Sook-young’s existence even as she declares herself cured of her past traumas and vows to live on free of her “delusion of persecution”. Nevertheless, the picture Kim paints of Korean society is one of socially acceptable misogyny in which even women insist that women are nothing without men and the primacy of the male sex must be respected. At once resigned and angry, Kim paints Sook-young’s capitulation as a positive motion towards conformity but refuses to fully condemn the conservative society which has caused her so much misery.


Promise of the Flesh was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Body Confession (肉体의 告白 / 육체의 고백, Jo Keung-ha, 1964)

Body Confession posterThe Korea of 1964 was one beginning to look forwards towards a new global future rather than back towards the turbulent colonial past, but the rapid leap forward into a new society had perhaps left an entire generation behind as they prepared to watch their children reject everything they’d strived for in search of “modernity”. 1964’s The Body Confession (肉体의 告白 / 육체의 고백, Yukche-ui Gobak) is the story of one such woman. Widowed young, she turned to sex work in order to support her three daughters in the hope that sending them to university would win them wealthy husbands only for her daughters to encounter the very problems she worked so hard for them to avoid.

The heroine, a veteran sex worker known as The President (Hwang Jung-seun), has become a kind of community leader in the red light district largely catering to American servicemen in the post-war era. While she labours away in the brothels of Busan, her three daughters are living happily in Seoul believing that she runs a successful fashion store which is how she manages to send them their tuition money every month. The President goes to great lengths to protect them from the truth, even enlisting a fashion store owning friend when the girls visit unexpectedly. Nevertheless, she is becoming aware that her position is becoming ever more precarious – as an older woman with a prominent limp she can no longer command the same kind of custom as in her youth and is increasingly dependent on the support of her fellow sex workers who have immense respect for her and, ironically, view her as a maternal figure in the often dangerous underworld environment.

This central idea of female solidarity is the one which has underpinned The President’s life and allowed her to continue living despite the constant hardship she has faced. Yet she is terrified that her daughters may one day find out about her “shameful” occupation and blame her for it, or worse that it could frustrate her hopes for them that they marry well and avoid suffering a similar fate. Despite having, in a sense, achieved a successful career in the red light district, The President wants her daughters to become respectable wives and mothers rather than achieve success in their own rights or be independent. Thus her goal of sending them to university was not for their education but only to make them more attractive to professional grade husbands.

The daughters, however, are modern women and beginning to develop differing ideas to their mother’s vision of success. Oldest daughter Song-hui (Lee Kyoung-hee) has fallen in love with a lowly intellectual truck driver (Kim Jin-kyu) who has placed all his hopes on winning a literary competition. He is a war orphan and has no money or family connections. Meanwhile, second daughter Dong-hui (Kim Hye-jeong) has failed her exams twice and developed a reputation as a wild girl. Toying with a poor boy, she eventually drifts into a relationship with the wealthy son of a magnate (Lee Sang-sa) but fails to realise that he too is only toying with her and intends to honour his family’s wishes by going through with an arranged marriage. Only youngest daughter Yang-hui (Tae Hyun-sil) is living the dream by becoming a successful concert musician and planning to marry a diplomat’s son.

The three daughters have, in a sense, suffered because of their mother’s ideology which encourages them to place practical concerns above the emotional. Song-hui is conflicted in knowing that she will break her mother’s heart by marrying a man with no money or family but also knows that she will choose him all the same. Dong-hui, by contrast, enthusiastically chases Man-gyu for his money but naively fails to realise that he is selfish and duplicitous. In another evocation of the female solidarity that informs the film, Man-gyu’s fiancée Mi-ri eventually dumps him on witnessing the way he treats Dong-hui, roundly rejecting the idea of being shackled to a chauvinistic man who assumes it is his right to have his way with whomever he chooses and face no consequences. Like Song-hui, Mi-ri breaks with tradition in breaking off her engagement against her parents’ wishes and reserving her own right to determine her future.

Yang-hui, whose future eventually works out precisely because of the sacrifices made on her behalf by her mother, turns out to be her harshest critic, rejecting The President on learning the truth and attempting to sever their connection by repaying all the “ill-gotten” investment. Her wealthy husband, however, turns out to be unexpectedly sympathetic in pointing out that her mother has suffered all these long years only to buy her future happiness and that now is the time they both should be thanking her. Meanwhile, The President has become despondent in realising she is out of road. There is no longer much of a place for her in the red light district, and she has nowhere left to turn. Only the kindly Maggie, another sex worker who has been a daughter to her all this time, is prepared to stand by her and take care of her in her old age.

The gulf between the two generations is neatly symbolised by the surprising inclusion of stock footage from the April 19 rising against the corrupt regime of Rhee Syngman which led to a brief period of political freedom before the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee took power in 1961. The poor intellectual author whom The President dismissed, eventually becomes an internationally renowned literary figure after being published abroad while the wealthy magnate’s son turns out to be a louse. The President staked her life on the old feudal ways of ingratiating oneself with privilege by playing by its rules, but the world has moved on and it’s up to the young to forge their own destinies rather than blindly allowing those in power to do as they please. Sadly for The President, her sacrifices will be appreciated only when it’s too late and her desire for her daughters to escape the hardship she had faced misunderstood as greed and snobbishness. There is no longer any place for her old fashioned ideas in the modern era and her daughters will need to learn to get by on their own while accepting that their future was built on maternal sacrifice.


The Body Confession was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

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.