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.


  1. Wow! I've always been curious about Korean silent film. There's really just this one silent surviving?
    Anyway, it sounds fabulous! Thank you so much for the write-up. I hope this makes it to DVD in future.

    1. It wasn't to everyone's taste in presentation but it was true to itself and I really enjoyed the whole thing! I hope it gets a DVD release and they include the full show! They only found these films recently so maybe more could turn up... maybe even in North Korea?!

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