Hye Seung Chung


Colorado State University

The Korean Rudolph Valentino: Jin Yan (Kim Yŏm), Colonial Masquerade, and Shanghai Films of the 1930s

This paper will introduce the life and career of Kim Yŏm (known as Jin Yan in China), the so-called "Emperor of Shanghai Movies" of the 1930s. As one of Korea's first surgeons, Kim P'il-sun, the actor's father, was an ardent supporter and financier of the Korean independence movement. In 1912, at the age of two, Kim Yŏm migrated to Tonghua in northern Manchuria with his family. Seven years later, Dr. Kim died under suspicious circumstances (allegedly assassinated by the Japanese), and the Kim family was dispersed throughout China. Separated from his mother and four siblings, Kim Yŏm went to live with his aunt in Shanghai, where the young Korean boy learned to speak Mandarin fluently without a trace of an accent and pursued his dream of becoming a movie star. Although he was soon relocated to Jinan and then Tianjin, following his traveling relatives, the determined Korean returned to the center of the prerevolutionary Chinese film industry in 1927. After taking various odd jobs in major film studios (such as Minxin and Mingxing), nineteen-year-old Kim debuted as an actor in The Hot-Blooded Man (Rexue Nan'er) in 1929. This new face caught the attention of Sun Yu, an American-trained writer and director who just happened to be looking for a handsome, athletic leading man for his new film Playboy Swordsman (Feng Liu Jian Ke). After collaborating with one another in this old-fashioned swashbuckler, both the director and his new prodigy moved to a newly established film company, Lianhua, where they would make several modern films together, including Wild Rose (Ye Meigui, 1932), The Big Road (Da Lu, 1934), and Back to Nature (Dao Ziran Qui, 1936). Playing romantic leads opposite famous actresses such as Ruan Ling-yu and Chen Yan-yan, Kim Yŏm became a popular matinee idol during the 1930s and earned the title of the "Chinese Rudolph Valentino" (his Korean ethnicity was deliberately suppressed by studio publicists although the actor made no attempt to hide it himself).

Kim Yŏm achieved full stardom in the Shanghai film industry because he could pass and be accepted as Chinese. Unlike his contemporary Philip Ahn, the eldest son of Tosan An Ch'ang-ho, who debuted as a Hollywood actor in 1936 and was cast as stereotypical Asian villains or victims throughout his prolific career until his death 1978, Kim was able to reach the top as a "Chinese star" due to the absence of racial barriers. Just as Ahn reinterpreted his roles as Chinese freedom fighters or Japanese soldiers in Hollywood's anti-Japanese World War II propaganda films as displaced expressions of the Korean independence spirit (a subject explored in my book Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance), Kim likewise embodied the anticolonial spirit inherited from his father through his performance in resistance films such as The Big Road. In this masterpiece of the Shanghai Leftist Film Movement, Kim Yŏm plays the role of Jin Ge, an orphaned construction worker from Shanghai who moves to the interior with an entourage of unemployed workers to build new roads for the Chinese army resisting the invasion of Japanese imperialists. Sometimes playful and flirty (with two young women at a local restaurant), Jin and his five friends always put their collective mission above individual needs and desires. The patriotic road builders end up being imprisoned and tortured when they refuse to accept bribes in exchange for work stoppage from the treacherous capitalist Hu (a puppet for Japanese enemies). Although they manage to escape Hu's dungeon with the help of the women from the restaurant, Jin and his gang die heroically during the Japanese air raid at the construction site. The film's ending shows the spirits of resurrected heroes pulling the roller once again in unison with their patriotic song of freedom filling the soundtrack.

I am particularly interested in reading the images of collective labor in the film (often mediated through leadership of Jin Ge, the "official" hero of the group) as implicit expressions of Sino-Korean unity in their common resistance against the Japanese Empire at the time of the film's release. As I argued in my earlier project on Philip Ahn, the concept of national cinema during the colonial era (1910-1945) should be expanded and modified as no expression of anti-Japanese sentiment was allowed in colonial "Korean" films under strict Japanese censorship. Between 1941 and 1945, no films except for pro-Japanese propaganda (in the Japanese language) could be produced and distributed in colonial Korea, and the producers who refused to partake in this propaganda were subject to persecution at the hands of colonial authorities. On the other hand, diasporic actors such as Kim Yŏm and Philip Ahn freely participated in anti-Japanese propaganda in Shanghai and Hollywood, respectively, expressing the collective resistance spirit of Korean people in displaced cultural forms. While previous commentators on The Big Road (including Chris Berry, Yihong Pan, Laikwan Pang, and Vivian Shen) have exclusively focused on the subject of gender, sexuality, and nationalism, a transnational star studies paradigm can shed new light on the film as an allegory of the international front against Japanese militarism and imperialism during the 1930s.