Seen in Jeonju

Military Train (1938)

13th August 2010

military trainThis coming semester, I will have a class on Korean Film History. One of the first movies that the students will see is The Military Train made in 1938. It was the first of the pro-Japanese government sponsored films. Co-produced by Seong-bong and Toho Studios, the film is much less of a propaganda films than what would follow. In fact, the pro-government message of support the war and be loyal to Japan is only inserted rather hamfistedly at the end.  There are some sublter messages being passed along, but one has to be a little bit familar with the actors and director to see them.

The Military Train is not so much about a locomotive or even its driver Jeom-yong. Rather it is about his sister, Ye-shim and her lover Won-jin. Ye-shim has been working to help her brother, sending him to school which allowed him to get the presitgious job of driving the troop transport trains from Korea to the front lines in China. . Unfortunately, she had been working as a kisaeng or, as the subtitles state, a geisha. Her madam has spent her own money training Ye-shim and now holds Ye-shim accountable for the enormous sum of 2,000 KRW.  These days, that is about the price of a cup of ice coffee but at the time it was a large amount of money. A client has offered to pay that price for Ye-shim and the young woman is now in danger of being sold.

Naturally, her finace Won-jin is upset by this turn of events, but he has no way to come up with the money, at least until a spy for the (unamed in this film) Korean Independence Army overhears that Won-jin is Jeom-yong’s roommate and he has access to the military secrets and troop time tables. The spy promises to pay the entire amount of Ye-shim’s debt if Won-jin steals the secrets from his future brother-in-law and deliver them to him. Sick with worry for his true love, Won-jin readily agrees although he is clearly distressed and later guilt-ridden over the betrayal of his friend. When Jeon-yong eventually finds out, he is horrified that Won-jin would not only deceive him, but endanger the ‘peace of Asia’. Jeom-yong had been warned by his chief that if anything should happen to the military train, it could cause a skirmish like the Lugou Bridge Incident ( reference that sent me to Wikipedia where it is listed as The Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

This was the only film made by director Seo Kwang-je, a former actor and film critic. Seo originally started in film when he won a contest supported by the Chosun Film Art Association that selected twenty people for a free one year film course. After completing the course, Seo acted in just two films before becoming a film critic and theorist for KAPF, the Korean Artist Proletarian Federation. He later gave up his political leanings after going to Japan to work in 1932. When he returned to Korea, he was very pro-Japanese. I do not know what the motives were behind his change, but it did allow him to keep working.

Seo cast Wang Pyeong as Jeom-yong and Sasaki Nobuko as his lover Sooni. There is no mention of the two being different nationalities. It was, after all, the government’s wish to convince the people that Koreans and Japanese were one and that the intergration of Chosun and Japan was going smoothly. The two also represent progress and the future. Jeom-yong drives the train, a clears symbol of industrialization and growth even as it is a machine of war. Sooni works as a waitress on a passenger train and wears modern clothes and even high heels showing an openness to modernization. Ye-shim, on the other hand represents the past. She is in an antiquated profession and severely in debt. Although she was the means of Jeom-yong’s success, he has been forced to leave her behind to move forward to the future. Won-jik is shown as weak. He follows the strongest mind and makes his decisions based on his heart which eventually leads him to his decision to betray and, later in the film, into an even more drastic decision.

The film has some lighting issues and their is about a two-minute span where the screen is totally black. I think they may be due to the original film being damaged although the audio remains intact. I do not know what my students will think about it–especially when they have to write a paper contrasting the depiction of 1930s life in Korea between this film and a recent film set in the same time period like Radio Dayz or Modern Boy.  It is very different style of film from what they are used to– the era of silent movies had just ended but is still evident in some of the acting and shots– but at just an hour long, it is a good introduction to early Korean cinema.

One Response to “Military Train (1938)”

  1. Seen in Jeonju » Blog Archive » Dear Soldier (1944) Says:

    [...] too long ago, I had written a short review of Military Train (1938) and three years earlier, Angels on the Street (1941).  Both of these films were made [...]