Cross-Currents e-Journal (No. 5)
Transcolonial Film Coproductions in the Japanese Empire: Antinomies in the Colonial Archive
The articles in this special issue reflect a new and vibrant transnational milieu in which cultural productions under Japanese colonial rule are increasingly scrutinized from perspectives that exceed and often question uncomplicated narratives of national development, stagnation, or oppression, as well as the binary of collaboration versus resistance. Such works call our attention to the antinomies of modernity under Japanese colonial rule, including the often unexpected continuities between colonialism and nationalism, as well as other postcolonial legacies of the colonial era.
This article reassesses the issue of colonial collaboration in the Japanese empire by examining the rise of cinematic coproductions between Japanese and Korean filmmakers. By the late 1930s, colonial Korea’s filmmaking industry had been fully subsumed into the Japanese film industry, and regulations were established that required all films to assimilate imperial policies. The colonial government’s active promotion of colonial “collaboration” and “coproduction” between the colonizers and the colonized ideologically worked to obfuscate these increasing restrictions in colonial film productions while producing complex and contentious desires across the colonial divide. The very concepts of “collaboration” and “coproduction” need to be redefined in light of increasingly complex imperial hierarchies and entanglements. Taking the concept of “code-switching” beyond its linguistic origins, this article argues that we must reassess texts of colonial collaboration and coproduction produced at a time when Korean film had to “code-switch” into Japanese—to linguistically, culturally, and politically align itself with the wartime empire. The article argues that recently excavated films from colonial and Cold War archives, such as Spring in the Korean Peninsula, offer a rare glimpse into repressed and contested histories and raise the broader conundrum of accessing and assessing uneasily commingled colonial pasts of Asian-Pacific nations in the ruins of postcolonial aftermath.
Scroll down for film clips referenced in this article. All clips are from the DVD Spring in the Korean Peninsula made by the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) in 2007. Seoul: Teawŏn Entertainment, Ltd. Used here with the permission of the KOFA.
Clip 2: The film within a film: Ch’un-hyang as a spectacle of colonial kitsch (36:30-43:44)
Clip 3: Boardroom scene: corporatization of the colonial film industry (1:03:00-1:06:10)
Until recently, studies on films from colonial Korea in the Japanese empire had to rely primarily on secondary texts, such as memoirs, journal and newspaper articles, and film reviews. The recent discovery of original film texts from archives in Japan, China, Russia, and elsewhere and their availability on DVD format, prompted an important turning point in the scholarship. However, juxtaposing these newly released DVD versions with other archival sources exposes significant differences among the existing versions of texts. For instance, a newly discovered script reveals that important segments are missing in the recently released DVD version of the propaganda film Volunteer. There also exist important discrepancies in the dialogue among the original film script, the actual film version, the synopsis, and the Japanese subtitles. Some of the Korean-language dialogue, which might be interpreted as exhibiting some ambivalence toward Japanese imperial policies, was completely silenced through strategic omissions in the Japanese-language subtitles targeting Japanese audiences. Some Japanese-language translations of the script also exhibit drastic changes from the original Korean-language dialogue. Piecing together such fragmented and fraught linguistic dissonance found in the colonial archives, we can conjecture that viewers from the colony and the metropole of Volunteer may have consumed very different versions of the film. This article aims to examine the significance of such dissonance, which has only recently become audible in so-called films of transcolonial coproduction.
Scroll down for film clips referenced in this article. All clips are from the DVD "Volunteer" made by the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) in 2007. Seoul: Teawŏn Entertainment, Ltd. Used here with the permission of KOFA.
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In the film Suicide Squad at the Watchtower (1943), the appearance of a Korean female physician carries with it the potential to subvert the film’s representation of the colonial ethnic hierarchy. The film’s director, Ch’oe In-gyu, had in his earlier film Homeless Angels presented the edifying message that a Korean female orphan could aspire to become a physician. This message was also incorporated into Suicide Squad at the Watchtower. In these two films the story of a Korean woman who studies to become a physician (or at least desires to become one) unfolds through the same actress, Kim Sin-jae. The suggestion that a Korean could achieve a social position equal to or even higher than a Japanese introduced the possibility of subverting the colonial ethnic hierarchy. But while the screenplay for the film had explicitly portrayed the female physician, the film version suppressed the representation, making it less evident. Nevertheless, it is possible to see Suicide Squad at the Watchtower’s enlightened message as an element with the potential to upset the ruling colonial order.
This article places two Japan-Korea collaboration films produced during the Pacific War—Suicide Squad at the Watchtower (Bōrō no kesshitai, 1943) and Love and the Vow (Ai to chikai, 1945)—within the broader colonial and transnational context of filmmaking. Specifically, it focuses on the relationship of these films to the careers of their co-directors, Imai Tadashi (1912–1991) and Ch’oe In-gyu (1911–1950?). At the same time, the article shows how cinematic and cultural conventions such as the bildungsroman and the “Victorian empire film,” which are more commonly associated with cultural production in the modern West, can, with appropriate adjustments, be fruitfully used to understand the power and entertainment value of these films. Suicide Squad at the Watchtower portrays a joint Japanese-Korean police squad controlling the border between Manchuria and Korea and its service to the Japanese empire; Love and the Vow is a story about a Korean orphan boy who, after interviewing the family of a kamikaze pilot, is inspired to become an imperial soldier himself. These two films were joint projects between Tōhō Film in Japan, where Imai was employed, and the Korean Motion Picture Production Corporation, the only film production company in colonial Korea (and the company into which all Korean film production companies had been absorbed during the war).
Following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Manchuria Motion Picture Corporation (Man’ei) was established in Manchukuo. Aiming to be the “Hollywood of the Orient,” Man’ei operated as the only legitimate film corporation in Manchukuo, and its activities included all aspects of local film production, distribution, and exhibition. Studies of Man’ei have tended to describe its activities as part of the colonial project unilaterally implemented by Japanese officials and ideologues. However, the negotiations and contestations involved in the Man’ei project render any simple interpretations impossible, especially within the broader historical and political context of the Japanese empire. This article explores how the theme of “ethnic harmony” (minzoku kyōwa) became the core issue for Man’ei and how its attempted filmic expressions ended up uncovering the complexity and predicament involved in the problem of spectatorship. Li Xianglan (Ri Kōran), Manei’s best-received transcolonial movie star at the time, represented the multiple ethnicities of Manchukuo; however, it is less well known that her “mainland romance films” were considered inappropriate for audiences in Manchukuo (Mankei). This article will complicate earlier assumptions and show that the theme of “ethnic harmony” came to be marginalized, while entertainment films presumably acceptable to the Mankei audience came to centrally preoccupy the feature films of Man’ei.
This article examines what I call a “system of cooperation” (K. hyŏp’ŏp, J. kyōgyō, 協業) in the colonial Korean film industry from 1923, when silent films appeared, to the late 1930s, when colonial cinema was restructured within an imperial wartime system. In other words, this article examines the interworking of colonial Korean and imperial Japanese cinema from Yun Hae-dong’s “colonial modern” perspective in order to go beyond the long established lens on colonial Korean film and film historiography that merely focused on the contributions of colonial Korean filmmakers. Here the author rather focuses on the cooperation or collaboration between Japan and Korea: Japanese directors and cinematographers working in Korea, Korean filmmakers with experience in the Japanese apprenticeship system, and filmmakers working together and independently during the silent film era. During the transition from the silent to the early talkie eras, second-generation filmmakers, especially those who trained in film studios in Japan, were significant. They dreamed of the corporatization of the colonial Korean film industry and took the lead in coproductions between Japanese film companies and their colonial Korean counterparts. Korean filmmakers were not unilaterally suppressed by imperial Japan, nor did they independently operate within the Korean film industry during the colonial period. The Japanese in colonial Korea did not take the lead in forming the colonial Korean film scene, either. The core formation of colonial Korean / Korean film was a process of Korean and Japanese filmmakers in competition and negotiation with one another within a complex film sphere launched with Japanese capital and technology.