October 2019, arsenal cinema

Spring on the Korean Peninsula: Korean Cinema 1934–1962

JI-OK-HWA, 1958

The first ever Korean film production – Uirijeuk gutu (The Righteous Revenge, Kim Do-san) – was shown in Korean cinemas in 1919. To coincide with the 100-year anniversary of Korean cinema, this program curated by Sulgi Lie and Ansgar Vogt sets its sights on the largely unknown first period of Korean film history. It presents eleven films made between 1934 and 1962 – before the final consolidation of the South Korean film industry in the early 60s – on the Korean peninsula. Few films were made in Korea under Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945). During the Korean War (1950–1953), significant parts of the Korean film industry were also destroyed. What is preserved and still accessible from early Korean film heritage impresses due to its diverse spectrum of different genres, moving between melodrama, coming-of-age stories, war films, comedies, and film noirs. The connecting element between the films in the program is their often highly independent female characters, who attempt to claim their autonomy against social repressions of all kinds.

The oldest film in Korean history still extant is CHE-ONG-CHUN-EUI SIPJARO (Crossroads of Youth, Ahn Jong-hwa, Korea 1934, 17.10., with an introduction by Sulgi Lie), which was shot as a silent film. As no text basis for the film could be found apart from a short synopsis, a newly created dialogue list was put together, overseen by author and director Kim Tae-yong. The film was already screened at the Berlinale Forum in 2013 in a version with speakers, singers, and an orchestra. The melodramatic plot of romance, love, betrayal, and revenge concentrates on the young Young-bok, who sets off from the provinces headed for Seoul after his partner leaves him for another man. Here he meets his new love, who is subject to the attacks of another man. As Young-bok plots revenge, he meets his sister once again, who has been looking for him following the death of their mother. We are presenting a version of the film with German text spoken live (speaker: Matthias Scherwenikas) and a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins.

MIMONG (Sweet Dream, Yang Ju-nam, Korea 1936, 18.10.) was re-discovered in 2005 in the China Film Archive. At the heart of this barely 50-minute long melodrama is Ae-soon, who leaves her husband and child to begin an affair with a shady rich man in hope of advancing her status. Popular leading actress of the time Moon Ye-bong creates the nuanced portrait of a woman torn between traditional family life and the seductions of the modern world. At the same time, the film’s many exterior shots of cafes, hotels, and department stores convey a unique documentary impression of 30s Seoul. Although the local film industry was under the ideological control of the Japanese colonial regime at the time the film was made, MIMONG bears witness to great artistic freedom.

BANDOUI BOM (Spring on the Korean Peninsula, Lee Byong-il, Korea 1941, 18.10.) is a film about filmmaking: under adverse financial conditions, a film team tries to shoot an adaptation of the famous Chunhyang story from the 17th century, which revolves around the scandalous love between a scholar and courtesan which crosses class borders. The elegantly mounted film provides is a fascinating look at the film industry of the time, which had to stand its ground against economic restraints and external pressure. The film posters in the background give an impression of which foreign films (including ones from Germany!) were on Korean screens at the time. The reference to the Chunhyang saga (which Im Kwon-taek was to adapt in 2000) can be interpreted as an act of national cultural resistance to the Japanese occupation.

MIMANG-IN (The Widow, Park Nam-ok, Republic of Korea 1955, 20.10.) focuses on single mother and widow Shin-ja, who is fighting for survival in Seoul just after the war has ended. She is linked to the friend of her dead husband Seong-jin, but doesn’t respond to his romantic advances. She falls in love with Taek instead, who is having an affair with Seong-jin’s jealous wife in turn… As the first South Korean film to be shot by a female director, this 16mm production places a self-determined female protagonist at its heart in almost radical fashion, who doesn’t want to submit to life as a widow and thus seeks new connections. MIMANG-IN is also characterized by remarkable footage of the beach and streets of Seoul. As the last film roll is lost, no restored version exists, with the film thus far only available as a video scan. The last ten minutes also have no sound. After the screening, curators Sulgi Lie and Ansgar Vogt will be talking to the former head of the Korean Film Archive, Cho Sun-hee, about aspects of Korean film history as well as archiving and restoration processes.

JA-YU BU-IN (Madame Freedom, Han Hyeong-mo, Republic of Korea 1956, 21. & 28.10.) A new job at a boutique starts a process of emancipation for housewife Seon-young. She is interested in the new Western way of living in postwar Seoul and listens to her yearnings, colliding in the process with her husband’s traditional grasp of values, who starts an extra-marital affair in parallel. The plot presents a strong female protagonist, who moves out of the social channels imposed upon her in a world of double standards. The film is characterized by its wonderful visual appeal and creates astoundingly ambivalent roles for women. JA-YU BU-IN set controversial social debates in motion.

PIAGOL (Lee Kang-cheon, Republic of Korea 1955, 22.10.) is the story of the last days of group of partisans at the end of the Korean War, who are desperately searching for a way of fleeing to the North. The very fact that the film puts Communist partisans front and center just two years after the end of the war led to accusations of North Korean propaganda. From the perspective of today, PIAGOL comes across as a study of male barbarism: due to the presence of a female combatant, the sexual aggressions among the male partisans lead to an unavoidable escalation. Even if the film suffers from technical restrictions, its unflinching view of male violence appears to anticipate the work of Kim Ki-duk.

In neorealist style, MAEUMUI GOHYANG (Hometown of the Heart, Yoon Yong-kyu, Republic of Korea 1949, 23.10.) tells the story of a small child monk, who lives in a Buddhist monastery and longs for his mother to return. When a young, childless widow (Choi Eun-hee) arrives at the monastery, the boy wants her to be his surrogate mother, just as the widow would like to adopt him as her son. Yet one day, his biological mother suddenly appears. Choi, who advanced to become the biggest female star in Korean cinema by the late 50s, can be seen here in one of her earliest roles. Shot with captivating beauty, the film sensitively sounds out the conflicts between blood bonds and elective affinities.

JI-OK-HWA (A Flower in Hell, Shin Sang-ok, Republic of Korea 1958, 25. & 29.10.) shows the terrible aftermath of war by way of a family and its two adult brothers. The film provides striking social insights into a land in considerable upheaval under US occupation and reveals the harsh realities of everyday life in piercing fashion. This early work by director Shin Sang-ok – already working here with actress Choi Eun-hee, who would later become his wife – underlines in emphatic fashion why he is counted among the most important filmmakers in Korean cinema.

EONEU YEODAESAENGUI GOBAEK (A College Woman’s Confession, Shin Sang-ok, Republic of Korea 1958, 25. & 30.10.) is a hugely emotional film about a poor student who pretends to be the daughter of an important member of parliament to begin a career as a lawyer. She begins to stand up for the rights of underprivileged woman. In empathetic fashion, the film shows solidarity with the suffering of women in South Korean post-war society, where social exclusion and sexism are ubiquitous. Carried by a brilliant star turn by Choi Eun-hee, the film’s sophisticated flashback structure and unusual blend of melodrama and courtroom drama once again bear witness to Shin Sang-ok’s directorial artistry.

YEO-SAJANG (A Female Boss, Han Hyeong-mo, Republic of Korea 1959, 26. & 31.10.) is a fast-paced, aesthetically impressive comedy about the self-confident Joanna, the resolute boss of a women’s magazine. Her fundamentally feminist stance, which she lives out successfully, is challenged unexpectedly when she suddenly meets Yong-ho, who is first her employee and later becomes her husband too. The film is characterized by its numerous comical highpoints, its irreverent treatment of gender roles, and a broad spectrum of different humorous tones.

YEO-PANSA (A Female Judge, Hong Eun-won, Republic of Korea 1962, 27.10., with an introduction by Ansgar Vogt) follows the challenges of a female judge to reconcile family life and profession against numerous obstacles. After Park Nam-ok (The Widow), Hong Eun-won is South Korean’s second female director. She shines a light on the life of a woman in a legal world dominated by men and brings social inequalities to the surface. Thanks to a sophisticated dramatic structure, the filmmaker succeeds in making the plot of the social drama gradually transition into a tense justice thriller with a whodunit plot. (sl/av)

The program was created in collaboration with the Koreanisches Kulturzentrum Berlin, the Korean Film Council, the Committee for Korean Film 100 Years, and with the friendly support of the Korean Film Archive.

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