Films trace victims of Japan occupation era

A scene from "Spirits' Homecoming" / Courtesy of Wow Pictures

Following the huge success of last year’s action flick “Assassination” revolving around Korean independence fighters during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), the local film scene has seen more films dealing with that era.

Amid ongoing issues over Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan during wartime, two films set in the 1930s and 1940s of Korea will hit local screens this week and next ― “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” and “Spirits’ Homecoming.”

Patriotic poet revived in monochrome film

Star director Lee Joon-ik, known for hit films such as “King and the Clown” (2005) and “The Throne” (2015), presents the low-budget film “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet.”

The film portrays renowned patriotic poet Yun Dong-ju (1917-1945), who has been highly recognized in Korea for his politically resistant poems while the country was occupied by Japan. Though the poet was imprisoned for allegedly participating in the independence movement in Japan and died in prison there, Yun lives on in the hearts of many Koreans through his lyrical poems.

Based on memoirs written by Yun’s acquaintances, the film depicts Yun’s life from his high school days to the last year of his life, all in black and white.

The director said he “didn’t hesitate on filming a black-and-white version from the beginning.”

“I filmed this in black and white as many Koreans still remember the poet through his black-and-white photographs. And the more important thing is this was the only way to save production costs. It would have probably cost more than 10 billion won if I filmed it in color,” Lee told reporters during a press preview last month. The total production cost of “Dongju” was 600 million won ($495,600).

During the 110-minute film, “Dongju” focuses on how Yun spent his short life writing poems that express his inner torment as a victim of colonialism.

The film also sheds light on Song Mong-gyu, Yun’s cousin who also died in prison in 1945, 23 days after Yun’s death. Though Song didn’t leave a significant legacy in history, he is described as the biggest influence in Yun’s life. Actor Kang Ha-neul takes the role of the somewhat shy and forlorn poet Yun while actor Park Jung-min features as Song.

Veiled life of sex slaves in ‘Spirits’ Homecoming’

While “Dongju” depicts the agony of intellectual class during the occupation, “Spirits’ Homecoming” shows the dismal realities of teenage girls who are forced to become sex slaves for the Japanese army during World War II.

The film is directed by independent director Cho Jung-rae who has been volunteering at the shelter for the victims of wartime sexual enslavement since 2002.

Though he had struggled to find backers, the film could be completed with help from 75,270 small investors, who are mostly ordinary citizens. As the film has been received well in premieres both here and overseas, it will be finally released nationwide on Feb. 24.

The director said he decided to bring this issue to the screen after seeing Kang Il-chul’s drawing of Japanese soldiers taking young sex slaves to a burning pit.

“That was the very first start of the film. According to testimonies of the victims, some 200,000 women were forced to work in Japan’s military brothels and most of them didn’t return,” Cho told reporters after a press screening at a theater in Dongdaemun, eastern Seoul, on Feb. 4.

“Spirits’ Homecoming” revolves around 14-year-old Jung-min (Kang Ha-na) and her peers who are forced to work as sex slaves in 1943.

Cho produced this film with the hope to save the souls of the deceased victims. “The average age of those women was about 16. How painful it could be for them. It is time for us to save those fallen souls,” he said.

By Baek Byung-yeul
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