Dan continues his look at 70 years of Asian cinema with the drama Hurrah! For Freedom, the first film made in Korea following the end of World War Two
As seen across the handful of films I’ve talked about so far in this series, the Second World War – and more specifically, Japan’s role in it – had a major impact on the production of all South-East Asian cinema during that period. Even the minority of films that weren’t direct propaganda pieces were made under the strict control of the Japanese government, and while good pictures were made in both Japan and China at the time, even the most talented directors were compromised by the political and economic conditions. Korean cinema meanwhile had become so diminished it was barely worthy of that title. By 1938, all films aimed at Korean audiences were made by the Japanese; four years later their language was banned onscreen entirely.
Korean cinema didn’t really become an international force until after the end of the Korean War – a conflict which once again stifled production – but for a few years, the filmmakers there enjoyed freedom unthinkable under Japanese rule. One of the first films out of the post-war gate was 1946’s Hurrah! For Freedom (aka Viva Freedom!), which proved to be a huge commercial success and exists as the defining Korean film of this period. Unfortunately a combination of elements means that the only version available today is a truncated work running just under an hour, but what remains is a fascinating document of how a change in political circumstance can directly influence the type of entertainment made for the public.
The story focuses on a freedom fighter named Han Joon, a man heavily involved with the anti-Japanese rebellion during the war. The film opens with his escape from prison, after which he hooks up with a gang of fellow revolutionaries and continues to plot various acts of dissent, while hiding out in the house of Hye Ja, a young nurse sympathetic to the rebellion. Han Joon finds himself on the run once more when he kills a Japanese soldier who had caught one of his comrades – his flight leads him into the home of another young lady, Mi-hyang. Like Hye Ja, Mi-hyang immediately falls for the moody rebel, but there is one major complication – her boyfriend is the very man who betrayed Han Joon and got him sent to prison in the first place.
Some of Hurrah! For Freedom’s reduced running time can be attributed to the simple decay of the film stock, and much of what remains is in a pretty ropey state for a film made in the mid-1940s. However, a more interesting (though narratively damaging) reason lies behind the excision of many of the film’s other scenes. Three decades later, actor Dok Eun-gi, who plays the Korean collaborator who betrays our hero, defected to North Korea, causing the South Korean government in 1975 to demand that his image simply be removed from all prints of the film. So his character is mentioned but never appears, which given how confusing this makes many of the early scenes, suggests he did play quite a major part in establishing the potential love triangle between himself, Han Joon and Mi-hyang.
Nevertheless, there is still plenty here to appreciate. While many of the social and romantic entanglements are the stuff of pure melodrama, it’s hard not to notice the relish with which director Choi In-kyu and writer Jeon Chang-geun (also playing Han Joon) dig into the political material. Choi did some make some admittedly impressive propaganda pieces, most notably 1941’s Homeless Angel, but while any social commentary had to be placed so subtly into those films as to render them almost invisible, here the themes of Korean resistance are front and centre. Within ten minutes, Choi gives us a detailed discussion between Han Joon and his revolutionary buddies about the rights and wrongs of the violent action they are planning, and the potential dangers involved. “If it means the collapse of the Japanese empire for a day – an hour even – we must be prepared to do it!” Han Joon tells his comrades. It’s easy to see why Korean audiences responded to such sentiments in such numbers. The film also brought together many of the country’s most experienced crew members, who no doubt relished working on their own terms once more.
But despite the film’s title and the air of liberation that must have existed across the nation, it would be a mistake to see this as a happy film. For the most part, it is dark and serious, showing great respect for those that lost their lives while resisting the Japanese and never downplaying the difficulty of this struggle. There is a powerful scene where Han Joon discusses his own possible death at the hands of his enemies with a tearful Mi-hyang, and it is hardly a spoiler to mention that not all the main characters make it to end alive. The movie is much more a testament to the Korean fighting spirit than a celebration of its victory; the title seems to refer more to the rebel’s aim than any inevitable outcome. But while the film would be somewhat forgotten as the country plunged into civil war a few years later, this first gasp of freedom for the Korean film industry remains an important step on the road to reclaiming its place in Asian cinema.
ASIA7070 SO FAR…
1940: Nobuko (Japan)
1941: Princess Iron Fan (China)
1942: The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Japan)
1943: Sanshiro Sugata (Japan)
1944: Dear Soldier (Korea/Japan)
1945: A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo (Japan)