Despite 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.