An Eassay On Korean Films

  • Category: Music & Movies
  • Words: 2027
  • Grade: 100
1903-1945: Korea Under Japanese Rule

Only fragments remain of Korea's early film history. The vast majority of Korea's early film footage was destroyed in the 1950s during the Korean War, and not a single feature produced before 1945 survives in complete form today. Nonetheless, historical records paint a picture of a lively and creative industry that produced over 160 features from the early twenties until Japan's surrender to Allied forces in 1945.

From 1909 to 1920, a series of theaters were built in Seoul and in regional cities such as Pusan and Pyongyang. Most of these theaters were owned by Japanese businessmen, but a few Korean theater owners built up a significant amount of capital screening European and American imports. This capital would eventually be used to help finance the first domestic productions. Korea's first film (The Righteous Revenge), a kinodrama in which actors performed against the backdrop of a projected feature, debuted at Seoul's Dansongsa Theater in 1919. The public reportedly loved the show, but the long-term success of this and other kinodramas was hampered by intellectuals who criticized the mixed-media form as an insult to both theatre and film.

Korea's first silent feature was produced in 1923, and over the next few years, seven Korean film companies would appear. The masterpiece of this era is considered to be Na Un-Kyu's Arirang (1926). Na, only 25 years old at the time, produced, directed and starred in this film about a man who is arrested and tortured by Japanese police. The title is taken from a popular folk song, which would become an anthem of sorts for the Korean independence movement. The film, admired for its aesthetic qualities as well as for its political message, became an inspiration for a wave of young filmmakers who hoped to make films based on principles of realism and resistance to Japanese power.

Despite the increasing popularity of local cinema, however, Japanese censorship played a large role in stifling its growth. The Japanese government required all foreign and domestic features to be submitted to a government censorship board for approval before being screened, and police were present at theaters for all screenings. Although a few works extolling Korean nationalism reached audiences in the late 1920s, from 1930 censorship became much more strict, such that melodramas, costume dramas, and pro-Japanese films were the only genres approved by the government. Many features were banned outright and subsequently destroyed.

By 1935 the first sound feature, Ch'unhyang-jun, was directed by Lee Myung-woo with financing from the Japanese government. The film, based on Korea's most famous folk tale (which has been filmed over a dozen times), proved to be quite popular with audiences. Nonetheless, local filmmakers found it difficult to raise enough money to produce sound features, and Korean-language films faced much harsher criticism than the silent films which preceded them. Within two years, Japan had invaded China, and the Korean film industry would become transformed into an instrument of the Japanese propaganda effort. In 1942, Korean-language films were banned outright by the government.


Only five films have survived from the period between the U.S. occupation of Korea and the end of the Korean War. Of them, the most famous is Choi Un-gyu's Chayu Manse! ("Hooray for Freedom"), released in 1946. An ode to patriotism with strong anti-Japanese sentiments, the film proved to be a hit with audiences.

During the Korean civil war, much of Korea's film equipment was destroyed. Following the armistice agreement in 1953, President Rhee Syngman declared cinema to be exempt from all tax, in hopes of reviving the industry. Foreign aid programs provided South Korea with film technology and equipment, setting the stage for the rebirth of Korean cinema in the late-fifties and sixties.

1955-1969: A Golden Age for Korean Cinema

The latter half of the 1950s can be considered a period of revival for the Korean film industry, as the number of domestic productions increased from 8 in 1954 to 108 in 1959. The public also returned to the theaters, embracing such features as the 1955 remake of Ch'unhyang-jon, which drew 200,000 viewers in Seoul (over a tenth of the city's population). Melodramas and action films make up the majority of the work produced in this era.

The early 1960s saw the emergence of some of Korea's most talented directors. These filmmakers worked during a time when the domestic film industry enjoyed an unprecedented surge in box office receipts. In 1962, military dictator Park Chung Hee instituted a Motion Picture Law which stated that all production companies must produce at least 15 films per year, and that the films should be commercial in nature. Despite this, art films with a high degree of realism continued to be made up until the end of the decade.

Without question, Korea's most shockingly original director is the late Kim Ki-young. Kim, renowned for his gritty domestic dramas, released his most famous feature, The Housemaid, in 1960. This film -- the tale of a manipulative housemaid who seduces her master -- transgresses the laws of contemporary cinema to the same extent that its heroine tears apart the Confucian order of her household. As in many of his features, the women in this film possess a great deal of power and become a direct, menacing threat to their male counterparts. Although Kim's work remained largely forgotten for many years, he was rediscovered in the 1990s and afforded his rightful place in Korean film history.

Another significant talent to emerge from this era is Yu Hyun-mok, who captured widespread attention with his 1961 feature Obaltan (translated as "Aimless Bullet"). This film, which draws heavily off of the Italian Neorealist movement, expresses the pain and despair brought on by Korea's industrial development. Yu's work, which focuses on marginalized members of society, is highly stylized and the most obviously intellectual of the period.

Lastly, Shin Sang-ok, perhaps Korea's most controversial director, established himself as a major figure with The Houseguest and My Mother (1961). Told through the perspective of a young girl, the film portrays the struggles of a young widow who falls in love with her tenant, but cannot express her feelings due to a restrictive social code. Shin's finely composed black-and-white images and assured style have made this film one of the undisputed classics of Korean cinema. Later in the decade, Shin would turn to color and a more sensual tone in works such as The Dream (1967), based on an ancient tale about a libidinous Buddhist monk, and two pieces set in the medeival Chosun Dynasty: Eunuch (1968), and Women of the Yi Dynasty (1969). In 1978, after having made some 80 films in his home country, he and his wife were mysteriously "kidnapped" and taken to North Korea. After working in the film industry there for eight years he moved to Hollywood, where he would direct The Three Ninjas and its sequels under the name Simon Sheen.

The 1970s

In the seventies, the public largely deserted the cinema, while government intervention and strict censorship made it difficult for filmmakers to create works of true originality. In 1973 the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation was formed in an effort to revive the industry, but Korean film would not fully recover until the beginning of the 1980s.


An infusion of new directorial talent in the early eighties would bring about a modest revival in the film industry. Although not on a par with the 1960s, the eighties witnessed the public's return to the theaters and an increasing recognition from the international film community, culminating perhaps in Kang Su-yeon's Best Actress award at the 1987 Venice Film Festival.

Most critics would agree that the most significant name of the decade is Im Kwon-taek. Although Im had already directed over 70 features by 1980, it was with Mandala (1981) that he emerged as Korea's best-known filmmaker. Moving away from his earlier, commercially-oriented films, Mandala combines elements of several genres to question the meaning and place of Buddhism in Korean society. Im has become known for his efforts to capture and enshrine the older, forgotten elements of Korean culture. His most popular and acclaimed feature, Sopyonje (1993), brought about a revival in the Korean vocal art known as pansori. To date, Im has directed over 95 features and he remains a central figure in Korean film.

In 1988, the Korean film industry underwent a major transformation in the wake of two developments. Firstly, military leader Roh Tae-Woo enacted a new constitution which allowed for the gradual easing of political censorship laws. The first film to take advantage of this was Chilsu and Mansu (1988) by first-time director Park Kwang-soo. The closing scene of this film, which cleverly invokes images of a street demonstration, marks the rebirth of open political expression in Korean films. Park would go on to direct more acclaimed films, such as Black Republic (1990), To the Starry Island (1993) and A Single Spark (1996).

The other major development of 1988 was the lifting of import restrictions on foreign films. Up until this time, the screening of movies from Hollywood or Hong Kong had always been controlled and limited by the government. These new laws would mean that for the first time, Korean films would have to compete directly with Hollywood releases. Over the next few years, domestic films would gradually lose their market share, reaching a low point in 1993 when Korean films made up only 16% of overall attendance figures. The introduction of a screen quota system, whereby theaters were obliged to screen Korean features for 106 days out of the year, would bring box-office receipts up somewhat, but it was not until the late 1990s that the industry began to show signs of standing on its own.


In 1992, Marriage Story by first-time director Kim Ui-seok opened to rave critical and popular reviews, heralding not only the introduction of a new popular genre (the sex-war comedy), but also a new era. With this film, Samsung, one of South Korea's five major conglomerates, would become the first of the so-called chaebol to enter the film industry. In time these conglomerates would transform the structure of the business, introducing a streamlined system whereby the production, exhibition, and distribution of films would be integrated. Although not all of the chaebol have continued to invest in domestic films, their presence in the industry has had a lasting effect on both the tone and substance of the work produced in this decade.

Several directors who debuted in the 1980s have continued to produce interesting work. Notably, Jang Sun-woo, who released his first feature Seoul Jesus in 1985, has presented audiences with a series of challenging and controversial films. A Petal (1996) depicts the anguish felt by a survivor of the 1980 Kwangju Massacre. Rather than concentrate on the event itself, Jang focuses on the life of a disturbed young girl whose mother was killed in the tragedy. Bad Movie (1997) is a documentary-style feature about Korean teenagers which the national censorship board edited highly before its domestic release.

In recent years, several directors have impressed audiences with prize-winning debut films. Hong Sang-soo weaves the lives of four characters into a single story in his 1996 feature The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. The film stands out for its honest depiction of the cruelty and baseness of human relations. Green Fish (1997) by Lee Chang-dong follows the struggles of a young man who becomes involved with organized crime after his return from the military. Lastly, in 1998 Lee Kwangmo released Spring in My Hometown, his much-anticipated portrait of life in a small town during the Korean War.

In 1997, the release of the hit film The Contact by Chang Yoon-hyun marked a resurgence of box-office popularity for domestic features, leading up to the unprecedented success of the 1999 film Shiri. An increase in the level of filmmaking technology and an evolving production system more centered on public tastes has resulted in a newer look for Korean films. Nonetheless, these films as a whole retain a high degree of individuality and creativity. If it is true that "the mark of a healthy film industry is a film industry that makes every kind of movie," the Korean film industry is on its way to securing a sound future.

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