Stepping into the Newsreel: Melodrama and Mobilization in Colonial Korean Film

Travis Workman, University of Minnesota
Kŭm-suk, played by Mun Ye-bong, joins the war effort in "Straits of Chosŏn." Source: Pak Ki-ch’ae, 1943.
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As part of a project on melodrama in Korean film, this article examines the ways that films from the late colonial period (1937–1945) blurred the traditional boundaries between newsreel documentary and fictional features in an attempt to suture the film spectator into the cinematic representation of what André Bazin called, in relation to the newsreel, “total history.” Drawing on theoretical discussions of sentimentality and melodrama, the article compares the earlier fictional film Sweet Dream (1936) to the wartime film Straits of Chosŏn (1943) in order to trace how melodrama was transformed through its incorporation into political propaganda. It discusses how narrative cinematic techniques such as point of view, shot/reverse shot, and crosscutting allowed Straits of Chosŏn to draw the viewer into spectacles of mobilization that were formerly represented through the more anonymous mass medium of the newsreel documentary. The remainder of the article touches on the films Volunteer (1941) and Spring of Korean Peninsula (1941), discussing how the interpretive excess enabled by melodrama remained visible after the hybridization of fictional film and newsreel, primarily through the disjuncture between the films’ melodrama narratives and their spectacles of mobilization. In conclusion, the article suggests that the gradual elimination of any narrative excess in 1940s films reflects an apprehension about the multiple codings, identifications, and interpretations enabled through the combination of melodrama narrative with political propaganda.

Keywords: Korea, Japan, film, documentary, melodrama, mobilization, total war, newsreels, colonialism, point of view, shot/reverse shot, spectacle, propaganda