Though 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.