By now, most people who deal with Korean cinema would have heard about the infamous Gwangju Massacre, which has featured in a number of films, particularly during the last two decades. Before this incident, however, there was another one equally heroic and equally bloody that took place in the same area. On November 3, 1929, 54,000 students joined the Gwangju Student Independent Movement against Japanese Imperialism and marched against their oppressors. Many were injured, killed and tortured in prison. "Nameless Stars" is dedicated to them and tells the story of the movement by focusing on a group of students from a particular school.
Sang-hoon, the son of a patriot who also struggled for independence, is a member of the anti-Japanese group named "Seonjinhoe", which is opposed to Japanese rule. The group members, which also include members from other schools, have secret meetings inside a tavern owned by a Chinese couple, who has given them a hidden room in the second floor. Yeong-ae, whose brother works for the Japanese government and is highly strict with any kind of protest, is inspired by Sang-hoon's words and eventually joins the "council". As a teacher in their school is repeatedly punished for teaching the victories of the Korean army against the Japanese during the Joseon era, and the Japanese students act as bullies even against girls and the elderly, the sentiment of injustice and a will to retaliate becomes more and more intense in the students' body. An unfair baseball game leads to violence between the two groups and adds more fuel in the fire, which eventually, cannot be contained at all.
The propagandistic, crowd-pleasing elements in the film are presented right from the beginning, with the Japanese youths acting as cocky bullies who do not respect anything, and the grownups being always eager to give the most severe punishment to any action that undermines their authority. The accusation against the Japanese is as harsh as possible, with the difference between the teacher of Japanese history (who is presented as a laughing stock) and the one of Korean history (truly respectable and even heroic) setting the tone from the initial scene. At the same time, the accusation is at least as harsh towards the Koreans who worked for the Japanese, with Yeong-ae's brother acting repeatedly exactly as the Japanese, with the girl becoming the victim of violence in equal measures from both sides.
The fact that the injustice of the Occupation extended to all aspects of life is highlighted also repeatedly, with the baseball depicting the fact in the most impressive fashion. This aspect (which seems quite realistic) paints the way for the heroism of the students, whose violent reaction is deemed utterly justified.
What is impressive though, is that Kim Gang-yun's effort results in a true epic, particularly through a number of scenes that feature scores of actors clashing between them with sticks and bare hands. These sequences are quite impressive, starting with the baseball fight one, continuing to a number of others both inside the school and outside, and concluding with the final one against the authorities, where the participation of both boys and girls results in a truly extravagant spectacle. Their loud voices become the soundtrack of the title, while these sequences also highlight Kim's ability to direct many actors together on screen, DP Kim Hyung-keun's ability to capture them in the most graphic and impressive fashion, and editor Yu Jae-won to connect them in a way that retains continuity but also induces the film with an uncanny pace. At the same time, a number of them are set in a way much similar to westerns, an element that adds even more to their presentation.
Furthermore, the agony regarding the whether the students will be caught and their plans stopped provides an element of thriller in the narrative, adding to the already significant entertainment it offers. Particularly the scene in the beginning, where the students are hiding in the tavern and the Japanese authorities are sniffing around is exceptional in the way it communicates angst to the viewer.
Jo Mi-ryeong as Yeong-ae gives a great performance, particularly through her interactions with her brother, while her chemistry with Hwang Hae-nam as Sang-hoon is one of the film's definite traits, as the two characters also provide a melodramatic element for the narrative.
Evidently, "Nameless Stars" is an extreme crowd-pleaser in a number of levels, but remains an excellently planned and implemented movie and one of the most impressive productions of the 50's in Korea.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Nameless Stars" + Full Movie"
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