25th January 2012
The story: Choon-ho (in the photo) is depressed about his limited future. In his own words, “The son of a peasant becomes a peasant.” His short-term ‘career’ goal is to be able to cultivate the land on the hill next to the land he farms. He does not own the land, it belongs to Mr. Park who lives very comfortably with his younger sister, Soo-ae in Seoul. As his father before him, Choon-ho is the land supervisor for Mr. Park, but Park and most of the tenant farmers (rightly) do not believe Choon-ho should inherit that position, but believe it should go to the person with the most experience, Deok-sam. At the same time that he is informed of Park’s decision, Choon-ho has his sole dream crushed as the landlord does not want the land on the hill cultivated.
Well, maybe calling cultivating the hill his sole dream is a little bit of an exaggeration. Choon-ho is engaged to the beautiful country girl Boon-ok..but that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. They have been engaged for two years but no closer to getting married. Boon-ok justifies this by blaming herself. “I am useless,” she states right after we are introduced to us referencing her elementary school-level education. And to say she lacks confidence would be an understatement. When Choon-ho announces he must go to Seoul after receiving a telegram, Boon-ok droops and moans, “You just want to get away from me.”
The trip to Seoul leaves Choon-ho depressed not just because of losing the supervisor position. While walking through Seoul, he sees many signs and banners recruiting soldiers for the Japanese army. Choon-ho believes joining the army and serving the emperor would give his life purpose. It gets worse for him as his long-standing relationship with Boon-ok hits a bump. She sees him with Soo-ae, a girl who grew up with them but now lives in Seoul and has modernized. She wears western style clothes and has permed her hair (”Like a sheep” says one of the farmers)
Fortunately for Choon-ho, he learns from his friendly Japanese neighbor that, since the annexation of Korea is now complete, Koreans are eligable to volunteer to join the armed forces. Choon-ho drops everything and signes up, leaving the farm, his elderly mother and (ex?) girlfriend behind.
Say what you will about propaganda films, they do know how to get their message across using symbols. The use of the train tracks in this movie clearly are meant to show progress and moving away from the past. The scenes of marching Choon-ho and the cadets at the training camp also indicate positive motion and contrast with most images of Choon-ho on the farm where he is sitting or standing in one place. He represents the youth of Korea, then subjects of Japan, and we are meant to believe that he is better off because of that fact. His life will have meaning in the battlefields and he will serve his country as a protector.
What then of Boon-ok? Well, she is the face of the past. She is weak and unconfident in her own abilities. We learn in the course of the movie that she was promised to be married to Deok-sam’s son when the two were children..and ancient tradition that mires her deeper in the past. She must be left behind if Choon-ho is to succeed. The fact that she does have a marriage option that will also prove her obedience to her father’s will, helps alievate what worry the audience might feel for her. But if she does go through with the marriage (which I believe she would) she would be marrying a farmer, implied to lack education, and neither will progress any further.
There are many other images and subplots in the film that are worth exploring, but I don’t want to spoil the entire movie. Volunteer is part of The Past Unearthed DVD collection. All four of the films comprising the collection were made during the colonial period and provide a unique look at life in Korea at that time in history.