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Abstract

A study of a chosen set of the extant Korean films produced between 1936 and 1945, my dissertation examines the ways in which Japanese colonialism, gender politics, and Koreans’ aspiration for their own filmmaking interweave themselves on screen in the context of the empire’s increasing pressure in the drive towards total mobilization. Though I distance myself from the overtly nationalist perspectives, I do contend that the films of wartime colonial Korea should be located in the contexts of Korean national cinema, especially its seminal instances that show the cinema’s intimacy with the state. Central to the dissertation’s organization is my observation that the wartime propaganda films produced by Koreans are populated by initially ill-fit and displaced—and eventually lachrymose—Korean figures, such as irresolute young men, bereaved children, and suffering women. These cinematic characters undergo a variety of forms of soul searching in order to be reborn as proper colonial citizens, a process that involves both the enactment of their personal agency and the necessity of the state apparatus to support this. The figures reformed under imperial grace serve propagandistically to transform everyday life on the home front into the (pseudo) military civic zone. Their imperial transformation, however, discloses significant fissures in the narrative logic and consistency of characters of the films of this genre. Young Korean males volunteer for the imperial army not as much out of loyalty to the empire as out of a desire for equal rights with the Japanese; and neglected children and women enduring hardship all too realistically—albeit inadvertently in some cases—reveal how Koreans are left unprotected and uncared by the Japanese Empire. While offering an extratextual account of the Korean film industry’s negotiations with the colonial state’s measures as well as with the Korean viewing audiences’ cultural understandings and expectations, each body chapter provides a close reading of the extant wartime colonial Korean films. The first of these is Sweet Dream (1936), a prototype of the state-sponsored enlightenment film, which I claim is a predecessor of wartime propaganda films. The second are the “volunteer films,” made to celebrate the colonial government’s promulgation of Korean volunteer military system. The third is the “children trilogy” by Ch’oe In-gyu, which treats allegorically the colonial adoption of wandering Korean orphans into the imperial family. The last is Chosŏn Strait (1943), a wartime woman’s film, in which female characters—traditional and modern, single and maternal, as well as Korean and Japanese—and the alliances they form serve as a critique of the traditional patriarchal system and wartime imperilment of Korean women. The dissertation concludes that, as the Korean filmmakers actively collaborated with the colonial state ostensibly in service to the colonialist/militarist agenda, they not only managed to retain a significant degree of control over production but also put forth films of subtle resistance for the Korean audiences. Taking advantage of the wartime urgency, they cinematically mobilized previously underrepresented groups of Koreans such as low-class men, women in need, and neglected children, although various fissures appear within the propagandistic transcript of colonial mobilization. On the basis of the textual and contextual evidence, my study argues that wartime colonial Korean cinema established itself as the first iteration of Korean national cinema, whose foundation is inseparable from its intimate relationship with state power, a characteristic that permeates the postliberation Korean cinema.

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