Age of Shadows

In 1910, after decades of intrigues, provocations and double-crosses, Japan formally annexed Korea. For the next 35 years, Korea showed up on maps as part of Japan, its capital Seoul renamed Keijo, its royal family whisked away to Tokyo as hostages, its people force-fed a diet of Japanese nationalism.

Detective inspector Lee (Song Kang-ho) is a good-hearted cop, who finds his loyalties tested when his Japanese masters task him with hunting down the resistance. Rebel mastermind Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) senses that Lee is on the verge of switching sides, and lures him ever closer to an explosives-smuggling ring that uses an antique shop as a front. But will Lee wake up to the cause and join the rebels, or will he hand over his countrymen to his dastardly Japanese bosses?

Director Kim Jee-woon returns to his native land, after helming Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand, for a gory, uncompromising glimpse of the rise of the Japanese war machine and the fires of the Korean resistance. Known simply as “Spy” (Miljeong) in its homeland, his beautifully grim, smoky vision of 1920s occupation has been released abroad with a far more evocative title, reflecting both its look and its loyalties: Age of Shadows.

“I’m drawn towards double agents,” comments Kim, pointing to people with divided loyalties who “act in secret while surrounded by enemies, standing at the borders of their turbulent age.” His film is all the more remarkable for being inspired by history, most notably the rise of the “Heroic Corps” (Uiyoldan). With dynasties collapsing in both Korea and China, and the Japanese plundering treasures from both, the real-life Heroic Corps did indeed use the antiques trade as a means of importing weapons from across the border. They carried out targeted assassinations of Japanese troops, high-level collaborators and a vaguely-defined subset of “traitors”.

Several schemes were thwarted by the authorities, but their first success came in 1923, with the bombing of the prominent Bell Street police station in central Seoul. The bomber, Kim Sang-ok, fought his way through a police cordon around his home, and committed suicide after a costly gun battle on the slopes of Mount Namsan. This all adds a touch of gritty realism to the film’s depiction of revolutionary intrigues, most notably a prolonged set-piece as agents desperately try track the glamorous but iron-willed arms smuggler, Gye-Soon (Han Ji-Min), on the Shanghai train.

“I wanted to capture the image of people navigating a tightrope between supporting or resisting Japanese colonial rule,” says Kim, “and being swept up in the consequences of setting one’s foot down on either side of the line.” Although it’s pretty clear which side of the line he is on – the Japanese are presented as unrelentingly cruel, old-school baddies. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Age of Shadows is a Korean initiative, rather than a Japanese one. For a former coloniser to depict the period for entertainment purposes would seem gauche and indiscreet – how many English films have glorified the Irish War of Independence?

Far too many Korean movies are obsessed with a fratricidal, traitorous motif seemingly inspired by today’s North-South divide. But Age of Shadows makes it clear that Korean allegiances have been split for far longer, with the colonial regime struggling to hang onto its collaborators and root out its rebels. Antique dealer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) is a Lovejoy charmer, trying to win over his police tail with honeyed words, dressing to impress in another historical touch – “I was fascinated to hear that real-life members of the resistance, never knowing which day might be their last, dressed each day with style,” the actor reveals.

For director Kim, the film was a chance to capture not only the atmosphere of the era, but also the lives of the founders of modern South Korea. “On the day before we started shooting, I visited the former office of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai,” he recalls. “It was so small that the bathroom was located right next to the dinner table. I wanted to suffuse the film with the emotion I felt, learning about the struggles of independence fighters who endeavoured to reclaim the spirit of a people who had lost their country.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #20, 2017.

Dreaming of Parhae

When I was working on my book about Empress Wu, I found myself clambering around the dark, musty interior of a grave close to her tomb. On the wall, a mural depicted ambassadors from afar, come to praise the glory of the Tang dynasty. One of them, famously, is a hirsute, hook-nosed man from Syria. But standing behind him in the queue is an even odder dignitary – an alien, glowering figure with a satanic beard and an odd, horned head-dress. He was a diplomat from the land that the Chinese called Bohai, which still lends its name to the gulf between modern Korea and the Chinese coast, which between 698 and 926 AD, dominated north-east Asia before falling to barbarians… or as the Chinese would have it, other barbarians.

Parhae (or Balhae, or Bohai) was described by Chinese chroniclers as the “Rising Land of the East”, now a forgotten, ruined state in one of the least studied corners of Asia, which once had several “capitals”, fought a war against Tang China, and extant fragments of whose architecture and grave goods indicate was a powerful, civilised culture. And yet, by the middle of the tenth century, it all fell apart. The last king of Parhae walked weeping from his city gates, leading a flock of sheep in a symbolic gesture of surrender. I have long been fascinated by the story, and forced to rely on Japanese sources, so I am immensely pleased that Global Oriental have broken such new ground with this wonderful book.

A “New” History of Parhae is something of a misnomer – the subject has rarely been even mentioned in English before. Parhae is a political minefield. It covers much of that liminal area better known to regular readers of this blog as Manchuria, which means that at various points in the last hundred years, the Koreans, Japanese and Russians have all tried to lay claim to it. For the Russians, Parhae was the first mainland East Asian state to establish itself independent of China, and hence, by an oddly Soviet process of logic, the defining line of the border between China and Siberia. For the Chinese, Parhae was a vassal state, and hence “proof” of Chinese authority extending far to the north. For the Japanese it was neither Chinese nor Russian, and hence an ideal historical idea to push in order to establish that the area was up for grabs during Japan’s colonial push into Manchuria.

For the Koreans, Parhae could be a “Greater” Korea – a notional, largely theoretical expansion of ethnic identity to the north-west of current borders. It establishes “Korean-ness” as an element to be found far beyond the current peninsula, and hence pushes Korean ethnicity as a far larger contributor to East Asia. As “the lost land” of modern mythology, it even became the subject of a K-pop song, “Dreaming of Parhae”. Discovering this is not unlike discovering that Zou Bisou Bisou contains coded messages to the Vietcong. It certainly adds a degree of historical context to The Legend of the Shadowless Sword, a film about the last prince of Parhae, universally reviewed as if it were a “Korean” subject, whereas as seen above, there is far more to it than that.

Yes, it’s all very political, and the weapons are largely academic. A New History of Parhae began life as a publication by the Northeast Asian History Foundation, an academic body deliberately set up by the Koreans to counter the influence of a similar institution cobbled together by the Chinese. Translator John Duncan acknowledges all of the above in introducing a superb collection of fifteen essays that piece together the foundation, flourishing and decline of historical Parhae, using archaeological evidence and extant documents. Parhae never got a dynastic history like other Asian states, so we have to construct details of its existence from asides in the records of the Tang dynasty or Japanese annals. Chapters include tantalising glimpse of later attempts to resurrect the lost kingdom, as well as a study of Parhae’s forgotten maritime power. Closing essays offer literature reviews of work in other languages.

John Duncan’s translation is seamless and invisible, devoid of the pomposities or solecisms so often found when Asian academia is rendered into English. He also negotiates the choppy waters of conflicting romanisations, and produces a fantastic book. So it’s a shame that he has been let down by the illustrations, which are amateurish and often pointless, and presumably repeated from the original. There are seemingly random photographs of non-descript hills, repeated images of vaguely-related forts, and unexplained overhead shots of somewhere presumed relevant. Worst of all, two of the maps are printed in Korean (if I could read Korean, I wouldn’t have had to wait seven years to buy this in translation) and two others in which all the text was duplicated as random ASCII characters (let’s all go to the town of “%&^”%$&$). I don’t know about you, but if I spend £69 on a book, I rather hope that it’s got decent maps. Reading between the lines of the captions, the publishers knew all this before they went to print, but did so anyway with a shrug and crossed fingers.

I do feel for them. On several occasions, books of my own have escaped similar unpleasantness only by dint of sheer luck or editorial brinkmanship. I would have very happily paid for A New History of Parhae if it didn’t have any pictures in it at all, but the ones included seem strangely contemptuous, as if the publishers want to be able to trill on their press releases that it is “illustrated”, but don’t much care what the aforesaid illustrations actually show. There is similar derisory graphical treatment elsewhere in the book, such as where the “Lineage Chart of Parhae Kings” turns out to be just a list of names and dates. So, not a chart at all, then. As the price suggests, this is a book for a community of high-level academics and experienced historians. Do the publishers really expect none of them to notice?

Then again, beggars can’t be choosers. I have been dreaming of Parhae for many years, and this book only makes the dreams more real.

A New History of Parhae is out now from Global Oriental.

Korea Advice

The London Korean Film Festival starts today. In its honour, I point you at a few of the Korean entries I have written for the as-yet unfinished Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: the alternate universe dramas 2009: Lost Memories and Goong, and the author entry on Bok Geo-il. I’m supposed to be concentrating on Chinese and Japanese entries, but every now and then I get distracted… either by Korea or by something that seems like an omission, such as the entries on Roberto Bolano and Chuck Palahniuk. If an entry has “[JonC]” at the bottom, it’s one of mine.