Military Train (軍用列車 / 군용열차, Seo Gwang-jae, 1938)

Military Train still 2Though there had obviously been increasing pro-Japanese sentiment in Korean cinema throughout the colonial era, 1938’s Military Train (軍用列車 / 군용열차, Gunyongyeolcha), a co-production with Toho, is accounted as the first government backed propaganda film. Military Train is in fact the only film ever directed by Seo Gwang-jae who began his career after winning a contest run by the Chosun Film Art Association which selected 20 people for a one year film course, later becoming an actor and film critic before debuting with his first and only feature. Prior to travelling to Japan to train with the Tokatsu Kinema in Kyoto, Seo had been a member of the left-wing Korea Proletarian Artist Federation, but it appears that by the time he came to make Military Train he had abandoned his socialist ideals and embraced militarism.

Taking advantage of the heated political context of 1937 following the break out of the Sino-Japanese war, Military Train was produced to promote the important work of the Chosun Railway running soldiers and supplies to the front lines. The hero is train driver Jeom-yong (Wang Pyong) who longs to get the opportunity to drive one of the military trains which all the men look on at with envy as they pass them by. Jeom-yong is best friends with his roommate, Won-jin (Dok Eun-gi), who is also dating his little sister Young-shim (Moon Ye-bong). Young-shim is currently working as “gisaeng” or bar girl – an occupation she took up some years ago to support her family after her father died. She and Jeom-yong have another older brother who is currently in Manchuria trying to make his fortune so he can comeback and redeem Young-shim.

The drama occurs when Young-shim’s madam informs her that there is a client interested in purchasing her contract. Young-shim obviously does not want this to happen as she is intending to marry Won-jin as soon as she is released from her life as a gisaeng. Though she assures the madam that her brother will shortly be returning from Manchuria cash in hand, there is little she can do about the fact that she will likely be sold unless they can gazump the wealthy client. This awkward situation provides an in for a shady looking man who’s been hanging round the railway. Overhearing the drama in a cafe, he approaches Won-jin and offers him a large amount of money in return for information on the movement of military trains. At his wits end, Won-jin agrees but is ambivalent about his betrayal of his country and endangerment of his friend.

This being a propaganda film, the obvious message is that Won-jin’s selfish decision to pursue his romantic desires over the national good is an unacceptable act of treason. Nevertheless, Seo’s framing of Won-jin’s dilemma is perhaps not quite the one which might be expected in that it’s only latterly that the national betrayal becomes the paramount issue. Won-jin’s primary conflict is in his betrayal of his friend, who he later hopes will become his brother-in-law, in the full knowledge that what he’s doing places them all in danger from the authorities as well as the Independence Movement while also placing Jeom-yong in the direct line of fire seeing as he may very well be aboard one of the trains blown up by the Resistance.

Then again, it is surprising in itself that the existence of the Resistance movement is even hinted at even if not directly named within the film (the suspicious-looking man is referred to only as a “Chinese spy”). This would seem to undermine the “one nation” idea that Korean cinema has been intent on pushing and explicitly enforces in the final stretch of the film in which Jeom-yong gets to drive a military train and is reminded that he does not belong to himself but to the Japanese citizens. The film carries this idea to its natural conclusion in casting a number of Japanese stars alongside their Korean counterparts including Jeom-yong’s pretty girlfriend Soon-hee (Nobuko Sasaki) and his boss at the railway. Nevertheless, Won-jin’s eventual letter of contrition further makes plain his “mistake” as he instructs Jeom-yong to do his best to preserve the Chosun Railway in order to preserve “peace in Asia”.

The action concludes “positively” from the point of view of the colonial regime as Won-jin’s treachery and subsequent reconsideration allow them to bust a Resistance cell before it can prove effective. Young-shim is eventually saved by her older brother’s return from Manchuria where he has apparently made something of himself thanks to the benefits of empire while Jeom-yong prepares to drive the shiny military train North towards glory leaving his sister behind in the pre-modern past as he prepares to enter a new age of modernity and prosperity as symbolised by the coming of Japan.


Military Train 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.

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.

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.

Sweet Dream (迷夢 / 미몽, Yang Ju-nam, 1936)

Sweet Dream still 2The picture one gets of the 1930s is largely one of fear and oppression, especially in Korea under the increasingly brutal Japanese colonial regime, but then it was also a time of intense social flux in which the continuing influence of Western culture and the effects of the great depression placed the traditional way of life into question. 1936’s Sweet Dream (迷夢 / 미몽, Mimong, lit. “delusion”) is, at the time of writing, the oldest extant sound film, and perhaps attempts to kick back against the “corruptions” of the modern age in telling a tragic story of ruined motherhood in which a young woman’s desire for material wealth and a social freedom eventually draws her to her doom.

Our “heroine” is Ae-soon (Moon Ye-bong), a married wife and mother who resents the restrictive nature of her life and attempts to escape it through embracing the “modern” hobby of shopping – with her husband’s money of course, while neglecting her young daughter Jeong-hee (Yoo Seon-ok) whom she perhaps sees as a symbol of the forces which make her a prisoner of her own home. It’s on a shopping trip that she begins her descent into ruin when she’s spotted by the extremely suspicious-looking Chang-geon (Kim In-gye) who swipes her handbag while she’s busy wrapping up purchases only to give it back to her as a kind of meet cute. Nevertheless, Ae-soon is smitten, especially as she believes that Chang-geon is extremely wealthy. Kicked out by her husband for her increasingly unacceptable behaviour, Ae-soon moves in with Chang-geon at his hotel and embarks on the fun loving and fancy free life of her dreams.

As might be expected, the film does not end there and Ae-soon will pay for her “selfish” choice to pursue pleasure in her own life rather than channelling all of her hopes and desires into her family as a woman is expected to do. Truth be told, Ae-soon is not a particularly sympathetic woman, especially as her husband Seon-yong (Lee Keum-ryong) is portrayed as kind, sensitive, and devoted to his daughter who is clearly his primary point of concern in his dealings with his wife. It is therefore difficult to sympathise with her dissatisfaction in her married life which, externally at least, appears comfortable, stable, and close to the ideal that many young women would hope for in a society which continues to favour arranged marriage.

What Ae-soon wants is something which a woman is not allowed to have – freedom. Then again, the film asks us to set aside the natural desire to be free and see Ae-soon’s refusal to conform as a corruption born of excess modernity. Rather than abandon her home to pursue a career or a dream, Ae-soon leaves in pursuit of a man and even then she pursues him not for reasons of love or desire but greed. No sooner has Ae-soon begun to discover that Chang-geon is not all he claimed to be than she’s planning the next conquest in chasing a famous dancer she quite liked the look of at the theatre the previous evening when Chang-geon skipped out to meet a “business associate” leaving her feeling neglected. Unable to chase material success off her own bat, she chases it through men by using her sexuality which places her at the wrong end of just about every social code going even while she herself continues to abide by the tenets of those social codes by remaining in a monogamous relationship with Chang-geon which is in reality not so different from her marriage save for the absence of her daughter, the fact they live in a serviced hotel, and the illusion of having more money and with it more social power.

Ae-soon is no Nora. Her decision to abandon her daughter isn’t born of a sudden awakening to the destructive effects of patriarchy (which the film otherwise belittles in its casting of Ae-soon’s dissatisfaction as a dislike of housework), but of “mistaken” ambition which, paradoxically, she pursues through trading up her sexual partners in order to increase her material wealth and social standing. Ae-soon rejects her maternity and with it her daughter because she wishes to assert her own identity and finds it impossible to maintain both within the society in which she lives, but allowing a woman to reject the ideas of home and family, as Ibsen had done 50 years previously, is too dangerous an idea for the Korea of 1936 and so Ae-soon’s “sweet dream” is in effect a siren song which will lead her down a dark path towards the only redemption possible for a woman who has betrayed the very idea of what society believes a woman to be.

Strangely enough, Sweet Dream was commissioned as a public information piece sponsored by the Choman Traffic Office as the first “traffic film” intended to increase awareness of traffic safety which is why the subject features so prominently throughout culminating the heavily foreshadowed traffic accident that provokes Ae-soon’s reawakening to her latent maternity. Understandably unhappy, the sponsors requested that the next traffic film be “more cheerful and artistic” yet what could be more symbolic (except perhaps a train) of the dangers of modernity than a speeding motorcar? Ae-soon should perhaps have learned to look both ways and cross when the going’s clear, but then again the film seems to insist that the safest place for her to be is inside the cage, that the only path to “happiness” lies in learning to accommodate oneself within its confines as any attempt to deviate from the accepted course will lead to disaster not only for the individual but for society as a whole.


Sweet Dream 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, as well as online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Angels on the Street was screened at the Korean Cultural Centre in conjunction with the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at the BFI Southbank. It is also available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed box set (currently OOP). Not available to stream online.

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