On March 1, 1919, activists gathered in Seoul to publicly declare independence from Japanese rule in what would become known as the Sam-il Movement (March First Movement). Pivotal in strengthening national unity and galvanizing public resistance across the country, the day is celebrated in South Korea as a national holiday.
The tumultuous decades between 1910 and 1945 under Japanese colonial rule have inspired dozens of noteworthy South Korean films and k-dramas. If you’re interested in learning what life was like during that period, here are some titles you can check out.
Mr Sunshine (2018)
Widely considered a masterpiece in epic storytelling, Mr Sunshine was Netflix’s first foray into big budget k-drama. Often cited as one of the top k-dramas of the last 10 years, the show was credited with breathing new life into the tired historical genre by sparing no expense in its “Hollywood” cinematography, costuming, and cast.
Led by Hallyu superstar Lee Byung-hoon, the series takes a look at a Korea caught at the crossroads between old Joseon and the imminent wave of modernity. It’s a time where the Japanese are ready to take over, the Americans stand guard, and Koreans need to choose whom to fight for.
The four main characters, each representing a class of old Korea (Eugene Choi, Ko Ae-sin, Gu Dong-mae, and Kim Hae-sung), are loyal to Joseon in their own ways, and are willing to risk their skin in this game of revolution. But if they choose to fight for sovereignty, what kind of Korea awaits them? In one memorable scene, Eugene Choi, a Korean soldier raised in America, asks Ae-sin, a noblewoman, “This Joseon you're willing to die for, is there a place for slaves and the son of a butcher?”
Writer Kim Eun-sook, creator of juggernauts Goblin and The King: Eternal Monarch, has been celebrated for building the world of Mr. Sunshine, but has not escaped wide criticism from historical organizations for the series. While this drama may need a bit more research to enjoy thoroughly, it remains undoubtedly a complex, and oftentimes visceral, dramatization of the price one must pay to liberate one’s country.
Age of Shadows (2016)
Where would your loyalties lie if you were a Korean police captain during the Japanese occupation? That’s the question hanging over the character portrayed by the legendary Song Kang-ho (Parasite, Snowpiercer) in this film, representing the dilemma faced by thousands of Koreans at the time—protect yourself and whatever semblance of peace exists, or risk your life to fight for your country’s freedom?
Set in the late 1920s, this spy thriller centers on the quest of a group of revolutionaries led by Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) to smuggle explosives into Seoul from Shanghai. To do that, however, they have to get past police captain Lee Jung-chool—or convince him to turn over to their side.
Over 140 minutes of stylishly shot scenes, the film takes us through some intense and gruesome action sequences and thrilling chases. It boasts of a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and got the best film nod during the 11th Asian Film Awards and 36th Korean Association of Film Critics Awards.
The Last Princess (2016)
A tragic story nearly forgotten by a nation, The Last Princess is based on the true story of Princess Deok-hye, the last princess of the Joseon Dynasty. Exiled to Japan at the age 13, the movie depicts Deok-hye’s (Son Ye-jin) struggle to remain a steadfast symbol of pride for her country and her many attempts to return to Korea. She eventually comes home 38 years later, but not before enduring a forced marriage, a stay in an asylum, and many deep betrayals.
While the film has been criticized for overplaying Deok-hye’s role in the Japanese resistance—in reality, she suffered from schizophrenia and lived out most of her life in Japan in relative obscurity—The Last Princess is nevertheless a deeply stirring and engaging portrayal of the anguish brought by Japanization: the campaign to erase Korean culture and symbols of national pride, and the struggle for independence.
Son Ye-jin’s powerful and often heartbreaking performance as a woman in exile whose mental health is slowly deteriorating is at the heart of this film, and earned for her no less than four major acting awards (including the Baeksang and Grand Bell). Park Hae-il, Ra Mi-ran, Bae Yoon-sik, Kim Jae-wook, and Yoon Je-moon also turn in strong performances in this moving historical film.
It's 1933, and the Korean provisional government is plotting to deliver a serious blow to their Japanese occupiers by assassinating the governor-general and a wealthy pro-Japanese Korean businessman, Kang In-guk (Lee Kyoung-young). A resistance faction leader, Yem Sek-jin (Lee Jung-jae), gives the task to three fighters: a deadly sniper, An Ok-yun (Jun Ji-hyun), who works with Soksapo (Cho Jin-woong) and Hwang Deok-sam (Choi Duk-moon).
But it's hard to know whom to trust, and where the loyalty of their fellow Koreans lie. The already improbable mission of the three resistance fighters is further complicated by two-faced informants, a contract killer sent after them, and an incident from 20 years ago that continues to influence current motivations.
The blockbuster film won a number of awards, including the coveted best film nod from the 52nd Baeksang Arts Awards. Jun Ji-hyun's performance also won her the best actress award from the 52nd Daejong Film Awards. According to the Korean film council, Assassination still ranks as the eighth-highest-grossing movie in Korean film history.
Chicago Typewriter (2017)
Han Se-joo (Yoo Ah-in), a world-renowned author struggling with writer’s block, purchases a mysterious antique typewriter. Upon meeting a fan named Jeon Seol (Im Soo-jung) and a literal ghostwriter called Yoo Jin-o (Go Kyung-pyo), Se-joo discovers their past lives are intertwined as three freedom fighters.
While there are several parallels between the characters in the 1930s and the modern timelines, the contrasts could never be starker: between saving a friend and liberating a country, between communication (typewriter) and violence (gun), and between the youth's hope and an outnumbered resistance movement. In between the endearing bromance and bickering between Se-joo and Jin-o, they discover their relationship and their Japanese-occupation-era counterparts: All of them were members of the Joseon Youth Alliance. Se-joo was a writer and the group leader named Seo Hwi-young. Jin-o, in his past life, was Shin Yool, the owner of the Carpe Diem club, the secret headquarters. Seol's past life was the sniper Ryu Soo-hyun.
This drama reminds us of the sacrifices of the youth: In 1929, Korean students protested against Japanese student harassment and, later, refused to sing the Japanese national anthem. Despite the freedom of speech being severely curtailed afterwards, more student organizations were established, and later spurred the formation of several nationwide Japanese resistance movements.
Chicago Typewriter is written by Jin Soo-wan, who also wrote The Moon Embracing the Sun (2012). While this marks Im Soo-jung’s return to k-drama in 13 years, this is Yoo Ah-in’s last project before his military enlistment.
Battleship Island (2017)
About 15 kilometers off the coast of Nagasaki lies a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an uninhabited island called Hashima that for decades was mined for the vast coal resources beneath it. During World War II, however, this island was host to thousands of Koreans and Chinese who were forced to work under harsh conditions to dig up coal—a fact that has been acknowledged by the Japanese government.
The history of this island is the inspiration for Battleship Island, an action-packed fictional tale of the daring escape of some 400 Koreans, aided by Park Moo-young (Song Joong-ki), a resistance fighter who infiltrates the island to rescue a fellow independence fighter. On the island, he encounters Lee Kang-ok (Hwang Jung-min), a bandmaster trying to protect his daughter, and Choi Chil-sung (So Ji-sub), a street fighter and troublemaker in the labor camp.
With expensive sets and expansive cinematography, the movie is a visual—albeit, gruesome—spectacle. Though right-wing Japanese media attacked it for stoking anti-Japanese sentiment and a number of critics thought the movie was weak on characterization and cohesiveness, it did well on the box office, with its $21-million budget more than twice covered by domestic ticket sales.
I Can Speak (2017)
I Can Speak is a reminder of the Japanese atrocities against Comfort Women disguised as an odd couple/buddy comedy between a belligerent halmeoni (grandmother) and the reluctant young civil servant she bullies into becoming her English tutor.
Veteran actress Na Moon-hee (Miss Granny, Dear My Friends) delivers a grand slam (Baeksang, Blue Dragon, and Grand Bell) winning performance as Nah Ok-boon, a busybody whose over 8,000 petty complaints to her local district office have earned her the nickname “Goblin Granny.” Unknown to everyone around her, she has a painful past as a teenage sex slave during World War II. Lee Je-hoon (Signal) plays a by-the-book civil servant on the receiving end of her complaints. He starts off as her foe, but later goes on to become her biggest ally as she gathers the courage to confront her past and speak the truth to the world… in English.
Based on true events, I Can Speak is a heartwarming comedy-drama that reminds us that while the generation of Comfort Women is slowly dying out, their quest for acknowledgement and justice must not.