Fisherman’s Fire (漁火 / 어화, Ahn Cheol-young, 1939)

vlcsnap-2019-02-18-01h49m56s589Late into the colonial era, Korean Cinema became heavily invested in selling the “one nation” idea. Signs of “Koreanness” such as language, dress, and customs were actively discouraged if not directly suppressed while censorship regulations prevented any negative comment on the Japanese empire. Back in Japan, however, there was an appetite for an exoticised view of the colonial landscape which in part played into the idea of Korea as a “backward” land in need of Japanese sophistication. 1939’s Fisherman’s Fire (漁火 / 어화, Eohwa) was directed in Korea by Ahn Cheol-young as a collaborative project between the studio he had co-founded, Keuk-gang Film Company, and the well established Japanese studio Shochiku where it is was “supervised” by Yasujiro Shimazu who prepared the film for Japanese audiences.

Like many Japanese films of the 1930s, Fisherman’s Fire revolves round a young woman from the country who is mis-sold dreams of freedom and urban sophistication only to be misused and betrayed by unscrupulous men. In-soon (Park Rho-kyeong), a fisherman’s daughter, is in love with local boy Chun-seok (Park Hak) but her family is poor and her father has taken on a huge debt from the local lord, Mr. Jang. In-soon longs to follow her friend Ok-boon (Jeon Hyo-bong) to Seoul where she might be able to earn money to help repay the debt but her family aren’t keen for her to go and even though Ok-boon has apparently been able to make an honest life for herself other girls gossip about those who went to the city with big dreams but ended up pressed into sex work.

When her father is lost at sea in a storm, Mr. Jang pressures In-soon’s mother to give him In-soon as a concubine in exchange for the debt. Horrified, In-soon doesn’t know what to do but is unexpectedly saved by Jang’s son Cheol-soo (Na Woong) who gives her mother the money to cancel the arrangement. In-soon ends up going to Seoul, where she has arranged to meet Ok-boon, with Cheol-soo but when she gets there discovers that he has ulterior motives. He traps her in his apartment for 10 days while claiming he has been unable to contact Ok-boon, eventually taking advantage of her before she is able to (temporarily) escape.

In-soon’s sorry tale is one familiar from Japanese cinema of the 1930s – that of a young woman who has been betrayed by an inconsistent level of modernity from which she receives only the dangers and none of the benefits. Then again, her village home was not so innocent – she was after all about to be sold as a concubine to a lecherous old man, meaning that this isn’t simply tale of the pastoral innocence versus urban sophistication. As we discover, Ok-boon found herself in a similar situation to In-soon but was able to escape it and not only that, she has also become “financially independent” which is what she encourages In-soon to become as the only way of freeing herself from the clutches of cads like Cheol-soo who press their patriarchal privileges in order to take advantage of naive girls like In-soon who haven’t been made aware they have the power to refuse.

Unlike the heroine of Sweet Dream whose desires of leading a more fulfilling life eventually lead to nothing but a dead end, In-soon is in a sense allowed to leave her disappointments behind in the city and, as Ok-boon surprisingly advises her, forget about what happened with Cheol-soo and live her life. Traumatised and shamed by her experience, In-soon eventually ends up in sex work, attempting suicide when confronted by a leering Cheol-soo, but discovers that her friends and family have not changed their opinion of her and though she may be looking at it with new eyes, her village is still as beautiful as it has always been.

The village’s visual beauty is, in a sense, the point in that the film was quite obviously made to showcase the idyllic country landscapes of the colonial territories along with the charming local customs which is perhaps why the film is bookended with documentary-style scenes of the fishing community singing and dancing to folksongs as well as including minor details like a shrine visit. Indeed, some Japanese critics felt the film had “failed” in its aims precisely because of In-soon’s eventual journey to the city which loses the feeling of local flavour they regarded as its selling point. What the Japanese audience craved was an exoticised vision of ultra-Koreanness that was in fact entirely created in Japan – something many felt the film did not sufficiently offer which is why it did not prove popular with audiences or critics. Supervised and prepared in Japan for Japanese audiences by Shochiku’s Yasujiro Shimazu, edited by Kozaburo Yoshimura, featuring music by the Ofuna Orchestra (repurposing a traditional Korean tune), and utilising a narrative familiar from domestic films, Fisherman’s Fire is an attempt to sell a manufactured vision of Korea as charmingly unsophisticated and rooted within the romantic pastoral past.

Nevertheless, it has its surprising elements such as the startlingly progressive Ok-boon whose independent city life is praised rather than criticised even if In-soon eventually retreats back to her idyllic village home. Cheol-soo, the feckless landlord’s son, gets a comeuppance for his wicked ways in being fired from his job for unreliability and incompetence which stands in for a kind of karmic punishment for his cavalier misuse of In-soon and other women like her in his attempt to assert his feudal entitlement in the improper environment of the modern city. Unlike the conservative Sweet Dream, Fisherman’s Fire finds scope and possibility for the young women of a new society and is prepared to be forgiving of them even when they fail.


Fisherman’s Fire 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. Not currently available to stream online.

Clothes of Deception (偽れる盛装, Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1951)

「偽れる盛装」(C)KADOKAWA1951

「偽れる盛装」(C)KADOKAWA1951Japan at a crossroads. East/West, past/future becomes a conflict between Kyoto and Tokyo in Yoshimura’s exploration of two women pulled in surprisingly contradictory directions in the new post-war world, Clothes of Deception (偽れる盛装, Itsuwareru Seiso). Working from a script by Kaneto Shindo, Yoshimura frames his tale as one of progress and resistance but the divisions are not as simple as they first seem. Machiko Kyo turns in another wonderfully nuanced performance as a Kyoto geisha trapped by the unchanging nature of her city yet yearning for an end to its slavish devotion to tradition.

Kumicho (Machiko Kyo) is the daughter of a longstanding geisha house currently operated by her mother. Though working as a geisha, Kumicho is not universally popular with the older generation thanks to her money first attitude which sees her prioritise earnings potential through having an unlimited number of clients rather than relying on a single patron. Kumicho is tough where geishas are generally soft and accommodating. She doesn’t take orders or nonsense from anyone, not least her push over of a mother.

Kumicho’s sister, Taeko (Yasuko Fujita), is not involved in the geisha trade and has a regular office job in the local tourist office. Unlike Kumicho, Taeko is mild mannered and reserved, dressing in regular Western fashions and travelling everywhere by bicycle. Taeko is engaged to a colleague, Koji (Keiju Kobayashi), who just happens to be the adopted son of another geisha house run by a woman with a long standing grudge against her mother.

Kyoto, a former capital, is famous for its historical qualities – a living museum to old-time Japan, but as a friend visiting from Tokyo points out perhaps that’s not altogether a good thing. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto escaped much of the wartime destruction allowing it to be seen as a symbol of cultural resilience but lack of destruction also robs of it the chance for rebirth. History has survived, but so have lots of “tired old ideas”, according to Taeko’s friend Yukiko who urges her to forget the stagnant city and head for pastures new in Tokyo where the exciting post-war future is already underway.

Those old fashioned ideas are embodied within the rigid codes of the geisha world which Kumicho, on the surface the more traditional of the sisters but in actuality less so, has been breaking. Kumicho cares about money and she cares about survival which has made her unsentimental. Despite being involved in the “traditional” Kyoto occupation with all of its elegance and complicated ritual, Kumicho is a modernist who secretly hates the trade and holds each of her customers in deep contempt. Thus she thinks her mother, Kiku (Hisako Takihana), is a soft touch for continuing to bankroll the feckless son of her former lover, but is as heartbroken as anyone when one of the geishas becomes gravely ill. Kumicho’s manner maybe brash and brassy but her heart is as warm as her mother’s who continues to visit the widow of her former patron and makes sure the sickly geisha is cared for properly without resenting either the costs involved or the loss of earnings.

Taeko’s engagement to Koji opens up old wounds and exposes the less genial side of geishadom in the grudge bearing rivalry of Kiku and Koji’s mother Chiyo (Chieko Murata). Chiyo tries to put the kibosh on Taeko’s marriage as a way of getting back at Kiku, claiming that Taeko simply isn’t good enough for her son, but her authority is also dependent on those tired old ideas of hierarchy and filial piety. Koji, an adopted child, feels himself beholden to his mother’s needs in having been raised exclusively to fulfil them and vacillates in indecision regarding his marriage. Spineless and cowardly, Koji cannot find the strength to tell his mother no but also refuses to definitively break things off with Taeko.

Younger than Kumicho and a part of the “modern” world thanks to her regular office job in the tourist office, Taeko is comparatively more socially conservative reacting with horror when the increasingly strained Koji makes desperate, aggressive advances towards her whilst refusing to confirm his intention to marry against his mother’s wishes. Taeko and Koji have imprisoned themselves within Kyoto’s oppressive system of social codes in refusing to seize their chance of individual happiness and stride forward into the bright future being offered everywhere else except in the unchanging city.

Kumicho’s machinations eventually land her in hot water when an obsessed client ruins himself and then turns violent, demonstrating the less publicised dangerous side of life in the geisha trade. Kyoto, with all of its elegant refinement, can still be a place of rancour and regret where decades old grudges and more recent resentments threaten to disturb the peace. Kumicho’s innovations have shown up the geisha trade for what it is through her thoroughly unsentimental seduce and discard philosophy but she is, if nothing else, essentially truthful in her “modern” desire to call a spade a spade. The old ways are changing, though perhaps not fast enough. Kyoto, with its rigidity and stagnation is eventually rejected as Kumicho, unable to extricate herself, makes sure that her sister is first in line for all the opportunities the new world has to offer – by sending her to Tokyo, the capital of the future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Temptation (誘惑, Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1948)

TemptationFeelings can creep up just like that, to quote another movie. Like Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Temptation (誘惑, Yuwaku) also echoes Lean’s Brief Encounter with its strains of accidental romance between unavailable people even if only one of the pair is already married. However, this time there’s much less deliberate moralising though the environment itself is a fertile breeding ground for the judgemental.

The film begins with Takako (Setsuko Hara) paying her respects at the grave of her recently deceased father only to run into an old pupil of  his arriving for the same reason. Takako and Ryukichi (Shin Saburi) are both making the arduous trip back to the city and decide to travel together. Stopping over in Gifu, they find difficulty in getting a hotel room because of a big horse race due to take place the next day and rather awkwardly end up sharing a bed. After Takako becomes upset and ponders what she’s going to do now her father is gone, Ryukichi offers to let her move in with him and the children. Discussing this with his wife who is an invalid living away from the family, he talks paternally of Takako and of a wish to look after her as a way of honouring the memory of his former teacher. However, it isn’t long before the inevitable happens and the pair begin to fall in love.

Ryukichi first met Takako as a little girl when he was her father’s student but she’s 21 years old now – a grown woman by any standard, and plenty old enough to know what she’s doing. He describes her as still “silly”, like a child, and indeed Setsuko Hara breaks out some of her most radiant (if occasionally pained) smiles and almost mocking laughter to play a complex mix of putting a brave face on grief and genuine happiness at being back in a family home. Though feeling the crippling loss of her only family member has left her feeling devoid of a purpose in life, Takako is an essentially good and kind person who sees the best in people and is only too happy to help Ryukichi with the children while his wife is ill as well as continuing with her medical studies.

After leaving academia, Ryukichi has become left leaning politician committed to creating a better, fairer nation. Like Takako he is also an honest and decent person with a high sense of personal integrity. His motives for bringing Takako into the house were innocent, yet gradually his feelings for her begin to shift from the paternal to the romantic causing him a considerable amount of stress as he battles the need to remain faithful to his wife even in her absence while his attraction to Takako continues to grow.

The impending threat of illicit action stalks the screen almost like the stealthy figure of the killer in a slasher movie. At one point where the feelings threaten to overwhelm the couple despite their best efforts to suppress them, Tokie (Haruko Sugimura) – the sickly wife, unexpectedly turns up in true melodrama fashion as if summoned by the lovers’ guilty consciences and accompanied a chorus of stinging strings.

Tokie herself played by veteran actress Hariko Sugimura, is every inch the wounded wife though her plight is played with a little less vindictiveness than in a similarly themed gothic novel where the bedridden spouse suddenly rises as if from the grave itself to haunt the new lovers while still alive. Originally approving of Ryukichi’s desire to help Takako, Tokie’s fears are awaked when seeing her playing with the children on the beach – all long legs and youthful skin, moving in a way she fears she never will again. “Everything inside my chest is ruined” she tells Ryukichi before returning sadly inside, alone, prematurely exiling herself from her own family.

That said, Temptation refuses to follow the established pattern in that it suddenly reverts to a standard romance with no feeling of judgement inflicted on the couple whose love story has occurred in an illicit fashion. Tokie has a late in the game change of heart and the guilty spectre that haunts the couples of European melodrama fails to arise meaning that neither party is left feeling a need to reject their true feelings out of a desire to atone in some way for their inappropriate emotions and putative (if not actualised) betrayal.

This is surprising in some ways as the films also wants to offer a mildly left wing narrative represented by the poor boy fellow student of Takako who is arrested near the beginning of the film for selling flour masquerading as sweetener. He is of peasant stock and ultimately opts to return to simple and honest country life. Offering to take Takako with him, he gives her an opportunity to escape the temptation which is plaguing her and live quietly and naturally in an honest and humble way. In another film, this would be the solution – an abandonment of bourgeois emotion by giving up on her married, middle class politician who, for all his fine talk of open plan houses and rejection of “feudal” ideas, is still a reactionary and part of the system. However, strangely, emotion wins out and the audience gets a “happy ending” (of sorts) which feels a little bit out of place.

Temptation plays with many forms during its running time most notably romantic melodrama but often feels more like a thriller with its various twists and turns which always threaten to disrupt the narrative in unexpected ways. Consequently the film has something of an uneven tone and begins to drag a little even given its fairly short running time. This becomes a particular problem approaching the finale which lacks weight despite its obvious potential for melodrama. Still, even if Temptation is often more interesting than it is engaging it does offer a series of striking visual motifs as well at the superb performances of its leading players.


No trailer for this one, but here’s a picture of Setsuko Hara on the cover of Shin Eiga magazine in 1949 (which is a publication I can’t seem to find out much about). Btw, this is another one with a Kaneto Shindo script!

setsuko hara