Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period

hurrah-for-freedom-poster.jpgClassic Korean cinema is making a long awaited return to the BFI this February with a fantastic season of rarely screened (and sadly just rare) films produced during the Japanese colonial period.

Crossroads of Youth + season introduction

crossroads of youthThe oldest extant Korean film, Crossroads of Youth follows the adventures of a young man who travels to the city to find work after his arranged marriage falls through only to fall for a girl who is about to be sold to a money lender in payment for a debt.

The screening will be preceded by an illustrated lecture from the Korean Film Archive’s Chung Chong-hwa. As at the screening at the Barbican back in 2012, the silent film will be screened in the original fashion with live music and performances and narrated by a byeonsa.

Sweet Dream + Fisherman’s Fire

 The Korean Film Archive’s Chung Chong-hwa will introduce the films at the Friday 15th screening.

sweet dream still 1Acclaimed film editor Yang Ju-nam made his directorial debut with 1936’s Sweet Dream – a melodrama revolving around a vain housewife who abandons her daughter and moves in with a lover at a hotel after her husband throws her out.

fisherman's fire still 1Co-produced by Shochiku and supervised by Yasujiro Shimazu, Ahn Cheol-young’s Fisherman’s Fire follows the melancholy fate of fisherman’s daughter In-soon who is faced with being sold in payment of a debt but escapes to Seoul only to wind up being forced to become bar girl.

Military Train + Volunteer + intro by Baek Moonim, Yonsei University

military train still 1The only film directed by Suh Kwang-je, Military Train is also accounted as the first pro-Japanese government film, which is a fairly unfortunate legacy whichever way you look at it. Intended to boost recruitment, the film follows two best friends and roommates whose lives are disrupted when one is approached by resistance agents seeking info about the military train.

volunteer still 1Another recruiting film, Anh Seok-young’s Volunteer follows a poor farm boy who is thrown off his land and resents his meagre prospects. He sees entry to the Japanese army, which has recently relaxed regulations to allow Korean men to join, as a path to making something of himself…


tuition largeOne of the many films inspired by a child’s essay Tuition is a mildly subversive propaganda melodrama about a little boy struggling to pay his school fees who goes on a perilous adventure when his grandma is taken ill. Full review.

Spring of the Korean Peninsula + discussion

spring of the korean peninsula still 1The directorial debut of Lee Byung-il (The Love Marriage), Spring on the Korean Peninsula (adapted from Kim Seong-min’s award winning 1936 novel Artists of the Peninsula) follows a young film director struggling to film a new version of the Chun-hyang story. When he loses his lead actress, he hires his friend’s little sister but then makes a disastrous choice to facilitate his artistic dreams.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Korean film scholars Baek Moonim (Yonsei University), Lee Hwa-jin (Inha University) and Chung Chong-hwa (Korean Film Archive), and chaired by season co-curator Kate Taylor-Jones.

Hurrah! For Freedom

hurrah freedom still 1Sadly incomplete and, ironically enough, a victim of censorship in the Park Chung-hee era, Hurrah! for Freedom (also known as Viva Freedom!) is the appropriately titled first film to have been released after the liberation and follows a betrayed resistance fighter who escapes from Japanese capture and hides out in a nurse’s apartment while covertly continuing his resistance activities.

Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period runs at the BFI Southbank from 7th February. Tickets are currently on sale to members with public sales beginning on 15th January.

Tears and Laughter: Women in Japanese Melodrama

blue sky maiden stillRunning at BFI Southbank through October and November, Tears and Laughter: Women in Japanese Melodrama aims to showcase the changing roles of women in Japanese cinema in the pre-war and post-war eras through a series of films starring some of the best known actresses of the time including Ayako Wakao (who features on the poster in her first role working with director Yasuzo Masumura in Blue Sky Maiden), ’30s megastar and later director Kinuyo Tanaka, Ozu’s muse Setsuko Hara, Rashomon’s Machiko Kiyo, wife and muse of Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida Mariko Okada,  and the iconic Hideko Takamine who began as a child star and went on to work with most of the age’s finest directors.

Season Introduction: Women in Japanese Melodrama

The season will kick off with an introductory lecture on 17th October featuring contributions from Alexander Jacoby and Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernandez who will discuss some of the actresses featured in the season.

Osaka Elegy + Women of the Night

osaka elegyStarring Mizoguchi’s frequent leading lady Isuzu Yamada, Osaka Elegy centres on a switchboard operator who finds herself trapped in a ruinous relationship with her boss in an effort to save her father who has ruined himself through gambling debts.  16mm. Now screening on blu-ray due to poor quality of 16mm print.

women of the night stillWomen of the Night, completed in 1948, will screen along side Osaka Elegy (1936) and stars Kinuyo Tanaka in a tale of two sisters trying to survive in the ruined Osaka one of whom is a war widow and the other dangerously involved with a drugs smuggler. 35mm.

Wedding Ring

(c) Shochiku Co., LtdKinuyo Tanaka also stars in Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1950 melodrama Wedding Ring. Starring opposite Toshiro Mifune, Tanaka plays a housewife who travels back and fore from the seaside, where her sickly husband convalesces, to Tokyo where she runs her family’s jewellery store. A chance encounter with a strapping doctor (Mifune) on a train has unforeseen consequences as the pair grow closer and the husband begins to realise that he cannot provide the happiness his wife is seeking. 35mm.

Clothes of Deception

「偽れる盛装」(C)KADOKAWA1951Clothes of Deception is directed by Kozaburo Yoshimura who was the subject (along with Kaneto Shindo) of the BFI’s previous Japanese director retrospective in 2012 in which the film was also screened. Rashomon’s Machiko Kyo stars opposite Yasuko Fujita as a geisha in Kyoto’s historic Gion district whose life contrasts strongly with that of her sister who works for the tourist board. 35mm.

The Mistress (aka Wild Geese)

toyoda wild geese still 1Shiro Toyoda’s melodrama stars Hideko Takamine as a divorced woman who becomes the mistress of an elderly money lender to support her father but dares to dream of a happier future after falling for a young student. 35mm.

An Inlet of Muddy Water

inlet of muddy water still 2Tadashi Imai’s adaptation of a number of stories by 19th century writer Ichiyo Higuchi came top in Kinema Junpo’s best of list for 1953 and features three stories of women suffering at the hands of men. 35mm.

The Eternal Breasts

eternal breasts still 1Kinuyo Tanaka, one of Japan’s great actresses, was not the nation’s first female director as she is sometimes described, but she was the first to have a career as a film director. The Eternal Breasts is Tanaka’s third directorial effort (following Love Letter and The Moon has Risen) and tells the story of tanka poet Fumiko Nakajo who passed away from breast cancer in 1954 at only 31 years old. 35mm.

Floating Clouds 

floating clouds still 1Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori play two former lovers cast adrift in the new post-war world world where their love is both impossible and impossible to escape. Naruse’s melancholy melodrama is the story of a woman who strives for self-determination while chasing a man who craves only respectability, as trapped and confused as her still divided nation. 35mm.

Elegy of The North

elegy of the north stilll 1Masayuki Mori stars again in another romantic melodrama this time for Heinosuke Gosho (Where Chimneys are Seen), opposite Yoshiko Kuga who falls for Mori’s conflicted architect as an escape from her moribund marriage while Mori’s wife, played by Mieko Takamine, is having an affair with a young student. 16mm.

Tokyo Twilight

tokyo twilight still 1Among the darkest of Ozu’s post-war movies, Tokyo Twilight is a less forgiving family drama in which Setsuko Hara plays the older of two sisters who has returned home from a failing marriage with her little girl in tow only to find out that her unmarried student younger sister is facing an unwanted pregnancy. 35mm.

The Blue Sky Maiden (aka The Cheerful Girl)

blue sky maiden still 2Blue Sky Maiden, Masumura’s second film, is his first in colour and his first to star the radiant Ayako Wakao who would later become something like his muse. Light and bright and youthful, Blue Sky Maiden is not without the Masumura bite in its tale of an illegitimate child deposited in her cowardly father’s home and among his unpleasant family but bearing all of her sorrows with a cheerful determination which resolutely refuses to allow them to rob her of her happiness. 35mm.

An Affair at Akitsu (aka Akitsu Springs)

akitsu springs still 1Soon after An Affair at Akitsu, also known as Akitsu Springs, Mariko Okada would marry the film’s director, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, and the pair would go on create a series of “anti-melodramas” which adopted typical melodrama storylines but shot them in a deliberately detached manner. An Affair at Akitsu is Yoshida’s attempt at Shochiku’s most representative genre but, aided by the astonishing performance of Okada, he conjures a deeply felt meditation on post-war malaise as its lovers find themselves unable to escape the false paradise of Akitsu Springs. 35mm.

The Shape of Night

Shape of the night still 1Recently restored, Noburu Nakamura’s The Shape of Night stars Miyuki Kuwano as a young woman forced into prostitution by a no good boyfriend. 35mm.

Tears and Laughter: Women in Japanese Melodrama runs at BFI Southbank from 17th October to 29th November and tickets are already on general sale.


Pastoral Hide and Seek

Terayama’s Pastoral Hide and Seek is a post modern meditation on the nature of truth and memory. Totally surreal, a man’s childhood populated by bizarre circus troupe, nuns with eye patches, strange fascinations with clocks. Then the director gets fed up with the deceptiveness of his own vision, so then he tuns up inside his own childhood and tries to mess about with it. Odd but oddly affecting

A Man Vanishes


Imamura’s A Man Vanishes starts out as a documentary surrounding the disappearance of a plastics salesman but eventually becomes a discourse on truth, reality and cinema. We begin in documentary fashion by paying a visit to the police station and having the details of the missing man related to us. We then hear from the man’s fiancée who it seems is very keen to find him, and his family who are worried but also hurt and disappointed. It transpires that Oshima, the absent centre of the film, had many secrets those closest to him did not know. He had previously been suspended from his place of work for embezzlement, though the money had been repaid and the matter settled. He was also a drinker and according to his friends had been expressing doubts about his planned marriage, either because he did not want to marry or because he disapproved of his future sister-in-law’s supposedly ‘immoral’ lifestyle. There is also a rumour he’d been having an affair with a waitress which resulted in a pregnancy.

All this information uncovered and still no real clue as to Oshima’s whereabouts, Imamura takes the bold step of deciding to put the fiancée on television. After this things start to change, the fiancee seems to have lost her zeal to find her intended and, as it turns out, has developed feelings for the interviewer on the documentary (who is actually an actor). Shortly after this they visit a kind of spirit medium who claims the future sister-in-law has poisoned Oshima and disposed of the body because she too was in love with him and did not wish to share.

This ultimately leads to a showdown in a tea house in which the fiancée confronts her sister with the evidence so far and seems unwilling to believe her denials. Except at the climactic moment Imamura orders the set to come down around them and we see they’re just in a pretend tea house room in the middle of a soundstage. This ‘reality’ was fabricated, and other filmmakers will come here to make their fictional truths or untruthful realities. We thought we were watching fact, but it was a construction.

The final scene of the film then follows this up further, Imamura announces what we’re watching is a reconstruction, a fiction, as a man swears he saw Oshima going up the stairs with the sister, which she flatly denies. Another witness then shows up and reaffirms his testimony about having seen Oshima and the sister, and the debate continues with some of the participants becoming quite irate. Can we believe anything we’re seeing here, what or how much of this is truth? What is truth anyway, what is reality?

Was there a man who vanished, are these the people in the his life? If they are, are they themselves or have they begun to play versions of themselves more suited to film? Imamura later said this film might more rightly have been called ‘When a Woman Becomes an Actress’, and it is true that you can see a definite change in the fiancée after her television appearance. Or can you, is it just the way Imamura presents it or has the change really taken places since the woman became a ‘character’ watched by the TV audience? Just as we’ve been unable to reconstruct a accurate picture of Oshima through the descriptions of those who knew him, our vision of the major players, the fiancée and her sister is also clouded by Imamura’s presence.

Imamura’s assertions that objective documentary making is pointless and that greater truth can be displayed through fictional film making are carried right the way through the film. What you largely have are ideas which are then reconstructed by the film maker in the editing suite. It’s a document of real people and real lives but only from one perspective. Fictional film making, in Imamura’s view, is better able to articulate human truths than this patching together of material which cannot be a fully accurate representation.

A Man Vanishes is one of Imamura’s most intriguing films but nevertheless has been unavailable with English subtitles for a long time. Thankfully Masters of Cinema will be releasing a new version on DVD in a couple of months the viewing of which will, hopefully, help to clear things up a little (but then again, maybe not).

Funeral Parade of Roses


An inverted retelling of Sophocle’ Oedipus, Funeral Parade of Roses has become a landmark in Gay Japanese Cinema. Eddie (geddit?), a transvestite living in Tokyo makes her money at a gay bar and has begun an affair with this boss. This has created an awkward situation with the boss’s ‘wife’ who runs the club and has become increasingly jealous and antagonistic towards Eddie.  Something from Eddie’s past is also haunting her and will turn out to have major repercussions for herself and others.

Funeral Parade of Roses is notable for its explicit detailing of 1960s gay life in Tokyo. Eddie and her friends have wild parties where they take drugs and discuss avant-garde films from America whilst watching distorted pictures of the student riots on the TV. The films even breaks with its narrative to interview various people, including a couple of the the actors, about gay life.

This is just one of many of the post-modern techniques that Matsumoto employs, often breaking up the narrative with vox pop sessions, inserted signs etc. He often repeats scenes or sections of scenes and sometimes breaks them off only to return at exactly that point later on. The overall timeline of the plot only becomes clear near the end when you’re able to piece these scenes together into a coherent narrative. An important and influential film, Funeral Parade of Roses is a must for fans of Japanese Cinema.

Silence Has No Wings

Silence Has No Wings follows the journey of a butterfly from it’s larval phase in Nagasaki to it’s eventual fate in a small boy’s butterfly net on Hokkaido. Well, it’s much more complicated than that. The butterfly is also deeply associated with a female atomic bomb survivor whilst at the same time becoming the centre of a yakuza/triad disagreement. The film also mixes several styles and genres, at one moment a documentary – stock footage/taped interview of bomb survivors, another time a surreal gangster comedy or a social comment and even romantic melodrama. It’s truly a film that defies explanation and deserves to be seen

Sansho the Bailiff

Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films that has many times been cited as among the greatest ever made. Based on an ancient folktale, Mizoguchi places the action during the Heian era where a feudal lord is being stripped of his position for daring to speak out about brutal treatment of the peasants. The lord will be exiled but his wife and children will travel to stay with relatives until sent for. Parting from his children he entrusts to them a statue of the goddess Kanon (goddess of Mercy) and instructs them to remember to show mercy, be kind even if it causes you personal pain.

Some time later the mother and her two children set out to join the father with only one servant and no resources to help them get there. Having failed to find lodging in the town (taking in travelers has been banned because of the bandit/slaver problem) they prepare to make camp in the woods. An old lady priestess offers them food and lodging for the night and apparently knows a quicker way to their destination if they’re prepared to travel by sea. Of course, it turns out that the old lady’s motives were far from altruistic and the family are quickly separated, the mother and female servant in one boat and the children dragged away elsewhere. The slavers have great difficulty finding a buyer for these wealthy children, being so small they won’t be as productive, especially considering their background makes them unused to physical labour. Eventually the children are sold to the notorious Sansho, who shows no mercy or consideration for the children’s youth and is determined to get his money’s worth.

As time moves on the children struggle to adapt to their new conditions, the girl clinging to memories of the past and the boy wishing to forget. He casts aside his father’s teachings and seeks to become closer to Sansho until the illness of another prisoner, coupled with the echo of his mother’s voice, reminds him of his better nature and sets him off on his path to redemption.

Sansho the Bailiff is a morality tale about the importance of compassion and of standing up for what is right over what is expected. Cruel men like Sansho, who can regard people as objects and are without the ability to understand the point of view of those who might raise questions, are much in favour with the feudal lords who see nothing except their profits. The profit of the lords must be maintained, those who make suggestions that might interfere with those are removed. Sansho is valued because his turnover is so high, more humane procedures would necessarily reduce this and so are out of the question. Who cares about a bunch of lowborn ‘cattle’? they aren’t like us, they are not us, so we need not concern ourselves with their lives, their feelings or their souls.

When Zushio has committed himself to the path of mercy, vowing to bring down this economy of exploitation, he again finds himself effectively powerless. Although he has achieved the necessary status, the will of the other lords will always win out. Taking drastic action wins him a small victory in the immediate area, but it’s not clear how long this will last or if any permanent change will occur. He’s no better off as a lord than he was with Sansho, he’s still a slave just in a nicer cage. So abandoning his position he sets off in search of his mother.

Finally mother and son are reunited, but the reunion is bittersweet. Zushio exclaims that he could have come here as a fine, important man and taken her away back to the life she once knew, but instead he kept to his father’s teachings and has nothing. She replies that she’s sure that if he had not obeyed they would never have met again. In the end their only victory is to have survived and found each other, but it’s the victory of the pure soul.