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'Modern Boy': Reinterpretation of Japanese Colonialism?

2008/09/30 Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

Following the footsteps of "Radio Dayz", "Once Upon a Time in Seoul" and "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" comes "Modern Boy", another purely entertainment-driven movie set during the Japanese colonial era (1910-45). Gyeongseong, the name of Seoul at the time, is home to flamboyant flappers (so-called "modern boys and girls"), radio stars and charming bandits who aren't necessarily working for Korea's independence.

The symbolic power of cinema is extensive, as it often showcases a given country's aesthetics, technical achievements and entertainment factors, and moreover portrays to varying degrees its cultural, historical and social values. Period pieces in particular become the subject of scrutiny as they speak for the shared history of a people.

A Japanese newspaper made a misleading report about "Modern Boy" and the above-mentioned Gyeongseong movies in January this year. Katsuhiro Kuroda, managing editor of Sankei Shimbun's Seoul branch, announced "the reinterpretation of Japanese colonialism" in Korea ― how there was an effort to reexamine it as an era of modernization rather than one of exploitation, oppression and resistance, and that the conventional school manual "dark period" version has gotten a facelift and was drawing popularity among the younger generation.

The cheerful characters of "Modern Boy" deliver a colorful story, but by no means do they beautify history. It simply shows that life continued, and that there was love, friendship and fun even in oppressive times. Gyeongseong is another name for exoticism, and rich period details give way to a visually lush film. The film portrays a new side of Gyeongseong, brightly lit with neon signs, where swing dance and jazz music were in full swing.

One can argue that the moral distinction between "courageous" independence fighters versus pro-Japanese "traitors" and evil Japanese authorities has entered a gray zone. "Modern Boy" does indeed feature a sympathetic Japanese character (Lee Han) that suffers over his genuine friendship with a Korean. But this is because the area of central conflict has shifted.

Back in the day, Korean cinema had its fare share of political films. Director Choi In-gyu, for example, made a 180-degree turn away from movies propagating Japanese militarism in the 1930s into making ultra-patriotic ones after Liberation in 1945. Such "nationalistic" filmmaking is not unusual. Hollywood continues to demonstrate the political agenda du jour, as Middle Eastern and even North Korean "axis of evil" terrorists began replacing the public enemy role long held by scheming Russian communists, Neo-Nazis and the ruthless Vietcong.

For Korean cinema's quintessential bad Japanese imperialist, it's a different story. The new Gyeongseong films mark a role shift rather than a reinterpretation of history. The Japanese oppressor is still evil but has melted into the background rather than being a strictly dishonorable character. The bitterness over losing sovereignty remains intact. Some of the most affecting moments in "Modern Boy" are when the protagonist, wealthy but deprived of his country, recalls his childhood dream of becoming Japanese rather than a doctor or such, and how a talented artist cannot sing in her own language.

"Modern Boy" is about a rich, hedonistic playboy played by the fabulous Park Hae-il who cannot care less that his country was colonized and falls head over heals in love with a beautiful independence fighter, ingeniously brought to life by Korean sex symbol Kim Hye-soo. Director Jeong Ji-woo crafts a dramatic femme fatale story that evokes "Carmen" and "Original Sin", but which can also be compared to Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution". It is essentially a love story, and the dynamics of the time period set the heartbreaking mood for the narrative.

So whether it's Hollywood or Chungmuro, a common denominator is that no matter who plays the bad guy, movies shift their focus away from the political problem at hand. That's entertainment.

In theaters Oct. 2. 121 minutes. 12 and over. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.

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