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Busan: Classic Korean Film ‘Nakdong River’ — Previously Feared Lost — Is Rediscovered and Restored

One of just a few films shot during the Korean War, the movie was recently discovered by researchers in a storeroom of the Korean Film Archive.

Nakdong River, by the director Jun Chang-geun, was one of just 12 Korean films produced during the Korean War — and for years it was thought to have been lost. So when staff at the Korean Film Archive recently happened upon a print of the film —  miscategorized and kept in the wrong section of a storeroom for years — the researchers were full of shock and relief. 

After an exhaustive digital restoration process by the Korean Film Archive, Nakdong River was screened for the public for the first time in seven decades last Thursday at Busan International Film Festival

A semi-documentary, Nakdong River was originally produced as a propaganda film and funded by the South Korean government to educate people about the brutalities of the war and the efforts to restore the war-torn country in the aftermath. It depicts a fictional character, Il-ryung, who returns with his girlfriend to his hometown near Nakdong River after finishing college and begins work to restore his village. The 44-minute film is a mix of drama and documentary. It includes footage of actual battle scenes from the Korean War and rare images of the lives of refugees near Nakdong River, the nation’s longest river passing through major cities. A departure from most existing Korean films from the era, which are set in Seoul, it also depicts early Busan, a provisional capital during the Korean War after Seoul was occupied by the communists.

“It’s a fiction but the film enhanced the sense of reality by inserting actual footage from the war,” says Jeong Jong-hwa, a senior researcher at the Korean Film Archive. “It also helped to inform refugees who had been evacuated from their homes about the state of the war.” 

While it’s a propaganda film, Hong-jun Kim, director of Korean Film Archive, explains that the film contains many experimental elements for the time, such its poetic opening showing a woman dancing along the river. 

“The context of a propaganda film would have been inevitable, given that it was wartime and there was censorship by the government,” Kim says. 

The film’s score, by Yun Isang, an internationally-known composer, is also historically significant, as the sounds used in the film became the foundation of Yun’s later orchestral piece Poem on Nakdong River, which was completed in 1956 while he was studying music in Paris.  It is also the only music by Yun known to be used in a film.  

Yun was exiled by the Korean government during the Cold War and settled in Germany, where he composed throughout his later years.  

Until recently, the music in Nakdong River was thought to have been composed by another Korean musician named Dong-jin Kim. 

“When I first got the call from Korean Film Archive in June, I explained to them that they are mistaken and the music in the film is actually composed by Kim,” said Kim Won-cheol, a classical music critic.  “But when I actually watched the movie, it was Yun’s piece. This is going to be an important document in the history of classical Korean music, since information about Yun’s work before he went to Japan to study music was very fragmented.”  

The researchers at the Korean Film Archive were also exalted to learn that there was no damage or significant loss to the sound and image of the film print they rediscovered. 

“That does not mean the film’s condition is technically perfect, but it has no missing parts, which is a rarity for films shot during that era,” Kim says. “We believe this could have been an original film print that had been kept by a government organization and sent to the Korean Film Archive when it opened in 1974.” 

Technically, the film was also represents the first case ever in the history of the Korean Film Archive of a restoration of a film shot in 16 millimeter. All previous restorations were of 35 millimeter films.

Jun, Nakdong River’s director, started out his career as an actor in early Korean films such as Shanghai 55th Avenue.  Under colonial rule, he shot pro-Japanese films but after the country was liberated from Japan’s annexation in 1945, he produced or appeared in films that praised the lives of Korean independence activists. 

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