Imagine if the first 30 years of Hollywood’s film production was lost, along with its most famous silent-era classic. And then that classic, along with dozens of others, turns up in a private collection in a neighboring country.
That’s the kind of excitement being generated among Korean movie scholars by news that the legendary cache of Japanese film collector Yoshishige Abe will finally be opened up to public scrutiny, following his death in early February.
Most of Korea’s 500-plus films were thought destroyed during the 1950-53 Korean War that left Seoul leveled. Abe always claimed he had a copy of “Arirang,” a 1926 Korean classic made during the Japanese Occupation that’s since taken on a Holy Grail status in Korean cinema.
Despite deputations from North and South Korea over the years, Abe refused to return “Arirang” until the country was reunited.
He also claimed he had 60 other Korean pics made during the Japanese Occupation (1910-45). But this, too, could never be verified, as Abe refused access to — or even sight of — the collection, kept in his dilapidated house on a remote Osaka hillside. Abe began the collection — some 50,000 strong — with his father, a police doctor who worked at the Korean Consulate. When he died Feb. 9 in Osaka at age 81 Abe left no will, so the collection will pass to Tokyo’s National Film Center, via the Japan Foundation.
Japanese authorities will have to sift through a reputed 450,000 reels of film to find the nine containing “Arirang.”