[Viewpoint]Spring comes to film archives

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[Viewpoint]Spring comes to film archives

I visited the Korean Film Archive to watch a Korean movie last Wednesday. It was “Spring of the Korean Peninsula” directed by Lee Byeong-il. The film, a masterpiece produced in 1941, gives a glimpse of Korea’s entertainment industry, including movies and phonograph records, in the period when Korea was under Japanese occupation. Mr. Lee gained renown with “The Wedding Day;” produced in 1956.
Of the scenes in “Spring of the Korean Peninsula,” the one that evoked a delicate feeling was about cinema production. A Korean production was forced to stop filming “Chunhyangjeon,” a classic Korean love story based on a novel, due to financial shortages.
The director, together with the cast and crew, was leaving Gwanghanru, a beautiful pavilion by the side of a pond that was the location for the movie. The camera showed them walking down the stairs in despair. The scene, which showed their parting backs, was a stark contrast to the awkward expression on the director’s face after the film was completed with Japanese money. Watching the movie with freshmen who have begun to study Korean film, I was attracted by the movie’s sense of modernism and skillful camerawork.
Because the legendary classic masterpieces “Arirang,” directed by Na Woon-kyoo, and “Ferryboat without a Boatman,” directed by Lee Gyu-hwan are missing, the oldest movie in Korea is “Illusion,” produced in 1936. “Spring of the Korean Peninsula” was rediscovered, together with other old film materials, in 2005. In retrospect, the Korean Film Archive has achieved a lot in preserving and rediscovering Korean movies. We owe a lot to the efforts made by former director Yi Hyo-in, who majored in Korean film history, as well as his staff.
They worked hard to track down old films and organized screening sessions for them. They also held lectures and seminars on old films. The archive has made it easy to search for information on Korean films by setting up KMDb, a database on Korean film and the film world.
(To search for information on Korean movies or characters in the film world, go to www.koreafilm.or.kr.)
When I started to study classical Korean movies about 15 years ago, I found out that there was not a single Korean movie that was produced during the period Korea was under Japanese rule, and I could not believe it. Part of the reason could be the fact that Korea’s cultural assets were largely lost while the country was subjected to colonial rule, fighting the Korean War and living under a dictatorship. Another reason was, however, a lack of understanding that cinema is an essential cultural asset in the modern age.
In that regard, when I visited the Moscow Film Museum in 2000, I marveled at the fact that the museum had over 400,000 film-related materials in its archive. Of course, Russia may not have as many video and cinema collections as France, but it has the passion and dedication of the museum’s director, Naum Kleiman, who has been managing the museum since the collapse of the Soviet Union, collecting and screening movies that moved me. He is a scholar with extensive knowledge on Sergei Eisenstein, and he has made the Moscow Film Museum a paradise for cinephiles and a famous place by organizing film festivals that screen not only Russian movies, but also those from Europe.
In 2004, there was an attempt by the Russian mafia to turn the museum into a casino. A large protest rally was staged opposing the plan and many dignitaries in the film world, including American director Quentin Tarantino, gave support to the rally.
It is time for the Korean Film Archive to be born again as a place for the new era that induces people to pay attention to the video-related culture in general, instead of only the history of Korean cinema. For this purpose, the meager financing of the archive should be increased to a great extent. And the management of the archive should introduce more audience-oriented operations after its move to the Digital Media City building in Sangsam-dong. We put our hopes in the new director, Cho Seon-hi.
On a rainy day at the end of March, perhaps because of an accompanying chill in the air, I longed for hot coffee and warm spring sunshine while watching a movie at the Korean Film Archive. There is a cafe that serves fragrant coffee on the upper floor of the building where the archive is located. The spring in “Spring of the Korean Peninsula” is a paradoxical expression of the period when Korea was under Japanese rule, but the coming spring will be warm and fragrant. I hope that a prosperous spring will also come to the Korean Film Archive.

*The writer is a professor of film studies at the school of film, TV and multimedia at the Korean National University of Arts. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim So-young
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