‘Early Korean Cinema’ at Glasgow Film Theatre

Published

Credit: Korean Film

Manon Haag
Film and TV Editor

Manon Haag interviews co-curator Professor Kate Taylor-Jones

Ahead of the screenings of Tuition (26 March) and Hurrah! For Freedom (28 March) at Glasgow Film Theatre, our Film and TV Editor had a chat with “Early Korean Cinema” season co-curator Kate Taylor-Jones. Kate, a Professor in East Asian Cinema at the University of Sheffield, who has worked with the Korean Cultural Centre UK to put together an 11-film programme at the London BFI and is now touring the UK with two rare events in Glasgow.

Glasgow Guardian: Let’s cut to the chase. Tell us straight: why should people go and see Early Korean films at GFT? Why is it important?

Kate Taylor-Jones: In the UK, most people are familiar with post-1990s Korean cinema. They mainly know Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, The Handmaiden) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother). Yet, the pre-1945 films have not really been discussed before. So if you are a fan of Korean cinema, you can discover some works that have largely been left out until now. When you go back in the history of Korean cinema, things get a little complicated, the same way that the national history is complicated. It’s a history of occupation and wars which still has an influence on the two Koreas and political relationships in the area today. On a different note, I have a personal interest in early cinema. People don’t really watch early films anymore and they should. The CGI and other techniques we have today are amazing but it’s wonderful to explore the development of the film language, its form and its technologies by going back to earlier work. You can also come along for that!

GG: Tell us a little more about the project “Early Korean Cinema”. How did it come about?

KTJ: Hyun-jin Cho from the the Korean Cultural Centre and I wanted to bring these 1930s films to the cinema for British audiences to see. We were delighted when the BFI showed interest and we got to screen the films at BFI Southbank in London – it went really well. And as with many film seasons, we put together a touring programme, which Glasgow is part of. I hope that people will see the appeal and come, maybe even from other areas in the Central Belt to see them. Certainly, there are people interested in Korean films in Scotland, and also people interested in early cinema.

GG: And if we go back even further, when and where were the films found and restored?

KTJ: Until the early 1990s, we assumed that all pre-1945 films were destroyed. Histories of Korean cinema started after 1945. But in the late 1990s/early 2000s the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) working with the China Film Archive managed to uncover a series of very early products. Russian Film Archive also yielded a few more. Following the discoveries, KOFA has spent years of time and energy both in restoring the films but also looking for other source materials to figure out what people at the time thought of these films, and to research Korea’s cinema going habits. Many scholars in Korea and the US looked at contemporary reports and newspapers to try and figure this out and in the last ten years, they have gathered a great wealth of contextual information.

GG: How did you go about selecting the programme for this “Early Korean Cinema” season?

KTJ: Of the films we have, you can see there is quite a split between the films from the 1930s and those of the 1940s. In the 1930s, despite the occupation and the Japanese control and censorship, Korean as a language was still allowed to be used on the screen. Korean filmmakers, Korean actors and Korean companies were creating entertaining popular cinema for the local people. So films like Tuition (Choi In-gyu, Bang Han-joon, 1940), which is coming to Glasgow, held broad appeal. It is the heartwarming story of a young boy desperately trying to pay for his education. By contrast, in the 1940s, the political climate was a lot more strained, with the second Sino-Japanese war and the attack on Pearl Harbor. It reflects on the censorship rules for cinema in Korea: the Korean language is banned from the screen so from 1940 to 1945 all the films are in Japanese. They are much more heavily focused on propaganda. Many are about the Japanese trying to recruit young Korean men to join the army, trying to tie Korea and Japan together as one nation. What we wanted to do is have a snapshot over these two decades so you would get a balance between the more melodramatic entertainment and the political works. But we didn’t want to end up on a negative note with the more colonial films of the second decade. So we included Hurrah! for Freedom (1946) which was made after Japan left Korea. It’s the first film made in post-1945 Korea and it’s a celebration of both the hardship Korea has undergone in the colonial time, and the hope the Korean nation has for the future. They fought together, they bound together as a nation and are now looking at a new plan for the country. It will be a little bittersweet for most audiences looking at it from our perspective because history tells us that Korea will enter a war in 1950 which will divide the nation to the current state we are in. Hopefully, people will also get a sense of the organisation of the film industry at the time, they can identify some figures by watching the whole series. For instance the director of one of the propaganda films is actually Choi In-gyu, the director of Hurrah! For Freedom. The directors who had worked under the Japanese or for the Japanese were people who would later lay the grounds for a national Korean cinema.

GG: Since Glasgow is only getting two of the films in the series, what can you recommend for those who wish to see the rest of the programme or know more about early Korean cinema?

KTJ: Obviously, it is very special to see these films on the big screen, which is why Tuition and Hurrah! For Freedom are a must to attend at GFT. But KOFA have made it their mission to make the films accessible. Although cinema quality prints are quite hard to get your hands on, if you go to the KOFA Youtube channel, you can see a lot of the films with English subtitles there. You get the quality you can expect from Youtube, but you know, it is a way if you want to go further. And actually, you can really explore the developments of Korean cinema on their channel from the start until the 1990s. Also for those who are really passionate, on the KOFA website, there are some English language pages and on those English language pages, you could actually order very shiny DVD boxsets. There are also books people can have a look at. I have my own, Divine Work: The Greater East Asian Film Sphere and the legacy of pan-Asian Visual Culture (2017). There is a lot published in recent years about the colonial period. One that is quite comprehensible and easy to access is Kim Dong Hoon’s Eclipsed Cinema: The Film Culture of Colonial Korea. Ultimately, there is nothing like watching the films! I am excited that Glasgow audiences will get to see Tuition which is one of the favourite films from the season, it’s charming. And Hurrah! For Freedom is obviously historically very important and very good as well.

“Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period” will screen at Glasgow Film Theatre 26 & 28 March. You can find out more and book tickets here: https://glasgowfilm.org/shows/early-korean-cinema