Following 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.