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.

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.

Volunteer (志願兵 / 지 원병, Ahn Seok-yeong, 1941)

volunteer still 1Despite a severe lack of manpower, Japan delayed opening its armies to potential soldiers from outside of the mainland until late in the war. A valuable propaganda tool, Korean cinema had become increasingly invested in the one nation idea, but convincing young men that they should willingly enlist to offer their lives in service of an imperial power was a much bigger ask. 1941’s Volunteer (志願兵 / 지 원병, Jiweonbyeong) was produced as a pure propaganda film designed to raise awareness of the volunteer soldier system the Colonial Government had instituted and thereby help to convince young men who felt oppressed or hopeless that their best chance for advancement lay in embracing rather than opposing the colonial regime.

The hero of the tale, Choon-ho (Choi Woon-bong), is a reluctant farm boy who has inherited his father’s estate and with it his position as the tenant farmer. Choon-ho’s big project is cultivating some land on the side of a hill next to his fields which has previously been left fallow. However, Choon-ho is a poor farmer and woefully inexperienced (a fact which can perhaps be forgiven given his relative youth). He is a constant source of resentment and consternation in the local farming community with many old hands throwing their weight behind his rival, Duk-sam, who has been agitating for the position of tenant farmer since he and Choon-ho’s father were young. Eventually the landlord, Mr. Park, decides to fire Choon-ho and promote Duk-sam, leaving him dejected and hopeless. That is until, of course, he is bitten by the patriotism bug and realises that his demotion is really a good thing because now he can devote himself fully to serving his nation.

Well, perhaps not quite – at this point Korean men are still not permitted to join the army, something which seems to irk Choon-ho, adding to his deep seated sense of personal inadequacy in being deemed not quite a proper citizen and definitely not equal to a man born on the Japanese mainland. Nevertheless, the film opens with a joyous celebration of locals sending off a troop train filled with young men who are able to serve. Flags are flown, chants are shouted, and the men inside the train are feted like heroes as they prepare to defend their country with their lives if necessary.

To Choon-ho, who now feels as if he has failed on almost every level as a man, the army offers a very real opportunity to prove himself someone worthy of respect. Not only has Choon-ho failed at farming, he also risks failure at romance in dallying over his long delayed marriage to beautiful fiancée Boon-ok (Moon Ye-bong) who has been waiting patiently for the last few years. Duk-sam, not content with wrestling the tenancy position away from Choon-ho, is also intent on having Boon-ok marry one of his sons and has a very real chance of breaking the engagement now that Choon-ho is no longer in such a privileged position.

Meanwhile, it also seems that Park’s younger sister Soo-ae, who is now a fancy modern lady living in Seoul, has a soft spot for Choon-ho, arousing a degree of hopeless jealously in Boon-ok who believes she is not really good enough for him owing to her lack of education and unsophisticated country ways. The real drama however occurs as Choon-ho falls out with his best friend when he suspects him of attempting to woo Boon-ok in one of her lowest moments. His friend’s “transgression” not only disrupts their relationship, but further exacerbates Choon-ho’s sense of wounded masculinity as he faces the fact another man might have been about to steal his girl out from under him.

The army has always been a prime path to advancement for young men from disadvantaged backgrounds, offering a steady pay check, career path, and training in valuable skills but ideologically speaking these benefits are unlikely to convince many to risk their lives in service of a colonial power they may privately feel to be oppressive. Then again, the army was not particularly looking for ordinary young men from the fields but for middle-class, well educated ones like Choon-ho. It is therefore doubly interesting that Choon-ho is sold not on the benefits of army, but on his own inadequacy and on militarism as its cure. Watching boys playing soldier, he begins to fantasise about himself as an almost faceless component of a perfectly oiled machine marching relentlessly forward into an ordered future free of the burden of choice or personal responsibility.

When the army opens itself up to Korean men, Choon-ho feels seen and whole, a fully fledged citizen with rights and duties to which he now intends to devote himself entirely. Mr. Park, who demoted him for his failure to make an impact, now suddenly respects him on seeing his name among those of the volunteer soldiers listed in the paper. So that we can be sure that Choon-ho’s decision is not “selfish” or unfilial, Park decides to support his family while he’s away serving so that his mother and sister will be well looked after and he won’t need to worry about them. Meanwhile, Boon-ok, wearing a sash denoting her as a member of the patriotic women’s association, is happy and relieved that Choon-ho has found his purpose, urging him to go on to be a great soldier serving his nation. It’s her face, rather the cheering, flag waving masses, that Ahn leaves us with as she watches the man she loves ride away towards a supposedly brighter future, staring directly into the camera with something that looks like pride mixed with mild accusation.


Volunteer was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. It is also available as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed: the First Encounter box set. Not currently available to stream online.

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 )