Imperial Ethos, Colonial Pathos: Affective Realism of Colonial Korean Cinema

Irhe Sohn (University of Michigan)


The Wanderer (K. Nagŭne a.k.a. Journey [J. Tabiji]) signaled a watershed moment in what Aimee Nayoung Kwon and Takashi Fujitani called "transcolonial film coproduction."[1] At the very earliest stage of the production, the director Yi Kyuhwan pulled his connection with film companies in Japan to make a contract with Shinkō Film Company in Japan to coproduce the film. In October 1936, Suzuki Shigeyoshi, to whom Yi had apprenticed himself during his years in Japan, came to Korea as the film's co-director to begin on-location shooting in the Naktong River basin. Of course, Suzuki was not alone; he was accompanied by a group of skilled Japanese film technicians equipped with film supplies with much better performance than those previously used for films of colonial Korea thus far. Then in January 1937, Korean actors, actresses, and production crews moved to Tokyo to film on Shinkō's studio set and to finalize the post-production[2] As I will discuss in detail in the following sections, The Wanderer proved the coproduction to be a successful strategy to draw more audiences to theaters as well as to improve Korean cinema's artistic qualities with better image and sound it owed from Shinkō.

Following The Wanderer's promising enterprise, this mode of film coproduction became in vogue in the late 1930s Korean film industry. Yi Kyuhwan's Sŏngbong Film Company immediately launched another coproduction project with Toho to produce Military Train (Kunyong yŏlcha, 1938, dir. Sŏ Kwangje). An Ch'ŏryŏng's Fisherman's Fire (Ŏhwa, 1938) was re-edited by Shochiku's renowned director Shimazu Yasujirō to get released in Japan's theaters. Some film companies with further ambition to systematize film production had also experimented with the idea of coproduction: An enthusiastic film businessman Yi Ch'angyong's Koryŏ Films embarked on the collaboration with the newly established Manchuria Film Corporation to produce A Long Road to Happiness (Pokchi malli, 1940, dir. Chŏn Ch'anggŭn); Chosŏn Film Corporation announced that its new film Tale of Ch'unhyang would be directed by Murayama Tomoyoshi, who had previously staged this beloved Korean folk tale both in Japan and colonial Korea, although the film was not produced in the end.

In fact, the collaboration among Koreans and the Japanese in film production was not foreign to Korean film history from the beginning, as Chonghwa Chung [Chŏng Chonghwa] has noted. [3] In the 1920s, the Japanese participation in film productions in Korea, widely ranging from producers, distributors, and exhibitors to directors, performers, actors/actresses, and benshi, was particularly crucial in shaping early Korean cinema: Many of the film theaters were under contract with, or became part of the distribution network of, Japanese film companies like Nikkatsu and Shochiku; the Chosŏn Kinema Production, one of the earliest film companies, was established by Yodo Torazō who was running a hat shop in Seoul; actors and actresses who were Japanese residents in Korea appeared in Korean films, for some, under Korean names; a recent historiographical debate over whether Korean cinema's phantom classic Arirang (1926) was directed by a Korean Na Ungyu or a Japanese Tsumori Shūichi represents just another example that evinces how entangled the early Korean film history was among the Japanese and Koreans.[4] Neither a secret nor unknown in the 1920s, it was, however, never overtly acknowledged in public that the Japanese residents in Korea, or zaichō Nihonjin, took a significant part in Korean film productions. Regardless of the extent of the Japanese involvement, most of the films were merely communicated as "Korean films," or Chosŏn yŏnghwa, by both the audiences and critics in colonial Korea, and considered as produced by the hands of "Korean" filmmakers. The zaichō Nihonjin contributions to filmmaking in colonial Korea have not only been omitted in today's scholarship in film history, but they were also set back from the scene of the times.[5]

Around the late 1930s since The Wanderer, however, the collaborative partners from the mainland (naichi) were now more clearly pronounced than the previous zaichō nihonjin involvements in Korean film productions. The film coproductions since The Wanderer are distinct in two ways. On the one hand, the coproduction in the late 1930s was part of the strategies to accommodate a better production system in colonial Korea, while breaking through the volatile circumstances of filmmaking, that led to the discussions on and aspirations for the corporatization, or kiŏphwa. By then, films were part of lucrative businesses in colonial Korea since the very early stage, yet the budgeting had always depended on one-time investments by some speculative capitals. Hence, any attempt to establish a stable and systematic production system had come to naught due to such lack of stable and secured resources. Then Yi Kyuhwan's venture into the collaboration with Shinkō to coproduce The Wanderer released great expectation to resolve all the chronic problems that Korean film productions were suffering under. The coproduction would not only help produce a better film in colonial Korea by employing a masterful film director who looked over the entire production, skilled technicians who helped capture better image and sound, and the advanced technologies and studios. The Wanderer suggested that through film coproduction as an answer to such problems, filmmakers in colonial Korea would learn by experience how to renovate the entire system of film production.

On the other hand, the coproduction in the late 1930s was not merely about renovating the film production system in colonial Korea; it was also about the issues of to whom and how Korean cinema would address. Around the time, Korean films began to consider larger audiences in Japan, Manchuria, China, and even possibly the West. First released in Seoul on April 24th in 1937, The Wanderer also saw its release in Tokyo just a few weeks later with a different title Tabiji, or Journey. Shinkō was granted distribution rights worldwide except for Korea, China, and Manchuria, where Yi's Korean company Sŏngbong was held the rights. In order to cater to the audiences in a broader market, both companies set up a plan to produce different language versions subtitled in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, English, and even German and French.[6] Whether all these versions were actually produced is still unknown, it is at least certain that there were at least two language versions–Korean and Japanese. Its first release in colonial Korea in April was held at two locations in downtown Seoul. According to the newspaper report, the Umigwan, located in the pukchon area (literally, the northern quarter) and mostly patronized by Korean audiences, released the Korean version, whereas the Meijiza in the Japanese residents' entertainment district namchon area (the southern quarter) screened the film with superimposed Japanese subtitles. The latter version was considered the international version which was probably the one shown in Japan a few weeks later.

In part, this imagination of a larger film market is not unrelated to the problem of profitability that sound film technologies had posed to the Korean film world. First introduced in colonial Korea in the early 1930s, sound film was at the center of the debates over not only the technical issues of performances, recording technologies, and projection facilities, but also the very financial concerns that it cost more money than silent film. Regardless of the controversies over this new medium's advantages, artistic possibilities, and industrial problems, it became by the mid-1930s taken for granted that films should have sound. At stake under the pressure of sound films, then, was to secure a better and larger market for Korean films. In order to make ends meet, Korean films needed to look forward to the expanding terrain of the Japanese empire as well as the established distribution network already set by the Japanese companies. By collaborating with Japanese film companies, Korean films could navigate through the already existing distribution network at least in Japan as well as Manchuria.

The imperative to open up a new international market coincided with the geopolitical change in the Japanese empire in the 1930s when its borders were being expanded under the banner of the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Korean cinema also needed to secure its position within the expanding borders of the Japanese empire and its project of the "construction and creation of Asian cinema." In other words, to venture into the market in the Japanese empire would mean to participate in creating the East Asian film network during the height of the Asian-Pacific War. With this urgency to reassure its position in the empire as well as to cater to an "international" audience, Korean cinema began to realize the gazes of the others to which it had to accommodate; this then involves a redefinition of Korean cinema according to this changing milieu.

In this paper, I discuss the limits and disavowal revealed in the discourses over the collaboration between Korean and Japanese filmmakers. Central to my argument is, by delving into the issues raised with The Wanderer, namely what I call the tension between imperial ethos and colonial pathos, to reflect upon the notion of "transcolonial film coproduction." However, what I would like to draw attention is not the mode of production of colonial Korean cinema in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but rather its mode of address, which "carefully nurtured, reproduced and policed, ensuring that a specific cluster of assumptions is written into our social bodies from early childhood and repeated with ritualised regularity thenceforth."[7] The pressure of imperialization pushed Korean cinema toward the urgent task of proving its function to create imperial subjectivity, by which it could also satisfy its political and economic necessity. The coproduction of a Korean film was not without any controversy over the representation of Korea to the "world," namely the empire, and thus the reconfiguration of "the national" during the height of the Japanese empire. To examine transcolonial film coproduction is, therefore, to delve into Korean filmmakers' self-reconception of Korean cinema which emerged out of others' receptions, rather than, as the surface of the notion suggests, to explore the border-crossing movements and collaborations. The focus here, thus, is not the "productive effects" of colonial control to which Kwon and Fujitani propose to move our attention; I would rather bring a tension between imperial ethos and colonial pathos into the discursive terrain where they hope to disengage from the binary between collaboration and resistance by introducing the new notion of "transcolonial film coproduction." I present this another binary not simply because the term "coproduction" is a "misnomer […] that euphemistically veiled the fundamentally violent and coercive nature of the colonial system itself," as Kwon who coined the term has also pointed.[8] The thematic of the term "coproduction," the problematic of which attempts to sever colonial cinema history from the nationalist view, works toward the reconstruction of colonial power and control. While the notion helps better understand the complexity of the colonial regime, it is important to note that "dissonance, contradictions, fissures, incompleteness, different texts and readings of the same film and … the 'multiple, schizoid, and self-conscious' perspectives of those involved in filmmaking" are the product of not only the colonial power and control, but also the colonial experience of contestation and negotiation.[9] What we get by foregrounding the productive effects of colonial control such as censorship and regulation is then the reaffirmation of the malleability of colonial control, rather than access to different concerns and visions over colonial realities, the representations of which were under suppression in that flexible regime. If we are to "rethink and reassess what coproduction fails to mean in the hierarchical, coercive, and violent context of empire," I argue, it is crucial to begin with the conflicting ideas over Korean cinema itself and the differentiation between the cultivation of an imperial subject and the affective excess that is not captured through the articulation of colonial power involved in transcolonial film coproduction.[10] Calling the former "imperial ethos" and the latter "colonial pathos," I will articulate in this paper "affective realism" as a technology of redeeming the affective realities of the colonized.

Korean Color

The release of The Wanderer in colonial Korea was a "sensation to the entertainment world," according to the daily Chosŏn ilbo report on April 29th. "On the 25th, the second day of The Wanderer's release, the Meijiza set the new record since the theater's opening [in 1935], even having huge trouble dealing with a flood of the audience. Also, the night screenings at the Umigwan drew a full house every night, making an unprecedented record."[11] But when it was released in the famous Denkikan in Asakusa, Tokyo on May 6th under a different title Journey (Tabiji), the film did not gain much popularity as it did in colonial Korea. In fact, the film's commercial value proved no difference from many other Korean films that were previously screened in Japan. Like those released in the Korean quarters, The Wanderer saw only partial success in industrial districts like Kōtō in Tokyo and Kansai region where a lot of ethnic Koreans were residing. 

Japanese audience's lukewarm response to The Wanderer was, however, compensated by the critical acknowledgment by film critics both in colonial Korea and Japan. The film was named the best Korean sound film at the Chosŏn Ilbo Film Festival held in 1938. Later in 1941, Im Hwa also acclaimed The Wanderer as a "work of excellence that has no match among Korean films since the talkie era."[12] The film impressed the Japanese film critics as well so that it was ranked the 12th best movie in Kinema junpō's annual "Best Ten Japanese Movie" list announced in 1938. After The Wanderer, no Japanese film critics forgot to at least the film whenever it came to the issue of Korean cinema.

Favorable in general, the critical reception of the film was not uniformly laudatory. At the time of its release in colonial Korea, two reviewers were at odds about the film. Namgung Ok wrote in Maeil sinbo in favor of The Wanderer and Korean filmmakers' effort to complete a film worthy enough to show audiences outside Korea, while Sŏ Kwangje's review in Chosŏn ilbo harshly criticized the film, claiming that its sophisticated style and techniques overwhelmed the whole drama[13] For Sŏ, the film's representation of poverty in rural Korea was too extreme to suggest diverse and vital aspects of colonial Korea. Bifurcated in tones and attitudes, two reviews, however, converged on two crucial issues related to the film. First, both the reviewers agreed that the film's production quality was higher than previous Korean films. Again, this is in no doubt benefitted from the Japanese participation. Secondly, and more importantly, they shared the same criterion to pass judgment: whether the film is worth being exported overseas countries. Namgung Ok based his acclaim on the film's technical achievement that he believed would stand comparison with foreign movies. Sŏ's issue with The Wanderer might be more crucial and aligned with substantial concerns aroused from The Wanderer's overseas release. He questioned, "Is it cinema's artistic characteristics to embellish realities? Additionally, we have to think seriously about Korean culture as The Wanderer will be released overseas."[14]

The critical response in Japan shows an interesting reversal of Korean writers' rhetoric. Unlike the Korean critics, on the one hand, they did not think The Wanderer was technically advanced despite an adept director Suzuki Shigeyoshi's participation. For them, it was "unsophisticated," "boorish," and "vulgar" and suffered from the lack of logical necessity in the dramaturgy.[15] On the other hand, they rather put more emphasis on the fact that it was a Korean film, or Chōsen eiga, which may have appealed to the intellectual taste who favored foreign art cinema.[16] For example, Ishida Yoshinori stated, while arguing that the film was below the level:


There's still something we can acknowledge, which is the sincerity and efforts of the filmmakers in the peninsula. Furthermore, the tones of the peninsula's language [in the film] presents us for the first time with what the peninsula would be like. We anticipate their second work that will be made by the hands of people in the peninsula. And [we] hope that its subject matter will be found from the daily lives of people of the peninsula, rather than dealing with some happenings and events. For we have greater interests in the lives of the people of the peninsula[17]


As glanced in Sŏ's critique, this issue of Koreanness was central to the discourse over The Wanderer and Korean cinema in general. In his short review published in Teikoku daigaku shimbun, Chang Hyŏkchu, one of the Korean writers whose Japanese-language novels attracted critical attention in Japan, argued that the film produced with a script fraught with flaws had a fundamental problem of exaggerating "Korean color (Chōsenshoku)." He gives an example: "The wife who is waiting for her husband counts down the days until his return by counting red peppers of the same amount–Isn't she like a barbarian woman? In no way, a woman who can even write a letter doesn't know a calendar. Every farmer would have a daily pad calendar on his wall."[18] For Chang, the detailed description of lives of Korean peasants in The Wanderer is not only misleading but also downplaying the modern development in rural colonial Korea. Directly addressing against Chang's outrage, Inagaki Kazuho wrote in Eiga hyōron under his pen name Kijima Yukio that The Wanderer still gave a beautiful sentiment about Korea, with which the Japanese would also sympathize. Interestingly, Kijima makes a comparison of The Wanderer's representation of Korea as somewhat culturally inferior with an anecdote of Lafcadio Hearn's observation of Japan. In that story, Hearn, who is famous for his collection of Japanese folk tales and also notorious for exoticizing Japan, saw at a train stop in Hakata a woman sending off her husband who was arrested by a police officer. Carrying a baby on her back, she looked deeply sorry to part from her husband, not blaming his sin that caused this trouble. Hearn wrote this separation with a "beautiful compassion for the Japanese," rather than passing judgment. For Inagaki, Hearn's position as a distant observer who could find a beauty of Japan from such a possibly miserable and ugly situation would apply to the Japanese who would watch The Wanderer. According to him, they will not fall short of feeling pitiful about the film's sad ending. Even when the wife in The Wanderer barbarically counts the red peppers to count down the days, the Japanese audience–or in his words, "we the mainlanders (wareware naichijin)"–will not consider Koreans as ignorant and inferior, but rather identify a beautiful sentiment that the film delivers. Then Inagaki asked back: "With all due respect, I suspect if Chang Hyŏkchu has become so Japanized that he would close his eyes to the beauty of his homeland." He continues, "I think a Korean who feels ashamed of and doesn't love this beautiful homeland is not a genuine Korean. What do you think?"[19]

A few months later in September 1937, An Chŏryŏng, a film director who had just returned from Germany after his training at UFA, laid out a sharp critique against both Chang and Inagaki. While fully understanding Chang's acute critique, An still saw it less rigorous to counter Inagaki's argument. The issue at stake was not the weak original script that misrepresents the details, but rather what he called "conceptualized Korea (kaenyŏmhwahan Chosŏn)" and the ways in which cinematic medium conceptualizes Koreanness. For An, "the real intention of filmmaking is not to intoxicate the audience with tactful tricks, but to deal with the interests and demands of people's daily lives and lead such themes of real society to the most progressive worldview." Inagaki's contention over Korean cinema is then just another fairy tale or a legend. Despite its partial success in the advanced filmmaking techniques, The Wanderer, according to An, is a mere exploitation of the "use value that will be welcomed in the Japanese market," rather than working toward a rigorous and sincere study of colonial Korean culture.[20]

As many writers of the time had also pointed, such a conceptualized Korea was employed in coproduction projects like The Wanderer as a self-exoticizing strategy to accommodate the foreign taste. Ch'oe Namju, the president of Chosŏn Film Corporation, once clearly stated in 1936 that "If we can describe Korea's local color (hyangtosaek) or its atmosphere at its best, our expansion to the world film market will be full of hope."[21]

However, this self-exoticization, or self-orientalism, is not as simple as it is readily discerned, as Yi Hwajin suggests.[22] The beauty of Korea that Inagaki found from The Wanderer may be prepared to counterattack such a voyeuristic violence by its extreme exhibitionism, similar to what Rey Chow has discussed concerning Zhang Yimou's self-orientalism. "(Mis)construed by many as mere self-display (in the spirit of airing one's dirty laundry in public), this exhibitionism–what we may call the Oriental's orientalism–does not make its critique moralistically or resentfully. Instead, it turns the remnants of orientalism into elements of a new ethnography."[23] This cinematic ethnography will then identify the ruptures and dissonance between Japan and colonial Korea only to reveal the antinomies of the colonial slogan such as "Japan-Korea One Body (naisen ittai)." Urgent for Korean cinema in this sense was then to find an answer to a question, "how to translate Koreanness into a visual language […] when the audiences for Korean films […] were no longer limited to Korean speakers."[24] This is the question shared by many other national cinemas "created around the very contradictions of culture and commodity, of (self-)expression value and (self-)exhibition value."[25]

Myŏngnang, Imperial Ethos

Sŏ Kwangje's judgment against The Wanderer's misrepresentation of Korea was already mentioned above, which was developed into his concern over Korean cinema in general. Just a few months after his review of The Wanderer, this prolific writer asks in his essay on the issue of original scripts, "For what reason does a Korean produce a Korean film, which is more brutal than Korea's realities? […] Will a Korean film not be produced without such a brutality that village people kill each other for a hunk of change like The Wanderer […]?" Such a violent representation of murder, rape, and arson in Korean films was highly problematic, because not only of cinema’s strong influence over social morality, but also of the misleading impression about Korea that such a film may have created. “[T]he producer of The Wanderer, which purported to introduce rural lives in Korea, showed such abominable cruelties. How could a foreigner consider the Korean rural people, who are actually meek and naive, as any less cruel?"[26]

Sŏ's concern was proved not unreal in a roundtable discussion published in the daily Chosŏn ilbo on its New Year special pages in 1940. At the roundtable, actor Sim Yŏng remembered that his Manchu friend once told him. How he became afraid of Koreans after watching a frightening murder scene in The Wanderer. For Sŏ, this is no longer a problem of a film, but rather of Korean cinema in general. He grumbled, "Truly Korean cinema is too dismal (ŭmsan). It should be a bit brighter (myŏngnang)," to which Im Hwa replied, however, "Well, the real life is not bright, and the experiences are dismal. It can't be helped."[27] While both Sŏ and Im agree that the mood of Korean cinema is somewhat gloomy, they are at odds about how to evaluate it. Sŏ considers the dismal mood of Korean cinema as having to be overcome, whereas, for Im, it is not necessarily possible to just remove it from Korean films. As I will argue by delving into this wordplay between brightness (myŏngnang) and dismalness (ŭmsan), their conflicting ideas reveals the ways in which the former was institutionalized along with the imperialization process and the latter was to be driven out in favor of a new ethos for the multiethnic empire.

Korea's local color, which was initially welcomed, immediately became the target of criticism due to its association with such a dismal mood. Nishiki Motosada also saw Korean cinema's dismal mood as a problem. What he labeled as "Yi Kyuhwan's pessimism" had pervaded all the Korean films. According to Nishiki, most of the films since Yi Kyuhwan's earlier silent film A Boat without an Owner (Imja ŏmnŭn narutpae, 1932) dealt with unhappy love stories. "These films that are saturated with banal sentimentalism of resignation are in no way [for] the New Regime (shin taisei)."[28] Such an assessment of Korean cinema, again, is not unrelated to the new set of problems to make Korean cinema brighter, and thus more appropriate for a bright future of the empire.

It is noteworthy that Nishiki wrote the script for Homeless Angels (K. Chip ŏmnŭn ch'ŏnsa, J. Ie naki tenshi, dir. Ch'oe Ingyu, 1941), which brought up a controversy over the position of Korean cinema in the empire. Passing initial censorship on July 1941, Homeless Angels was set to release in Japan in October 1941. At first, its release seemed promising with the Ministry of Education's recognition of the film as the Recommended Film, but things became suddenly complicated as the Ministry of Internal Affairs demanded that some portions of the film be cut out. According to this order of redaction, its filmmaker produced the revised version, which was, according to The Film Censorship Bulletin, 219 meters shorter than the original version. This resulted in the virtual withdrawal of the recognition by the Ministry of Education, simply because the revised version was not the same one that it acknowledged as the Recommended Film. With many historical speculations over the reasons behind this happening such as its use of Korean language, Hieyoon Kim points that it may not be unrelated to the film's lack of brightness as well. "Being neither a representation of daily lives under the Japan-Korea One Body slogan, nor an exhibition of 'what is Korean,' Korean cinema as bright and cheerful clearly marked the newly ordered position of Korean cinema in the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in the era of the Film New System."[29] As some had claimed after watching the film around the time, Homeless Angels should have "first become Japanese" before representing colonial Korea's dismal reality.[30]

Myŏngnang or brightness in this sense was not a simple strategy to accommodate the gaze of the other, nor just another mode of representation. It was rather a cultural imperative or what I call "imperial ethos." The conceptual constellation around the term brightness shows how it was aligned with other relative terms such as "vulgarity" (t'oepye) and "dismalness" (ŭmul or ŭmsan). According to studies, it is since the 1930s that the meaning of "brightness," which had been used to refer to weather or climate, started being associated with personal characteristics. [31] Partly influenced by the usage of the same sinographic term in Japanese, meirō, myŏngnang was then redefined for the political purpose in late colonial Korea. Especially when Minami Jirō, the Governor-General of Korea, released a public letter that urged to "cultivate brighter characters by making speech and action conforming to one another," the brightness was no longer limited to individuality; it was now "a discipline as well as ethics."[32] Here, by "making speech and action conforming to one another" (ilŏn ilhaeng ch'i'il), the Governor-General meant a popular use of national language (kokugo)–Japanese language. The brighter character is then a subject who "affirms and conforms to the regime and proactively takes the initiative in fulfilling the demand of the system."[33] On the opposite side of "brightness" lied the negativity of "vulgarity" (t'oepye) and "dismalness" (ŭmul or ŭmsan). Often coupled with sentimentalism, individualism, femininity, and consumerist capitalism, they are the terms with which to stigmatize some excess of social mores as anti-social, apolitical, and anti-establishment. Efforts to redress such social ills that covered a broad range of cultural phenomenon of the vulgarity and dismalness were followed. The Bureau of Publication of the Government-General of Korea reinforced the regulation and censorship, aiming at reforming folk song records, popular novels and magazines, and theaters and films in healthy and brighter ways. This movement against the vulgarity went beyond the regulations over cultural products to condemnation of the entire consumption culture that was conceived as vulgar and promiscuous.[34] What should be reminded here is that this movement, based on value judgment, was not simply to drive out the undesirable affect determined as dismal and vulgar; it was more about initiating a new mode of subjectivity that internalized imperial ethos of brightness.

Colonial Pathos

Ch'oe Ingyu, the director of Homeless Angels, once made it clear that it was his aim to produce brighter films. Yet the issues remained: "How many bright and cheerful films we want to make, there are some cases that delimit the possible subject-matters; I wish [the colonial government’s] relaxation of these [regulations]. [We need] something more appropriate for cinema rather than current dark and hard laws and regulations. I want to make a brighter film. I can make a brighter film if it can be done."[35] This may resonate with Im Hwa's previous response to Sŏ Kwangje's grumble: "Well, the real life is not bright, and the experiences are dismal. It can't be helped."[36] What Ch'oe and Im are referring here may differ according to their position–Ch'oe was a filmmaker who had to work through all the regulations that even complicated his own film's release in Japan, while Im was just a film critic who could distance himself from such a dirty task. However, they converge on a single point, from which Im Hwa's own conception of Korean cinema diverges from the discourse over the imperial ethos of brightness: Korean cinema was dismal because all the circumstance that shaped it was so.

Im Hwa's vision for Korean cinema did not involve attempts to secure a position of Korean cinema within the empire as his contemporaries did; while reappropriating the same language and logics of the time, he was rather anticipating a different future for Korean cinema, which had yet to come. He took realism as a technique to get access to the singularity of Korean cinema, but the reality to represent for Im Hwa was not an objective reality that a film camera could capture and record, but specifically colonial reality that the imperial disciplinary system would not want to surface. For Im Hwa, cinema should represent affective realities of the colonized that de/form and reorganize their bodies. Na Ungyu's legendary Arirang (1926) is a great film, not because it was a representative of cinematic resistance against colonial rule, as postcolonial film historians have reconstructed. It is because the film "grasped, though crudely, a body of feeling, ideas, and lives singular to Korean people, expressed the mood of the era that embraced the time, and was saturated with pathos, one of the Korean people's longstanding feelings."[37] Im also attributes the success of The Wanderer to its realist approach in its pursuit of "the truth of life."[38] That Im Hwa picked these two films as Korean cinema's realist representatives may lend his notion of realism to the longstanding cantus over the triumphant tradition of realism in Korean film history. However, it should be noted that realism for Im Hwa was not the telos of Korean film history, but a technical element that would help redeem such "truth of life," an affective reality.

A literary critic, Im Hwa's realism was among the central to the debate over the late 1930s Korean literature, which Im Hwa diagnosed as bifurcated into the novel of interior reflection (naesŏng sosŏl) and the novel of manners (saetae sosŏl). He saw the former as too much immersed in the psychology of its protagonists, while the latter as only unfolding details of the outer world in a real-modernistic way. The two tendencies, while pointing to two different directions, were in fact hinged on a more fundamental "split between what to tell and what to depict," which he paraphrased as "the split in the author's creative psychology and the loss of artistic harmony in the works."[39] Such a critique against the modernist novels came from his concern about the late colonial time that was, as Janet Poole suggests in When the Future Disappears, pregnant with "an inability to imagine the future other than as a relentless repetition of the present."[40] The novel of manners and the details that it describes appeared as a trace of the "era of helplessness."[41] Indeed, all the visions that colonial intellectuals had for a future had disappeared as the Japanese empire embarked on the all-out war beginning from the 1930s. As described earlier in the paper with the mobility enabled by the expansion of the empire, everything seemed subject to subsumption into the total mobilization. "When the future disappears" for colonial intellectuals, Im Hwa finds from the writers' indulgence in the unruly details produced with their camera-like eyes "a certain psychology of retaliation for the invisible world that has weakened their existence." He continues, "It is malicious like a pair of tongs with which [one] picks up filthy, so filthy realities to take them one by one into the novels and humiliate them in front of the public."[42]

Conspicuous in such a discussion on novels of manners is their affinity with motion pictures as they both entertain and distract people with dense and exquisite detail. In the discussion on the photographic description of a colonial middle-class man by Ch'oe Myŏngik, a modernist novelist whose work must have been under Im Hwa's criticism if Im had ever written about him, Janet Poole points that Im's concern about unruly details depicted with novelists' camera-eye was with such a conception of the cinematic "as a series of static images–of photographs."[43] Such a descriptive method that reduces the cinematic to fragmented frames of photographic images resulted in the "set of detail descriptions like grains of sand" in turn.[44] Instead, Im Hwa argues that even though originating from modern techniques of visual art such as painting, photograph, and cinema and thus lending itself to a fragmentation, realism unfolds itself in a true sense by "distinguishing what is important in real life from what is not."[45] In other words, realism for him has more to do with a selective process of what matters for the world that an author envisions than with an indiscriminate gleaning of all that is available to her eyes. It is an organic technic of narratives to make surface urgent yet hidden issues, rather than permission to use camera-eyes in a fragmental way which to just enumerate bits of information. Then, realism is more about the representation of the crucial contradiction embedded in the mode of production than the presentation of the modern experience submerged in the mode of consumption.

This conception of realism becomes clearer with his discussion of film realism. As the only essay that he intensively showed his vision about film realism, "The Dramatic and the Documentary of Cinema" brings to the fore the very issue of camera's realist faculty and addresses the use of realist techniques for the purpose of an organic structure of the entire film. In the essay, Im begins with an inquiry about cinema's popular appeal in his era, which was seemingly ascribed to its affordability or the alluring urbanity that it represented. Im, however, purported that more than anything, it is due to the "cinema itself" that allowed "people who just knew what's on screen in real life" to recognize what they are. "Anyone who has seen a hen would understand that it is such a hen when it appears on screen: Isn't this a preliminary knowledge enough to enjoy a movie?" He continues, "In this sense several preliminary knowledge or the bar that estranged people from art thus far was now lowered with the advent of cinema."[46] In other words, cinema's accessibility endowed by its visual representability (sigakchŏk sasilsŏng 視覺的寫實性) of the real world brought to the appreciation of art a kind of democracy and led itself to the throne of the most popular entertainment in his days.[47] Therefore cinema, making full use of its techniques of visual representation, is more stringently required to describe its objects than any other forms of art vividly.

Recall that the essay was primarily about a specific film, A Long Distance. Im Hwa finds the film deserving favorable attention as the filmmaker made an effort to understand cinema in its terms of visual representation since it employed the documentary elements to depict the fate of drifting people of the colony. Im Hwa has no doubt that as much as the visual representability is inherent in the cinematic medium, a vivid description of the seen, which in a novel may just yield to trivialism, might uphold its artistic quality. He argues, however, that the film failed to take full advantage of the documentary (kiroksŏng) in its drama, leaving them just fragmented. The scenes of lumbering and farming and the landscapes of Japan and Manchuria, Im argues, are interesting enough to record and depict, but nonetheless unconnected to the development of its theme that should have been unfolded along with its drama. Here Im Hwa interestingly relegates cinema's inherent ability to visualize the world to merely one of the methods for artistic expression, as he writes, "Realistic representation of the object by every means for different art genres would be no more than one of the ways of expression, and the same is true for cinema, too: The visual representability–cinema's visual photographic quality is, in fact, mechanical photographic quality–will not have more significance than as one of the ways of cinematic expression."[48] In other words, the documentary (kiroksŏng) is crucial for a film as long as it is limited to its role to help a film tell its entire story, or history effectively. Im Hwa demands that cinema's visual representability serve the organization of the documentary and the dramatic[49]

What Im Hwa is to highlight with this argument is then the organic relationship between the documentary (kiroksŏng) and the dramatic (kŭksŏng), that is, what to depict and what to tell. The two types of ingredients, while not entirely identical, are nevertheless inseparable, Im contends, as Homer's epic poetry, for example, can impart history while at the same time becoming a novel and a play; Likewise, Balzac's novels might also be read as a cultural history of the bourgeois class in France. The possibility of cinema as a form of epic poetry, which depicts the fate of a community while marrying the documentary to the dramatic. As for this particular film A Long Distance, its story of the journey of Korean people would have more significance as a historical documentary than as a mere drama; "This work would have revealed a characteristic of an epic poem if it had been expressive of their itinerary as fate. It stands to reason that films with such a theme take as a means of expression the documentary of history and cultural climate."[50]

Given that "The Dramatic and the Documentary of Cinema" was written primarily for explicating the failure of A Long Distance to the Land of Happiness, it is then Im Hwa's lament that the film failed to achieve the quality of an epic poem, which would synthesize the dramatic and the documentary, what to tell and what to depict, and a drama and a historical record. In Im Hwa's analysis, film's failure is two-fold. First, A Long Distance, a migration-themed movie, lacked the verisimilitude in its description of the different reasons why its characters had to drift. Only with the "bitter circumstances" under which characters had to leave their places, Im Hwa argues, the film could have successfully found the truth of their lives so that it could have resonated with the audiences. The film still gave a glance of such a moment: "The scene in which one takes a ferry boat to leave Mansan for the other side of river is one of the most touching moments in A Long Distance. To make it even more touching, it was indeed required to depict their profound pathos in disguise of seemingly cheerful faces (…) yet this was exactly what the author has failed."[51] Second, the failure to depict the "profound pathos" resulted from the film's formulaic, rather than animated, a way of characterization. For Im Hwa who believed that each character should have each own idiosyncrasy to make her or him more lively in an artwork, it was highly problematic that in the film the singularity of each character was merely submerged into the collectiveness. The characters' everyday lives should have animated them as living human beings, but remained episodic and not incorporated as crucial parts that would consist of the entire film. In short,


The fundamental flaw of A Long Distance to the Land of Happiness lies in the fact that it buries the individuality under the collectivity, instead of expressing the collectivity through each personality. This seems to be what the filmmaker was missing while configuring the initial intent which, even more, has not a little difficulties in its expression[52]


With the first sentence confirmed which recapitulates the intrinsic issue of the filmmaker's negligence, what draws my attention is the second one, in which Im Hwa insinuates the extrinsic condition that would have affected such a failure: When taking issue with the insufficient description of each character's motives of drifting, Im Hwa quickly adds in the parentheses, "maybe it was of impossibility of description." While what made impossible the description of the motives for drifting remains quite vague, this statement–together with the phrase that I quote above, "the intent which has not a little difficulty"–alludes to structural difficulties set under the colonial rule, whether it be colonial or self-censorship.

In this sense, while pointing to the fundamental problems that A Long Distance has with its misuse of the documentary, Im Hwa does acknowledge the colonial violence, both explicit and implicit, that wouldn't allow a colonial filmmaker to visualize the devastated living conditions that the colonized were placed under. This colonial violence, again, is not unrelated to the conception as mentioned earlier of the "fact" (sasil). As discussed previously in this paper, Im Hwa urges to embrace it not as an insurmountable condition to which the colonized had to submit, but as the ground on which they could understand the structure of the reality that has brought about such a fact. While not necessarily being a high-profile resistance against imperialism, this nonetheless gestures toward the constitution of a counter-position for one to dive into the "ordeal" and contend with the fact so as to discover a "sincere spirit of culture."[53]

The chances would be created with what Im Hwa termed "life" (saenghwal), as he wrote in "Recognizing the Fact Anew" in 1938, "In order to shape what is literary, one needs to come from politics to thought, from thought to psychology, and again from psychology down to life."[54] This life is "not the life as an unavoidable world that came helplessly instead of the reality, but the life which has to be cherished–the life which needs to be affirmed as is and from which the world is to greet a new significance."[55] A scene of the laborer Sim's wedding night in A Long Distance, according to Im Hwa, reveals one such moment in which the daily life becomes vividly depicted. Im Hwa reminds that "[we] should not forget how impressive the grim faces of the old couple who, despite the boisterousness from the outside, sat quietly in their room were."[56] What becomes clearer then is that by “life” Im Hwa did not mean the images of the disinterested routine, but an affective reality that exists as the psychology of the colonized.

If the brightness was required for Korean cinema as the ethos of Asian cinema in the Japanese empire, it is the pathos of the colonized that Im Hwa sought to bring to the fore instead. Indeed, to visually represent the colonial condition, or the fact that devastated the daily lives of the colonized, belonged to the impossibility; however, there remains the affective reality that keeps surfacing despite the imperatives pronounced during the total mobilization in the late colonial period. It was the pathos that Im Hwa called for: such that was depicted in Arirang and The Wanderer, in a few scenes in A Long Distance, and more importantly in the new Korean cinema that would come.

Im Hwa opens "The Dramatic and the Documentary of Cinema" as follows:


It may not be so simple [to understand] how going to the movies became a social custom. Some will choose a movie theater to meet with friends, and some may move their feet to the theater just for a distraction. The latter represents the crowdedness in the movie theater on Sundays. And that a movie theater is equipped with numbered seats and extended passages are required to satiate the needs of the former type. Even I myself go to the movie for such a [former] reason rather than this [latter]; Is a movie theater then only a social club or an entertainment hall?[57]


The inquiry suggested above about movie-going seems awkwardly too broad for a review of a film A Long Distance. This apparently shows that the essay does not limit its discussion to the film itself, but, as I have discussed so far, aims to investigate a more general issue related to colonial Korean cinema raised by the film's failure. Prominent from this opening is how the passage works as a vehicle to the argument about cinema's inherent faculty of visual representation. To put it differently, it is crucial to note that, in order to discuss the visual representability and realism of cinema, Im Hwa begins with a series of speculation about film audiences who made cinema the most popular entertainment of the time, instead of taking a more abstract position to discuss cinema as a photographic device. On the one hand, this discussion of cinema's effect upon its audiences is continuous from his earlier Marxist contention of cinema as a means to uphold people's class consciousness, as well as his contemporary discourse about film propaganda which prevailed throughout the globe at that time; In relation to Im Hwa's conception of realism, on the other hand, such an opening of the essay shows how much the lived experience of the audiences matters for Im Hwa's cinema, and how crucial it is for cinema to engage audiences' emotions: I call his notion of realism, in this sense, the affective realism.

Of course, as Janet Poole has written in her comparison with the modernist novelist Ch'oe Myŏngik's investigation into the everydayness, it is true that Im Hwa was afraid of such a realm of the everydayness "that he saw as somehow not incorporated into national revolutionary time" and the "threatened disappearance of the nation that this everyday emerged as a focus of attention."[58] Yet, it is only half-true: Im Hwa was indeed afraid, and that was why he called for a confrontation with the fact that hides a certain aspect of colonial realities. With the pathos that could not help but reveal itself in the movies, he believed that Korean cinema would have redeemed its own singularity in the struggle against the ethos of the Japanese empire which was demanding that people under its power and control become imperial subjects. Envisioning the singularity of Korean cinema and waiting for it to come in a different temporality was, in this sense, running an imagination of a new subjectivity.


[1]. Takashi Fujitani and Nayoung Aimee Kwon, “Introduction,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 2, no. 1 (2013): 1–9.

[2]. "Mun Yebong ilhaeng todong Nagŭne setŭ chwaryŏng," Chosŏn ilbo, January 17, 1937.

[3]. Chong-hwa Chŏng, “Negotiating Colonial Korean Cinema in the Japanese Empire: From the Silent Era to the Talkies, 1923-1939,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 2, no. 1 (2013): 139–69.

[4]. For the Japanese residents' involvement in filmmaking in colonial Korea, see Yūko Hoshino, “Kyongsongin ui hyongsong kwa kundae yonghwa sanop chongae ui sangho yongwansong yongu,” Master's thesis, Seoul National University (2012). Also, Cho Hŭimun and Kim Ryŏsil are two of the scholars who took issue with Arirang's status as Korea's national film classic. See Cho Hŭimun, Hanguk yonghwa ui changchom (Seoul: Chimmundang, 2002); Kim Ryŏ-sil, Tusahanun cheguk tuyonghanun singminji (Seoul: Sam'in, 2006).

[5]. Chŏng, “Negotiating Colonial Korean Cinema in the Japanese Empire,” p. 140.

[6]. "Shinkō no Chŏsen tŏki eiga Tabiji kansei," Kinema junpō, No. 602 (February 21, 1937), p. 34; "Nagŭne ŭi haeoe chinchul," Maeil sinbo, April 1, 1937; "Nagŭne ch'ŏt pongjŏl," April 25, 1937.

[7]. Paul Willemen, “The National Revisited,” in Theorising National Cinema, ed. Valentina Vitali and Paul Willemen, (London: British Film Institute, 2008), p. 30.

[8]. Nayoung Aimee Kwon, “Collaboration, Coproduction, and Code-Switching: Colonial Cinema and Postcolonial Archaeology,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 2, no. 1 (2013), p. 22.

[9]. Fujitani and Kwon, “Introduction,” p. 3

[10]. Kwon, “Collaboration, Coproduction, and Code-Switching: Colonial Cinema and Postcolonial Archaeology,” p. 15.

[11]. "Nagŭne ch'osŏnghwang," Chosŏn ilbo, April 19, 1937.

[12]. Im Hwa, "Little History of the Development of Korean Cinema," p. 205.

[13]. Namgung Ok, "Chosŏn yŏnghwa ŭi ch'oegobong Nagŭne rŭl pogo," Maeilsinbo, April 22~25, 1937; Sŏ Kwangje, "Yi Kyuhwan chak Nagŭne," Chosŏn ilbo, April 24~27, 1937.

[14]. Sŏ Kwangje, "Yi Kyuhwan chak Nagŭne," Chosŏn ilbo, April 25, 1937.

[15]. "Tabiji gappyō kariji shinema," Kinema junpō, no. 290 (May 21, 1937), pp. 26-33.

[16]. Ōta Tsuneya, "Chōsen eiga no tenbō," Kinema junpō, no. 644 (May 1, 1938), pp. 12-13.

[17]. Ishida Yoshinori, "Tabiji," Nihon eiga (July 1, 1937), pp. 104.

[18]. Chang Hyŏkchu, "Tabiji wo mite kanjita koto," Teikoku daigaku shimbun, May 10, 1937.

[19]. Kijima Yukio (Inagaki Kazuho), "Tabiji," Eiga hyōron, no. 136 (June 1937), p. 113.

[20]. An Ch'ŏryŏng, "Suchul yŏnghwa wa hyŏnsil: Chang Hyŏkchu Naedo Sŏlbu ssi ŭi Nagŭne p'yŏngron ŭl ilko," Tonga ilbo, September 11, 1937, morning edition, p. 6.

[21]. Ch'oe Namju, "Chosŏn yŏnghwa ŭi saenmyŏngsŏn," Chosŏn yŏnghwa, vol. 1. (October 1936), p. 43.

[22]. Hwajin Yi, Singminji Choson ui kukchang kwa sori ui munhwa chongchi, Ph.D dissertation, Yonsei University (2010).

[23]. Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 171.

[24]. Yi, Singminji Choson ui kukchang kwa sori ui munhwa chongchi, p. 111.

[25]. Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989), p. 302; quoted from Chow, Primitive Passions, p.171.

[26]. Sŏ Kwangje, "Yŏnghwa ŭi wŏnjak munje," Chogwang, no. 3, vol. 7 (July 1937), pp. 324-325.

[27]. "Chonghap chwadamhoe singŭk ŭn ŏdiro kanna Chosŏn yŏnghwa ŭi chaechulbal," Chosŏn ilbo, January 4, 1940. Italics on me.

[28]. Nishiki Motosada, "Chōsen eiga no sozai ni tsuite," Eiga hyōron, vol. 1, no 7 (July 1941), p. 53.

[29]. Hieyoon Kim, “Chip omnun chonsa ui Ilbon kaebong kwa Choson yonghwa ui wichi,” in Koryo yonghwa hyophoe wa yonghwa sincheje, ed. Korea Film Archive, (Seoul: Korea Film Archive, 2007), p. 236.

[30]. "Gŭk kwa yŏnghwa, mŏnjŏ Ilbonin i toeŏra," Kory ŏ y ŏnghwa hy ŏphoe wa y ŏnghwa sincheje 1936-1941, (Korea Film Archive, 2007), p. 161. Originally this article is from the scrap collection produced by Tōwa Corporation, which is now part of the collection of Kawakita Film Memorial Foundation.

[31]. Sukcha Pak, “Tongkwae eso myongnang kkaji: singminji munhwa wa kamsong ui chongchihak,” Hanminjok munhwa yongu 30 (2009): 213–38; Chiyŏng Kim, “Myongnang ui yoksajok uimiron,” The Review of Korean Studies 47 (January 29, 2015): 331–67.

[32]. "Nam ch'ongdok i Yun Ch'iho ege songhan sŏ," Pyŏlgŏngon (December 1938), p. 12; Pak, “Tongkwae eso myongnang kkaji,” p. 225.

[33]. Kim, “Myongnang ui yoksajok uimiron,”p. 342.

[34]. See Kwon Myŏnga's Ŭmnan kwa hyŏngmyŏng (The Obscene and the Revolutionary).

[35]. "Zadankai Chōsen eiga no zenbō wo kataru," Eiga hyōron, Vol. 1, No. 7 (July 1941), p. 60.

[36]. "Chonghap chwadamhoe singŭk ŭn ŏdiro kanna Chosŏn yŏnghwa ŭi chaechulbal," Chosŏn ilbo, January 4, 1940. Italics on me.

[37]. Im Hwa, "Sosa," p. 201.

[38]. Im Hwa, "Sosa," p. 204.

[39]. "Saetae sosŏl-ron," pp. 275-276.

[40]. Janet Poole, When the Future Disappears (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), p. 17.

[41]. "Saetae sosŏl-ron," p. 288.

[42]. "Saetae sosŏl-ron," p. 279.

[43]. Poole, When the Future Disappears, p. 19.

[44] "Saetae sosŏl-ron," p. 286.

[45]. "Saetae sosŏl-ron," p. 283.

[46]. "The Dramatic and the Documentary," p. 103-104.

[47]. 寫實, not 事實–Thus representability rather than reality.

[48]. "The Dramatic and the Documentary," p. 104.

[49]. It should be noted that here Im Hwa does not talk about documentary film, or cultural film, the term denoting the former, but he discusses primarily on fiction film. While his attitude about the documentary genre itself seems quite ambivalent, Im in many places insinuates his concern about documentary genre, which was considered at the time of the early 1940s as representing the essence of cinema.

[50]. "The Dramatic and the Documentary," p. 106-108.

[51]. "The Dramatic and the Documentary," p. 108.

[52]. "The Dramatic and the Documentary," p. 110.

[53]. "Recognizing the Fact Anew," p. 113.

[54]. "Recognizing the Fact Anew," p. 107.

[55]. "The Discovery of Life," p. 338.

[56]. "The Dramatic and the Documentary," p. 109.

[57]. "The Dramatic and the Documentary," p. 102.

[58]. Poole, When the Future Disappears, p. 48.