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.

The Living Magoroku 生きてゐる孫六 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1943)

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The Living Magoroku, the second film in Criterion’s Kinoshita and World War II box set, is the director’s second feature also made 1943 shortly after Port of Flowers. Like his previous film, it was also made under the severe censorship requirements in place during the war but this time around the propaganda is far more pronounced though still fairly mild given the time period. That said, The Living Magoroku is still full of the wit and warmth characteristic of Kinoshita’s filmmaking even if it is forced to up its jingoistic content.

Incongruously beginning with a samurai battle taking place in 1573, the action quickly shifts to the same battleground where a group of raw recruits are being put through their paces before being sent off to die nobly for the Emperor in distant lands. Berating them for their lack of respect, the instructor reminds them that each recruit is descended from the very men who died on fields like these whose graves they should still be tending. This small rural town still goes by the old ways. There may be no real samurais anymore but each and every decision has to go through the local matriarch, Mrs Onagi. Actually, Mrs Onagi has a son who should rightfully be in charge but he’s such a neurotic drip who thinks he’s dying of lung disease that no one pays much attention to him. The Onagis own the entire battlefield area, some 75 acres, given to their ancestor after the battle and legend has it there’s a curse that should anyone try to cultivate it all the men of the Onagi line will die young. The field has remained untouched for 300 years, but with a war on shouldn’t the Onagis rethink their reluctance to turn this wasteland into a productive agricultural area, even if the ridiculous idea of an ancient curse was somehow real?

Like Port of Flowers, The Living Magoroku is actually fairly light on militarism despite featuring a group of soldiers and prefers to focus on the slightly backward looking nature of this small village. Even under the conservative nature of wartime Japan, it’s odd that a couple of young people would feel the need to ask the old lady at the manor for permission to marry given that she really has very little to do with them – and even odder that she would refuse to give it and that her refusal would actually bother them. The cause of the problem being that the girl’s brother is the chief instigator of the motion to get the field back in use, and that he went directly to the young master rather than the mother who’s been de facto in charge of these things. Local politics – some things never change! The young people want to use the land, curse-shmursh, but the old people would rather not. Just suppose the curse is real – poor Yoshihiro, technically head of the Onagi family, is so worried about his prospective fate (and the way his mother, grandmother and sister seem to worry about it for him) that he’s almost paralysed with fear and resentment!

Thrown into the mix is another problem concerning the sword referenced in the title – a sword of unparalleled fineness forged by Maguroku the First of which very few survive. The instructor at the army base claims to have one which infuriates the local blacksmith and sword expert as he simply refuses to believe it. By coincidence, the Onagis also have one of these swords and are paid a visit by an army doctor seeking to buy it as, it turns out, his family once owned one but he sold it unknowing its rarity to pay for his medical tuition. Of course, the Onagis don’t want to sell a precious family heirloom, though they admire the doctor’s zeal to repay his debt to his late father by acquiring another one. The instructor’s sword turns out to be a fake anyway prompting the blacksmith to make him a new one – after all, needs must and a sword is just a sword, the name on it won’t matter much on battlefield. Similarly a field is just a field, isn’t it selfish not to use it when the country needs grain even if it might cost your life seeing as every other young man is looking down the barrel of a gun at the present time? The message is clear, traditions should be honoured, yes, but when it comes down to it, the present is more important than the past and superstition gives way to clearheaded pragmatism. Every resource must be pooled for the common good and personal sacrifices must be made to ensure a better future for everyone.

The Living Magoroku feels a little more uneven than Port of Flowers, and actually ends quite abruptly with a strange newsreel style wrap-up of events. Luckily, it’s still broadly a comedy in strictest sense (it ends in a series of marriages, everyone not already married ends up wed), poor old Yoshihiro gets a new lease on life and becomes a productive member of society, the village gets a bumper harvest and all is right in the world save the strange final message about the instructor who is apparently carrying his new sword bravely in the heat of battle. Like Port of Flowers, it wants to reinforce the traditional values of community spirit and giving up your own individual pleasures and freedoms for everybody’s good. The past informs the future, how could it not, but when push comes to shove you have to let it go. Like everything in life there has to be a balance, respect your history – yes, but not so much that it costs you your future.

Port of Flowers 花咲く港 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1943)

film_syosai_img_01_04-thumb-730x480-1642Keisuke Kinoshita is far better known in his native Japan than outside it despite his long and prolific career in filmmaking. Equally adept at comedy and tragedy and tackling all genres from musicals to crime dramas, Kinoshita began his career in the relatively turbulent war years where every last detail was at the censor’s mercy.  Port of Flowers is his very first foray into the director’s chair and began a long association with the comedy genre. Though, yes, it has it’s obligatory moments of bare faced propaganda, the film is refreshingly light on heavy handed political statements and prefers to focus on a humorous take on small town life.

Life in a sleepy little port town is about to get significantly more exciting after the local inn has received two rare telegrams purporting to be from the same man but sent from different locations one day apart. The man in question claims to be the son of a businessman who lived in the town some years previously but has since died and the bereaved child has a hankering to see the little shipping village that the father apparently loved so much. After picking up their new guest at the station the mini delegation of inn keepers and officials are shocked to discover another disgruntled customer also claiming to be the sender of the letter. Sufficed to say neither of the two in question is what he claims to be but has come to town with the intention of fleecing some gullible country bumpkins out of grandma’s silver. The two decide to work together but eventually the goodnatured enthusiasm of the villagers (and the rising war effort) begin to make them rethink their nefarious ways!

Given the time period and strict censorship, it would be ridiculous not to expect some degree of pro-war sentiment in the film but Kinoshita has managed to more or less leave the conflict as merely a background setting. Life in this little fishing village seems fairly tranquil and the war has barely encroached on its idyllic settings. There are youngish men about, the people aren’t rich but they aren’t afraid and the only mention of turbulence seems to be a young woman who’s recently returned from Manchuria not entirely at her own volition. There are some fairly excited mentions of various victories but these are fairly minor events, almost like something happening far away to other people to whom you feel connected but not quite involved with. The most important thing is the building of the ship – not only is it a source of pride for the villagers, a way of fulfilling the dream of a respected visitor they all remember fondly but it will also be for their country. Everyone must contribute as they can because it’s for the entire community of citizens, not just the village but for everyone in the country and it’s important. Their sacrifice and hard work will matter because it will be for the greater good.

Here endeth the lesson, for the most part. What of our two bumbling crooks? It’s never really explained how they came to know so much about this poor, unsuspecting community and simultaneously hatched on the same scheme at the same time but they must have been pretty well out of options to think these poor villagers were going to be worth this much effort. They came to commit a fraud but ended up having to actually do the impossible and make their improbable scheme work solely because the villagers’ kindness was too much to bear. The addendum to the lesson being that pure hearts can shame the devil and innocence becomes infectious after a while (in the best possible way).

Very much of its time and with an air of disposability, Port of Flowers is an enjoyable, surprisingly warm film but not without its faults. Eschewing heavy handed propaganda for a subtle enforcement of traditional, communal values it reflects Kinoshita’s subsequent humanistic concerns and even manages to do so without giving in to the censor’s red pen. A nice take on an old story, Kinoshita once again proves that nothing matters so much as people and goodness will always win through in the end.