Collector¡¯s Death May Free Long-Lost Korean Classic Film

TOKYO - The death of a Japanese film collector could yield vital clues to the whereabouts of a surviving copy of director Na Un-gyu's classic 1926 film "Arirang", believed lost in the Korean War.

Abe Yoshishige, 81, died Wednesday at a hospital in Osaka, Japan. Beginning from the time his father was a police officer in colonial Korea, Abe had been an avid collector of films from the periods before and after the Pacific War, becoming almost legendary in Japan.

Before he died Abe, who had collected about 50,000 films, claimed to have a copy of the silent movie. This has never been confirmed, but he did show documentary director Chung Su-ung and a reporter from Japan's Mainichi Shimbun a list of the films in his possession. According to the Mainichi report, No. 55 in his East Asian films collection is listed as, "Arirang/nine volumes/modern play". Chung, who attended Abe's funeral in Osaka on Friday, said, "I wasn't able to confirm the film, but I did reconfirm that 'Arirang' is written on the list of films in the collection... As the film is a legacy of the Korean people, now is the time for the government to try to get the movie back."

The 50,000 films collected by Abe, who died without an heir, have reverted to the Japanese government. The collector had refused to allow experts to inspect the films while he was alive, but on his list are 60 Korean films believed lost during the Korean War, as well as rare silent Japanese films. The collection is tipped as the most significant discovery for the film world of both nations since the end of World War II.

Both North and South Korea have tirelessly negotiatied to have the film transferred. The film production center of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (known by the abbreviation Chongryeon in Korean), led by Yeo Un-gak, 78, has led negotiations for the North. Chung and the Korean Association of Arirang have negotiated for the South. Abe stalled by making contradictory promises to return the film "if North and South Korea agree,¡± "if the two Koreas unify," and "if the president formally asks the emperor to return the film."

An official with the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, which has been charged with inspecting the collection, said, "If we need to, we will request the cooperation of Korean experts and inspect the films... In that the film could be the root of the 'Korean Wave,' we hope it has been discovered."

The 1926 movie was directed by Na Un-gyu, a master of the craft who died young. Na also starred in the movie. It tells the story of a college student who returns home after being tortured for his participation in the March 1 Independence Movement. He then kills a landowner who had been harassing his family. During the final scene in which the hero is arrested, audiences would reportedly weep and break into spontaneous renditions of the Korean folk song "Arirang", to which the film owes its title.

(Choi Heup, pot@chosun.com)
pot@chosun.com / 2¿ù 11, 2005 18:15 KST