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.

Angels on the Street (집 없는 천사, Choi In-kyu, 1941)

By 1941, Korea had been under Japanese colonial rule for over 30 years and was subject to the same kinds of increasingly oppressive militarism as Japan itself. This of course included tightly controlled censorship of the arts which eventually edged towards the suppression of all Korean language cinema. Nevertheless, even while superficially obeying censorship directives, conflicted directors were able to subtly undercut the desired effect by foregrounding other concerns. Choi In-kyu’s Angels on the Street (집 없는 천사, Jibeopneun cheonsa) is a case in point in its focus on impoverished children and the Christianising forces which eventually “save” them.

The two youngsters at the centre of the tale, teenage older sister Myeong-ja (Kim Sin-jae) and her little brother Yong-gil (Lee Wuk-ha), seem to be orphans and have been taken in by a street family led by Mr. Kwon who forces them to sell flowers and other small items in return for food and shelter. The kids get into trouble when Yong-gil spends some of the money on sweets rather than bringing it all home for which he is severely punished, leading Mr. Kwon and his wife to further press Myeong-ja to become a bar girl so that her brother won’t be hungry anymore. Hearing Myeong-ja give in, Yong-gil runs away hoping to spare his sister such an unpleasant fate. While he falls in with a troop of street kids and is eventually “rescued” by a socially minded minister, Father Bang (Kim Il-hae), Myeong-ja eventually finds an ally in a drunken doctor who often comes into the bar where she sells flowers and offers to take her in as a trainee nurse.

What is clear is that poverty and its associated problems are rife leading to a large number of orphaned, abandoned, and runaway children living on the streets where they remain extremely vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous adults like Mr. Kwon. Then again, the kindly intentions of Father Bang are in themselves not unproblematic. As in many of these kinds of films, Father Bang is only interested in rescuing boys whom he later sets up in a kind of dorm/commune where he can “reform” them into upstanding, respectable young men filled with Christian virtues. His end goals allow him to overlook that his approach is also exploitative in that he requires the boys to fix up a barn he has borrowed from his embittered brother-in-law Dr. Ahn (Kang jeong-ae) to make it into a place fit for habitation and thereafter expects them to work, in this case making noodles, to provide economic support for the entire enterprise.

Father Bang seems to have spent at least some time in Germany, as has his brother-in-law, and has a deep seated protestant work ethic that perhaps leads him to feel that “hard work” is the best way of reforming these otherwise feral children whom he sees as lazy and selfish. Nevertheless, he is profiting directly from their labour in much the same way as Kwon even if his end goals are different. Like Dr. Ahn, who seems to have become cynical and embittered after losing his wife in believing that the children are beyond saving and all Bang’s efforts merely futile, Father Bang has committed wholly to protestantism in so far as giving both his children European Christian names while his wife has also taken the name of Maria (Moon Ye-bong). This seems like a fairly controversial step when many Koreans are being encouraged to abandon their birth names in favour of adopting new Japanese ones, let alone that militarists might not be keen on the introduction of religious themes which, sometimes but not exclusively, conflict with their prevailing ideology.

That aside, Bang appears to align himself with the colonial elite rather than native Korean nationalism. When introducing Yong-gil to his new “brothers”, he points out the smallest one as a promising bugler who will one day make a fine volunteer soldier. Later the same boy is pictured blowing his bugle with the Japanese flag flying somewhat heroically above him, while the boys who generally speak Korean with one another freely reel off the Imperial Rescript with relative ease. Choi subtly undercuts the essential propaganda effects of including the pledge in having Bang add a post-script of his own credo which is essentially repackaged Christian virtues but allows the implication to remain that Bang is preparing these young men to become muscle for an imperial power even if inculcating in them a notion of moral goodness (indeed, there is also perhaps the implication that these boys stand in for a “Korea” in need of moral education which can be earned through exerting themselves to become more “Japanese” as in Ahn’s final assurance that they will become “excellent people” “of great service to our country” if they continue to heed Bang’s teachings).

“Goodness” however seems to win out as even the villainous Kwon is made to renounce his life of exploitative criminality and Dr. Ahn’s sense of social justice is reawakened on seeing the effect Bang has had on the previously directionless boys. After completing Angels on the Street, Choi would refuse to make any more pro-Japanese films for the next three years before being convinced to return by committed rightist Han Hyung-mo, filming a trilogy of similarly compromised dramas before doing a complete about face in 1946 by directing the very first post-liberation film Hurrah! For Freedom which, ironically enough, celebrated the activities of the Resistance during the final days of occupation.


Angels on the Street 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.

Short scene from the end of the film featuring the Imperialist Rescript (Japanese with Korean subtitles )

It’s Not Her Sin (그 여자의 죄가 아니다 , Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

it's not her sinIt’s Not Her Sin (그 여자의 죄가 아니다, Geu yeoja-ui joega anida) is, in contrast to its title, nowhere near as dark or salacious as the harsher end of female melodramas coming out of Hollywood in the 1950s. It’s not exactly clear to which of the central heroines the title refers, nor is it clear which “sin” it seeks to deny, but neither of the two women in question are “bad” even if they have each transgressed in some way. Drawing inspiration from the murkiness of a film noir world, Shin Sang-ok adapts the popular novel by Austrian author Gina Kaus by way of a previous French adaptation, Conflit. Shin sets his tale in contemporary Korea, caught in a moment of transition as the nation, still rebuilding after a prolonged period of war and instability, prepares to move onto the global stage while social attitudes are also in shift, but only up to a point.

Two women argue on the steps of the Office of Foreign Affairs. One dresses in traditional Hanbok and the other Western clothing. The traditionally dressed woman, Seong-hi (Ju Jeung-ryu), is desperate to stop the other woman, Yeong-suk (Choi Eun-hee) from going inside and doing something that will apparently “ruin” her. Yeong-suk does not listen. She turns her back on Seong-hi and climbs the stairs. They argue argue again and a gun falls out of Seong-hi’s bag. Losing her mind in panic, Seong-hi shoots Yeong-suk, thinking only of stopping her getting any further with her mysterious mission.

A conversation with the prosecutor reveals that Seong-hi is married to a respected diplomat and so the case is of national, rather than just personal, interest. The case will hit the papers, and it will run because it’s also very messy. Yeong-suk is Seong-hi’s adopted sister. So, what has happened between these three people – Yeong-suk, Seong-hi, and the respected diplomat Baek? The prosecutor thinks he’s got it all worked out though his theory really is the stuff of cheap melodrama. He thinks Seong-hi has probably been having an affair with Yeong-suk’s boyfriend, Yeong-suk found out and planned to tell her husband, Seong-hi panics and shoots. That does not, however, explain why the recovering Yeong-suk has forgiven Seong-hi unconditionally and does not want to pursue prosecution, or why the two women embrace each other warmly when the prosecutor engineers a meeting.

The relationship between the two women is close and filled with mutual respect and affection – there really is only one thing which could come between them and it isn’t a man. The secret, such as it is, is an obvious one and a frequent theme of maternal melodramas. The prosecutor, who seems to regard evidence as an optional extra, accidentally stumbles over a clue when he probes Baek about the status of his marriage. The couple have been married eight years and have only one son, which the prosecutor finds odd even given that Baek has spent much of the marriage living abroad. He imagines this as a possible indication that the marriage is unhappy, that Seong-hi is lonely, and that she might, then, have been engaging in illicit affairs which may result in blackmail and eventually murder.

All very fanciful, but the truth is more ordinary. Both Seong-hi and Yeong-suk are prisoners and victims of their social standing and responsibilities. Seong-hi is constrained in her marriage, her difficulty conceiving a child has affected her self esteem and faith in her husband. Yeong-suk, by contrast finds herself in a difficult position after being betrayed in love, misused and let down by an unscrupulous man. Her “muddy” past leads her to fear that she may not deserve a happy life with her new love, and that he too may leave if she reveals her own secret to him. The two women are left with no one else to rely on but each other and are then bound by the additional burden of a secret which they must protect at all costs, only to see their relationship placed under greater strain by its result.

Unlike many a Korean melodrama, It’s not Her Sin has a broadly happy, if bittersweet, conclusion in which the friendship between the two women is restored but also broken as one is forever exiled from her own family. In keeping with the title Shin refuses to condemn either woman, sympathising with their plight as they’re manipulated by circumstances beyond their control and oppressed by a very male world which forces them into making their illicit bargain in the first place. Beautifully played by leads Choi Eun-hee and Ju Jeung-ryu, It’s not Her Sin is, like all good melodramas, a chronicle of its times in its depiction of female friendship as the last bastion of defence against an unfair world.


Screened at the Korean Cultural Centre London. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Tuition (수업료 , Choi In-gyu & Bang Han-joon, 1940)

tuition largeLong thought lost, Tuition (수업료, Su-eop-ryo) is an unusual example of Korean film made during the Japanese colonial period. Released in 1940, the film depicts the lives of ordinary people facing hardship during difficult economic conditions though there is no reference made to the ongoing military situation. The story itself is inspired by a prize winning effort by a real life school boy who was doubtless experiencing something similar to the trials of Yeong-dal, however, directors Choi In-gyu and Bang Han-joon made several subversive changes to the script at the filming stage in an attempt to get around the censorship regulations.

Schoolboy Yeong-dal lives alone with his grandmother after his parents have left to try and make more money. The pair are struggling to get by already and the grandmother is so exhausted that she’s beginning to become too ill to continue working. Yeong-dal’s biggest preoccupation is the money for his school fees, they’re already a few months behind and besides it being embarrassing in front of his friends, he’s worried he’ll be kicked out altogether. They’ve also got the landlord breathing down their necks and the threat of eviction hanging over them too. When the worst comes to the worst, Yeong-dal sets off on a long and arduous journey walking to his aunt’s house in a distant village in the hope that she will lend him the money for his school fees.

The original script for Tuition was written entirely in Japanese as was common for the era. However, at the shooting stage, the directors put most of the dialogue back into Korean other than that which would naturally occur in Japanese. The kids are taught in Japanese at school – their Japanese tutor doesn’t even really understand Korean as can be seen when he decides to visit Yeong-dal’s home to see why he hasn’t been coming to class and struggles to converse with his grandmother. At home and in the streets everyone speaks Korean to each other, Japanese is reserved for official occasions only.

That said, the tuition the children are receiving is entirely geared to turning them into loyal Japanese citizens. They read about mainland Japanese history with an unusual amount of passion for school kids reciting from a text book, enjoying exciting stories of ancient battles somehow separated from the real political context of the time. Likewise, as Yeong-dal makes his arduous solo road trip, it’s a Japanese military song he sings to raise his spirits rather than a Korean folk tune or familiar lullaby.

Aside from the political ramifications, the reasons the film proved so popular at the time were more likely to do with the feel  good story of a small boy so committed to his studying, and to the honesty of being able to pay for it, that he’d walk miles and miles all alone solely for the promise of being able to ask a family member to borrow the money. Actually, his aunt seems to be extremely well off when he gets there and gives him a huge bag of rice as well as the tuition fees so one has to wonder why Yeong-dal and grandma haven’t upped sticks and gone to stay with her ages ago rather than endure this life of extreme hardship and near starvation. It is, however, a happy ending for little Yeong-dal who finds his perseverance and determination rewarded and not only that, his struggles have also inspired his schoolmates to start a charity collection to help other pupils who find themselves unable to pay the school fees.

Tuition isn’t particularly notable in terms of its directing style which remains relatively simple though typical of the time, but does offer an interesting window into the cinema of the late colonial period which has often been difficult to see. The film’s child’s eye view of economic hardship which is filled more with shame and worry than it is with fear, also make it an interesting addition to the world of depression era children’s cinema inviting comparisons with the films of Hiroshi Shimizu which appear to have influenced Tuition to some degree. Only recently rediscovered, Tuition is an invaluable resource for the history of Korean cinema but is also the heartwarming tale of an earnest little boy winning through despite almost insurmountable odds.


Tuition is the fifth film in the Korean Film Archives The Past Unearthed Project which is attempting to recover some of these lost and hidden films from the 1930s and 40s. Like the majority of releases from the Korean Film Archive, Tuition includes English subtitles and comes packaged in an elegant slipcase. The set also includes a beautifully designed booklet which resembles an old fashioned school excercise book and as usual also contains an English translation of the original Korean text. The DVD itself is region free!