Happy National Liberation Day! August 15th is South Korea’s independence day when the country celebrates its liberation from Japanese colonial rule after World War II. It’s a huge holiday, almost right up there with Chuseok, and it’s the only Korean holiday that is celebrated by both North and South Korea. Even my own grandmother still makes sure to hang up her Korean flag everyday on this day and constantly encourages me to do the same (I’ll get right to it, Grandma…I promise).
In honor of this holiday, I’ve decided to create a list of Korean historical films and dramas that take place during the Japanese colonial era. I have a particular soft spot for Korean historical dramas and films (otherwise known as sageuks), and I hope this reaches others who feel the same way. Korean films and dramas that take place during the Japanese occupation often revolve around independence fighters and resistance movements, which is why it’s such a perfect topic for today! So here are 5 Sageuks to get you into the spirit of National Liberation Day!
Note: I would like to point out that historical films can have inaccuracies and their main goal is to entertain, not to educate or stir up certain sentiments. These films and dramas I am about to recommend are not to promote anti-Japanese sentiment or to teach about Korean history. The following films and dramas are ones which I recommend simply because they are good. Good plot, good acting, and worth the hours it’s gonna take to watch them all – that’s it! For those looking for a history lesson, there are plenty of museums and books that will give more accurate, credible sources.
1. Gaksital (2012)
Perhaps the most iconic, well-known Korean drama that takes place during the Japanese Occupation period, Gaksital (AKA: Bridal Mask) is a must-see for those who enjoy action and heavy drama (I’m serious. You’ll want tissues). Starring Joo Won as the mask-donning freedom fighter during the colonial period, it tells the story of a boy whose only dream was to rise to the top with the power and prestige of the Japanese police force. But then his life is turned upside down when he learns a truth he never imagined and dons the bridal mask in order to fight for justice, all the while dealing with betrayal, love, and tragedy. I loved this drama and I still get goosebumps when I imagine the final scene when Gaksital comes in with all the people and…well, you’ll just have to see it, won’t you?
2. Capital Scandal (2007)
I consider this one of the most underrated dramas but I can also see why some may not like it – it’s rather…flamboyant, so to speak. If you prefer something more heart-wrenching and intense, than this one may seem to be lacking, at least until later episodes. But if you want something that’s entertaining and hits all the right places with friendship, feels, and witty conversations that satisfy your funny bone, than you may want to give this a try. Starring Kang Ji hwan (Hong Gil Dong), Han ji-min (Rooftop Prince; Hyde, Jekyll, & Me) Ryu Jin (Loving You a Thousand Times), it depicts the life of independence fighters and their struggles to fight the injustices they and their people face under Japanese rule. The thing I love about this drama is the characters – all very different with various back stories and reasons but the writers did a good job of developing each character that you just can’t help but fall in love with them. I also especially enjoy the scenes where they scheme events against the Japanese and their Korean allies – it’s so satisfying to watch a plan being developed and carried out into motion. Not to mention the costumes are just stunning (we’re talking sequins. Lots of them. And bright, bright ) And honestly, the theme song itself is enough reason to watch.
3. Assassination (2015)
The first film of the list and there’s really only one reason you need to watch this: Jeon Ji Hyun. I may or may not have a girl crush on her but that’s because she is perhaps one of the most legitimate, versatile actresses I know. I watched the film simply because of her and I was not disappointed. She actually plays two: one a resistance fighter, and the other, gets adopted into a wealthy Japanese family. Yep – twins separated at birth. But this cliché plot point serves a purpose, I promise! If you’re like me and uber-sensitive with film characters, you may want to think twice before watching this, or at least watch by yourself with lots of tissues. But if you enjoy action, betrayal, and loud cinematography, then go right ahead.
4. The Last Princess
Unlike the others, the central plot of this film is not resistance fighters, independence movements, or fighting the injustice and wrongs of the Joseon people. This film is a dramatic depiction of the last Joseon princess, Princess Deokhye, flashing between her life as a prisoner in Japan to a reporter’s attempts to find her and bring her home. The princess, who became schizophrenic out of depression and homesickness, was eventually found in a mental institution and was finally brought back home after nearly forty years. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys biographical films itself, and both Kim So Hyun (Moon Embracing the Son, School 2015, and Goblin), and Son Ye-jin are both amazing actresses who do one heck of a job portraying the princess trying to maintain her composure while dealing with the burdens of her people.
5. Spirits’ Homecoming (2016)
I have to admit, I was almost hesitant to add this film to the list because of how hard and heavy it is. The film portrays the lives of Joseon women (many of them young girls) taken from their homes to serve the Japanese soldiers during World War II. Known as “comfort women,” this subject matter remains a sensitive issue in Korea and between Korean-Japanese relations. Unlike films which gloss over the dirty parts of history, this film depicts each and every part of the comfort women’s lives, including the assault and torture they faced at the hands of the Japanese soldiers, and later the scorn and shame they faced from their own people. The movie was almost never shown in theaters because so many cinemas were unwilling to screen such a controversial film. Popular demand eventually won out and the film was number one it’s opening weekend. I myself still haven’t seen this movie because I know I won’t be able to handle the heartbreaking, gut-wrenching sobs I’ve been told I’ll get if I do so. I will only say one thing – for those who dare to watch, prepare tissues. Lots of them.