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[Herald Interview] Viewing history through an anarchist’s eyes: Director Lee Joon-ik

Lee explores Japanese occupation of Korea with a new perspective

Director Lee Joon-ik’s latest film “Anarchist from Colony” is difficult to define. It centers on an unusual love story and a messy trial in Japanese courtrooms. It strives to be as accurate as possible in portraying a lesser-known, hard-to-fathom Joseon-era figure who spent over 20 years in a Japanese prison.

The man is Park Yeol, a self-proclaimed Korean anarchist who moved to Japan after the March First Movement of 1919 to further his education on the theories of anarchism and protest against the Japanese Empire on its home turf. He rose to infamy there after founding a group of anarchists and publishing a poem in which he declared, “I am a dog of Joseon.”

At an interview Thursday at Palpan-dong, Seoul, director Lee said he wanted to “try changing the perspective with which we look at the Japanese occupation of Korea.”

“For Japanese audiences, the main character of the film is not Park Yeol but Fumiko Kaneko,” said Lee, referring to the Japanese woman who was Park’s lover and was imprisoned with him on treason charges. The role, played by Choi Hee-seo, shows a woman who sympathizes with the downtrodden, rebels against her country and rejects being placed under anyone’s control.

The film is the latest in Lee’s exploration of sidelined historical figures. “The Throne” (2015) dealt with the life of Joseon Crown Prince Sado, who was deemed unworthy to rule and sentenced to death by his own father, King Yeongjo. Last year, Lee directed “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet,” a black-and-white film that looked at the lives of famous Korean poet Yoon Dong-ju and his best friend and cousin, independence activist Song Mong-kyu.

Director Lee Joon-ik (Creative Communiation Sky)
Director Lee Joon-ik (Creative Communiation Sky)

“Some 20 years ago ... I was reading up on anarchism to do research for ‘Anarchists,’” said Lee, referring to the 2000 thriller about Korean anarchists seeking to overthrow the military government of 1920s Shanghai, which Lee produced. The film, starring Jang Dong-gun, was a box office flop and it took over a decade to take another stab at the subject, Lee added.

“During my readings, I came across Park Yeol,” he said. “Anarchist from Colony” is heavily based on the biography of Fumiko Kaneko written by Shoji Yamada. “(Park) struck me. He had a peculiar record and he left behind this shocking photo.”

The photo, released in 1927 when Park was being tried for the attempted murder of the Japanese emperor, shows Park resting his hand on Kaneko’s breast in the interrogation room of the courthouse. It shows a confident, defiant Park “mocking the Japanese legal system,” Lee said.

That photo sparked the director’s intense curiosity and was where the film essentially began for Lee.

Director Lee Joon-ik (Creative Communiation Sky)
Director Lee Joon-ik (Creative Communiation Sky)

According to records, Park was slovenly -- short of money, he delivered newspapers to pay for his education -- tempestuous in manner and well-read in the theories of anarchism and social texts.

“(Park) knew exactly what he was doing,” Lee believes. “There’s a scene where he’s asked if all the riots he caused had been calculated. I think they were.”

Park had insisted on wearing Joseon attire to the Japanese courtroom and speaking in Korean during his interrogation by a Japanese prosecutor. He caused an uproar in Japanese society with the release of his sensational photo with Kaneko.

His death sentence was something that Park had “obtained by will,” director Lee said. “He was not a passive recipient of the sentence -- he took it from the Japanese,” Lee said, at a time when Japan was attentive to how the international society viewed its territorial conquests and treatment of the colonized.

The love story between Park and Kaneko was also a key point of interest for Lee.

“Theirs was a relationship based on common ideas and thought, rather than common feelings,” said Lee. “Anarchism, the rejection of all forms of authority, is related to modern-day feminism. They viewed each other as comrades,” said Lee. It is a concept that could be unfamiliar to modern notions of romance, he added.

Lee, 57, debuted in 1993 with “Kid Cop” and rose as a maker of box office hits with films such as “King and the Clown” (2005) and “Radio Star” (2006). He seems set to explore historical themes for the time being.

“If you look at history, the past and the present are essentially the same,” he said. “The same things happen, only with different players.”

“Anarchist from Colony” will hit local theaters Wednesday.

By Rumy Doo (

Korea Herald daum