S. Korea Seeks to Recover Legendary Film 'Arirang' from Japan
By Shim Sun-ah
Korean actor-director Na Woon-gyu of the 1926 movie "Arirang"
SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- The Korean Film Archive in southern Seoul is the home to some 3,500 films representing local cinematic history.
But the shelves for films produced in the early 1900s when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule remain almost vacant.
Many of the early 20th-century works have been lost, while the remaining few were believed to have fallen into the hands of private collectors.
Of the films believed to still exist today, the archivists' greatest hope is to retrieve "Arirang," a 1926 film that marked both the debut and genius of Korean actor-director Na Woon-gyu, from Japan.
"Arirang is an extremely rare film as it was produced under the colonial era yet dealt with the anti-Japanese movement by the Korean people," said archivist Jeong Se-yeon.
"It shines, as most other films of the era were financed by Japan and reflected the positions of the colonial ruler."
The original nine reels of Arirang were believed lost during the 1950-53 Korean War, but rumors surfaced here in the early 1990s that they are owned by a Japanese art collector who passed away recently.
The Japanese man, Yoshinoge Abe, reportedly confirmed that Arirang is part of his vast collection of 50,000 Japanese and foreign movies.
He also claimed to have 60 other Korean films from the Japanese colonial era at his house.
The claim could not be formally verified as Abe denied access to the collection during his lifetime, but he reportedly expressed willingness to return Arirang when the Korean Peninsula is reunified.
Several South Korean journalists, civic group activists and government officials visited Abe's home in the suburbs of Osaka at the time but failed to determine if his claims were true.
South Korea's efforts, on both governmental and civilian levels, to bring home the precious cultural assets entered a new phase as the art collector passed away early this month.
He died at an Osaka hospital at the age of 81 without naming any known heir to assume his property. In Japan, all privately owned artworks belong to the country's Cultural Affairs Agency if the owner dies without any inheritor.
The Japanese governmental office will soon take legal steps to assess the late Japanese man's film collection, according to a recent report by the Japanese daily Mainichi Shimbun.
This run-down building in Osaka, Japan, former home of the late Japanese art collector Yoshinoge Abe, is believed to contain a rare print of the film "Arirang."
"If reels of Arirang are found among the piles of film reels at Abe's house, we will share copies of them with South Korea," Ken Terawaki, director-general of the agency's cultural affairs department, was quoted as saying by the South Korean daily Choson Ilbo.
Terawaki is Japan's highest working-level official involved with the possible return of the local film.
However, Seoul officials expect to encounter difficulties in bringing it home despite Japan's cooperation. They predict it will take at least eight months for the Japanese government to assume control of the film rights.
"Japan will require more time to locate the nine reels of Arirang out of the piles of 50,000 films, most of them silent movies, in Abe's house," Kim Tae-hoon, head of the South Korean Culture Ministry's department of film industry promotion.
Some have expressed concern that the film could be damaged before the launch of the probe because of the "hugely dilapidated condition" of its owner's remote house.
Kim Yeon-gap, a South Korean civic group leader who returned from a visit to the residence last Tuesday, told Yonhap News Agency over the telephone that the house lies almost in ruins on a remote hillside in Osaka, as the Japanese man let it slide while battling against his illness in his final years.
Kim, executive director of a group working to adopt the Korean folk song "Arirang" as the official national anthem of a reunified Korea, claimed the Seoul government should do something now to protect the film from possible damage or theft.
However, Jeong Soo-woong, a Seoul-based independent documentary producer who has known Abe for more than 20 years, downplayed Kim's claim.
"He appears to be basing his judgment solely on the house's exterior," Jeong told Yonhap in a telephone interview. "The interior is stable and well-equipped with facilities to prevent fire and insect damage. He was not that much of a poor handler," he said.
Jeong received a Korean film titled "Beauty of Neighborliness" (1938) from Abe when he was alive and donated it to the local film archives. "I believe 'Arirang' is in Abe's house, too," he said.
The Culture Ministry said it plans to propose through diplomatic channels that the two countries conduct a joint survey of Abe's film collection when the Japanese government completes the legal steps for the takeover this winter.
"We are also considering sending a letter in the name of Culture Minister Chung Dong-chae to ask for Japan's cooperation in repatriating the film," Kim Tae-hoon said.
"Arirang" tells the story of a Korean university student who was tortured by Japanese colonialists for his involvement in a peaceful, nationwide independence rally on May 1, 1919. He returns home and is arrested by the Japanese police for killing a greedy landlord who was exploiting his family.
The movie made many Korean viewers at the time cry by using the immortal folk song "Arirang" to punctuate the final scenes, when the student is led away.