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.

The Love Marriage (自由結婚 / 자유결혼, Lee Byung-il, 1958)

The love marriage posteA hot button issue at the centre of the tradition vs modernity debate – who knows best when it comes to love, a bevvy of relatives with lifetimes of experience behind them or the youngsters themselves still filled with youthful idealism? Then again, as the wise father of Lee Byung-il’s The Love Marriage (自由結婚 / 자유결혼, Ja-yugyeolhon) points out, perhaps both options are bad. An arranged marriage may not work out for a variety of reasons, and a love match may only result in heartbreak, but perhaps there is a third way after all – something which he intends to figure out through gentle manipulations of his lovelorn daughters and feisty conservative wife.

Inverting the normal pattern, Lee opens with the wedding. Dr. Ko’s (Choi Nam-Hyun) eldest daughter, Suk-hee (Choi Eun-hee), has scandalised her family by marrying for love, making a modern future in a modernising world. However, her new husband, Seung-il (Seong So-min), is pensive. He has something he feels he needs to get off his chest to start married life on the right foot. Seung-il confesses that he was once in love before, somehow believing this is a terrible secret which his new wife needs to know. Suk-hee is of course sympathetic and understanding, she never assumed herself to be marrying someone without a past. In an effort to console him she makes a confession of her own. She too was once in love with someone else – the older brother of a school friend who died tragically years ago never knowing of her deeply held affection. Despite his earlier plea, Seung-il is horrified, abruptly walks out on his new wife on their wedding night, and sails to America to make a new life for himself alone.

Flashforward four years and Suk-hee, humiliated, has retreated to her bedroom, seldom leaving the house and only then to walk along the paths she used to take with Seung-il when she does. Dr. Ko has two more daughters – Moon-hee (Lee Min-ja) and college student Myeong-hee (Jo Mi-ryeong), as well as a young son, Gwang-sik (Park Gwang-su), still in school. Ko’s wife, Mrs. Ahn (Seok Geum-seong), is convinced all Suk-hee’s problems are down to getting married for love – after all, Mrs. Ahn was always against it. To prevent the same thing happening again she plans to find good matches for her other two daughters, hoping to set Moon-hee up with the son of one of her best friends, Wan-seop (Lee Ryong), who has recently returned from studying abroad. Moon-hee, however, has taken a liking to the timid college student who has been tutoring Gwang-sik, Jun-cheol (Choe Hyeon). Meanwhile, Myeong-hee has also developed a fondness for Ko’s assistant, Yeong-su (Park Am).

The times are changing, but only to an extent. Mrs. Ahn doesn’t like it that they’re changing at all. The romantic destiny of her daughters was, perhaps, one of the few things over which she exercised complete control and control seems to be something she is reluctant to give up. Suk-hee’s decision to get married for love is a new one – a rejection of the oppressive pre-war system of total deference to one’s elders in favour of exercising her individual right to choice. Her choice, however, did not work out, in part at least because of some very old fashioned ideas embedded in the head of Seung-il who is unable to cope with the idea of his wife as a real flesh and blood woman rather than the idealised picture of passive femininity he had conjured for himself.

Love and marriage enter a conflict with each other. Ko and Mrs. Ahn have extremely different temperaments but seem to have built a happy and harmonious home for their four children, raising love between them as they go. Yet not all arranged marriages work out, especially when relatives might not have their children’s future happiness as a priority. Meanwhile, young people in love might not be best placed to make serious decisions about a long term future whilst caught in the throws of passion. Ko, otherwise sympathetic, has his doubts about Moon-hee and Jun-cheol, not because of Jun-cheol’s “weak” character which is his wife’s chief complaint, but because he worries that though they are in “love” they have not yet reached an understanding of each other. Rejecting both ideas – the hyperrationality of the “arranged” marriage, and the emotional volatility of the “love” match, Ko wonders if there isn’t a way to meet in the middle, that if the older generation could perhaps guide the youngsters towards a series of likely candidates they believe to be well suited, love might blossom in a place it can take root.

Ko, quiet yet wise and permanently amused, tries out his idea on his youngest daughter, Myeong-hee, who might be the most like him and also the most modern among her sisters. Spotting the obvious attraction between Myeong-hee and his assitant Yeong-su, Ko tries to set them up and then puts a wedge between them through using Wan-Seop who is at a loose end while Moon-hee pines after Jun-cheol and refuses to meet any other suitor. Wan-seop, despite Mrs. Ahn’s obvious esteem for him, is the very example of the new Korean man who tries to make a virtue of his modernity but only exposes his old fashioned conservatism. Caught in a small debate with Yeong-su and Myeong-hee, Wan-seop who has recently returned from study in America sings the praises of life overseas and declares himself a feminist – he hates the way women are treated in Korea which is why, when he’s married, he plans to 100% obey the housekeeper and not make waves in the domestic domain. Yeong-su, quite fairly, finds this ridiculous and even if his ideas are perhaps no more “progressive” he is at least transparent in his constant verbal sparring with the confident Myeong-hee.

For all its inherent comedy, love is still a painful business and parental rigidity has a potential dark side as we see in an attempted suicide brought about by heartbreak and frustration at not being listened to by parents who insist they know best. Yet in the end love conquers all. Ko’s gentle manipulations eventually work their magic, guiding each of his daughters towards their most hopeful path but leaving the decision to take it entirely up to them. Even Mrs. Ahn begins to see the beauty of young love rather than its destabilising qualities and cannot help being touched by the happiness each of the sisters seems to have found in their chosen men even if they’ve suffered quite a lot along the way. Love is never easy, but it doesn’t need to be so hard and it only takes a little bit of understanding to set it on its way.


The Love Marriage is the second 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.