A Brief History of Korean Movies


Wracked by wars, ruined by foreign incursion, and almost gutted by “free trade”, Korea’s film industry has a troubled history. Divided into three Golden Ages, the first, from 1926-1935 has been completely lost with not a single film surviving (Note: in 2000 one reel of Shimchung (1936) was found in Russia and brought to Korea). Before 1946, only three films survive and all three were made during World War II by occupation forces. From Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II (marking the end of their occupation of Korea) to the outbreak of the Korean War (1953) Korea was making approximately 15 movies a year. Of these, only five survive.

After the Korean War ended, movie production picked up and a second Golden Age began in the late 50’s and lasted through the 60’s. Yu Hyun-Mok, Kim Ki-Young (affectionately dubbed “Mr. Monster” for his passionate obsession with the hallucinatory excesses of human emotion), and Shin Sang-Ok (who was later “kidnapped” into North Korea with his wife and eventually fled to America where he directed THE THREE NINJAS under the psuedonym Simon Sheen) were some of the directing giants who strode the Korean filmscape during these shining years. Their work has been almost impossible to view outside of Korea, and while they created the films which have come to be viewed as Korea’s classics (much as the Hollywood studios in the 30’s and 40’s generated America’s classic cinema) they have been virtually ignored in the history of world cinema.

The Korean film industry is generally seen as hitting a plateau in the 70’s and only the work of Im Kwon-Taek is considered a part of the official canon. In 1984, more and more foreign movies were allowed into Korea (although a ban on Japanese movies was not lifted until 1999) and opposition to the militarist government stepped up after the Kwang-Ju Massacre. Suddenly students, labor organizers, and progressives were grabbing cameras, writing scripts, and making documentaries. Korean film making was in a creative ferment as a politically passionate independent film scene materialized, led by groups like the creative collective Jangsangotmae (who made pro-union feature THE NIGHT BEFORE THE STRIKE, co-directed by the director of TELL ME SOMETHING). Alternative video distribution networks appeared, and the public was eating up movies in a way they hadn’t been since the 60’s. By the time the ’88 Olympics arrived in Seoul the media was accusing the government of fostering the “three S’s”: sex, screen and sport (the ’88 Olympics so opened Korea to the outside world that it became representative of the entire decade). Directors like Im Kwon-Taek, Jang Sun-Woo and Park Kwang-Su turned out audience pleasers that came with side orders of sex, slums and social commentary. The audiences ate it up.

In 1992, a new government came into power and democratizing measures were adopted one after another. Foreign films (save from Japan) flowed freely into the country. Korean films had always been made under the shelter of the quota system, which required local theatres to reserve 115 days a year to screening Korean movies. Guaranteed with an outlet, investors were more forthcoming with production money and the system, while somewhat self-contained, was also self-supporting. Much as India’s import restrictions on foreign films have allowed them to develop the world’s largest film industry, so too has some small amount of protectionism allowed Korean cinema to blossom in the 80’s and 90’s, culminating in 1998 when Korean films took over half of the annual box office, and movies like SHIRI, JOINT SECURITY AREA, ATTACK THE GAS STATION, and CONTACT started topping the box office, unseating American giants like TITANIC, STAR WARS, and ARMAGEDDON. An incredible feat when one considers that Hollywood has a corner on 85% of the global film market.

Ironically, at this time the Motion Picture Association (MPA) lobbied the WTO to classify films as an industrial rather than a cultural product which meant that countries interested in pursuing free trade treaties could not protect their homegrown industries from competing directly with Hollywood. First, Mexico’s film industry was gutted by NAFTA (seen any Mexican films, lately?) and the MPA turned its eyes to Korea, arguing that Korea’s struggling film industry was enjoying a renaissance and could now compete on a fair field with Hollywood. The issue became heated and emotional, with over 100 Korean film industry professionals shaving their heads as a public protest against the destruction of the film quota system. Eventually, discussion of the issue was postponed for a future date, and for now the Korean film industry remains intact.

In 1999, Korea opened itself up to Japanese films, for the first time since World War II, and, suddenly, Korea was a part of a new pan-Asian film region. Throughout Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand movies without the Hollywood stamp of approval are becoming hits. THE RING (Japan), NANG NAK (Thailand), and SHIRI (Korea) are just some of the big names that win recognition in any of these countries. Hong Kong actors work in South Korean films, a Korean actress is Jackie Chan’s latest co-start, Wong Kar-wai becomes a celebrity in Korea – these filmmaking countries string their cities together with fiber optic cable, wireless phones, and reel after reel of 35mm film forming a cosmopolitan web stretching across the eastern side of the Pacific rim. And Korea, a country that has lost half of its film history to wars and occupation, is a part of this web that provides an alternative to Hollywood, and a film vocabulary of modern living that anyone, in any number of countries, can understand.

Learn more about Korean Cinema’s past, present, and future by visiting the following web sites:
Darcy’s Korean Film Page Asian Cinema Weekly: Korean Cinema Edition
issance of Korean Movies
Asian Film Connections: Korea
An Introduction to Korean Cinema Am��rAsia: Korean New Wave and Beyond
Postwar Korean Cinema: Fractured Memories and Identity Korean Film Discussion Board
Korean Film Commission Asian Cinema Discussion
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