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.