Ahn Jong-hwa’s 1934 Cheongchun-eui sipjaro/Cross Roads of Youth, the one surviving Korean silent movie, has become the subject of a great night out restoration, which comes not only with a Byeonsa Talker (Korean equivalent of a Japanese Benshi narrator), a four piece orchestra and (hey this is new!) a couple of accomplished musical theater vocalists who step into the spot light and do songs in Korean to accompany the action.
We kick off with yet another train entering a station, a brief montage of passing rails Berlin Symphony of a City style and disembarking passengers, among whom we spot hero Lee Wong-yong who has traded village life and carrying loads of firewood for a job as a porter at Gyeongseong (now Seoul) Central Station. An upright youth, he helps an old woman and her daughter rather than well dressed foreigners.
His luck is changing however as he catches the eye of cheerful “Gas Girl” service station attendant Kim Yeon-si. Meanwhile his aged mother has died in the village and his young sister Shin Yil-sun comes to the city in an attempt to find him. However villainous moustached sharpies are on hand. Money lender Park Yeon is there to prey on vulnerable girls and he manages to detour both the sister and the Gas Girl via the beach to his swank apartment, where he attempts to have his evil way with the sister. Learning of the pump girl’s attempt to re-schedule her ailing dad’s debt with the dastard, Lee Won-yong goes to the lowlife’s home only to be humiliated, trampled and sent on his way without realising that both the young women who hold a place in his affections are inside.
However our hero discovers the awful truth and sets out to meet out justice to the slicker-usurer at his swank club, where the bouncers are ineffectual in stopping him. Our lead’s two comic side kicks seem to only function as observers.
Catching up with the bounder, who thought he had escaped unmarked, the burly hero
gives him what for before being restored to the adoring females.
In fact the actual movie, which was a poll-topper in it’s original market, is the weakest element of the show. Murkily reproduced and having some technical flaws and a creaky melodrama plot, it ranks below the Japanese classics or the best of the Shanghai movies of it’s day.
The glimpses of Gyeongseong are less that revealing but we can spot the same contrast between the innocents of the countryside and the decadence of the city, where women smoke in bars and the well off drive cars. It’s not too far away from what we see in thirties Australian films. Along with the sustained shot that’s out of focus and the uprights that are not quite vertical we can notice a few touches of visual sophistication - the sidekicks adding chalk tears to their drawing of the heroine in adversity, a pan to a mirror which shows the distressed girl in the heavy’s flat or a striking close up over the shoulder filmed downwards on a stair case.
The restoration was a major effort as all the archive had was untitled picture which baffled them confusing the female characters until they got in a lip reader who spotted Shin Yil-sun articulating the word “brother” and found other clues and they delved into newspaper files which put the plot together for them. I’m still puzzled about the faithless sixteen year old fiancée who makes the hero carry water for her?
The copy which came with good English subtitles was backed with the full voice over, not just doing the characters’ speeches but adding comments on the action and setting, deep breaths, the odd sound effect and even some critical comment like noting that Lee Won-jong emerges from the big fight with his make up smeared or that all the girls that the Byeonsa is re-voicing himself sound the same. That one got a big laugh. We are not all that far away from Robert Youngson’s 1950s silent movie compilations.
The score, which might have fallen back on wood blocks and single string fiddles, instead
goes for a Tango sound, at first seeming anachronistic but on reflection correct for a country then under Japanese occupation with overseas musical influences flowing in.
All this delighted a mix of Korean and other nationalities who turned up, not a full house but a good showing. We're not used to seeing people take their archival movies - or their fun - so seriously. The movie enthusiast community was as usual conspicuously absent