Thursday, 28 February 2019

New school… Tuition (1940), BFI Early Korean Cinema Season

This film was only rediscovered in 2014 in the Chinese Film Archive and of the dozen or so featured in this joint season of the BFI and Korean Culture Centre, it might well be my favourite. Based on a story by a fourth-grade schoolboy it tells the story of a similar boy’s struggle to get by in the face of poverty and illness. In comparison to other more overt melodramas, it offers the most naturalistic take on life under the Japanese whilst still offering a compelling and very satisfying narrative.

Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945 and by the forties, as tonight’s supporting feature Patriots Day in Joseon, showed, the province was being told to be more grateful and supportive of the empire as the Sino-Japanese war progressed through its third year. By this stage Japanese was the chosen first language and yet, Tuition, though originally scripted entirely in that language was re-written to include extensive sequences in Korean.

As if that wasn’t challenging enough it also showed the poverty that could affect even the most hard-working and able of families with a story in which a young boy is left looking after his grandmother as his parents leave to make money as peddlers. That hard work and ingenuity plus steadfast loyalty and love triumph in the end is one thing but these are not necessarily Japanese traits despite the warmth shown by the Japanese school teacher who is the only major non-Korean character.

Directed primarily by Choi In-gyu (Angels on the Street) and Bang Han-joon who stepped in after the former was taken ill, the film is very well-made and seemingly went down a storm both in Korea and Japan where it was praised for illustrating “… the possibility of Joseon filmmakers to produce art films unstained by commercialism.” This point gets to the heart of Tuition’s enduring appeal, it presents as an honest film, treading a path the makers wanted to and telling a sentimental tale with humour and astute observation almost as if the original intentions of the 11-year old writer had been fully carried through.

At one point our young hero, Wu Yeong-dal (Jeong Chan-jo) is arguing with his deadly rival, the smartest girl in the class, An Jeong-hui (Kim Jong-il), over wood they are collecting until they look down to see rice fish in the stream; they immediately stop and work together to catch them. Thus, are friendships made by a mutual fascination with nature whether it be free fishes or even just the cucumber plants Jeong-hui sketches; are you interested in science asks the teacher, “no, I like drawing…” comes the reply.

The film shares its young protagonists’ fascination with discovery and, culminates in Yeong-dal’s epic 24-kilometre solo walk to seek help from his auntie in which we share his brave delight in finding his own way across his country via foot, ox-cart and bus.

We first encounter the two friends-to-be arguing over a football in the playground and then competing to impress their tutor, Mr Dashiro (Susukida Kenji) in class. Jeong-hui outdoes Yeong-dal by drawing their town on the map of Korea fibbing that her father had taken her there on the train. She’s got front and that rubs the boys the wrong way but soon she and Yeong-dal are united by shared interests and their mutual difficulty in paying their tuition fees.

At home Yeong-dal lives with his grandma (Bok Hye-suk) who struggles at the best of times until she falls ill and he must care after her as the money and food begins to run out. He’s not heard from his parents in months and begins to give up hope as everyday the mailman passes them by. He begins to skip school even as neighbours pitch in to help and even when Mr Dashiro subs him the two dollars to pay his school fees, he ends up having to give it to grandma’s landlord… there seems no end to their poverty trap until, in desperation, grandma thinks of her distant sister.

Will there be a happy ending? It doesn’t matter when a film is this engagingly charming and when you already know that Mun Ye-bong was playing Yeong-dal’s mother, you can expect a big finish and the bucolic dénouement does not disappoint.

The acting from the youngsters is especially impressive and is credit to the direction and a generosity of spirit that still leaps from the screen. Definitely one to watch out for and proof that even in the dark days, creativity and hope continue to drive us onwards from the screen.

Mun Ye-bong - perhaps the major film star of the colonial period in Korea?

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Sex and the city… Sweet Dreams (1936)/Fisherman’s Fire (1938), BFI Early Korean Cinema

Mun Ye-bong, the first Korean film star? 
Sweet Dreams was rediscovered in the Chinese Film Archive in 2005 and is the earliest surviving Korean sound film and a fine example of the melodramatic fare that typified the cinema of the time. The dialogue is in Japanese with Korean subtitles and reflects the increasing control of the colonial government even though this is not a propagandist film, except for a strong message on the importance of road safety and motherhood.

The film was originally seven reels and was badly damaged when found, and there are some narrative jumps that result that can’t be laid at the door of director, Yang Ju-nam, who has some interesting ideas. A fight occurs off screen with appropriate sounds and the odd character falling into view, there is a good use of space, overhead shots of characters in pivotal conversations, tracking shots and extensive close-ups of the film’s star, the very striking Mun Ye-bong as things reach their fateful conclusion.

There are also some glorious shots of the streets and buildings of this distant Seoul, wide streets populated by very few cars – unimaginable now – and fascinating glimpses of hotels, cafes and theatres.

Tense reflection, Lee Geum-ryong and Mun Ye-bong
Mun Ye-bong plays Ae-soon a discontented house-wife married to a serious man, Lee Seon-ryong (Lee Geum-ryong) who frets over her continuous shopping and general galivanting. We see a bird in a cage, an image of how Ae-soon sees herself, even as she ignores her daughter Jeong-hee (rather splendidly played by Yoo Seon-ok). The couple row and Ae-soon leaves amidst genuinely distressing scenes as she pushes her daughter back as she slams the door… father walks slowly back into the room and comforts his daughter.

Ae-soon is picked up by a dodgy-looking chap with a sharp suit and spivvy moustache, Yoon Byeong-ha (Lim Woon-hak), who offers her the chance of the good life even though he’s all mouth and must steal to maintain the lifestyle. Ae-soon becomes bored and flirts with a theatre performer, sending him flowers which he gives to another performer, getting the measure of this her: “pretty flowers have thorns…”

As Ae-soon follows her dream of the sweet life through wealthy-male acquisition, her daughter dreams constantly of her mother’s love and the loss of happiness; it’s manipulative but believably painful. As with all melodrama there will be a balance and as Ae-soon shops her boyfriend after he pulls off a messy robbery, fate is about to intervene…

Mun Ye-bong and Lim Woon-hak
On this evidence, Mun Ye-bong was deservedly a star and has the emotional flexibility to accompany the looks. She is also in three of other extant films from this period, also included in the BFI/Korean Culture Centre’s season – Angels on the Street (1941), the full-on propagandist Military Train (1940) and Straights of Chosun (1943).

I watched Angels at the KCC and it’s a fascinating film about two orphaned children saved from the streets by a priest and his family. It was the first Korean film to experiment with live sound recording and has a neo-realist feel way ahead of even the Italians. Well worth seeking out and director Choi In-gyu deserves more recognition for a film that has gorgeous locations and smuggles plenty of native wit despite a full-on propagandist resolution complete with salutes to the Japanese flag.

Angels on the Street (1941)

 Fisherman's Fire (1938)

“She is old enough to do housekeeping here.”
“Housekeeping? Your wife can do housekeeping…”

This film was a different kettle of fish… but with the same melodramatic drivers and a stricter, more old-fashioned underlying morality. Young girl leaves the fishing village for the bright lights of Seoul; what could possibly go wrong?

Director Ahn Chul-yeong paints a lovely picture of the coastal life and this is a well-edited, visually poetic film with lingering shots of tumultuous seas set against a patient shoreline and a strong-featured cast. It looks idyllic and you wonder why anyone would want to leave it for the smelly old city unless, the y had to. The dialogue is recorded in studio and has the ambience to go with it, early days but Sweet Dreams sounded more naturalistic to me.

In-soon (Park Rho-kyeong) has just come of age and whilst her conservative fisherman father is keen for her to do the washing and cleaning she wants to explore, get educated and earn the money he is struggling to make… Sadly Dad gets lost at sea and, in debt to the dastardly money lender Mr Chang, her mother agrees to sell her to him only for his son, Chul-Soo, to offer to clear the debt… He has reasons of his own, of course, and is trying to steal her away from her true love, handsome fisher-boy Chun-Seok.

She ends up going with Chul-Soo to Seoul and things get very complicated and, frankly, very frank despite her pal Ok-Boon trying to lead her onto the straight and narrow. One thing leads to another and destitution may surely be followed with serious moral and physical consequences unless there’s a way of returning to the simple bliss of fishing.

A lovely-looking film and another precious snapshot of a lost age.

In-soon (Park Rho-kyeong) and her city "host" Chul-Soo
There’s still one week to go with the quietly-subversive Tuition (1940) on Tuesday 26th (Mun Ye-bong is in that too) and Hurrah! For Freedom (1946) on 28th – appropriately completing things with a celebration of Korea’s liberation from Japanese control after a quarter of a century. Details on the BFI and KCC sites.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Tell not show… Red Desert (1964), BFI with introduction from Enrica Antonioni

"...the Giuliana in Red Desert is  not an invention of mine and I have found people like her everywhere... 

Antonioni was inspired to make this film by seeing a row of trees outside his hometown of Ferrara dying as a result of pollution from new factories. He had a scene in which he painted hundreds of trees white to show the impact but it rained and he had to abandon the shot… but he had other shots up his sleeve and, most importantly, he had Monica Vitti.

Introducing this film was Enrica Antonioni, the director’s partner for 36 years and who also worked as producer and actor in his films from The Passenger onwards. Here she described herself as not so much an expert of cinema but of the man and of the artist, who she remains passionately committed to, spearheading the ongoing screening of his work and the maintenance of his position amongst the finest filmmakers. She explained the title of this film which Michelangelo was originally going to call Blue and Green, as being about the desert man is making; a virile, blood-drenched wasteland in which one must find new ways to survive. As a seeker, the director felt at home in as, after the success of Blow Up he headed for the barren landscapes of Zabriskie Point before getting Jack Nicholson lost in the Sahara for The Passenger.

In his first colour film, red predominates making this one of the greats of scarlet cinema up there with say, Red Shoes, Taxi Driver and Deep End. It’s a state of mind as well as the most primeval warning of nature, fight or flight also hell and despair. If this is Antonioni’s ecological film it is also his most specific film about neurosis with Monica Vitti playing Giuliana, a woman driven to psychiatric trauma by an inability, as Enrica pointed out, to assimilate with her surroundings and the New Environment of post-war industrialisation.

She quoted her husband in saying that acceptance and adaptation went hand in hand, and that our survival depends on this. Like a Bedouin he was willing to see the best in the environments that are always important in his films – concrete alienation would be replaced by geographic only after this trip to the increasingly polluted desolation of northern Italy – he was born in Ferrara, a land of mists, which fired his imagination and which features in this film as the characters head off to a shack on the coast for a bawdy weekend and are shocked to see a huge container ship emerge outside their window, the fog obscuring its approach.

The film opens with eerie, fractured electronic music from Vittorio Gelmetti, as Giuliana and her child, Valerio, take a seemingly innocent walk along the road outside her husband’s factory where a strike is taking place. It’s another of his extended set-pieces and when suddenly a member of the union hails a lone strike-breaker, we see the individual under pressure from collective forces beyond his control. Monica approaches a striker and buys a half-eaten roll from him; this is not what we were expecting from this smart glamorous woman and, as she hides behind a hedge and eats the food, she was perhaps too frightened to take elsewhere.

This was Vitti’s fourth film with her then partner, and it is perhaps her most vulnerable and telling performance and we really have to study her hard to follow a nuanced and complex – frustrating and rewarding – emotional journey that could, perhaps only be delivered by such a close, cinematic couple. Not unusually for Michelangelo’s films, a woman in search of a deep connection, is ultimately miss-read even by, in this case even a sensitive and emotionally intelligent man and we can only guess at the inspiration.

Richard Harris (you know, Jared’s Dad!) plays successful entrepreneur Corrado Zeller – a friend of Giuliana’s husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) – a man who is always on the move and never settled whether it’s in his home town of Turin or the city he grew up in, Bologna… Clearly, he still hasn’t found whatever it is, Bono, that he’s looking for and, as he plans a business in South America, he very much decides he’d like to take a trip to Giuliana.

Carlo Chionetti and Richard Harris
Antonioni sets up this vague love triangle almost in passing as the concern of Ugo is his wife’s mental health; she is in recovery and treated with child-like care by his business-like, brain; there’s money to be made and factories to build. Even their apartment is cold and angular with the only warmth being provided by a Romanesque stool, stuck out, unnaturally on a landing, providing no comfort.

The full background to Giulana’s breakdown is only gradually revealed and the couple plus Corrado and three pals head off for a wild weekend in the cramped quarters of that small “love shack” on the coast where much drink is consumed and boundaries are nearly broken… Then the ship arrives and it appears to be quarantined meaning that the couples run off before, Giulana in a panic almost drives her car over the end of the quay…

Gradually Giulana reveals more to Corrado, especially when Ugo goes off on business and we think we know where it’s heading when she tells him if only her husband would ask the same questions about her health. She crashed a car and, it transpires tried to take her own life and Corrado takes this all in his stride, saying all the right things, which I’m sure he believes. It is only when, after her son tricks her into thinking he has polio, that, in desperate relief after he reveals his deception, she runs to find Corrado at his hotel…

The romantic union the film had been hinting it doesn’t quite transpire and in one of the director’s more powerful scenes of heterosexual confusion, the man fails to give the woman what she really needs. As ever, these moments feel autobiographical and, indeed, Enrica says that this film was his last “purely autobiographical…” as he wanted to move far beyond his bourgeoise upbringing. I do wonder if she and Monica sometimes watch these films together and laugh in recognition, smiling over their Campari as another classic Michelangelo-moment is revealed.

There’s, of course, far more to the film than this but redered with Carlo Di Palma's incredible cinematography, this believable story of mental illness at a time of change and danger, it is hard to better. I’ve said it before but watching Antonioni is like watching a silent film, the dialogue is sparse and the expressiveness of the leads always at such a high level, especially Monica, Jean, Marcello, David, Vanessa, Sarah and Jack… you spend two hours reading their facial “intertitles” always engaged and never quite sure.

He always leaves a little meaning left undiscovered… it took him a long time to put these films together and, for these persistent mysteries, you can see it was worth it: “I look and tell what I see, I do not show…”

In her conclusion, Enrica Antonioni quoted her partner:

 “…much of humanity has not yet adapted to the new times, it has not filled the gap between moral antiquity and (today)… neurosis reveals the concerns… the Giuliana in Red Desert is  not an invention of mine and I have found people like her everywhere, it’s not me, it’s our stories that venture into psychopathology and if we were all aware that we live in a state of neurosis, society would find a solution. Otherwise men in crisis will inevitably bring the World to ruin.”

And this, as she said, was fifty years ago.

The BFI Antonioni has been a joy and each screening has revealed so much more about the work especially with tonight’s introduction: this is a director who’s work still inspires and still carries so much meaning. Next up I have Zabriskie Point so we’re ending with a bang.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Silent Seoul… Crossroads of Youth (1934), BFI Early Korean Cinema launch with director Kim Tae Yong

This was the opening of a BFI season subtitled “Lost films of the Japanese colonial period” and none was more nearly lost than Crossroads of Youth the only silent film remaining from this period, one that was badly damaged and not even a finished edit when it was rediscovered in 2007.

I talked to restoration director Kim Tae Yong (director of Memento Mori, Family Ties and Late Autumn) before the screening and he explained how he’d been invited onto the restoration project to re-edit as well as complete the edit on a film that didn’t quite make sense on first viewing. There are no inter-titles and he ended up watching it over a hundred times in order to establish plot and character. With one clear male hero and two female leads, it was only through lip-reading one of the characters calling lead actor Lee Won-yong her “brother” that he realised the relationship between the two. There a narrative looseness which is only fully appreciated when you see the film screened live when the importance of his editing and scripting is also clear.

Sin Il-seon
This was a silent film screening unlike any other I’ve ever witnessed, in addition to a Korean Byeonsa – a more active version of a Japanese Benshi – performed with gleeful energy by Cho Hee Bong, we had two actors, Hwang Minsu and Park Hee-von (who began with K-Pop combo M.I.L.K.) who sang parts echoing the central love story with West-end panache. Accompaniment was provided by composer Lee Jinwook on keyboards, Shin Jia on accordion, Oh Seung Hee on double-bass and Sim Jeongeun on violin an ear-popping combination of styles that seamlessly supported the narrative on and off screen.

The film has been screened several times and Tae Yong confirms that the overlaid narrative continues to evolve with a constant stream of commentary from Cho Hee Bong, all in Korean and veering from the daft to laugh-out loud hilarious. This is not silent film by “the rules”; the Byeonsa narration is invasive, commenting on our hero’s eye make-up, lascivious shots of the women and generally adding a third-party perspective dressed in a pith helmet with a pot of hot tea at his side. But this is not a Western silent film and for this last survivor this is an absolutely-joyful celebration of Korean culture and it’s as close as you can get to Silent Seoul as is possible without an eleven-hour plane flight (and a Tardis).

Lee Won-yong, Sin Il-seon and Kim Yeong-sil
This unique mix suited their silent style and Tae Yong says Byeonsa were more popular than actors with the audience wanting to see them as much if not more than the film for the added value they added to intensely emotive cinema, “...a narrator is the best way to tell a very sentimental story they can show their emotions they can deliver…”.

Tonight our Byeonsa was on flamboyant form as he introduced a tale “from the old days” as a train works its way along the tracks to Gyeongseong Station – now Seoul – symbolising the arrival of “youth” to the capital in search of opportunity and perhaps love… we see Yeong-bok (Lee Won-yong) a young “handsome fellow” among the crowd, a railway porter. He helps a young woman and her mother off the train even though he knows they can’t tip him…

Yeong-bok stares into the middle distance, the screen goes out of focus and we have the oldest surviving flashback in Korean cinema as the camera re-focuses on some lovely shots of the Korean countryside from cinematographer Lee Myeong-woo, including a tracking shot of our hero entering the village. Many filmmakers had been trained in Japan and had seen a broader range of western cinema too and the shots are well made if a little raw.

Depth of field: Yeong-ok is out of focus and unsure but bad-guy Gae Cheol knows what he wants
Yeong-bok is promised to Bong Seon and has been earning her hand in marriage living with her family for seven years, but things will not work out and the Byeonsa fills us in on the details from the lost footage – a rich man came in with a better offer whisking Bong Seon away. Yeong-bok headed for the city leaving his mother and sister Yeong-ok (Sin Il-seon) behind.

Back in the present, a “modern man” and a loan shark Gae Cheol greets Ju Myeong Gu who, surprise, is the very same rich man from the country who whisked Bong Seon away from Yeong-bok. Now he has come to the city for some “action” in the company of his dodgy mate. The two head to a bar/brothel where the madame introduces them to a young woman sitting at the bar, mourning her recently-passed mother, it is, of course, Yeong-ok who has come in search of her brother…

Kim Yeong-sil
Talking of which, we meet Yeong-bok’s new girl, Gye Soon (Kim Yeong-sil) a petrol station “gas girl”, who puts up with his drunken disinterest as he wastes away his days with his two pals. Sweet Gye Soon looks after her sister and ailing father who has fallen deeply in debt to the loan sharks and, unless she can find a better paid job, will be forced to marry her off. Heartbroken, she writes to Yeong-bok and the two have a poignant discussion at a well where they wonder if life is worth living and whether they should try to escape… serious stuff this melodrama, as the Byeonsa might say.

The baddies take Yeong-ok and the club madame to the golf club for a weekend of fore-play. Gae Cheol is pursuing and will not take no for an answer… the morning after, the focus literally moves out from Yeong-ok, devastated after having given in, then back in on Gye Soon who is thinking of Yeong-bok. Ahn Jong-Hwa's direction has many delicate touches.

Gye Soon bumps into Madame and is properly introduced to Yeong-ok – unbeknownst to her, her lover’s brother now attached to another… they take her for a meal and soon she become drawn into their world. The commentary has this as her first ever trip in a lift, there’s a theme of modernity as well as western ways changing society… the contrast between the rural idyll and the impact of money on happiness… and with money comes beer and other western temptations. The baddies get wasted in smart suits and prey on the women in ways both clear and startling, Hays would have had kittens.

It’s a worthy of a Victorian novel but a classic set up and even though you know where all of this will probably lead the narrative is well controlled. Once all the pieces of the tragedy are in place and the three heroes could hardly sink any lower there is an absolute stormer of a finish that is dynamic and very satisfying: you can’t fail to be carried away and this is irresistible, communal, cinema.

“He is no longer the tamed ox, he marches like a tiger!”
The acting is impressive across the board with Lee Won-yong an exceptional leading man – handsome and deftly expressive. Sin Il-seon is equally impressive as his forlorn sister and Jong-Hwa is especially fond of close-ups showing her emotional transitions as he is of Kim Yeong-sil, so capable also of sophisticated expression. It is a shame there is not more available to see these professionals further work but that makes this film even more precious.

I couldn’t sort out who plays what (there’s no cast list identification apart from the above) from the following performers Park Yeon, Moon Kyeong-sim, Park Je-haeng and Choy Myeong Hwa but who ever played Gae Cheol deserves special mention; a truly memorable baddie with a most excellent moustache!

Lee Won-yong
Returning to my discussion with director Kim Tae Yong, he feels that the narrator is the best way of expressing the emotions of what is a very complicated story. He compares the film to a soap opera in its complexity and, after the film was discovered in 2007, he watched it hundreds of times to work out the story, characters and their relationships. Certainly, the film is different to contemporary Japanese silents and Tae Yong identifies a need to smuggle in Korean sensibilities under the watchful gaze of the occupying Japanese. This would explain the sense of humour so powerfully in evidence; a coded comedy of emotional solidarity.

The film was last screened in London at the Barbican in 2012 and. Whilst the source material is unchanged, the narrative and performance has evolved with Tae Yong seeing new meanings as he tries to connect with the original intensions of Ahn Jong-Hwa stressing that “…this is not my film I need to find his way”.

The big finale
As the Japanese occupation drew on there were more restrictions on film makers, the first Korean film was made in 1919 in relative freedom although the director of film the Sin Il-seon made in 1926 was arrested. She married and left the business until her return for this film under the direction of Jong-Hwa, who was not a “politically dangerous” film-maker and more focused on action movies. The Thirties were a period of relative stability in Korea but as the decade progressed the pressure to make more propagandist films increased as the BFI series will show.

After liberation and the Korean war, Tae Yong says that the film makers from this era found their way more in television than films with the output of the fifties and sixties and beyond founded in the same style of sentimental melodrama. Which makes this amazing mixture of his direction, live performance and silent film even more poignant: after so much disruption, national creative character proves indomitable.

Details of the season are on the BFI site as well as the Korean Culture Centre’s – screenings being split across the two.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

An interview with KCC UK’s Hyun Jin Cho - Early Korean Cinema, BFI & KCCUK season 7th-28th February

Hyun Jin Cho is the film curator of the Korean Cultural Centre and she has played a major role in the programming of the BFI’s new season of rare Korean films, cinema few will have been familiar with but which opens the windows on a period of unexpectedly rich cultural output. I met with her at the Korean Cultural Centre in London to discuss the series.

The Japanese took charge of Korea in 1910 and it was only in 1945 after Second World War that they left; a period in which it’s hard not to look for parallels with say the British and India. The films in this series cover the period from 1934, Korea’s oldest surviving film Crossroads of Youth (1934) to the liberation with Hurrah! For Freedom (1946), the first film after independence, and Korea (1946) which details the fight against the occupiers. That film’s director, Choi In-gyu, had previously worked on propaganda films for the Japanese, and there are some of those included in the season too; as with film from other cultures under military and totalitarian rule, creativity inevitably wins through and what remains is a powerful testimony to the independent spirit of Korea during this time

Mun Ye-bong in Sweet Dream
Initially the idea was proposed by Kate Taylor-Jones of the University of Sheffield who has written extensively on colonial East Asian colonial cinema and, whose book, DivineWork, Japanese Colonial Cinema and its Legacy, has just been published. She worked with Jin and the KCC to programme the series which is an unprecedented compilation of recoved films from a dark time in the country's history.

The Korean Film Archive were involved in not only restoring the films but also finding them and the series includes everything that is available that has been archived… just eleven films out of the 157 made between 1910 and 1945. But there is still time to discover more and as Tuition was only discovered as recently as 2014, there is hope.

That said, in addition to the usual perilous state of film, pretty much the whole country was destroyed  in the Korean War years and preserving film was obviously not a priority at a time when nitrate prints were cut up to make hats. Now people’s perception of archiving has changed… as it has all round the World and we are very lucky to be able to view this diverse and fascinating glimpse into life between 1934 and liberation.

Having seen Crossroads of Youth (1934), the earliest of these films, I was impressed by the technique and the direction; it’s a lovely film with naturalistic acting and confident camerawork. Like others, the director Ahn Jong-hwa was exposed to the Japanese cinema technique and technology, as well as the influence from early Hollywood. Some of the film crew were either Japanese or Japanese trained; as with Britain and its empire the mother country wanted to expand to cultural dominance as well.

Japan wanted Korea to effectively be as part of the country, and a number of films of these films reflect this and not just obvious propaganda films like Military Train (1938) and Volunteer (1941) but even in seemingly innocent films like Tuition (1940).

Tuition (1940) 

Based on a story written by an eleven-year old boy, who submitted it to a competition aimed at celebrating the Japanese occupation, Tuition shows a boy’s efforts to overcome poverty in order to educate himself. It’s another charming film and with strong, naturalistic performances. Originally scripted in Japanese, the “official” language of occupied Korea, the film used Korean for the domestic settings, a reflection of reality, and Japanese in the more formal environs of school, just about as far as you could go and, as Hyun Jin Cho notes “…some kind of small resistance.”

 Given the circumstances protests such as this were subtle and, not dissimilar to the smuggled subtexts of soviet cinema but this series is more about the chance to see the skills of the film-makers as well as the social context they provide on a little-seen cinematic culture.

They want you as a new recruit...
Not that people weren’t keeping score… Choi In-gyu, who co-directed Tuition co-operated with the Japanese – a lot of people did, of course - but even directing Korea (1946) after liberation, he was not forgiven; as Jin says “people didn’t buy into it … and he didn’t work very much in Korea after this.” He ended up moving to another country.

I ask the obvious question about which films are Jin’s favourites but she stresses the need to see the whole series. Many seasons focus on a Director or a genre but this one is all about a time and a place and across the eleven titles it is hoped that it will give the viewer an idea of what Korean society was like and how they lived: “…because it’s a sequence of history, the whole thing tells a bit of the story you have to piece together.”

In this way Angels on the Street (1914) – one of the first realistic films and showing at the KCCUK on 12th February (link here) – is as telling as Japanese propaganda films are in terms of revealing the bigger picture or the more melodramatic Sweet Dream (1936) which follows a bored housewife as she abandons her family to search for love and excitement in Seoul. There’s a similar story for Fisherman’s Fire in which a young woman is seduced away from her poor fishing village only to become a bar girl (gisaeng) in the city.

Spring on the Korean Peninsula (1941)
Then there is Spring on the Korean Peninsula (1941) which offers a fascinating insight into the Korean film industry of the period. The film saw a young filmmaker and his crew struggle to bring the famous Korean story of Chunghyang (the most famous Korean pansori, a traditional narrative song) to the big screen. There are also short films with a more purely propagandist aim such as Patriots Day in Joseon and Japanese Chronicles.

Taken together they create a powerful sense of place and time and you’ll just have to see as many screenings as possible to get the picture. It’s going to be a special series of films and one to treasure.

It all begins with the sold-out spectacular of Crossroads of Youth (1934) the only silent film and one which is presented with Benshi-style narrators along with Korean musicians. It reflects a performance tradition not dissimilar to Japans and Chinas and also the beginnings of all cinema where films were always mixed-media entertainments in theatres, circus and fairs… People were less literate than in the West and so perhaps more explanation was required; it is one of the highlights of the series and it’s a shame they couldn’t run it again. The narrator is a very well-known actor in Korea and they were also lucky to be able to bring the original group of musicians too.

Crossroads of Youth (1934)
“It’s a going to be very big production!” Jin smiles, aware of how surprised and delighted London is about to be by this aspect of her country’s newly-recovered cultural past.

Full details of the season are on the BFI and KCCUK websites.