Japan from the inside out

The multiple exposures of early Joseon films

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 15, 2009

THOSE FOLKS interested in the history of Japan, Korea, and international cinema have been delighted by the discovery and restoration during the past five years of the first movies filmed in Korea. Made during the period of Japanese colonization/merger, the films were assumed to have been lost. For that matter, most of Japan’s prewar movies also no longer exist, and the Korean finds are rarer still.

The content of the films themselves is intriguing, to say the least. Here’s a quick translation of an article that appeared in Monday’s edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun about a screening and symposium that will be held in Fukuoka City on Saturday. I’ve appended some more information that I found on Japanese-language websites. The word choice in the article follows that of the author, Prof. Shimokawa Masaharu of the Oita Prefectural College of Arts and Culture.


Since 2004, films made on the Korean Peninsula during the latter part of the colonization period that were thought to have been lost have been discovered in the storage areas of the China Film Archives in Beijing and other locations. The Joseon films of the colonization period are referred to as the Dark Age in South Korea, and it’s not just because the country had become an Imperial vassal state. The films themselves were lost, which agonized those people interested in the field and who wanted to study the history of the medium’s development in South Korea. The work to find these films began after 2000, primarily at the Korean Film Archive in Seoul.

Scene from <em>The Crossroads of Youth</em>

Scene from The Crossroads of Youth

What was the truth of the Joseon colony? Was it plundered, or was it developed? That question is the focus of the historical conflict between the two countries, but one has the sense that emotions based on ethnicity have superseded an investigation of the facts. The realism and impact of the movie medium might well have the power to destroy stereotyped historical interpretations. The Joseon films that have been discovered seem to offer a new perspective for research into the colony during the war.

These movies include the oldest extant Joseon talkie, Mimong (迷夢 or Delusion, 1936, Yang Ju-nam, director); Homeless Angels, a story of urban street children, 1941; Volunteers, a story of wartime mobilization (1941, An Seo-yeong, director); and Korean Strait, 1944. They are sold in South Korea in a series of DVDs called The Excavated Past.

When I watched the DVD given to me in October 2007 by someone involved in the project, I was surprised by the unexpected scenes that unfolded before my eyes. Homeless Angels starts with a night scene of streetcars in the thriving downtown area of Jongno, Seoul. Then a barmaid, her patron, and the street children appear. In Springtime on the Peninsula (1941) modern Western buildings rise from within a traditional Korean residential district. All the movies unquestionably show a city in the midst of modernization.

Some scenes are difficult to understand. The female lead in Volunteers is Mun Ye-bong (N.B.: 文芸峰, an obvious stage name; the hanja mean artistic peak). After liberation she became an actress in North Korea. She was 24 at the time of the filming, and her beauty recalls Joseon white chinaware.

The last scene is puzzling. She is seeing off her fiancé, who has volunteered for military service. She picks up a Japanese flag that has fallen in the street and regards it with a cynical smile. The camera moves in for a close-up of her face that continues until the movie ends. The meaning of this scene is not clear. (The scene drew the most attention when it was broadcast on NHK television in the program, Korean-Style Cinema: The remnants of opposition.)

The dialogue in the films was entirely in Japanese after 1944. Before then, the dialogue was a rough mixture of Japanese and Korean. Was the prohibition of the Korean language a policy that was due more to the war than to colonization? That question rises to the surface. The place name 京城 (Keijo) often appears in the movies’ subtitles, but the actors invariably say Seoul. The popular theory that the name Keijo was forced on the people while Seoul was forbidden seems to be false.

Heitai-san (Soldier/honorific, 1944, Bang Han-jun, director) will be shown at Kyushu University in Fukuoka City on the 18th. Its theme of the “prosecution of the holy war” is a continuation of the themes of Volunteers and Korean Strait. This will be the film’s first screening in Japan. Following the movie will be a symposium in which Prof. Choi Gil-sun of the University of East Asia will participate. He holds that these works, which had been dismissed as propaganda films, should be understood in the context of the period and for their policy intent as part of the research into the colony. Arima Manabu of the Research Center for Korean Studies will also participate. He says the rediscovered Joseon films will excite those who want to know more about the Korean colony and Japan in the modern era.

I hope this symposium with the participation of such distinguished researchers is successful.


Prof. Shimokawa seems particularly interested in the films with a wartime text, which is understandable, but some Japanese are drawn to other aspects of the movies. One such focus of attention is the depiction of the emergence of a modern, urban consumer culture in Korea during this period.

One example is the 1934 silent film Crossroads of Youth. This was a major discovery for two reasons. First, it is the oldest known silent Korean film in existence, and it was made at the peak of the silent era on the peninsula. (The first talkie was made in 1935.) Second, it has been reproduced from an original print that had been in private hands since liberation. All the films found in other countries were copies of the originals.

joseon bus riders

The Crossroads of Youth looks at life in Seoul from the perspective of a man and his younger sister who move to the capital from their hometown. The opening scene depicts wealthy young businessmen playing golf.

Director An Jong-hua made 12 films from 1930 to 1960, but this is the first one to have turned up. Part of the film was unrecoverable and only 74 minutes remain. The restoration work was performed in Japan.

Another example is the film Mimong, or Delusion, which is the oldest surviving Korean talkie. Only 48 minutes remain of this remarkable movie.

Mimong tells the story of a middleclass housewife who lives in Seoul with her husband and daughter. Her husband grills her about the details of a visit she made to a downtown department store. Fed up with being treated like a “bird in a cage”, as she puts it, she abandons her family. She later meets another man and moves into a hotel room with him. Not long afterwards, however, her romantic interest shifts to a traditional dancer.

She then makes two discoveries. First, her live-in lover at the hotel is not a man of means, as she had thought. He is actually a delivery boy for a clothes cleaner. Second, she finds out that he has been breaking into other rooms at the hotel to steal the guests’ money and valuables, so she coolly reports him to the police.

After hearing that the dancer has left Seoul, she jumps into a taxicab and directs the driver to take her to Seoul Station. She urges the cabbie to step on it, but he gets reckless and runs over a pedestrian, who turns out to be the woman’s daughter. Shamed by her wicked ways, the woman takes poison at her daughter’s bedside.

Forget the plot line and consider this: Life in Seoul during the period of colonization/merger must not have been so harsh as to prevent the 1930s Joseon version of a Desperate Housewife from having enough money and leisure time to gad about in department stores and taxicabs and hop from bed to bed.

Granted, some of the Depression-era movies made at the same time in the United States depicted a lifestyle beyond the means of the theater patrons. Yet those lifestyles, and other more modest but comfortable lifestyles–in which young married women in the cities could afford to shop in department stores–existed nonetheless.

It’s possible that the heroine of Delusion was a patron of the Seoul branch of the upscale Japanese department store Mitsukoshi, which opened there in 1930. Private sector retail operations don’t expand overseas unless they expect to turn a profit. The woman might even have been one of those in the second illustration who chose to stand and hang on to the strap while riding the bus, rather than sit on an open bench–all the better to show off their new watches and rings.

But here’s the most important point: These films are being openly screened in Japan, available to the public free of charge, and discussed at symposiums by Koreans and Japanese together. Scenes are shown on Japan’s quasi-public television network. The work to restore some of them is being done in Japan. Nor are they subject to a ban in South Korea. Anyone with a DVD player can buy a set, take them home, and watch them.

And no one’s making a big fuss over it, though the Japanese are less prone to public self-congratulation than people in some other countries. The newspaper article ran on page nine, just above the fold on the left-hand side.

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