Country Spotlight: South Korea

In this second entry to the Country Spotlight feature I’ll be taking a look at the history of South Korea’s film industry and its role during the cultural and political upheavals that took place during the 20th Century. Please feel free to make use of this blog, and the others in the series, as programme notes to supplement your screenings. To make this easier a pdf version can be found here. Rather than just concentrating on a single title it can be worthwhile to give your audience an idea of the wider context in which a film exists. Whether you’re programming a season of Korean cinema or just a single film I hope this brief overview is both informative and interesting.

A (brief) history of the film industry

Film arrived in Korea in 1897 (the division between North and South Korea did not take place until the end of the Second World War) , on behalf of Pathe pictures with the first movie theatre, the Dongdaemun Motion Picture Studio, opening in 1903. Cinema reached the capital in 1907 when the Dansung-sa Theatre opened its doors, a theatre that is still in operation today. The owner of the Dansung-sa, Park Sung-Pil financed the first Korean film which premiered at his cinema on October 27 1919. The film variously translated as Korea Loyal Flight and Loyal Revenge, was an example of Kino film – a mixture of projected film and live performances in front – that was described by critics as an insult to both cinema and theatre, but was a huge hit amongst audiences.

By this time however Korea was occupied by the Japanese Empire – who had officially annexed the state in 1910. Unsurprisingly the arts were carefully censored and filmmakers struggled to sneak political messages into their films. However in screening silent films rather than relying on inter-titles films were narrated by a performer, known as a byeonsa. This tradition stemmed from the screenings of imported films where translating inter-titles could be a costly affair but they were also used for Korean films. As a result when Japanese officials were not present the byeonsa were able to present more direct satirical or political interpretations of the film. 

This form of free expression declined in the mid 1930’s when a combination of stricter censorship on sound films and war breaking out between China and Japan meant that the Japanese authorities supported propaganda films almost exclusively. By 1938 Koreans were no longer allowed to make their own films and the Korean language was banned from film productions as Japan attempted to stamp out cultural identity and prevent discourse.

Viva Freedom!

The defeat of Japan in the Second World War was a momentous occasion which liberated Korean society. Films such as Viva Freedom! were a celebration both of the freedom fighters who had opposed the occupation and of rediscovered autonomy. For the first time filmmakers were free to express themselves as they wished and it is no surprise that many films focused on Korean heroes. Unfortunately this period of free expression was short-lived and Korea was to come under foreign control once again.

As the aftermath of the Second World war resolved itself the Korean territory was split between the US and the USSR. The northern half of the country was administered by the Soviet Union and in 1950 the north invaded the south in an attempt to gain control of the whole country. The civil war waged for three years as the US moved in to defend its stake in the South and the control of territory rapidly changed with first the north then the south storming the length of the country. As a result the damage to Korea was catastrophic, with nearly 2 million people losing their lives. Huge quantities of artefacts, including films, were lost, damaged or stolen.

An armistice was reached in 1953 and though the two Koreas remain at war the conflict has remained at a tense stalemate. Following the armistice President Syngman Rhee of South Korea announced a cut on all taxes on films, intending to boost the flagging industry. Foreign aid programmes also included cinema and filmmaking equipment. While this ushered in a successful and exciting expansion of Korea’s film industry and saw the arrival of some of Korea’s most famous and popular directors such as Kim Ki-young and Yu Hyun-mok it was not without its political motivations. Under the guise of “revitalising Government” President Park Chung-hee began forcing filmmakers to include government ideology in their films. The extent of his control led the International Film guide to remark “No country has a stricter code of film censorship than South Korea– with the possible exception of Communist bloc countries.” Cinema became a very important tool for propaganda once again, particularly with anti-communist films.

Fighting on the streets of Seoul during the Korean War.

It was only after the assassination of President Park and the turbulent events of the Gwangu uprising that a new more relaxed government emerged, and signs of a move towards democracy were evident. Although domestic audiences did not immediately pick up, for the first time Korean films were making an impact abroad, Im Kwon-taek’s Mandala (1981) winning the Grand Prix at the Hawaii Film Festival.

In 1988 newly elected Roh Tae-woo began the gradual removal of all government censorship on political expression in films. Immediately social and political subjects re-surfaced in films. However the relaxed censorship also led to an increase in imported films, which led to the market share for Korean films falling to just 16% in 1993.  It was not until the late 1990’s that the true revival was noticed. Changes in the political structure in South Korea saw democracy and freedom of speech becoming more pronounced, and culture boomed. Korea became one of the few countries where Hollywood didn’t dominate the film industry with locally produced Korean films frequently accounting for over 50% of the market share.

The first Korean blockbuster arrived in 1999, with Shiri becoming the first film to sell over 2 million tickets in Seoul alone. Following soon after Joint Security Area (JSA) broke Shiri’s records, and 2004 saw 2 huge box office takings for Silmido and Brotherhood. Perhaps unsurprisingly many of these early blockbusters addressed political issues. Shiri focuses on a group of North Korean Special Forces and their attempt to destabilize the South Korean government. JSA meanwhile goes further in addressing the relations between North and South Korea, portraying the friendship that strikes up between North and South Korean border guards along the demilitarised zone after they run into each other on patrol. The film itself argues strongly for reconciliation between the two Koreas and in an that act epitomises the significant role films play in Korean political life a DVD of the film was given as a diplomatic gift to Kim Jong Il by South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun.

Joint Security Area

Filmmakers and actors have also played a significant role in challenging US globalisation within Korea. The origins of their protest began with the negotiation over a Bilateral Investment Treaty between the US and Korean government. Part of the US conditions was a drastic reduction in the screen quota -a law declaring that all cinemas have to show Korean films on a set number of days per year. Immediately the film industry began to protest against the reduction in the screen quota. However when the US responded by stating that there would be no BIT without a quote reduction the film industry took on a more anti-globalisation stance rejecting American interference with the Korean economy. Unfortunately in 2007 the Korean government signed a Free Trade Agreement that included similar provisions of reducing the screen quota and undoing years of protest. As a result there were renewed protests most notably from Sik Choi-min, the internationally renowned star of the Palme D’or winning Oldboy who refused to act for several years.

Today the film industry remains strong, though competition from Hollywood remains a threat. Korean films have built a reputation internationally and several notable filmmakers and stars have broken into America, such as Park Chan-wook and Lee Byung-hun. In 2005 the first joint South-North Korean film was produced – the animation Empress Chung – though tensions continue to fluctuate between the two countries. Korean film-makers have embraced their ability to influence and reflect upon society to not only put forward their own opinions but also to encourage people to reflect upon their past and future. The freedom that the film industry has been given in the last 15 years or so has enabled it to flourish not only economically but also as an important part of Korean culture.

Key films & filmmakers

Kim Ki-young: As was the case with many directors Kim started out directing propaganda films. In his case it was for the United States Information Service. His first commercial films were heavily inspired by neo-realism but over time he crafted his own distinctive style. He is most famous for The Housemaid, a psychological thriller about the decline of a middle class family instigated by the behaviour of their new housemaid. Kim has drawn comparisons to Luis Bunuel for his explorations of desire and obsession.

Aimless Bullet (1961): Frequently regarded as the best Korean film Aimless Bullet is a startlingly honest and unflinching portrayal of Korean society. Yoeng-ho is an accountant’s clerk who struggles to support his family. His mother suffers from PTSD due to her experiences in the war, his sister is a prostitute for American soldiers and his brother is an unemployed war veteran. It is a grim situation but one that was experienced by many in the post-war years. Though now regarded internationally as a classic the film initially struggled to find an audience, most notably after it was pulled from cinemas by the military regime. A landmark social realist film.

Kim Ki-duk: The remarkably prolific Kim Ki-duk, who has directed 19 films in 17 years, is in many ways the enfant terrible of Korean cinema. He has courted controversy on several occasions as a result of depictions of extreme violence, sexual content and animal cruelty. Yet his films are also often possess an innate beauty; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003) which depicts the training of a young Buddhist priest filmed around a floating temple in Jusan Pond is a stunning and meditative film. Kim Ki-duk is also the first Korean director to be awarded Best Film at one of the three big festivals – winning the Golden Lion at Venice for Pieta (2012).

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring

Oldboy (2003): Arguably the biggest Korean success in the West, Oldboy is a sophisticated and frequently astounding thriller. Oh Dae-su is kidnapped, framed for the murder of his wife and imprisoned without explanation for exactly 15 years. The following day he is drugged and wakes up in a box on a rooftop. He immediately begins to investigate who kidnapped him and why.  Loosely based on a manga Park’s adaptation is a darker and more twisted story yet as Roger Ebert wrote Oldboy “is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.”

Korean films on the BFFS Booking Scheme

Planet of Snail (2012): Young-chan has been deaf and blind since childhood and this elegiac documentary follows him in his daily life. He is aided by his wife Soon-hoo, who suffers a spinal condition, and they communicate via touch. Planet of Snail highlights their joy and love together and conveys the wonder that Young-chan experiences through touch, smell and taste.


Poetry (2010): Winner of Best Screenplay at the 2010 Cannes film festival Poetry follows Yang Mi-ja a grandmother who struggles with her reckless grandson and her recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s. She discovers an affinity for poetry after joining a local class which helps her deal with her own problems. Given its subject matter Poetry risks sentimentality but is instead imbued with grace, humanity and in ushering Yoon Jung-hee out of retirement the film rediscovers one of Korea’s greatest actresses.

Green Fish (1997): Lee Chang-dong has ever since this debut cast his sceptical eye over Korean society – revealing the human suffering that stems from economic and political pressures. Mak-dong returns from military service and struggles to find a legitimate job. Instead he is offered work from a seemingly sympathetic mobster but finds himself distinctly out of depth and struggles to reintegrate with wider society.

The Housemaid (2010): Im Sang-Soo’s remake of the classic (which has never been released in the UK) follows the story but is given a fresh reinterpretation by Im. A rich and unnerving slow burning drama Im’s style ramps up the tension but never overshadows the formidable performances from his cast.

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