Every March 1st, South Korea observes Independence Declaration Day known in Korean as “Sam-Il Jul” 삼일절 . This day commemorates and honors the men and women who died during the March 1st Movement (3-1운동) or Mansei Movement 만세 운동.
The March 1st Movement was a series of demonstrations and protests which began on March 1, 1919 and lasted through April 11, 1919. This peaceful protest was one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance against Japanese Imperialist oppressors. Over 2,000,000 people participated in the demonstrations to end the harsh oppression, brutality and plundering of Korea’s land and natural resources by its Japanese occupiers.
The demonstration was led by unarmed students and religious leaders. They were met by armed Japanese soldiers who used brutal force against the unarmed demonstrators. During the course of the March 1st Movement, 7,500 were killed, 15,000 injured and 45,000 were arrested. Most of those arrested never had a trial and were tortured while in prison. Entire villages, churches and schools filled with people were burned to the ground by the Japanese soldiers.
While independence was not achieved, Japan replaced the Government General of Korea and loosened their tight grip by allowing Koreans to write and distribute Korean literature, and to gather and meet. However, by the 1930’s, Japan enacted a series of aggressive assimilation measures designed to eradicate Korean language and culture.
The following dramas are not only entertaining, but capture the spirit of Korean self-reliance and resistance against colonial oppression that lasted from 1910 to 1945. These dramas are listed in historical chronological order.
- Native Title: 제중원
- Episodes, Network: 36, SBS, 2012
- Overview: JeJoongWon begins in the year 1884 and continues through about 1915. Through an interesting cast of characters, this drama tells the story of the modernization of Korea and the unprecedented social changes that occurred during this time period. Not only is this an excellent drama, but is a great way to kick off into this period. It is a fascinating look at how life was towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty and the various events leading to the Japanese colonization of Korea. For a closer look, here are a couple of past articles about this drama. JeJoongWon Part 1 and The Real People Behind JeJoongWon.
- Native Title:각시탈 Gaksital
- Episodes, Network: 28, KBS, 2012
- Time Period: 1930’s
- Overview: This drama centers on Lee Kang To who is a smart and ambitious Korean police officer employed by the Japanese colonists. Kang To is on the hunt to catch the person behind The Bridal Mask. The Bridal Mask appears as a Zorro-like figure who protects the Korean people from the Japanese colonists’ oppression and abuse of power. While this is a completely fictional story, it is a very interesting look at the very real social dynamics which existed during one of the darkest periods in Korean history. This drama did a great job by incorporating the very serious issue of “The Comfort Woman” into the storyline. This is an issue still plaguing Japanese-Korean relations to this day.
- Native Title:경성 스캔들
- Alternate Titles: Scandal in Old Seoul, Scandal in the Capital
- Episodes, Network: 16, KBS2, 2007
- Overview: Living a carefree life at dance halls and modern cafes, Sun Woo-Wan is the biggest womanizer in all of Seoul. He isn’t the least interested in independence activities or anything else that requires
serious thought. Having never been rejected by woman before, he is challenged to a bet by his friends to win over the heart of Na Yeo-Kyung, who they nickname “The Last Woman of Joseon.” She is fiercely traditional, not at all interested in western dress, and is a vocal advocate for Korean independence. In other words, the two couldn’t be any more opposite. I really liked this drama a lot, but I will have to admit, it wasn’t connecting with me at first and I was about ready to give up watching it after about 30 minutes into it. I’m so glad I hung in and kept watching it. By the second episode, I was hooked. There were definitely a lot twists and turns with this drama with a good mix of action, comedy and romance.
- Native Title:자유인 이회영
- Episodes, Network: 5, KBS
- Time Period: 1933
- Overview: This drama is a short 5 part KBS drama set in the 1930’s and tells the story of the Korean independence fighter, Lee Hoe-Young who donated all of his fortune ($1.5B in todays money) and fled to Manchuria. While there, he opened the Shinheung Military Academy 신흥무관학교(新興武官學校) for displaced Koreans. This allowed children to receive both an education along with formal military training. After the March 1st Movement, even more Koreans went there to receive military training. In total, the Academy produced nearly 3,500 graduates who would serve as Freedom Fighters. The drama was made to commemorate the centenary of the Forced Annexation of Korea by Japan. Its premiere coincided with the signing of the annexation treaty on August 21, 1910. What I really liked about this drama is that the last 10 or 15 minutes of each episode was a real documentary that elaborated more on the actual history. This is a very good look to see how the freedom movement operated outside of Korea.
- Native Title:암살
- Film: 2015, Running Time 140 minutes
- Overview: This is a highly entertaining action-adventure film, which has become one of the highest grossing Korean films of all time. While Korea is occupied by the Japanese Army in 1933, agents from the Provisional Government in Manchuria come together for a major mission. Their mission is to assassinate a Japanese commander and Korean businessman who is a Japanese collaborator. But their plan is threatened by a traitor within their group and also the enemies’ forces are hunting them down. As of publication of this article, it is currently playing on Netflix. I would recommend taking the time to watch sooner rather than later, due to licensing agreements, films don’t stay on Netflix indefinitely.
- Native Title: 마이웨이
- Film: 2011, Running Time 137 minutes
- Time Period: 1930’s to 1948
- Overview: This is an epic film and is one of Korea’s largest productions ever. It is inspired by a true story. In Japanese occupied Korea, Joon-Shik’s father was a domestic servant for Tatsuo’s grandfather, a high-ranked Japanese army officer. Joon-Shik dreamt of participating in the Tokyo Olympics as a marathon runner. Tatsuo also aimed to become a marathon runner, so the two were rivals. Through a series of events, Joon-Shik and other Koreans found themselves forced to join the the Japanese Imperial Army in China. Both Jung-Shik and Tatsuo go to war, and their paths cross over and over for the next several years. In 1944, they meet again at the shores of Normandy. This film is an interesting look at those Koreans who were forced to fight for the Japanese Army and the roles they had as human shields for the Japanese. I caught this film on Dramafever, which is better since they retain the original Korean subs, whereas Netflix removes other subs, because there are a lot of different languages spoken in the film, including Japanese, Russian and German, this is helpful.