VIFF 2017: Anarchist from the Colony

Anarchist from the Colony (Hangul: 박 열)

dir. Lee Joon-ik


Director Lee Joon-ik takes the audience back to Japan in 1923, during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the immediate aftermath through the experiences of a young anarchist.


Park Yeol (played by Lee Je-hoon) is an ethnic Korean striving to bring to light Japanese mistreatment of Koreans. Right from the get-go, viewers see his fighting spirit: when his rickshaw passenger short-changes him, he demands fair pay. It turns into a scuffle that ends badly for Park Yeol, but he still has the last word when he cusses out the client.


Park, as he’s known to friends and fellow anarchists, is a study in contrasts: he’s vulgar, brash, and quick to use his fists, but he’s also very idealistic, romantic, and willing to sacrifice himself for his friends. When a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hits Kanto, chaos erupts and Koreans living in Japan fall victim to massacre. Fearing an independence revolt, the Japanese government arrests Korean anarchists and activists under the pretence that they were poisoning wells. Park offers himself up for arrest and tells his friends to hide when the police come looking for a scapegoat. He does this again and again, which shows how much he cares for his friends and his lover Fumiko.


The movie, through a historical perspective, speaks into current events without being preachy. The Japanese government fakes stories and evidence against Park and ethnic Koreans to cover up the massacres, justify the anarchists’ arrests, and quell a possible independence movement. “Fake news” and darker ways of keeping power are nothing new, but the film doesn’t just paint a black and white picture. This doesn’t mean that Anarchist from the Colony doesn’t recognize the brutality of the events; rather, it humanizes history and the agents of those historical events.


The imperial family is only human, as are the government officials, and the anarchists. Each group is ascribed a certain inhuman or supernatural aspect but in reality, they are humans trying to survive in the circumstances they’re in: the government as it tries to keep Japan (and its colony) in order, the anarchists as they try to fight for equality, and the imperial family as it tries to keep its status. Unfortunately, when the circumstances are tough, many people resort to doing horrific things; the only group shown plainly as evil/one-dimensional are the vigilantes, who indiscriminately killed Koreans.


Some of the film’s lighter moments might be difficult to understand and can get lost in translation. However, this is where Lee Je-hoon really shines: his deliberate use of informal and highly vulgar language with superiors and elders show Park’s brashness, as well as his vulnerability and fear. He’s scared, but he’s determined to show the authorities he won’t be cowed.


Anarchist from the Colony shows that our struggle for justice and equality transcend time, space, culture, and language. Park says, “you can keep concealing, but you can’t hide the truth.” It sums up the movie nicely, as well as humanity. The truth will always come to light, no matter how much fake evidence there is against it.


The LINK Magazine team had the opportunity to check out a few films during the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival. Check back here for more reviews and interviews with some of the VIFF filmmakers!