1934 - 2009

Excavation of Colonial Joseon Feature Films during Japanese Imperialism

Korean Film Archive

A Search for the Oldest Korean Film

It was between 2004 and 2005 when the Korean Film Archive launched its full scale excavation of colonial Korean films made during Japanese imperialism and began to witness some amazing results.

1st report on the collection of plays on film stored in the China Film Archive 

November 1-6, 2004

The Korean Film Archive’s survey team including Director Yi Hyo-in visited the China Film Archive (Director: Chen Jingliang) to confirm the existence of Military Train (Gun-yong-yeolcha, Seo Gwang-je, 1938), Fisherman's Fire (Eo-hwa, An Cheol-yeong, 1938), Angeles on the Streets (Jib-eop-neuncheon-sa, Choi In-kyu, 1941), and Volunteer (Ji-wonbyeong, An Seok-yeong, 1941), and discussed making copies for Korea. 

December 6, 2004 

Acquisition of all 4 films including Military Train to Korea complete 

The Korean Film Archive survey team visiting the China Film Archive in 2004

“S#1 Beijing 1, 

On the second day’s meeting, I heard his opinions on various information we had received from China on Korean films. He thrust down a letter on the desk saying we must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for “Arirang,” which was obviously a scam, and advised me not to fall for it. Of course, I wanted to confirm the truth, but my true intention was to show him that I trusted him and would listen to his opinions. After giving advice, Director Chen said something to Jin Mei and received a document. He handed it over to me. “Military Train,”“Fisherman’s Fire,”“Angeles on the Streets,” and “Volunteer” were listed on the paper along with their serial numbers. My mind was boggled. When I raised my head to look at Director Chen, he gave me a smile and said he would hand them over if I wanted them.

- Yi Hyo-in, Finding Korean Films Hidden Overseas, Excavation of “Sweet Dream” (Lullaby of Death) (Mimong), film 2.0, March 17, 2006

Database search during the 2005 visit to the China Film Archive, China

2nd report on the collection of plays on film stored at the China Film Archive

November 7, 2005

Confirmed existence of 2 colonial Korean films made during Japanese imperialism

November 15-16, 2005

The Korean Film Archive survey team visited the China Film Archive to confirm the existence of 3 films, “Sweet Dream” (Lullaby of Death, Mimong, Yang Ju-nam, 1936),“Spring of Korean Peninsula” (Ban-do-uibom, Lee Byung-il, 1941), and “Straits of Joseon” (Joseonhaehyeob, Park Gi-chae, 1943) and made agreements on making copies for Korea.

December 27, 2005

Acquisition of 3 films including “Sweet Dream” (Lullaby of Death, Mimong) in 35mm print completed. 

S#4 Beijing 2

I received a strange call from a trading company stationed in China in August 2005, whose name I had heard for the first time. … The caller said they possessed many Korean films made before Korea’s independence from Japanese imperialism and suggested that I purchase them at $100,000 per movie. … They definitely did not have the films. At the time, I had a Korean agent based in Beijing and asked him to pay a visit to the China Film Archive. I selected a few movies the strange caller had said they had and asked him to inquire about them with the Chinese archive. And the Film Archive confirmed they had two of the films. They were “Spring of Korean Peninsula” and “Straits of Joseon.” Everything had been settled. Yes. It was time for action. I sent a letter to the China Film Archive and also rushed two of my staff over to Beijing. We obtained permission to search the database which was strictly restricted. Our employees took a list of dozens of Korean films made before the independence and the names of directors, actors and actresses, and staff. The next day, I got a call from them saying that they found “Sweet Dream.”

- Yi Hyo-in, Finding Korean Films Hidden Overseas, Excavation of “Sweet Dream” (Lullaby of Death) (Mimong), film 2.0, March 17, 2006

In 2006, we acquired a database list of Japanese films produced before 1945 from the China Film Archive and discovered Dear Soldier (Byeongjeongnim, Bang Han-jun, 1944) produced by Chosun Army Press Section.

May 18, 2006

Received a list of information on films from the China Film Archive in the form of document.

June 5, 2006

Discovered Dear Soldier and You and Me (Heo Yeong, 1941) on the list.

August 17, 2006

Acquisition of the 35mm print of Dear Soldier completed.

Dear Soldier (Produced by Chosun Film, Bang Han-jun, 1944)

Eight feature films in just three years was quite an amazing discovery since only three had been acquired by the Korean Film Archive from Japan’s Toho Educational Film Company in February 1989 during their search for colonial Joseon feature films made during Japanese imperialism: Portrait of Youth (Jeolm-eunmoseub, Toyota Shiro, 1943), Suicide Squad of the Watchtower (Manglu-uigyeolsa, Imai Tadasi, 1943), and Vow of Love (Sa-rang-uimaeng-seo, Choi In-kyu, 1945). 

Straits of Joseon credits. Resource film / Copy preserved by the China Film Archive/ Hubei Film Studio / 1986 print

How did the prints of colonial Korean films made during Japanese imperialism end up at the China Film Archive?

Objective records through which we can trace the history of these prints are the first print parts of Sweet Dream and Straits of Joseon. 

Sweet Dream credits. Resource film / Copy kept by the China Film Archive / Printed at Changchun Film Studio
<Sweet Dream>(1936) @YouTube

“In the first part of the print of “Sweet Dream,” it indicates that the film was printed at Changchun Film Studio and kept at the China Film Archive.

The former Northeast Film Studio was renamed as Changchun Film Studio in 1955. It was founded based on the Manchurian Film Association’s studio before the fall of the Japanese empire.

After the Japanese empire had accepted its defeat on August 15, 1945, the Manchurian Film Association was taken over by the Chinese Eight Route Army and the Russian Army. The Eight Route Army was the first to plan to take over the association, but the Russians are known to be the first to actually take over the equipment and films.

Meanwhile, after talks with the Russian Army, the Eight Route Army decided to reestablish the Manchurian Film Association with the association’s former producers and technical staff. On October 1, 1945, the Chinese army took over all facilities of the film association and founded the Northeast Film Studio.”

(Kim Ryeo-sil, “The Manchurian Film Association and Korean Film,” Korean Film Archive, 2011, p. 48).

However, it’s interesting to know that a Joseon feature film had not been discovered at the Gosfilmofond of Russia, but at the China Film Archive. In the case of Sweet Dream, it can first be assumed that the film had been first taken by the Eight Route Army. Second, as several prints had existed, some from other regions may have been added to the Film Archive’s collection.

Sweet Dream (Gyeongseong Film Studio, Kim So-bong, Yang Ju-nam, 1936)

Meanwhile, in the beginning of the “Straits of Joseon” print, it indicates that the film had been printed at Hubei Film Studio and kept at the China Film Archive. As it was discovered in Hubei, it’s more likely that the film had never been taken by the Russian Army.

Hubei Film Studio was formerly Wuhan Studio founded in 1958. It was renamed as Hubei Film Studio in 1979.

Wuhan Studio was moved from Nanjing by the Chinese Nationalist Party government. When the studio had been taken over by the Japanese empire in October 1938, the Nationalist Party moved the studio once more to Chongqing. The second Sino-Japanese war then came to a deadlock.

As seen here, the locations where colonial Korean films made during Japanese imperialism have been discovered are closely related to the route of the Japanese invasion. This means that Joseon cinema of the time had been included in the Japanese empire’s Greater East Asia Cinema Network. 

The Japanese empire’s invasion of China Source: http://ww2db.com/image.php?image_id=6730
Straits of Joseon (Chosun Film Production Corporation, Park Gi-chae, 1943)

Some believed we had reached a dead-end in our search. But in 2007, thanks to a Korean collector, we found the silent film Turning Point of the Youngsters (Ahn Jonghwa, 1934) filmed with nitrate film. The film was the original negative, not for screening. It’s the first closest to complete silent film to survive, possessing significant historical meaning.

When the Korean Film Archive survey team had visited, Turning Point of the Youngsters was kept inside the cans labeled Eternal Love of Su-il and Sun-ae (Jang-han-mong, Lee Gyeong-son, 1926) and Rainbow (Mujigae, Lee Gyu-hwan, 1936).

Turning Point for the Youngsters was kept by the children of the late Oh Gi-yun, who took over and ran Danseongsa Theater following Korea’s independence until after the Korean War.

There were a total of 9 rolls (4,915ft), One of the rolls was a subtitle roll with “The End” marked on it. One roll (about 700 to 800ft) seems to have included the main part of the film, but due to severe decomposition and vinegar syndrome, it was impossible to check. We began restoring only the other seven rolls.

Sadly, vinegar syndrome had occurred on one of the rolls. Considering the story, it’s assumed to be the part where the leading character Won-yong is in his hometown.
Turning Point for the Youngsters (Keum Kang Kinema, Ahn Jong-hwa, 1934)

In March 2009, parts of the film You and Me (1941) (about two rolls) were found at Japan’s National Film Center and were added to the Korean Film Archive’s collection. The film had continued to draw great interest from a range of historians including film historians both in Korea and abroad. You and Me was produced by Chosun Army Press Section with full support from the Governor-General of Korea. It is the debut work of Joseon director Heo Yeong, widely known by the Japanese name Hinatsu Eitaro(日夏英太郞).

“’You (Kimi)’ refers to the inland people and ‘me (Boku)’ the peninsula people. The hands of ‘you’ and ’me’ have joined and united to protect the magnificent legitimacy of Asia. Praising the sentiments from this beautiful day of sympathy and the noble cries, a charming masterpiece is released.”

Advertisement for You and Me (Kimitoboku), Eiga Junpo(映画旬報), November 1, 1941 publication (No. 30) 

Also with film, Joseon still remains a virgin. As long as today’s films do not merely exist for capitalists or individualist artists, it should only be natural for it to follow national consciousness. The people’s demands cannot solely be resolved with the power of politics. In the future, newly produced Joseon films must fill the gap which the Joseon government’s political power cannot reach and also satisfy the people’s desires. From this aspect, amid the exchange between the two film industries, they must compare who is better without reserve and prepare to fuse the peninsula in order to better the Japanese people. This should be the most important agenda.”

Eitaro Hinatsu in Gyeongseong, June 3, 1941

On the Exchange of the Two Film Industries, “Cinema Review (Eiga Hyoron)” (Yeonghwa Pyeongron), July 1941 issue, p. 50 

In order to continue making films, Joseon filmmakers joined the Japanese government-run film system.

Like Im Hwa had pointed out, Joseon filmmakers, “who had no way of living other than as artists,” may have had no other choice to fulfill their duties of producing films for businesses, the country, the people and themselves. But if we review the Japanese Imperial Period free from the dichotomous paradigm of pro-Japanese versus anti-Japanese filmmakers, we can witness interesting aspects of the colonial modern years engraved in Joseon films of the time. 

Since 2005, a great deal of research and studies were conducted on colonial Joseon film made during the Japanese imperialism. Active interdisciplinary research had been possible thanks to the Korean Film Archive’s efforts and achievements in its search for Korean film of that era.

Since colonial Korean films began to be excavated, the most controversial piece among researchers in Korea was Angeles on the Streets (Koryo Film Association, Choi In-kyu, 1941). In the history of Korean film, from a technical view, it had been referred to as a work of enlightening realism. It had also raised disputes as being pro-Japanese because of the last scene in which the Japanese flag was raised. The dispute further developed into one concerning the frame for “pro-Japanese films.” 

Choi In-kyu applied Neo-realism, which had not yet been introduced in Joseon at the time, through his work “Angeles on the Streets.” We must take note that realism, with regard to the form of film, is the artist’s last remaining means of resistance against militarism.”

Lee Yeongil, The Complete History of Korean Film (HangukYeonghwaJeonsa), 1969(1st edition), 2004(revised edition), p. 202

“These are records not found in Japan! Facts known only in Joseon, which the Japanese calls a part of Japan! Why in heaven are only the roads of Joseon cluttered with bums and beggars? My true intention was to protest to the Japanese administration through this film. After completion, it received the Governor-General award and also the Ministry of Culture award in Tokyo. But unprecedentedly, the Ministry of Culture award was withdrawn under the scheme of the Japanese government and after another censorship, 2,000 feet of the film were cut. This is the sorrow of our nation. I remember standing disheartened at the window of my room for two hours or so at Tokyo Imperial Hotel.”

- Choi In-kyu, Choi In-kyu Cinema Special, From “Frontier” to “The Night Before Independence Day” - 10 Years of My Film Life, Samcheolli Reissue No. 5, September 1948 issue, p. 18

“Of course, this can be seen merely as an excuse made in 1948. Then, the story is much simpler and easier. How could a film made to protest against the Japanese administration receive the Governor-General’s award and the Ministry of Culture award. For this to be authorized and approved, the “award” must be a universal and objective absolute value. If not, it can only be a lie, an error of perception committed by a being striving to justify himself. But I don’t think his words, which are continuously quoted in Korean film history, were a lie. Choi In-kyu may have truly depicted the miserable state of youngsters living on the streets in order to protest against Japanese politicians. And maybe the award from the Japanese government was a just assessment of Choi’s film. (He was furious when the award had been withdrawn.) The question begins with the “truth” of this all.”

- Lee Yeong-jae, Colonial Joseon Film in the Japan Empire, Hyeonsil Munhwa, 2008, p. 168

At the set of “Angeles on the Streets.” From left, Kim Sin-jae, Choi In-kyu
Angeles on the Streets (Koryo Film Association, Choi In-kyu, 1941

“Due to the reasons I’ve just mentioned, Joseon cinema has begun to industrialize and is experiencing a fundamental turning point. Korean filmmakers are in a very discouraging situation indeed. What I mean to say is that they must be discreet with regard to the achievements made by their predecessor, and I am also stressing the fact that they can but only live as artists in this world. Because other fields are reserved for those who are apt for them…Only through honest work can someone offer profits to a company, loyalty to the state, pleasure to the people and self-achievement to oneself.”

- Im Hwa, “Chosun Film Theory (Chosŏn yŏnghwaron),” Chunchu No. 10, November 1941, p. 92 

As we can confirm in the colonial scholar Im Hwa’s writing, the schismatic ideology of Joseon filmmakers of the time and its background are very interesting. Our experience of being once colonized will not disappear by convicting a film for being pro-Japanese. Instead, it is necessary to look into the mentalité of filmmakers who were unable to dispose their personal desire for film and art during the Japanese Imperial Period. We can then probably discover a side of ourselves we were not aware of.

History does not hand down only things we can take pride in. Shame is also a part of our heritage. Moreover, because of the visual aspect, films are valuable historical materials. Films showcase not only the commercial aspects, but also everyday life, language, customs, trends, and social aspects of the times in a comprehensive manner. This is why film art must be valued and respected as a cultural heritage. “

- Kim Jong-won, Information Booklet on the release of independence and pro-Japanese films commemorating the 60th anniversary of independence, “The Joy of Independence and Traces of Suppression (Special screening at the National Assembly and press briefing),” February 28, 2005 

Like UNESCO’s Memory of the World project, Korea is also running a cultural heritage registration system in order to protect Korea’s modern age cultural assets. In 2006, discussions commenced to have old Korean films registered as well. In 2007, Sweet Dream, the only pre-independence film, along with six others produced after the independence were registered as cultural assets. Turning Point for the Youngsters, discovered in 2008, was added to the modern era cultural heritage list in 2012.

Registration as a cultural asset

September 17, 2007:

Sweet Dream (1936) (No. 342)

February 16, 2012:

Turning Point for the Youngsters (1934) (No. 488) 

Old Korean films produced before the independence were selected and registered mainly for being some of the oldest films made in the country. It is now time to prudently evaluate other Joseon feature films withholding the traces of colonization.

Straits of Joseon (Park Gi-chae, 1943) A souvenir photograph taken on location
Credits: Story

Curator — Chung Chong-hwa, Korean Film Archive
Publsher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Arhive
English translation — Free Film Communications

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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