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Korea's Occupied Cinemas, 1893-1948: The Untold History of the Film Industry (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 17, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 421-423 | 10.1353/jks.2012.0015

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Korea's Occupied Cinemas, 1893-1948, by Brian Yecies and Ae-Gyung Shim is a groundbreaking study that examines the early history of films and moving pictures on the Korean peninsula. Ambitious in its scope, the book traces the consumption and spectatorship of moving images on the Korean peninsula back to the late nineteenth century. After electricity had begun to power the lights of the Kyŏngbok Palace and a line of streetcars was running across Seoul, the newly founded Seoul Electric Company found an immediate and steady source of income in the nightly motion picture screenings held at its warehouse in the Tongdaemun district. Eager audiences flocked to view images of European and American cities, in crowds that sometimes numbered over one thousand. Authors Yecies and Shim not only provide a fascinating glimpse into this early period of film spectatorship and image consumption, when toothpaste containers and empty tobacco packets could be redeemed for theater tickets, but also give a compelling and multifaceted account of filmmaking and film spectatorship under the Japanese colonial administration.

As Yecies and Shim point out, the appetite of Koreans for viewing motion pictures was already quite developed at the time of Korea's annexation by Japan as a colony. The capacity of the cinema to inculcate certain values and to arouse new desires did not go unrecognized, however, by Japanese colonial authorities, which set about organizing free screenings of films and newsreels to promote their expansionist aims. The colonial government's censorship practices, however, were not centralized until 1925, eight years after Japan had passed into law a domestic system of film censorship. Although Korean movie narrators (pyŏnsa) were subject to harrassment and even beatings for making comments during their performances that were considered hostile or disparaging to the colonial authorities, and Korean filmmakers were subject to government surveillance as well as to censorship regulations, nevertheless the years between 1923-34 proved to be a remarkably productive period for the cinema of colonial Korea. This span saw the release of ninety feature films directed by Korean filmmakers and produced by predominantly Korean film crews, including those with explicitly anticolonial overtones, such as The Story of Chunhyang (Ch'unhyangjŏn, 1923) and Arirang (1926), which was received by audiences as a fierce and impassioned protest against colonial oppression. A film like Arirang, in which the protagonist, a mentally unstable young man, recovers his sanity after killing a colonialist collaborator and would-be rapist, indicates that the hands of the Japanese censors were more lax than would be expected for a colonial authority using culture to foster a spirit of obedience, if not a sense of allegiance, among the colonized people. Yecies and Shim raise the question of whether the radical content of Arirang might have had more to do with the performances of the pyŏnsa at its screenings than with the film script itself, as no intact reels of the film have survived. But the censorship policies of the Japanese had other unintended consequences that undermined the colonial government's aim of achieving cultural hegemony. Censorship laws forced Japanese films to pass through two boards of censors before they could be screened in Korea, in effect more than doubling the fees levied for the censorship process. Paying the costs for two sets of censors, the one located in Japan and the other based in Korea, amounted to a financial burden that only a handful of major studios could assume. The censorship process thus left the film market in Korea wide open for Hollywood films, which became much more popular than movies from Japan. By 1934, Hollywood films had a market share of over 60 percent.

The late 1920s and early 1930s were also a time of cooperation and solidarity between leftist filmmakers of both countries. Members of the Korean Artists Proletarian Federation were allowed to meet with their counterparts in Japan, the Nippon Artists Proletarian Federation, and to make a number of politically conscious films. But this period of relative openness and creative ferment came to an end in 1937 with the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese invasion of China prompted a drastic shift in cultural policy: Korean filmmakers...

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