27th July 2012
The Daehan Empire and Min Yeong-hwan is part of the recently released collection, Historical Films About the Korean Empire. The collection contains four movies focusing on the years leading up to Japanese occupation and the resistance shortly thereafter. It also contains a very useful booklet explaining exactly why these films were made, why scenes of daily life were never depicted in these films, why they cover such a limited time period- no of these ‘Memorial Films’ ever covered the years after the March 1st Movement unless they are set outside Korea– and what relation the time period depicted on film had with the filmmakers themselves, many of them who were alive at the start of occupation. The films I have seen from the collection so far do not require one to have strong knowledge of history.. it is quite easy to pick up on people’s roles in the events transpiring. However, they are not documentaries either and some liberties seem to have been taken as I will explain while discussing the film pictured left.
I chose The Daehan Empire and Min Yeong-hwan to watch first among all the films in the collection because of the time period it starts in. If you have been following my blog for a while, you undoubtedly have seen my transcriptions of Korea’s first English (and Korean for that matter)-language newspaper, The Independent. I am currently typing up news from 1896 and this film begins right about that time. In fact, Min Yeong-hwan was interviewed by The Independent and he was a member of the progressive Independent Club. Min Yeong-hwan was the nephew of the murdered Queen Min and as such had the ear of King Gojong. He was among the first Korean envoys to be sent to the west, visiting the courts of Europe, attending the coronation of the Russian czar and representing Korea at the White House in the United States and he was a strong supporter of the modernization of Korea. He wanted to develop Korea along the lines of the western nations and make his country strong enough to be free of the plots of its neighbors.
The movie starts upon Min’s return from a six month journey to Europe. He immediately goes to the palace to greet the king and suggests that the Korean soldiers receive western-style drilling and uniforms to increase their effectiveness and in the next scene we see the soldiers receiving the uniforms and practicing their drills. He then goes to his home and greets his wife, mother and the members of a secret movement he is forming to block the Japanese from getting the Eulsa Treaty ratified by the Korean Government Ministers. His actions put him in direct conflict with the Japanese Foreign Minister and soon-to-be Resident General Ito Hirobumi who was residing in Korea and assassins are sent by pro-Japanese Ministers to end Min’s interference. He survives and meets with future president of Korea Rhee Syngman, recently released from prison where he was held following a protest against Japan. All the while, Min continually pressures an increasingly weak King Gojong to nullify the actions taken by the other ministers and to dismiss them in favor of allies to Gojong. As we know from history, in the end Min’s hard work was for nothing and he committed suicide immediately following the signing of the Eulsa Treaty, a final act of protest against making Korea a protectorate of Japan.
The Eulsa Treaty was signed by the Korean Ministers in 1905 (the King Gojong refused to ratify it) and paved the way for later treaties that would lead to the annexation of Korea. The treaty consisted of five points, the two most damaging were the first, which made Korea a protecterate of Japan, and the second which forbid Korea from entering into treaties or agreements with other nations without the approval of Japan. Knowing that the treaty was signed in 1905 and that Min returned from his last trip to Europe in 1897 led me to realize that we were getting a very condensed history. It is hard to tell that time had past at all, especially since Min’s children do not age throughout the movie. However, because of this there are a couple of historic facts that don’t quite mesh with the film. For example, according to the film, Min suggested that the army adopt western uniforms when he returned from six months in Europe. However, according to The Independent published in 1896, the army had already adopted western uniforms as an article in the June 30th edition bemoans the fact that some soldiers had taken to not wearing their new suits in favor of traditional styles. He may have been the one to have originally suggest to the King to adopt western uniforms, but it was in an earlier year than is depicted in the film.
The film script also makes an odd claim that Japan ‘denied Korea the rights to build trains for themselves’ but that is not accurate at all. The US built the first train in Korea and later France added to the tracks eventually connecting the Seoul railway through Pyeongyang and into Manchuria by 1905. In fact, issues of The Independent in the latter half of 1896 state definitely that Gojong turns down offers by both Japan and Russia to build more railways in Korea. His original plan was to let only the US build the railways and then purchase them for Korea. It is possible that, after the Eulsa Treaty was signed, Japan bought the trains from the US when the ten year lease was up, but, if that was the case (I can find no information on it at the moment), the characters in the film could not have known this as the film only goes up to the signing of the treaty.
The brief inclusion of Rhee was simply done as a way to help legitimize the 4-term president. His terms in office were marred by corruption but it was hoped that connecting him to patriots of independence would help ease a growing unrest and save the fledgling democracy. It didn’t work. Although he received 90% of the vote in the final election (his opponent died right before the election), it was determined that the vice-presidential election was rigged and protests–and the government’s violent response to those protests– eventually drove Rhee from office and into exile.
The acting in the film is good although some may find the subject matter a little dry. It was interesting to see Kim Seung-Ho in the role of a villain. Normally he played the father-figures in the films of the early 60s like The Coachman or Romance Papa. Here he plays Ito Hirobumi– whom the English subtitles mistakenly call ‘Prince.’ If you are looking for more information about this movie in the KMDb, you need to look under the title Blood Bamboo. That title refers to the legend of the bamboo that sprouted from the dead wood where Min’s blood was spilled. If you have an interest in early Korean history and the style and reasons behind the movies of the late 50s, then I strongly suggest you pick up the collection. If however, you are looking for action, romance or a lot of emotion in your films, this might not be the collection for you.