Crossroads of Youth, Korea’s earliest surviving feature-length movie, was a great way to start the season of films from Korea’s colonial period. It is a season that could not have taken place 15 years ago, because these films have only recently come to light in the film archives of Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo.
Crossroads of Youth itself is as much a creation of a 21st century director, Kim Taeyong, as it is of the original director, Ahn Jong-hwa: all that is left of the film is the celluloid itself (of which the first reel is damaged beyond use). No script, no scenario, no captions or inter titles. Kim Taeyong had to watch the footage countless times and try to recreate a story-line, the only clue being at one point one of the female leads can be seen to be crying “Oppa!”, indicating that she is he younger sister of the male lead.
As Kim has recreated it, the movie is a multi-faceted entertainment, with live musicians, singers and storyteller. Back in the day, the Byeonsa – the live narrator of the movie – was a bigger star than the actors themselves as he was responsible for engaging with the audience, commentating on the story line and filling in the background. At the BFI, the Byeonsa Cho Hee-bong was the centre of attention, and his script, which changes over time, highly entertaining. In a nod to one particularly out-of-focus shot, he said we were seeing through the eyes of our hero, who was tearing up with sadness at leaving home; in another scene he commented on the rather heavy eye-makeup the actor was wearing.
Subtitles were in idiomatic English (this must have been the only movie I’ve ever seen with the word “Twat” in the subtitles). Altogether a complete and involving entertainment experience.
Crossroads of Youth, with live performance, was screened at the BFI on 7 February 2019 as the opening event of the BFI Early Korean Cinema season. Performance credits: Joo Jinsook (Director, Korean Film Archive) | Chung Chong-hwa (Senior Researcher, Korean Film Archive) | Kim Tae-yong (Director) | Cho Hee-bong (Narrator) | Park Hee-von (Actress) | Hwang Minsu (Actor) | Lee Jinwook (Keyboard) | Shin Jia (Accordion) | Oh Seung-hee (Double bass) | Sim Jeongeun (Violin)