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.

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 )

The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Lee Seong-gu, 1968)

General's Mustache posterBroken dreams of the post-war society prove too much for one man to bear in Lee Seong-gu’s masterpiece of Korean Modernism – The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Janggun-ui Suyeom). Adapted from the novel by Lee O-young, Lee’s film co-opts the procedural but subtly subverts it, taking a cue from the film noir to turn it in on itself and ask if we can truly ever know another person, or if we simply conjure an image of everyone we know based on a collection of external observations gathered by ourselves and others. Our hero, Cheol-hun (Shin Seong-il), is a melancholy man who has chosen to live in a world of his own creation but when his shield of artifice is pierced by a spear of reality he can endure it no longer. Cheol-hun is dead, but who, if anyone, killed him and can we ever really understand why he died without his words to guide us?

Lee opens with a scream as Cheol-hun’s landlady discovers his body, draped half naked over his bed next to a stove with the safety cover removed. Concluding that carbon monoxide poisoning is likely the cause of death, the police find the panicked landlady suspicious but leave with three clues – a ladies’ stocking, a missing camera, and the scar on Cheol-hun’s forehead. The stocking takes them to Cheol-hun’s ex, who tells them that Cheol-hun gave his camera to a “nude model” which was perhaps a point of tension between the two, but not apparently the reason they decided to separate. The scar, ruining the detective’s (Kim Seung-ho) theory, turns out to be an old one – received in infancy when his exhausted mother (Han Eun-jin) dropped an iron on his head after a long day at the press.

After the testimony from Cheol-hun’s mother, the scar seems incidental but turns out to be anything but. Cheol-hun’s mother blames herself for his childhood injury (as any mother would) and has spent her life worrying about him, believing that the scar itself has been the cause of all his misfortune and sent him off on an unlucky path. From Cheol-hun’s sister (Kim Sin-jae) we learn that the family was once wealthy – local landowners who valued their “aristocratic” blood. After the war all that ended. The land was given back to the people, and Cheol-hun’s family were stripped of not only of their prestige but of their means of living. Nevertheless, Cheol-hun’s austere father refused to let his children play with the “commoners”, and so little Cheol-hun’s loneliness was born.

The testimony of Cheol-hun’s former boss reinforces the view that Cheol-hun was an eccentric loner, ill equipped for life in the “real” world. A former photojournalist, Cheol-hun lost his job as a result of a disastrous interview with a recently returned scholar who had enjoyed some minor success in America. The scholar, having been abroad five years, peppers his speech with random English and puts up a pretence of having forgotten his Korean. He complains that Korean kimchee is too spicy, and suggests that the key to improving the “backward” nation lies in “reforming” the cuisine. Cheol-hun, becoming ever more irritated, offers a few barbed comments but cannot contain himself when the kids, “John” and “Mary” who do not speak any Korean, arrive. American names, he points out, are usually associated with dogs and sex workers – why would you give them to your children if you plan to live in Korea? Needless to say, the interview is over.

Cheol-hun has now been characterised as a man who cannot read the air, but it’s time to hear from him too though it will have to be second hand. Shin-hye (Yoon Jeong-hee), the girlfriend, radically changing under testimony broadly agrees with this view of the man she loved but could no longer live with. Cheol-hun told her that he’d never been good with people and had no real friends save one in the army – interestingly enough a man descended from royalty, but that he died leaving Cheol-hun alone again with the lingering guilt that he was unable to save his only friend. His tragedy is that he yearns for true connection, to truly become one with another person, but he cannot achieve it. His life with Shin-hye crumbles not because of “reality” but because Shin-hye craves the real – to live in the real world where people bleed and hurt. She cannot live with Cheol-hun in his escapist paradise, but he cannot bear to leave it.

The title of the film comes from the book that Cheol-hun wanted to write. In the story, a victorious general fighting for “independence” returns to his “liberated” country. The general is dashing and brave and he has on his face the most magnificent mustache. A weedy reporter giddily asks him if he too might dare to grow such a wonderful mustache to which the general cooly assents. Before long a mustache craze sweeps the nation. Even those who cannot grow a mustache of their own have taken to wearing wigs, but our protagonist says no. He doesn’t want a moustache and refuses to wear one. He loses his job, but it remains open whether the fact of his not having a mustache (which no one forces him to have) or his melancholy loneliness in not wanting to have one and not understanding why everyone else does is the cause of all his suffering. 

The quote at the film’s beginning, painted on Cheol-hun’s maddeningly crowded walls, reads “I refuse to, That’s why I’m alive”. Yet it isn’t quite a refusal so much as a lack of capacity. Cheol-hun’s boss had a point when he said that Cheol-hun was fundamentally unsuited to living in human society, as did Shin-hye when she described him as a lonely child in need of a guardian. If anything killed Cheol-hun, it was loneliness – a revelation which profoundly shakes the conviction of the veteran detective. After all, you can’t put handcuffs on spiritual isolation. The detective thinks of his family, and decides to take a watermelon home to share with them as means of reinforcing his own shallow connections but it’s clear that his conception of the world, of his abilities as a detective and the entire framework of his existence have been irreparably compromised by his investigation into the life and death of Kim Cheol-hun.

Partly a satirical swipe at post-war conformity, Lee’s film also subtly subverts a popular trope from the anti-communist genre in its apparent sympathy for landlords. Cheol-hun’s loneliness is posited as a direct result of his “fall” from his rightful position – the only friend he ever makes is also a fallen nobleman, and he struggles to adapt himself to the “classless” society of the “democratic” era. Yet it’s precisely these outdated ideas of “class” that have ruined his life in his father’s refusal to let him play with the other children. Cheol-hun retreats to a fantasy childhood world to avoid the harshness of modern life, but cannot escape his loneliness or his longing and when he realises Shin-hye is not the soulmate with whom he thought he could forge a new, perfectly isolated paradise, his entire existence becomes impossible.

Lee conjures a mosaic of Cheol-hun composed of the memories of those around him, gradually thickening in texture and finally coming into focus but always only a simulacrum of a man and not the man himself. Adopting a standard procedural narrative, Lee adds in extensive flashback and hypothetical dramatisations as the police investigate, switching to black and white for raw hypotheses and even breaking into elegantly drawn animation to recreate the surreal world of Cheol-hun’s putative novel. Dark and sad, The General’s Mustache seems to imply that there is no answer for solitude, that you can never really know another person fully, and that the loneliest man of all is the one born without a “mustache”, already naked of face in having no final mask to expose but finding that no one wants to see his true self only the one which is demanded he wear to appear just like everyone else.


The General’s Mustache is the third film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

A Female Boss (女社長 / 여사장, Han Hyung-mo, 1959)

Female Boss posterRomantic comedies, most essentially, are made to reflect the anxieties of their times. They are not, and never have been, at the forefront of progressive thought and are, generally speaking, intended to reinforce typical notions of social conservatism. Even so, the messages of Han Hyung-mo’s A Female Boss (女社長 / 여사장, Yeosajang) are extremely jarring for the modern viewer though they proved popular enough at the time and most audiences were apparently able to find something funny in the crushing victory of the patriarchy.

Joanna (Jo Mi-ryeong) is the editor of a magazine entitled “The Modern Woman” and apparently successful enough to live a life of selfish entitlement. She has a message board above her desk which reads “women are superior to men” and most of her senior employees are also female. However, she is also extremely jaded when it comes to love and has instituted an office wide ban on romance. Despite her previous successes, Joanna’s magazine has hit a rough patch and has been on hiatus for the last three editions. Urged on by a relative, she’s currently engaged in a form of long form flirting with the easily flattered “Golf Pants”, or Mr. Oh (Joo Sun-tae) to call him by his more dignified name, whom she intends to manipulate into propping up The Modern Woman.

Meanwhile, selfishly hogging a public telephone brings her into contact with Yong-ho (Lee Su-ryeon) who angrily kicks her little dog Mario in an effort to get her to hang up. What Yong-ho doesn’t know is that the job interview he wanted to chase a recommendation for is with Joanna’s company. Joanna, infuriated by Yong-ho’s manly insolence, decides to give him the job but only so that she can make his life a misery as a form of revenge. However, despite her “feminist” leanings, Joanna falls for Yong-ho’s brash masculinity and begins a campaign of sexual harassment that threatens to implode both her personal and professional lives.

“Joanna” has obviously taken a Western name and the title of her magazine, “The Modern Woman” is also a clue as to her “progressive” attitude towards women’s liberation. Within the context of the film, these are not “good” things to pursue or “right” opinions to hold. Joanna’s women first policy is largely held up for ridicule – not only is her magazine in trouble, but her employees are portrayed as harridans who only exist to belittle and undermine their male colleagues whose jobs they have, by implication, usurped. Joanna is not married and has no interest in men until she meets Yong-ho and is overcome by his masculine confidence and conservative attitude towards the separation of the sexes, effectively inhabiting the role of the sleazy CEO salivating over the new girl only this time it’s a new boy whose “gentlemanly” resistance to Joanna’s atypically assertive romantic pursuit only makes her want him more while also upholding his moral rectitude.

Yong-ho’s original problem with Joanna also stems from her sense of entitlement – something he is personally offended by, not just by her lack of feminine deference but in her callous flaunting of her economic superiority. Making use of the public phone to conduct her business, Joanna feeds luxury cakes to her little dog, Mario. Given than many of the other people in the queue can barely afford rice to feed their families let alone luxury foreign pastries, idly feeding one to a pet dog right in front of them is an extremely insensitive act though it’s hardly poor Mario’s fault and Yong-ho’s kick is firmly aimed at Joanna. Confronting him later, Yong-ho sees nothing wrong in his violence towards an innocent dog but even more worryingly Joanna starts to complain about damage to her “property” rather than a genuine worry that Yong-ho had caused physical pain to a creature she “loved”.

What Female Boss sets out to do is to paint the very idea of a female business leader as a ridiculous nonsense, an unwelcome subversion of the proper order which must be rectified before the whole thing comes crashing down. This does perhaps reflect a male anxiety of the growing agency of women in the post-war world where they are no longer resigned to being shuffled into arranged marriages and thence into motherhood with no other possibilities or paths to fulfilment. Worried that women won’t go back in their boxes again, men reassert their masculinity to put them back in their place. Thus, at the end of Female Boss, Joanna is made to realise the “error” of her ways by ceding her business interests to Yong-ho (by her own volition) who becomes the magazine’s editor while she, now his wife, stays home to cook fish and knit baby clothes. The other senior women are demoted and the older man they’d constantly found fault with put in their place, intent on revenge. Yong-ho does, however, promote another woman he’d become friends with to a more senior position, a woman with a young child no less, proving that perhaps it’s not all about gender, but also makes sure to take down Joanna’s sign and replace it with one which reads “men are superior to women” which is quite something to see above the editor’s desk at a magazine still calling itself The Modern Woman.

That is not to say Han doesn’t also stick the boot in to hollow masculinity as seen in the dismal collection of men who turn up to interview for Yong-ho’s position. Running from the independently wealthy who apparently just want to meet women, to scary looking silent types, and in a notably subversive touch an ultra nationalist just demobbed from the army who breaks into an impassioned patriotic rant about how everyone should be bravely dying for the nation, these are a sorry collection of modern Korean men whom, Han seems to imply, have been emasculated by female empowerment. Poor Mr. Kim, a middle-aged man with 12 children, is apparently so incompetent at his job as to be constantly threatened with termination, only to regain his “rightful” place under the new Yong-ho regime, suddenly standing a little taller now all those “nasty women” have been robbed of their power to “oppress” him.

Unlike many other romantic comedies of the time, Female Boss’ humour is subtler and meaner, had entirely at the expense of its “ridiculous” heroine. Han does however make sure to add in a fair few club scenes and musical numbers to lighten the mood while Joanna makes her way through predatory, unwomanly, unkorean, modern girl to hanbok wearing housewife all in a few easy steps. Female Boss is distinctly unfunny to anyone born into a society where the idea of sexual equality, if not the reality, is at least regarded as an ideal but it does perhaps betray the anxieties of a society still in flux, afraid of both the future and the past.


A Female Boss is the third of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Romantic Comedy Collection of the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream online from the Korean Film Archive‘s YouTube Channel.

Holiday in Seoul (서울의 休日 / 서울의 휴일, Lee Yong-min, 1956)

Holiday in Seoul title cardUnlike many “golden age” directors, Lee Yong-min was not especially prolific and left behind him only 23 films when he abruptly disappeared without trace. Perhaps a fitting legacy for a director so strongly associated with the horror genre, but Lee had begun his career as a documentarian working for a Japanese company during the Colonial era. It’s Lee’s documentary background rather than his taste for genre which is most strongly in evidence in his second film, Holiday in Seoul (서울의 休日 / 서울의 휴일, Seoul-ui Hyuil), which, while containing a fair few genre elements, is an anarchic romantic comedy set entirely in a small residential area of the capital over the course one day – a public holiday, in which a series of couples are separated by accident or design on this very day which has been specifically set aside for them to spend together.

Lee opens with a series of location shots of various Seoul landmarks, elegantly composed and somewhat romanticised as if to recast the burgeoning city as a capital of love with all the promise and mystery of Roman Holiday’s Italy which even gets a brief namecheck later on. Again unconventionally, he then breaks into a lengthy POV shot with additional voice over from a narrator who locates a drunk snoozing on a bench and follows him home hoping something more interesting is happening over in the residential quarter. The narrator settles on the house opposite which belongs to a young couple recently married – she an obstetrician running a clinic out of the house, and he a hotshot reporter who’s just made a big splash with a story about a violent murder.

This is, however, a public holiday so work should be strictly off limits. Hee-won (Yang Mi-hee) has designed a packed itinerary, while her husband Jae-kwan (No Neung-geol) would rather have just lazed around at home, but as it turns out neither of them is going to get what they wanted. Minor disagreements about how to spend a rare day off aside, Hee-won and Jae-kwan are a happy young couple who have apparently married for love, are each professionally successful, and are living a comfortable middle-class life in a period of increasing economic prosperity. Their marriage is directly contrasted with the families around them which include that of the drunk we first met on the bench whose daughter Ok-i eventually descends on Hee-won for help in fear she may have fallen pregnant out of wedlock to a man who won’t take responsibility, and a middle-aged couple who have the opposite problem to that of Hee-won and Jae-kwan. Mr. Ju, a regular salaryman, is excited about spending the day with his wife but she skips out on him to go to the beauty parlour and spends most of the day with a wealthy friend and her opera loving toyboys on a well appointed yacht.

Nevertheless, marital bliss is indeed tested by the demands of the day. Though Jae-kwan had promised to go along with Hee-won’s carefully crafted plan, he gets a phone call he thinks is an important tip off about the murder case but is actually a trick set up by his colleagues who were hoping to get him to buy them a few drinks. Unfortunately, due to an odd coincidence, Jae-kwan thinks he witnesses a kidnapping that might be related to the killings and takes off in hot pursuit only to find himself dealing with another sad case of a woman brought low by love. While Hee-won is busy trying to help Ok-i sort out her predicament with both her sad/angry father and the boyfriend that’s thrown her over, Jae-kwan finds himself locked in a room with a poor young girl (Moon Jeong-suk) who is apparently also pregnant by a man who’s disappeared and has gone out of her mind with heartbreak, actively adopting the role of Ophelia and reciting potent lines from Hamlet while absolutely convinced that Jae-kwan is her long absent lover.

While the new freedoms of the post-Colonial era have enabled Hee-won not only to find love and an elected marriage but also a successful professional career as the head of her own clinic, other women have not been so lucky and have suffered doubly at the hands of men who feel bolder in their casual pursuits but also know they cannot be held to account for their actions in the same way they might have been before. Ok-i’s story does at least have a happy ending but is symptomatic of the times in which she lives as she recounts going for a job at a factory only to be molested by the foreman who thought she was a “prostitute” because he found out she had a boyfriend, while the boyfriend sort of thought the same in assuming she had been taken advantage of by the foreman. At least Ok-i has her father who might be have been enraged to begin with but later comes to her defence as does the warmhearted Hee-won, while Jae-kwan’s young woman is all alone save for her mother who is worried sick over her daughter’s mental health and has no real way to help her.

Hee-won is indeed a force for good. Despite her worry about her husband’s whereabouts (she ends up going drinking with his work buddies who, along with her other married female friends, have half convinced her he’s gone off with another woman), Hee-won comes to the aid of a crying little girl who’s desperately looking for help because her heavily pregnant mother is in a very bad way at home while dad went out a few days ago and hasn’t come back. Needless to say, Hee-won’s emergency dovetails into Jae-kwan’s dogged pursuit of crime which eventually sees him arrest a murderer after accidentally getting into a cab with him. The killer, perhaps annoyed about the previous article, makes a point of explaining to Jae-kwan that his job isn’t quite as morally upright as he’d like to believe. You can’t just go printing things in papers, he tells him, it ruins people’s lives. Jae-kwan thinks it’s murdering people that ruins lives so anything after that is fair game but his heartless rationality brings him into conflict with Hee-won when he wants to photograph and interview one of her patients who is seriously ill and might not survive if she finds out the unpleasant truth Jae-kwan wants to get her reaction to on camera. To Jae-kwan, people are just his “subjects”, mere materials for his essays, but to Hee-won they are literally flesh and blood – less fortunate than herself, they are her responsibility and she will do all she can to help them even at great personal cost.

Yet in the end the conflicts resolve themselves satisfactorily and the couples are each reunited in time to spend the last of the holiday gazing up at the moon glowing above the twinkling lights of Seoul. Having spent the day apart, each spouse emerges with a greater understanding of their partner (or in Mr. Ju’s case perhaps just a greater talent for (self)deception) and remains committed to working on their relationship. Mostly shooting on location, Lee’s camera is as sophisticated as they come shifting effortlessly from documentary-style naturalism to a silent movie aesthetic while maintaining a high level of cinematic wit throughout. Cheerfully romantic and carefree even considering its darker themes, Holiday in Seoul is an oddly anarchic romantic comedy though one with total faith in true connection and emotional honesty.


Holiday in Seoul is the first of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Romantic Comedy Collection of the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream online from the Korean Film Archive‘s YouTube Channel.

Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Kim Soo-yong, 1965)

It’s a sorry enough tale to hear that many silent classics no longer exist, regarded only as disposable entertainment and only latterly collected into archives and preserved as valuable film history, but in the case of South Korea even mid and late 20th century films are unavailable thanks to the country’s turbulent political history. Though often listed among the greats of 1960s Korean cinema, Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Jeo Haneuledo Seulpeumi) was presumed lost until a Mandarin subtitled print was discovered in an archive in Taiwan. Now given a full restoration by the Korean Film Archive, Kim’s tale of societal indifference to childhood poverty has finally been returned to its rightful place in cinema history but, as Kim’s own attempt to remake the film 20 years later bears out, how much has really changed?

11 year old Yun-bok has been forced out of his home and into a makeshift hovel near the river thanks to his gambling addicted invalid father’s inability to look after his four now destitute children. Yun-bok likes to narrate his life as a kind of letter to his absent mother who seems to have abandoned the family for unclear reasons possibly related to her husband’s drinking and gambling problem. Attending school as normal in an attempt to work hard and get an education so he can take care of the family in an adult world, Yun-bok, along with his younger sister Sun-na, spends his free time selling sticks of gum in the streets to try and earn enough money to feed everyone before his father drinks and gambles it all away.

Despite his obviously difficult circumstances, Yun-bok remains steadfast in his desire to stick by his family and take care of his siblings. Berated by the teacher for arriving late, Yun-bok finds an ally in a schoolmate who just wants to help even though many of the others shun him because of his raggedy clothes and lice infested hair. Eventually a teacher notices Yun-bok’s distress and urges him to write his struggles in a diary – which he does much as he’d been narrating his days in his imagined conversations with his mother. Moved by Yun-bok’s heartending descriptions of his life on the starvation line, the teacher manages to get the diaries to the newspapers who begin publishing them as a public interest column but just when it looks as if things maybe looking up for the family, Yun-bok loses heart and hops a freight train to look for Sun-na who has run away from home after an argument.

Korea in the 1960s was a difficult place, still bearing the scars of both WWII and the Korean War not to mention the resultant political turmoil. Nevertheless, by 1965 things had begun to pick up as seen in the flip side to Yun-bok’s sorry state of affairs – the various bars and drinking establishments he manages to work his way into in order to sell a few more sticks of gum. These places are filled with the sound of popular music where affluent young couples dance The Twist and salarymen in dark suits cement their business relationships over drinks. For some, everything is going fine but a concerted effort is being made to unsee the kind of unpleasantness which lurks below growing economic prosperity as manifested by 11 year old boys somehow responsible for the maintenance of a family of five.

As one teacher puts it, you can’t break the mirror because you don’t like what you see. Though there are some willing to help Yun-bok (at least to an extent) including his school friend who comes from a well to do family only too glad to set some food aside for Yun-bok and his siblings, out in the real world he finds only other desperate people willing to stoop to theft and violence against a child for nothing more than a few pennies. Many of these episodes are distressing as Yun-bok has his shoeshine kit stolen by an older boy or is violently beaten by a grown man at the harbour but the most serious occurs in the city when he is accused of pickpocketing by some louts who kidnap him and strip him naked for otherwise unclear reasons.

Though Sorrow Even Up in Heaven has a broadly positive ending as Yun-bok’s circumstances seem set to improve thanks to his accidental fame, Kim is quick to point out that there are many Yun-boks out there who can’t all become media sensations. Like many child heroes of classic Korean cinema, Yun-bok remains morally good – the idea of theft occurs to him but he remembers his teacher saying that everything will work out as long as his heart is pure, and his only transgression lies in spending a few pennies on himself to get something to eat and thereby work harder for his family (and for this he pays a heavy price). Even so his circumstances are portrayed in a naturalistic rather than melodramatic fashion neatly undercutting the inherent sentimentality of the material. Though Kim’s approach is closer to neorealism in the early scenes, he mixes in touches of magical realism with the ghostly appearances of Yun-bok’s mother which, alongside impressive montage and superimposition sequences, lend Yun-bok’s story an elevated cinematic quality. Remade several times over the last forty years, Sorrow Even up in Heaven remains sadly timeless in its depiction of an earnest young boy who knows only kindness and honesty even while those around him remain wilfully indifferent or actively cruel in the face of his continued suffering.


 

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!