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in not only restoring the films but also finding them and the series includes everything that is available that has been archived… just eleven films out of the 157 made between 1910 and 1945.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.

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