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Lee Byeong-Il’s 1941 Retelling of The Story of Chunhyang

    

For Korean nationals during the twentieth century’s first few decades, the newly industrialized city—dirt roads and thatched homes giving way to paved streets, street lamps, telegraph lines, department stores, railways, textile factories, and so on—evoked both Japanese hegemony and the glamour of Western techno-culture.1  As such, it summoned a sense of repulsion underlaid with fascination.  Such ambivalence—one shared by Western writers such as Charles Dickens, Charles Baudelaire, Upton Sinclair, Virginia Woolf, and, of course, Karl Marx—can be glimpsed in Lee Byeong-Il’s2 debut film Spring on the Korean Peninsula (1941), where the perils of westernization play out against their allure within an adaptation of the Korean folktale Chunhyangjeon (The Story of Chunhyang).  Infiltrated by, and forced to accommodate the Japanese, Seoul (then renamed “Keijo” by the Japanese administration) functions as the peninsula’s cultural center.  Blending local and imported influences, the Seoul that Lee lovingly captures features rice screens, floor mats, movie posters, books, electric lamps, radios, Greco-Roman miniature nudes, pagodas, electric poles, watch towers, trolleys, and granite blocks (see Figure 1).  Tokyo, meanwhile, comes across as an ominous off-screen presence.  Overshadowing Seoul in both scale and influence, it looms as the ultimate capital, with mixed implications for Lee’s cast.

Lee Byeong-Il's 1941 Retelling of The Story of Chunhyang
Ery Shin, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: A pan shot of Seoul’s tiled roofs.

Although released during the most repressive phase of Japanese censorship and industry control, when all Korean production companies were supplanted by the Japanese-run propaganda firm Chosun Film Co., Ltd., Spring on the Korean Peninsula remarkably elevates itself beyond mere propaganda.3  With the exception of one choppily inserted banquet scene, Spring on the Korean Peninsula contains no predictable conversations regarding the merits of colonial assimilation.  Instead, Lee’s plot revolves around the actual filming of Chunhyangjeon and parallels between the narrative and larger movie at stake.  If Chunhyangjeon relates a wife’s steadfast loyalty to her husband despite a local official’s advances, Spring on the Korean Peninsula traces a film crew’s devotion to their art before financial difficulties and a woman’s refusal to sexually barter herself to a music executive, even if that transaction would release her imprisoned love interest.  Both tales hinge on integrity, the promise of reward if hope and faithfulness are kept near—hence the film’s title that spells spring’s arrival and, with it, spiritual renewal.  That they easily lend themselves as metaphors for Korea’s then-annexation, with the nation’s inhabitants collectively figuring as Chunhyang, adds another meta-critical twist to the motion picture.

Now accessible to the public as part of a DVD collection, The Past Unearthed (2007-09), Spring follows three separate adaptations of Chunhyangjeon: Hayakawa Koshu’s 1923 melodrama, Lee Myeong-Wu’s 1935 remake (the first Korean talkie), and Murayama Tomoyoshi’s 1938 Kabuki-styled theatrical production that toured in both Korea and Japan.4  By 1941, though, the creative climate had palpably shifted.  Riding along the heels of the 1939 ordinance that all Koreans were to assume Japanese-style surnames, only one or two Korean films per year were distributed under the aegis of Japanese rule.  In line with Governor-General Minami’s wishes, all of these films more aggressively promoted Japanese language.  And by early 1942, the year when a local attempt to release the first Korean dictionary was penalized with torture behind bars, not even Korean dubbing was allowed.  All pictures had to be in Japanese for a hypothetically assimilated Korean audience deemed a valuable source for military recruits.5  Hence, Spring on the Korean Peninsula rarely reveals Korean text.  Actors regularly switch between Japanese and Korean speech, but Japanese script dominates the opening credits, public signs, subtitles, letters, and notes. 

Bearing in mind such constraints, Lee’s folkloric material, by its very presence, undermines the imperialist agenda to expunge Korean customs and language.  In a time and place where all movie theaters prefaced screenings with the Japanese pledge of allegiance and pro-war material as part of the 1940 Chosun Film Decree, Spring on the Peninsula’s nostalgically classical emphasis is striking to say the least.  Despite being the exception to the rule, a curiosity among its more straightforwardly institutionalized peers, however, it has garnered relatively little attention compared to, say, Na Un-Gyu’s Arirang (1926), Hong Gae-myeong’s The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon (1936), or Ahn Seok-young’s The Story of Shimcheong (1937).  Even Lee Young-Il and Choe Young-Choi’s The History of Korean Cinema (1988 original; 1998 English translation), one of the first surveys available to English-speaking audiences, omits Spring on the Peninsula, underscoring how obscure it remains.  Only eleven films out of the 140-150 produced during the colonial era are preserved in the Korean film archive today.  Spring was only added to the roster in 2005 when it was stumbled upon in China’s archives.6  Both the film’s 1923 and 1935 forerunners were commercial hits (negative critical reception for the 1935 take notwithstanding), eliciting shouts of exuberance from Korean audiences who were elated to hear their own language, see their own customs and beloved landmarks on-screen.7  And the tale all three of these movies adapt in their own ways has inspired more than seventeen remakes, including Lee Gyu-Hwan’s Chunhyangjeon (1955), Shin Sangok’s Seong Chunhyang (1961), Park Tae-won’s The Tale of Seong Chunhyang (1976), Yu Wonjun and Yun Ryong-gyu’s The Tale of Chunhyang (1980), Han Sanghun’s Seong Chunhyang (1987), and Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyang (2000).8  Its combination of bawdy mirth (love scenes are playfully explicit and drawn out, peppered with talk of “extra orifices” [Rutt and Kim 277], “water-palaces” between legs [Rutt and Kim 279], and piggybacking), intellectualism in the form of puns and copious Chinese literary allusions, a caste-breaking (and therefore politically transgressive) romance, as well as pathos for victims of injustice has lent it the perennial appeal of classics such as One Thousand and One Nights.

Based on the seventeenth-century minstrel ballad Chunhyangga, Chunhyangjeon—the body of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prose works culled from the earlier recitative—patterns itself as a Cinderella-meets-Odyssey story.9  In Namwon, a young aristocrat falls in love with a beautiful commoner, but the latter’s virtue is repeatedly tested before she secures marital bliss for herself.  A magistrate’s son, Lee Mong-Ryong, sets eyes on Chunhyang, the illegitimate daughter of a former courtesan-entertainer (kisaeng), Wol-Mae, and a nobleman.  So enamored is he that he secretly marries Chunhyang that very day.  Wol-Mae consents to the union, but his family must be kept in the dark.  Shortly afterward, Mong-Ryong follows his recommissioned father for Seoul, a new lord, Byun Hak-Do, arrives to oversee the village, and Chunhyang struggles to weather the incomer’s sexual threats.  When she, ever the chaste wife waiting for her spouse’s return, continues refusing his advances, the noble imprisons her out of spite.  Mong-Ryong arrives just in time, however, to avert genuine disaster.  Newly appointed as an undercover royal inspector upon scoring impressively in his civil service exams, he prosecutes the lecherous official in the king’s name, reuniting with his beloved.

At every turn, the price Chunhyang pays for her socially-upward romance—better yet, for an expedient social identity—remains a carefully restrained eroticism.  The fable organizes itself around her defense against an onslaught of predatory desire.  With a self-entitled familiarity he would never have assumed with an upper-class woman, Mong-Ryong summons Chunhyang to him when he first sees her.  On their wedding night, he undresses her and initiates sex in a ritualized bout of coercion.  Mong-Ryong’s replacement in the village badgers Chunhyang to be his mistress.  The public beatings he orders to be doled out upon her when she refuses his terms are reminiscent of rape scenes, her cries of pain following each paddle stroke and bleeding wounds dramatized for maximum voyeuristic effect.  Disguised as a beggar, not unlike Odysseus, Mong-Ryong propositions his wife upon his return, testing her character.  In all of these instances, the heroine resists all overtures.  If her status rests in her untouched nubile body, its compromise serves no strategic purpose.  This isn’t to portray Chunhyang in an unduly calculating light, but merely to reaffirm the narrowness defining her choices.  Women secured their positions by becoming either wives or concubines.

Spring on the Korean Peninsula adapts this age-old subject of sexual exploitation, following a Korean production company’s efforts to render Chunhyangjeon into a feature film.  From the outset, budget and casting issues threaten to topple the project over.  Meanwhile, various backstage romances burgeon.  Both the mis en abyme’s original and replacement heroine, Anna (Baek Lan) and nineteen-year-old Jung-Hee (Kim So-Young), gravitate toward the writer-producer Young-Il (Kim Il-Hae); Young-Il and Mr. Han, the Dong-Ah Record executive funding the movie, become drawn to Jung-Hee; Mr. Han also, incidentally, maintains an on-off affair with Anna.  Once Han refuses to cover the crew’s backed-up rent installments and Anna abruptly departs, Young-Il illicitly reroutes funds from the film’s music department to Director Huh, who is desperate to keep the project alive.  But for all his good intentions, the law catches up with him.  Sued for embezzlement by Han, a physically deteriorating Young-Il is taken into police custody.  Fast-forwarding a few steps, Anna arranges for his release, his condition stabilizes, the film successfully debuts under new management (Bando Productions), Jung-Hee and Young-Il rekindle their affections with Anna’s blessing, and the couple head to Tokyo for further film study.  Both the film and the film-within-a-film dwell on financial and erotic insecurities, as well as those allegories of nationhood these crises connote.  Yet how and why bespeak substantial differences between the two.

The most unsettling, and interesting, question Lee’s work poses, however, doesn’t have to do with the corrupt overlord-figure (record industry bigwig Mr. Han) who pressures the Chunhyang-like Jung-Hee, but the moral equivocation pervading Chunhyang and Mong-Ryong themselves as national allegories.  The character flaws defining Lee’s leads—and the political subtext behind them—are the focus of this essay.  No clear-cut ethical lines frame Lee’s protagonists.  Chunhyang- and Mong-Ryong-types stray from their models in both disposition and behavior upon contact with cities; Japanized city-slickers evince imperial allegiance here, heroism there; countryfolk invoke, at once, a virginal innocence and impotence.  Chunhyang isn’t the Chunhyang we know, and the same goes for Mong-Ryong, their interactions within recently urbanized spaces complicating the notion of the new city as either an unambiguously constructive center of power or spiritual periphery for colonial Korea.  In this regard, Spring on the Korean Peninsula differentiates itself from Ahn Chul-Yeong’s Fisherman’s Fire (1939), where a country girl trying to make her way in Seoul, In-Soon, becomes raped and eventually forced into high-class prostitution.  For Ahn, the further one roams from villages, the faster one descends into vice.

Critical Contexts

Because censorship regulations preceded the film industry in Korea—the first film directed, produced, and acted out by Koreans released in 1919 (Fight for Justice10), a year after the Japanese administration established the first nationalized guidelines for Korea11—the lens through which colonial films gain focus tends to be, inevitably, polemical.  Avoiding the rhetorical excesses of either nationalistic or revisionist camps requires a delicate touch.  At its worst, the former ham-fistedly conceptualizes films as political statements, judging their value on the strength of their call to arms.  Take, for instance, Korean Film: History, Resistance, and Democratic Imagination’s fervently patriotic logic.  One of the most comprehensive Korean film surveys to date, and penned with an old-school Marxist urgency despite its 2003 publication date, it bemoans the dearth of socially conscious films.  Regarding Na Un-Gyu, the authors write, “Na’s films after Arirang often ended in frustration and wandering and did not offer an active vision to the people. […] These films did not analyze or depict the reality of society at that time, and thus they did not raise a consciousness of resistance in the audience as did Arirang” (36).  Social realism sets the standard for serious filmmaking.  And its ideal variant seems to be satire that culminates in a heroic working-class revolution, one brimming with images of anonymous factory workers or farmhands battling their overseers.  Lonely tragic heroes, madmen, and martyrs lead such utopian impulses.  Women fare as subsidiary figures.

Understandably seeking to reign in the more extravagantly nationalistic sentiments shaping the field, other film critics and historians deemphasize political motives, that is, the question of what art “should” do for historically disenfranchised groups.  But revisionism invites its own intellectual crudities.  Glossing over the possibility that overstatements don’t necessarily negate the entire trains of thought to which they belong or that the sheer valorization of select cinematic forms reflects on the degree to which artistic freedoms have been ongoingly curtailed, certain revisionist readings risk patronizing their subjects and international audience.  Upon promising that their book Korea’s Occupied Cinemas 1893-1948 (2011), “diverges from previous scholarship is in its exploration of the tensions and complexities involving not only individuals, but also economics, policy issues, ideology, and propaganda—a complex mix revealing the multifaceted relationships between the occupied and the occupier” (162-63), Brian Yecies and Ae-Gyung Shim inexplicably take more than a few films at less than face value.  Movies disseminated during the occupation’s waning years become conveyed as wholeheartedly endorsing Japanese imperialist policies, a bewildering conclusion given how, as the authors themselves admit by the end, “[i]f one wanted to remain in the film industry, one had no choice but to make films that prioritized these tropes” (166).  Spring on the Korean Peninsula is even described as “demonstrat[ing] once again how filmmakers embraced the concept of naeseon ilche [Japan and Korea as one body] using feature films as propaganda—a form of ‘soft power’” (127).  The pendulum swings to the other extreme, virtually all anti-authoritarian undertones wiped clean through ongoing disclaimers such as some might say, maybe, could be, or the more disgruntled “by-now ritualistic repetition of the legends surrounding Chunghyangjeon” (98).  Their impatience is clear.  But there’s something inordinately ungenerous about prefacing such redemptive interpretations without at least nodding to their basis and enduring appeal.  Here, the familiar cannot be compatible with anything other than tedium itself.

More recent revisionist accounts even flirt with imperialist rhetoric.  In The Japanese Colonial Legacy in Korea, 1910-1945: A New Perspective (2015), George Akita and Brandon Palmer proclaim to sidestep polarized reconstructions of colonized Korea (all Koreans as resistance fighters pitted against an anonymous Japanese multitude of hardened rapists, cops, security guards, soldiers, and administrators), yet their “new perspective” breaks down into an old one in practice.  Judging from the book’s tenor, it remains unclear how its “revisionism” distinguishes itself from run-of-the-mill right-wing fare that stresses the infrastructural developments the Japanese brought to their acquired territories.  According to the authors, the time of Japanese rule sounds almost uneventful.  Unlike landmark studies in the vein of Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson’s Colonial Modernity in Korea (1999), an anthology that opens with a call to question the truism that subsistence lifestyles threaten humanity (“[M]odernity is neither a universal good nor a historical necessity” [11]), Akita, Palmer, and the like-minded Korean scholars they cite take a certain historical narrative for granted.  “[T]he progression of Koreans into the modern age was altered, for the better, when Japan assumed control over the Korean nation” (113), “Japan’s colonization of Korea was crucial to the modernization of the peninsula, or, put another way, a willingness to recognize the positive outcomes of the colonial era is the hallmark of this revisionism” (134), “It is logical to ask, ‘Which government was better for the Korean people?’ Were Koreans better off under the inept, brutal, capricious, and inefficient Yi dynasty that offered the rule of man, or were they better off under the modern, formidable, efficient, yet foreign GGK that offered the rule of law? The answers favor governance under the GGK because the historical record is already there” (141)—such sound bites are strewn throughout the book without an examination of their psychic costs.  Reducing the matter to whether colonialism benefited the Korean peninsula or not misses the point, even floating the insinuation that any colonial power altering a land against its will is performing a public service.  Painting such self-congratulatory remarks on the Japanese empire’s behalf as enlightened jabs against Korean nationalist hyperbole becomes yet another philosophically vacuous gesture—and a more dangerous one at that.  At heart, Akita—and I single him out because he “take[s] full responsibility for all errors of commission, omission, and judgment” (2) as senior author—is hardly interested in nuancing the historical record, but in framing it in the most dualistic terms possible.  At best, what we can take away from his book are that Korean-Japanese relations weren’t as uniformly unforgiving as popularly espoused, and that the colonized didn’t live and die under genocidal conditions.

Strange Allegories

Japan’s influence most immediately manifests itself in the realms of fashion and language in Spring on the Korean Peninsula.12  While Japanese ways are admiringly associated with the modern and modish—Tokyo’s cultural superiority reinforced through Young-Il’s entreating his friend (and Jung-Hee’s brother) Chang-Soo to bring him back some quality literature from Japan’s capital—they simultaneously intimate a Western-style urban decadence.  The most outwardly dissolute figures, Anna and Mr. Han, speak almost exclusively in Japanese and sport only Western apparel.  Figuring as Chunhyang’s tormentor, a real-life version of Governor Byun, Han sleazily presses Jung-Hee to become his “wife” (more likely a euphemism for mistress in this context), refusing to post Young-Il’s bail otherwise.  One of his casual lovers, Anna, distinguishes herself early on for her Western name and scandalous past, rumored to have been an exotic dancer in Tokyo.  For her, Korean circulates as a romantically outmoded language, solely deployed for theatrical purposes.  She opts into it before the recording camera alone, when in character as Chunhyang.  (That everyone converses in a mixture of Korean and Japanese save for Anna and those of high colonial authority, all invariably male [doctors, police commissioners, and the chillingly impassive detectives who drag Young-Il away at one point], doubly marks her as a creature of the Japanese regime.)  Considering how most women present don hanboks, Anna’s cosmopolitan tastes insinuate her disreputable status, although cosmopolitanism, by the same token, heralds wealth.

Unlike their consistently Japanized, which is to say Westernized, male counterparts, women vary their appearances depending on the situation and their social standing.  Young-Il’s housekeeper outfits herself traditionally, down to her straw-pleated shoes.  As an educated upper-class woman, Jung-Hee fuses both modes: lace-up oxfords accompany an adapted hanbok (a white top paired with a mid-calf-length black velvet skirt), while her hair is done up in an elaborate chignon.  Her braided pigtails come together into a loose bun at the back unlike the aforementioned serving woman’s.  The latter’s hair is parted austerely in the middle unlike Jung-Hee’s more whimsically lopsided arrangement; her bun is knotted more tightly without any of her aristocratic counterpart’s ribbons.  Unlike Jung-Hee, too, who sports a wavy bob fixed with gel or wax from time to time, the domestic’s hairstyle never changes.  In Jung-Hee’s case, Western accents denote a well-to-do background.  Similarly, the Western uniforms that hospital nurses bustle about in cement their position as enviably learned professionals.  Other professions identified by Western clothing court pity, contempt, and a timeless lust.  Waitresses, hostesses, and bar girls circulating in dabangs (the Korean collective word for male-catered establishments serving tea, coffee, and alcohol) favor Western get-ups or kimonos.  Entering this industry full-time upon exiting the film initiative, Anna emanates the edgy thrill and sophistication attributed to the “Modern Girl” when she entertains Han in a café booth.  Behind her, a few kimono-clad shapes can be glimpsed, indicating either Japanese nationals or Koreans emulating the geisha-type.13

In this transitional world, Kyung-Sook emerges as a steady moral barometer.  A thirty-something bespectacled spinster who takes Jung-Hee under her wing, Kyung-Sook remains the only character who fluidly changes from one costume to another.  She putters about in a Euro-American business look during office hours, but robes herself in hanboks otherwise, whether in public or private spaces.  For her, the most personal space, her room, resonates with liberal undercurrents by orienting itself around a painting or print of the Madonna and child.  The first time Kyung-Sook’s room comes into view, we watch her adjusting this picture on the wall.  Korea’s Buddhist heritage notwithstanding, messianic iconography appealed to locals due to its emphases on overcoming persecution.  The divine resurrection assumed a unique immediacy for a people enduring the daily humiliations attached to annexation by familiar neighbors.  More subversively, Christianity offered an ideological shield, even if a tenuous one, against the Shintoism forced upon late 1930s Seoul as another imperialist measure.  As Todd A. Henry puts it in Assimilating Seoul (2014), “Protestant Christians, although a statistical minority, aggressively challenged the Government-General’s stance on the nonreligious nature of Shinto reverence by refusing to worship at shrines, a practice they understood to be an unacceptable of form of idolatry” (169).14  That Korea’s 1919 freedom demonstrations were led, in major part, by Christian activists, and that the first image projectors were introduced to the peninsula by British Anglican missionaries in the 1890s, fortuitously deepen the associations between the cinema, Christianity, and a nationalist esprit de corps.15

It is, among other things, the sordidly mercenary quality ascribed to urban exchanges that such religious imagery protests.  A placard on venereal diseases suggests as much.  Korean writing surfaces only twice throughout the entire film: on a railway sign for Kyung-Sung (경성), the Korean term for Keijo at the time (see Figure 2); then much later on, the Korean words for restaurant (도락구), gonorrhea (임질), syphilis (매독), and STD treatment clinic (부인병지실) can be spotted behind Jung-Hee as she walks the streets after failing to find Young-Il at the police station (see Figure 3).16  Aside from hinting at the sizable number of women servicing Seoul’s male population,17 the hanging banner alludes to Jung-Hee’s inner doubts.  Should she yield to Han for the cash needed to save Young-Il?  The question of joining the ranks of, to borrow from the board’s phrasing, the diseased opens out to Spring’s broader concern with the new city’s ethical hygiene.  In 1941, signposts for what would have been credited as repulsive feminine conditions cannot be absorbed innocently unless one ignores the gender politics defining their framing language: Korean.  In colonial Seoul, the masses were stereotyped as being backward and slovenly, but local women commanded a particularly prurient interest as projected carriers of sexual pestilence.  Henry describes a 1922 well-being campaign where Jintan, an Osaka pharmaceutical company, attracted more than three-thousand onlookers in Seoul by displaying a venereal female corpse without charge.18  As Seoul’s sex industry boomed, the Korean escort girl all too easily became a lazy metaphor for the city’s fragile state itself.

Lee Byeong-Il's 1941 Retelling of The Story of Chunhyang
Ery Shin, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Above “Keizyo” (Keijo) at a right slant, the first Korean characters are featured in the film (경성).


Lee Byeong-Il's 1941 Retelling of The Story of Chunhyang
Ery Shin, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: A Korean signboard for an STD clinic is spotted over Jung-Hee—yet another rare sighting of native letters.

Lee’s interest in the city’s sexual degeneration also peeks out in his vehicular images.  Han first tries to seduce Jung-Hee in his car, for instance, pushing for a dinner date despite her aversion.  After the train that takes Jung-Hee deeper into enemy territory, delivering her from Pyongyang to Seoul, then Seoul to a port for Tokyo, the car most full-bloodedly embodies something of Japanese modernity’s adversarial nature in Spring.  An urbanite corners a newcomer in a newfangled contraption, one sleekly efficient, visually exciting, expensive, yet obtrusive.  Lee’s tracking shot of the car shows Han’s face shaded from the sun and Jung-Hee’s illuminated by window light.  The car eventually passes beneath a traditional archway, heading toward a cluster of modern buildings.  A phallic parallel between the vehicle entering the gates and its owner trying to seduce his fellow passenger is briefly flashed before Lee cuts away to Anna strolling in the streets, further aligning her character with Han’s—both, again, being the film’s most high-profile urban profligates.

The pre-industrial Korea sighted in Director Huh’s footage arouses an intense nostalgia by contrast.  To reiterate, its mere inclusion in the film constitutes no small feat in light of the folktale’s august legacy and the patriotism assigned to pastoral scenes within popular film criticism.  On Nagune, for example, one contemporary reviewer for the Korean newspaper Maeil Shinbo wrote,

Some criticized this film as Japanese because it was recorded by a Japanese, co-directed with a Japanese. But, spirit and expression are most important to an art form. If it carries non-Chosun sentiment, expressions, language, scenic views, and music, the film should be blamed. But, the strong local color and the smell of the soil of this country, could be called the highest expression among other Chosun movies.19


In Huh’s Chunhyangjeon, all of the city’s trappings are absent.  Instead, there are horses, wooden pillars, clear skies, large trees, blossoms, and gayageum melodies lingering in the air.  And the fantasy beckons with prophetic elements.  Out of all the scenes at his disposal, Lee memorializes the lovers’ parting moment, where they urge constancy upon one another.  Rehearsing alone beforehand, Mong-Ryong twice repeats the lines (my translation): “Would a timeless commitment change even if the mountains were to be flattened?”  The actual scene later commences with a slow pan to Chunhyang positioned before a taegeuk sign (see Figure 4).  A blue-red yin yang design without dots, it now comprises the South Korean flag’s very center, referring to the Taoist harmony derived from opposites.  A more patriotic emblem would be hard to find in Korean culture, the taegeuk being central to Korea’s indigenous shamanistic religions.  In Huh’s hands, Chunhyangjeon’s nationalistic energies culminate in Mong-Ryong and Chunhyang’s gift exchange.  Chunhyang hands Mong-Ryong a jade ring, beseeching him to be as unwavering in his affections as the ring’s unbroken circular form; the latter passes her a mirror, assuring her that his heart will remain as transparent as that glass.  Their murmurs bleed into a nation’s self-admonishments to persevere against the odds.  A self-consciously nativist tale equates the bucolic with the dream of emancipation.

Lee Byeong-Il's 1941 Retelling of The Story of Chunhyang
Ery Shin, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: In character as Chunhyang, Jung-Hee strikes a pose before a taegeuk.

That being said, Spring on the Korean Peninsula’s resistance narrative is so enmeshed in despair as to be unthinkable without it.  A melancholy of uncertain origins engulfs the film, exacerbated by those internal tensions haunting Lee’s egalitarian commentary.  Put another way, Spring sporadically deconstructs its politically transgressive impulses almost against its better judgment.  What doubts that run beneath its pro-Japanese party line exist themselves in a state of insecurity.  Chunhyang’s cause sows hope for Korea’s future, but the movie as a whole also internalizes hope’s futility.  It mirrors the nihilism Janet Poole ascribes to Korean fiction at the time in When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea (2014), when writers such as Choe Myongik, So Insik, Yi Taejun, Pak Taewon, and Kim Namchon seemed to mourn their collective past without any hope for the future during the last decade of the Japanese occupation.

Melancholy’s double-edged function exemplifies this sense of limitation.  At times, the melancholic subsumes imperial allegiances.  An emotional coolness, coupled with carefully timed close-ups, undercuts what should be triumphantly assimilationist moments.  In this, I agree with Chris Fujiwara when he intuits that Lee’s atmosphere of desolation “thwart[s] internally” the film’s “overt propaganda” (n. pag.).  Huh’s dejected stillness upon hearing Bando President Bang Chang Sik’s pro-Japanese speech during Chunhyangjeon’s opening week deflates its rhetorical impact.  Some nod along, later chatting in a relaxed manner, but the director remains lost in thought, radiating a quiet grief.  The film’s ending heightens this aura of mourning.  As the two uneasily reconciled lovers leave for Tokyo, the camera zooms in on Kyung-Sook and Director Huh, the only figures on the train platform not waving goodbye to Jung-Hee and Young-Il.  With dirge-like orchestral music welling in the background, Lee draws our attention to Kyung-Sook’s downcast eyes and Huh’s glacial countenance.  The couple’s journey toward Tokyo forces them to confront their own affected cultural amnesia that morphs Japanese tormentors into teachers.

Lee’s melancholy often assumes this nihilistic edge.  Nothing—not anti-colonial innuendos, not reveries for an alternative future—escapes its appetite for self-negation.  Like the figurine of what looks to be a nineteenth-century Parian Ware Danaïd in Kyung-Sook’s room (see Figure 5) and, quite startlingly, Mr. Han’s office (see Figure 6), the film consumes itself with impossible tasks.  When Lee cuts to a local crowd watching Huh’s set, their very impassiveness musters a pessimism that threatens to overwhelm the film-within-a-film and its enclosing narrative.  Both exist as mere films, Lee seemingly emphasizes, spectacles extending an off-screen empire’s proselytizing tactics.  Here, Huh’s project, in particular, resembles a kind of Truman Show, where actors strive to recreate pre-occupational Korea, but remain stick figures entertaining a powerless audience from a virtual fishbowl.  Equally grimly, no hefty emotional payoff transpires once Huh’s filming comes to an end.  Moviegoers line the blocks outside (see Figure 7).  Once the curtains rise inside, though, the mood radically shifts.  Jung-Hee takes the stage to perform a forlorn teuroteu piece, echoing the sorrowful naniwabushi song advertised on Kyung-Sook’s radio two minutes before 8:30 one evening.20  Everyone, whether in the audience or the wings, is moved to a meditative silence.  Young-Il can’t even clap after the song finishes, so stirred by guilt at the song’s bittersweet lyrics regarding a lover’s farewell.  With references to hopes for reunion and stoicism before heartbreak, the song captures Chunhyang’s—and, by extension, Korea’s—predicament.  In this case, Jung-Hee awaits in vain, since her Mong-Ryong, Young-Il, never exactly returns from his own accord.

Lee Byeong-Il's 1941 Retelling of The Story of Chunhyang
Ery Shin, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: A figurine of one of Danaus’ daughters decorates Kyung-Sook’s room.

Lee Byeong-Il's 1941 Retelling of The Story of Chunhyang
Ery Shin, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: The same figurine appears in Mr. Han’s office, now placed in the foreground.

Lee Byeong-Il's 1941 Retelling of The Story of Chunhyang
Ery Shin, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 7: In Seoul’s streets, crowds line up to see Huh’s production.

Evidenced in Young-Il’s tentativeness, Lee’s anti-colonial gestures break down on the level of his folkloric archetypes.  Neatly paired with Jung-Hee—plus, an intellectual by temperament and vocation—Young-Il initially appears to have all the makings of Chunhyangjeon’s male protagonist.  But upon scrutiny, his faltering health, legal troubles, and inability to win his own salvation emasculate him beyond recognition.  Rather than Mong-Ryong, he hearkens back to the politically ineffectual scholar-aesthete stereotype: brilliant, refined, high-status, and defenseless against Japanese imperial pressures.  From embezzler to emotional philanderer, the post-penitentiary Young-Il elicits anxiety more than relief.  Jung-Hee senses he may belong more to Anna, while Young-Il grapples with self-mortification.  An unconvincing Chunhyang complements this enfeebled Mong-Ryong.  Figuratively identified with Chunhyang in her demureness and encounters with sexually grasping men, Jung-Hee drifts further away from her fictional antecedent as the movie progresses.  Character inconsistencies abound: primly retiring but coquettish, kittenishly twisting and turning her body, fluttering her lashes; a Pyongyang native like Kyung-Sook, but also a city girl’s city girl, a Seoul high school graduate who cites movies and modern music as her favorite hobbies before a charmed male audience.  Even her professional aspirations would raise eyebrows among conservative circles.  In Korea, as show business has historically been demarcated as the realm of kisaengs, Jung-Hee’s acting ambitions link her to what was popularly deemed as the vulgarly performative.21  When Young-Il paints Jung-Hee’s face for her first shoot as Anna’s replacement, he compliments her looks in Japanese, a loaded gesture when recalling both the decadence imputed to Japanese mores and the tawdriness correlated with professional acting within neo-Confucian Korean culture.  And when her brother introduces her to Young-Il, she expresses irritation at the prospect of having to wait for film work.  The “Well, I don’t know [글쎄요]” to which she responds to their joint queries regarding whether she’d be open to studying music first at Dong-Ah Records (as Chunhyangjeon is already shooting) may sound mild to the untrained ear, but hails in practice as an aggressive negative.  Dong-Ah’s male staff idolize Jung-Hee as being different from the other “bimbos,” yet their darling secretly sees her internship as a waste of time.  In the end, her character finds herself stranded in a cultural no man’s land: exempted by her class from having to barter herself along the way, uninterested in conforming to the classical “good wife, wise mother” ideal (현모양처), and unaccustomed to fending for herself as Anna does, she hovers between the old and new, insipid in both.

The film’s moral universe gradually settles around Director Huh, Anna, and, again, Kyung-Sook.  In an essay exploring the links between melodrama and military mobilization in late Korean colonial cinema, scholar Travis Workman notices the strangeness surrounding Anna’s character, writing, “Anna, who is initially hired to play the role of Chunhyang and is depicted as selfish and troublesome at the beginning of the film, somewhat inexplicably reappears at the end of the film as a benevolent and nurturing nurse to Yong-il” (178).  In her own way, Anna discloses an abiding sincerity despite her reputation as a Tokyo showgirl and Han’s personal fluffer.  But ever so slowly, as a figure of pathos, she wins the viewer over.  Less affected than Jung-Hee in demeanor, Anna gazes at Young-Il without wavering, her silhouette firm.  During one take, when they amble around Seoul together, an elegiac accompaniment builds momentum, substantiating their shared disquiet.  Anna disconsolately dwells on Young-Il’s unwillingness to return her affections; Young-Il feels unease at keeping such a woman company in public.  The scene caps at Anna’s resolution to leave Huh’s enterprise and never see Han again.  In fairly direct terms, she lets Young-Il know that she would choose poverty rather than lose standing before his eyes.  Her comment that she is ready to “leave far far away” only disturbs him.  “Are you trying to scare me,” Young-Il asks, worried at the possibility that Huh’s film project might lose its heroine.  “The work is that important to you?” an upset Anna claps back.  Would you want me to continue this life with Han for your convenience—her real question leaves him subdued.  With this conversation in mind, Anna’s later exit from the film set feels more voluntary than not.  Anna blames dismissal by Han, but resignation could very well be the true culprit here.  The original Chunhyang leaves to escape Mr. Han’s shady patronage, one waning, anyways, before Jung-Hee’s presence.  Workman states that Anna is “fired for insubordination” (177), but that is to put the matter rather indelicately.

Spring on the Korean Peninsula’s dramatic structure reinforces Anna’s complicated role, the movie being framed by her and her symbolic deviations from Chunhyang.  Playing Chunhyang, her character grounds the film’s opening sequence.  The camera pulls back from an eye-line medium shot of her thumbing a gayageum behind a diaphanous curtain (see Figure 8).  The veil instantly becomes a dual metaphor for her tenuous position off the set as well as the censorship encasing the entire film and film industry itself, a leitmotif echoed in the window frame trapping Director Huh’s face after Anna’s sudden departure.  Bleak, his features divulge the artist’s languishing from creative imprisonment—Art, with a capital “A,” suffocated by economic and expurgation-related woes.  And then it is Anna, not Jung-Hee, who saves Young-Il.  That a woman personifying excess ultimately ransoms the hero, while Jung-Hee remains useless, inverts the moral pyramid in which Japanese metropolitanism occupies bottom rank.  The fallen woman isn’t altogether fallen, but tragically dignified by her ongoing self-sacrifices. She frees Young-Il at her own potentially bodily expense, nurtures him back to health only to witness him rushing off to join Jung-Hee’s side, and, most poignantly, places him in her rival’s care Young-Il remains silent during these moments.  Lying in a hospital bed from her fainting spell post-performance, Jung-Hee can only apologize for doubting Anna’s principles.  “I don’t deserve to love him”—with such words, Anna bids everyone farewell.  Before turning the corner and vanishing completely, she walks down the hospital corridor.  This goodbye—her receding back—reaches us through Huh’s eyes, at once sympathetic, wintry.  Ferociously loyal to her beloved like Chunhyang, yet more proactive than she ever was, Anna recasts Chunhyang’s allegorical power by weakening its associations with the rural and forthright.  If anything, she more than deserves to love in a world where the pretty and conventionally virtuous amount to nothing much—where virtue often demands more insidious forms to subsist. 

Lee Byeong-Il's 1941 Retelling of The Story of Chunhyang
Ery Shin, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 8: The opening scene where Anna, in character as Chunhyang, plays a gayageum behind a fabric or straw-pleated veil.

(In truth, Anna’s character not only raises questions regarding the world she inhabits—the new world in which the new woman floats to the forefront—but also complicates how we see the old by suggesting that feminine virtue has always been a more tenuous affair.  With regard to Chunhyangjeon itself, both the heroine and the caste she belongs to remain more polemical than commonly perceived.22  In Richard Rutt and Kim Chong-Un’s English translation of Chunhyangjeon’s “Chonju woodblock edition,”23 Wol-Mae comes across as a model mother and wife post-retirement, while Chunhyang lists a number of kisaengs famed for their patriotism and erudition when defending herself against Byun’s leering accusation that female entertainers have no claim to their sex’s higher virtues.24  The noble kisaeng, it becomes apparent, is a familiar archetype.  And the noblest of them all—perhaps by virtue of being one step removed from the craft, the daughter of a former kisaeng as opposed to a working insider—is something of a gritty eccentric.  Chunhyang writes poetry, and her home is filled with unusual wardrobes, paintings, inscriptions, and the like that intimidate Mong-Ryong when he first comes to pay court to her.  In Rutt and Kim’s rendition, she also never aspires to be Mong-Ryong’s first wife, content to install herself as his secondary or concubine.25)

As a moral fable, spurred by male emasculation and female vigor, Spring blurs those regional lines that delineate spiritual ones.  Divisions between the city and country, Japan and Korea, center and periphery, and turpitude and probity all crumble as Lee’s characters abandon their traditional scripts.  With regard to Korea’s sovereignty, the question of whether spring will ever sweep through the peninsula goes unanswered.  On one hand, the film’s title points to a cultural spring for a Japanese-led Korean cinema trade.  On the other, Anna’s voice prophesies a timeless chill.  Peering at some flowers before letting her eyes rest on the view outside Young-Il’s hospital window, the entertainer mourns the passing weeks. With each day, she senses that her separation from Young-Il draws nearer, their closeness unable to survive beyond the hospital walls.  “Autumn has definitely come,” she notes, and with it, the fear that no other seasons will follow.

Endnotes

1  The warm reception that foreign films such as The Iron Claw (1916), Civilization (1916), Hearts of the World (1920), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1923), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1922), Orphans of the Storm (1921), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Winner Take All (1932), Frisco Jenny (1932), The Little Giant (1933), The Last Flight (1931), Union Pacific (1939), Boom Town (1940), The Flame of New Orleans (1941), and Casablanca (1942) earned among contemporary Korean audiences attests to the West’s appeal. For a more comprehensive list of Euro-American films that were successfully released in Korea at the time, see Yecies and Shim, Korea’s Occupied Cinemas.

2  In accordance with Korean custom, Korean surnames have been placed ahead of all given names—unless, that is, the individuals themselves have elected to arrange their names in the Western format.

3  In hindsight, this feat may come as no surprise if Lee’s first feature-length film is seen to have internalized something from his own frustrations with shuttered projects. After returning home in 1938 from a six-year apprenticeship in Japan, Lee was signed on to direct a movie named Harvest Season. However, it, along with the Chunhyangjeon that Murayama Tomoyoshi was hired to produce by the same Korean company, were both shelved as censorship regulations tightened under General Minami Jirō’s watch. Such disappointments were probably fresh on Lee’s mind as he began working on a new film dedicated to Chunhyangjeon’s adaptation in the movie business; see Yun 4-5.

4  For more on Murayama’s stage drama, see Yun 4; Okazaki.

5  The irony remains that even by 1941, less than a fifth of the Korean population could understand Japanese; see Kim and Sung, Making of Korean Literature 12; Kim, Korean Cinema 71-101; Poole 9-10, 177-200; Lee, History of Korean Literature 379.  

6  See Kim, Korean Cinema viii-xii, 47, 85-88.

7  See Kim, Korean Cinema 19, 74; Lee and Choe, History of Korean Cinema 36, 70; Lee, Contemporary Korean Cinema 72.

8  See Kim, Korean Cinema 80; Lee, Contemporary Korean Cinema 72.

9 Chunhyangjeon is a written romance roughly consolidated sometime during the early eighteenth century (although more than 120 different manuscript versions have been compiled thus far) from oral performances known as pansoris. Solidifying in the seventeenth century potentially from shaman rituals, the pansori genre holds more in common with ancient Greek sung poems—the very same inspiring Homeric works—than later Western novels, consisting of prose poems that are alternately sung, chanted, and operatically enacted for approximately 6-8 hours before a predominantly peasant audience by a singer (the kwangdae) accompanied by a drummer (the gosu). Of the twelve pansoris in circulation before the nineteenth century, only five, including Chunhyang’s story, have survived in document form, the rest lost from disuse as kwangdaes changed their repertoires to accommodate the tastes of their growing upper-class patrons. See Lee, History of Korean Literature 284-302; Lee, Contemporary Korean Cinema 67-101; Lee, “Chunhyang”; Kim and Sung, Making of Korean Literature 118-23; Rutt and Kim 237-49; Lee, “Korea’s Classical ‘Chunhyangjeon.’”

10 In some translations, Fight for Justice has been called The Righteous Revenge.

11 See Yecies and Shim, “Lost Memories” 76.

12 Both spheres were, of course, heavily tied to an individual’s finances. Not only were Western clothes and goods in general considered luxury items, evidenced in how Kyung-Sook’s radio cost her ten months’ worth of pay in the movie, but only 7.9% of all Korean girls were enrolled in elementary school where they would have learned Japanese (at least, in a setting outside the service industries that provided informal exposure to the language) by as late as 1929. See Choi 1-15; Kim, Excess of the Modern; Kim, Modernity of Women 273-86; Yuh.

13 For more on the ambivalence the “New Woman” provoked in Korea’s popular imagination, see Jeong ix-30.

14 For more on Christianity’s political significance in Korea at the time, see An.

15 See Yecies and Shim, Korea’s Occupied Cinemas 20-22.

16 All Korean text has been adjusted to fit today’s ortho-syntactical practices, with syllables reordered from right-to-left to left-to-right.

17 Translated literally, 부인병 becomes “wife’s disease,” targeting the gender of the medical center’s patrons—society’s all-too-easy scapegoats.

18 Henry, Assimilating Seoul 162.

19 24 April 1937; qtd. in Min 37.

20 Teuroteu is the oldest Korean pop genre, featuring duple meter and the musical influences of country-western, foxtrot, and the Parisian cabaret, especially the chanson réaliste kind. Naniwabushi is a type of Japanese oral performance, where tales of heartbreak, for the most part, are sung with shamisen accompaniment.

21 As in Shakespeare’s day and age, women were originally barred from the stage in Korea. Men assumed women’s roles as a result. Such female impersonators were called onnagata after the Japanese Kabuki fashion, and they included actors of the caliber of Kim Young-Duk, who played the evil stepmother in Fight for Justice. That most of the first few women who eventually broke into stage acting and began starring in films were formally registered with the Chosun Kisaeng Guild deepened Korea’s associations between acting, sex work, ignominy, glamour, and self-torn desire. Kisaengs were, by and large, the first actresses of Korea, paving the way for generations of women to come while cementing popular conceptions of acting as a disreputable profession. One of Korea’s first major movie stars, Lee Wol-hwa, was of kisaeng origin. Hayakawa’s 1923 Chunhyangjeon was the first film to feature a kisaeng, the actress Han Ryong. Hayakawa, not incidentally, cast another kisaeng, Moon Myung-ok, in The Sorrowful Song (1924). A host of other kisaengs followed on-screen: Kim So-jin, Ryu Shin-bang, Im Song-seo, and Ha So-yang. For more on onnagata, kisaengs in the film world, and how the art of acting was perceived in traditional Korea, see Lee, History of Korean Literature 8; Kim, Korean Cinema 27-28, 31-33.

22 See, for instance, Chung.

23 Commonly referred to as “the Wanp’an,” this nineteenth-century text is the longest, most fleshed out version of Chunhyang’s oral narrative on the record. It is widely deemed to be the definitive literary rendition.

24 See Rutt and Kim 300-01.

25 See Rutt and Kim 269, 284-285.

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