Korean children.

Repatriating memory and the Korean War

6 Apr 2020
How much can a country know about itself without a record of its history?

How much can a country know about itself without a record of its history? For a variety of reasons, films, books and audio recordings can end up in countries other than their origin. This can lead to gaps in the memory of a nation. In some cases, these important records may be held in foreign archives and might be the best or only copies available. Fortunately, there are international collegial organisations that return material to its country of birth. And at least in one occasion, the recordings from a member of New Zealand’s K (Kay) Force serving in the Korean War have meant that that memory can be restored.

Repatriation is one way to get this done. It’s a process that international archives follow, including Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. As a member of FIAF, the International Federation of Film Archives, our membership obliges that repatriation occur where possible. A number of similar projects have taken place during the life of Ngā Taonga, and before that the New Zealand Film Archive. Steve Russell, a Senior Client Access Liaison, explains that ‘this has garnered the organisation a very well-respected reputation amongst the international archiving community, both for its willingness to engage in these kinds of projects and to support the need for these moving images to get back to their country of origin.’

A joint project with the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) was one of the most recent projects. Sarah Davy, the Ngā Taonga Group Manager for Information Service, was in touch with Eric Choi, who works in acquisitions at KOFA. ‘Eric used our online catalogue and contacted us in 2017’ she explains. ‘He had found Marine Battleground and a number of ‘personal records’ that were filmed in Korea (personal records are the term Ngā Taonga uses for ‘home movies’ and other amateur footage). He requested this material which got the process in motion for repatriation.

Hero image: Korean children. New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs. War History Branch :Photographs relating to World War 1914-1918, World War 1939-1945, occupation of Japan, Korean War, and Malayan Emergency. Ref: PA1-f-115-2429. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23227023.

Marine Battleground is considered a classic of Korean cinema. Choi notes ‘it is widely regarded as the quintessential Korean War epic and is the oldest surviving work by acclaimed director Lee Man-hi.’ Marine Battleground is a shortened version of The Marines Who Never Returned, and was released on the international market.

Russell explains that with Marine Battleground, ‘Ngā Taonga sought permission from the depositor, Richard Weatherly. He was a film distributor who had acquired a print of the film during his career. We repatriated that original print to Seoul. It’s since been scanned and is now one of their taonga.’

The personal records that were requested from our collection were 16mm and 8mm amateur colour home movies filmed in the 1950s, shot by service personnel who were part of the K Force in the Korean war. There was also a recording from the early 1930s that showed rural scenes and traditional life. Russell says that with this collection, ‘we did not repatriate the original film material, but did undertake digital preservation work and sent digital copies over.’

Some of this footage is remarkable, regardless of your connection to Korea. When the material was being preserved, the film scanner got in touch with Davy. ‘He was really excited about it. I remember thinking, well, it’s not often that the scanning team come to me and go, “Oh my God, did you know what that footage is?”’

The film, recorded by G.A. Gow, shows a large festival, athletics, dancing and a religious ceremony. It also shows communities and traditional dress at a time when Korea was occupied by Japan. KOFA and most other Asian film archives have not traditionally collected ‘home movies’ – there are very few film recordings of everyday life during this time. Repatriation allows countries to fill in the gaps in their memories.

The process of repatriation is a two-way street. Russell explains ‘we’ve been very successful – both the Film Archive and now Ngā Taonga – in researching and identifying material held in overseas film archives with New Zealand content and bringing material back to here.’ While he acknowledges that it’s not a large amount of the organisation’s day to day work, when it does happen, the results are important and can have long lasting impacts – a new record or new insight about the country.

It can also lead to new or refreshed relationships. The repatriation work with KOFA led to a joint project for the 24 Hour Home Movie Marathon as part of World Audiovisual Heritage Day 2019. ‘It started at the Dateline and went around the world. We partnered with the Korean Film Archive in showcasing the Gow film. It is such rare and unique footage and so well loved by the Koreans. We also provided a lovely travelogue from our collection – 'A Trip to the North Island.

The whole project also rekindled the relationship with the filmmaker responsible for the 1953 footage, Terry Hitchings. ‘I had great chats with Terry,’ enthuses Davy. ‘He helped us understand more about the recording – where they were filmed and so forth. So we’ve got better data about that now.’

It can be a great surprise for filmmakers and depositors that their old deposited material is of interest. Russell explains that ‘Terry was so flattered that anybody would be interested in the footage. It’s nice to be able to explain how rare the footage is and how valuable it is considered in Korea.’ Both Russell and Davy find this is typical of the depositors and their family members when contacted by Ngā Taonga. ‘They’re so chuffed and honoured that somebody else sees value in the footage,’ reflects Davy.

‘We also had conversations with our colleagues at the National Army Museum in Waiouru’, she says. They had been the original recipient of some of the personal record films which were then deposited with Ngā Taonga.

An unexpected new relationship has sprung up from the repatriation: a request from artist Sunni Kum, a third generation Korean who lives in Japan. Her current project is a three channel AV work called Morning Dew. ‘She’s looking to explore and reveal the stories of defectors from North Korea who now live in Japan – there are about 250 of them’ explains Russell. ‘She was very interested in being able to incorporate some of the home movie footage from the Korean War films as well as the Gow film. In particular, she’s very interested in the footage shot in villages and home and town life – she said she’s never seen anything like that.’

This footage is important to memories of Korea, but it was also filmed by New Zealanders in a combat force during the Korean War. It is an important demonstration of New Zealand’s overseas conflict and its foreign policy. The K Force served from 1950 to 1953, with some forces acting as a garrison until 1957. The recordings we hold capture the memories and experiences of those that served. The New Zealand Korean Veterans Association of servicepeople disbanded a couple of years ago, meaning these stories and memories are at real risk of being lost. If you or a family member served in Korea, we hope you are able to enjoy and share these videos.

Ngā Taonga holds a number of other film and audio clips regarding the Korean War.