Based on a dramatic real-life story from the Japanese Occupation era, South Korean film “Anarchist from Colony” is more amusing and entertaining than I expected. While being as serious as required by its historical subject, the movie is also quite humorous as cheerfully bouncing along with its two spirited main characters, and we cannot help but admire their indomitable spirit while observing how they passionately and mischievously stand by each other in front of social injustice and oppression.
They are Park Yeol (Lee Je-hoon) and Fumiko Kaneko (Choi Hui-seo), and the early part of the movie shows us how they come to fall in love with each other in Tokyo during the early 1920s. When they come across each other via a mutual friend of theirs, something clicks between them right from when their eyes meet. We soon see them sharing feelings and thoughts as fellow anarchists with common socialistic belief, and there is a funny, heartfelt scene where they make a personal/political oath to each other.
While he seems to be a plain rickshaw driver on the surface, Park has been a member of an underground group involved with the Korean Independence Movement. As reflected by a few brief amusing moments, the activities of Park and his comrades are inconsequential to say the least, but they want to contribute to the movement as much as they can, and Park has considered a plan for throwing a big blow to the Japanese government.
Kaneko knows all about this because she also attends their secret meeting. Unlike many other Japanese people, she believes that Japan has been doing wrong things to Korea, so she is sympathetic to the cause of Park and his comrades, and she willingly goes along with her lover’s plan although she is not so pleased when she comes to learn that he does not share everything with her as promised to her before.
However, not long after one of Park’s comrades is sent to Shanghai for getting a bomb, there comes an unexpected catastrophe. On September 1st, 1925, Tokyo and its surrounding areas are suddenly shaken by a big earthquake, and the city and its people are thrown into panic and chaos while a group of high-ranking Japanese officials are trying to get the situation under control. They eventually decide to declare the martial law, but false rumors about Koreans poisoning wells and burning buildings are spread around the city with their connivance, and that leads to the mass killing of Koreans. Officially, 231 Koreans were killed during the aftermath of this earthquake, but, as briefly mentioned at one point in the film, it is estimated that the actual number is around 6,000 at least, and this was indubitably one of many shameful moments in the 20th Japanese history.
As facing this grim consequence, Mizuno (Kim In-woo), a high-ranking Japanese official who actively spread those virulent false rumors, needs anything to divert public attention from this, and he and his men find a right target in Park and Park’s comrades, who happened to be arrested shortly after the martial law was declared. Having been on the watchlist for years, Park and his comrades certainly look like a menace to the establishment, and Misuno’s men already got a confession from the guy who was sent to Shanghai. Technically, Park and his comrades only prepared for their plan a little while not committing anything serious, but that is more than enough for Mizuno and his men to bring a charge of treason against them.
Knowing well what will happen regardless of whether he and his comrades resist or not, Park decides to confess, but he has a clever idea of how to utilize this supposedly hopeless circumstance for his political purpose. For protecting his comrades, he insists that he planned it alone from the start, and he also claims that he was planning to assassinate the crown prince of Japan. This ‘confession’ of his surely draws lots of attention from the media, and he becomes more determined to make the upcoming trial into a political show for him and Kaneko, who did not hesitate to get arrested along with Park and then gladly presents herself as her lover’s sole accomplice.
While they will likely be sentenced to death at their trial, Park and Kaneko are more bound to each other as strongly pushing their belief and love together in front of others, and the movie generates a number of humorous moments as these two defiant lovers give constant headaches to Mizuno and other Japanese government officials. On the first day of their trial, they cause public sensation as wearing traditional Korean costumes, and I can assure you that Park and Kaneko really did that in real life. The screenplay by Hwang Seong-gu sticks very close to the records of the real-life trial, and I heard that most of those politically charged statements made during the court scenes in the movie are exactly what Park and Kaneko said during their trial.
It surely helps that the movie is anchored by two charismatic lead performances. While Lee Je-hoon, who drew my attention for the first time via his terrific breakthrough turns in “Bleak Night” (2010) and “The Front Line” (2011), balances his performance well between comedy and drama as demonstrating another side of his immense talent, Choi Hui-seo, who previously played a minor supporting character in director Lee Joon-ik’s previous film “DongJu: the Portrait of a Poet” (2015)“, is also wonderful as Lee’s equal acting partner, and the screen sparks with their undeniable chemistry whenever they are on the screen together. Thanks to their solid performances, Park and Kaneko come to us as vivid, enjoyable characters, and Lee and Choi are particularly good when Park and Kaneko indirectly confirm their love to each other via their individual statements during the trial. They do not say anything about their love, but their mutual affection is palpable as the camera looks at them, and that is why this moment is touching and poignant.
The other characters in the movie are less developed in comparison, but it is interesting to observe how some of Japanese characters besides Kaneko are presented as sympathetic figures. While Kim In-woo is suitably despicable in his broad villain role, Kim Joon-han is a no-nonsense judge who gradually becomes skeptical about his case, and Japanese actor Tasuku Yamanouchi deserves to be mentioned as Tatsushi Fuse, a conscientious lawyer who defended not only Park and Kaneko but also numerous notable Korean activists in real life and is in fact the only Japanese citizen who received the Order of Merit for National Foundation from the South Korean government.
Through his notable films including “Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield” (2003), “King and the Clown” (2006), “Blades of Blood” (2010), “The Throne” (2015), and “DongJu: the Portrait of a Poet”, Lee Joon-ik has shown his affinity toward historical subjects, and “Anarchist from Colony” is no exception. While it loses some of its bouncy spirit during its expected third act, this engaging period drama film still distinguishes itself with considerable personality, and Park and Kaneko remain to be interesting characters to watch regardless of what you think of them. They are indeed hardcore anarchists, but they are a pretty cool couple, aren’t they?