Ever since the film Comrade Kim Goes Flying made the rounds of prominent film festivals in 2012, there has been an increased interest in motion pictures from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. One that people should check out is From Spring to Summer, a 1988 co-production between studios in North Korea and the Soviet Union.
The film is set during World War II, and follows a fairly well known plot device for movies set at that time, following soldiers who engage in a desperate battle to destroy a key objective. In this case, the objective is a secret germ warfare laboratory where the Japanese engineers of Unit 731 are testing bacteriological weapons on Allied prisoners of war. Unit 731 was an actual team of soldiers and scientists attached to the Kwantung Army. The Kwantung Army was a breeding ground for the worst of the Japanese militarists, producing such notorious characters as Seishirō Itagaki and Hideki Tojo, both of whom would wind up at the end of a rope when convicted of war crimes.
Interestingly, Unit 731 is not widely written about in the West, most likely because the researchers from it who fell into American hands were given immunity from prosecution so they could be folded into the USA’s own weapons research program, while those the Soviets captured were quite properly brought to justice for their unspeakable crimes. This is reminiscent of recent reports that the CIA put at least 1,000 Nazis on the U.S. payroll after the war.
As the film opens, we are introduced to Masha Chuganova, a young Red Army solider. Masha has been assigned to an élite squad of Soviet Scouts who are charged with locating and destroying the laboratory. A stranger to the other soldiers, Masha was picked as a replacement for the woman who would normally have gone on the assignment when it was discovered that she was pregnant. Masha is a fitting substitute, however, as she is familiar with the Korean language, culture and customs, thanks to her friendship with Korean families who populated her Siberian hometown.
The film eschews studio sets for on-location shooting and takes the viewer from inside a Soviet submarine to the fascinating expanse of the Korean countryside.
During the mission Masha quickly forms a bond with Choe, the Korean guide of the group, but things go badly for the mission from the start. Choe is ambushed on the first day and the team is in constant jeopardy from then on. Like any good covert mission movie, the film is full of hair-raising escapes, close calls, and running gun battles. It also includes a few unexpected twists.
The Korean people suffered mightily under the cruel occupation of imperialist Japan, just as everyone around the world suffers when capitalist governments use the military to achieve their aims. That sad reality is brought to life in this well constructed war picture.
Photo: Screen shot.