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Spring of Korean Peninsula
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by Jay Seaver

"Making movies is always tough, but even more so in this situation."
4 stars

One of the potentially head-spinning things about watching modern Indian films is the way people casually slip between languages - English-speakers like myself will be reading the subtitles but not really listening while the characters are speaking Hindi, only to realize we've missed a sentence because a character has switched to un-subtitled English without stopping. Something similar happens in "Spring of Korean Peninsula" - characters will move from Korean to Japanese and back again within the same scene, with the subtitles switching between vertical kanji on the side for Japanese audiences to horizontal Korean text at the bottom for that language's speakers. It's a bit confusing, but also instructive for a movie about making movies: There were two masters that had to be served.

We start with a film-within-a-film, a version of the classic tale "Chunhyang". However, Soeul is not Hollywood, and the production is in trouble - star Anna (Baek Lan) is looking for another job, the director is about to be evicted from his home, the money that writer/producer Young-il (Kim Il-hae) is counting on from winning a writing contest is slow in coming, and Young-il's boss at the record company, Mr. Han, is not extending any more credit. Things may be looking up for Young-il personally, though - Jung-hee (Kim So-young), the sister of a friend, has just arrived from Pyongyang, and is hoping to learn about the movie and music business.

Though chunks of Spring of Korean Peninsula take place on a movie set, it's not the sort of backstage drama that comes across as oblique or confusing to those outside the business. Technical details are sparse; the focus is much more on how making a movie ties a great many people's fates together, and in a situation like early-40s Korea, there's no studio support net (the newly formed Bando studio is Japanese-controlled, which has its own issues). Of course, in some ways, it's not so different from the entertainment industry in any place and time; part of the reason Anna is looking for new work is that Mr. Han has pushed her aside now that Jung-hee has come along.

As interesting as the movie and music business stuff is, the story does take some very odd turns - Anna's re-entry into the story is downright weird, making the movie's last half-hour a rather benign version of Misery, and the love story that emerges is rather low-key. The film doesn't quite end with a whimper, but it is never really building to much. Though the propaganda content isn't quite so high as some films of this era (such as Homeless Angels), the implication certainly is that once the Japan-endorsed Bando company started, things got better for Korean filmmakers.

Not having a lot of high dramatics allows the cast to do their thing with a certain amount of craft while avoiding histrionics, though. Kim Il-hae makes a nice leading man without pushing other characters out of the way. He was a major star at the time (also starring in Homeless Angels), and he's good at showing his increasingly difficult position without overt panic. Kim So-young is a bit of a treasure as the film's ingenue, a confident young woman who captures the audience's eye in much the same way Jung-hee enraptures the other characters. The other vertex of the triangle, Baek Lan, isn't quite up to them; perhaps director Lee Byeong-il wanted to avoid having her come off as too negative in a time of heavy censorship.

Like many films made under these conditions, "Spring of Korean Peninsula" is more than a bit compromised, and as such maybe not a classic. But for those interested in Korean film, it's essential viewing if you can find it, not just as one of the few films that survive from that era, but as one that lets the audience look behind the curtain.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21859&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/11/10 02:08:00
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Directed by
  Byeong-il Lee

Written by
  Il-hae Kim
  Wol-young Seo
  So-young Kim
  Lan Baek
  Hae-sook Bok

Cast
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