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History, Resistance, and
Democratic Imagination


PRAEGER Westport, Connecticut

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Min, Eungjun, 1957—
Korean film : history, resistance, and democratic imagination / Eungjun Min, Jinsook
Joo, and Han Ju Kwak.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-275-95811-6 (alk. paper)
1. Motion pictures—Korea—History. I. Joo, Jinsook. II. Kwak, Han Ju. III. Title.
PN1993.5.K6M56 2003
791.43*09519—dc21 2002025201
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available.

Copyright © 2003 by Eungjun Min, Jinsook Joo, and Han Ju Kwak

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be

reproduced, by any process or technique, without the
express written consent of the publisher.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2002025201
ISBN: 0-275-95811-6
First published in 2003

Praeger Publishers, 88 Post Road West, Westport, CT 06881

An imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

Printed in the United States of America

The paper used in this book complies with the

Permanent Paper Standard issued by the National
Information Standards Organization (Z39.48-1984).

In order to keep this title in print and available to the academic community, this edition
was produced using digital reprint technology in a relatively short print run. This would
not have been attainable using traditional methods. Although the cover has been changed
from its original appearance, the text remains the same and all materials and methods
used still conform to the highest book-making standards.

Copyright Acknowledgments

The authors and publisher gratefully acknowledge permission for use of photographs. Every reason-
able effort has been made to trace owners of copyright materials in this book, but in some instances
this has proven impossible. The authors and publisher will be glad to receive information leading to
more complete acknowledgments in subsequent editions of the book and in the meantime extend
their apologies for any omissions

Woo-sik Seo for Night Before the Strike, Ki-sung Whang for Taste of Heaven, Intaek Yoo for A Single
Spark, Taehung Film Production Co./Tae-won Lee for Sopyonje & Festival, Myung Film Co. Ltd. for
Joint Security Area, J. S. Kim for Green Fish, Cinehne V for Friends.
To those unknown and well-knownfilmmakerswho
have provided an honest, entertaining, intimate,
and important vision of Korean culture and people
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Preface ix

1 Korean Cinema: Philosophical Foundations and Theoretical

Frameworks 1

2 Oppression, Liberation, Censorship, and Depression: History

and Major Trends of Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 25

3 Korean National Cinema in the 1980s: Enlightenment, Political

Struggle, Social Realism, and Defeatism 57

4 Auteur Criticism: The Case of Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 85

5 Discourses of Modernity and Postmodernity in Contemporary

Korean Cinema 113

6 Hollywood Imagination, Foreign Films, and Korean Identity:

Resistance, Assimilation, and Articulation 149

7 Contemporary Korean Cinema: A Boom or a Renaissance? 167

References 185

Index 195
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This book is the result of over ten years of teaching and research in the area of
Korean cinema. One of the major goals of this book is to provide a contextual
overview of Korean cinema which has not been understood adequately for
English-speaking critics and viewers. They rarely possess an adequate
knowledge of the language Korean films speak or the culture they reflect. This
book analyzes the major trends in the history, industry, and aesthetics of Korean
cinema. While we have tried to provide an accurate picture of general economic
trends within the industry, this book is primarily about Korean cinema's social
and cultural conditions. One book will not exhaust this field, but it is our hope
that this book will stimulate a reconsideration of already acknowledged classics
and help to increase interest in Korean films and directors not so well known
outside of Korea.
Our debt to other scholars and writers has been documented in the notes and
bibliographies of each chapter. Our greatest debt is owed to many generous
people in the Doknip Youngwha Hyupuiheo (Independent Film Association),
Korea Youngwha Jinheung Weewonheo (Korean Film Commission), Korean
Film Archive and various film production companies for providing invaluable
books, articles, and photos. In addition, a number of people in the Korean film
industry allowed us to observe their work on location, stimulating our own ideas
with their suggestions, and granting interviews: Heesub Nam, Sunwoo Jang,
Jaeran Byun, Dongwon Kim, Kisung Whang, Younggil Yoo, Kyungsik Kim,
Jongjae Im, Youngsub Kim, and Chooyeon Lee. Finally, we thank our families
for their support, patience, countless midnight snacks, and love.
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Chapter 1

Korean Cinema: Philosophical

Foundations and Theoretical


Nation, Identity, Narratives, and Popular Memory

Despite its rise in the global market and its recent political progress, Korea is
still an understudied country. From misinformed stereotypes to outdated
information, Korea has been treated as an addendum to China or Japan. Western
studies of Korean culture are therefore, in comparison to those on China or
Japan, very much in their infancy. Korea first impinged on the Western
consciousness with the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. In the West, Korea
has been briefly visible, but mostly lost from sight. Korea, like many nations, is
a historical result brought about by a series of convergent facts. Sometimes its
unity has been affected by dynasties, such as the Silla and Yi dynasties.
Sometimes its fates have been affected by wars, colonization, geopolitics,
ideological movements, and international treaties and trades.
Renan (1990) argues that in order to understand a nation properly, it is also
necessary to understand its profound complications of history and memories that
are deeply rooted in a long past of endeavors, sacrifice, tradition, folklore, and
devotion (p. 19). In the contemporary theory of culture, the concept of nation is
considered one of the most important signifying forces. A nation in the modern
world functions as a unit of culture as well as economics and politics. It is
formulated through an integrating, unifying, centripetal referential point of
collective social experiences often called "history." The people of a nation who
share the same historical experience form an "us" differentiated from other
For the modern Korea, it is film along with literature that has constituted the
Korean imagination by objectifying national life and imitating the structure of
the country through languages and styles. Film also joined other media helping
2 Korean Film

to standardize language, encourage literacy, and reduce mutual

incomprehensibility. Coupled with the Western science and technology of
moving picture, the rich storytelling tradition of Korea has continued to allow
people to imagine the special community that was the nation. Like a novel, a
film provides a site for forming an unsettled mixture of different ideas and
styles. Thus one should not be obsessed with the determinate historical form of
the film but try to see what that form is made of.
A film industry is the totality of resources for the production of theatrical
movies—studios, laboratories, unions, the craft talents from set designers and
carpenters to special-effects people, editors, cinematographers, and so on. A
cinema culture is also the tradition of moviemaking associated with a place or
area, a body of work expressing, directly or indirectly, the spirit of its
inhabitants, their character, aspirations, hopes, and anxieties. Korean cinema has
created and examined the past of its culture, reflected the present, debated about
the future — it is an art form, a means of expression, a mirror, a source of shared
experience. It has its own history and is part of the nation's history.
Mikhail Bakhtin describes this aspect of the film more clearly than anyone.
His concept of heteroglossia provides a theoretical frame for analysis of the
discursive relationships that can be found in cultural forms like the film.
According to Bakhtin (1981), language is a zone of conflict, stratified and
fractionated among different dialects, classes, and ethnic minorities, each
creating a discourse that embodies its own particular set of reasons, rules and

At any given moment a language is stratified not only into dialects in the strict sense of
the word (i. e., dialects that are set off according to formal linguistic markers, but is
stratified as well into languages that are socio-ideological: languages belonging to
professions, to genres, languages peculiar to particular generations, etc. (p. 271-272)

Heteroglossia is central to Bakhtin's concept of language as a totality.

Verbal-ideological belief systems, points of view on the world, forms for
conceptualizing social experience—which are marked by their own tonalities,
meanings, and values—are represented by languages composing heteroglossia
(p. 428). The role of a film, for example, is not to represent real-life existence,
but rather to stage the conflicts inherent in heteroglossia, the coincidences and
competitions of languages and discourses.
Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia is also useful in understanding the different
levels of discourse articulated by nonmainstream cultural producers (films in the
Korean National Cinema Movement, Third Cinema, alternative press, etc.)
through textual production. Using this model it is possible to conceptualize the
characteristic modes of productive practice as signifying codes that establish
those cultural products as discourses of resistance. In the case of Third Cinema,
Teshome Gabriel (1982), who pioneered the theoretical framework for Third
Cinema, analyzed it from some Third World nations such as Chile and Peru
exclusively based on Althusserian ideological criticism. But the concepts of
hegemony and heteroglossia can provide a more comprehensive theoretical
frame for analysis of discursive relationships that can be found in Third Cinema.
Foundations and Frameworks 3

Their relevance can be shown in several different contexts: (1) the context of the
dominant cinema of Hollywood, which constitutes a cultural hegemony
throughout much of the world, and of the local mainstream film industry which
is not much different from Hollywood in terms of modes of production; (2) the
context of local folk culture and nationalism to which Third Cinema is closely
related; and (3) the international context, within which Third Cinema can be
seen in relation to European countercinema, American regional film (Sundance
Institute), Korean National Cinema Movement, and other national
nonmainstream cinema.
Popular cultural forms are fundamentally linked. Narratives, particularly,
represent our ideas about everyday life by producing cultural images and
stereotypes of it. They thus have an important function in representing the past,
because they provide crucial forms in which memories are made. Memory is not
simply the property of individuals, nor just a matter of psychological processes,
but a complex cultural and historical phenomenon constantly subject to revision,
amplification, and forgetting. For Michel Foucault, popular memory exists only
within the realm of discourse. It has no abstract, nondiscursive mode of
existence. In other words, it exists in conversations, cultural forms, personal
relations, the structure and appearance of places "in relation to ideologies which
work to establish a consensus view of both the past and the forms of personal
experience which are significant and memorable" (Johnson, 1982, p. 256).
Korean cinema does not have an independent existence. It is merely an index
of a general cultural and historical trend in which filmmakers can find their role
and serve as caretakers of popular discourse in cinema. The degree of
consistency of interest in and veneration of popular memory and its
manifestation in Korean cinema is striking. For example, films about the 1980
uprising in the southern city of Kwangju, which killed several hundred people
(official record, 203; unofficial record, over 2,000) depict several events not
found in any official records or histories. What happened in the city 22 years
ago continues to live on and persist in oral tradition. Between popular memory
of Korea and the willful forgetting of the horrible past, men and women of
courage and conscience are committed to an urgent, activist cinema. Resistant
cinema, as guardian of popular memory, is an account and record of their visual
poetics and testimony of existence and struggle.
For the theoretical elaboration of the interplay between utterances and their
sociocultural setting(s), the work of Bakhtin seems to be very useful. He has
theorized in relation to the novel that language is a site of struggle between
competing discourses:

Cultural and literary traditions are preserved and continue to live, not in the subjective
memory of the individual nor in some collective psyche, but in the objective forms of
culture itself. In this sense, they are intersubjective and interindividual, and therefore
social.The individual memory of creative individuals almost does not come into play.
(Quoted in Todorov, 1984, pp. 82-83)

Cultural specificity is never a closed, static terrain; it is never a systemic

whole like a code. Bakhtin argues that there is a hierarchy imposed upon the
diversity of discourses, the institutionalized exercise of power bears upon which
4 Korean Film

semantic possibilities shall remain unrecognized or unutilized. In the case of

cinema, this means that social power has its word to say about what kind of
discourses are made as well as in how people read them. In addition, viewed
from Bakhtin's perspective, Korean National Cinema, for example, is a cinema
neither of nor for the people, nor is it simply a matter of expressing opposition to
cultural imperialism or to authoritarian rule. It is a cinema made by intellectuals
who, for political and artistic reasons at the same time, assume their
responsibilities as socialist intellectuals and seek to achieve through their work
the production of social intelligibility.

Nationalism and Cultural Movements

With the slowdown in economic growth 50 years after Korean War, studies
of modernization were replaced by studies of underdevelopment and
postcolonialism. With the Kwangju Uprising in 1980, studies of industrial
convergence were replaced by studies of class conflict and the new bureaucratic
class at the center of power. The object of social analysis became to strip away
the camouflage of domination and seek in the past and present for models of
progressive human struggle. In the early 1980s, it was Marxist political
economy that replaced Walt Rostow as the harbinger of progress in social
analysis. Unlike many developing nations, Korea did "take o f f into
modernization in only the economic sphere. The tragic history of modern Korea,
however, is that people's efforts to participate in the political life of their
country have been thwarted repeatedly by those in power. In addition to Marxist
political economy, a group of young sociologists who were exclusively educated
in Korea, studied Latin America's dependency theory formulated by Frank
(1969). Those young sociologists argue that Korea occupies a subordinate
position in the international and economic political system which is structured
primarily according to the needs of the developed nations, especially the United
While a large portion of the population experiences further deterioration due
to the very unbalanced character of growth, a small weak national bourgeoisie
develops from the transnational industrialization process and has class interests
that are tied to the transnational sector. By focusing heavily on the determining
nature of transnational factors, it minimizes the importance of internal factors. In
the mid-1980s, as an alternative to Frank's dependency perspective, Cardoso
and Faletto's (1979) historical and structural dependency model was applied to
the debate between neocolonial capitalism and colonial anticapitalism.
According to the former, capitalist development in Korea is fully achieved and
conditioned by neocolonial capitalist forces. On the other hand, the latter claims
that national economy will not be developed unless political and military
independence is fully achieved. It was true that Korea was committed to
insuring the conditions for rapid economic growth through the government
intervention and encouragement to jaebol (conglomerates) and the limiting
foreign investment. Both, however, focus more on the internal national factors
involved, particularly the role of the local class struggle on social change
(working class as leading role vs. middle class as leading role).
Foundations and Frameworks 5
Although those dependency perspectives have been studied and debated, the
analysis of Korean society is incomplete without considering cultural processes.
The intellectual community seemed to be stuck with orthodox Marxist political
economy and dependency perspectives. In other words, it doesn't take account
of cultural forces the social analysis. Therefore, the issues of class conflicts and
power are often simplified. The cultural process is treated as a separate social
phenomenon. Thus, culture (munwha) is only identified with literature, film,
music, art, theater, TV, radio, and folk cultures. This is certainly a one-
dimensional analysis of Korean society. The Japanese Occupation, Korean War,
political turmoil, and economic growth and decline have brought economic,
political, and cultural forces into new kinds of relations, into a new equilibrium.
The main purpose of this movement was to implant political consciousness into
factory workers by providing various cultural activities. Those cultural activities
were only considered as tools for labor struggle.
The mass movements of the 1960s to expel Seungman Rhee, the first
president of Korea, have lived on. As historians, political scientists, and
sociologists inevitably chronicle the chaotic years of the sixties and early 1980's
to now (over the half of 1970s was under the martial law), there is a tendency to
view that period—for some wistfully—as a unique phenomenon of Korean
history that has fought for democracy. Since social events rarely exist in
vacuums, and just as the movements of the 1960s grew out of earlier struggles,
their legacy must surely be seen, in new manifestations, in Korean society today.
One major development of that period was the formation of a resistance
cultural movement in terms of theory and practice. Radical movements appeared
in great numbers, reflecting concerns of both the intellectual community outside
universities and college students of the day. Those numbers are down whenever
the nation is in crisis. For example, during the oil crisis in the 1970s, when the
national economy was under stress, the general public did not support the
dissident voices of those movements. The popular movement was to overcome
the economic crisis. But dissenters and radicals have utilized the media for
decades, whether in books, magazines, newspapers, or bulletin boards. In fact,
the presence of dissident voices in the Korean media is a tradition, rather than a
time-bound phenomenon. Due to both the disadvantageous geopolitical location
(completely surrounded by Russia, China, and Japan) and the struggle to achieve
democracy, the history of Korea has been the history of resistance for the
country and its people.
Although often ignored in history books, the contributions made by the
radical movements for the continuous resistance have been a critical part of
Korean life. The quest for the true identity of "Korea" and the search for
xvoorigut (our things) through various practices and explorations continue. Oral
culture, for example, was a key area of searching and preservation: banned
protest songs were seen as integral to the antiauthoritarian government.
Hangyeorae Shinmoon (One Nation Daily) sponsored Mingee Kim, a pioneer of
protest folk music, to gather lost and banned folk songs in communities. As an
urban activism, literature played an important social role. There were more
novels and essays for common people and the trend evolved into a more openly
Marxist literature, espousing the themes of worker-peasant suffering. The trend
6 Korean Film
of aesthetic nationalism and political engagement was prominent in other arts.
Drama on Daehakro (College Street), Seoul's Broadway, explores various
themes such as anti-Americanism, the Kwangju Uprising, and miserable labor
conditions. Banned underground short films (cinema of resistance), such as
Parup Jeonya (The Night Before Strike), from the 1980s were shown to the
public and they inspired independent filmmakers to investigate social issues and
the daily lives of workers or peasants. Also a group of female directors
challenged the continuing patriarchy of Korean society.

Minjoong, Minjok, and Haan

The fundamental philosophy of these movements was Minjoong. Namdong
Seo (1983), the author of Minjoong Theology defined Minjoong as "those who
are oppressed politically, exploited economically, alienated sociologically, and
kept under-educated in culture and intellectual matters" (1983, p. xvii). This
concept is linked to "a growing self-awareness and self-respect on the part of
Koreans coupled to the psychological recovery from Japanese occupation, the
destructive and divisive Korean war and the almost absolute dependence on help
from outside which followed the war" (Ibid). Moreover Standish (1994) argues
that the concept is rooted in a working class culture and related to the concept of
Minjok which is further related to concepts of radical homogeneity and
nationhood (p. 86).
The concept of Minjok is the most important one for understanding a nation's
history. It is the people as a national identity in a nationalist or patriotic sense.
Ernest Renan argued that "nation" as a term is not dictated by any one single
thing such as language, geography, race, or religion. Rather it is both historically
determined and general:

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute
this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the
possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the
desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has
received in undivided form. (Renan, 1990, p. 19)

In some socially conscious documentaries in the 1980s, for example,

people's desire to search for a common root and soul for the unification of North
and South Korea were portrayed under the concept of Minjok. The nation must
overcome the cultural and ideological differences to become one. But more
important, it was meaningful that those documentaries were able to speak their
own words, not manufactured mainstream discourses.
Documentaries of labor struggles like the National Workers' Union not only
revealed unfair labor laws but assessed the impacts of the laws on the welfare of
workers by elaborating the language of labor laws. Thus the concept of Minjok
is both emotional and rational constructs which seek to reconnect to woorigut.
Many mainstream films and documentaries (mostly propagandist films) have
dealt with Minjok Jooui (nationalism) in only a patriotic sense: independence
wars against the Japanese colonial power and wars against communism. They
never challenge the policies of the authoritarian regimes. Woorigut has been
Foundations and Frameworks 7
ignored and buried in the name of national unity. The nation loses soul and spirit
without true woorigut. As a part of a cultural process that creates the nation,
national cinema produces cultural meanings, historical continuities and
discontinuities, and true experiences about the nation. In the context of Korea,
however, the ability to understand the construction of language may not explain
all about the nation. In addition to the narrative, the concept of haan must be
considered to understand any cultural phenomena of Korea. The word haan is
peculiar to the Korean people, and is intrinsically and intricately connected with
Minjoong's worldview in relation to life, death, and the cosmos. Minjoong are
people who live in haan.
For the non-Korean readers, it may be useful to compare African-American
blues and Korean haan in terms of oppression and emotional expression. The
slavery era spanned 246 years. It began with the arrival of the first black slaves
in America and ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the
Constitution, which officially abolished slavery. During the slavery era, millions
of Africans were brought to America, where they lived as slaves and died as
slaves. Also, during the slavery era, millions of black Americans were born,
lived their lives, and died as slaves. For the thousands of free black Americans
who lived during this era, their lives were infinitely better than the lives of
slaves. Even so, the lives of most free black Americans were austere,
constrained, and precarious. Living in a country that was racist at its core, they
were denied the vote by most Northern states and in general they had the
protection of law only in the most obvious and extreme cases of injustice.
Opportunities for most free black Americans generally included only menial
jobs or manual labor. All lived their lives hearing tales of free black Americans
being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. "America, literally,
gave the slaves the blues" (Finn, 1992, p. 5).
The blues are essentially about emotional expression including sorrow,
anger, and frustration sprung out of the slavery. It is an emotion configured by
an individual psyche and shaped by post-Civil War conditions and the liberation
of the slaves (A. Davis, 1998, p. 112). But Finn argues that a seed of blues
already existed in the African psyche thousands of years before slavery (1992, p.
5). It came to fruition as the blacks were enslaved in America. "The blues is the
black people's shadow," Finn wrote, "their companion down the lonesome road"
(ibid.). Thus it is difficult to say that slavery alone created the blues: it existed
before and will continued to exist in different forms (not just in musical forms).
The blues represents both subjective psychological state of depression and
objective status of social oppression.
Sasse describes haan as "the kind of feeling one develops based on an
unfulfilled wish or longing" (in Standish,1994, p. 87). Shapiro (1990) also
defines it as "the result of injustices perpetrated by, among others, parents,
friends, siblings, colonial rulers, an occupying army, a past government, and
those who in crucial moments failed to display sincerity" (p. 11). More complete
analysis of haan, however, can be found in Nam-Dong Seo's Minjoong
Theology (1983). He provides reasons why haan has been the integral part of
Korean history:
8 Korean Film

1. Koreans have suffered numerous invasions by surrounding powerful nations so

that the very existence of the Korean nation has come to be understood as haan.
2. Koreans have continually suffered the tyranny of the rulers so they think of their
existence as baekseong. Baek means white (innocent) and seong means natureor
3. Also under Confucianism's strict imposition of laws and customs discriminating
against women, the existence of women was haan itself.
4. At a certain point in Korean history, about half the population were registered as
hereditary slaves and were treated as property rather than as people of the nation
(inStandish, 1994, p. 87).

The Sino-Korean word haan is an ideograph evoking a picture of a tree

whose roots are laid deep under the earth. So haan is used to describe the heart
of a person or people who has (have) endured or is (are) enduring an affliction,
but the pains, wounds, and scars are not always apparent or visible because they
are the kinds that occur deep within the essence, core being, or heart of the
person. Also the accumulation of haan through the repetitive process of
experiencing multilayered sufferings in a person's heart tends to turn into a
lamenting, regretful, or inconsolable state of heart and mind. The physical
manifestations of haan in a person's heart or people's collective consciousness
may eventually become visible and obvious. When it is manifested, haan is
dynamic energy, which can be directed, either constructively or destructively, to
others or to oneself. In other words, haan is both emotion and energy, which can
result in favorable or unfavorable consequences.
Haan has been the central theme of Korean arts including films. Directors
like Jangho Lee and Changho Bae turned to the pressing problems of the
time—poverty, unemployment, exploitation by the rich on the poor, haan of
ordinary people and the like—but characters' haan was romanticized and thus
exploited throughout the storyline. Haan became visible and obvious but never
fully manifested in such films like Girl and Children of Darkness. Although
they dealt with actual problems with believable characters, those films never
escaped from artistic conventions of Hollywood films and refused to go beyond
the revelation. Haan is lost in the logic of emotions, and often coincided with
the logic of the dominant social order. The dynamic energy of haan is missing
from these films. Prostitutes in Children of Darkness, for example, would
remain as prostitutes with more accumulated haan at the end. There is no way
out of the reality but to accept it. In the final scene of Children of Darkness,
Kyungah, who saw her colleagues fail to escape from the misery, carries a
homeless man without legs into her room. She smiles but her eyes are filled with
tears. The danger of these realistic melodramas is not the realistic portrayal of
social reality but is the reduction of social possibilities and options. They almost
force the audience to adopt the naturalistic dominant social orders. In addition,
haan and Minjoong are inseparable from each other just as a song is nonexistent
apart from the voice which sings it. Haan is the heartbeat, the cry, the song, and
the longing of the Minjoong.
As the blues represents both subjective psychological state of depression and
objective status of social oppression, haan also exists in both individual and
collective dimensions. While it is difficult to deconstruct both terms fully, it is
Foundations and Frameworks 9
necessary to identify manageable structures of the blues and haan. As mentioned
above, there are four identifiable structures: subjective (individual)
consciousness and subjective unconsciousness; objective (collective or group)
consciousness and unconsciousness. Park (1994) provides a useful framework
for identifying the structure of haan, which can be applied to the blues to a
certain extent. First, haan of an active individual consciousness may take a form
of rage and vengefulness. Until it is resolved, such haan or the blues would
attempt to retaliate (active) against anyone who causes pain and bitterness for
him or her. It is often a visible, recognizable, and restless inner rage that is
deeply seated in an unconscious level. On the other hand, a passive individual
consciousness may occur when the offender is either too vulnerable or too
formidable to retaliate. Such haan or the blues turns into resignation (passive),
self-denigration, low self-esteem, and self-withdrawal. The structure of this type
of haan or the blues is often complex and hidden from outsiders. It lets go of
everything, including the self.
Second, an unconscious active haan or blues is developed slowly in the form
of resentment. It is a strong and lasting bitterness (active) which can be
expressed directly or disguised by indifference, subservience, humor, or even
love. Helplessness is a sign of passive unconscious haan or blues. When a close
or important person to oneself causes haan or blues, the victim tends to blame
him- or herself. In turn, the victim goes into the state of helplessness (passive).
Third, a collective conscious haan or blues is often translated into street
demonstrations, uprisings and revolutions (active). It takes place when public
rage responds to any oppressive and unjust public policies.
A passive haan or blues is a feeling which resides within victims who have
been oppressed for a long period without any hope, such as slavery and the
brutal imperial Occupation of Japan which raped Korea for 35 years (1910-
1945). It appeared as a collective despair (passive) for both groups during those
periods. Finally, in an unconscious level, a collective haan or blues is immersed
in the ethos of groups or racial mourning. Many years of social injustice,
political oppression, economic exploitation, or foreign invasions create the
collective unconscious haan or blues. Its discourse is handed down to the next
generation through the framework of ethnic ethos. The blues touches upon the
buried experience of collective suffering resonating in the hallowed space of the
soul. The crucible, which melts the anguish of a certain people into this
unconscious solidarity, expresses itself in art.
The Minjoong, faced with sufferings, hardships, struggles, and injustices, are
brimming with stories of haan. The Minjoong's haan is the womb from which
National Cinema Movement was born. With the theoretically charged culture of
resistance and the major political and economic changes experienced in Korea
since the assassination of president Junghee Park in 1979, the identification of
specific elements and moments in the process of history that may overdetermine
national culture and cultural practices has become important. The attempt to
create a National Cinema Movement in Korea was bound up in its own
particular historical and political circumstances, marked during the 1970s and
1980s by the increase in the levels of organization and mobilization of popular
resistance movements.
10 Korean Film

For this book, our concern is with those studies that have inherited the
theoretical and methodological interests of critical cultural discourses, and
which have thus attempted to carry out a critical examination of Korean cinema
as a material practice. Although these approaches do exhibit a unity in that they
all examine cultural practices within the context of a critical, materialist theory
of history, they are themselves diffuse and varied. Since movies are cultural
products, they involve the contradictory aspects of cultural production-that is the
tension between culture and commodity (Meehan, 1986). It is not sufficient to
treat cinema as only an aspect of culture, or of industrial production. As a
cultural product, cinema presents and reflects the system of beliefs and values of
people. As commodities, films are imbricated in the web of constraints and
pressures of the economic or market structure. This dual aspect of a cultural
product requires varied approaches.
This book combines international cultural production studies and the
production of the cultural perspective of American sociology. The mixture is
taken because, as McAnany (1986) puts it, a study of national cultural
production needs to encompass and integrate political economy, cultural
production, and a cultural studies approach to text and audience. In other words,
cultural production needs to be studied by understanding all aspects of a cultural
product: production, text, and reception. The combination of these three
approaches would be ideal for investigating the overall spectrum of the process
from cultural production to reception.
Political economy of communication deals with the forces and relations of
production within an institutional framework (Guback, 1969, 1974; Mattelart,
1979; Murdock, 1982; Murdock and Golding, 1979). On the one hand, this
perspective views communication as an economic entity, and it views
economics as ultimately determining media products. On the other hand, it
includes the impact of politics and policies on mass media production. The
production of culture perspective gives an emphasis to the mechanisms
surrounding the production process. These mechanisms include economic,
industrial, organizational, and individual structures, and other processes which
generate, select and distribute cultural materials (Peterson, 1976). The cultural
studies perspective tends to focus more on the interpretation of texts than on the
consequences of the institutional framework. It deals with the text as a site of
ideological struggle and content displays and embodies the ideology of certain
social groups.
This book attempts to present a holistic picture of the Korean film industry,
which includes varied aspects of cultural production. Yet the incorporation of ail
possible approaches suggested by McAnany is beyond the scope of this project.
We limit ourselves to the investigation of the side of the producer of cultural
production and institutions rather than the recipient, choosing the political
economy and production of culture perspective as our main approaches. As will
be shown, the current state of Korean film is an arena where a variety of
factors—historical, political, economic, structural, and cultural—are related to
the process of change that has been noted. The factors and constraints on Korean
film need to be examined through the approach of political economy. The
Foundations and Frameworks 11
structural constraints on the film industry and production practices require the
production of culture perspective. Before discussing the two perspectives, the
concepts of national cinema are examined.

Many studies have been devoted to national films in such countries as
France, Italy, Japan, Britain, and Germany, but the concept of national cinema
has been used merely to describe the films of specific countries. These studies
are mostly concerned with film histories of countries, representative filmmakers
and their thematic concerns, or a specific genre or the styles of a group of
filmmakers. Particularly, they are created and promulgated by a handful of
internationally recognized filmmakers or trends of a specific country. While
promoting prominent auteurs or styles, they rarely touch the concept of national
film as a specific film of each country.
A few of studies on Third World cinema (Gabriel, 1982; Armes, 1987) offer
other perspectives on national film. Gabriel's Third Cinema in the Third World
provides a general view of new Latin American cinema, emphasizing the
politics and beliefs of filmmakers. He uses the term Third Cinema to describe
the trend of contemporary Latin American films as "a cinema of decolonization
and liberation" and as "a progressive cinema based on folk culture" (pp. 95-96).
Armes' Third World Filmmaking and the West provides the broad picture of the
film industry and individual filmmakers outside the First World from the
perspective of the global dominance of U.S. films. He attempts to identify the
concept of national culture in relation to the process of decolonization. By
looking at the filmmaking practices in the Third World as a homogeneous entity
(Armes) or by grouping the films of Latin America together (Gabriel), both
studies fail to suggest any national specificity or concept of national cinema.
However, the studies of Gabriel and Armes do provide a basic characteristic
of film in the Third World—these films embody a national identity begotten in
the process of decolonization. This characteristic is useful to look at what
generates Korean "national cinema." In the late 1980s, spurred by the
encroachment of direct distribution of foreign films as well as a means of
expression for social reality, Korean filmmakers sought to create a national
cinema. The concept of a Korean national cinema was a counterpractice to the
dominant films—commercially oriented Korean films and U.S. films—in the
domestic market, and a revolt against the oppression of the government's strong
censorship. Its task was to express the lived experience of oppressed people and
expose the deepened contradictions of Korean society to the people. Only
recently have Korean filmmakers begun to actualize the concept and the task of
national cinema, dealing with subject matter that has been prohibited by
censorship. Such endeavor was put in order to establish a unique a national
cinema, by obtaining the support of the audience who preferred the well-made
foreign films to domestic films, and by protecting national identity by
decolonizing the foreign-dependent domestic film market.
Analyzing the process of establishing a national cinema involves diverse
issues: culture, national culture, and the concept of the national-popular. The
concept of culture has been articulated from varied perspectives. From the
12 Korean Film
interpretive approach, culture denotes "an historically transmitted pattern of
meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in
symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop
their knowledge about attitudes toward life" (Geertz, 1973). In a similar vein
Jensen sees culture as "the means through which people construct a meaningful
world in which to live" (Jensen, 1984). From this perspective, culture is seen as
primarily a system of beliefs and values expressed in symbolic forms.
Considering the social and economic basis of culture, Williams defines
culture as "a constitutive social process, creating specific and different "ways of
life" (Williams, 1978). Meehan (1986) emphasized the constraints given to the
existence of culture, defining it as "both relations of diversity and shared webs
of meaning within the constraints of social structure, economic structure,
concrete experience, socialization, overdetermination and random error."
Culture, from these perspectives, is a process whereby the system of beliefs and
values is continuously constructed and changed within a variety of external
When the concept of culture is adopted to describe national culture, it
involves another constituency; that is, it must protect national identity.
Especially in studies of cultural production in Third World countries, national
culture is understood as an indigenous or autonomous culture of each country
(Katz, 1979; Lee, 1980). The concept of "national" in this context often
designates the opposite of "internationalization" or external forces threatening
the national identity. The recognition of the external forces leads to the
formulation of the concept as not a dominant but a marginal, alternative, and
subversive culture. This is explicit in Frantz Fanon's (1967) definition of a
national culture.

[A national culture is] the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of
thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created
itself and keeps itself in existence. A national culture in underdeveloped countries should
therefore take its place at the very heart of the struggle for freedom which these countries
are carrying on.

Fanon understands the concept of culture as a means of existence and an act

of liberation for the people in the Third World to maintain its national identity in
a larger process of change. Fanon's concept of a national culture is appropriate
to examine the change of national culture, especially that of foreign-dependent,
neocolonial countries. In other words, it is useful in dealing with a national film
production that involves enormous capital and a larger political economy of a
world market, and thus fosters a degree of dependency on the First World.
But the national culture does not always coincide with the popular. Gramsci
articulates the concept of national-popular as a particular type of hegemony. A
national-popular is a transitional state toward "a specific tactic which confronts
the concrete problems of national life and operates on the basis of the popular
forces as they are historically determined" (Gramsci, 1978, p. 410) For him, a
national-popular is a hegemonic process that involves the possibility of an
alliance of beliefs and values between different social groups. A national-
popular culture would not be exclusively constituted by the products of the
Foundations and Frameworks 13
popular classes nor by cultural forms defined as the antithesis of the classic arts,
but by cultural forms which address the interests of a broadly conceived
universalizing alliance among different sectors of society, alliance among
intellectuals, the proletariat, and the peasantry (Lopez, 1986).
Gramsci's articulation of the national-popular as a particular type of
hegemony is useful to explain constantly changing cultural dominance because
there is no permanent hegemony; rather, hegemony is a constant and continuous
process that is never completed (Hall, 1977). The case study of the creation and
reception of a commercial film in Korea, as will be shown, exhibits how these
concepts of culture, national culture, hegemony, and the national-popular can be
applied to the transitional state of Korean film. It shows how a countercultural
practice becomes a bridge connecting the legitimate and dominant system of
commercial film with how a cultural product expresses and reflects a system of
beliefs and values of people.


Political economy studies about international cultural production have
focused mainly on three issues: the transnational corporation within media
industries, the flow of cultural products from First to Third World countries, and
government policy studies. The first group of political economy studies
represented by the works of Murdock and Golding (1977), Murdock (1982),
Schiller (1976), and Guback (1969, 1971, 1974, 1982, 1985) focuses on the
trend toward an increasing monopolization and concentration of control within
media industries. Relying on a more classic notion of ideology formulated
within a base/superstructure model, they regard the media as producing and
disseminating a false consciousness which legitimates the class interests of those
who own and control the media, and this is seen as the media's ultimate effect.
The second group of political economy studies involves the international
flow of cultural products. Represented by the works of Schiller (1976, 1969),
Nordenstreng and Varis (1974), Nordenstreng and Schiller (1979), and Tunstall
(1977), its main focus has been the global dominance of U.S. material in this
flow. The focus has shifted more recently to the discussion of regional
differences and the need to study the conditions of enhancing national
production. For example, regional differences in Canada and Taiwan are
revealed in Lee's study (1980): while Canada is developed, it is also media
dependent; and while Taiwan is less developed, it is media self-sufficient. And
the study of the Latin American experience by Antola and Rogers (1984)
develops a case for restricting the flow, and the potential for regionalizing media
independence in Latin America away from the domination of U.S. materials.
The last group of political economy studies is concerned with the impact of
politics and policies on the production of media. Studies on the culture
industries in Canada (Audley, 1983) and Europe (Council of Europe, 1980), and
the film industry in Latin America (Schnitman, 1984; Johnson, 1987) show how
a government's policy and politics influence filmmaking and film industries.
The main thrust of these studies is engendered by U.S. global domination in the
domestic market, promoted by the U.S. governmental and economic policies
(Guback 1969, 1971, 1974, 1982). This group of studies suggests that many
14 Korean Film

national film industries, in both the First and Third World, are dependent on
U.S. films and its industry and on the government policy and changes in
political regimes (especially in Latin America). Since this book attempts in part
to look at the impact of government policies in relation to an increased influx of
U.S. film companies, this last group of political economy studies, especially the
case studies of a variety of countries, will be examined.
Policy research in international communication stresses that the cultural
policies of governments might be one of the most decisive factors affecting
cultural production in a country. Yet it is not the sole or primary factor but is
closely related to other factors, both internal and external to each country. These
factors— the specific historical and cultural backgrounds of the country,
political relations and interests, the type of political regime, the degree of
economic development, and the degree of economic and political dependency on
other countries—are intermingled with the formulation of cultural policy in each
country. Various studies of national cultural industries and policy suggestions
confirm that a government's cultural policies are inseparable from these internal
and external factors.
An example of such work is Paul Audley's Canada's Cultural Industries
(1983), which provides a rigorous economic analysis of the problems faced by
the Canadian film industry. According to Audley, Canada has not yet
established any solid industrial base for the production and distribution of
feature films, and Canadian producers are isolated from and have little or no
control over the Canadian distribution and exhibition systems. This is because
the Canadian film market is controlled by U.S. distribution companies—for
example, Gulf + Western which also owns a major production/distribution
company, Paramount. In other words, vertical integration by foreign companies
controls the Canadian market, although this same vertical integration was
terminated in the United States decades ago.
Under such a situation, two governmental actions were devised. First, in
1968, the Canadian government created the Canadian Film Development
Corporation (CFDC) in order to foster and promote the development of a feature
film industry. Specifically the CFDC was to provide financial and other
assistance to the private-sector producers having significant Canadian creative,
artistic, and technical content (Audley, 1983, p. 233). Despite CFDC support
through the late 1970s, Canada could not build strong domestic production and
distribution industries. Second, in 1974, the Canadian government created a tax
incentive (capital cost allowance) for investors in any "certified feature film" (p.
236). In order to be certified, films had to satisfy a requirement that they be
made by a Canadian producer and that Canadians perform a specified number of
the creative functions. This combination of a capital cost allowance and CFDC
support only increased the average budget cost of certified films and the number
of English-language films aimed at the U.S. market, while reducing "truly
Canadian" and French-speaking films. Thus, the governmental policies were
blamed for having been focused primarily on serving economic rather than
cultural goals. Responding to this criticism, the government in 1980 reduced the
capital cost allowance for certified Canadian film to 50%. There followed
Foundations and Frameworks 15
criticism of these contradictory governmental actions regarding cultural
objectives for the Canadian film industry.
Overall, the Canadian government's policies were not as effective as they
were intended to be. Audley recommends several policy suggestions: adjusting
the capital allowance up to 150%, strengthening Canada's production and
distribution sectors, extending public involvement, restricting foreign-controlled
vertical integration, and establishing screen quotas. But Audley's proposal fails
to approach directly the basic problem of the Canadian film industry—that the
film market and especially the distribution system are foreign-controlled. It is
urgent that legislation be devised to restrict not only foreign-controlled vertical
integration but also foreign investment. Second (related to the first but
recognizing that economic/political relations with the United States, make it
difficult to restrict such cultural intrusions), at least a quota system on both
screening and imports should be applied to protect and help promote domestic
film production, distribution and exhibition. Third, it would be desirable for the
government to set up clear definitions and limitations regarding certified films
or "truly Canadian" films in practical terms before they amend policies such as
capital cost allowance.
Canada, however, is not the only country suffering from the dominance of
U.S. films. Degan (1980) analyzed the European film market and confirmed that
U.S. domination has been due both to its economic policies and cooperation
between the U.S. government and U. S. film industries, just as Guback has
argued. The Council of Europe document (1980) shows a situation in Western
Europe similar to that in Canada, the same struggle against dominance by U. S.
films. A variety of topics are raised, such as the cultural importance of cinema
and the absolute necessity of its protection by state aid in various forms, the loss
of cinema-goers to television, powerful financial force of the U.S. film industry,
and the potential for European art cinema to compete with American
commercial cinema. The report urges joint cooperation between European
nations, state support, and public intervention.
In general, the Council of Europe report (1980) does not provide any
practical strategies for competing with American production and distribution. It
seems that both Canada and some European countries have suffered from the
basic structures of their distribution systems and from U.S. investments which
are rooted in their free trade agreements with the U.S. Under these conditions, it
is not easy to get strong state support for strengthening the distribution system
and for limiting American investments because of delicate economic and
political relations. For the European countries especially, the state's supportive
protectionism—prizes, loans, and subsidies for their "art cinemas" and the
strong public support for such products—is the only way to confront U.S.
dominance and free trade. For example, the West German state subsidy plan,
including prizes and loans, has been the most notable case of the state support in
Europe. It engendered the emergence of the New German Cinema in the late
1960s and brought a group of German filmmakers, notably Rainer W.
Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff, Wim Wenders, and Werner Herzog, to
international recognition. The achievement of the German subsidy system, both
16 Korean Film

in artistic and commercial senses, can hardly be neglected in the history and
aesthetics of film (Cook, 1981).
In the case of Latin America, the basic motivation behind the formulation of
various government policies is almost the same as that with Canada and
European countries, that is, the dominance of U.S. films and the U.S. objective
of film market "free trade." Yet, as compared with the First World situation, the
Latin American film industry has relied heavily on government policy.
Schnitman's Film Industry in Latin America (1984) provides the substantive and
well-documented historical account exploring the economic and institutional
determinants that affectedfilmmakingin Mexico, Argentine, Chile, and Brazil.
According to Schnitman, in the case of Mexico, since the early 1930s the
government has developed a strong protectionist policy for domestic film
production. It provided tax exemptions for the local industry, and created a
government institution to offer loans for film production and the building of
studios. It also set up a screen quota requiring all Mexican theaters to show at
least one domestic film each month. Since 1942, a Film Bank has supported the
creation of a large production and distribution company integrated with those
engaged in film production, thus promoting a production/distribution system
which private capital alone had been unable to accomplish. Until the 1970s, the
Mexican state continued expanding its participation in all aspects of local film
production, distribution, and exhibition. By the 1970s, the state owned 60% of
all Mexican theaters, with the state film bank company distributing 95% of
locally made films. Overall, however, this state participation has not resulted in
a definitive nationalization or state domination of film production, but in a
support system for local entrepreneurs and film industry workers. Although state
participation in the Mexican film industry can be viewed as a complex and
variable interaction of the economic and political, from a strictly economic
perspective state action appears to have functioned to ensure that the
government took on the industry's deficits while the private sector received the
In the case of Argentina, the state policy on the film industry has been
vulnerable to both changes in political regimes and pressures from the U.S. In
Argentina, the local film industry benefited from general and specific
protectionist policies. Under Juan Peron's government, state protection for the
domestic film industry included compulsory screen quotas and distribution of
Argentine films on a percentage basis (1944); 25% of screen time in Buenos
Aires area and 40% in the rest of the country (1947); special loans from the
Industrial Bank for local film production; bilateral pacts for film exchange; and
a subsidy funded through a new admission tax (1948). Under Peron's
government, the protectionist policies lacked well-defined objectives and
carefully planned procedures. In general, screen quotas, bank loans, and
production subsidies generated a quantitative growth in local film production,
increasing the number of unimportant films otherwise known as "quota
After Peron, other governments tried new approaches. In 1962, in order to
regulate the flow of foreign films, to stimulate local production, and to induce
foreign producers to invest in local production, the National Film Institute
Foundations and Frameworks 17
proposed a "six for one" formula; six foreign films were to be allowed in
Argentina in proportion to each local film released (Schnitman, pp. 31-40). Yet
all the protectionist systems implemented after 1955 (when Peron fell from
power) failed to effect sustained new growth in local film production for several
reasons: the competition with foreign film industries reduces the potential
domestic market; local exhibitors are organized into chains; domestic production
costs are high; film is in competition with television; and the censorship of
social, political, and other themes in local films that are tolerated in foreign
Change of political regimes and, thereby, inconsistent policy making
regarding dependency on foreign materials is not unique in Argentina. It is best
exemplified in Chile's case. At the time when Salvador Allende came to the
presidency, distribution of about 80% of the films in Chile was in the hands of
the large U.S.-based companies, and 95% of the films shown on television were
from the U.S. Thirty-one first-run theaters were located in Santiago, 27 of which
were under the control of two financial groups; similar groups controlled
exhibition in the interior. Twelve distribution companies were in operation, eight
of which were branches of American companies. The Allende government's
objective in the area of film distribution was to achieve a division of the market
in three equal shares: one-third for the state, one-third for private independent
distributors, and one-third for the large U.S. companies affiliated with Motion
Picture Export Association (MPEA). But after Allende's overthrow and death
and under the military regime, the degree of dependency on foreign material
returned to the point where it had been before the Allende regime (Schnitman,
1984, p. 88).
Schnitman's chapter on Brazil and Johnson's The Film Industry in Brazil
(1987) show how the state's policy has affected the promotion of national film
production in Brazil. Since the early 1930s, screen quotas have been the main
instrument of state support for local film production. In addition, it was required
that all foreign films released in Brazil be accompanied by Brazilian short films.
Despite U.S. pressures, such as the U.S.-Brazil commercial treaty, permanent
lobbying branches of the large U.S. companies and of MPEA, and the control of
the international distribution system by the U.S., the screen quota system has,
until recent years, been the only way to maintain local film production. Along
with the creation of state-supported institutions, such as GEIC (Grupo de
Estudos da Industria Cinematografica, Film Industry Study Group), GEICINE
(Grupo Executivo da Industria Cinematografica, Film Industry Executive
Group), CONCINE, INC (Concelho Nacional de Cinema, National Council of
Cinema), and Embrafilme (an institution created to promote and distribute
Brazilian films abroad), compulsory screening of domestic films has been
continuously increased (from one feature per year in 1939 to 140 days per year
in 1980). Moreover, cash awards and a subsidy system especially by INC
(Instituto Nacional do Cinema, National Institute of Cinema) were created to
encourage local and independent productions.
What is unique in the Brazilian experience is that, both with a civil
government and military regimes, there has been a continuous and complex
process of suppression by the state and co-optation of state policies by
18 Korean Film
filmmakers. From these dynamics an internationally renowned aesthetics was
achieved by the Cinema Novo group. Also, from such a process, unique genres
such as pornochanchada (comedies with erotic overtones) have been created by
exhibitors for both commercial reasons and from the benefit of screen quotas.
The performance of Brazilian state policy in the film industry can be referred
to as successful in terms of its strengthening of a national film industry. The
screen quota itself has reduced the space for foreign films and provided
opportunities for domestic film production. Along with the screen quota,
compulsory use of Brazilian labs to make copies (implemented in 1973) and
higher censorship fees for foreign films (beginning in 1977) have made the
commercialization of foreign films in Brazil more expensive. As a result of the
state's expanded intervention in all aspects of film-related activities, from 1974
to 1978 the number of spectators for Brazilian films went from 30 to 60 million,
while the total income for Brazilian films went from $13 to 38 million
(Schnitman, 1984, p. 71). Not only the commercial success in the domestic
market but also the international success of Cinema Novo films and recent films
such as Pixote and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands are notable achievements
of the combination of the state policy and creative filmmakers.
Overall in Latin America, government policy has been marked by the
continued struggle of several factors: the role of the U.S. distributors, local
producers and directors, local exhibitors, the state and the audience. A basic
factor determining the policy making or policy change has always been the
dominance of foreign products and a foreign distribution system. Another
important point is that the major force behind the struggle for dominance is
more economic than cultural. Most government policy in Latin America has
been set up primarily for economic reasons, that is, the protection of domestic
According to Schnitman, the government's protectionist policy is a basic
ingredient of national communication policies in developing countries (p. 111).
However, state policy itself is not the primary and sole determining factor in the
film industry. The instability of the political situation is another important factor
in deciding the degree of effectiveness of state policies. The cases of Argentina
and Chile show that changes in political regimes have affected state policies
which potentially might have been as successful as the Brazilian experience.
Stable and consistent financial support contributes to the development of a film
industry. The Mexican case shows that the state's strong financial backing has
offered its film industry afirmbase.
However, these case studies done from the perspective of political economy
have overemphasized institutional factors (including government policy) and
have ignored cultural aspects. The specific nature of the impact of transnationals
and government policy on the nature of Latin American cultural production and
reception still remains to be explored. In other words, the Latin American case
studies suggest that the milieu and outcome of film production are defined only
by the relationships among government policy, the transnationals, and the
industry, and they fail to point out other interrelated and detailed accounts of the
impact of government policy on production practices in each country. Also,
emphasizing economic and political forces, as most political economy studies
Foundations and Frameworks 19

do, the cultural ramifications of filmic practice are not considered. The
underlying premises of the studies are based on such a narrow perspective that
they cannot consider what is happening at the site of filmmaking or what is
really affecting modes of production aside from economics and government
policy. Also, policy research does not examine the practices of cultural
industries. On these points, the production of culture perspective can balance the
weakness of the policy research.


The production of culture perspective offers a way to investigate national
film production with an emphasis on structural constraints immanent in
production practice. Although most studies have emphasized market-oriented
American cultural production, they still provide an examination of mechanisms
surrounding the production process, changes in production modes or
conventions, and tensions between creativity and constraints in cultural
The production of culture perspective was explicitly formulated by Peterson
when he proposed a "reorientation of the sociology of culture around the
problem of production" (Peterson, 1976). He defines production as the "process
of creation, manufacture, marketing, distribution, exhibiting, inculcation,
evaluation, and consumption" (p. 10). For the investigation of the process,
Peterson suggests two modes of analysis; diachronic and synchronic: diachronic
analysis tries to find patterns in the ways in which cultural forms change over
time. Synchronic analysis involves the comparative study of the production
process from creation to consumption. Thus Peterson formulates a perspective
that studies both the process of production from creation to consumption and the
changes in cultural production over time.
Defining culture as "the code by which social structures reproduce
themselves," Peterson emphasizes production process as the immediate milieu in
which culture is inculcated (p. 16). Sanders (1982) redefines Peterson's
"production milieu" as "the shared conventional understanding that make
collective action possible, as well as structural and organizational features of the
production environment" (p. 71). To him, organization is more the result of
coordinated social behavior than the determining factor. Thus, the production of
culture perspective concerns itself with cooperative social interaction, as well as
the control and constraints in the organizational structure of the production
As compared to Sanders, DiMaggio and Hirsch (1976) define the production
milieu as a situation, constrained by external structure and social forces and
subsystems such as book jobbers and retailers or movie distributors and
exhibitors. Peterson (1982) later defines the production context as a system of
collaborative production influenced by five factors: law, technology, market,
organizational structure, and occupational careers. To him, these factors are the
constraints affecting not only the production process but also the final outcomes.
Along with cooperative interaction and organizational structures, the
production of culture perspective deals with political and economic forces
behind the production of culture. Peterson (1976) stresses that the economics
20 Korean Film

and industrial factors are one of the most important areas which demand
attention along with other factors. DiMaggio (1977) also emphasizes that the
process of cultural production occurs within and is shaped by the cultural
economy, and that market structure is a decisive factor for the innovation of
cultural products and creativity of personnel. Sanders (1982) suggests that the
commercial uncertainty of the marketplace provides the motivating force behind
the organization of cultural production. In order to gain greater profits and lower
costs, media institutions attempt to rationalize the production process to increase
predictability and to cut down on expenses. DiMaggio and Hirsch (1976)
consider another factor affecting the flow of cultural products: that is, the role of
political economy and government policy ruling over the relations between
governments and between multinational corporations and government.
From this production of culture perspective, a group of studies of market
mechanisms and organizational structures affecting media industries, of genre or
convention of popular culture product, and of in-depth institutional analysis
provides a basis for investigating how creativity and constraint interrelate in
media industries. These studies suggest that market structure may lead a media
organization to constrain its output. DiMaggio (1977) and Peterson and Berger
(1975) suggest that the degree of competition within a particular culture industry
is closely related to degree of diversity and innovativeness of the products
offered by that industry. And the degree of control of market affects the degree
of avoiding the risks of significant innovation and of the control of the work of
creative personnel. Among the market mechanisms, oligopolization,
concentration, and constriction within distribution channels of media industries
would be the prime governing factors in the control of market and the control of
creativity or innovation.
Such factors are directly related to the construction of convention,
standardization, and formula production. To maximize a profit and to control the
market, media industries standardize the product to control risk and thus control
initial costs and to expand to the limit sales of each type of product. These
interests engender formula production and, accordingly, function as regulators
of the creativity of personnel. Schatz (1981) and Kaminsky (1985) also suggest
that the form, content, and meaning of film genres have developed through a
process of marketing trial and error. In other words, a genre evolves through the
process of market mechanisms. Genre studies by Cawelti (1976) and Wright
(1975) take a different stance to explain the evolution of genre. To them, the
societal background of the era corresponds with the evolution of or change in
genre. But Nord (1983) stresses that the social reflection theme is tautological,
and thus it is not as valuable an explanation of the evolution of genre as is the
market power of producers.
Closely related to the market structure, but from somewhat different
perspective, Hirsch (1972) and DiMaggio and Hirsch (1976) take the
mechanism of the subsystems of media industries as an influential factor for
creativity and constraints of personnel. For them managerial subsystems,
brokerage systems, and gatekeepers not only provide producers with a standard
of cultural product, risks, and the taste of consumers, but also control innovation
in cultural industries.
Foundations and Frameworks 21
The last scholarly approach investigating creativity and constraints in media
industries pertinent to this book is interpretive analysis. The work of Newcomb
and Alley (1983) is an example of a study that tries to see what is happening
inside the media industries. In an organizational setting, Newcomb and Alley
investigate the creative role of the producer in network television. From in-depth
interviews with producers they extract a main theme that the producer is an
auteur. They show that, even within the closely controlled setting of on-going
series production, producers may be able to achieve enough control to embody
at least some of their personal visions and values in their productions. Gitlin's
(1983) study generally describes how the production of prime time television
program works and draws the conclusion that the production process constitutes
the predominant ideological factors in the construction of the meaning of the
Thus the production of culture perspective has its strength in incorporation of
both the external/interinstitutional and internal/organizational factors affecting
the production process. It also takes as its task the investigation of intervening
factors between external and internal structure, such as the role of gatekeepers,
pressure groups, agents, and the like. It may look at the dialectics or dynamics
between the above factors, and it covers a variety of exponents relating creative
production to institutional processes in which cultural products are mediated and
produced. Its great value is the importance it places on the operation in the
multiple structure of mediation whereby ideology is mediated in cultural
The production of culture perspective has been criticized for its ahistoricity
(Tuchman, 1983; Ettema, 1982), its linear and mechanistic model (Jensen,
1984), its lack of consideration of the text itself and its meaning (Ettema, 1982).
Most of the criticisms come from the culturalist argument regarding the
importance of reception, text, and the hegemonic process in cultural production.
Despite these criticisms, the production of culture perspective has a useful role
in investigating the effect of market mechanism surrounding the production
process, changes in production modes or conventions, and tensions between
creativity and constraints in cultural production. Particularly the market structure
and structural constraints and tensions given to cultural production show a way
to investigate Korean film production.
To summarize, the political economy and the production of culture provide
useful ways to investigate Korean film production. The political economy
approach, including policy research, provides an essential tool to investigate the
relation between government policy and the film industry, and the impact of the
direct distribution of foreign films on the domestic film market. Since
filmmaking involves enormous financial resources as compared to other cultural
products, film production is vulnerable to a complex set of economic and
political factors. Especially in a Third World country, but even in Europe and
Canada, the international market structure and governmental regulations and
policies affect domestic film production in both supportive and restrictive ways.
The production of culture perspective is useful to explore the
constraints—economic, structural, legal, technological and political—affecting
Korean film production, and the changes in production practice since the legal
22 Korean Film

and structural shift in 1987. While several studies regarding culture industries in
international communications focuses on political economy, little study has been
done on a national level with a production of culture perspective. This book,
from the production of culture perspective, attempts to offer an explanation of
what happens in the cultural production in a particular country.
Though the production of culture and political economy approaches share
ground in dealing with the external constraints of cultural production, they differ
in their conceptualization of a cultural product. The political economy approach
sees cultural products as "economic entities with both a direct economic role as
creators of surplus value through commodity production and exchange and an
indirect role within other sectors of commodity production" (Garnham, 1983).
From a more reductionist perspective, Smythe (1977) asserts that any political
economy of a cultural product or mass media must be based on an analysis of its
commodity form, because the commodity form specific to the mass media is the
audience. For him, the crucial function of the mass media is not to sell packages
of ideology to consumers or meaning to audiences but audiences to advertisers.
Focusing more specifically on the movie industry, Guback (1987) argues that
the ultimate output of motion picture companies is not films but profit and that
motion pictures are the means to that end. Thus, the political economy approach
regards cultural production as being determined by economic and political
factors, not as a system of beliefs and values which constantly changes.
The production of culture perspective regards the cultural product as an
outcome of structural constraints immanent in the production process. It
emphasizes the process that produces cultural material within a particular social
setting or organization of creative and expressive people, rather than the intrinsic
nature of the cultural product. However, the cultural product is viewed not only
as an outcome of the production process but also as the expression and reflection
of the system of beliefs and values of people who are involved in creation as
well as the consumption of the cultural product. As Meehan ( 1986) points out,
the cultural product incorporates two contradictory notions: culture and
commodity. The cultural product embodies meaning, and is an outcome of
beliefs and values of people as well as of external constraints such as social,
economic, and structural constraints.
This contradictory notion of cultural product becomes obvious in the case
study of film production in Korea. The production of a national cinema
demonstrates that a cultural product embodies the system of beliefs and values
of people as well as external constraints given to the production process. And
the contradictory notion of cultural product is viewed as offering an arena for
the struggle of a counterfilmmaking practice to gain legitimacy in a commercial
filmmaking system.
The purpose of this book is to establish some contextual and theoretical
bases to help the reader understand cultural, political, and socioeconomic
aspects of Korean cinema by examining historical breaks, continuities, and
discontinuities. First, it investigates the history, industry structure, and the trends
of filmmaking in Korea, and it takes up a case of a current creation and
reception of a commercial film. Second, a case study of the innovative
filmmaker Sunwoo Jang, who helped to set the tone for the new Korean cinema
Foundations and Frameworks 23
production practices from the late 1980s and beyond, investigates how a
commercial film is produced under historical, political, economic, and structural
constraints and how a cultural production involves and reflects a variety of
beliefs and values of people. Third, the book attempts to provide a concrete
example of the application of the national perspective as a signifying force by
examining how these films present the course and results of modernization.
Given that the unprecedented extent and intensity of modernization are widely
considered to represent the unique accomplishment of modern Korean history
and culture, modernization can be seen as the major constituent core of South
Korean collective experience during the 20th century. An examination of the
cinematic discourses on modernization is thus a meaningful way of figuring out
what Korean cinema has been and how it has interacted with changing social
Regarding external constraints of Korean film production, this book
examines the following issues: What historical and political factors contribute to
the current structure of film industry-which has suffered for an unhealthy
circulation of capital around the route of production-exhibition-distribution?
How has government policy functioned for the film industry? Has it been acted
out for promotion or restriction? Has it emphasized cultural or economic aspects
of film? How is the Korean film industry structured? What are the major
components affecting the cheap production costs, restricted subject matter, and
the main trends of film? How does direct distribution of foreign film companies
affect the current structure of Korean film industry? Finally, the book discloses
and examines the series of binding interrelationships, continuities, and breaks
that have made the National Cinema Movement a significant sociopolitical and
cultural force in Korea. It also seeks to present how the movement contributes to
contemporary independent and mainstream cinematic practices in Korea.
This book does not attempt to establish Korean cinema as a unified body but
to integrate the convergence of national traditions, historical frameworks, and
cultural forms. Moreover, films are not addressed as mere texts located in a
generic theoretical space but as discourses of social, political, and artistic
expressions situated by and constructing cultural transformation. This book also
attempts to analyze the intersection in the selected films in terms of the
strategies of commercial and noncommercial filmmaking and the project of
Korean democratization. Finally, since all of these elements involve complex
structural processes, the chapters focus on ideological importance and
implications that arise from the cinematic constructions of Korean imagination.
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Chapter 2

Oppression, Liberation, Censorship, and

Depression: History and Major Trends
of Korean Cinema from the
1910s to the 1970s

The history of Korean filmmaking has been closely related to political upheavals
and government regulations. Basic characteristics of Korean filmmaking and
government regulations were set up under the Japanese Occupation (1910-
1945). The Korean war (1950-1953) devastated Korean film, which burgeoned
again after the Liberation. After the war, Korean films were freely produced
without government regulation, until the military coup in 1961. After that year,
the military government gained control of the Korean film industry through
legal restrictions and strong censorship. Repressive governmental control
continued until the military government ended in 1979. In the 1980s the
government slackened the restrictions on film production, but strong censorship
still affects Korean film production.
In retrospect, Korean film production has had little room to take a free
breath. This chapter describes the history of Korean filmmaking in relation to
political history and government regulations, dividing it into six major periods:
early years under Japanese Occupation; the Liberation period; the Korean war
and early 1950s; the late 1950s and early 1960s; the late 1960s and 1970s. The
division is made both for convenience and to accommodate some characteristics
of each period.



Motion pictures were first introduced to the Korean peninsula in the last
years of the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910) when Japan was making gradual inroads in
to the peninsula with interventions in domestic politics and trade pressure. At
26 Korean Film

that time, the Korean peninsula that had persisted in a policy of seclusion had
just opened its market to foreigners and was an arena of trade competition
between Japan and the Tsing Dynasty of Manchuria. Riding such a mood of the
time, motion pictures were introduced to the peninsula by foreign businessmen
as a means to promote the sale of novelty goods.
There are a few accounts as to when the first public showing of a motion
picture was held in Korea. According to a verbally transmitted account, in
October 1898 an American businessman who operated an oil company in Seoul
showed a short film produced by the Pathe Company to the public. He showed
the picture in a rented barn on South Gate Street in Seoul using gas lamps.
Admission was a piece of nickel or ten empty cigarette packs, which was
intended to promote sales of a new brand of cigarettes. Another account on the
first public showing of a motion picture was described in a newspaper article in
1903. According to the article, Hansung Electric Company sponsored the
showing of a French short film for the purpose of advertising electric streetcars
on June 23 in that year. Thus, motion pictures were utilized as a means of sales
promotion by Western businessmen, even in this early period.
The motion picture became a form of entertainment and business around
1910, coinciding with the colonization of the Korean peninsula by Japan. Begun
under Japanese Occupation, the motion picture business in Korea could not be
developed as an industry normally or systematically. And it began primarily by
exhibiting foreign films. Both the historical context and the foreign films shown
in Korea reveal some basic characteristics of the Korean film industry. First,
under the Japanese occupation, the Korean film industry could not accept any
systematic investment either from an individual or from the Japanese
government. Korean film production was maintained by a small group of theater
people, and the exhibition of Korean films was limited. Toward the end of the
Occupation, even the small business form of film production by Koreans was
repressed by the censorship of the Japanese government. Hence, the early years
of film history manifest no tradition of either systematic national control or
support for the film industry; instead there is a tradition of repressive policies on
film production, including censorship. This bequest of the Occupation has
continued to this day.
Second, the Korean film industry began by exhibiting foreign films, not by
producing national products. Furthermore, although it is not known how the
distribution system worked during the period of Japanese Occupation, the
proceeds accumulated through the exhibition of foreign films went to Japanese
theater owners, not to Koreans. The right to distribute and exhibit films
belonged to the Japanese. Even Koreans' filmmaking was funded by the
Japanese who owned theaters. This form of exhibition-centered accumulation of
capital in the film industry became firmly established and it has continued after
the Liberation to present day. Thus, the capital accumulated through the
exhibition sector has rarely been reinvested into the production sector. Even
today, the power of the exhibition sector remains stronger than that of the
production sector.
The amazing popularity of the imported motion pictures of the Lumiere
brothers and Georges Melies from France and Edwin Porter from the United
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 27

States in the 1910s spurred a rapid increase in the construction of movie

theaters—most of them owned by Japanese. Dansongsa Theater, established
before 1910, was the only one owned by a Korean. The policy of the governor-
general, designed to offer a basis for living to Japanese residents in Korea, did
not allow the film industry to develop through efficient capital accumulation, as
was the case in Japan. And as the ownership of theaters belonged to private
individuals, the profits from exhibition rarely went back to production (J. Lee,
1983, pp. 100-101). In the early years when motion pictures were a novelty and
gained amazing popularity, theater owners willingly reinvested the profits from
exhibition to production. But later, when domestic production frequently
brought box-office failure, reinvesting stopped. All rights and privileges to
Koreans concerning the motion picture industry were suspended under Japanese
The first Korean film was produced in 1919, a year also marked by a major
uprising by native Koreans against Japanese occupation. The first Korean film,
Uirijok Gutu (Royal Revenge), was financed by the owner of Dansongsa
Theater, Sungpil Park, the only Korean film businessman at that time, and
directed by Dosan Kim, a director of a theater troupe. For this film Kim invited
a cameraman from Japan, because it was difficult to find cameras and qualified
cameramen in Korea (Choi, 1987, p. 138). The film was not a complete motion
picture but a kino-drama, a combination of motion picture and a play on the
stage. It was a box-office hit when it was exhibited, and it was well received by
newspapers reviewers. According to one newspaper of that time, "This motion
picture was not only lucid and beautiful but also the background scenes were as
good as those made by Western filmmakers. The acting was refreshing and
exhilarating" (Maeil Shinbo, Oct. 26, 1919). Thus the first form of a motion
picture in Korea, kino-drama, was favorably accepted and recognized as a
Korean film by the audiences who had been familiar only with Western films.
Encouraged by Dosan Kim's kino-drama success, two other directors of
Korean theater troupes began producing kino-dramas of their own, further
developing the form. Kino-dramas gained enormous popularity in their early
stages. But they began to lose their appeal a few years later because they were
not complete motion pictures, especially compared to foreign movies, only
visual aids to theater dramas. Through this first decade of motion picture
business, the novelty of the medium itself was what drew the audience. Since
the industry began with the exhibition of foreign motion pictures, the standard
for a well-received domestic film, as shown in the reviews of Uirijok Gutu, was
comparison with foreign movies.
On March 1, 1919, Koreans rose in revolt against the Japanese government.
Initiated by religious leaders, the March 1st Independence Movement was to
declare the independence of Chosun (an old name for Korean peninsula used
until 1945) to the world. Not only did more than 2 million people join the peace
march across the peninsula, but so did the students and political exiles in foreign
countries. Many political leaders fled to Manchuria and China when the
Japanese occupied the peninsula. One group organized a resistance group in
Manchuria and another set up a provisional government in Shanghai in China.
Most students participating in the Movement were those who had studied in
28 Korean Film

Japan. The Japanese government suppressed the movement using military force
and killed more than 7,000 Koreans. After the March 1st Independence
Movement, the Japanese government redirected the policy in the Korean
peninsula toward more "cultural politics," allowing the publishing of Korean
newspapers and encouraging public education. But the cultural policy was only
a show in response to world criticism, and there was no basic change in
censorship of reporting and in repression of political movements. The
depression in Japan forced the Japanese government in Korea to plunder more
rice and capital in order to respond to their own internal demands.
Such political changes appeared in the production of feature films during the
1920s. The first full-scale feature was Wolhaui Maengse (Promise under the
Moon, 1923) sponsored by the Communication Bureau of the governor-general
of Chosun. It was a government propaganda film dealing with promoting
savings through banks. Baeknam Yun, the director of Minjung Gukdan, a public
play troupe which consisted of Korean actors and actresses, was hired to direct
the film. It was not exhibited for the general public but shown to hundreds of
people who were invited to the Gyongsong Hotel and other public facilities. It
was also favorably received. Also around 1923, Japanese producers and theater
owners established the Dong-A Cultural Association and produced
Chunhyangjon (Story of Chunhyang, Fragrance of Spring, also the name of
film's heroine), a popular traditional Korean novel about Chunhyang, a daughter
of a kisaeng (low-class female entertainer with exceptional beauty and
intelligence) and a yangban (aristocratic class) who endures corrupted local
mayor Pyon's sexual advances, tortures and imprisonment while her husband,
also a yangban, left for the National Confucian Examination in Seoul. Her
husband, Mongryong finally passes the exam with the highest accolade. He is
given his choice of any job. Mongryong chooses to become the Secret Royal
Inspector who travels the country and exposes corrupt governors and mayors. In
the disguise of a beggar, he comes back to his hometown and rescues his wife
from the misery and punishes the mayor. In this case, haan resulted in a
favorable consequence.
The film was a box-office success because of the popularity of the original
novel. Films like this one reflected a part of the cultural and economic policy of
the Japanese government in Korea at that time.
A series of successes infilmmakingin Korea instigated the creation of seven
production companies and accelerated the establishment of the early Korean
film industry. The biggest full-scale production company was Chosun Kinema
Co., Ltd., established in Pusan by Japanese businessman Nade Ongichi and
other directors. The company was equipped with a small-scale studio and
facilities. Technicians were brought from studios in Kyoto and Osaka, Japan.
Nade hired Japanese directors and Korean theater troupe actors and actresses for
the production of films. The company produced several films, even exported
them to Japan, and succeeded at the box office.
Most Japanese producers made a variety of films whose subjects could
appeal to Korean people. Yet films produced by the Japanese got severe and
bitter criticism from the Korean press.
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 29
The films made by Japanese ignored our film. It could not even be called a motion
picture. Japanese style vulgar taste only encouraged flirtation among shallow youngsters.
The director's job is below the average.The story heightened the demoralizing mood of
these days. It imitates another story of our own and propagates many vulgar tastes in
Chosun filmdom. It seems to spoil Chosun cinema which is a virgin land of motion
pictures. (Maeil Shinbo, Jan. 1, 1925)

Despite the criticism, Koreans went to see movies even if the Japanese
produced them. For Korean spectators, despite the lack of technical capabilities
in many films, images of their country's geography, people, and customs were
the foremost attractions at that time. However, under the circumstance of the
film industry that was financially and technically controlled by Japanese, there
were a variety of conflicts between Japanese producers and Korean directors,
actors, and actresses. For instance, when the Chosun Kinema produced
Unyongjon (Baeknam Yun, 1925), its Korean employees walked off the set to
protest the manner in which Director Wang (a Japanese who had changed his
name to Korean upon starting work as a director in Korea) treated his Korean
employees. The employees were already dissatisfied with the way the Japanese
managed things and discriminated against Koreans.
As a result of a series of such incidents, Korean filmmakers began forming
their own independent production companies. They found a new meaning in
films and an understanding of the relationship between film and national pride.
Baeknam Yun, a director of a theater troupe, persuaded most of the Korean
employees to produce their own films by themselves. Yun came to Seoul and
founded Baeknam Yun Production's in January 1925. His first film,
Simchongjon (The Story of Simchong), was the first by an independent film
production company organized by Koreans and led to the creation of other
independent productions. Koryo Kinema was established in 1925 by Kyongson
Lee and produced Gaechokja (Pioneer). Bando Kinema was set up by Pilu Lee,
and produced and directed Uja (The Stupid Guy), dramatizing a then-popular
comic strip carried in the Chosun Ilbo (daily newspaper). Gaerim Film
Association, established in 1925, collaborated with Baeknam Yun and Ilje Cho,
and formed Munsusong (a play troupe). Cho created a slogan which stated, "We
must draw money first to make good films." Most of these early Korean
production companies survived no more than one film. By meeting only the
costs of film stock and renting cameras, people could produce a film. There
were few long-surviving production companies in this period (Choi, 1987, p.
Generally, Korean-produced films during this period were technically poor
with weak plots. Most of them were adapted from traditional Korean novels or
stories. They dealt with subjects in childish and immature ways, imitating,
adapting, and sometimes copying ideas from already produced films. It was
difficult to find, in a true sense, the spirit, message, or artistic value of quality
films in these early productions.
Though the Japanese government proposed its policy change after the March
1st Independence Movement, its repression of the cultural sector became severe.
Earlier in 1924, the Japanese government began to censor imported films with
regard to content, especially those that displayed Western liberalism and
30 Korean Film

customs that might incite Korean people against the Japanese rule and ideology.
In 1926, as Korean films were actively produced, the Japanese government
promulgated the "motion picture censorship regulations." The censorship was
performed by the high office of the Chosun governor-general, which mainly had
exercised jurisdiction over political offenders, controlling the public thought of
the colony. In 1928 the regulations were further amended and became more
rigidly enforced because of increased political unrest. The major target of
censorship was to restrict and prohibit the expression of motion pictures which
impeded public safety, public morals, and public health. If a motion picture
contained a message of resistance, it was prohibited from exhibition or edited
for reasons of public safety. And if a motion picture contained daring
expressions of love affairs, it was prohibited from exhibition or revised for
reasons of public morals. The censorship was applied to both imported and
domestic films. Few motion pictures during the Occupation period escaped
Parallel with the intensifying repression on cultural sectors, the late 1920s
and early 1930s saw an increase of film productions and an emergence of
nationalistic films in Korean film history. During this period, 85 films were
produced by more than 30 production companies, and films with nationalist
messages were made with poetic and realistic expressions. The motion picture
became not merely a novelty but a means of expression. Films of Ungyu Na,
such as Arirang (1926) and Sarangul Chajaseo (Looking for Love, 1928), and
Gyuhwan Lee's Imjaobnun Narubae (Ferryboat with No Ferryman, 1932) were
paramount examples of films that inspired national spirit.
Arirang presented the message of resistance to Japanese oppression through
symbolic characterization. In the film, the main character, a madman, kills a pro-
Japanese character, expressing anti-Japanese feelings and attaching a sense of
pride to revolt against Japanese oppression and rule. Arirang was shown
throughout the nation and its impact was beyond imagination and description.
The title song of the film, "Arirang," a traditional Korean folk song, was sung
by audiences as if it were the national anthem in the last sequence where the
main character is surrounded by Japanese policemen. This film nurtured a fresh,
new national spirit in the minds of people who were frustrated and full of
nihilism by the 1919 failure of the March 1st Independence Movement. In the
film Sarangul Chajaseo, Na dealt with a story about Koreans who crossed the
Duman River (located between the northern end of Korean peninsula and
Manchuria) in search of freedom in Manchuria. It was regarded as a grand
national exodus, accompanied by more than one thousand extras from Na's
hometown. The film was first banned by censors, but due to widespread
advertising it was allowed to be exhibited following revisions. Na had to cut
many scenes and changed the original title Dumangangul Nomo (Across the
Duman River) to Sarangul Chajaseo (Looking for Love).
The Korean Artistic Proletariat Federation (KAPF) produced several films
with nationalistic messages around the end of the 1920s. Influenced by the then-
popular communist ideology, their films followed the trend of nationalistic films
through the depiction of life of the proletarian class, such as poor farmers, city
laborers, and the people in slums under the Han River bridge. Because of
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 31

repressive censorship their films were rarely exhibited and when shown were
heavily edited.
The last film that presented significant nationalistic messages during the
Japanese Occupation was Imjaobnun Narubae (Ferryboat with No Ferryman,
1932). The film is a social criticism of that period depicting a poverty-stricken
ferryman and his family. It also has a symbolic characterization expressing the
struggle of Korean people against Japanese rule. The final scene, in which the
main character takes an axe to a newly constructed bridge constructed by the
Japanese, was cut by the censors because, as director Lee said, "to axe the
bridge was to describe the anger of the Korean people against the Japanese
occupation" (Y. Lee, 1988, p. 60).
The severe censorship of film in no way compares to the way the Japanese
demeaned Koreans during and after the late 1930s. This almost destroyed the
burgeoning of the national film production. In the early 1930s many people in
the film industry were frustrated and fled to China. They convened in Shanghai
and formed the Shanghai group, assisting the Korean provisional government
there. They further organized the South Sea Film Corporation and made Yantse
River. The film was directed by Gyungson Lee and was even imported to Korea
in 1932. The severe censorship contributed in part to decreasing film production
in the early 1930s. Imported talkie films also caused the decrease in Korean film
production that still depended on silent film technology. The depression
continued in to the early 1930s. In 1931, only six films were produced. In 1932
the number was reduced to four and in 1933 and 1934, only two films per year
were produced. In 1935, Chunhyang, a remake of the 1923 version, became the
first sound film in Korea.
Films which appeared from the latter part of the 1920s contained intense
nationalism and resistance to Japan, but this trend changed to a more persuasive
and enlightening message in filmmaking direction in the early 1930s. In the
former trend, leading directors—Ungyu Na, Hun Shim, and Gyuhwan
Lee—exploited characters such as madmen, ex-convicts, outsiders, and
wanderers in order to instill upon the people who had lost their country a sense
of nationalism and love of justice. But in the latter trend, films, still taking
nationalism as their main theme, emphasized messages of enlightenment and
national solidarity under the slogan, "knowledge is power," and by doing so the
goal of national Liberation became the themes of films.
Around 1938, Japan exercised strong policies to liquidate Korean culture,
such as prohibition against speaking Korean, requirements that Korean nationals
become Japanese and that Korean names be changed to Japanese-style names,
the enforcement of a conscription system for Korean people, and restriction of
freedom of speech by closing Korean newspapers, including Donga Ilbo and
Chosun Ilbo. Needless to say, Korean films were no exception. Beginning in
1938, the Japanese government enforced the use of the Japanese language and
abolished Korean dialogue in films. Also the government explicitly made
Korean film companies enter joint ventures with Japanese film companies. The
Japanese government limited the import of films to one-third of former import
levels and instead enforced exhibition of government propaganda films during
the World war II, such as Chosun Haehyop (Korean Strait, 1943). By exhibiting
32 Korean Film

mainly propaganda films they could indirectly shut down the financial source of
the production of Korean national films—profits from the exhibition of foreign
films. They also strengthened the censorship to suppress the national films. For
example, Suopryo (School Fee, 1940) was banned by the censorship authorities,
the reason being that "the film's portrayal of Koreans under Japanese rule
couldn't be that miserable" (Y. Lee, 1988, p. 74).
The Chosun Motion Picture Law was enacted and promulgated in January
1940. Under these circumstances, the Japanese government closed all 10 Korean
film companies. They then established only one company, Chosun Film Co.,
Ltd. (CFC), which was a Japanese government-made propaganda film company
with slogans such as "Japan and Korea are only one country," and "all Koreans
are subjects of imperialistic Japan" (Y. Lee, 1988, p. 75). After establishing the
CFC, Japan mobilized Korean film people by force, by threats, and by
conciliation. The Japanese authorities forced Koreans to change their names to
Japanese and they issued identification cards to film people. Only with Japanese
names and ID cards could Korean film people be hired in the film industry.
As Japan entered into the Pacific war (1941-1945), films produced in Korea
mostly dealt with government propaganda, such as the promotion of voluntary
military service, the obligation of wives and husbands on duty in the military,
national unity of Korea and Japan, indoctrination to be imperial people,
production increase for military supplies, and so on. These films were the means
for justification of compulsive conscription of Korean people and attempted to
make it appear that Koreans no longer existed and that they were consolidated
into Japan. They were also meant to strengthen war propaganda.
Overall, during the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945), 157 films were
produced by a total of 70 production companies. About 140 movie theaters
throughout Korea were active just before the Liberation. The average life span
of a production company was six months, and the average number of films
produced by a company was two. Some 50 production companies produced only
one film each. As for the personnel involved in film production over the entire
period, 45 were film directors (this figure includes Japanese directors), 30
cinematographers, and 40-50 actors and actresses. About three-fourths of 157
films were popular melodramas.
As described above, Korean film production under Japanese Occupation did
not have a concrete industrial foundation and underwent severe censorship and
oppression by the Japanese government. Under such circumstances, Korean
films saw a brief moment of nationalistic spirit between 1926 and 1932. Korean
films were produced using capital accumulated through the box-office profits of
mostly Japanese-owned theaters; thus a largely foreign-owned exhibition sector
supported national film production. Even with the loss of Japanese cultural
influence by 1945, the main features of such an industrial base continued to exist
beyond Liberation.


Under the Japanese Occupation from 1910 to 1945, the film medium
functioned as a means of catharsis for Korean people who had lost their country
to Japan. People identified with, cried, and laughed along with the characters in
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 33

the movies. Voice actors, who interpreted the images of the movies while
standing beside the screen, added their own strong emotional flavor and
encouraged such identification and emotional responses from the audience. That
emotional response was the strongest factor deciding whether a movie was a
success or failure. Such audience response to the movies led filmmakers to
produce lots of melodrama films called shinpa in Korean. Shinpa referred to
sentimental and tear-jerking melodramas, in which the conflicts between the
strong and the weak and the rich and poor worked around a romance or an event.
Most melodramas of the period followed such form and aimed to leave
audiences drenched in tears. Shinpa melodrama films were a dominant trend
from 1923, when Korean film production began to be active, until 1939, when
the Japanese government began to oppress the film industry. Eighty-four
melodrama films, 65.6% of the all films (128), were produced during the period
(MPPC, 1984). They were mostly called shinpa, and the best films of the period
(selected by general audiences) belonged to the shinpa genre. When Chosun
Ilbo, one of big daily newspapers, sponsored the Chosun Film Festival and
selected the ten best silent and sound movies of Korea based on the ballot held
by general audiences in November 1938 (Y. Lee and H. Yu, 1985), the best
silent movies selected were Arirang (Ungyu Na, 1926), Imjaubnun Narubae
(Ferryboat with No Ferryman, Gyuwhan Lee, 1930), lnsaeng Hangro (A Course
of Life, Jongwha An, 1937), Chunpung (Spring Breeze, Kichae Park, 1937),
Mondongi Tultae (At Daybreak, Hun Shim, 1927), Chongchun Sibjaro
(Crossroad of Youth, Jongwha An, 1934), Sedongmu (Three Friends,
Youngwhan Kim), Sarangul Chajaso (Looking for Love, Ungyu Na, 1928),
Punguna (The Man with Great Ambition, Ungyu Na, 1926), and Nakwhayusu
(Falling Flowers and Flowing River, Guyoung Lee, 1927?).
The best sound movies selected were Simchong Jon (The Story of Simchong,
Sokyoung An, 1937), Omongnyo (Ungyu Na, 1937), Nagune (A Traveler,
Gyuwhan Lee, 1937), Owha (The Fishing Fire, Chulyoung An, 1938),
Dosaengrok (Bongchun Yoon, 1938), Hong Gildong Jon (The Story of
Honggildong, Myungwoo Lee, 1936), Jangwha Hongryon Jon (The Story of
Jangwha and Hongryon, Myungwoo Lee, 1936), Mimong (Beautiful Dream,
Junam Yang, 1936), Arirang Gogae (Arirang Hill, Gaemyung Hong, 1935), and
Han Gang (Han River, Hanjun Bang, 1938). These films represent not only the
most popular films but also the various kinds of shinpa films. Though they all
belong to shinpa melodrama, some are adaptations from novels, some are
ordinary shinpa melodramas, and some are called the "national film" of the
period. Three of the above best films were adaptations from popular novels.
Jangwha Hongryon Jon was a Korean version of the Cinderella story. Simchong
Jon depicted a story about a filial girl who sold her body to a sacrificial rite in
order to make her blind father see. Honggildong Jon dealt with a story about a
legendary chivalrous robber.
Other films followed the formula of shinpa melodrama: tragedies about the
poor and weak against the rich and strong. Mostly, the poor and weak implicitly
suggested Korean people under Japanese Occupation, while the rich and strong
represented pro-Japanese Koreans or Japanese themselves. Heroes, often
presented as wanderers, represented fighters for national independence,
34 Korean Film

especially those abroad. Such typical characterizations can be seen, for example,
in Mondongi Tultae. The main character, Gwangjin, released from prison after
ten years, is looking for his wife. In his search he helps a woman as she is being
attacked by gangsters. He further assists her by giving all his money to her
boyfriend, a poet, sending them away to a far-off, ideal land. In the end, he finds
his wife, who is also being attacked by rough gangsters. In the ensuing fight he
kills their leader and is sent off to jail again.
Owha is another typical shinpa melodrama dealing with poor people in
Korea. An old fisherman, Chunsam, under pressures from a creditor, Yongun,
goes out to fish on a stormy day and never returns. Yongun, instead of collecting
the debt, tries to take Chunsam's daughter, Insun, as his mistress. Yongun's son,
who has been studying in Seoul, comes home, becomes attracted by Insun, and
takes her with him to Seoul. Insun, who follows him in order to make money for
her mother, finds that she was deserted by Yongun's son. Insun accepts her fate
with resignation.
The popularity of shinpa melodramas under Japanese Occupation led to a
special type of national film, blending shinpa with nationalism. It was Arirang
(1926) that first exhibited this type of national film. Arirang, directed by Ungyu
Na, has been referred to as "the beginning of realist film," "the first nationalistic
film which shed the light on the path for Korean national film," and "the film
that exhibited the possibility to use the medium for struggle against the Japanese
Occupation." Initiated by Arirang, "Korean film could get out of the dimension
of entertainment, and let audiences perceive that the medium could be the means
of cultural movement struggling against Japanese imperialism, and to feel anger
and fury against the Japanese along with people on the street" (K. Hong, 1983,
p. 291).
Arirang begins with the words, "Dog and Cat, a madman, Yongjin."
Yongjin, the main character, became insane due to the torture by Japanese police
during the March 1st Independence Movement in 1919. He is now living with
his sister and father in the country. The films starts as Yongjin (holding a sickle
in his hands) runs toward the village, meets a Japanese policeman, slaps his face,
and threatens him with the sickle. The policeman stares at him, clicking his
tongue, saying, "You're crazy." Later Yongjin chases after Chonga, a pro-
Japanese corrupt landowner, and his farmhand Giho, a snitch for the Japanese
police. Yongjin's father has been harassed by Chonga because of the debt he
owed to Chonga. One day, Hyungu, Yongjin's college classmate from Seoul,
pays a visit to Yongjin. He falls in love with Yongjin's sister, Younghee. When
a music festival is held to celebrate the good harvest, Giho sneaks in to
Yonghee's house and tries to rape her. Hyungu, upon hearing screams, runs to
the house and a big fight erupts between them. Yongjin, sitting on top of the
fence around the house, sees this but just laughs meaninglessly. Then he begins
to fantasize. A young man and his girlfriend had fallen down in the desert, a
caravan was passing by and they begged for water. A man offers them some
water but he wants the girlfriend in exchange. The man tries to take her away.
At this moment, Yongjin suddenly gets furious, raises his sickle and strikes out
at what he believes to be the man of the caravan. Giho falls down on the ground
with blood all over his body. Upon seeing blood, Yongjin recovers his senses,
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 35
but by this time his hands are tied by the Japanese police. Then the words "Dog
and Cat" appear on the screen again, the voice actor says:

The people who have been singing for peace now recite poems of sadness remembered
from things past. Yongjin who studied philosophy at a college in Seoul, returning home
after going insane due to the Japanese police torturing him for participating in the March
1st Independence Movement. Ladies and Gentlemen, please don't cry. I was born in this
country. That's why I've become mad and killed a man. I'm not going to die but I'm
going to be born again. Ladies and Gentlemen! Please stop crying.

As the voice actor spoke these lines, the screen showed Yongjin, singing the
traditional folk song, Arirang (being pulled by the Japanese police down the
other side of the hill). (Y. Lee, 1988, p. 42). The main actress of the film, Sin
Ilson, who played the role of Yonghee, recollected the reaction of the audience
upon seeing this scene. "People cried loudly and sang 'Arirang' together and
shouted 'Hurrah for the Independence of Korea!' They shouted this without
really thinking what that means. And the theater was filled with strong, deep
emotions" (Y. Lee, pp. 43-44). The film was exhibited nationwide and
contributed to explode the anger and sadness of the people, and the impact of
this film was beyond imagination and description (K. Hong, p. 291). The film
nurtured a fresh, new national spirit in the minds of people frustrated and full of
hopelessness by the failure of the March 1st Independence Movement.
For Ungyu Na, the director and actor of Arirang, the film was an extension
of the independence movement with which he had been involved. Na was jailed
for two years on charges of involvement in the independence movement against
the Japanese before he started filmmaking. Knowing the sadness of losing his
own country, he exploited the trend of Korean film at that time, blending shinpa
with national spirit and creating a new form of expression. The last scene (in
which Yongjin, followed by Japanese police, is singing the popular tune,
"Arirang") exhibited a national resistance against Japanese imperialism from the
perspective of the people (K. Hong, 1983, p. 291). The symbolic expressions,
such as the use of a madman character, the rape of an innocent girl by a pro-
Japanese person, and the killing of the rapist were praised as an "ingenious" way
to express a national spirit that encouraged both anti-Japanese feelings and a
sense of pride in revolt against Japanese oppression and rule. Also symbolic
expression was necessary to pass the censorship (Y. Lee, 1988, p. 44).
After Arirang was exhibited and gained commercial success, average shinpa
films that had done little more than squeeze tears out of audiences were
criticized. Afterward when shinpa films tried to uplift the national spirit with
realistic presentations, they were praised in the reviews by daily newspapers. In
other words, whether or not a film "inspired national spirit" with realistic
expression became the standard for good national films. For instance, Ungyu
Na's 1928 film, Oknyo, was criticized based on that exact standard. The film
depicted a love triangle between two brothers and a woman. One review stated:

Considering the morality and customs of Chosun, the issue raised in the film seems an
exaggeration and thus cannot be problematic. The film, in the end, beautifies and
36 Korean Film
humanizes the immoral triangular love for commercial success. However, in general, the
film let us think about how the colonial state of Chosun is. (Donga Ilbo, Jan. 30, 1928)

After Arirang, Korean film under the Japanese Occupation continued to

exploit realistic expression, but it tended to show a passive attitude toward
action. As the most productivefilmmakeruntil the early 1930s, Na's films after
Arirang often ended with frustration and wandering and did not offer an active
vision to the people. They at least expressed reality, letting the people share the
sadness of losing their country through their identification with tragic stories.
Punguna (1926) depicted a young man who came home to stay after a long
wandering in Manchuria, but, finding no place to live, he goes back to
Manchuria. Gumbungo (Gold Fish, 1927) dealt with a young couple whose
happiness is destroyed by the trick of a Japanese manager. Jalitgora (Goodbye,
1927) depicted a young man who takes his revenge when his happiness is ruined
by a wicked rich man. Sarangul Chajaso (1928) gives a sad portrait of the
Korean people in the figure of a man, a bugler in the old Korean army, who ends
up crossing the river with his family, looking for a place to live away from the
oppression of the Japanese. Na's last film was Omongnyo (1937), which
described human violence through the brutalization of an innocent girl. These
films did not analyze or depict the reality of society at that time, and thus they
did not raise a consciousness of resistance in the audience as did Arirang.
The spirit of national resistance expressed in Arirang exploded again in the
1932 film, Imjaobnun Narubae (Ferryboat with No Ferryman), directed by
Gyuwhan Lee. The story evolves around Susam who comes to Seoul with his
wife to better their lives. In Seoul he pulls a rickshaw for a living. He needs
money for the delivery of his wife's baby. He steals some money and is caught
and jailed. Upon his release from jail, he finds his wife was seduced by another
driver and has been living with him while Susam was in jail. Frustrated and
indignant, he takes his daughter from his wife and leaves for the country. For the
next ten years Susam lives alone with his daughter Aeryon, working as a
ferryman. It is at this time that a railway bridge over the river is completed.
Susam's ferryboat is no longer necessary so he loses his job. While the bridge is
under construction, the Japanese engineer and a Korean foreman by the name of
Park treat the Korean residents in the area very harshly. One night Park, who has
his eye on Aeryon, tries to rape her. Susam, upon hearing this, grabs an ax and
finds Park and chases him on the newly built railway bridge. In the chase Park
falls from the bridge to his death, Susam begins axing the bridge like a madman,
shouting, "Do you think I am beaten by you, goddammit?" At that moment a
train comes to cross the bridge and runs over Susam. The train disappears across
the bridge leaving Susam dead. Most of this last scene was cut by the censors,
because axing the bridge was an expression of the anger of the Korean people
against the Japanese Occupation (Y. Lee, 1988, pp. 59-60).
The film was called the second national film (following Na's Arirang) that
pursued nationalism through realistic expression. Also it had strong
undercurrents of anti-Japanese sentiment and the spirit of resistance, again with
symbolic expressions. Japan was represented through the character of Park, the
foreman of railroad construction, while Korea was represented through an
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 37
innocent woman, Aeryon. And the main character, Susam, represented a fighter
for the national independence movement. Considering that railroad construction
in Korea was completed under the Japanese Occupation, these interpretations
seem obvious. While Arirang tried to express nationalist ideology directly, this
film pursued issues of nationalism more by metaphor and abstraction. A
newspaper article at that time wrote about the superiority of the film:

The film even has a poetic title. The story is consistently concerned with tragedy. The
tragedy of the reality of Korea, except for the last scene, was dealt with statically.
Whether it is because of the peculiar situation of Chosun or the intentional evading of the
director, in this film there is only conflict notfighting.Thus, this film can be called as a
moderate work well expressing the reality of Chosun. (Maeil Shinbo, Sep. 14, 1932)

Nagune, Gyuwhan Lee's 1937 film, was the last national film produced
under Japanese Occupation. The main character, Bokyong, a laborer away from
home, visits home once or twice a year. As he is coming back, his mother is
murdered and his wife is in dire straits, unable to buy medicine for his baby.
Samsu, who has had his eye on Bokyong's wife, pays for the medicine and tries
to rape her. Bokyong arrives home at this moment and kills Samsu. Also he
figures out that it was Samsu who killed his mother. Bokyong leaves home to
turn himself in to the police. This film continued the typology of national film
under Japanese Occupation, displaying character types similar to those of
Arirang and Imjaobnun Narubae. Again, a woman was presented symbolically
as the Korean peninsula that was in danger of being raped.
Nagune was called a successful work "offering dense Korean-style tragedy"
(Maeil Shinbo, April 24, 1937). However, it was criticized in some reviews for
its collaboration with Japanese people in its production. One newspaper article

Some criticized this film as Japanese because it was recorded by a Japanese, co-directed
with a Japanese. But, spirit and expression are most important to an art form. If it carries
non-Chosun sentiment, expressions, language, scenic views, and music, the film should
be blamed. But, the strong local color and the smell of the soil of this country, that could
not be seen and heard anywhere but in this country, could be called the highest
expression among other Chosun movies. (Maeil Shinbo, April, 24, 1937)

The article suggested how important it was for a movie to inspire national
spirit with realistic depictions of the country at that time, whether or not it was a
Japanese coproduction.
Films of the KAPF were another camp searching for national spirit under the
slogan of "arts as weapon." The KAPF group, consisting of people from a
literary circle that had been influenced by the revolutionary art movement of the
left, tried to depict the lives of the poor peasants, working class people, and
people in city slums. It produced Yurang (Wandering, 1928), Jijimara Suni
(Don't be Defeated Suni, 1928), Amro (The Dark Road, 1929), Honga (The
Evening Street, 1929), Jihachon (The Underground Village, 1930), and Wharyun
(Fire Wheel, 1931). The films were geared to enlighten the consciousness of the
proletariat class of Korea. For example, they depicted the lives of peasants
38 Korean Film

struggling against landowners, the lives of poor people living under the Han
River bridge, a young man who leaves his home country to join a resistance
movement in Manchuria or China, and the lives of intellectuals who educated
poor people or participated in independence movements. Their films struggled
to express the reality of the Korean people, exploiting a national spirit through
the film medium. They underwent severe censorship and were hardly ever
exhibited because the films were so severely cut.
All of these films represent the most popular movies of the period under the
Japanese Occupation. For the rest of the Occupation period (from 1940 to 1945),
Korean films were rarely produced. After 1939, the Japanese government began
to control the film industry as one method of cultural oppression, incorporating
film productions into a government-controlled company. Production of
melodrama films decreased to five films in five years. Instead, production of
propaganda films increased, presenting the ideology of "superior imperial
Japan" on the eve of Japan's Pacific war. Of the 30 feature films produced from
1940 to 1945, 21 were such propaganda films. As described above, films under
the Japanese Occupation, consistently in the genre of shinpa melodrama,
expressed the sadness of a people who had lost their country. Shinpa
melodrama, with its typical format of storytelling, functioned as a means of
catharsis or emotional discharge for oppressed people. Some films exploited the
form of shinpa melodrama for the expression of a national spirit, usually
through symbolic representation, thus marking the birth of a national film in the
history of Korean film.


The surrender of Japan to the United States in 1945 marked the end of the
Pacific war and the Liberation of Korea. Following years of being closed off by
the Japanese from world information, the Korean people confronted the
confusion by taking proper measures to meet the situation. Among political
leaders, a division was made between the nationalists, intent on awaiting the
advance of Allied forces, and the communists who planned to set up a people's
republic of their own. Soviet military troops meanwhile advanced, occupying
the northern part of the peninsula. The United States soon followed, landing
troops in the southern region. Both sides faced off at 38 degrees North latitude.
The Soviet Union supported the communist government in the North, while in
the South, the United States backed Dr. Seungman Rhee. Rhee, who had studied
at Princeton University, ran for president of the 1st Republic of Korea to be
established in 1948. Thus, Korea was divided into the North and South by two
world powers and not the intention of its people.
Korean filmmakers returned to the places they had escaped from during the
final years of Japanese oppression and they formulated a new film circle. They
organized Chosun Film Construction Headquarters and started to work by taking
up the facilities and equipment of the Chosun Film Co. Ltd. of Japan. At the
request of the temporary United States military government they began to
produce newsreels and so-called "Liberation films." Also during the period, the
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 39

United States Army 502nd military unit, stationed in the Capital Building, began
producing bimonthly news films and semidocumentaries such as Junu
(Comrade) and Jonjin Daehanbo (March Forward, Koreans). Many Korean
filmmakers worked and were trained in this unit.
Most feature films produced during this period were called Liberation films
and dealt with stories of Korea's Liberation from Japan. Whether the films were
based on true stories or fiction, their themes were about patriots, fighters and
heroes of the Liberation, and freedom of the Korean people. Saeroun Mangseo
(New Pledge, 1947), Jayu Manse (Victory of Freedom, 1946), Haebangdoen
Nae Gohyang (My Liberated Hometown, 1947), Bulmyolui Milsa (Immortal
Secret Envoy, 1947), Joeobnun Joein (Sinner without Sins, 1949), and Doklip
Jonya (The Eve of Liberation, 1949) were exemplary Liberation film of this
period and tried to express the pain and frustration Koreans had suffered under
Imperial Japan.

• : , - . .


New Pledge (1947)

From 1945 to 1950, the Korean film industry lacked 35mm film stock, had
limited production capital and was ineffective at controlling nationwide
distribution channels. Among the 34 film production companies formed after
Liberation, the Enlightenment Film Association and the Goryo Film Company
were the most active. Although there was an active movement in filmmaking,
more than half of the films produced were made with 16mm. Silent films were
often made instead of the postdubbed films Korean audiences had come to
expect. Distribution and exhibition channels had also broken down following
Liberation and had not been reestablished. These conditions led to theaters again
40 Korean Film

showing both movies and plays, the reappearance on the stage of voice actors
from the silent movies, and the return of kino-dramas.
Thus, the Liberation period was a chaotic time for Korean films. For the brief
period beginning with the establishment of a formal government in 1948, to the
outbreak of the Korean war in 1950, filmmakers began to work in a variety of
genres, such as melodramas, literary adaptions, and documentary films. The
films brought fresh spirit to the Korean film industry after a long absence of
domestic film production. But Korean film confronted yet another chaos without
the establishment of any filmmaking trends.


In 1950 Seungman Rhee's government could not obtain a majority of votes
in the general election and the communists' attempt to overthrow the
government in the southern peninsula failed. North Korea invaded the South and
the Korean war broke out. The three-year war devastated the burgeoning Korean
filmmaking of the Liberation period. Film production was continued only feebly
during the war period. Following the war, Korean film began a full-scale
revival, producing a variety of artistic films throughout the end of the 1950s. A
major casualty of the war was that most vintage Korean films were destroyed or
disappeared. Many talented filmmakers also either spontaneously relocated in
North Korea or were kidnapped.
During the war, filmmakers in the South were divided into two groups: the
first group joined with the Allied and Korean military troops to produce
documentary and military films; the second group continued to produce feature
films in the southern peninsula in small enclaves. Most filmmakers and
cinematographers were trained in military-based documentary production and
became active in commercial film production after the war. During the war, this
second group of filmmakers produced 20 feature films away from the military
troops, including five melodramas, seven anticommunist or military films, three
enlightenment films, and five other films. The most popular film was a Korean
war film, Chulgyok Myungryong (Attack Order, 1954). Most films dealt with
either the lives of Korean refugees, the war, or its effect on the country. Several
films had romantic themes.
President Rhee remained in power after the war but his reign resembled that
of a dictatorship. He amended the constitution, repressed the Congress,
established emergency law, and rigged political elections. His self-imposed
dictatorship continued until the 2nd Republic was set up in 1960. It was during
the period of the 1st Republic when there appeared an emerging group of
conglomerates which depended on foreign aid and government-backed
preferential financing. The complicity between the government and this group of
conglomerates broadened the gap between rich and poor, as well as urban and
rural areas. Increased social instability culminated in 1960 when a fraudulent
election incited democratic movement in big cities that forced President Rhee
out of office.
Although the 1st Republic was a period interspersed with dictatorship, rigged
elections, and economic instability, for the Korean film industry it was the best
period in its short history. During this time, the government tried to revive the
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 41

motion picture industry by introducing supportive policies, including tax

exemptions, the removal of censorship, and revision of the 1959 Tax Law for
Admission Fee (Law no. 329) which exempted the Koreans from paying
admission tax. Encouraged by these governmental actions, filmmakers began
actively producing films and created a period of revival. The number of films
produced as well as the number of movie theaters increased each year in this
period, from 18 films in 1954 to 87 films in 1960 (MPPC, 1984). Also most
popular foreign movies movies were imported without limitation from the
United States, France, and Italy. Although there is no record of who imported
these films, they were welcomed by Korean audiences.
Rapid growth in production spurred construction of new movie theaters but
the increased number of theaters made it difficult for the film producers to
directly distribute their films nationwide. As a result, regional distributor-
exhibitors (RDE) were created, to better distribute films to those regions outside
the Seoul area (M. Lee, 1984, p. 192). Later, the presence of RDEs came to
hinder the accumulation of production capital. From a meager start of only 18
postwar films in 1954, the Korean film industry experienced incredible growth
in production, peaking at more than 100 films per year by the end of the 1950s.
Such rapid growth was because films in this period were made foremost for
entertainment. For example, another version of Chunhyangjon (1955) was an
unexpected box-office success. The film ran continually for two months and
more than 200,000 people saw it at the theater where it premiered. This audience
accounted for more than 10% of Seoul's population at that time. This rapid
growth also expedited the modernization of out-of-date film studio facilities and
The late 1950s and early 1960s witnessed a flourishing of critically
acclaimed domestic films exploring a variety of genres. Influenced by Italian
neorealism, domestic films often dealt with themes of social criticism, such as
unemployment or the disillusionment of the postwar period. This trend was
initiated by a group of new film directors in the 1950s who are referred to as the
"first generation after Liberation." These directors introduced in their films
individualistic film quality styles expressing their new critical minds. One of the
new films to be released during this period was Yu Hyunmok's Obaltan
(Aimless Bullet, 1961). Yu's film vividly depicted the realities of a postwar
family, fragmented by the conflict, and racked by frustration, torment, and
doubts about their life. The film also made general social comments on the
levels of unemployment and poverty in villages and markets surrounding Seoul.
The film was ultimately banned by the authorities following the establishment of
a military government in 1961 because it showed too many dark sides of
people's lives.
The period following the war saw a brief revival of the Korean film industry,
as well as the production of critically acclaimed films. However, the reviving
moment did not last long enough to rebuild the film industry in general. The few
critically acclaimed films were left only as individual achievements, and not as a
basis for the continuing production of such films.
42 Korean Film


THE KOREAN WAR, 1945-1954

Films after the Liberation and during the Korean war exhibited unique
characteristics reflecting the mood of that period. The "Liberation period" saw a
flourishing of so-called "Liberation films," as did the brief period of revival of
film production after 1948 (when the new Korean government was set up).
During the Korean war (1950-1953) feature film production was continued,
though feebly, by a group offilmmakerswho did not join the army documentary
film troupes.
Despite the chaotic situation characterized as a rebuilding of the film
industry and despite the outbreak of the Korean war, exactly one hundred
feature films were produced between 1946 and 1954 (MPPC, 1984). While
melodrama films were still the dominant trend, other genre films were produced
according to the changed social atmosphere. For instance, during the Liberation
period, biographic films and films with enlightenment messages occupied a
larger portion of the industry. These films mostly dealt with patriots and
freedom fighters for national independence. And just before and during the
Korean war, anticommunist films became a major trend, as the nation was
divided into the left (North) and the right (South), and the trend continued after
the war.
Most films of the Liberation period were called Liberation film and dealt
with stories of Korea's Liberation from imperial Japan. They were based on true
stories or on fiction, and their characters were patriots, fighters and heroes for
the Liberation and freedom of the Korean people. Production of Liberation films
started with Jayu Manse (Victory of Freedom, Ingyu Choi, 1946), and continued
in films such as An Junggun Sagi (A History of An Junggun, Guyong Lee,
1946), Haebangdoen Nae Gohyang (My Liberated Hometown, Ghanggun Jon,
1947), Bulmyolui Milsa (Immortal Secret Envoy, Yongsun Kim, 1947), Yu
Gwansun (a female patriot's name, Bongchun Yoon, 1948), Joeobnun Joein
(Sinner without Sins, Ingyu Choi, 1948), Jogukui Omoni (Mother of Fatherland,
Bongchun Yoon, 1949), and Doklip Jonya (The Eve of Liberation, 1949). These
films freely expressed the pain and wrath the Korean people suffered under
Imperial Japan through the characters of the patriots and freedom fighters. For
instance, Jayu Manse depicted the underground operations of fighters for
independence just prior to the Liberation. Yu Gwansun was a true story of a
patriotic sixteen-year-old girl who fought against the Japanese and died in jail
after severe torture. These Liberation films belong to a category of films with
enlightenment messages because they tried to deliver educational or pedagogical
While the trend of Liberation films continued, after the establishment of the
national government in 1948 films that stressed themes of social stability
appeared. Melodrama films and action films were produced until the outbreak of
the Korean war. One representative film of this period, Maumui Gohyang (The
Hometown in My Heart, Yonggyu Yoon, 1949) was about an orphan boy who
went to a Buddhist temple in the mountains to cultivate himself and fell in love
with a widow who had come to the temple to pray to Buddha. This film received
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 43

the best film award at the First Seoul City Cultural Awards. Another
representative film, Pasi (The Fish Market, Ingyu Choi, 1949) described the
scenery and lifestyle of Huksando, an island located in the southern part of
Korea, in a documentary style. The film was shot with a 16mm camera and
exhibited vivid realistic scenes.
During the war, feature film production continued by a group of filmmakers
who did not join the U. N. army and Korean military troops for the production
of documentary and military films. They produced feature films in the southern
part of the peninsula, places of refuge. Twenty-two feature films were produced,
including five melodrama films, six anticommunist or military films, three films
with enlightenment messages, and eight other films during the war period. Most
films dealt with the war, its consequences, and the lives of refugees; a few dealt
with romantic stories. They were primarily films with enlightenment messages.
Songbulsa (Songbul Temple, Bongchun Yoon, 1952) dealt with a man who
wanted to evade military service by hiding in the temple, but who ended up
going back to join the military service for the South by the persuasion of the
chief monk of the temple. Taeyangui Gori (The Street of the Sun, Kyungsik
Min, 1952) portrayed a primary school teacher who led delinquent boys to the
right path. It depicted the life of delinquent boys in the dark streets in and
around Taegu, one of the refugee places during the war.
Anticommunist films before and during the war mostly dealt with heroes,
and war veterans who fought against the communist army. Films such as
Wharangdo (1950), Naega Nomun Sampalson (I Crossed the 38th Parallel,
1951), and Nakdonggang (Nakdong River, 1952) followed the simple story line
of anticommunist films. Despite the difficulties in equipment and facilities, the
periods of the Liberation and the war saw the continuation of feature film
production. Films of this period reflected the unique situation of society at the
time: the excitement of Liberation, anticommunist feelings, and enlightenment
messages including patriotism.


This period has been referred to as "a revival period" or "a boom period" of
Korean film (Y. Lee, 1988, p. 111). Movies became the most important
entertainment medium for the general public and they achieved remarkable
development in artistic expression through a variety of genres. Accelerated by
the tax exemption measures on film production, an increased number of films
were produced in this period. Until the end of Korean war films were limited to
a few genres, such as melodramas and films with enlightenment messages; but
the period after the war saw the flowering of a variety of genres, such as
historical films, art films, and comedies. Still, melodramas occupied 73.5% of
the total films made in Korea (MPPC, 1984).
Melodramas of this period were sensitive to the issues of social fashion and
other trends. They depicted the lives of low-class people and their families with
realistic expressions, the discord between the conservative way of life and the
new progressive way of life of the younger generation, and other aspects of the
social situation at that time. Arumdaun Aknyo (A Beautiful Wicked Woman,
Hyungmo Han, 1958), Chongchun Gukjang (Youth Theater, Sunggi Hong,
44 Korean Film

1959), Haebaragi Gajok (The Family of Sunflowers, Songbok Park, 1961), and
Romance Grey (Sangok Shin, 1963) are melodramas that depicted the
generation gap, discord in ethics and the difficulty of social life for the lower
class after the war period.
Comedy films of this period dealt with family ethics, or were satires on
society, using a variety of type characters such as the common merchant, the
petty salary man, the fainthearted clerk of a company, the scholar in the country,
ambitious boys and girls seeking success. Comic elements came out of the
estrangement between the traditional way of life and the rapidly changing
progressive way of life, lnsaeng Chaap (Attachment of Life, Hyunmok Yu,
1958), Seoului Jibungmit (Under the Roof of Seoul, Hyungpyo Lee, 1961),
Ingan Manse (Human Victory, Gungha Cho, 1962), Wolgubjangi (A Salary
Man, Bongrae Lee, 1962), and Chongsaek Apart (The Blue Apartment,
Hyungpyo Lee, 1963) are exemplary works of such comedy films.
Action/thriller films including war films, crime thrillers, and spy action films
became popular in the 1960s and formed one main trend of filmmaking during
this period. Muk Kim directed a series of polished action/thriller films such as
Hyunsang Butun Sanai (The Wanted, 1961), Gongpoui 8 Sigan (Eight Hours of
Horror, 1962), and Guphaeng Yolcharul Tara (Take the Express Train, 1963).
Changsal Obnun Gamok (The Prison without Walls, Bomgi Kang, 1964) and
Anaenun Gobaekhanda (The Wife Confesses, Hyonmok Yu, 1964) which
depicted the discord of daily life for modern people and the criminal ride of their
minds deep in the subconscious.
Whatever the genre, films of the period expressed the lives of the people
from the perspective of the people, exploiting intimacy and familiarity with
familiar sets, familiar faces, and witty dialogues of real people (K. Hong, 1983,
p. 296). For example, Piagol (Pia Village, Gangchon Lee, 1955) dealt with the
conflict between ideology and humanism in the partisans during the Korean war.
Chungchun Sangoksun (Double Waves of Youth, 1956) was a comedy dealing
with a friendship between a rich and a poor youth. Don (Money, 1958) depicted
the destruction of a human being by the power of money in the country.
Irumobnun Byuldul (Stars with No Names, 1959) was a nonfiction story about
the student movement against the Japanese Occupation. These films exemplify
the general trend that exploited various genres in the period. Some approached
the subjects seriously, while some treated subject matter superficially using
humor and satire, but nearly all dealt with the lives of ordinary people.
Despite the variety of genres, the trends of filmmaking of this period can be
divided into two categories: some depicted the social atmosphere of the period
with the new liberal ideas that poured into Korea; others expressed strong social
realism, treating the subject critically. The former group of filmmaking is
represented by Jayu Buin (The Free Woman, 1956) and by the films of Sangok
Shin. Jayu Buin directed by Hyungmo Han, was a drama dealing with the
modern and liberal social ideas newly developed in the confusion of the postwar
period. The protagonist is a housewife who, trying to bring her family out of
poverty under the harsh conditions of the postwar period, gives in to the
temptation of smuggling luxury goods and to the advances of a young man. She
finally loses her husband, a professor, and her family. The liberal ideas
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 45
suggested by the deviation of a housewife was rather shocking at that time. And
it spawned intense dispute in newspapers regarding its potential impact on the
general public, a dispute waged between the writer of the original script and a
university professor who argued that such presentation of liberal ideas would
harm the morality of general public.
Sangok Shin breached the subject of bifurcated ideas—liberal vs.
conservative and modern versus traditional ideas—in a different way. His films
mostly criticized the traditional ethics of Korea, showing the nihilism of past
history. His Sarangbang Sonnimgua Omoni (The Guest and My Mother, 1961)
and Yolnyo Mun (The Commemorating Gate for the Chaste Woman, 1962)
exhibited his concern for traditional ethics. Sarangbang Sonnimgua Omoni was
filmed from the perspective of a little girl. A guest from Seoul visits her house,
where she and her grandmother and mother live, and stays for a while. The
visitor and her mother fall in love but their love could not be fulfilled because of
traditional social ethics. Shin depicted beautifully the love between a woman
and a man that was repressed by strict moral customs. The obedient woman
gives up her love to preserve social morality without protesting or resisting. In
Yolnyo Mun, Shin depicted the lives of two generations of widows. The young
widow falls in love with a farm servant. At first, her mother-in-law severely
chastises her, but later accepts her sad appeals and allows them to live together.
Through these two films, Shin accurately described the effects of the social
norm based on Confucianism that requires a widow to remain unmarried until
her death, showing how cruel spiritually and physically it is for the widow.
The second trend, exploring problematic subject matter with realism, is
represented by three filmmakers of a new generation—Hyunmok Yu, Kiyoung
Kim, and Sangok Shin. Their films received much critical attention during this
period. Iloborin Chungchun (Lost Youthful Days, Hyonmok Yu, 1957) depicted
the desperate love between a Christian woman and an electrician, who has
murdered someone by mistake and as a result wanders restlessly. Jiokwha
(Flower of Hell, Sangok Shin, 1958) also depicted desperate love: between a
woman who has become a prostitute for GIs due to extreme poverty and the war
and a man who loves her. Chosul (First Snow, Kiyoung Kim, 1958) portrayed a
poor young couple in a slum and the environment surrounding them. These
films succeeded in capturing the desperate situation and anxiety after the war
period of Korea.
Kiyoung Kim's Goryojang (Burying the Old Alive, 1963) and Sipdaeui
Banhang (Defiance of Teenagers, 1960) both exhibited the uncompromising
characteristic of his filmmaking. Both explore the responses of human beings
confronted by poverty. Goryojang filmed a legendary story in the Goryo period
(AD 935-1410) when an old custom called for burying old people even if they
were alive. Goryojang was practiced in order to lessen the mouths to feed to
save energy and food for young people. The film portrayed the agony of a good
farmer who, under the extreme poverty and scarcity of food, had to abandon his
old mother deep in the mountains. Sipdaeui Banhang was about the life of
juvenile vagrants after the war. It depicted juvenile crimes about vagrants and
pickpockets appearing around the Seoul Railroad Station, the South Gate
Market, and the streets of downtown Seoul,
46 Korean Film

The Aimless Bullet (1961)

Hyunmok Yu's 1961 film Obaltan (Aimless Bullet) was the most critically
acclaimed film after the Liberation, often called the best Korean film ever made.
The film depicted the miserable social situation in the latter part of the 1950s.
The story revolves around the family of Yongchul, an accountant. He lives in an
extremely poor village, called Haebangchon ("liberated town"), blown up during
the war. Each of his family members is hopeless, suffering from distress and
agony. His old mother becomes insane because she has been bombed in the
middle of her refuge. His brother, who had been jailed for bank robbery after
finishing his military service, could not find a job and so he ends up robbing a
bank again. His wife dies while delivering her baby because she had worked so
hard for her poor family. His sister becomes a prostitute for foreign soldiers.
Yongchul, throughout the film, has a toothache and headache. His mother keeps
shouting, "Let's go!," which she used to say to her family in order to avoid
bombing during the war. In the last ten minutes of the film, Yongchul, after
losing his wife at the hospital, wandering on the streets, loses his sense of where
to go. The director Yu vividly depicted the reality of life—the family was
broken into pieces by frustration and tormented by their doubts about life. His
images are extremely articulated, using deep focus, metaphorical mise-en-scene,
montage techniques, the explosive sound of airplanes, running trains, and the
crying of babies-to portray the deep consciousness of human beings. Yu made
Gurumun Hullodo (As The Cloud Flows, 1959) and Ingyo Ingan (The
Remainder, 1964), with realism similar to that of Obaltan and Iloborin
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 47

The films of this period approached the social problems and issues of the day
in a variety of genres and with a variety of artistic techniques. This period saw
an explosion of creativity in filmmakers and produced many of the most
significant films in Korean film history. Korean film histories refer to this period
as the freest moment, a honeymoon between the film industry and the
government, marked by a lack of governmental regulations and censorship (Y.
Lee, 1988, pp. 113-114). Unfortunately the creative fervor of filmmakers could
not be sustained, because the establishment of a military government resumed
cultural oppression, enforcing anticommunism as a primary cultural policy.


In 1960, the 2nd Republic of Korea was established by genera) election but it
was to last less than one year. In May of 1961, a military coup successfully
toppled the government. During the short-lived 2nd Republic, a Civilian Film
Ethics Committee was officially established on August 5, 1960. The Committee
was responsible for film censorship and based its regulations on the premise of
"freedom of speech and art creation." It emphasized the observance of a
democratic constitution and the deference of humanism. Although the
Committee lasted little more than a year and was disbanded soon after the
military coup, it has been regarded as the only civilian organization for
censorship in the history of Korean film.
The film industry underwent many trials and errors due to changing
government policy beginning with the establishment of the 1961 military
regime. The primary ideologies of the military government were
developmentalism, anticommunism, industrialization, and national security. To
exercise such ideologies, the government first strengthened censorship and
institutionalized the film industry by enacting the Motion Picture Law (Law
Number 995) on January 20, 1962. The law was based on Motion Picture
Regulations and Motion Picture Approval, which were made during the nine-
year period that the United States military government had controlled film-
related regulation. The key point of this law was "protecting and fostering
Korean films" by setting up rigid requisites for the film business and creating an
import quota system. During this period, censorship began to repress the
creative zeal activated in the filmmakers of the previous period, and the import
quota system created a flood of unimportant movies, negatively coined "quota-
The first thing the new military government had to do was to establish a
strong control system via the Motion Picture Law, which law stipulated that ail
film companies should register with the Ministry of Culture and Information.
There were many requests for registration, including studio space of more than
791 square yards, sound recording capabilities, film laboratory facilities, a
lighting system of more than 60kw of power, more than three 35mm cameras,
two full-time exclusively employed film directors, and more than two
exclusively employed actors and actresses. Registered companies were required
to produce a minimum of 15 films each per year. As a result of these stringent
requirements, of the 71 film companies that had existed prior to the enactment of
48 Korean Film

this law, 55 were eliminated. Some companies continued to operate by merging,

while others disappeared all together.
Even these 16 newly reorganized companies could not meet the requirements
of registration. From the beginning, the compulsory production of 15 films per
year was an impossible goal for the registered companies. As a result, 21 total
film companies (the original 16 first plus five subsequent companies) were
cancelled on June 30, 1963. Under the new Enforcement Law, only 4 companies
were able to retain their registrations. In fact, the trials and errors of film policy
by the government were evidenced by the frequent revisions of the Motion
Picture Law, first in March 1963 and again in August 1966, and by the
enforcement regulations which changed almost yearly. Whenever the
regulations were revised, a myriad of opinions from the public, the National
Assembly, and the film industry emerged.
From the diverse reaction to this law, the Korean Motion Picture Association
was organized in 1964 to abolish the Motion Picture Law. The Association, an
incorporated body consisting of film directors, actors, and technical film
engineers, insisted that the Motion Picture Law was a vicious, and they made the
following declarations to the National Assembly, the government and concerned
organizations: (1) the expansion of film facilities was not reasonable for the film
industry, considering the lack of capital; (2) the Motion Picture Law tended to
protect the illegally registered film companies that produced films for major film
companies to meet the requirements, and, thus fostered corruption in the
industry; (3) the improvement of Korean films should not be in quantity but in
quality; (4) it was necessary to raise new young filmmakers; 5) the Motion
Picture Law should be immediately abolished and a new Film Production
Promotion Law (a tentative title) should be enacted. In the end, the appeal failed
and the film industry continued to be controlled by the Motion Picture Law until
Meanwhile, the government adjusted the number of foreign films allowed to
be imported and the number of domestic films produced. At the time of the
second revision of the Motion Picture Law in 1966, the number of foreign films
to be imported was limited, and these low quotas of foreign films gave domestic
filmmakers substantial rewards. In 1965, some 200 Korean films were produced.
At this time, a third revision limited the number of imported films to no more
than one-third of Korea's domestic output. It also introduced the screen quota
system under which theaters showing foreign films must exhibit domestic films
for 60-90 days per year (MPPC, 1984). Under these guidelines, the importing
companies depended upon the import quotas awarded to domestic film
production companies. The quotas were granted as rewards for making quality
films, the actual business results of the exhibition of imported films presented by
producers, and numbers of domestic films (two films per one import quota).
After the second revision of the Motion Picture Law in 1963, censorship
became very strict. The government dissolved the Motion Picture Ethics
Committee that existed before the May 16 military coup and constituted the
Censorship Board, which strictly censored the screenplays before shooting and
screening, as well as the prints after shooting. Main concerns of the Censorship
Board were procommunist messages and obscenity. Strict censorship of
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 49

communist material was intended to rationalize the dictatorial power of the

military government, which persisted until the current 6th Republic. As a result
of the procommunist censorship, several filmmakers were arrested for their
humanist portrayal of ideological conflicts between the North and the South
during the Korean war and the early 1960s.
Despite the restrictive and repressive government policies during this period,
film production continued to increase and often drew mass audiences to theaters.
The increase in the number of films produced showed why production
companies tried hard to obtain higher foreign film import quotas—to make
money. And the inundation of so-called quota-quickies or many sleazy films
were referred to by newspapers as "hunger in good harvest" (Y. Lee, 1988, p.


In the 1970s the Korean film industry underwent the most oppressive era of
government control. A film critic referred to this period as "the winter of
prostitution in the sixty years of history of Korean film" (Chang, 1983, p. 14).
Although this comment emphasized a situation of domestic film production that
depended on the profits from the exhibition of imported films, without any
burgeoning or flourishing moments of its own in the Korean film history, it
pointed out the depressed condition of Korean film and its industry. In the 1970s
Korean society confronted a lot of social problems deepened by foreign-
dependent industrial processes. Depiction of social problems in the film medium
was blocked by the Motion Picture Law, which had been revised to strengthen
censorship during the 1960s. Films of this period expressed "fantasy rather than
reality, curiosity rather than blood and tears, and sexual excitement rather than
anger of people, encouraging consumerism rather than labor" (Chang, 1983, p.
13). Such a phenomenon was due to the government imposition of ideology and
severe censorship.
The 3rd Republic of Korea established by the military coup by Junghee Park
in 1961 still held the power in the 1970s. Not unlike Seungman Rhee, President
Park pursued a dictatorship but used more sophisticated methods. In order to
maintain his power, Park amended the Constitution several times, put in
frequent emergency laws, and both suppressed and manipulated the mass media.
As the government policy of export promotion was adhered to, the
interdependence between the government and conglomerates grew tighter than
ever. Accompanying this interdependence were increased concerns over serious
social problems, including exploitation of cheap labor and the widening of the
gap between rich and poor. Criticism on social reality became the main target of
censorship and often was regarded as procommunism. Under this oppressive
government, the number of political prisoners in Korea sharply increased and
freedom of expression in most cultural sectors was abated.
Along with the government policy on export promotion, the Motion Picture
Law was revised in the 1970s to establish the Union of Korean Film Promotion
which consisted of producers and importers. It was designed to promote
exportation of films and to strengthen the requirement for import quotas,
increasing from two to five the number of domestic films produced per one
50 Korean Film

foreign import. The Union of Korean Film Promotion, without achieving any
"promotion," was dissolved in 1973 when the Motion Picture Promotion
Corporation was established.
The enforced regulations of the film industry led Korean cinema in the 1970s
to fall suddenly into a depression. As was pointed out earlier, 23 film production
companies existed; 20 of the companies went bankrupt due to the depression,
which meant almost total destruction of the Korean film industry. Although the
companies were strongly protected by the Motion Picture Law, in an attempt to
make them profit-making enterprises, the result actually hurt them. A fourth
revision of the Motion Picture Law was made on February 16, 1973, in an
attempt to save the bankrupt film industry. The main body of this revised law
was effective until 1979 when the 3rd Republic ended. The special feature
during the operation of the revised law was that a strict government policy on
the film industry was thoroughly enforced. Under the third revised Motion
Picture Law, in short, the requirement to open a film production company had
been a "registration system," but under the fourth revised law, it was changed to
an "approval system" and strict requirements for opening a film production
company were established. A reorganization of the entire film industry was
undertaken. At the same time, the independent production system under which
every individual had been able to produce films was completely eliminated.
In 1973, Junghee Park amended the Constitution in favor of holding his
dictatorship and was re-elected as a president, establishing the Revitalizing
Government. This government began to impose its ideology on cultural and
economic sectors. Filmmaking also had to meet the imposition of the Film
Policy Measure (1973-1979) which was issued every year. Article 1 of the
measure stipulated that every film should promote the "revitalizing" ideology,
which was well expressed in the standards for "quality films" of this period.
According to the standards, films of quality encouraged national identity,
national unity, patriotism, and a progressive spirit. These films presented
messages such as the "new village movement," an expression of the faith and
aspirations of peasants, the industriousness of laborers working toward national
development, and the expansion of exportation of national goods. They were
also based on subjects such as traditional arts, national treasures, unique Korean
culture, and highly creative literary works.
In addition, the Film Policy Measure was issued in order to control the
number of films supplied to the market each year, and set import and screen
quotas. According to the policy, the number of foreign films imported each year
could not exceed one third of the number of domestic films produced in that
year and the exhibiting days of foreign films per year could not exceed two-
thirds of the exhibiting days in that year. The result was that foreign films began
to have scarcity value, and quotas to import foreign films became a tremendous
profit-making privilege. Further, in production procedures, stricter preview of
screenplays before film production and stricter screening of films was initiated.
National "Emergency Measures" enforced at that time were applied in actual
film censorship screening. The "quality films reward system" was carried out
based on the expression of the "revitalizing" ideology. Under this system, film
producers could get quotas when they produced quality films that induced film
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 51

producers to make good films. Finally, the revised motion picture law disbanded
the then-existing Motion Picture Promotion Association in order to facilitate
better development of the film industry. In its place was the newly established
Motion Picture Distribution Corporation, which took on the task of distribution
of all films throughout Korea, including foreign films.
The number of production companies registered under the revised motion
picture law in 1973 became 20 in total. Under such restrictive government
policy, the 20 companies oligopolized the right to import films according to the
particular standard as was done in the 1960s. These companies enjoyed their
oligopoly until the fifth revision of the Motion Picture Law in 1984 and
accumulated capital to the extent they could own most first-run theaters in the
Seoul area. The fourth revised Motion Picture Law of 1973 also stipulated the
organization and operation of the Motion Picture Promotion Corporation under
articles 4 through 25. Under these articles, the Motion Picture Promotion
Association was disbanded and the Motion Picture Promotion Corporation
(MPPC) was organized. "Promotion of Korean Films and the fostering of the
Korean film industry" under article 16 was the main objective of the MPPC.
Since its inception on April 3, 1973, the MPPC has been performing all kinds of
undertakings to promote Korean films. But it appeared that the MPPC was a
government agency that sternly carried out the government's film policy, which
the government could not directly perform due to a government organization
law. The MPPC itself was involved in producing "quality" films such as Jungon
(Testimony, 1974), Taebaek Sanmaek (Taebaek Mountains, 1975), and others.
These films carried anticommunist messages intended to propagate the ideology
of the revitalizing government.
But those projects could not satisfy the expectations of the MPPC. Changing
its promotional direction, MPPC bought a large broadcasting station, equipped
with sound recording facilities and film printing laboratory facilities. Also the
publication of film related books, the maintenance of a film library, and the
improvement of filmmakers' qualifications have been included in the steady
operations of the MPPC. In addition, the MPPC has been conducting the Grand
Bell Awards, providing pensions for senior film personalities, managing the
foreign film importing business, awarding scholarships to students, and the like.
Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, Korean films in the 1970s began to fall
into a deep decline in economic terms. A primary reason for the decline was the
restrictive and oppressive government policies regarding the film industry. Other
possible reasons for the decline include the popularity of television programs,
increase in diversified entertainment for the public, and the flood of quota-
quickies. From the latter half of the 1960s to the early 1970s, there was a
tremendous increase in the number of television sets in homes, which impacted
the Korean film industry, sending it into a deep depression. In particular,
television brought all the public entertainment media into the home, which
included historical drama and melodrama. Accordingly, the number of movie
theaters throughout Korea now has decreased annually along with the number of
theater admissions. The largest number of Korean moviegoers to see films
during a one year period was 173,043,272 in 1969. When the number of movie
theaters in Korea was 659. The number of moviegoers who saw films in 1979
52 Korean Film

was 65,518,581, roughly one-third the 1969 figure. The number of theaters in
1979 had declined to 472 (MPPC, 1984).
Another reason for the decline of the film industry was that the preferred
entertainment of the general public became diversified. Paradoxically, when the
gross national product (GNP) of a Korean national was U.S. $100, the Korean
film industry was in its revival period, whereas when this figure grew to U.S.
$1,000, the Korean film industry was on the decline. The expansion of
highways, the development of tourist resorts, and the popularization of various
sports and hobbies also caused extreme declines in audience size. The reign of
motion pictures over the entertainment world had ended.
A third reason for the decline of the film industry was the fact that quota-
quickies could no longer attract audiences. In fact, the quota-quickies were most
responsible for the decline because domestic films produced in this period were
initially aimed at achieving higher import quotas. In terms of the content of
films, the key reasons why audiences turned away from films produced in the
1970s was the severe censorship and a government policy that forced producers
to include specific ideology in their films. Films with sincere life experiences,
social criticisms, brave filmic experiments, and entertaining elements were
eliminated under the revitalizing government; plain social enlightenment films,
policy propaganda films (called "policy films") were overdone; and literary
films without redeeming characteristics were classified by the government as
quality films. As Chang has deplored, the Korean film industry in the 1970s was
"the winter of a prostitute who never has called her own price, not knowing her
price and who hung on to the oligopolized companies in order not to be
eliminated" (Chang, 1983, p. 12).


As the military government was set up, censorship of films increased.
Starting with cancelling the exhibition of Obaltan in 1962, films involving
politics, or containing procommunist messages, strong realistic portrayals of
society, and overt sexual expressions had to undergo harsh censorship. For
instance, Jaldoeogabnida (It's Going Well, Gungha Cho, 1965), depicting the
conflicts in the political world at the end of the 2nd Republic, was held up in the
process of censorship. Gonggal (Lies, Hyunmok Yu, 1965) had to be revised.
Hyuil (Holiday, Manhee Lee, 1968), depicting a dark story about a poor young
couple, also had to be rewritten. The director of Chilinui Yoporo (The Seven
Female War Prisoners, 1965), Manhee Lee, was arrested on suspicion of
procommunism. And the directors of a few 1969 films, Jongho Park of
Byuksokui Yoja (Woman in the Wall), Sangok Shin of Naesi (Eunuch), and
Hyungpyo Lee of Noui Irumun Yoja (Your Name Is Woman), were arrested for
obscenity (Y. Lee and H. Yu, 1985, p. 754, and K. Hong, 1983, p. 299).
Strict censorship killed the creative fervor that had exploded in the previous
period. Import quotas enforced during the second and third revisions of the
Motion Picture Law spurred lots of quota-quickies. This period is characterized
as the "dark age" of Korean film. Creative intentions of film people were
repressed to such an extent that "directors were called vocational technicians
and script writers were called scribes" (Lee, et al. 1986, p. 2). Political
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 53

oppression suppressed the production of both realistic films confronting serious

social problems and films overtly displaying sex. Instead, films distanced
themselves from the reality of society, becoming silly melodramas (reviving the
label shinpa) or action/thrillers.
A variety of genres was exploited during this period. Melodrama films
occupied 44.2% and action/thriller films occupied 24.3% of the total production
(MPPC, 1984). The production of anticommunist films (rarely produced in the
late 1950s and early 1960s) increased in this period because the government,
enforcing anticommunism as a primary policy, encouraged such production by
granting import quotas. Also comedy films occupied a major portion of
production. This trend was primarily the outcome of the import quota system.
Cheaply made silly and sentimental melodramas, nonsense comedies,
action/thriller films and literary films, adapted from popular novels were slapped
together in order to fulfill the requirement for more imports.

I Hate But Once More (1968)

As discussed, anticommunist films and films reflecting the government's

"revitalizing" ideology were regarded as quality films in this period. And
production of a "quality film" was the easiest means of raising import quotas.
For that reason, the number of such films produced in this period was 159, Most
of them hardly drew any audience and some of them were not even exhibited in
theaters. Nevertheless, the production of anticommunist films and films
reflecting revitalizing ideology continued until the end of 1970s only as a means
of raising import quotas.
The melodramas in this period, far from showing society realistically, were
blatant tearjerkers. Melodramas in the late 1950s and the early 1960s expressed
54 Korean Film

the new ethics of the day, the lives of poor people, and the conflicts within
families. The melodramas of the late 1960s were sentimental, aimed at a female
audience. The most representative melodrama of the late 1960s was Miwodo
Dasihanbon (I Hate But Once More, Soyong Chong, 1968) the biggest hit in
1968 when movie theaters were drawing the largest number of audiences in
Korean film history. The film dealt with a love triangle—a married man who
loves both his wife and girlfriend. He could not make up his mind which to pick.
He was attracted to both of them with two different kinds of love. His girlfriend,
after finding out that he has a wife and a child, leaves him, being pregnant with
his baby. After several years, she takes the child to him. His wife, not jealous of
their relationship, understands the girlfriend's love and takes the child. While
the man hesitates between two women, the girlfriend leaves him again. The film
was so successful that the director continued to make sequels to the film for four
consecutive years. Many other melodramas in the 1970s followed on the heels
of Miwodo Dasihanbon.

Heyday of Youngja (1975)

Representative films are Nunmului Wedding Dress (The Wedding Gown in

Tears) directed by Jangho Byun in 1973, Byuldului Gohyang (Home of Stars)
directed by Jangho Lee in 1974, Yongjaui Jonsongsidae (The Primetime of
Yongja) directed by Hosun Kim in 1975, Naega Borin Yoja (The Girl I
Abandoned) directed by Soyong Chong in 1977, Nanun 77 bon Agassi (I'm No.
77 Girl) directed by Hotae Park in 1978, 26X365=0 directed by Sehan No in
1979. The 1970s melodramas differed from those of the late 1960s in the use of
their heroines, who, in later years, tended to be barmaids, call girls, and
Korean Cinema from the 1910s to the 1970s 55

prostitutes. Such women characters were usually presented as betrayed by men

in their innocent days and so fell into their low occupations. Most of these films
try to tell the story from the perspective of those women and blame their
degradation on the men in our society. They mostly end in pessimistic ways,
often with the suicide of the heroine. They did not exhibit any real analysis or
criticism of society, nor did they expose the irony of a society that put the
heroines in such situations; they typically showed it as "natural."
Action/thriller films of this period daringly pursued amusement. In spite of
the consistent status as the second most productive genre following melodrama,
the films rarely gained popular success. In the late 1960s, influenced by the
popularity of the James Bond series, most of the action/thrillers used stories of
espionage in Southeast Asia. Those films were filmed in Korea and in Hong
Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and other Asian countries. The 1970s action/thriller films
dealt with stories of Korean historical chivalrous men or with gangsters on the
street. Because of the government censorship of "violent films," they were
hardly able to exploit the characteristics of "real" action film. Instead, they
deliver obvious pedagogical or anticommunist messages.
As compared to comedy films that conveyed healthy humor or satire against
society in the early 1960s, major characteristics of comedy films of this period
are absurdity and slapstick. Using popular comedians as stock characters,
comedy films used such slapstick devices as a man disguised as a woman, secret
languages for sex, exaggeration and of hurt feelings. Titles of the films
suggested the trend of such comedies of the period: Namja Sikmo (Male Maid,
1968), Palpun Myonuri (Stupid Daughter-in-Law, 1968), and Namja Miyongsa
(Male Beautician, 1968). Other than those major genre films, the 1970s saw the
debut of a group of directors of a new generation, trained with their own film
magazine called Youngsang Sidae (The Era of Filmic Image). At the time when
Korean film was losing its audience through the 1970s, the films of those
directors, though exploiting the existing melodrama genre, drew a record-
breaking number of audiences with their fresh sensitivity. Jangho Lee, the
director of Byuldului Gohyang and Oje Naerin Bi (Yesterday Rain, 1976),
depicted lonely and unhappy people with extreme sentimentalism and emotional
expressions. Hosun Kim, the director of Youngjaui Jonsongsidae (Heyday of
Youngja), showed very strong social cynicism through prostitutes living in slum
areas. And Giljong Ha, director of Hwabun (Pollen, 1977) and Babodului
Haengjin (March of Fools, 1975) depicted the acts and thoughts of the young
generation with a bit of an experimental style. Their films brought new
sensations and drew more than 300,000 people at a time when Korean films
were in a slump.
Films of the late 1960s and 1970s underwent severe censorship that
repressed the free expression of social reality, of the lived experience of the
people, and of overt sexual expression. Filmmakers were forced to ignore their
creative intentions but were employed to satisfy the requirements for import
quotas. As a result, the 1970s produced hardly any critically acclaimed films like
those of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Instead they brought lots of quota-
quickies into theaters.
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Chapter 3

Korean National Cinema in the 1980s:

Enlightenment, Political Struggle, Social
Realism, and Defeatism


The 1980s witnessed a variety of changes in Korean society, as well as in the

film industry. Changes in politics came with the end of the 3rd Republic, which
occurred after President Park was assassinated by one of his aides. The end of
his 18-year dictatorship brought a brief moment of democracy and freedom of
expression in the spring of 1980. When the prime minister became president of
the 4th Republic the Korean people were ready for a new and free presidential
election. The brief democratic period ended with the military suppression of the
democratic movement of the City of Kwangju, where more than two thousand
people were missing or dead by the military suppression, and a subsequent
military coup. Another military government was set up and started the era of the
5th Republic.
Korea's brief fling with democracy in the early 1980s was reflected in
several films which escaped mitigated censorship: Saramui Adul (The Son of
Man, 1980) directed by Hyunmok Yu, Baramburo Johunnal (The Fine Windy
day, 1980) and Odumui Jasikdul (Children of Darkness, 1981) directed by
Jangho Lee, Mandala (1981) directed by Kwontaek Im, and Baekkuya Hwol
Hwol Naljimara (Plumage of the White Gull, 1982) directed by Jinu Chong.
These films took as their themes serious problems in real life with keen critical
eyes, and they tried to include more experimental and courageous expressions of
filmic images. They were called an explosion of creative zeal from filmmakers
who had been repressed under the revitalizing ideology of the 3rd Republic.
This brief moment of free expression in filmmaking was ended abruptly by
the oppression on cultural sectors imposed by the 5th Republic government. The
5th Republic needed to suppress cultural sectors more than did the 3rd Republic
in order to acquire the legitimacy of its political power, obtained with the
58 Korean Film

massacre of the people in Kwangju. The Kwangju incident and the cultural
oppression of the 5th Republic in the early 1980s created a new trend in cultural
sectors. The fact that the U.S. military in Korea supported the military
suppression in Kwangju and the continued U.S. backing of the 5th Republic
spread an anti-American sentiment among Korean people. This sentiment was
brought up in cultural materials deepened along with the recognition and
reconsideration of social contradictions in Korean society.
Such trends in cultural materials rose to the surface in the mid-1980s, with
the increasing penetration of the People's Cultural Movement into literary
works, paintings, music, and theater. Initiated by a group of dissident writers at
the end of the 3rd Republic, the People's Cultural Movement was designed to
create a people's culture by dealing with life experiences in cultural materials,
while trying to raise the consciousness of people about the deep contradictions
in society. The anticommunist ideology, the result of the division of the country,
was imposed for the maintenance of political power by the military
governments, and in turn created further contradictions in society by oppressing
the people who fought for democracy and who pointed out the contradictions.
Exposing such contradictions, the People's Cultural Movement became the
major target of government oppression under accusations of procommunist or
leftist traits in the mid-1980s.
Oppression of the expression of social contradictions in cultural materials
continued throughout the era of the 5th Republic, even to the 6th Republic.
Though the 6th Republic was established by general election held in response to
people's democratic movements in the spring of 1987, it continued to suppress
freedom of expression. Such persistent oppression on cultural sectors for a long
time instigated underground cultural materials such as procommunist or socialist
books and paintings.
While the oppression of freedom of expression persisted throughout the
1980s, the governments of the 5th and 6th Republics offered more liberalized
policies to the film industry. These governments loosened the censorship on
overt sexual expressions, revised the controversial Motion Picture Law, and left
the Korean film market open to foreign distributors. In 1983, the government
liberated its censorship only on overt sexual expression. Since the mid-1980s,
soft-core pornographic films inundated Korean theaters and some of them
gained popular success. However, the loosened censorship only on such
materials could not satisfy filmmakers and was criticized. Filmmakers continued
their struggle to obtain freedom of expression on social problems and life
experiences of people throughout the 1980s.
The other changes in the Korean film industry in the 1980s came with the
two revisions of the controversial Motion Picture Law. At the beginning of 1980
the government changed film policy abolishing the special film policy order of
the clause, "Ideology of Revitalizing Reform shall be involved in films" in the
annual film policy directives in the 1970s. Instead of that clause, a new clause
entitled the "improvement of film art" appeared. In 1982 the revision of the
Motion Picture Law was hotly debated in public forums—a motion picture
promotion symposium and question-and-answer sessions of the subcommittee
for culture and information matters of the National Assembly. Then the bill was
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 59

passed by the National Assembly and promulgated on December 31, 1984, and
the Enforcement Ordinance was promulgated on July 3, 1987.
The fifth revision to the Motion Picture Law brought a total reorganization of
the Korean film industry. One of the key points of this revision was in the
formalities required to become motion picture production companies—changing
from an "approval system-license system" to a "registration system." Article 4
of the former Motion Picture Law stipulated that an approval (license) from
authorities was required for a motion picture production company to be
established. Article 4 of the revised Motion Picture Law stipulates that a person
who intends to undertake the motion picture business or the motion picture
import business must register with the Ministry of Culture and Information.
In the revised law, the important points were that the license system was
changed to a registration system and motion picture production and import
companies were separated. Strict requirements to obtain an ownership license
were eliminated, and anyone could establish a film company just by registering.
Instead, the revised law stipulates that a prescribed amount of deposit money
(150 million won/U.S. $200,000) was required to register, and that without
formal registration as a film company, a person can produce only one film per
year, if and only if he or she reports the film production to authorities.
As the fifth revision of the Motion Picture Law became enacted, drastic
changes came infilmmakingpractice and in the film industry. Under the former
Motion Picture Law there were only 20 film companies with licenses, but under
the revised guidelines there were the 83 registered film production companies
and 39 independent producers. Among 83 film production companies, 80 also
registered for importing foreign films (as of December 1987). After 1986, most
new films were produced by the newly registered film companies that were
established mainly by individual producers, film directors, and actors. There was
no yearly limit to imported films in a year; instead, if a company had the license
to import, it must produce one domestic film per year. Since imported films
draw more spectators than domestic films, producer-importers were inclined
mainly to import films rather than produce. Thus, liberalization of importing
foreign films brought a radical increase in the number of foreign films imported.
While people in the Korean film industry enjoyed the result of the fifth
revision with the liberation of production and importation, the government
revised the Motion Picture Law one more time in December 1985. The sixth
revision was made under pressure of the United States on Korea to open its
market to foreign film companies. In 1985, the Motion Picture Export
Association of America (MPEAA) insisted that Korea import more American
films. After negotiation between the governments of Korea and the U.S., the
Korean government yielded to the U.S. demand that American film business
companies be allowed to open their agencies as of July 1987. The promotion
fund and the deposit money could be readjusted, and the U.S. would accept the
existing screen quota system in which every theater was required to show
domestic films for two-fifths of the total screenings and foreign films for three-
At the end of the 1980s, the Korean film industry encountered the direct
distribution of Hollywood films by U.S. film companies. Some of these
60 Korean Film

companies tried not to sell films to Korean importers on a flat fee basis in order
to regulate their own business in Korea. They started to distribute films directly
to Korean exhibitors in September 1988. Thus Korean film importers—most of
whom produce films with the revenue from the exhibition of imported
films—tried to seek other avenues to import films outside the circle of U.S. film
companies, such as through Europe and other regions.
When the sixth revision of the law was promulgated in January 1988, the
Korean film industry was divided into two sectors: one stood up against the law
and the direct distribution of foreign film companies; the other took a chance on
gaining the favor of foreign film companies. The former group consisted of
producers, directors, and assistant directors, who searched for a way to prevent
the forthcoming flood of foreign films. The latter group, especially theater
owners, began to contact foreign film companies to get exhibiting contracts. As
direct distribution started in theaters in the fall of 1988, the former group
organized a series of movements against the exhibition of directly distributed
films. The movements had been supported by other cultural sectors represented
by the People's Cultural Movement and instigated anti-American sentiment that
had spread since the early 1980s. Despite the movement, direct distribution
started and encroached upon the Korean film market.
Taking up a position with the screen quota, the Korean film industry
confronted the period of both liberation of imported foreign films and
competition with the U.S. film companies. The number of imported films
between late 1986 and early 1987 was almost double that of the number in the
same period of the preceding years. There were some non-American films also
imported, including European and other regional films. Almost no films from
these regions had been imported under the previous law in the past.
In relation to the above facts, the revised Motion Picture Law brought
widespread changes in the exhibition sector throughout Korea. As Table 3.1
indicates, the number of movie theaters throughout Korea was increasing.
However, as the number of regular theaters (800-1200 seats for one theater)
decreased every year by 20-40 theaters from 1980 to 1986, since 1982 small
theaters (some 200 seats for one) increased every year throughout Korea. At the
end of 1987, the number of small theaters was reduced to 393. The traditional
method of film distribution and exhibition through thefirst-runbig theaters was
on the decline. Along with the changes in exhibition mode, film production and
film importation would be changed to better suit the exhibition mode. Table 3.1
shows the trend of the number of domestic films, imported films, theaters, and
audiences in 1980s.
At the end of the 1980s, the Korean film industry confronted a sudden
decrease in the number of domestic film productions. The sudden increase in the
number of imported films resulted in most Korean moviegoers going to see
more imported films. The increased number of foreign films makes the
distribution of Korean films difficult. And the production companies were
inclined to do their business mainly by importing foreign films rather than by
producing Korean films, since importing was less expensive than producing.
Thus Korean film, which suffered from a depression, faced a crisis of further
retrogression in the 1980s.
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 61

Table 3.1
Trend of Korean Film Industry

Year No. of No. of Number of Admissions** Admission

Domestic Imported Screens* Rate per
Films Films Capita
1980 91 39 447 53,770 1.4
1981 87 31 423 44,443 1.2
1982 97 29 402 (9) 42,737 1.1
1983 91 26 450 (74) 44,036 1.1
1984 81 26 534(184) 43,917 1.1
1985 80 30 561 (247) 48,098 1.2
1986 73 51 640 (335) 47,278 1.1
| 1987 90 85 652 (393) 48,592 1.2 |

* Mini screens in parentheses

** In thousands
Source: Korean Film Annual,Motion Picture Promotion Corporation, 1988.

The 1980s seemed to be the period of finding long-lost freedom for Korean
films, with the loosening of censorship and the glimpse of revising the Motion
Picture Law. However, more liberal censorship on overt sexual expression
brought a flood of soft-core pornographic films into theaters, while social-
problem films continued to be suppressed. Soon after the fifth revision of the
Motion Picture Law liberated film production and importation, the sixth revision
permitted foreign film companies to do business in Korean markets. With no
revival from the depression of the previous period, Korean film encountered
further crises—competition with foreign films and difficulty in collecting
production capital in the 1980s.
The Korean film industry underwent various political upheavals, resulting in
numerous legal changes and suppression on freedom of expression. Political
upheavals had never allowed the film industry to develop its industrial base.
Legal changes after the Liberation did not seem to have contributed to the
development of the film industry, but had instead imposed trials and errors on it.
In other words, government policy succeeded not in stimulating the economics
of the film industry, but in controlling it. Repressive government policies were
best evidenced in imposition of certain ideology and continued strict censorship.


Korean filmmaking of the 1980s can be characterized as a struggle to revive
the artistic potential and popularity of the medium. Such an endeavor was
evident in the major trend of filmmaking that responded sensitively to the
political situation of Korean society. In the early 1980s, with the end of the
Third Republic, filmmakers enjoyed a short period of freedom of expression. As
the new republic (based on another military government) loosened censorship on
overt sexual expression, soft-core pornographic films blended with melodramas
62 Korean Film

and historical films flooded theaters. When the democratic movement deepened
after the long military government's repression in the mid-1980s, filmmakers
tried to obtain freedom of expression in their choice of subject that had been
forbidden since the 1960s. Finally the notion of national film, originally used to
describe the films inspiring a national spirit under Japanese Occupation, was
being redefined by a group of small-format filmmakers and members from
university film circles. National film had begun to be applied as a way out of the
depressed Korean film industry, a depression further threatened by directly
distributed foreign films.
The end of the revitalization government in 1979 and the short period of
civilian government in 1980 brought a brief moment of free expression in
several social consciousness films. A group of filmmakers took chances on the
democratic mood at that time to express what they could not have expressed in
the previous period. Saramui Adul (The Son of Man) directed by Hyunmok Yu
in 1980, Barambulo Joun Nal (The Fine Windy Day, 1980) and Odumui
Jasikdul (Children of Darkness, 1981) directed by Jangho Lee, Mandala
directed by Kwontaek Im in 1981, Baekguya Hwol Hwol Naljimara (Plumage of
the White Gull) directed by Jinu Chong in 1982, and Kobang Dongne Saramdul
(Peoples in the Slum, 1982) directed by Changho Bae—all passed censorship
despite their critical and realistic depiction of Korean society. They received
more favorable responses than general audiences gave to the domestic films of
the previous era.

Mandala (m\)
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 63

Saramui Adul, directed by Hyunmok Yu (who made one of the best Korean
films, Obaltan, in 1961), depicted a theology student, emphasizing his religious
belief in liberal theology. The main character was a heretic but when he realized
the conflict between his liberal theology and the existing religious practice, he
was killed by one of his fanatical followers. The film explores the issue of a
liberal theology that could not keep solving social problems. Kwontaek Im's
Mandala dealt with similar issues from the perspective of Buddhism through
two monks seeking after truth in agony between religious deliverance and
human distress. One seeks after truth through contact with mundane life; the
other through strict severance from the real world. Both films advocated
religion's participation in real social problems through peripheral depictions of
Korean society.
Baekhuya Hwol Hwol Naljimara, directed by Jinu Chong, presents a girl in
the city who was sold to be a maid on a small island. The girl becomes a
prostitute for fishermen, selling her body for the price of one little fish. She falls
in love with a fisherman and they try very hard to escape the island. The girl's
miserable struggle for existence and strong desire for a free life is a type of
public accusation. Odumui Jasikdul, directed by Jangho Lee, vividly exposed
the people living in a district of prostitution, focusing on the issue of human
deliverance. Lee presented poverty, humanity, and the prejudice around the life
in the slum realistically.
The critically acclaimed films of the early 1980s were Barambulo Jounnal
directed by Jangho Lee and Kobang Dongne Saramdul directed by Changho
Bae. Barambulo Jounnal portrayed the lives of a newly emerged middle class of
people in a suburb of Seoul through the eyes of three young men who come to
Seoul to get rich. Lee uses the three young men, working at a Chinese
restaurant, a barbershop, and a motel, to criticize the order of social conditions.
Kobang Dongne Saramdul, the first directing job of Changho Bae, gave an
extremely realistic picture of lives in a city slum, through various characters
such as the family of a taxi driver, an insane woman, a petty merchant, and a
preacher. With the emergence of these films, Korean film, which passed through
a long and dark tunnel, seems to demonstrate the possibility of expressing
honest, vivid, and free themes. The films of this trend were made by the major
film directors whose creative wills were suppressed in the 1970s and by new
film directors who made their debut in the early 1980s. However, this trend of
filmmaking was quickly suppressed by the government of the 5th Republic in
The military government's oppression of cultural expression revived again
and censorship became stricter than ever. This time the government's
manipulation of censorship showed a different standard than that of the late
1960s and 1970s. Responding to the complaints of people in the film industry
about the censorship of domestic films, the Performance Ethics Committee
permitted rather liberated expressions of overt sexual content, without loosening
its control on the expression of socially conscious material. Such a shift in
censorship brought a new trend of filmmaking in the 1980s, characterized by
soft-core pornographic melodramas and historical films. Also the standard for
quality film changed in the mid to late 1980s, with the abolishment of the import
64 Korean Film

quota system. The MPPC granted a subsidy, about U.S. $20,000, to a producer
of a selected quality film. Standards of quality films were based on the
following: (1) they must be produced by careful planning and in an expressive
style, with originality, so they will gave a good emotional experience to
audiences; (2) they must express the traditional Korean culture so they could
proceed to the international stage; (3) they must encourage the unique Korean
spirit so they will contribute to the official view of Korean history; (4) they must
contribute to the development of Korean film; (5) or they must foster healthy
emotions in youth. However, few of these standards were hardly applied to the
selection of quality films. A member of the committee for selecting quality films
commented that no one selected a quality film based on the stated standards;
instead, quality films were selected according to one basic idea—films that can
be recommended to everybody and enjoyed by everybody (Movie, September
1986, p. 24). Though the new standard was vague, in the 1980s films were no
longer encouraged to reflect the revitalizing ideology of the 1970s.
Melodramas remained the major trend in the 1980s (Korean Film Annual,
1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1987, MPPC). Different from the other periods of
Korean film history, melodramas in the 1980s were concerned mostly to "take
off the clothes" of main characters. They exploit love stories to stimulate the
curiosity of audiences that had never seen such eroticism on the screen of
domestic films. Aema Buin (Lady Aema) directed by Inyob Chong, initiated the
boom of soft-core pornographic films in 1982, drawing more than 300,000
people to a first-run theater. The film dealt with a housewife who, frustrated by
unsatisfied desire in her married life, ran away from home and ventured on a
series of sexual pilgrimages. In the end, she returned to her husband and the
same old life, without solving any of her frustration. Three sequels of the film
followed the success of the first, the last of which came out in 1988 with the title
of Paris Aema (Lady Aema in Paris). Paris Aema, made by the same director,
borrowed the formula of the first one, changing only the location to Paris and
substituting French men as the objects of her sexual pilgrimage. Omadamui
Oechul (Outing of Madame O, Suhyung Kim, 1983), Sarang Gurigo lbyol
(Love and Parting, Jangho Byun, 1983), Murupgua Murup Sai (Between Knees,
Jangho Lee, 1984), Ihon Bubjong (Divorce Court, Hyochon Kim, 1984),
Wharyonhan Yuhok (Glamorous Seduction, 1985), Jayu Buin 2 (Free Woman 2,
1986), Ppalgan Aengdu 3 (Red Prune 3, 1986), and Santtalgi (Wild Strawberry,
1987) all exploit melodrama for its soft-pornographic content.
In the 1980s, filmmakers produced historical films in order to submit them to
international film festivals. They blended local flavor with eroticism, claiming
that such films were "being truly Korean." It was a fad especially in the mid-
1980s, and eventually became a mixed genre, blending with soft-core
pornography. Such historical films were frequently presented to international
film festivals and some of them were commercially successful in the domestic
market. Owoodong (Jangho Lee, 1984), Pong (Mulberry Leaves, Duyong Lee,
1985), Ttangbyut (The Blazing Sun, Myungjoong Ha, 1985), Janyomok (The
Adultery Tree, Jinu Chong, 1985), Sibagi (Surrogate Womb, Kwontaek Im,
1986), Yonsan Ilgi (Diary of Yonsan, Kwontaek Im, 1987), and Gamja
(Potatoes, Jangho Byun, 1987) represent this trend of historical films blended
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 65
with soft-core pornography in the 1980s. Particularly, Kwontaek Im's Sibadi
and Yonsanilgi exhibited extraordinary aesthetics of the film medium which was
uncommon in Koran film history. Owoodong depicted a high-class woman in
the Yi Dynasty who liberated herself from Confucian ethics and became a
courtesan. The film was not only commercially successful, drawing more than
500,000 people but was also critically acclaimed with its beautiful photography
and reconstruction of the period of the Yi Dynasty. Pong portrayed a woman in
a small town during the Japanese Occupation. Since her husband has been away
from home for the independence movement, as was implicitly suggested by a
Japanese police who follows him in the film, she struggles to make a living by
collecting mulberry leaves. She even offered herself to the guard of the mulberry
field in order to collected the leaves. The film was also received well both
critically and commercially for its symbolic depiction of the people in a small
town where there was not much going on but sex under the Japanese
Films of social issues and youth films were a newly emerging genre in the
1980s. Films of social issues refer to nonfiction stories that became issues in
newspapers, such as the trading of young girls as prostitutes and the problems of
deviant adolescents. Youth films emerged, targeting a new audience group:
children and high school and college students. Animation films for children
were produced increasingly for summer vacation. Films about friendship, love,
and other problems of high school or college students were another trend of this
period. And most action films in the early 1980s followed the form of Chinese
Kung-fu movies. They were often coproduced with Hong Kong.


While melodramas and historical films with soft-core pornographic elements
were the major trend, the 1980s saw various directors searching for a new filmic
aesthetic. The films of Kwontaek Im, Jangho Lee, and several new filmmakers
demonstrated new aesthetic potential in Korean film. Kwontaek Im, who had
made more than 80 films through the 1960s and 1970s, established himself as
one of the best directors who made several problematic films with his own
authentic style. Starting with Mandala, he tried to express the reality of Korean
society with restrained styles. He dealt with the issue of the division of the
country through three people in Gilsottum (1986), and depicted a group of
alienated people who work in a coffee shop that openly practices prostitution in
Ticket (19M).
Jangho Lee, who started filmmaking with Byuldului Gohyang in the 1970s,
was a versatile filmmaker, who established his own filmic style through a
variety of genres. As a producer-director, he continued to experiment with
genres, messages, and styles, while producing socially conscious films and soft-
core pornographic films alternately throughout 1980s. He said he made soft-core
pornography in order to finance the production of socially conscious films,
which included melodramas such as Barambulo Jounnal (1980) and Odumui
Jasikdul (1981); a black comedy, Babo Sonon (Declaration of Fools, 1983); and
a literary adaptation, Nagunenun Gilesodo Shijianunda (Man with Three
Coffins, 1987). These films relied on rich filmic experimentations and some of
66 Korean Film
them were presented to international film festivals. His Nagunenun Gilesodo
Shijianunda received the Critic's Award at the Tokyo Film Festival in 1987. For
commercial success, he made a melodrama, Murupgua Murup Sai (1982), and
historical dramas such as Owoodong (1985) and Gamdong (1988), exploiting
soft-core pornographic elements.

Whale Hunting (1984)

The emergence of a new generation offilmmakersbrought fresh spirit to the

Korean film industry in the 1980s. Particularly, those who practiced 16mm
filmmaking as amateurs proceeded into commercial filmmaking and were well
received by audiences. Changho Bae, who began with Kobang Dongne
Saramdul in 1981, made a series of both artistic and commercially successful
films with fresh expressions, such as Jokdoui Kot (Tropical Flower, 1984),
Gorae Sanyang (Whale Hunting, 1984), Whangjini (1986), and Gipun Uri
Jolmunnal (Happy Old Days, 1987).
Sungsu Shin realistically presented alienated people in Jangsaui Kum
(Dream of a Strong Man, 1985) and used sophisticated expressions in thrillers
such as Dalbit Sanyanggun (Moonlight Hunter, 1986) and Songya (Holy Night,
1987). Gilsu Chang demonstrated a fresh presentation of the lives of people
living in a G I camp town in Bamui Yolgisokuro (Into the Heat of the Night,
1985), and he exhibited his mature directing of a romance story between a
middle-aged man and a young woman in Letheui Yonga (Love Song of Lethe,
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 67
Chulsu Park, raised on television dramas, expressed a delicate emotional
conflict in Angae Gidung (Mist Pillar, 1986) and a mother's revenge for her
abducted daughter in Uomi (Mother, 1985).
Sunwoo Jang, who wrote several pieces of criticism and scripts before his
directing debut, exhibited sarcasm and pronounced realism in Seoul Whangje
(Seoul Emperor, 1986) based on his original script.
And Kwangsu Park joined in the group of new generation with Chilsoowa
Mansoo (Chilsoo and Mansoo, 1988) which depicted two desperate skyscraper
window cleaners with unhappy family backgrounds.
Against this trend of filmmaking in the 1980s, a new film movement
emerged through university film circles and a group of small-format filmmaking
on super 8mm or 16mm filmmaking. This movement started with the overall
atmosphere of the democratic movement, as part of the People's Culture
Movement. The movement was initiated by traditional performing arts and
spread to other cultural sector, such as music, painting, literature, and theater. A
major task of people's culture movement was to express the lived experience of
the oppressed or the working class people. The People's Culture Movement
exploits cultural products as a means of raising consciousness and revealing
contradictions in Korean society. The parallel film movement started by
criticizing the commercial filmmaking system for its inevitable co-optation by
the dominant political system. It attempted to exhibit the reality of society
hidden and unreported or distorted by mass media and commercial films.
Through the small format films, it tried to depict the lives of the poor, peasants,
and underprivileged people. Their ultimate aim was to produce "people's films."
The task of the film movement was "to produce and distribute films contributing
to the establishment of a true national culture and to the process of social and
political change in practice" (M. Hong, 1985, p. 209). That is, the task of
people's film was to contribute to social and political change by way of
depicting the lived experience of the people who were the subjects of that
Adopting such a purpose, the Seoul Cinema Group, organized in 1982,
produced super 8mm films such as Surise (Collection of Taxes, 1984), Gu
Yorum (That Summer, 1984), and Parangsae (Blue Bird, 1986). Surise was a
documentary composed of interviews with peasants and a reconstruction of the
peasants' struggle to gain the right of paying taxes with spot goods. Gu Yorum
was a nonfiction drama depicting the lives of working-class people. And
Parangsae, based on a peasant story called "Mother the Sinner," depicted the
desperate lives of peasants and the economic destruction of farmers by the
government policy that permitted the free importation of agricultural products
from abroad. Parangsae was planned at the request of the peasant movement,
produced by discussion with peasants about their lives, and exhibited to peasants
for free all over the country for a month. After the screening, peasants discussed
the issues raised by the film. Two people involved in its production were
arrested for not passing the censorship and they were jailed for six months.
According to the Motion Picture Law, films that are supposed to be exhibited for
commercial purpose should undergo the censorship. Since Parangsae was
exhibited for free, it did not have to pass the censorship. Nevertheless, the
68 Korean Film

government insisted that the exhibition of the film was against the law, without
finding any legal reason to oppress the film movement as part of the People's
Cultural Movement.
This film movement continues in university film circles and as a part of labor
union movements and movements for the needy. Representative works were
Gunali Omyon (When the Day Comes, 1987), and Sanggyedong Olympic
(1988). Produced by a group of students of the Seoul Arts College, Gunali
Omyon depicted the conflict of a policeman, who was drafted during his college
days, confronting the student demonstration participated in by all of his college
friends. Sanggyedong Olympic was filmed on videotape as collaboration
between a filmmaker and people who lost their dwelling area to a government
plan to beautiful Seoul for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. It took two years
to cover the whole process of confrontation between the people and the
government. The trend of shortfilmmakinghad been dismissed by people in the
existing commercial system as a subversive movement initiated by a small
group of radical people. However, it inspired people in the film industry to
accept the need for a redefinition of national film based on the concept of
people's film, upon the encroachment of foreign films by direct distribution. For
people in the film industry, it represents the liberated expression from two
decades of censorship that could revive the depressed Korean film industry. The
proposed revision of the Motion Picture Promotion Law was more a means of
acquiring the freedom of expression of subject matter, than of providing Korean
film with benefits such as a subsidy system or the withdrawal of permission for
direct distribution to foreign film companies. In this context, people in the film
industry recognized the need for a redefinition of nationalfilm:"Koreanfilm
should not be a means of hiding the contradictions of the society any more,"
"Korean film should not be a means of pleasure-seeking, averting the pain of the
people, any more." This particular aspect of the movement will be discussed
extensively in the following chapters.
The trends of Korean filmmaking have been closely related to historical,
social, and political factors such as import quotas and censorship. There were
only a few historical moments when popular-national films were spontaneously
made: under Japanese Occupation and in late late 1950s and early 1960s before
the military regime began in 1961. In the mid-1980s, national films were
produced by a small group of people as a means of exposing social
contradictions. The films of the Japanese Occupation, mixing shinpa melodrama
with nationalism, were described as being full of symbolic expressions of the
anger and sadness of the people who lost their country. The films in the late
1950s and early 1960s showed a strong realistic tendency with artistic stylistics
that had never been done before. A few films of the era were still acclaimed as
among the best Korean films.
In the 1970s, films of strong realism declined as the government
strengthened its restrictions on filmed messages. The period thrived with a lot of
sentimental and tear-jerking melodramas, which could not possibly provoke
censorship. Anticommunist films were often chosen as "good" or "quality" films
and were the means for getting import quotas, even though they did not
experience box-office success.
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 69

In the early 1980s, several socially conscious films with realistic expressions
appeared during the short-lived democratic mood. But as the new military
government began and as it loosened censorship on overt sexual content,
melodramas and historical films with soft-core pornographic elements
flourished. Since most commercial films tried to avoid realistic expression,
choosing to "beat around the bush" for safe passage through censorship, a group
of small-format filmmakers initiated the people's film movement, seeking a new
kind of national film. The goal was to express the lived experience of oppressed
people and to expose the deepened contradictions of Korean society to the
In this context, people in the Korean film industry adopted that the concept
of national film, raised by noncommercial filmmakers, for the revival of Korean
film against the encroachment of the direct distribution of foreign films. At that
time, the practice of national film in a commercial filmmaking system was
unpredictable. The government's suppression of cultural sectors had been severe
and it was expected to continue. But it seems possible that the production of
national films will continue, considering the group of courageous filmmakers
emerging in commercial filmmaking and considering that culture was constantly
on the move toward change.



The Emergence of National Cinema

The crushing defeat of the Kwangju Uprising, the bloody insurrection of
May 1980, and an increasing cohesion between the middle and working classes
generated both an important culture of resistance—in particular a hidden
cinema—but also a reappraisal of the limits of the possible in the slow return to
democracy. While it is true that the major audiences in Korea have been
working-class people in the expanding cities of the nation, domestic films have
not been democratic or serving the interests of Minjoong (people of the working
class) such as the issue of labor struggle and historical truth. In other words,
from the early 20th century in Korea, with few exceptions, cinema did not
attempt to reproduce the reality of Minjoong, but rather particular forms of
spectacle, based mainly on imported genres.
At the same time, young and unknown filmmakers began to experiment with
forbidden cultural and political topics and to establish a collective force to
challenge the hegemony of the mainstream industry and the state filmmaking
apparatus. Cinema clubs, underground magazines, and other publications fueled
an active interest in and creation of the Minjok Youngwha Woondong (NCM).
NCM, however, is not a mere response to the dominant cultural discourse
elaborated by Hollywood and the mainstream film industry. NCM is a site in
which the multiplicity of languages and social discourses may be expressed and
articulated. By looking through Bakhtin's idea of heteroglossia, NCM is the
discursive construction embedded in the culture that has undergone different
political, economic, and historical eruptions. In other words, it is closely
interrelated with other stratified and diversified cultural movements, such as the
70 Korean Film

labor movement. This section discloses and examines the series of binding
interrelationships, continuities, and breaks that have made this movement a
significant sociopolitical and cultural force in Korea. It also seeks to present
how the movement contributes to contemporary independent cinematic practices
in Korea.

National Cinema and Realism

Unlike Japanese and Chinesefilms,Korean films are relatively unknown and
rarely studied. In his article, the first scholarly essay ever written in English on
Korean cinema, Doherty (1984) characterized some of the realistic films, like
Sooyong Kim's Girl Who Came to the City (1981) and Jangho Lee's Childrenof
Darkness (1981) as "national cinemas." Although they werefilmmakersof the
mainstream cinema, Kim and Lee were dismayed by its inability to reproduce
and represent life. They attempted to capture and organize images of life that
allowed viewers to see more of that world than they could merely with their eyes
in their ordinary life. Children of Darkness, for example, portrays an innocent
country girl who is exploited and lured into prostitution. It vividly enacts a the
harsh reality of an urban street. Director Lee, however, concentrates less upon
the social and political implications of the corrupt male world here than upon the
tragic transformation in the heroine's character. The film ends as she lifts and
carries a homeless man without legs and money to her room. The exploited
prostitute transforms herself as a tragic angel. Still the church at the end of the
red district would not pay attention to those children of darkness. Socially, the
film mainly criticizes Christian churches' lack of humanity and compassion
toward underprivileged people. But it never challenges the government or its
social policies, because it was unthinkable at that time.
These films resented and lamented the contemporary Korean society and led
to a new direction infilmmaking,but they rarely challenged the status quo, the
modes of mainstream production, or the government's control of the film
industry. Instead they romanticized social problems, such as prostitution,
dysfunctional families, and confusions in traditional values created by
Westernization. It is, therefore, difficult to conceive those momentarily
superficial topics as keys with which to access complex histories. Moreover, it is
important to remember that though a film is funded with a nation's capital and a
film deals with domestic problems, it is not necessarily its national cinema.
Thus, it is inappropriate to consider those films as "national cinema." They had
little or no influence on the development of NCM. In addition, the films of
Jangho Lee, Kwontaek Lim, Changho Bae, and Inho Choi examined a number
of pressing problems within Korean society and addressed the nonelite or the
common people of Korea—the effects of the unbalanced social development.
Even so they lack true political aspiration and historical truth. Some of these
films, however, were quite popular and generated a respectable cash flow at the
box office. Due to the high level of political pressure, films moved toward a
more popular and less uncompromising social stance during the decade of the
More currently, Standish (1994) characterizes some films of new realism as
pioneers of the "break toward realism." Three films are especially noteworthy.
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 71

Kwangsu Park's Chilsu and Mansu (two male names, 1988) portrays two young
underprivileged movie theater employees who are trapped, isolated, and
exploited. The film emphasizes only despair, agony, and defeatism without any
solutions or directions. Although it does not romanticize the social reality like
those early 1980s films, it fails to portray Chilsu and Mansu as victims of
structural social injustice and class conflicts. It is their destiny to continue their
lives as they were. Chongwon Park's Kuro Arirang (1989), which portrays
young female factory workers in the Kuro industrial complex (located two miles
north of Seoul), and Kwangsu Park's Black Republic (1990), which evolves
around a relationship between a radical college student wanted by the police and
an emotionally tormented son of wealthy coal miner, were also films of
defeatism and skepticism fostering little or no hope for the future.

Arirang (\9S9)

One of the reasons why these films were successful is that the text dialogizes
their relationships to the dominant cinema. They do so in ways that resist and
modify the dominant language and filmic conventions. They were different from
both the mainstream films and radical films of NCM. These films are sincere
and entertaining, but they are still filled with defeatism and cynicism. While
Standish is correct in identifying these as neorealistic films, he fails to take
account of the underground filmmaking practices from 1980 (the year of the
Kwangju Uprising) to 1990 that influenced the rising of new realism and
cinematic truth. As the political mood shifted in 1989, Kuro and Black Republic
were shown to the public but films from NCM were only shown to college
students, peasants, workers, and students of Yahak (evening school for working-
class citizens). Kuro Arirang was even shown in the Berlin International Film
72 Korean Film

Festival in 1990. Another major difference between new realism films and NCM
can be found in Gramsci's concept of "national-popular." It refers to the
possibility of an alliance of interests and feelings among different social agents
like intellectuals, the proletariat, and the peasantry. NCM is more than a
prescribed "realist" text. It attempts to construct a new political reality through
"a new type of hegemony" (Chambers & Curti, 1984, p. 101). Kuro and other
films are filled with existing prescribed cultural styles that are tailored and
maintained by the ruling class. In other words, they are cinemas of no hope.
As Figure 3.4 shows, national cinema has been used specifically to describe
films made outside of the mainstream cinema. Minjok Youngwha (national
cinema) was first used in a book entitled For New Cinema published by Seoul
Youngwha Jipdhan (Seoul Cinema Group) in 1983.

Minjok Youngwha (national cinema) is a marginal and politicized cinematic practice that
resists the imitated version of Hollywood's dominant modes of production and creates
new forms and contents.Its main goal is to liberate Minjoong (popular) and tofightfor its
progressive agendas. It must be placed in the center of Minjoong Woondong (movement)
and closely interrelated with the national labor struggle, (pp. 3-7).

Figure 3.1
Formation of Korean National Cinema

Cinematic /^Sources of Theoretical constructs " \ Social & Cultural

Movements Movements
Latin American Labor Movement
Kwangju Uprising
Revolutionary Film
Class Struggle
Minjoong. Minjck, Haan Class Liberation
Italian Movement
Literary &
French National Music
Nouvelle Vague Korean National Movements
American Movement
Regional Film Farmers' Movement

British Griersonian Third Cinema Random On-The-Site

Free Cinema Third World Cinema Cultural Movements
Revolutionary Cinema

Contributing writers in the book also argue that political and economic
liberation are necessary preconditions for the movement. Writers and
filmmakers for NCM certainly drew on the ideals of less revolutionary Italian
neorealism, American regional film, and European countercinema. NCM shares,
however, the revolutionary characteristic of Third Cinema, which was first used
by Argentinean filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in 1969
(Willeman, 1989). Although there are many different definitions of and debates
on the term, there are few identifiable general characteristics of Third Cinema.
Willeman ( 1989) wrote:
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 73
What is becoming clearer now is that the various manifestosand polemics arguing for a
Third Cinema fused a number of European, Soviet and Latin American ideas about
cultural practice into a new, more powerful (in the sense that it was able to conceptualize
the connections between more areas of socio-cultural life than contemporary European
aesthetic ideologies) programme for the political practice of cinema. Third Cinema, Third
World Cinema, and Revolutionary Cinema tended to get lumped together to the point
where they became synonymous, (p. 5).

Although the specific circumstances of Korea have determined the particular

shape and dynamics of the NCM, it can be identified with some tendencies of
Third Cinema. For example, it refuses prescribed aesthetics. Those writers in
For New Cinema seem to follow Berlolt Brecht's idea that aesthetic forms in a
film are inappropriate and even damaging in achieving revolutionary
consciousness. While NCM condemns a cinema that violates revolutionary
morality and relies on advertising technique, it actually advocates the emotional
manipulation which Third Cinema may oppose. Here are five manifestos for

1. Propaganda and instigation: National cinema is in search of a voice for people against
the ideology of the ruling class. Its foremost mission is to educate Minjoong for its
historical importance and the necessity of class struggles.
2. Creation of national culture: National cinema is a vehicle for the exploration of
possible avenues for Korean self-expression and for cultural liberation from the West
and the totalitarian power.
3. Democratic distribution system: National cinema resists Hollywood's dominance in
the international market and the government's monopoly and control over the
4. Freedom from censorship: National cinema fights against any forms of restrictions and
censorship by the ruling class.
5. Improvement of labor conditions in filmmaking: National cinema condemns the
mainstream film industry for exploiting film crews and violating their rights and
welfares. It also promotes the development of alternative styles and strategies of
production to counter the attraction of Hollywood films and the mainstream films
(National Cinema Research Institute, 1989, p. 12-70).

The National Cinema Movement is worth examining for the following

reasons: (1) it provided a site for new forms and contents, especially political
subjects; (2) it created alternative modes of production and consumption; (3) it
made the mainstream film industry and its audience rethink the social function
of cinema—as Graeme Turner (1990) called it, "film as a social practice"; (4)
the NCM, with commitment to the indictment of the corrupted authority and
social injustice, was consistent, persistent, and coherent in fostering cultural and
ideological liberation. Furthermore, the close examination of national cinema is
useful to film studies because the term designates a tendency on the part of
filmmakers that is inherently oppositional to conventional hierarchies. At the
same time, the National Cinema Movement attempts to bring what has been
excluded and marginalized culturally in the mainstream. NCM opposes the
mainstream film practices. But it does not, as Lee (1989, pp. 12-15) indicated,
foster a cultural isolationism. It attempts to diversify and democratize the
74 Korean Film

industry. The total rejections of dominant cultural forms such as mainstream

cinema would not only be counterproductive but also naive.

Political and Cultural Backgrounds

Beginning in 1988, Korea entered a new phase in its political and social
development. There were constitutional safeguards against despotism, relaxation
of censorship, and, following the success of the Seoul Olympics, a new sense of
Korea's status in the world. Former president Taewoo Roh's ability to extend
the political center by discussion rather than force created a hope for new
democratically elected civilian president. Rho made a peace treaty with various
left-wing radical groups and released several key political prisoners. This
political change, continous student demonstrations, anti-Americanism, and
economic growth and decline have brought economic, political, and cultural
forces into new kinds of relation, into a new equilibrium.
Unlike the Marxist sociological analysis, cultural critics and filmmakers
from the People's Cultural Alliance (Minmoonyon) began to chart the process of
change within the traditional cultures of the working class, attempting to rework
their procedures and methods so as to apply them to the study of living class
cultures. In other words, cultural movements and debates shown in Figure 3.1,
are reexamined and redebated through theories and practices. By adopting
Althusserian Marxism, dependency perspectives began to incorporate with
theories of ideology, cultural production, and class society. Through journals
like Gongdongche Moonwha (communal culture) writers explore the
ramifications of dependence for cultural production at the level of social
formations rather than just at the concrete economic or ideological levels in
order to identify the specificity of cultural production. The prime example of
this movement would be Hyunjang Moonwha Woondong (on-the-spot cultural
movement). The main purpose of this movement, according to Seunghyun Moon
(1990), was to implant political consciousness into factory workers by providing
various cultural activities. Thus, those cultural activities were considered as
tools for the labor struggle.
Hyunjang was, however, criticized for romanticizing the past and the old
working class. The People's Cultural Organization (Minmoonhyup) argues that
although cultural activities in the workplace are significant, they must be
political and socially productive. Minmoonyon's affirmative approach to
working class patterns of cultural activities presents popular culture as being
meaningful. Unfortunately, this legitimation is tainted by the fact that its
essentially literary-critical approach to working-class cultural life is not linked to
what the necessary recrudescence of Marxism has subsequently insisted upon:
power and politics. Its analysis of working-class culture is too good to be true at
times. It focuses on questions of the quality of working class' cultural life and
the effects of mass society on high culture. It asserts the necessity of art for its
moral and critical training of the intellect and our sensitivity in general. These
concerns indicate the ideological and political limitations of Hyunjang
movement. While this kind of social theory is barely useful today, its
significance in the development of Korean social theory is that the distinctions
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 75

between theory and practice were dissolved. It also provided themes of social
class, community, and popular culture for Korean cultural studies.
Dissenters and radicals have utilized the media and arts for decades, whether
in books, magazines, newspapers, film, drama, and even bulletin boards, a
common medium in Korean colleges. In fact, the presence of dissident voices in
the Korean print media and performing arts is a tradition, rather than a
time—bound phenomenon.
Such rapid historical and cultural change inevitably had a serious impact
upon the Korean cinema. In the early 1980s, president Doowhan Chun's
centralization and control was confronted by the spread of organized student
radicalism. Small numbers of well-disciplined and morally fervid radical
students influenced many other students. The first organization that led such
opposition to the government was Sammintu (Struggle Committee for People's
Democratization). Sammintu was the first radical movement organization that
had a structure. It was formed by a group of political dissidents and radical
college graduates in 1985. Its fervor and Spartan discipline influenced many
workers and college students. It demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from
the South, the destruction of the military regime, and unification. Its
revolutionary spirit descended to other radical organization like Minmintu
(Struggle Committee for Democracy). It led the way in street rallies and
organized the occupation of several government buildings and the United States
Information Service (USIA) library in Seoul. Sammintu and its followers
claimed that the division between the North and South was created by the U.S.
and demands the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the south. They believed that
the presence of the forces blocks the unification of Korea. Although their
idealistic utopianism was naive and unrealistic, the passion and dedication of
student activists won them middle-class support and sympathy. This was further
reinforced by public accusations of the U.S. role in the massacre of the Kwangju
Uprising and the free trade pressure.
Friction among student activitists was exacerbated by growing ideological
differences. Several organizations like Sammintu were formed. They were either
radical or moderate in their tactics and approaches. Some insisted on radical
revolution; some insisted on democratic social change. Religious leaders,
especially Cardinal Stephen Kim, educators, and feminist leaders began to
persuade radical students to join them in retaining middle-class support. This
loose coalition ultimately led to a Grand Peace March (June 26, 1987) in Seoul
and other cities. Overall it involved millions of people and forced President Roh,
former president Chun's chosen successor, to announce a major political
reform—a direct presidential election.
The reform was extended to areas of literature, drama, and film. In the field
of literature, the reform evolved into a more openly Marxist literature, espousing
the themes of worker-peasant suffering. Some former literary heroes such as
Kwangsu Lee and Namsun Choi were vilified anew for collaborating with
colonial Japan by encouraging (some say against their wills) young Korean
students to volunteer for Japanese military during the World War II., while those
who had resisted oppression were granted new heroic status. In addition,
Nakchung Baik's, an editor of Changjak Gwa Bipyung (literary criticism) 1969
76 Korean Film

article, "On Citizens' Literature," provided the guidance for Minjoong to

espouse the themes of worker-peasant suffering, political corruption, and
imperialism. Likewise drama tested this new environment of reform with
political satires and experimental performance; even traditional dance and folk
theater took on strident sociopolitical themes such as anti-Americanism. Oral
culture was also a key area of transformation. Protest songs mdp'ansori (p'an =
playground; sori = song, meaning song sung upon having arranged a
playground) along with folk dances and short plays were seen as integral to
antigovernment resistance. Some music critics pursued an individual Korean
sound, distinct from the phonic influences of China, Japan, or the West, and this,
in turn, led to the so-called unification music movement in which South Korean
musicians sought exchanges with colleagues from North Korea and promoted an
interest in the post-1945 music of North Korean socialist realism (Kim, 1991, p.



The origins of the NCM can be traced to the development of cultural

activities in Seoul National University immediately after the defeat of the
Kwangju Uprising. Yallasung Cinema Club, founded in 1980, showed the
classics of film history as well as the pioneering work of unknown young
directors from Latin America and Europe. The club also created a space for
serious theoretical, aesthetic discussion of film as an art form and a
revolutionary tool. Moreover, it helped to foster a generation of students who
had a more sophisticated and critical view of the function of cinema. The
movement gathered momentum with the establishment of Seoul Cine Group,
which drew its inspiration from French theorists such as Georges Sadoul and
Louis Daquin, and the Third Cinema movement. It was formed primarily with
former members of Yallasung in 1982. It helped to consolidate a more
sophisticated approach to film with a film journal, Yeolin Youngwha (Open
Cinema, 1984-1986, only 4 issues published) (Byun, 1990, pp. 207-210).
The filmmakers of Seoul Cine Group who were theoreticians of "new"
cinema were clear about the differences of their ownfilmicpractices. In general
the various manifestos of the NCM of this period all point to a distinctive break
with the past and with dominant hegemonic discourses. Theirs would be a lucid,
critical realist, popular, anti-imperialist, underground, revolutionary cinema
which would break with the monopolistic practices of the North American major
film studios. No aesthetic formulae were laid down; flexibility would be needed
to adapt to different social situations. Yet there was always the desired intention
to articulate a different set of aspirations out of the raw materials provided by
the culture, its traditions, art forms, the complex interactions and condensations
of which shape the national cultural space inhabitated by thefilm-makersas well
as their small audiences (Kim, interview, 1990).
As a part of the National Cinema Movement, short films and videos with
antigovernment themes had been produced since 1984. Yallasung and Seoul
Cine Group sponsored the first NCM film festival, Jakun Youngwhache
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 77

(Festival for Small Cinema) in 1984. The total of six films (both 8mm and
16mm) were shown to a group of college filmmakers, who were the founding
members of most college cinema clubs: Kilsu Jang, Myungsu Seo, Kwangsu
Park, Hongjun Kim, Donghong Jang, Junggook Lee, Uisuk Kim, Junha Lee,
Kisun Hong, and Hyoin Lee. Much of this initiative came from JipDahn
(Collective Group) that produced seven films, including Blue Bird which depicts
the struggles of peasants in their fight against the exploitation of local
At this time, however, former president Chun's desperate attempt to maintain
power was accompanied by a ferocious assault on left-wing and trade union
movements. As a result JipDahn was closed and old film stocks were seized by
the National Security Council (formally known as the Korean CIA). Despite
these pressures, a small number of important films were made, both
documentary and fiction. Interestingly, these films have never been shown to the
general public, as commercial theaters were afraid of showing them. Instead
they were often shown in abandon buildings, college classrooms, and factories
to a small number of audiences.

The Night Before the Strike (1990)

Seoul Cine Group's We Will Never Lose You (video, 1987) depicts the
resistance of a student who died in a torturing session by police. Sanggeydong
Olympic, funded by the Seoul Catholic Diocese, is about poor people who fight
against the city of Seoul's face-lifting plan that would abolish their
underdeveloped residential area (Sanggye Dong) for the 1988 Summer
Olympics. Oh! Dream Land is considered the first anti-American film and
78 Korean Film
harshly criticizes the U.S. for supporting three different military regimes and for
not doing anything to stop the massacre during the Kwangju Uprising. It also
points out that American humanitarian ideology often masks a political agenda.
But it was Parup Jeonya (The Night Before the Strike) by Dongong Jang, who
also directed Oh! Dream Land, that drew national attention. Parup Jeonya was a
powerful indictment of working-class repression; the oppression in the film
raised serious doubt about political reform. Even president Ron's political
reform could not tolerate the rhetoric of Parup.

Scene 129: Inside of factory, 1 PM.

Team Captain: Hey, what the hell are you doing? Go back to work!
Manager. Hurry up! (Workers begin to move slowly to their machines, Hansu, the
main character, is agonizing and suddenly turns off the machine and goes up to the
top of it. And he throws a heavy wrench to the window; others follow.
Hansu: When are you going to stop living like an animal! When are you going to get
out of this miserable pit! (Machines are destroyed one by one.)
Dongup: Let's get out of here! (Workers with metal pipes, tools, and wood sticks
rushing out of the factory) (Lee, 1990, p. 192.)

Yongkwan Lee, a film critic, argues that Parup was the perfect example of
how a film serves the interests of Minjoong, the issue of labor struggle and
historical truth (pp. 191-195). Yongbae Lee, the producer of Parup, said "I
would be satisfied if this film can be used as a mere candle that lightens the
dawn of new era in labor liberation" (Jangsangotmae Pamphlet, 1990). The
oppression of the film continued throughout the nation. More than 1,800 riot
police and several military helicopters, for example, raided a theater in JeonNam
University to seize a copy of the film (Hangyeorae Shinmun, April 18, 1990).
Afterward students organized a series of street demonstrations to protest the
The impact of Parup was powerful enough to draw national attention to the
NCM. Despite the unprecedented degree of the oppression against one film, the
film was shown to more than 200,000 people within three weeks. To ease the
crisis, the government allowed a docudrama based on the Kwangju Uprising to
be shown to the public. Buwhal ui Norae (Song of Resurrection), written and
directed by Jeonggook Lee with primitive equipments and unknown actors, was
the first true national cinema shown to the general public. Although the tone of
the film was generally milder than Parup, the impact of the film was very
important. Critics agree that the film was well balanced in portraying the
Uprising (Center for National Cinema Study, 1990, p. 175).
During the three decades of military dictatorship, the popularity of domestic
films among the Korean working class and college students sank to an all-time
low, and the industry began to rely on foreign films for its survival. The major
incentive of having the best picture award in domestic film festivals, like
Daejong Sang (Big Bell Award), was the few importation rights of Hollywood
blockbuster films. Because of the brutal censorship on every aspect of film
production, the industry was unable to explore creative and political
possibilities. NCM questions the conventional premises of such unpolitical
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 79
narrative structures of film representation. It often specifies a condition of
inequality and hegemonic nature of power. Within the context of the dominant
cinema the NCM presents a form of alternative discourse shaped by a mode of
production that constitutes a resistance to the dominant.
These national films consist of a mixture of documentary and fiction, and
they function as language in action from a position of marginality, from both
under and outside the industrial sector controlled by the mainstream film. They
are related historically and politically to oppressed cultural experiences during
military dictatorships. They are forms of cultural resistance to the controlling
nature of the dominant culture. These films can also be read as a form of protest
that denounces the hegemony of Hollywood.
Various social discourses and the multiple nature of language have been
neglected and marginalized in the mainstream cinemas. Languages are
awkwardly formulated and artificially styled. Therefore it is impossible to
express the social reality in a truthful manner. By creating multiple characters
and storylines with no obvious central characters and dispassionate camera
shots, NCM filmmakers refuse to construct an entertaining story line based on
predictable narratives and conventions and a simple cause and effect. Films can
be unpleasant and dissatisfying, but the dialectic way of presenting the reality
helps to demystify Korean society. Mainstream filmic languages are always
formulated in reference to the dominant culture; subjectivity is often constructed
in a closed manner. There is no possibility of another construction of
subjectivity. But they ignore the fact that an unlimited number of interpretations
is possible due to the complexity of production processes.
For the mode of production, Italian neorealism and Latin America's New
Cinema were the cinematic models for unknown filmmakers of NCM. Its style
and narratives were not, however, copies of those movements. It was rather an
inspirational development from experiences of neorealism, Third Cinema, and
European resistant cinema. It was rather crude, revolutionary, and single-minded
at times, but it was a process of finding out who we (minJoong) are, and of
clarifying the socio-economic political reality of Korea. Thus, it was not a
matter or a question of how to recreate cinematographic style of neorealistic
films. Like Roberto Rossellini said, "a neo-realistic film is a moral position from
which to look at the world" (Seoul Cine Club, 1990, p. 38), it was a moral stance
and attitude toward the controlled reality. NCM rejects the aesthetics and
capitalistic production practices of Hollywood. More specifically, national films
involve subjective and unsystematic production operation. Unlike the
mainstream cinema, which relies upon a studio system, there are no visible
sources of funding, especially for early national films. Equipment was mostly
donated by unknown sources or acquired at black markets. NCM films often
used unknown amateur actors and crews who would work without
compensation. They even paid for their meals and other expenses at locations.
In filming Parup, for example, most actors were unknown and most extras
were actually volunteered factory workers. The location, a steel company, was
provided by an anonymous entrepreneur. The entire budget, $23,000, was
donated by many individuals and groups and it was used only for equipment and
film development. None of it was used for crews and actors. There were four
80 Korean Film
directors in charge of the production. Despite the conflicts and clashes of egos,
from the beginning to the end, the whole production process was a collective
and democratic one. As for external hindrance, a puppet union group constantly
protested and interfered with the production (Byun, Interview, 1994). Finally,
the film was shown in college auditoriums, classrooms, community centers,
empty yards, and factories. Riot police raided several exhibitions of the film.
In 1990 there were three main distributing organizations: Independence Film
Association (IFA), Jangsangotmae (independent production company of Parup),
and Labor News Production (LNP). The LNP was the most efficient and
systematic in distributing their newsreels and other labor-related documentaries
through branches of the National Labor Movement Association (Jeonnohyup).
The IFA was located on the third floor of a small and unlicensed building with
no address. Heesub Nam, a vice president of IFA, said that no matter how hard
they tried to hide, their locations and activities were constantly monitored by the
secret police. Several arrests of officers and confiscations of films were made
whenever the antigovernment demonstrations became highly intensive (Nam,
interview, 1994). NCM's mode of production is certainly different from that of
the mainstream studio system. It is a practical site of ideological struggle. Its
premises, goals, and procedures are invariably at odds with those of the
mainstream cinema.
In addition to this National Cinema Movement, filmmakers and students
waged their war against American majors over the issue of direct distribution.
Ever since United International Pictures (UIP) opened a Seoul office in 1988
and started to release its pictures directly into the market rather than through
Korean distribution agents, the London based partnership handling Paramount,
Universal, and MGM/UA has been the target of countless protests with anti-
American overtones (Variety, July 25, 1990). The most intense protest occurred
when UIP released its first film in Korea in September 1988, Paramount's Fatal
Attraction. Protesters created a range of disturbances from mailing death threats
to hiring snake dealers to release nonpoisonous snakes in theaters playing
Attraction and, in one later case, outright arson in a theater.
Hollywood majors have for some time considered Korea, with a population
of some 47 million, to be potentially the largest Asian market outside of Japan.
For UIP, Korea is one of the ten largest markets in the world (Variety, Aug 8,
1990; M. Kim, 1995). Despite a seemingly endless string of hostile acts directed
at UIP, it is determined to maintain its office in Seoul to distribute films. In fear
of retaliation, only 10% of all theaters decided to exhibit Fatal Attraction. The
demonstrators included a group of assistant directors, film directors, and
members of the Union of Korean Motion Picture Business, among others. Until
then, each group's interests had always been incompatible with the others. It was
the first time in the history of Korean film that such a large group of people
stood together for one purpose—opposition to the direct distribution of foreign
films. Meanwhile most theater owners and importers were not concerned with
the issue; instead, they looked for a way to gain favor with foreign companies.
However, the demonstration continued for a month until the theaters withdrew
the film from exhibition. During the course of the demonstration, film directors
issued a statement demanding that "the Korean government change the policy of
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 81
the Americanization of the Korean film market which was glossed over by the
policy of opening the film market" (Screen Magazine, Nov. 1988, p. 246).
In the early stage of the demonstration, people in the film industry, joined by
screenwriters and other cultural associations, continued to demonstrate under the
rallying words "Withdraw directly distributed American movies" and "Drive out
U.S. film that kills Korean film." As people in the film industry continued
demonstrations, the association of film directors began to both halt direct
distribution an revise Korean Motion Picture Law that permitted direct
distribution. They distributed letters of appeal to the people of the nation and
gathered signatures on the street. More cultural groups, such as the Writers
Association of National Literature, the Association of People's Painting, and
other regional cultural groups supported the movement. While demonstrations
kept on, people in the film industry appealed to the political leaders of
opposition parties for a revision of the Motion Picture Law that would
strengthen the Korean film industry.
The Union of Motion Picture Business sued two theaters showing Fatal
Attraction for violation of the screen quota and informed the two theaters that
they would not supply them with any domestic movies unless they canceled the
exhibition. From that day, most people in the film industry began full-scale
demonstrations in front of the two theaters. The number of people who joined a
series of demonstrations was about 700. Some rushed into the theaters and
scattered the audiences. Some wrote the rallying words of the demonstration on
the screen where Fatal Attraction was projected. Some were arrested for
violating the law against collective demonstration, especially enforced for the
duration of the Summer Olympic Games. On September 28, about 60 people
were arrested, and among them seven were indicted without physical detention.
The slogan of the demonstration shifted to a larger issue. The new slogans read:
"Let's ignore American movies" and "Abolish the unpatriotic Motion Picture
Law and amend a new law."
On October 13, the theater owners finally decided to withdraw Fatal
Attraction. And on October 22, the Association of Theater Owners (except for
the owner of one theater that exhibited Fatal Attraction) decided they would
refuse to exhibit any directly distributed films by foreign film companies in the
future. In the course of the demonstrations, the UIP did not respond to the
demands of film people. Jack Valenti, the president of the MPEAA, delivered an
open letter to the Korean people in a few newspaper advertisements. He asked
for generous understanding of the situation, reminding the Korean people of the
increase of Korea's free exportation of automobiles and other products to the

Korean business corporations had free access to the American market and had no
hindrance to selling their products in the States. They open their branch offices and
expand their business by way of competing for American people. This was very
encouraging because it exhibits not only that American people like Korean products but
also how American markets were open to Korean business corporations. Thus, more than
40% of Korean export goods were shipped to the U.S. and, as a result, that increases
employment and helps to elevate the standard of life in Korea. The only thing we were
82 Korean Film
hoping was that, as many Koreans did their business in the U.S., we would like to live
and do our business in your market"(C/?as«/? Ilbo, Sept. 24, 1988).

This series of events has not brought any significant result to date. The UIP
continues to deal directly with theater owners for the exhibition of other movies,
and the Association for Revision of Motion Picture Law (ARMPL) keeps
struggling to lobby the National Assembly with a tentative proposal for a
Motion Picture Promotion Law, which would change the existing law that
people in the film industry think hinders the development of the Korean film
industry. The proposal for the Motion Picture Promotion Law was drafted by the
Association of Film Directors and ratified by other sectors of the film industry,
including the Association of Theater Owners. The issues raised in the proposal
not only reflected the reason why such a large group of Korean film people
stood against the U.S. distribution companies and against the Motion Picture
Law, but also pointed out what should be corrected and mended in the state of
the Korean film industry. The key points were: (I) the policy for the promotion
of film and the film industry should be clarified; (2) the tax collected from the
movie theaters should be granted as the subsidy for domestic film production,
and in addition, a government subsidy system should be established; (3) the
cultural promotion fund, collected through movie theaters as 8% of ticket prices,
should be granted as a motion picture promotion fund; (4) a Motion Picture
Promotion Council, administered by public or film people, should be established
in place of the Motion Picture Promotion Corporation; (5) the Motion Picture
Law should restrict motion picture production and importation to Korean
nationals, in order to accumulate capital for domestic film production; (6) the
government should grant tax privileges to theaters that specialize in exhibiting
domestic films and small format films; and (7) the screen quota for domestic
films should be more than half of the total annual screening days, that is, 183
days a year (Screen Magazine, November 1988, pp. 255-256).
Finally, one of the most significant contributions of NCM is the
establishment of labor news documentaries. Nodongja News Jaejakdahn (Labor
News Production team) has produced news documentaries that report all labor
activities, demonstrations, and struggles and has distributed them through
Jeonnojo (National Laborers' Union) since 1989 (Yang, 1996, p. 280). It began
as one of the informational-cultural units of the National Laborers' Union. The
LNP's newsreel was shown in a more political context including union halls,
fraternal societies, national groups, or workers' clubs. Screenings in this setting
were for consciousness raising, attitude enforcement and the collection of funds.
In other words, taking the newsreels to the workers became a potent organizing
device. Whenever there was a labor rally, the LNP covered it and showed the
film to the workers themselves later. It was a tremendous morale booster. The
following is a manifesto of sorts for the LNP which guided the majority of their
productions and other activities:

1. The education of the workers and others in the part the newsreel plays as a weapon of
2. The encouragement, support, and sustenance of the left filmmaker who is
documenting dramatically and persuasively the disproportions in our society;
Korean National Cinema in the 1980s 83
3. The fight against the class abuses of capitalist censorship;
4. The use of methods of direct action, boycott, picketing against the anti-working-class;
5. The education of the labor activist and worker by closer contact.

In short, the LNP's goals were creation and support of an awakend working-
class through boycotts, meetings, newsreel and film showings and production.
Meanwhile the number of video documentaries has been decreased but a small
number of dedicated videographers, such as the producer of Sanggye Olympic,
Dongwon Kim, continue to make social and political documentaries. His work,
Media Soopsokui Saramdul (People in Media Forest, 1994), warns of the danger
of a media society. Also one of most visible docudrama makers, Kichai Park
produced We Are Not Soldiers. For fiction, Jaeyong Lee's Homo-
Videoques,Yoontee Kim's Wet Dream, Soonrye Im's Woojoong Sanchack
(Walking in the Rain), and Sungsu Kim's Screaming City continue to pass the
spirit of NCM in the 1990s.
As a part of cinematic practices, Saheo Moonwha Yeonguheo (Research
Institute of Culture and Society) has sponsored free Seemin Youngwha Gyosil
(cinema classes for citizens) around the country since 1994. The lecturers
include filmmakers, critics, and activists. There are also several regional
national independent film festivals, and the Independent Film Association
(Dongnip Youngwha Hyupheo) has sponsored its festival 32 times since 1987
(Cine 21, 1996, p. 83).
The NCM is a theoretical, politicized, and often underground cinematic
practice and discourse that speaks out for people and provides a site for creating
and experimenting with new forms and contents. It has inspired many cinematic
themes and opens the possibility of creating noncapitalist filmic practice. The
whole process of national cinema, whether it is with cinematic or noncinematic
practices, gives a new meaning to the viewing of films in general. In other
words, NCM has changed the social function of cinema in Korea. NCM is
committed to praxis and to the sociopolitical reexamination and achievement of
equality and justice. Thus, it cannot be properly understood in isolation from
broader political, social, economic, and cultural forces. By recognizing and
addressing everyday experiences of ordinary people in both national cinema and
postnational cinema, the field of film theory in Korea can bring its vision to the
process of creating the cinema as a vehicle of cultural communication. As
Turner (1990, p. 38) argues, film is not even the final target of inquiry. A film
may be employed by people in amplifying their presence in the society and
participating in a cultural process that lends itself to defining an identity and
reflecting upon the conditions of everyday life, on language, and culture.
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Chapter 4

Auteur Criticism: The Case of Sunwoo

Jang's Taste of Heaven

For students of film, the fastest way to understand a film is to study the director
or author. This body of study has been known as auteur (author or authorship)
theory. One essential corollary of the theory is the discovery that the defining
characteristics of an author's work are not necessarily those which are most
readily apparent. The purpose of criticism is to uncover behind the superficial
contrasts of subject and treatment a hard core of basic and often recondite
motifs. The pattern formed by these motifs is what gives an author's work its
particular structure, both defining it internally and distinguishing one body of
work from another.
Auteur theory says there is a person primarily responsible for the entire style
and treatment of the content of the film. Generally used in reference to a director
with a recognizable style and thematic preoccupation, the theory also covers
other production personnel (producers, writers, performers, editors) who are
seen as the major force behind a given film. Film auteurs function within the
boundaries of studio production systems and are distinguishable from film
artists, who have nearly total control over all aspects of production. It is not,
however, a theory of film prophecy, it is rather a theory of film history.
Bordwell and Thomson (2000) define the author in three different ways: the
author as an organizer or synthesizer of production crews; the author as
personality and ideology; and the author as a signifying aura, "a system of
relations among several films bearing the same signature" (2000, pp. 22-23).
This chapter discusses these three aspects of the writer-director and the
producer of Taste of Heaven and how the authors show why a film could not be
a completely personal art under even the best of conditions. The film is one of
Jang's early films that bears his filmic style, flavor, and signature.
This chapter also attempts to demythify the purity of personal expression
myth by examining the intertextural exchanges (responses and reviews) among
the director, producers, and critics after the film was released. The exchanges
not only offer a critical discourse around Taste of Heaven, but they also
86 Korean Film

implicitly suggest standards for good film, and standards for what type of films
should be made in Korea in general.

Taste of Heaven (1988)

The script of Taste of Heaven, written in 1985 by Sunwoo Jang, was noted
for "its originality, exaggerated comedy, the tone of social criticism, and the
new potentiality of filmic image." The actress who took the female title role in
Taste of Heaven said that, although the contract fee was less than she usually
was paid, she decided to take the role because of the quality of the scenario
(Personal interview, April 1988). The actor who took the male title role told us
that he actually did not want to take this role because of his personal philosophy,
but that he did it because the scenario was so good (Personal interview, May 4,
But until Jang met the producer, Kisung Whang, the script was not chosen by
any producer because it would require more expense to produce than an average
Korean film. Most producers in the Korean film industry do not want to take a
risk with a new writer-director, preferring to invest in works of commercially
successful existing filmmakers. Jang's background as a graduate of the student
movement also gave producers pause. Whang took up the script because he
"thought" Jang was talented after reading his collection of scripts.
The collaboration of these two caused many conflicts and negotiations
throughout the whole process of production. The collaboration itself was a
microcosm of the cultural struggle between old and new generations, between
professionals and idealistic amateurs, between commercial film and people's
film, between established and experimental film, and between the politically
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 87
unconscious and conscious. Basically the two are contradictory in their view of
the function of the film medium. The director sees film as a tool for social
change and consciousness raising, while the producer sees film as both a
consumer good and an art. These conflicts between the two implicitly suggest
the transitional mood of Korean film in 1987-1988, which goes beyond the
personal conflict between two individuals. To give a context for the production
of Taste of Heaven, this chapter discusses the personal vision, history, and
background of both the writer-director and the producer.

To the director of Taste of Heaven, Sunwoo Jang, film is the most powerful
political and social weapon, because of its ability to reach a mass audience and
its vast canvas enabling unlimited expression. Such views have developed from
Jang's involving in cultural activities in his university days. As a student
majoring in anthropology in Seoul National University in the 1970s, he
participated in the madanggeuk group which initiated a people's cultural
movement. Madanggeuk (madang = a unit of episode and the physical space of
play, geuk = play or theatre), a synthesis of traditional dramatic forms enjoyed
by lower, working-class people, has been the most politically oriented
performing art in Korea since the 1970s, when other cultural sectors were
severely oppressed by the government. Madanggeuk has been developed from
the impulse which tries to revive traditional performing arts against the flood of
foreign cultural materials and tries to revive the tools of the antigovernment or
antidictatorship movements since the late 1960s. Its form is a synthesis of mask
dance, p'ansori, a little dramatic sketch, and a shaman exorcism. It was
originally performed mainly in university cultural circles—later in other cultural
sectors as a tool for political movements—and it is used with traditional folk
culture to establish an autonomous Korean culture that could be enjoyed and
created by the people.
Madanggeuk has an episodic dramatic structure, consisting of songs, dances,
and traditional rhythms with percussion instruments. It mainly exposes and
satirizes social problems and political issues. Subject matters are dealt with both
directly and often in symbolic or allegorical ways. A unique trait of madanggeuk
is that the audience frequently responds to the performers with songs, words, or
rhythmic beats so that performers and audience communicate and are unified.
The stage is surrounded by the audience so there is little distance between
performers and audience. In the 1970s madanggeuk became very popular among
university students for its ability to expose, express, satirize, and criticize hidden
social contradictions to the audience, raising their consciousness through the
performance. Especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, censored novels,
poems, and dramas were adapted to the forms of madanggeuk and frequently
performed. Thus madanggeuk is referred to as the most politically effective
theatrical form to expose social problems. Consequently it became a major
target of the government censorship.
Jang's activity as one of the members of the People's Cultural Movement led
to his imprisonment for a year in 1980. While he was in prison, he felt the limit
of madanggeuk as a means for political and social change because of its inability
88 Korean Film
to reach a mass audience. Also he felt that madanggeuk lacked legitimacy in
society. In contrast, film seemed to have both legitimacy in our society, if it is
well exploited, and the ability to reach a mass audience. He said, "I was in the
investigating room of the headquarters of the National Police. It was dark. And
the images of films I have seen before came across my mind incessantly. I could
not believe how clear those images were in my head. Then I thought I would do
films if I got out of there." He found in the film medium the ability to reach a
mass audience with the same political potency of madanggeuk. In the early
1980s he started to read film literature and joined the Seoul Filmic Group,
whose members mainly studied film theory and criticism, published two seminal
film books, and produced small-format films. Since then, he has written several
film articles, original scenarios, and scripts adapted from novels while working
as an assistant director and in the planning section in film companies.
The publications of the Seoul Filmic Group, Towards a New Film and The
Theory of Film Movement (1983), not only project the expectations of Korean
film for a new generation of filmmakers but also try to establish a theory on
which Korean film should be based via the theories of Third World cinemas.
Jang contributed two articles to Towards a New Film, the introduction and
"Towards an Open Film." He also wrote articles in magazines, such as
"Declaration of the Humanized Camera," "New Cinema in the Third World,"
and "Searching for People's Film." Jang's writings on film, as well as those of
the Seoul Filmic Group, have been enormously influenced by the theories and
practices of Third World cinema. After considering the differences in history
and in the present situation between Korean and other Third World nations, they
try to apply the theories of Third World cinema to the uniquely Korean situation.
These articles point to a new direction for Korean film.

In "Towards an Open Film," after reviewing the two traditions of worldfilm—thatis, the
formalist and realist traditions—Jang develops the possibility of the film medium in his
own way. His argument begins by critiquing the concept of film's "closed nature." For
him the "closed nature" implies an unquestioned one-wayness in communication and a
completeness in meaning. An object chosen by the camera becomes immutable. There is
no room on the part of the audience for intervention. In this sense any artistic form, be it
poetry,fiction,music orfinearts, has structural closedness so far as it is completed and
solidified. It can transmit its messages only unilaterally, leaving no room for the audience
to participate and interact. For him, only the oral tradition with its on-the-spotness opens
communication between creator and receiver. (Jang, 1983, pp. 165-166)

He recognizes the limitations inherent in the film medium and looks for the
way out in oral traditions in Korea such as the mask dance, madanggeuk,
p'ansori, epic songs for dance, and traditional popular songs. Among such oral
traditions, Jang takes madanggeuk as an example of how to revolutionize new
meanings in film. He asserts that madanggeuk is a good experience which
revived a traditional art form. It was a revolution for those audiences that were
accustomed to staged dramas performed in theaters. While a staged drama can
be referred to as closed space, madanggeuk is an unexpected open space. While
the staged drama has dramatic devices controlling the emotional responses of an
audience through dramatic fantasy, madanggeuk, refusing fantasy, is an intimate
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste ofHeaven 89
stage open to the intervention and participation of the audience. In madanggeuk,
"the fictitious is always destroyed and the privileged finds no place to be. The
open space is not unilateral but circular, not a flat plane but a solid" (Jang, 1983,
p. 166).
To Jang, what is important in madanggeuk is not logic nor reality. In it the
logic is a form representing the privileged and the reality becomes a means for
the fictitious. What is necessary in madanggeuk is to dance, sing, laugh, talk,
and play. Composed of satire and humor, unordinariness and impromptu actions,
elation and leaping, it intends "to take away from meaningless and agonized
reality and to be wrapped in a shroud of leaping life. Conflicts can be united
instantaneously and parts become harmonized with the whole" (Jang, 1983, p.
166). Such characteristics of madanggeuk are what Jang wants to add to the
function of the film medium. As a way for film to share the function of
madanggeuk, Jang takes the "unlimited points of view of the camera" as the key.
For him, the camera is liberated by its unlimited points of view. It could run to
reach anything anywhere. Such unlimited points of view create the closeness,
but it also can undermine its closeness. The camera attacks as well as destroys
objects and rebuilds and confines as well as liberates them. Thus "the open film"
is believed "to originate from the circular rather than linear relation of the
camera with its object, from sharing rather than possessing, from liberation
rather than seclusion, in short, from denying the fantastic and the privileged"
(Jang, 1983, p. 167).
Jang goes on to discuss the function of the camera. The camera itself has to
become its own individual person, observing, talking to, even quarreling with
the audience, taking the place of an object in its absence and exciting itself to
highspirits by dancing like a clown when the object is crying. Thus open film
should lead to cameras that participate in and play with objects. He calls such a
technique "camera of ecstasy or elation (camera of sinmyung)," the resultant
mode "an open film," and the expected relationship between camera and
audience a "relationship of ecstasy" (Jang, 1983, p. 171).
This theoretical or hypothetical discussion on the function of the camera,
comparing it with the function of madanggeuk, develops in a more practical way
in his next article, "Declaration of the Humanized Camera." He asserts that the
film medium is the land that grows life and the camera is a subject that "sees"
rather than "shows." The camera does not simply reproduce the object but
"meets" it. The object is not processed but comes to gradually but inevitably
"reveal its essence." The camera opens the vertical wall horizontally, leads the
isolated world into unity, shows the dead matter as living, and wriggles along to
expand inertial daily life into the space of ecstasy. Therefore what is important is
for the camera "to move away from the unilateral vertical relationship between
the object and the audience to the interdependent horizontal one" (Jang, 1984,
pp. 282-283).
Based on such a viewpoint, Jang sees Korean film in a serious predicament.
To him the camera in Korean film has hovered around the surface of reality,
"squeezing unnecessary tears, forced laughter and silly gestures. It hesitated to
enter into the core of reality (life), and once there it retreated uselessly." And the
reality of the Korean film industry is in more of a predicament than most. This
90 Korean Film

is, Jang believes, because people now hardly believe in the rich adaptability
inherent in cinema. Jang argues that, at any rate, our camera has to change its
place in our society. It has to penetrate into the core of life, sharing its voice
with incredulous people. Even though it would look ridiculous and absurd at
first, and convention looks impenetrable and change futile, some kind of change
must be made. Thus:

What we need is not the sophisticated expression but the resolution to face the burden of
reality and share it together. Only then does the solitude of the camera become the pain of
people. Only then will begin the true horizontal relationship through cinema. For it to
happen, we should not try to show something to people but to meet the object with
modesty and to transform the mechanical property of the camera into an organic one. [He
calls this effort] the declaration of the humanized camera. (Jang, 1984, pp. 282-283)

To sum up, his vision of "the people's film," defined as the connection
between film and audience, has led Jang to perceive that the people's film is a
living film. It does not create division, antithesis, animosity, pleasure, and
corruption among people; but it ultimately awakens resistance for self-recovery,
awareness, unification, and ecstasy. Thus defined, it does not really matter
whether it is a commercial, experimental, dramatic, documentary film, what the
subject matter is, who the creative agent is, or who the spectators are. What is
important is to ask incessantly who and what the people are and whether the film
will side with the oppressed or the oppressors of lives (Jang, Xeroxed copy, n.d.,
pp. 148-149).
In such a context, Jang emphasizes "what is looked at" and "through whose
eyes." The people's subject matter and message constitute true film of the
people, i.e., a living film, only when they are related to the appropriate form
(Jang, n.d., p. 151). Jang tries to define people's film as follows.

If one asks if people's film means honest film to be enjoyed both by the North and the
South in the day of national reunification, the answer is yes. More modestly if one asks if,
since his life is people's life, the film of his choice is just people's film, the answer is also
yes. By nature people are thus big, thus wide and thus generous. At the same time,
however, it should be borne in mind that people are an angry storm and waves nobody
can suppress. People's film is thus multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and multi-voiced.
We may have to refrain ourselves from calling our products people's film unless they
cover from the obscure source to the ocean. However, as a film about a small child can
represent the fate of the whole people, people's film can mean a very small film. What is
important is to see through the eyes of the people and to reflect their lives and ideas
relentlessly. (Jang, n.d., p. 157)

What Jang pursues with the film medium is the continuation of the cultural
movement to which madanggeuk has led in present-day Korea. He imagines
people's film to be a part of the whole cultural movement happening in Korean
society. However, his views on film are not incompatible with what
madanggeuk has pursued since the early 1970s. Madanggeuk originated from
the practical concern with our society's contradictions as a way of expressing
those contradictions, and its development is at the core of that reality (Yeo,
1983, p. 163). Its main subjects are the lives of alienated people in big cities, the
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 91

struggles of factory laborers, the stories of exploited peasants, the problems or

issues of intellectuals, the people's movements in Korean history, religious
movements, and other expressions with acute social consciousness. Its form
consists of the exorcist service, which discharges the souls that died of unfair
treatment in reality, a form of trial drama, a form of biting satire by modernizing
the role of masks, simple expression in the epic tradition, and little impromptu
dramatic sketches.
Jang's view on the function of the camera might be compared to the concept
of "madang" in madanggeuk. Madang means both a unit of an episode and the
space of play (or playgound). It is the crucial concept to make madanggeuk an
open theater where audience and performer are not strictly differentiated, thus
creating a communal unification between them and finally making the audience
the subject of the performance. In other words, in madang, the performing space
becomes identified with dramatic space, and the performer becomes a performer
only because of the members of the audience, who are positively participating in
solving "their common problems" (Yeo, 1983, p. 167). The performer and
audience experience "sinmyung (elation or ecstasy)" through the performance
(p. 174). The "humanized camera" has the same function of madang and should
bring about a shared elation or ecstasy.
While Jang experiments with madanggeuk in his critical writings on Korean
film, he also has put his theoretical ideas into practice. He has written four
original scripts for film, of which two were made into films and one into a
television drama. He also adapted several short stories into scripts for film
which were subsequently produced as television dramas. It is not easy to find his
theoretical concerns explicitly adumbrated in his original scripts, because there
are few explanations of details such as camerawork, composition, and so on. Yet
what is prominent throughout his scripts is his satirical view of reality, evident
in overexaggeration, distortion, intentional comedy, fantasy, and symbol. The
overall form of the works generally are tragicomic. What is common between
madanggeuk and Jang's scripts is the concern for people who are marginal and
alienated in society. He treats them with affection, even as he acutely criticizes
society. Such traits are evident in Taste of Heaven: Selection of Scripts (1987),
which includes four original scripts and two adapted scripts.
His 1985 script, Seoul Jesus, is loosely based on the Book of Revelation in
the New Testament. An insane character claims that he is Jesus. He escapes
from a mental hospital after 40 days of confinement. He comes to Seoul in order
to rescue the city from the hands of Satan, who is represented as a beautiful
woman, a mistress of the president of a conglomerate. He takes up a street boy
as his angel and the two follow the woman and persuade her that the fate of
Seoul depends on her way of living. After going through a variety of
predicaments, in the end the woman gives up her life as a mistress and adopts
the street boy as a son. And the insane character is arrested by the team from the
asylum, but he escapes again.
Taste of Heaven (Songgongsidae, in Korean), written in 1985, deals with a
man who has only one obsession—success. The main character, Panchock Kim
(publicity or promotion of gold, in Korean), trying to escape the poverty that he
underwent in his youth, does anything for his success. Working at the promotion
92 Korean Film

department in a company that produces artificial spices, he uses a woman as an

industrial spy for his success. When he reaches his goal of being an executive,
he dumps the woman. The woman avenges herself by becoming both the
mistress of the son of a president of a rival company and a model for the rival
company. She destroys Kim's career by offering him disinformation. Kim is
demoted, but he tries to make a comeback with a new product. However, he
does not have any chance to present his idea to the company. Rejected by the
company, mentally deranged, he drives madly and is killed in an accident.
Gum (Chewing Gum), written in 1986, deals with the ghosts of two men who
lived about a hundred years ago as resistance soldiers in Korea. The story
develops as the ghosts come down from the mountains to meet people in the
present time. They find that if they chew gum, or if chewing gum is somewhere
in their bodies, their bodies are tangible and people can see them. Also two
death agents follow them in order to take them back to death. While chewing
gum, the older ghost meets his great-grand daughter and has a short affair with
her, and the younger ghost falls in love with a blind girl who aspires to be a
singer. A matchlock gun the older ghost carried with him from the past intrigues
a Japanese investor who collects Korean antiques. The younger ghost tries to
rescue the blind girl, who has been kidnapped and taken to a sauna bath to be a
massage girl. In order to rescue her, he needs money and asks the old ghost for
help. They decide to sell the matchlock gun to the Japanese, but the clever
Japanese deceives them. In the end, the older ghost is shot to death with his own
matchlock gun by the Japanese. The younger ghost and the blind girl get married
and sing on the street together. The subtitle of the script is "the dream of blind
couple singers."
In 1986, Jang wrote Santa Clausnun Itnunga? (Does Santa Claus Exist?)
sub-titled "a fable for adults." The story, reflecting Jang's own childhood,
revolves around the Christmas day of three ugly orphan brothers who make a
living picking up junk and selling it. They want to spend Christmas day as other
people do, but it does not come easily. They give Christmas gifts to each other
of rice, coal, and dried seaweed. They decide to give the gifts to people more
needy than themselves, but they cannot find anyone needier in the orphanage,
the senior citizens' home, nor even on the street. They are even accused of
attempted rape after they find a poor girl who looks to them like the head of a
family, who feeds her family as a little girl. When they return home after a long
search for needy people, they find an insane woman giving birth. They cook the
rice and the seaweed soup for her using the coal, realizing not only that someone
does need their gifts but also that Santa Claus does exist.
In his adaptation from a short story, Gaulhaeng (Outing in Autumn), Jang
deals with a friendship between an old street violinist and a shoeshine boy. The
old man makes a living playing classical tunes in taverns and bars, missing his
wife and children he left in the North during the Korean War. The shoeshine boy
keeps searching for his mother who deserted him at a railroad station. The boy
follows the old man in the hope of meeting his mother on their way. The boy
consistently tries to persuade the old man to play popular tunes for more money,
but the old man persists in playing classical tunes, even after he is thrown out of
a bar by drunken men. In the end the two, near starvation, lose the violin. The
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 93
old man abandons the boy, and the boy wanders around the market place and
finally finds the violin. The boy leaves to look for the old man, and finally finds
him playing a vulgar popular tune at the seaside.
Another adapted script, Odimanchi Watna (Where Are We Now), deals with
a troubled working clsss couple. The husband is a fugitive running away from
the authorities for the murder of his exploiting boss. The wife is near childbirth.
They met at a construction site where she was working in the kitchen and where
he was an odd-jobber. They were rather happy even though they were poor. The
husband takes the woman to his home where his old mother lives in poverty. As
they arrive, his mother complains that he brought one more mouth to feed. Then
he leaves, promising his mother that he will come back in the spring when his
wife gives birth to a child.
As described above, the subjects of Jang's scripts revolve around the
alienated people in our society, often with political implications or suggestions
of social contradictions. They are concerned with diverse issues such as national
identity implied in a political allegory (Gum), the issue of human deliverance in
a morally degraded modern society (Seoul Jesus, Santa Clausnun Itnunga?), the
confusion of a value system in a cold blooded business world (Taste of Heaven),
the division of the country (Gaulhaeng), and exploitation of cheap labor
(Odimanchi Watna). Undermining such serious issues, the scripts are full of
comedy and witticisms. Yet they are laced with tragedy as well. He tries not to
let readers get too emotionally involved in his stories, punctuating them with
comic and ironic elements. And he keeps bringing viewers to the core of his
subject matter: accusation and exposing social contradictions.
Santa Clausnun Itnunga?, Gaulhaeng, and Odimanch Watna were filmed for
major television programs, particularly for Best-seller Theater in the Munwha
Broadcasting Co. They were recognized for their creativity, expressivity, and
humanity. Although his name became known to the general audience through
these television dramas, he prefers film. Television as a communication medium
has enormous influence, but it never has the specificity of performance which is
available to the film medium. To show a film in a theater means to "perform." In
other words, the audience is immersed in the screen in a dark theater,
communicating with the author of the film in silence. That experience might be
referred to as a "secret religious ritual." And while television is liberated in
terms of subject matter, film is liberated in terms of expression. Film allows
more vast, detailed expression, for it has a large screen (Moon, 1988, p. 51). Yet
through television, Jang practiced visualizing his written scripts and earned his
It was 1986 before Jang first had a script filmed. While he tried to find a
sponsor for Taste of Heaven, he instead found a sponsor who would produce
SeoulJesus. Without any directing experience except that as an assistant
director, he codirected the film with a friend who had directed a couple of his
scripts for television drama. During postproduction, the sponsor/producer,
complaining that he was short of production costs, dropped the project, and the
film stayed in the editing room. But another reason for the dismissal was that a
lot of rumors were going around regarding the film's forthcoming censorship
review: Christian groups planned to picket the film because the protagonist is an
94 Korean Film

insane man who claims that he is Jesus; since Sunwoo Jang was a graduate of
the student movement and was imprisoned for political activity, the film would
be particularly scrutinized by the Performance Ethics Committee; and the film
had several politically provocative scenes, such as throwing eggs at an
ambulance, symbolizing student demonstrations. The economic reason coupled
with concern with censorship discouraged the producer from continuing the
production. But the film finally was released for distribution and recently came
out on videotape. The title has been changed to Seoul Whangje (Seoul Emperor).
The predicament of Seoul Whanje led Jang to spend more than three years
seeking a financially safe and stable producer. When he had been trying to film
Taste of Heaven (around 1987), he obtained the rights of the then best-selling
poems entitled Jopsikot Dangsin (Hollyhock Dearest). That was how he met the
producer of Taste ofHeaven, Kisung Whang.

The producer of Taste of Heaven, Kisung Whang, believes that a producer is
also an author offilm.He refuses to be called a mere financier, the president of a
film company, or a manager for distribution and exhibition. He named his
company after himself: Whang Kisung Sadan (sadan means an "incorporated
body"), setting his hopes on producing "responsible, committed, and good, as
well as not shameful films," worthy of his name. He also puts his name on the
title of his films because many Korean movies never display trademarks of their
production companies. Whang believes that spectators should be able to choose
movies according to their trust in the production company, subscribing to the
same principle that allows consumers to buy goods according to the labels of
products. His hope is to establish a trustworthy relationship with spectators,
taking personal responsibility for his works.
Whang began his career as a planner in Shin Film after graduating from
college (majoring in sculpture) about 30 years ago. At first he wanted to be a
director. Yet the work first given to him in Shin Film was to clean and sweep the
offices. He could not even get close to Sangok Shin, then one of Korea's best
directors, and the head of the company. He transferred to the planning section,
giving up hopes of directing. Until the mid 1970s, Shin Film was the biggest
film company Korea ever had. It had 150 full time employees, its own studios,
prop storage, printing facilities, and so on. The title of the company, Shin Film,
meant another small-scale Hollywood, as compared to the Chungmuro district
where most of small film companies and film-related businesses gathered.
Whang learned much from director Shin.
By the time Shin Film went bankrupt in 1979, Whang as a director of the
planning division and as a vice-president of the film company had planned a few
hundred films, a number of them commercially successful. After the fifth
revision of the Motion Picture Law, he set up his own company in 1984, the first
company to register after the restriction on the number of film companies was
loosened. He finally became an actual producer.
He often emphasizes that the role of producer is the core force in the
production of a film. He rejects the notion of a producer as merely the owner of
a film company. For him, the producer is the one who is responsible for the
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 95

completion of a film. A completed film must undergo the analytical and critical
reviews of producers before public screening. Even for a film directed by a
capable and talented director, the final degree of completion should be evaluated
by a producer (Heo, 1985, p. 56). In other words, a producer, although standing
at the side of the creator, must also stand at the side of objective spectators and
critics. He must maintain a balanced attitude between the spectator and the
creator. Whang argues that the maintenance of this balance of sensibility of
subjectivity and objectivity is the most difficult task for a producer.
The role of a producer is to consistently answer the following questions:
What story is to be filmed? How is it to be filmed? To whom should it be
shown? He points out that in Korean filmmaking the duty of deciding which
story should be filmed has been the role of a scriptwriter. The decision of how it
should be made has been made by directors. The last issue—"To whom should it
be shown?"—traditionally has not been dealt with by anyone. Whang speculated
that maybe this is why Korean spectators have begun to ignore Korean movies.
He views the audience as a selective body of people who can critically choose
what they want, not just people who nebulously receive. The role of a producer
is to unify the project, beginning with conceiving a target audience at the stage
of selecting the subject matter, then incessantly injecting an awareness of
audience into the scriptwriting and directing in order to create a film which can
endure the critical selection by the audience.
Whang strongly argues that a producer should be a good auteur of a film. It
is the brain and hands of a producer that completes a film, which already has
been written by a scriptwriter and visualized by a director. That is to say, a
producer should be more than an auteur, a role that supasses that of a
scriptwriter or a director. If one sees a movie and feels it as somehow
incomplete, that is the fault of the producer, not the scriptwriter or director.
However, the difficult role of producer involves more than sensibility. For
Whang, a producer is to be well-equipped with the knowledge of driving forces
of the film industry, especially of the business aspects of film. For example, a
producer should be able to prepare a detailed list of expenses in order to estimate
costs and be assured of making a profit. Whang thinks that Korean producers
have been too concerned with finding new sources of revenue and too little
concerned with calculating returns. It is the producer who calculates initial
investment and final profit rationally. Thus, Whang insists that producers be
equipped with both thorough creativity and sophisticated business skills.
Whang argues that a producer should exhibit his ability as a businessman
more than his ability as author, especially in the present Korean film industry.
The Korean film industry needs more capable producers for the film business to
be rationally managed. In Korea, film as an industry has not been run correctly,
he claims. He presents two extreme examples of producers in the Korean film
industry: one is the clumsy businessmen who makes shabby movies and then
wants to make profits; the other is the producer who ignores the business of film
and attends to nothing but artistry. There is no rational middle ground. He is
disillusioned by the people in the industry who unconditionally ignore the
business aspect of film in the name of the 'art' of film. He insists that people
who ignore the business aspect do not know anything about film. For him, film
96 Korean Film

is a business before it can be an art form. Film cannot exist as an art form or as
entertainment, if its business trait is ignored. If its business aspect is denied, a
so-called theatrical movie can not be established. A theatrical movie should be
seen as a commercial film foremost, whether it is art or entertainment. The fact
that spectators pay for tickets and receive the product cannot be denied. Yet this
clear-cut principle is often forgotten in the Korean film industry. Filmmaking
practice should begin with the recognition of this fact, Whang believes.
One more problem of the Korean film industry is that films are planned in a
very short period. Whang sees planning as a foundation work for filmmaking. In
most foreign countries, planning takes the most time. If shooting takes three
months, then the planning period takes more than six months or a year. In the
case of a big project that takes five years to finish, the actual production takes a
year and the other four years go to planning and preparation. The reverse is true
in Korea. Long production times are due to the lack of precise planning.
Furthermore the quality of planning affects the success and failure of film. Even
after planning a hundred films, the longer a producer takes for planning the
better the quality of a film and the higher the box-office receipts.
Whang proposes a simple step-by-step solution to the problems with the
Korean film industry. He suggests that if a producer makes a profit on a film, he
can make the next film better and receive better responses from the audience and
raise profits. The film industry can be invigorated through such a step-by-step
development. In addition to that, he expects the MPPC to support studies for the
promotion of the film industry. Also he hopes that film departments in
universities will increase the number of students who major in producing,
because a producer must accumulate an overall knowledge of filmmaking,
especially knowledge of the sociology, economics, and psychology of film, not
just directing or acting.
Still, to Whang it is most important for a producer to have fresh and clever
ideas. He explains the core of producing as the search for newness and variety.
That search is the product of sincere study and experience, not of impromptu
thinking. To keep up with such ideas and variety he visits thefilmmakingfields
and screenings of the films of new directors. He tries to extract what he needs by
mastering various subject matters and by observing a variety offilmmakers.The
work of the producer is to spin unlimited subject matters, characters, and
abilities by selection into one thread. With such views on film and the film
industry, Whang has produced five films since 1984. The first film was Gorae
Sanyang (Whale Fishing), which was written by a popular novelist and
scriptwriter, Inho Choi, and directed by the then newly emerging director
Changho Bae. The film story is a combination of comedy and tragedy about
three people: a college student lacking confidence in himself and everything he
does, a prostitute who was kidnapped and sold to a brothel by gangsters, and a
bum who, in the original script, was kicked out of college due to his
involvement in student demonstrations (but that is not clearly explained in the
film). The narrative develops as the student rescues the prostitute with help from
the bum and takes her home, overcoming a variety of predicaments. The film
was a great commercial success and led Whang and Bae to produce a sequel,
Gorae Sanyang 2.
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 97

Dealing with different characters but a narrative structure similar to Gorae

Sanyang, Gorae Sanyang 2 was less commercially successful and less critically
acclaimed. After Gorae Sanyang 2, Whang broke with Bae and the writer
because "they were so conscious of commercial success or sellable films that
they failed to make the 'good' film Whang had expected of them" ( Personal
Interview, May 18, 1988). What concerned Whang was not so much commercial
success as the quality of the film. Then Whang began to work with a new
director, Chulsoo Park, trained as a director of television dramas. He produced
four films in a row with him. Uomi (Mother, 1985), which deals with a mother
who searches for her kidnapped daughter and takes her revenge on the
kidnappers in very provocative ways, was recognized best film by the Daejong
Award. The next project, Angae Gidung (Mist Pillar, 1986), which concerned
feminist issues, was also awarded best film with the Daejong Award. The third
collaboration of Whang and Park was Hello, Lim Geokjong (1986), a historical
reconstruction comedy about a chivalrous robber. Though two of these films
brought the most prestigious awards to Whang, all three collaborations with
Park failed at the box-office.
Whang has been satisfied with his collaboration with the director Park,
especially with Park's efficient craftsmanship and with the repeated best-picture
awards, which brought the recognition to Whang's company that he wanted.
But, most of all, it is their common sensibility that matches Whang and Park
well, which sophisticatedly evades controversial, socially realistic or political
matters. Whang does not want to be concerned with any political messages or
social realism; the films he produces mostly look serious and seem to contain
certain messages, but they are not exactly substantial. Chunyeon Lee, the
planning director of Whang Kisung Sadan, said "Whang's films seem to contain
serious messages, but if we view them seriously, there's nothing, [they are] too
superficial and they touch only the surface of reality" (June 1, 1988). Actually
Whang dislikes connections to any politics—as do most Korean producers—and
avoids producing films that try to deliver political messages or direct accusation
of social contradictions. An incident prior to Whang's next project makes his
reluctance clear.
Sunwoo Jang was supposed to direct Jopsikot Dangsin (Hollyhock Dearest)
under the sponsorship of Whang in 1987. But in April 1987 the People's
Democratic Movement arose in Korea, aimed at an amendment of the
constitution which had supported the dictatorship of the 5th Republic.
University professors and leaders of cultural sectors initiated a petition and
obtained signatures from many groups. Even in the film industry, which has
long been vulnerable to politics and so is afraid to go against the system, the
democratic movement infiltrated. Most film people who had at least a little
consciousness signed their consent to the amendment of the Constitution.
The Korean film industry was divided into two groups: those who signed and
those who did not. Producers who did not want to get involved in politics
avoided directors and editors who signed in support of the amendment. For
instance, Whang gave the editing job on Hello, Lim Geokjong to Hyun Kim,
with whom Whang had closely collaborated since his Shin Film years. And Kim
and director Park had been close friends outside of business matters. When
98 Korean Film

Whang was informed that Kim endorsed the amendment, he took all the rushes
of the film out of Kim's studio and gave another editor the job. Also when he
learned that Jang did the same thing, Whang gave the directorship of Jopsikot
Dangsin to Chulsoo Park, who was not involved in the movement. When the
political movement in the spring of 1987 was over and the amendment was
done, Whang hired Jang again to direct Taste of Heaven, rather than Jopsikot
Dangsin, because he had already paid Jang an advance.
The narrative of Jopsikot Dangsin is woven through separate poems, all
expressing the poet's yearning for his dead wife. The poet expresses his
unconsummated and unattainable love for his wife and transforms his love for
her into the love for others. Thus the poems stand not merely as a husband's
longing for his dead wife but as the universal love needed in our society in
general. Jang had intended that Jopsikot Dangsin would express the poet's love
for others through the story of the couple in flashback. But the final product, the
collaboration of Whang and Park, was a tear-jerking melodrama focusing on the
love between a dying wife and her husband. The film was very successful
commercially—the top grossing film in the early half of 1987.
Whang has seemed more concerned with quality than commercial success of
his films. Two reasons might account for this. One is that he has concentrated on
producing quality films in order to establish his company's status in the Korean
film industry, which does seem to be established now. The other is that he has
had success dealing with the regional distributor-exhibitors (RDEs), so he is
always sure of collecting his estimated cost of production before shooting. His
collaboration with director Park failed, except for Jopsikot Dangsin. Yet the
incentive for him to continue the collaboration has been his success regaining
production costs through sales to RDEs prior to shooting. Whang said he has
confidence with his career and experiences which RDEs could rely on. That
makes it possible for him to continue to build the image of his company's label
by producing good films.
Most producers in Korea make up the loss of producing domestic films by
importing foreign films. Yet Whang has mainly concentrated on producing
domestic films since he registered his production company. Even though the
principal costs of productions were recovered by sales to RDE, Whang made
much money from the production of domestic films. Any losses were made up
by the import of Paris, TX in 1986 (Personal interview with Chunyeon Lee on
May 20, 1988). And the big commercial success of Jopsikot Dangsin in late
1987 allowed Whang to generously invest in the production of Taste of Heaven.
Also Taste of Heaven was sold to RDEs prior to shooting. But the price was
only around the estimate of production costs, not as high as the price of Jopsikot
Dangsin, a melodrama which most RDEs prefer to buy.
Thus Taste of Heaven finally got the financing and sponsorship to be filmed.
As the collaboration of Jang and Whang began, there was already a
contradiction between an established film producer and a new, dashing, inchoate
filmmaker, between practice and theory, between commercialism and politicism,
and between convention and experiment. The resulting clashes between the two
are partly due to their views and expectations for Korean films, partly to their
careers and their different jobs as a producer and a writer-director. Such clashes
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 99
brought numerous changes to the scripts and to the tone of the film, decreasing
its formalistic, expressionistic, and experimental elements and suppressing its
message of social consciousness.


How complicated and precipitous reality is. In reality where people go astray, split off,
fight each other, and scatter, without a glittering flag to hold on to, the film medium,
which should be the nucleus of mass culture, hopelessly exerts every vice, increases
alienation by way of deceiving the masses for the sake of its business, and endlessly
serves to spoil the creative power of the masses. If that is true and continues like that, that
means not only the destruction of film art but also the disintegration of the national
aesthetic. Who would be the one? I would like to meet the one who has a rough and solid
face like a peasant who has his roots in the creative mass, makes flowers bloom, and
shares fruit. I believe that the one will be born from a congenial perspective that
incessantly tries to be of solidarity. (Jang, 1984)

The mass audience is not the one being unknown. The audience is a definite and concrete
subject. If you are definite, so is the audience; if you are corrupted, so is the audience; if
you are wise, so is the audience; and your purity is that of the audience at the same time.
(Jang, 1984)

This is the critical gauntlet Sunwoo Jang threw down to Korean film and its
creators before he attempted to put his views into practice. Illustrated by these
comments, his audacious but keen critical writings on Korean film were well
received by people concerned with the situation of Korean film, particularly the
younger generation of people in the film industry. For this reason, Taste of
Heaven was a litmus test, to find out whether or not Jang could practice what he
Whang Kisung Sadan sponsored three preview screenings of Taste of
Heaven before its public showing. The first screening was held for reporters and
critics of newspapers and magazines. The second screening was for college
students. Recognizing that college students would be the target audience, the
company invited students from university film circles and reporters of college
papers in the Seoul area. The last screening was held for various people,
including a dissident politician who had been a leader of the People's Cultural
Using these previews and the subsequent reviews, we have analyzed the
critical reception of the film. On the one hand, Taste of Heaven earned a
reputation as an uncommonly well-made film. It brought public recognition to
the director as a talented new filmmaker. On the other hand, the film was
severely criticized for several interrelated reasons. First, the film was seen as
having been co-opted by commercial cinema, disappointing the expectations of
those who had hoped it would be a "people's film." Second, related to the first,
the film did not seem to reflect the ideas the projected in critical writings of
Sunwoo Jang. Third, the film did not exhibit all the formalistic and
expressionistic potential of the original script. And last, the intervention of the
producer was apparently so profound that the film did not demonstrate Jang's
intention of the original script.
100 Korean Film

Showing a clear division between the old and new generations of people in
the film industry, between commercial and people's film, and, thus, between
existing and new standards by which one evaluates film, the critical discourse
around the film implies how a counter-filmmaking practice gained legitimacy in
a commercial production system. Also the film was seen as a "transitional" film
that transcends these divisions. The study of the creation and reception of this
Korean film suggests that a cultural product cannot only express a people's
system of beliefs and values (Jensen, 1984), within a variety of constraints
surrounding the production and reception process (Meehan, 1986). And the
process of production and reception of a film can be regarded as as an arena for
the transformation of the people's subversive culture into dominant, legitimate
Because Sunwoo Jang had previously written extensive film criticism as well
as original scripts, he occasioned more reviews and responses than most other
filmmakers in Korea. Magazines that rarely offer film reviews assigned
extensive space to cover the film. Film critics, especially those of the younger
generation, wrote sincere and serious analyses, which are rarely given to Korean
films. The expectations, born from Jang's keen critical writings and the original
script that promised to concretize his theory, were so high that the film received
more criticism than praise. The severe criticisms were based on harsh and
lengthy analyses, while praise was generally brief and superficial.
The primary expectations of the film asked a series of questions: How did
Jang actualize his theory and visualize his original script? How did he solve the
critical issues raised in his writings? And how did he manage it in an existing
commercial filmmaking system? Such questions were the starting point for most
reviews of the film. Reviewers began by pointing out that Jang "has had critical
views on 'Chungmuro' films (a nickname of Korean mainstream commercial
film) and he let us know what his film would be, through a series of original
scripts and critical writings on film" (J. Kim, 1988, p. 237; Hangyure Shinmun,
June 2, 1988). They focused on how Jang did or did not express in his film the
main theme of his writing-that is, "the resistance to the existing conventional
and commercial films, the social commitment of film and the function of the
camera for human liberation" (J. Kim, 1988, p. 237; Han Kim, 1988). The critics
wondered if Jang had achieved a difficult task-that is, if he had made the "an
open film" and "new film" which he proposed as a direction for what Korean
films should be, in an existing commercial film production system (M. Park,
Praise given to the film focused on its degree of completeness, the message
or subject matter, and the formalistic elements of the film. Most reviews and
responses agreed that the film was uncommonly well-made despite the crude
and inferior production situation for Korean filmmaking. Some gave it high
praise—"a masterpiece balancing artistry and entertainment" (Seoul Shinmun,
May 25, 1988; Hankukllbo, June 1, 1988). For them, the film seemed to be the
result of the enormous production investment. The "enormous investment" was
evidenced by the lavish advertising images, the immense interior of office
settings, the final rollover accident requiring a stuntman, and the perfect props
created by a professional art director. These features were praised as
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste ofHeaven 101

contributing to the sense of realism, a sense that is rarely seen in Korean films.
Some commented that they felt they were seeing a Hollywood film, because of
those slick images.
Some reviewers commented that the film showed "sincere and earnest
concern" with our society (Hong Kim, 1988; M. Park, 1988), with a "big and
problematic subject matter" which has rarely been dealt with in Korean films.
And the film was referred to as one of the "social critical films," which provided
the biggest and freshest shock to Korean filmmaking in 1988 and, therefore,
redirected film to a new social message (Bae, 1989). Preview audience members
and critics gave favorable responses to the interpretation of capitalist society
represented by the two main characters, recognizing it as the film's most unique
feature. They particularly remarked that the film exposed the contradictory
phenomenon of capitalist economy in a simple and clear way: For instance,
industrial activity was described as that which produces and sells products in
order not to satisfy demand but to promote consumption; and the advertising
strategy was depicted as that which promotes an abstract image that
discriminates it from other similar products but does not relate to the product's
usefulness itself.
Some acclaimed the formalistic elements of the film, giving credit to the
director for his "surprisingly fresh directing style," and his "exceptional quality
[that] deviated from typical mode of directing" (M. Park, 1988; iungang Ilbo,
May 28, 1988; Han Kim, 1988; Seoul Shinmun, May 25, 1988). They praised the
satire expressed in the characterizations, especially the names of main
characters, Panchock Kim (promotion of gold) and Sobi Song (consumption of
sexuality); the expressionistic styles mixed with graphic animation; the parody
used for depicting the brutal promotion war between two companies; the
exaggerated acting and characterization; and so on. Particularly, the cross-
cutting between the main character running in the night, the graphic animation
showing the rise and fall of sales, and the woman as an industrial spy in sexual
ecstasy were highly praised. A critic remarked that the scene "elevates the
reality of the film and expands the limitation of a dramatic form" (J. Kim, 1988).
Another commented on it as an excellent abstraction of fierce industrial war and
the desire for success (P. Park, 1988, pp. 58-59). Based upon such formalistic
features, reviewers judged that the director succeeded in distancing the audience
from the characters and storyline, rather than promoting identification and
having empathy with them.
Ironically, the issues raised in the positive reaction given to the film
paralleled those of the severe criticism. The craftsmanship of the film became
the target of one of the criticisms. The quality of the film was not accepted by
the younger generation of filmmakers. They perceived that the director intended
to make a commercially successful film in order to get ahead in the existing
commercial system. They assumed that the director had been seduced by the
commercial film system, surrendering any attempt to express the superiority of
people's film which would not be possible in the existing system (Han Kim,
1988). The glamorous images and the more or less glorification of the main
character of the film were seen as a glorification of a capitalist society rather
than of the emotion and lived experience of the people.
102 Korean Film

Most reviews agreed that the film was concerned with modern society and its
human beings. But some cast doubt on whether the film projected its concerns in
sincere and earnest ways. For them the subject matter of the film was typical and
cliched, and the way it was presented lacked any purposeful messages. For
instance, one critic blamed the film for not encouraging struggle although it did
broach business circles at a time when labor-management strife was still the rage
of the nation (S. Park, 1988). For this critic, the film merely exposes the
mentality of a man within the business world, focusing on his obsession for
success, and it does not disclose the larger injustice of the system.
Regarding the directing style presented in formalistic aspects, some critics
complained that there was hardly any directing effort in the film. For them the
director seemed to rely on the expert acting of the main actor and on the strong
message-oriented script. They especially criticized the film's heavy handedness,
saying that the director's message was "thrown out through direct speeches of
the main character rather than through filmic language." The film "explicitly
delivered the message of the director to the audience directly, which has not
been done by any Koreanfilm"(Hong Kim, 1988).
Among such diverse responses there is a common thread: the changes
inevitably made in the production process prevented favorable reviews. The
changes made by economic constraints and the discrepancy of personal views
between the producer and the director were the major factors bringing about
severe criticism. Representative examples of changes were the replacement of a
certain part of the narrative with the storyline for the female character, the
several omissions of distancing devices, and the "smoothing" of the dramatic
structure. For the critics, these changes were the source of the film's failure.
This accusation was made by a group of assistant directors (closely
connected to the director) who read the original script before they saw the film
and who understood the mechanizations of the Korean film industry. They
commented that the film was well-made despite all those seemingly impossible
hindrances in the Korean film production system, but acknowledged that the
final film bore evidence of the hidden negotiations and conflicts between the
producer and the director. They understood how the director must have felt
disappointed with the distance between the completed commercial film and his
original intention.
The economic constraints and the producer's intervention were exhibited in
the frequently criticized formalistic presentations of the film, in the awkward
formalistic shift due to the combination of comedy and tragedy, and in the
failure of the distancing effect and distorted realism. On the one hand, some
praised the film for being full of fresh formalistic elements and very clear
messages of the writer-director (Hankuk Ilbo, June 1, 1988; M. Park, 1988). The
critics responded that the message was too overtly emphasized, exploiting
devices such as exaggeration and distortion, to give a sense of reality to the
subject matter and problematic issues (Han Kim, 1988; Hong Kim, 1988; J.
Kim, 1988; P. Park, 1988). For example, the final death of the main character,
who is a typical model struggling for success in modern society, frustrated the
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 103

Jang responded to both sides in an interview with a film magazine, claiming

that he had intended to share laughter with the audience in the first half of the
film and pathos with it in the last half (Moon, 1988, pp. 50-53). He had tried to
mold a form that could do both. For instance, he utilized solemn music in a
trivial banquet (S# 26) and heavenly music in a mountainous junk yard (replaced
scene with S# 124-126). One reviewer remarked that, due to the unique dual
form, the seriousness of the subject matter was blurred (Hong Kim, 1988). The
director himself acknowledged that he seemed to enforce sudden changes of
emotion so that the audience might not have been able to follow the drama as he
had intended.

Although the main storyline is based on realism, there is a danger of leading the audience
far from the reality through expressionistic traits, using exaggeration, distortion and fable.
For this reason, Taste of Heaven was criticized as being too full of purposeful messages
to have a mature mode of formalism. (Moon, 1988, p. 52)

Acknowledging his failure, Jang referred to Taste of Heaven as a transitional

work for him and in his next work he wanted to overcome the weaknesses that
he saw in this film. Yet he regretted that the scene of the highway to heaven (S#
182) in the original script was not shot. Had the scene been shot, for him the
film could have provided the audience with the issue of deliverance that he had
sought in previous works such as Seoul Whangje or Santa Clausnun Itnunga?
Then it would have lessened the frustration felt by the audience (Moon, 1988, p.
However, the most severe but basic criticism given to the film was the
"smoothing" of the dramatic structure by the demands of the producer. The
smooth dramatic structure made the formalistic shift from the experimental,
expressionistic, and satirical presentation of the first half of the film to the fluid
melodrama in the latter part. J. Kim (1988) admitted that this shift was the
source of failure of the film:

Even if a film focuses more on message than on form, the artistic and emotional
experience should be considered as well. The reason that Taste of Heaven failed in
impressing spectators in emotional ways is that the formalistic presentation in the first
half of the film shifted to an extremely realistic presentation in the last half of the film.

The same sense of shift was felt by other people present at the preview. They
liked and enjoyed the first part of the film but in the latter part they felt that the
film became a cliche, a typical melodrama. Some commented that the shift was
born from the director's "mistaken" intention to change the black comedy of the
original script to a melodrama.
Although Jang said that he had intended to create a film having the duality of
comic and pathetic feeling, only a few critics agreed with the intention. After
praising the first part of the film, a critic wrote in a review entitled "From
fablesque satire of reality to sentimentalism" :

In the middle part, the structure of the film became loosened. The story develops with the
photographs of the sexual scene of the main characters—it is not persuasive but artificial,
104 Korean Film
although the information war between the two companies has been intense. Then came
the betrayal and pleading for love. From this point, here and there in the film the
swellings of sentimentality protruded. And the conflicts and tension which have
developed in the drama evaporated, and the main theme become diffused. The calculated
and typical formula of "an estranged love due to the desire for success/cruel
betrayal/gruesome revenge/brutal destruction" comes into play. (P. Park, 1988)

Another review even cast doubt on Jang's social consciousness because of

the shift:

Jang seems at first to have social consciousness. But when we carefully look into his
film, he does not present his social consciousness. Instead his social consciousness is
seen as an obstinacy always roughly superseded by the exaggerated beginning and
sudden finale. That is explicit in the process connecting the beginning to the finale,
presented with a thorough melodrama. Yet different from the old cliche" formula of
melodrama, this film presents that process to the degree to which a "woman" can
splendidly declare her "age of success....
That is, this film is just a melodrama with the relationship between business companies as
a background, even if he exploits a variety of devices here and there. The rising and
falling curve of the drama is related to the business war, yet what decides the fate is the
rules of the game, promotion of virtue and reproval of vice. It is never a relationship
between enterprises and capital circulated between them. Accordingly, the main character
is reproved by the cause-effect of the drama, never sacrificed by the cruel rule of the "age
of success." (Bae, 1989)

The shift from experimentalism to typical melodrama also became a major

criticism in relation to Jang's film theory. Taste of Heaven was criticized as
"closed prose," in contrast to the concept of an "open film" that Jang proposed
as a direction for Korean film. And the film was blamed for its "ordinariness,
one-wayness, and individuality," and its showing the shabby film grammar of
prose masking reality.
The initial intention of the film, according to the director, was not to let
spectators identify with the drama emotionally, but instead to design an
instrument that lets them realize the distance between the images and reality and
then enable them to take a critical position. However, there was a difference of
opinion on the distancing effect the film offered. A group of reviewers
suggested that the film succeeded in avoiding emotional involvement by the
spectators (J. Kim, 1988; Hangyure Shinmun, July 10, 1988). And a couple of
people responded after the preview screening that the film was so calculated and
articulated that they felt distance from the drama, rather than empathy, as if that
effect was mistakenly achieved. Others were dubious about how successful the
distancing would prove for general spectators (J. Kim, 1988; M. Park, 1988). M.
Park (1988), after praising the surprisingly fresh directing style of Jang,
suggested that such wonderful stereotyping of characters and situations would
encourage identification rather than the alienation that the film intended. She
took an instance from a scene of CF in the film:

I am concerned that, as a result, the film would be received by spectators as a mysterious

object of envy rather than as a presentation of the problematic contradictions of
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 105
capitalism which should be overcome. For example, the model in the CF images, also an
industrial spy, looks so ecstatically lovely like a fairy in a Disney film that I would never
get tired of looking at her.

Given this ambiguity, some reviewers reserved judgment on the distancing

effect, commenting that whether the instrument succeeded or not must be left to
the capability and sensibility of the audience (Bae, 1989; M. Park, 1988).
In response to the criticism, Bae sharply corrected reviewers—what was
called the film's "distancing instrument" was not actually what Brecht called
"an alienation effect." For Bae, the devices for dramatic interception (for
instance, the flashback to the old days of the main character and his father
[replacement between S# 148-163], and the appearance of the spiritual guide [S#
135]) did not disrupt the audience's emotional involvement in the drama but
were only mechanical insertions or flashbacks (Bae, 1989). A Brechtian mode of
film should transform an audience's catharsis or involvement into the emotional
response which enables critical thinking. In other words, it transforms, through
defamiliarization, an organic aesthetic experience into moral anger against
societal injustice. For this reason, the devices exploited in Taste of Heaven are
"peripheral" to Jang's theory of "open film" which heralded "the humanization
of the camera." Other techniques, such as sudden change and reversal, satire,
exaggeration, and distortions, are the proper peripheral elements to approach the
core of the events (Bae, 1989).
The emphasis on the peripheral, not on the core of reality, was considered as
the failure of the formalistic presentation of the drama. It became the major
source of the criticism of Jang's consciousness. P. Park (1988) wondered:

How does Jang illuminate the tragedy, the modern tragedy of love and success, which he
presents as his directing intention? The tragedy of love and success for Jang means the
disintegration of the artistic form of allegory and the loss of irony. So, on the empty
screen, the screen of time and space which is not filled with puerile comedies, is
interrupted by a boring flashback, and finally finishes in hopeless sentimentalism and
self-torture after repeating the unreasonable after the unreasonable.

Following criticisms of the failure in the formalistic presentation, some

questioned whether Jang achieved his film aesthetics—the notion of a "people's

Jang tries to touch on issues such as success, the ambivalence of going back to nature,
and the sensibility of tragicomedy, which float above the mind of spectators. Then, has he
achieved his own filmic aesthetics? Has he given up his responsibility as a "transitional
director" who is a graduate of the small format film movement and proceeded into the
existing commercial market? (Han Kim, 1988)

Commercial success, is it a fantastic doorstep for new directors or the Achilles' heel? To
sum up, it means that Jang, who was much expected to make a "people's film," launched
into the orbit of the commercial system. He also betrayed his colleagues who are standing
in a united filmic front. (P. Park, 1988)
106 Korean Film

The accusations of "betrayal" to a people's film is based on the critics' doubt

about whether Jang had a sincere and earnest desire to express the lived
experiences of people and reality. Taste of Heaven, to sum up the negative
critical responses, criticized our society with a stealthy retreat from reality, in
the form of allegory, refusing to face up to reality and courageously pointed out
what is wrong with it.
Strictly speaking, the subject matter of a film is not reality itself but the
reproduced reality captured by the camera. Film also reproduces reality as it is,
as well as reproducing the visual reality. Bazin calls the visual reality which one
senses when one perceives a projected object an "asymptote of reality" (1967, p.
14). In Taste of Heaven, the asymptote of reality is felt in the scenes where
commercial film were being shot, the pictures of the people working in an
enormous skyscraper and the props. However, the critics believed that such a
sense of reality should have been used in order to "signify" something through
specific form and style. If the signification is well suited to a proper form, it
could signify something. This means that it is important for realist films to
balance form and style, which determines how the reality should be expressed. It
would be confusing if one defined as "realist film" one that refers only to partial
elements of reality or to the message of the present age.
The filmic style of Taste of Heaven, which includes the interruptions of
emotional involvement and its farcical imagination, is molded into two forms.
However, filmic style and form should be decided by the types and quantity of
elements applied to and created in the process of dealing with the subject matter.
And the realism exploited in a film should preclude abstract imagination or
conceptual elements if possible. That is, realist film is the style which tries to
reduce signification to the minimum. For that reason, Jang's intention to have
the duality of comedy and tragedy could not be easily accomplished in a realist
In this definition of "realism," the reality in Taste of Heaven was not
expressed in a sincere and earnest way. The way the film presented its reality
was with jokes, satire, humor, farce, and the like. It became a realism of false
reconciliation, decorated by the directors' subjectivity and imagination. Bae
(1989) analyzed the laughter of the main character in Taste of Heaven as an
expression of a form of cynicism. For him, the laughter in Korean films is not
familiar laughter because it expresses on attack or is a substitute for "brave"
fighting. The laughter in Taste of Heaven, is a device for confronting reality, not
an honest laughter that carries a keen critical dagger.
For these reasons, Jang was criticized as having betrayed the premises
presented in his own writing. The inverted or distorted realism of Taste of
Heaven was what critics used to remind him of the premises. Bae (1989) acutely
attacked Jang regarding his notion of audience:

The audience is no longer a slave who acclimates himself to the screen as the director
intends and is not likely to stick to a limited screen. That means the audience is not
captivated by the kaleidoscope the director manipulates one-sidedly. The honest filmic
technique is not the projection of a new film concept but the exaltation of the sense of
reality of the images. We can call a film an honest realist film if it allows autonomous
interpretations and multi-meanings from the exaltation of the sense of reality of images.
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 107

To sum up, Jang did not seem to live up to the expectations raised by his
critical writings, even in his notion of audience. As critics felt Taste of Heaven
was the litmus test for Jang's theory, the same was true for Jang himself. After
the preview screenings, Jang had opportunities to express his thoughts. One
session was at a lecture series held by the United Film Circle in universities in
Seoul and the other was a lecture held by the School of People's Culture. Jang
gave lectures titled, "Evaluation of Commercial Film and the Possibility of
National-People's Film" (May 28, 1988). Though different groups of people
were present, the content of the lectures focused more or less around the
limitation of commercial film, searching for ways that commercial films and the
cultural movements could co-exist. Discussing those subjects, Jang implicitly
addressed himself and his thoughts to the aftermath of Taste ofHeaven.
In the lectures Jang summed up the outcome of the small-format
documentary film productions as part of the cultural movements in the 1980s in
order to explain the possibility of achieving a national-people's film in the
existing commercial film production system. The small-format documentary
film movement spontaneously sprang up under specific political and historical
conditions and continued to record political incidents unexposed by the mass
media. It achieved a degree of artistic completeness and directedness combined
with techniques of direct recording in several documentary films distributed
However, according to Jang, the overall outcome of eight years of the small
format film movement was at a standstill. The films could not be distributed
widely, and thus they could not gain popularity within the masses. Since the
small-format film is limiting, the documentary film movement needs to produce
feature films in the 16mm format and to reconsider the problems of exhibition,
reproduction, and distribution. In order for small-format film production to be "a
cultural movement," for Jang, it needs to stand firmly on the bases of the
people's movement, thus overcoming the limit of academics and allowing for
change within the frame of existing techniques and capital.
On the other hand, the commercial film production system has its limits in its
ability to express political issues which have been the domain of small-format
films. Since the commercial film system tries to pursue profit, it depends on
politics and thus capitulates to political power. Its audience is mainly composed
not of the labor-working class but of members of the leisure class who have
petit-bourgeois consumer traits and who are opportunistic. In order to change the
situation, it is necessary to start from the existing ground and from the basis of a
trained audience. Political goals can be achieved by combining entertainment
and political purposes by circumlocution and suggestion, and optimism rather
than pessimism. In other words, the acquisition of the popularity with the mass
audience is the doorstep where commercial film and people's film should meet.
In practice, considering the characteristics of commercial film and its
audience, people's film could be made possibly by combining reality and
expression. If the experiments in expression would acquire the support of the
masses, then more experiment in expression would follow. This process of
change, to Jang, is a mere speculation; it is being done in Korean film as a
108 Korean Film
dialectical process. In this context, Taste of Heaven is an example of a variety of
experiments on the understanding capability of the audience.
Jang insists that he presented in Taste of Heaven, from the perspective of the
people, the order of practice in an enterprise that oppresses people and its
process of collapse. He does not yet accept the criticism that the film was an
outcome of the director's petit-bourgeois subjectivity, since the subject of the
film was not the people. For Jang, the main character of the film was the subject
of alienation in our society. He said that he would like to find out how the film
would be received in a town of working class people in whom he is most
interested and then reform his way of expression according to their reception.
A critic who was present at the lecture as a moderator commented that Jang's
conviction about the popularity of the masses could be called "nationalism of
solidarity of classes." He questioned whether satirical expression came out of
the petit-bourgeois class while realistic expression came from the working class.
Another moderator remarked that the realism of Taste of Heaven was an
outcome of the director's reinterpretation of reality. Jang responded that the
aesthetic taste of the masses is ultimately realism. Although realism is not a
definite form, subjective realism including mass-ness, expressed by the film
medium itself, is the basis of realism. Realism, for him, is a form which has lots
of potential but is largely unpracticed in Korean films.
Jang summed up the lecture by saying that the realm of commercial film still
allows for the possibility of change as long as it does not turn its back against
the subject matter of people's film. Although most producers of commercial film
think they would go bankrupt if they made a film with a political message, the
commercial system would make it possible for people's film to gain the support
of the masses, by providing the legitimacy. Though it may sound opportunistic
or it may allow a filmmaker to be drawn into auteurism, ultimately it is up to the
director whether the message of a film supports dominant ideology or change.
However, Jang's main theme of the lecture did not seem to gain a favorable
response from the audience. The possible success of a people's film within the
commercial film production system still seemed impossible as long as the
creative agents—not a producer but a writer-director—do not have their own
healthy capital for production. For the advocates of people's film, represented
by those who attended the lectures and a group of assistant directors in the
Korean film industry, the people's film should directly express social reality and
the pain of the people and should be independently produced, exhibited, and
financed by themselves. For them there is hardly any healthy production capital
circulating in the Korean film industry because it is almost solely dependent on
the profits from imported films. The tenor for people's film is well described in
the keynote introduction of the Youth Film School:

Korean film, started in the period of national ordeal, could not acquire national
characteristics but performed as a collaborator in the dominant colonial ideology under
the coercive control and oppression of Japanese colonization. Lively discussions and
consideration about "the nationalfilm"of Korea started after the Liberation were severed
by the Korean War and the anti-communist ideology intensified by the dependent
economic structure derived from the U.S.-aided economy. For a long time, Korean fil
has exhibited the picture of deformity, not listening to, seeing, or speaking about the real
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste of Heaven 109
needs of Korean people. Accordingly, the concept of "new film," which has been
discussed in a variety of perspectives, has to overcome an abstract discussion and
consider the practice inducing nationalism, that has come to the stage now in order to
surmount the colonial social structure of Korea. Therefore, Korean film should not be a
means of concealing and distorting social contradictions any longer. Also, it should not
be a medium for pleasure-seeking or which turns its face away from the pain of the
people any more. (Jang, Xeroxed copy, n.d., p. 129)

From this perspective, Taste of Heaven could hardly be called a people's


If Taste of Heaven aims to be realism, its greatest fault is its ignoring the healthy
ordinariness of life. If a film is a synonym of mass art, it is natural for a film to stand at
the very front of the line criticizing andfightingthe unjust pain and sorrow of the people
in our society. If a film should be the point of the advanced guard in the present age and
society, it must not become cynical, obscure, and scornful, as it retreats one step
backward. Films like Taste of Heaven, that often criticizes our society without facing up
to the reality, must be criticized. Korean film has to make up its mind what it should
criticize and with which voice. Film art to be "open," should be completed by the
audience, rather than be "closed" by the directors' contradiction or compromise. (Bae,
1989, p. 21); (emphasis added)

Despite such severe criticism, it is significant that Taste of Heaven provided

a critical discourse in and around Korean filmmaking in general, with for good
film and standards for what type of film should be made. The definition of good
film emerging from this critical discourse accords with the beliefs of a group of
small format filmmakers that initiated a people's film movement, seeking a new
kind of national film. Dismissed then as a subversive movement by commercial
filmmakers, the group's concept of national film became a standard to evaluate
Taste of Heaven. This reemerging concept of a national film calls upon
commercial films to express the lived experience of the oppressed people and to
expose the deepened contradiction of Korean society to the people.
The critical discourse around Taste of Heaven demonstrates that the
application of the concept of a national film to evaluate a film is still in a trial
stage. For instance, the younger generation of film critics offered spontaneous
reactions both favorable and critical based on the concept of a national film,
while the older, existing critics hardly gave the film serious thought. One of the
expert critics invited to the preview screening even said he could not understand
the film and so avoided writing about it. Other established critics briefly praised
the film as a wonderfully well-made film. This shows a clear division between
the old and new generations of people in the Korean film industry, of
commercial and people's film, and, thus, of existing and new values applied to
evaluating film. And the film is viewed as "a transitional" film which connects
those divisions of value.
While the concept of a national film is being adapted to commercial film
practice, filmmakers have begun to make "courageous" films on subjects
forbidden for a long time. They are trying to make films concerning nationalism,
that face up to or reveal the reality concealed under the controlled cultural policy
of the government. Even a group of directors who have made soft-core
no Korean Film

pornographic films "to make a living" have shifted their attention to films with
problematic political subject matters these days.
The trend is exemplified by Whang and Jang after the completion of Taste of
Heaven. Jang intended to adapt a short story entitled, Nim (You) to a film script.
It is about an innocent college student who becomes conscious of the absurd
anticommunist ideology through his own experience. The student, while
studying in Japan, falls in love with a girl whose parents have connections with
a pro-North Korean association. When he comes back to Seoul, he realizes that
he is a wanted man accused of espionage for North Korea. Under the protection
of a professor, he could escape from Korea to an unknown country. Though the
story is simple, the process of his consciousness-raising is remarkably well
developed in the original story. Jang presented the project to Kisung Whang. But
he rejected it because it was too political to be filmed at that time, in the summer
of 1988.
Jang then adapted a nonfiction story into a script. The story is about the rise
and fall of the partisans of North Korea based in the mountains of South Korea
before and after the Korean War. The script is at present being filmed.
Currently, Jang is preparing another project based on a short story, Bulgun Bang
(Red Room), with the same assistant who worked on Taste of Heaven. Bulgun
Bang is a story of an ordinary man who gets involved with a radical friend
before being arrested by secret agents of the National Security Board. By
depicting the predicament of an ordinary man, it raises issue of the torturing
political prisoners during interrogation, which has been controversial for more
than ten years in Korea.
Kisung Whang, after rejecting Nim, has produced a "genuinely erotic" film
entitled Onul Yoja (Today's Woman) in collaboration with his long-time
director, Chulsoo Park. At present he is preparing his next project, also a
collaboration with Park, which is about a fugitive student accused of being a
leader of the student demonstrations. It seems an exceptionally big shift in
subject matter only a year after he rejected Jang's proposal. It also seems about
time that Whang produces such politically oriented subject matter.
Looking at this trend of filmmaking, the critical discourse around Taste of
Heaven suggested a transitional moment of formation of national culture, not
simply as a model for a national film production. It has set up a framework
bridging commercial film and a new trend of filmmaking that stretches to a
national-people's film, by providing standards for good film. If the cycle of
production-reception dialectically continues, as Taste of Heaven did and as Jang
hoped, it is not a distant hope for national-people's film to gain its legitimacy in
the commercial film production system. Such a formation of culture, as the case
of this film showed, is not achieved by an individual producer or a director, even
though the power of a producer was unlimited, but by the power of the critical
eyes of concerned people. In other words, though created within a variety of
constraints, a formation of culture is more a reflection of people's beliefs and
values than a product of economic or structural factors. Bae (1989), in this
context, urges the commitment of film critics for the new trend in Korean film.
Auteur Criticism: Sunwoo Jang's Taste ofHeaven 111
Recently in a corner of our film industry, [there was] suggested a new conception of
"national film equipped with forms of people's film," a counter film to so-called
Hollywoodfilms.In order to develop the situational logic and to practical testimony, it is
necessary to have a converting viewpoint and to stage a new perspective. That is, we
have to find out the deficiencies of film criticism that have been blocked by anti-
communist ideology enforced by the ruling system for a long time. Political and
ideological critical practice, the forbidden land, should be revived through the analysis
and criticism of film texts. The reason is that critical practice can no longer wander
around the crossroad between filmic aesthetic as "art and entertainment" or consumer
product and relinquished art.

This chapter has provided an analysis of the reviews of and the reactions to
Taste of Heaven. The film drew both high praise and severe criticism. Severe
criticism was mostly due to the problems that emerged from changes made by
economic constraints and the producer's intervention in the production process.
The film tried to gain access to a mass audience, masking its subversive
messages with glamorous commercial images. But reviewers believed that its
subversive power was co-opted by the commercial film production system,
giving up sincere expression of the lived experience of the people—the very
premise of people's film and a main theme of Jang's own critical writing. But
thefilmmakercontended that the film needs first to access the mass audience in
order to deliver his real intentions widely, and so must plant the seed of people's
film in the territory of the commercial film system. However, the responses and
reactions to the film based on critical analyses disagreed, concluding that what is
needed in Korean film is not a masked subversive form, but the directly
expressed people's lived experience.
The critical discourse around the film offers a few implications on the
formation of a national culture. The creation and reception of a new commercial
film is an arena where a counter, subversive, or alternative culture gradually
gains a legitimacy through the clash of diverse beliefs and values of people. An
explicit example of this is that the concept of a national film that has been
regarded as a subversive movement is emerging as a new standard of good film.
The concept of a national film, formulated by people's beliefs and values within
external constraints, steers the current filmmaking practice of Korea toward a
new direction. This dynamic process of the formation of a national culture
confirms that culture embodies constantly changing people's systems of beliefs
and values within a variety of constraints surrounding the production and
reception process.
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Chapter 5

Discourses of Modernity and

Postmodernity in Contemporary Korean

In the contemporary theory of culture, the concept of nation is considered one of

the most important signifying forces. Nation in the modern world functions as a
unit of culture as well as economy and politics. It is formulated through an
integrating, unifying, centripetal referential point of collective social experiences
often called "history." The people of a nation who share the same historical
experience form an "us" differentiated from other peoples. One of the most
influential accounts of nationhood is that proposed by Benedict Anderson. He
argues that the experience of nationhood, the sense of belonging to a nation,
results from people's believing themselves to be part of an "imagined
community." The extent to which these different social experiences can be
transformed into the singular experience of a coherent national community, with
boundaries clearly demarcating the "inside" from the "outside," is evidence of
the power of national sentiment or rather of the narratives and apparatuses which
mobilize it (1991, p. 17).
A central part of nationhood as rooted in an imagined community involves
articulation of differences. We have our own meanings and investments through
difference from others. Differences—which are cultural differences in the end
because all differences are both recognized and operated in cultural
forms—make an individual himself or herself. By the same token, differences
make a nation itself. The crucial factor that constitutes a nation is cultural
identity, to which Anderson refers through the notion of an imagined
community. In fact, every kind of identity is culturally formed in a context in
which every unit (individual, family, nation, etc.) interacts with all others. It
consists of inheritance, acquisition, imposition, reaction, and other elements.
These elements do not exist by themselves, but intermingle, fuse, diffuse, and
interact, eventually creating something new. In Anne McCIintock's words,
"nations are not simply phantasmagoria of the mind but are historical practices
114 Korean Film

through which social differences are both invented and performed" (1995, p.
353). National specificity is one of the most significant factors in the regime of
If the importance of nationhood in the production and circulation of social
meanings is acknowledged, the notion of "national allegory" is a useful one to
relate a cultural representation to its national and sociohistorical context. The
notion that the telling of the individual story and the individual experience
cannot but ultimately involve the whole laborious telling of the collective itself
is initially proposed by Fredric Jameson to identify the features of Third World
literature, which is characterized by the struggle against imperialism and
colonialism (Jameson, 1986, 65-88). Furthermore, the Marxist literary critic
Aijaz Ahmad, although critical of Jameson's notion for its implicit positioning
of the First World literature as the canon, suggests that even narratives produced
in the First World—for example, black and feminist literature in the United
States—can be understood as the national allegory (1992, pp. 95-122). In short,
narratives are primarily national," to the degree that they present the nation's
collective experience in the form of allegory.
At its start, the issue of nationhood in cinema studies was largely neglected.
For example, the fact that a film should first and foremost be seen as belonging
to a national cinema is often forgotten, particularly in the United States.
However, it must be noted that American cinema should be regarded as a special
case, in that Hollywood has aimed at international as well as domestic markets,
and that Hollywood cinema tends to conceal its national traits consciously and
unconsciously. We, nevertheless, think that the national traits underlie most
Hollywood films despite their surface "universality." Hollywood films'
seemingly universality can be interpreted as a very American trait. Although the
notion of transnational cinema is gaining currency thanks to an increasing
tendency of multinational financing and production, most cinematic practices
such as film production, distribution, and exhibition usually occur within a
national boundary. More important, since every cultural representation cannot
evade a national grid regardless of one's will, film, like other art forms,
inevitably takes on more or less national traits.
As Paul Willemen appropriately points out, this tendency results in the
undesirable absence of comparative cinema studies in film studies (1995, p. 22).
According to Willemen, the insufficient attention to the determining effects of
the geographically bounded state unity stems largely from three main reasons.
First, as academic institutions in the West are beginning to address the film
culture of non-Western countries, scholars formed within the paradigm of Euro-
American film theory are trying to impose their paradigms upon non-Western
cultural practices. The second reason is due to the assumed universality of film
language. This illusion, Willemen argues, is promoted to ignore the specific
knowledge of cultural traditions. Meanwhile, Euro-American film studies have
implicitly posited the Hollywood model of character narration as the norm for
all film. The third reason is the growing internationalization of film industries.
The capital-intensive nature of film production almost forces an industrially
viable cinema to be multinational (1995, pp. 26-27). Under these circumstances,
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 115

serious interests in, and rigorous explorations of, national cinema are
instrumental and imperative to counterbalance the prevalence of Euro-American
film theory, which assumes its universality over the world.
Based on these problematics, this chapter is concerned with discourses of
modernization expressed in some representative new Korean films during the
late 1980s and the mid-1990s. For this purpose it analyzes five important
Korean films which have evoked considerable responses from both Korean
audiences and critics: Black Republic (1990), Sopyonje (1993), A Single Spark
(1995), Festival (1996), and The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996). It attempts
to provide a concrete example of the application of the national perspective as a
signifying force by examining how these films present the course and results of
modernization. This may potentially be an attempt to dismantle the assumed
primacy of Euro-American film theory by addressing the specificity of national
cinema. In order to explore how the 'collective' social experience is told, it
focuses on how and from what perspective these films have represented the
modernization process in Korea. Given that the unprecedented extent and
intensity of modernization are widely considered to represent the unique
accomplishment of modern Korean history and culture, modernization can be
seen as the major constituent core of Korean collective experience during the
20th century. An examination of the cinematic discourses on modernization is
thus a meaningful way of figuring out what Korean national cinema has been
and how it has interacted with changing social reality.
As will be examined in this chapter, Korean cinema has a strong tradition of
realist social drama. It has confronted the turbulent social reality from Japanese
colonial rule, to the Liberation from Japan, to the Korean War, to the postwar
reconstruction, and the astonishing industrialization offering its solid
representations by dramatizing the people's current fears, anxieties, conceits,
pleasures, and aspirations. Since the deregulation of the film industry in 1987,
Korea has produced various films which deal with the issue of modernization
both directly and indirectly. Although Korean cinema in the 1990s might be one
of the most emergent and energetic national cinemas in the world, it is relatively
unknown to international audiences. Reviewing the films shown at the 1996
"Three Korean Master Filmmakers" series at the Museum of Modern Art in
New York, an American film critic appropriately described Korean cinema as an
"inexplicably ignored cinematic tradition" (Village Voice, Nov. 26, 1996). This
undesirable situation comes mainly from the specificities of Korean national
cinema, which stem from Korea's history and culture, and the fact that many
Korean films cannot properly be appreciated without ample knowledge of
Korean history and culture.
The chapter focuses on the films produced since 1988, because that was a
watershed year for Korea, in both sociohistorical and cinematic senses. In
February, ex-General Taewoo Roh was inaugurated as the 13th president,
succeeding Doohwan Chun, the notorious mastermind of the Kwangju Massacre
in 1980. Since the presidential election by direct vote was made possible by the
population's nationwide resistance to the Chun regime, Roh, although a close
friend of Chun's, had to relax the hardline military dictatorship. As a result
censorship was also loosened and the film industry received room for free
116 Korean Film

expression. A Single Spark, depicting the dark realities in the 1970s, became
possible thanks to this change. Discourse is a language or system of
representation that has developed socially in order to make and circulate a
coherent set of meanings about an important topic area. An account of a
discourse or discursive practices, he argues, must include its topic area, its social
origin or location, and its ideological work-that is, the promotion of the interests
of a particular social group (Fiske, 1987, p. 14). This concept of discourse is
very useful for reading film within a social context. Film text, above all, should
be regarded as discourse in that it, like any other cultural representation, is
necessarily imbued with power relations. In this context, the films would be read
as a site of ideological struggle: between capital and labor, domination and
resistance, the East (or Korea) and the West, tradition and modernity, and the
past and the present. Textual analysis is employed to follow the moves in this
struggle by showing "how particular (film) texts take up elements of different
discourses and articulate them" (O'Sullivan, 1994, p. 94).


Modernization has undeniably been the crucial and most powerful force in
the modern world. Thus far, modernization has drastically changed the world: to
mention a few examples, people work in industrial settings, use advanced
technology, live in cities or suburbs, and experience great dynamism and
complexity of ordinary life. This seemingly all-embracing term above all refers
to the transition from a "traditional" society to a "modern" society. The
transition is generally seen as being equivalent to that from an agrarian order to
an industrial society.
Recent history has demonstrated that modernization in essence means
Westernization. Modernization has two historical roots of overarching
influences, both of which originated in 18lh-century Western Europe: capitalist
industrialization and the Enlightenment. The former was initiated in the last
quarter of 18th-century Britain, where material power and machinery began to be
widely used in production. It was indeed the ultimate driving force of modernity.
The latter, widespread in Western Europe during the 18th century, was based on
the trust in rationality and progress. The Enlightenment project was aimed at
nothing less than the creation of a new kind of universal culture: secular,
rational, humanitarian, republican, or in a word, "progressive" (Marx and
Mazlish, 1996, p. 1). This progressive ideology of development came to
dominate Western thinking and to spread outside the West through Western
colonization and education (Caiden, 1981, p. 9).
Although modernization has largely made the world a better place through
new technologies in medicine, agriculture, and so on, the worldwide transition to
modernity could not occur without contradictions. While modernization possibly
achieves material civilization by human intervention into the conditions of social
life and nature, it, at the same time, generates unanticipated negative effects.
These include, for example, economic polarization, environmental crisis,
negation of democratic rights, and danger of war, all of which Anthony Giddens
calls "manufactured uncertainty" (1994, p. 34). Thus, the concrete historical
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 117

process of modernization is deeply stained by antinomy: it necessarily generates

contradictions that could negate the overall merits of modernity. This is the
major source of ambivalence toward modernization in people undergoing the
For non-Westerners, modernization creates another source of ambivalence.
What make this process more perplexing for them than the intrinsic antinomy of
dynamics of modernization are the discursive effects of modernization
stemming from the undeniable identity of modernization with Westernization.
Modernization is nothing more than the whole process that, in accordance with
the Western model, dismantles the old order and reorganizes not only the base,
consisting of the economic system, but also the superstructural domain, meaning
culture in its broadest sense. Thus modernization imposes the totalizing effects
of Western discourse on non-Western people.
Societies which undergo intense modernization are necessarily defined by
Western discourse. Capitalist industrialization, which forms the constituent core
of modernization, needs its corresponding consciousness or value system.
Nations which adopt a capitalist system automatically accept the principle of
instrumental rationality. For instrumental rationality is itself the essential
element which a capitalist system uses to promote materialistic effectivity.
The dominant power of this worldview imposes Western cultural norms and
values on the people so they are compelled to adopt this alien system of thought
as their own, and therefore disregard or disparage indigenous culture and
identity (Choi, 1997, p. 350). For non-Westerners, in short, modernization as an
economic process, combined with its social and cultural implications, is nothing
other than the imposition of Western discourse whose essence is the
instrumental rationality generated by the logic of capital (Frow, 1991, pp. 139-
The discursive effects of modernization involve a process of "reluctant"
internalization of Western values by non-Western people. This can be called an
inner colonization of the mind. Modernization brings about significant change in
cultural life as well as the material world: the alien values represented by
modernization of technical, rational, and Eurocentric values permeate and
replace traditional values. As this occurs, non-Westerners feel themselves
inferior to Westerners, as if they were the "other." Thus, they tend to try to
negate through disavowal of Western values or through its depreciation the
"inner colonization" that modernization inevitably brings about. They come to
have "the intractable ambiguities of the postcoloniai subject position with split
loyalties, allowing a colonization of consciousness (Choi, p. 350). This evokes a
deep feeling of inferiority or backwardness in relation to Western societies.
What makes the colonization of consciousness so vicious is that the colonizer is
usually absent despite the presence of the colonized. In this regard,
modernization can be read as a neocolonial experience.
Koreans are more likely than any other people to identify modernization with
Westernization. When modernization impacted on Korea in the late 19th
century, the Korean people suddenly found that they were on the periphery, not
at the center. This identification was reinforced later as Koreans had to face the
extreme destitution caused by occupation from 1910 to 1945, the Korean War
118 Korean Film

from 1950 to 1953, and the overwhelming presence of the United States since
1953. Choi states:

They [the people of Korea] adopted Western cultural ancestry as their very own. This is
to adopt the logic of modernization which privileges Western culture. For those who
adopt such a worldview, the lack of material resources to produce it is tantamount to an
admission of one's own cultural inferiority. (Post)colonial Koreans have continued to
mimic Western hegemonic culture and have reproduced a colonial pathology of self-
denigration and self-marginalization. (pp. 353-354)

Choi also indicates "the broad and deepseated impact of colonialism upon
the social and cultural landscape of the excolonies, especially the lasting
colonization of consciousness" (1997, p. 354). She argues that Korea's
postcoloniality is deferred, implying that Korea is still under the colonization of
the United States. In fact, she cites Bruce Cumings' work declaring that Korea
had been denied its liberation. For me, her notion of Korea's deferred
postcoloniality is unacceptable, in that South Korea is now really a force that
pursues its own direction even within the limits imposed by the world order. If
her reasoning were generalized, Britain and Japan, for example, would be
veritable colonies of the United States. We argue that the modernization of the
Third World inherently possesses characteristics of (post)colonialism,
particularly in terms of consciousness.
In general, the material improvement resulting from modernization does not
appease the feeling of loss, self-alienation, or inferiority in people. As Peter
Burger (1974, p. 244) remarks, "once the immediate threat of starvation is
removed, an industrialized country overlapped with the period when President
Chunghee Park ruled the country, spanning from 1961 to 1979. This period,
especially the later part (1972/1979) under the Yushin system (1972 landmark
governmental reform to prolong President Chunghee Park's presidency),
combined the most direct and severe political oppression with the highest
economic growth in Korea. In a word, President Park was the paramount leader
of modernization and, at the same time, a notorious military dictator. Therefore
modernization reminds most Koreans of the Park regime and a period of
economic growth under the political oppression.


Considering that Korean cinema previously suffered from severe political
censorship, films dealing with the theme of the Movement should apparently be
seen as the outcome of the liberalization policy pursed by the government since
1988. In this scene, Black Republic and A Single Spark, two films that have an
antigovernment activist as their hero, are notable in several respects. First, they
offer an alternative picture of Korean society through a stark critique of the
existing order from the Movement's perspective, the formerly suppressed
underground philosophies of the minjoong Movement. Second, they are rare
examples that gave the Movement a representation in the most popular
representational form. Despite its immeasurable influences on modern Korean
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 119

history, the Movement had never before received its cinematic representation. In
fact, Korean filmmakers with background in the social movement, for example,
Sunwoo Jang, Kyundong Yeo, Kison Hong and Yunhyon Jang, have not made
films depicting their own past as student activists even after 1988. This can be
attributed to their untypicality as activists: those who were interested and
participated in cultural activities were often criticized as "inclining to petit
bourgeois ideology" by core activists. Thus, the sense of guilt, which was
pervasive in student sympathizers, might prevent their autobiographical
Third, both films are made by Kwangsu Park, a director who experienced the
turbulent periods of the 1970s and 1980s as a sympathizer of the social
Movement. The Movement was very critical of the Korean military
government's implementation of its aggressive modernization policy, in the
form of state capitalism, at the cost of enormous social dislocation, including the
widening of class gaps and furthering the proletarization of the underprivileged
class. In such a view, the whole process of modernization was the process of
degeneration, that of intensification of injustice. Modernization in reality,
however, provided the Korean people material affluence. Since
"the critical consciousness" nurtured in the Movement often disavowed the
bright side of modernization, it had a tendency to be increasingly idealistic as
prosperity grew. Despite its claim of "scientificness," the Movement's strong
point was its moralizing power, not its scientific methodology borrowed from
Marxism and neo-Marxism. Its morality, or self-sacrifice, itself has passed for
having its own value in the process of intensification of injustice. What gives the
moralizing discourse extreme, sometimes irrational, demand for equality power
despite its idealism seems to be the existence of the underlying consciousness of
antimodern(ization) and anti-Western(ization) among much of the population.

Black Republic (1990): Class Conflicts and its Fracture

Black Republic is the second film by director Park Kwangsu, who has shown
a consistent interest in social reality. This film, praised by a critic for offering
"the angriest and most graphic evidence of what it means to live through the
dark years after [the] Kwangju" Massacre in May 1980, is concerned with the
sociopolitical events occurring in a desolate mining town (Ryans, 1994, p. 15).
An ex-student activist, who is on the run under the pseudonym of Kim Kiyong,
arrives in a mining town looking for work. He finds a menial job in a briquette
factory and tries to remain anonymous. Kiyong discovers a sort of
companionship with Song Yongsuk, a waitress/prostitute working at a tearoom.
The atmosphere of discontent seethes up in the town, to the point that miners go
on strike to protest the owner's abrupt attempt to close out the coal mine.
Meanwhile, Kiyong clashes over the waitress with Songchol, a delinquent, who
turns out to be the spoiled son of the owner of the briquette factory. As a result
Kiyong gets arrested and the police discover his true identity.
Filmed mostly in the Kohansabuk region, a typical Korean coal mining area,
Black Republic offers a realistic rendering of a declining mining town. It
portrays the details of coal piles, black roads and black dust, deserted coal
wagons and tools in a closed coal mine, empty shabby houses, bustling bars, and
120 Korean Film

other similarities. The starkness of the all-pervading slag heaps around the town
almost reduces the film to black and white (Standish, 1994, p. 82). This black
landscape gives the film a quality of repression and discontent. The spatial
setting in the film is also of great importance. The coal mining town is cut off
from the outside and provides a microcosm of Korean society. This very space
succinctly represents the social ills of Korean society pursuing modernization in
the capitalist way. First, there is direct exploitation of laborers by capitalists.
The boss of the briquette factory delays the payment of wages. Miners are
threatened by the owner's move to close down the coal mine without any notice
in advance. Second, a sense of moral decay motivated by vulgar materialism
prevails. The waitresses of a tearoom are virtually engaged in prostitution a
"disguised" called "buying the ticket." In contrast to the bleak landscape of the
town, karaoke bars and motels are bustling. In addition, the film shows the ugly
complicity between capital and political power. Whenever the interests of
capital are threatened, Detective Kang makes an appearance. When the briquette
factory line stops due to sabotage, he spots a worker and puts him into jail. His
sympathy with capital becomes apparent when infighting between Songchol and
Kiyong occurs in the tearoom. Although Songchol's beating Yongsuk in public
had instigated the event, he gets away with impunity, as Detective Kang puts
only Kiyong into jail. He reinstates the existing order by suppressing laborers
and the weak.
Moreover, the town is visibly declining owing to the decrease of the social
utility of coal. This is the space of exploitation, discontent, decadence, and
marginality. The hero especially shares marginality with the heroine: the
briquette factory where Kiyong is employed is as marginalized a space as the
tearoom where Yongsuk works as prostitute. Everyone in the town is isolated, at
least until Kiyong's arrival. Relations between characters, such as those of the
boss and his workers, Songchol and his father, and Songchol and Yongsuk, are
all very limited and flawed. Constructive human interactions cannot be found.
The scene in which Yongsuk leaves a motel room where she must have had sex
with Songchol the previous night exemplifies the pair's lack of communication.
As she silently exits, Songchol, lying half awake, calls her name. This closure of
true communication is attributed to the given relations of domination, which are
reflections of the network of power relations.
Kiyong then opens up the possibility of communication between people.
Soon after being hired at the briquette factory, he befriends a teenage worker,
Taeshik, whose father is in jail for leading a strike, and whose mother is far
away to earn money in the humble job of housekeeper. Kiyong also comes
closer to Yongsuk and forms a kind of companionship, which evolves into love.
It is because of Kiyong that Taeshik, who at first despised Yongsuk, comes to
call her "sister." It is ironic that Kiyong and Yongsuk become closer because of
Songchol. Songchol favors Kiyong without any ostensible reason. In an
encounter in a restaurant, he offers Kiyong an opportunity to have overnight
sexual pleasure with an attractive waitress, Yongsuk. But Songchol's "favor"
cannot turn into a true communication, because his offer is based on the social
structure of domination that Kiyong wishes so eagerly to abolish. Songchol,
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 121

however, is indifferent to the oppressive structure and, in fact, benefits from it.
On the other hand, the sexual offer given by Songchol turns out for Kiyong and
Yongsuk to be an opportunity for finding mutual understanding. When he enters
a motel room, he hears news about the struggle of laborers on television. He
leaves the room without a word while Yongsuk is taking a shower. As a result of
this encounter, she comes to have a special affection to him.

Black Republic (1990)

There is a firm dichotomy between two groups, the oppressor and the
oppressed. The boss of the briquette factory and other mine owners are
representatives of the former group. Mr. Chong, a worker, the teenage Taeshik,
the miners, and Yongsuk all belong to the latter. The domination and
exploitation of laborers by capitalists is typified by the relationship between the
boss and his employee Chong. The Chong couple is in deep despair. Chong
cannot find any meaning in life except through drinking. His helpless wife
escapes to religion. While Chong suffers under heavy loans borrowed from Boss
Yi, with a great wealth, prepares to move to Seoul where new opportunities for
profit arise. These two groups have their respective supporters. The capitalist is
supported by the political establishment, represented by Detective Kang, and by
a corrupt union leader, who acts on the behalf of the capitalist although he is
supposed to be the spokesman for laborers. Meanwhile, the oppressed receive
sympathy from Kiyong, an activist wanted by the police.
The relationships between the two groups are unilateral. Without exception,
labor is exploited by capital and oppressed by those in political power. This
clearly indicates that Black Republic, above all, is firmly constructed on the
122 Korean Film
discourse of class conflicts. The hero's viewpoint confirms the adoption of that
discourse. Kiyong is a person who sincerely sympathizes with the plight of
laborers. Through his befriending Taeshik and his eventual falling in love with
Yongsuk, Kiyong finds a seed of hope in this dark location. The strikers' rally
scene, in which Kiyong cheers them on by clapping, implies that he reaffirms
his conviction in the ability of minjoong to achieve social changes.
The negativity of the ruling group is symbolized in the relationship between
Boss Yi and his son Songchol. Songchol as the antihero is at the forefront of
capitalist exploitation and degradation. He, the son of a capitalist, however,
turns out to have a pathological fixation on his mother, who has passed away.
The film's sympathetic descriptions of him make his misbehaviors attributable
to his father, who abandoned Songchol's mother to take a second wife after
becoming rich. By this attribution, the film consequently depicts Songchol as a
necessary outcome of bourgeois greed, selfishness, and decadence. The
repetitive motif of the photographs of Songchol's mother also stresses the
father's responsibility for his son's misconduct. It is noteworthy that Songchol
and Yongsuk form a relationship of dominator/dominated, not simply
client/provider. Given control over Yongsuk as a result of the power of his
money, Songchol often abuses her by cursing and beating. The power of capital
thus also permeates the realm of sexuality.
In contrast, the positiveness of the oppressed is demonstrated in the
development of Kiyong and Yongsuk's love. Yongsuk is obviously attracted by
Kiyong's dignity and, thus, strives to be born again in order to be worthy of his
love—she quits selling her body for money. Revealing their real names to each
other epitomizes their mutual understanding and anticipates favorable change.
Like Kiyong, Yongsuk is in fact a pseudonym. Her telling Kiyong her real
name, Komnan, makes solidarity between the marginalized go beyond mere
affection. In this way, the film shows that modernization is nothing but a
deepening of alienation and a restructuring of power relations in favor of capital,
directing the centralization of capital, and ensuing the necessary marginalization
of other sectors. Songchol is a figure who represents the degradation of
bourgeoisie and furthers the darkness of the decayed town. But Kiyong as a
newcomer brings a hope to the town. This is clear in that Yongsuk gets closer
with Kiyong while estranging herself from Songchl. Throughout the film, the
presence of Kiyong functions to epitomize the negativity of the current system.
His true companionship with Yongsuk offers a sharp contrast to Songchol's
voluptuous quest for sexual pleasure through Yongsuk. Likewise, the fact that
the investigation of Kiyong by two detectives in the police station ends in favor
of Songchol symbolizes the structural complicity between capital and political
It is significant that modern instruments in the town are described as tools of
oppression. In the desolate mining town there are only three modern things:
Songchol's motorcycle, a walkie talkie carried by Detective Kang, and the
police computer. The briquette manufacturing line or a delivery truck merely
signify low technology, the backwardness of the town. Songchol's glimmering
motorcycle is instrumental in his abuse of Yongsuk and collecting money from
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 123
debtors. The police computer for detecting criminals is in reality a device of
oppression to disclose the true identity of Kiyong.
There are three characters trying to get out of the town. Endangered by the
disclosure of his identity as a political activist, Kiyong wants to escape from the
town. Since he comes to love the town's oppressed people including Yongsuk,
his escape is forced by political oppression. Yongsuk's desire to escape comes
from her recognition that the town is merely a place of degradation. She wants
to seek a new life with Kiyong in a benevolent place. On the other hand, Boss Yi
has his own reason for getting out of the town. For him, the town is a useless
place that has exhausted its potentialities for making money. Its economic
situation is apparently declining. In fact, he is preparing to move out in order to
find a better place for his business.
The film's consistent use of long shots serves to contextualize the characters
and the events. In so doing, the viewer can relate the characters and events to the
context of exploitation and oppression. Meanwhile, director Park keeps the use
of close-up shots to a minimum. The scenes of Songchol's outrageous
motorcycle riding are captured in close-up in order to stress his insanity.
Another close-up occurs in the police scene where detectives investigate
Kiyong, which effectively expresses the threatening situation Kiyong is going
through. Music is virtually absent throughout the film. This enhances the film's
realism. The only exception is the scene in which Kiyong is bound to get on the
train without Yongsuk, who gets arrested because of stabbing Songchol during
her final delivery. Although Black Republic has many elements of melodrama,
such as a woman's suffering and the emphasis on true love, the film's discourse,
based on the Movement perspective, differentiates it from ordinary melodrama.
Through focusing on the negativity of the ruling class rather than on the
positivity of the Movement, its strategy is effective in critiquing the social
reality of modern Korea.
The Derridean adage that "what is absent from the text is as significant as
what is present" holds true in Black Republic. Despite its underlying
presumption of irreconcilable antagonism between the two basic classes in
capitalist society, the violent clashes of class interests are absent in the film. The
film has some violent scenes: Chong's drunken outrage, Kiyong's struggle
shown in flashback, Kiyong's fighting with Songchol in the tearoom, and
possibly Yongsuk's fatal stabbing of Songchol in a motel room. However, it is
very significant that none of these scenes describes the revolutionary violence of
the oppressed, and that Kiyong's violence is justified and described as
courageous because his violence is not for himself but "for the oppressed." Even
when miners go on strike against the owner's attempt to close down the coal
mine, they are simply singing resistance songs. There is no laborers' organized
anger against capitalist exploitation from their desperation. The miner's strike in
the film is not a manifestation of their potential to overthrow the given system.
This absence of violent manifestations of class antagonism implicitly contradicts
the Movement discourse which the film adopts. In other words, the worker
would not act in his or her historical role as the subject of social change. Since it
is no longer the signifier of the laborer's revolutionary activities, it is reduced to
a mere backdrop in which Kiyong is endangered.
124 Korean Film

Furthermore, it seems inconceivable to read Black Republic as a solely

sociopolitical critique, because there are many irregularities in the narrative.
Even though economic exploitation and political oppression are foregrounded,
what forms the core the of narrative is the romantic relationship between Kiyong
and Yongsuk and the consequent possibility of Yongsuk's overcoming her
alienation. The driving force of the narrative is placed on the melodramatic
tension of whether or not Yongsuk can receive true love from Kiyong and enter
a new life. Of course this possibility is shattered because of the overpowering
conditions of alienation. Here, the genuine role of Kiyong is to make Yongsuk
recognize her alienation. The fracture in the film text is a marker of the
limitation of its class discourse. Laborers in this film are no longer described as
the subject of proletarian class consciousness. Rather they are depicted as
pursuers of their own interests. This is clearly found in the factory
superintendent's saying that miners who had been laid off do not want to do a
meager job since they benefit considerably from the unemployment dole.
Despite its ostensible subversive quality through the film's prism of class
conflicts, Black Republic cannot proceed to people's revolutionary practice.
Where the hero can witness the explosive power of the oppressed people, the
film only shows his sympathy with them. To be sure, Kiyong brings hope to this
marginalized space, but it eventually turns out to be a romantic one, not a
political one.
Ironically, the one who has changed in the narrative is not an intellectual
from a city but a local prostitute. Whereas Kiyong reaffirms his conviction in the
interaction with the local people, Yongsuk makes up her mind to live a new life
through companionship with Kiyong. This might imply that those who should be
changed and born anew are the oppressed people, not the free-floating
intellectuals. The possibility of social transformation is expressed in the ending
only by Kiyong's idealistic voiceover that "Some find despair in today's
darkness. But that darkness means hope to those who look ahead." The film's
discourse is contradictory in that, regardless of the filmmaker's intention, the
ending actually shows little belief in minjoong, and in that individual
decisiveness plays a crucial role. It incorporates the Movement perspective in
critiquing social reality, but it abandons it in investigating the possibility of
social transformation.
This crucial fissure in its discourse makes Black Republic afilmappealing to
intellectuals, not to the mass, although one based on the Movement perspective
stressing the minjoong's historical role. The intellectual outsider's viewpoint
which the film adopts, however, contributes to a realistic observation of social
reality in that it prevents the film from making up the ideal image of minjoong.
The internal fissure in its Movement discourse results in a failure to provide a
positive vision, but also prevents thefilmfrom falling into a dogmatic depiction.

A Single Spark (1995): Resistance as Memory

On November 13, 1970 a 22-year-old textile worker, Taeil Chon, immolated
himself at Seoul's Peace Market, shouting as the flames consumed him, "Obey
the Labor Standards Act!" and "We're not machines!" This suicide, which
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 125
shocked the entire nation, subsequently became the touchstone of the labor
movement. Chon's self-immolation in 1970, coupled with the opposition leader
Kim Dae Jung's mass support in the 1971 presidential election, was a key reason
for the government's introduction of the notoriously authoritarian Yushin system
in 1972 (Cummings, 1997, p. 371).

A Single Spark (1995)

As evident from its original Korean title, A Beautiful Youth, Chon T'aeil, A
Single Spark is a film about the short life of Chon T'aeil. It offers a rare example
of serious examinations of Korean society in the 1970s, during which Korea's
modernization drive gained momentum and reached takeoff, and, at the same
time, both its achievements and contradictions clearly began to be exposed. It
has a narrative structure in which a fugitive having an intellectual activist
background, Yongsu, looks back upon the life of Chon. The film thus is
interwoven by two constantly alternating story lines: the flashbacks depicting
Chon's life and the present activities of Yongsu and his laborer wife Jongsun.
In 1975, when President Chunghee Park's authoritarian regime had nearly
suffocated antigovernment protests demanding democracy and social equality,
Yongsu, a law school graduate committed to the Movement, is writing a
biography of Chon, a legendary hero of the Korean labor movement. The film,
on the one hand, shows Chon's efforts and struggles to improve the working
conditions in Peace Market sweatshops through Yongsu's reconstruction, and,
on the other hand, depicts the distressingly dark reality of the mid-1970s through
Yongsu and Jongsun's organizational activities.
126 Korean Film

The discursive agenda of A Single Spark can be summarized in two strands:

one is a realistic representation of the extremely inhumane working conditions
in the 1970s, the other is a sympathetic portrayal of the Movement. The former
is presented both by past intolerable conditions of garment industry workers in
the Peace Market and by the current ruthless suppression of a newly founded
trade union in Jongsun's factory by the management and the authorities. The
film uses stark black and white cinematography to show that the working
conditions in the Peace Market are extremely deplorable. The teenage laborers
work more than 16 hours a day in a claustrophobic space without ventilation.
During work time, sleep-deprived workers often take injections in the arm to
keep themselves awake. They are thoroughly controlled by the management in
terms of time and space; for example, they cannot have more than a 30-minute
lunch break and a foreman warns them not to go to the bathroom too frequently.
Since the owners do not provide enough bathrooms, the workers must wait in a
long line whenever they use them.
The most striking scene occurs when a female worker spits blood due to
tuberculosis, caused by the polluted air in the workplace. Chon gives her first
aid with his handkerchief and takes her to a bathroom to wash her. But she
cannot wash her bloodstained hands because the faucet does not work. She cries
in despair, saying, "There's no place to wash my hands." Moreover, a scene in
which Yongsu looks around the same workplaces in the Peace Market shows
that the present conditions are not better than those of five years ago. Since the
conditions of workers in 1975 have made no significant improvements from
those in 1970, the cinematographic strategy of using black and white for the past
(until 1970) and color for the present (1975 and after) seems redundant.
Management's attempts to impede the founding of a trade union, which is
guaranteed by law for the improvement of working conditions, also
demonstrates the workers' plight. When Jongsun, one of the union's founders,
returns from an organizing meeting, a factory manager in front of her house tries
to intimidate her into stopping her activities. Jongsun's colleagues stage a sit-in
to protest the failure by the Office of Labor Affairs to give her union a due
authorization. But the sitin is brutally suppressed by the police. What is worse,
the police take protesters out of the factory and abandoned them in a distant
place. These descriptions reaffirm the Movement's conviction that the state
apparatuses are merely tools for oppression of labor in favor of capital. In a
reality where "no vague light of hope" is found, the Movement provides a
potential source of hope. The film offers as a counterbalance to the negativity of
modernization the Movement in the 1970s, which is decisively symbolized by
Chon. Chon is described as the incarnation of genuine humanity, a quality which
is emphasized throughout the film. For example, Chon returns home from the
factory on foot, because he spends his bus fare for feeding the female workers
who cannot afford their lunch. His efforts and struggle for the betterment of his
co-workers are so self-sacrificing that he looks unreal, being devoid of human
instinct and worldly desire. The film in fact elevates Chon to a position of a
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 127
Sometimes, however, Chon becomes nothing other than an ordinary human
being when the film depicts his fragility and earthiness. In a beach scene where
he and his co-workers have a campfire, Chon sings a popular song. After that, he
takes his clothes off and jumps into the sea. While his male colleagues follow
him, females hide their faces from embarrassment. When he, becoming tired of
hard work and hopeless caring for young workers, heads for a remote site of
road construction, he is a fragile human being.
In the next sequence, Chon regains his previous qualities and is released
from deadly despair and ontological anxiety. There is no one except Chon at the
construction site because heavy rain caused work to stop. Stiff-faced Chon
slowly lays himself down into an empty space in a ditch, which is seemingly
shaped like a coffin. He lies in the space like a dead body for awhile. Shortly
afterward, Chon's voice-over states that he has determined to come back to the
Peace Market: "I have to come back to my little brothers and sisters in the Peace
Market. I'm going to give up myself, kill myself, and come back beside you."
Now the scene shifts to an extreme long shot of Chon walking down a long
winding road between mountains after it had stopped raining.
This sequence clearly refers to Jesus Christ. In this superbly photographed
and emotionally charged sequence, Chon miraculously is resurrected from the
symbolic grave in order to become a Jesus figure. By doing so, his return is a
decision to save the oppressed workers from their ugly reality. It also presages
Chon's death for his cause, like that of Jesus. This dramatically existential
commitment and shift from despair to determination is linked to Chon's
subsequent self-immolation. Chon's death protesting injustice now turns into
sacrifice for salvation and is regarded as martyrdom. A friend of Yongsu's in
fact states that "Chon's death is martyrdom in a religious sense." In addition,
Chon is also a revolutionary. He achieves social consciousness by himself and
acts to change undesirable situations. He organizes workers' meetings for
discussing working conditions and does research to find out what is needed for
the workers. His will would to change the unjust reality culminates in his tragic
self-immolation. In short, Chon is an ideal for the Movement: a saintly
It is of necessity, A Single Spark suggests, that Chon figuratively reappears
to oppressed workers. It is also suggested that those who struggle against the
capitalist authoritarian regime all in essence resemble Chon and, therefore, are
pure, unselfish, and self-sacrificing. Deeply impressed by Chon, the narrator
identifies himself with the martyred hero. This becomes evident when Yongsu
lets an umbrella selling boy deliver a vinyl umbrella to a police officer on duty
on rainy day. This act is reminiscent of Chon, who once sold vinyl umbrellas on
the street. In the scene depicting Yongsu and Jongsun in bed, Yongsu tells his
wife that "you're Chon T'aeil." The ending, in which Yongsu finds a young
worker carrying a book written by him, A Critical Biography of Chon T'aeil,
who, surprisingly and significantly, has the same appearance as Chon,
symbolizes the metaphorical resurrection of Chon in numerous ordinary people.
Furthermore, the over 7,000 names which appeared in the ending credits are
those of financial supporters of the filmmaking who are, so to speak, more or
less Chon. In this way, Chon as a real historical figure becomes a myth having
128 Korean Film

the power to mobilize minjoong, the oppressed people. The film adroitly makes
Chon a living myth, despite the 25 years that have elapsed since his suicide, by
bringing his magnetic field to the present though realistic representations.
Thanks to Chon, the pure, humane, and self-sacrificing image of the activists of
the Movement is firmly constructed.
It is interesting that no negative description of Chon and participants of the
Movement is found in the film. Chon's human pain and weakness, both in body
and soul, get repressed in the film. He is first and foremost beautiful, being the
ultimate signifier of human sincerity. The participants are not only morally pure
and superior, but also so cautious that they do not make any mistakes or failures.
The failure of the workers' sit-in to protest the illegitimate hindrance of union
organizing is due not to the workers' carelessness, but to the inhumanity of the
police and management, who break into the workplace when workers open the
door for medical help for a fainted worker. Such "structuring absences" clearly
reveal this film's discursive orientation. Chon's humanity offers a sharp contrast
to the behavior of the factory owners and government officials. The film
consistently contrasts the avaricious bourgeoisie to miserable laborers,
bureaucratic government officials to altruistic student activists, and ugly reality
to the semireligious morality of the Movement. The overtone of the Movement's
morality serves to condemn the social reality.
Chon's self-immolation of course offers the most powerful critique of
modernization in A Single Spark. His suicidal act is the culmination of his
resistance to the demonic face of modernization. It should also be noted that
Chon sets fire to a Labor Law book as well as to himself. By this act, Chon
declares that the Labor Law, which is the (by)product of modernization for the
improvement of workers' conditions, is of no use, and it is nothing but a
ideological tool to hide the contradictions of modernization. The burning of a
Labor Law book thus becomes the highest metaphor for the falsity of
Reality in this film is described as economically structured. The bourgeoisie
exploits the laborer for profit. The laborer is increasingly alienated from the
process of labor. The conflict between these two classes is irreconcilable. The
film implies that, at least at that point, there can be no reconciliation between the
bourgeoisie and the working class, and that the only means to achieve humanity
is not through disavowal of class conflicts, but overcoming them by collective
effort. The filmmaker seems to reconfirm the main tenet of The Communist
Manifesto in Korea more than 125 years after its publication. In this way, the
dichotomy which A Single Spark constructs is more rigid than that of Black
Republic. In this film, the material affluence achieved through modernization,
from which the present audience unquestionably benefits, is hidden by placing
the cinematic space in the 1970s. Rather, the cause and morality of the
Movement is accentuated. In this way, the film constructs a discourse in favor of
the Movement, which has been the stronghold of social struggles for freedom,
equality and decolonization in Korea.
In such a discourse, the film does not deal with the Movement since 1980,
after which it rapidly shifted toward leftist radicalism in reaction to the Kwangju
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 129

Massacre. While the film lacks a description of the militancy of the Movement
organized under the banner of various leftisms ranging from Neo-Marxism to
dogmatic Stalinism to the late North Korean leader Ilsung Kim's Juche Sasang
(self-reliance theory), it clearly offers a high appraisal of the morality and
existential decision of individuals, as vividly shown by Chon's self-immolation.
It is significant that Yongsu's biography of Chon is meant to keep the memories
of Chon's heroic resistance alive to both ruthless capitalist exploitation and the
political regime supporting this exploitation. Next to the initial powerful scene
of Chon's preparation for self-immolation, there follows a scene introducing the
hero, Yongsu, who is writing something in his shabby room. A curfew siren
sounds, and he stops writing and raises his head. At this moment, the hero's
voiceover is narrated, describing the political situation: "I couldn't find any
vague light of hope." In essence, his writing is an attempt to find a hope of
social change even in the midst of despair. By the same token, making a film
about Chon is an act meant to preserve those valuable memories, which seem
likely to fade away into oblivion.
Reading the film requires an examination of the context in which A Single
Spark was produced. For the film is not so much a commercial project as a
political one in terms of its planning and financing. In the mid-1990s, the
bourgeoisie and the government raised their voices under the slogan of
"globalization," with the hope of elevating the nation's competitive power in the
international market. The so-called new generation that was born since the late
1960s seemed to indulge itself in individualistic pleasure. The Movement,
comprising the labor movement, the student movement, and other progressive
social movements, obviously lost its privileged position as the unitary entity of
moral, progressive forces. It had to witness a serious dwindling of its moral
authority and, subsequently, social influence. Its splendid tradition of resistance
seemed totally forgotten. When considered in the context of 1990s, the discourse
of the film can be regarded as a desperate gesture to keep the Movement's moral
superiority alive.
Nevertheless, the film seems to result in a regressive reaction to the
modernization process. It reveals an inability to bridge the huge gap between the
1970s and the present by clinging to the past of the 1970s, or closing its eyes to
the radical changes brought about by modernization. Social reality has changed
so much that starvation has disappeared and Koreans have a democratic
government. The Movement has demonstrated disintegration and
factionalization to the point that democracy is no longer a hope for most
Koreans. Under these circumstances, the film loses its connection to reality,
becoming merely a nostalgic rendition of memories. Despite the film's great
value as a sociological document on 1970s Korean society—for example, the
sweatshops in the Peace Market, Yongsu's outwitting the shadowing
plainclothesmen by giving them the slip, a night school which is operated for
workers by student volunteers, and a student demonstration and its suppression
by riot police in the campus-the question of what Chon's life and death means to
the present audience remains unanswered.
A Single Spark briefly suggests two alternatives to the undesirable reality: a
law-abiding liberal democracy and a familial community presided over by a
130 Korean Film

benevolent father like Chon. The first is at once discarded because capitalists
and officials ignore the law, which is not for the weak/working people, but for
the capitalist. In fact, when Chon is informed of the existence of the Labor Law
for workers and appeals to the Office of Labor Affairs for enforcement of the
law, he receives a cold shoulder. His suicidal protest results directly from the
failure of this alternative. The other alternative which Chon shows is that of
familial community. He cares for "his" young female workers like a father and
does not abandon them. However, this approach no longer has any practical
meaning, given the disintegration of familial community, one of
modernization's most destructive legacies. It is significant that the alternative of
anticapitalism, socialism, is not pursued in the film. Although Yongsu's working
as a boiler engineer, student demonstrations, and labor night schools are loosely
related to socialism, the discourse of socialism does not come to the surface.
This must be attributed to the failure of socialism in the countries where it has
been practiced. Because of the absence of vision, the film does not tell us about
our present, but is a documentation of the past. Manifesting nostalgia for a past
in which the divide between good and bad, right and wrong was quite distinct
and clear, the film ironically pushes the Movement discourse into memory.
The two films dealing with the Movement theme offer a powerful critique of
Korea's modernization. Here, modernization is basically viewed as a
socioeconomic phenomenon, primarily capitalist industrialization. It is primarily
represented as negative, resulting in the deplorable alienation of labor and the
oppression of humanistic aspirations; the most crucial feature of modernization
is the intensification of labor's alienation. This negativity is presented by the
ruthless exploitation of labor by the capitalist and the collusion between capital
and political power. Both Black Republic and A Single Spark adopt an
intellectual's viewpoint by placing former students as their heroes. Like Kiyong
in Black Republic, Yongsu is the central character in terms of the film's point of
view, acting as narrator at times. The heroes of both films are also outsiders.
Because of the instability of their position both of them are wanted by the
police. Neither Yongsu nor Kiyong participate in any organizational activity for
social change. Although the adoption of the intellectual outsider's point of view
is very instrumental for the critique of social reality, it also has the negative
effect of hampering any further investigation of positive alternatives. Since the
oppressed people are not presented as the subject, the films cannot have the
disruptive and subversive power of the minjoong discourse as the major
contending voice to the dominant language, the language of the state (Choi,
1997, p. 361). In this regard, these Park's films are for an intellectual audience.
Because of the manifest limitation caused by adopting an intellectual outsider's
point of view, both films fail to provide a vision for the future. The same point
of view which both films employ implies that the Movement approach may not
be a viable alternative to the rush to development policy adopted by the ruling
classes. When viewed in the context of the widespread conservatism of the
1990s, this strategy might be inevitable. Thus the Movement theme necessarily
has a retrospective quality rather than a progressive one. Regardless of the
filmmaker's intention, the Movement in both films is practically pushed into
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 131
memory. As the intellectual is a marginal group in the Movement discourse,
which puts minjoong at its center, the discursive effect of these Movement
theme films seems to contain a necessary dilemma: its critique is meaningful,
but its relevance is doubtful. The two films share the absence of vision and a
regression to the past. In this way, the question of the splitting of the self caused
by modernization is left unexamined in both films.


Tradition as national culture is often in opposition to modernization, whose
universalizing effects tend to push it into oblivion or, at best, a realm of
collective memories. The Korean people have had an uneasy relationship with
their past, largely due to the unprecedented intensity and comprehensiveness of
the Korean experience of modernization. The heritage from the past, or tradition,
has been the very object of ambivalence for Koreans. On the one hand, it was an
obstacle to modernization, which had to be removed as soon as possible. On the
other hand, the immense impact of the modernization process forced Koreans to
discard their heritage.
This ambivalence is expressed in two opposite ways. In the negative sense,
tradition is to be denounced and replaced with Western styles. The linkage with
the past must be severed. But as far as social meaning is concerned, tradition is a
basis on which national identity is anchored. Tradition as a positive force should
not be completely negated. The past, however, is not easily dividable into two
separate entities, one positive and one negative. Rather, it should be considered
as a whole. Here, for the Korean people, modernization as the transition from a
traditional society to a Westernized one necessarily causes irreparable
ambivalence. Among discourses on modernization in the contemporary Korean
cinematic scene, the tradition-based approach became prominent, particularly
through the work of Kwontak Im, the most reputable Korean director. Director
Im, with the collaboration of the renowned novelist Chungjun Yi, attempted to
address directly the issue of tradition within the sweeping modernization process
in his two films, Sopyonje and Festival. In an interview, Im clearly expressed his
concern for traditional Korean culture:

My personal desire has been to capture elements of our traditional culture in my work.
The fear is, of course, that those aspects of Korean culture that are not favored by the
terms of this new international and more aggressive culture may be absorbed, and in the
end, disappear. (Harvard Asia Pacific Review, September 1997, available at
http ://www. hcs. harvard, edu/^hapr/im. htm 1)

Although a large portion of Korean films shown for the international

audience have dealt with traditional culture in one way or another, it was not
until the phenomenal success of Sopyonje in 1993 that the tradition approach
gained a full currency in the context of modernization.

Sopyonje (1993): Bitter Defeat of Tradition

Sopyonje is acknowledged as an epoch-making film in Korean film history.
Above all, the film was both an unprecedented popular and critical success. It is
132 Korean Film

extremely rare that a film which could be classified as an art film turned out to
be the most popular Korean film in the nation's history. Sopyonje drew more
than 1 million viewers in Seoul, causing a sudden boom in learning p'ansori, a
near-defunct traditional art which was the main material of the film. The key to
explaining Sopyonje's phenomenal success lies in its discourse onurse on
modernization. Sopyonje offers a superb example of the cinematic response to,
or confrontation with, modernization in Korea. Its singularity comes from the
strength and tenacity of the counterdiscourse it offers to modernization
discourse, mainly through its critique of the imposition of instrumental
rationality in the context of modernization.

Sopyonje (1995)

Sopyonje is apparently a film about itinerant Korean folk artists. A man in

his thirties named Dongho is roaming the rural hinterlands, ostensibly to
purchase herbal medicines for a shop in Seoul, but actually in search of
Songhwa, the stepsister with whom he grew up. They were both orphans
adopted by and apprenticed to a p 'ansori master named Yubong, who pressured
them to sacrifice everything for their art. Dongho rebelled and ran away.
Songhwa stayed, lost her sight at the hands of Yubong, and outlived him. Unlike
ordinary biopics focusing on an artist's personal character and career, Sopyonje
is not concerned with such personal matters as Yubong and Songhwa's agony
and romance. On the contrary, it emphasizes the artists' discord with social
reality changing in the irrevocable process of modernization. In this respect, the
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 133

art in the film is an important signifier with a social dimension, and the film can
be read as a discourse of modernization.
By and large, the process of modernization is invisible in the film. Instead,
through the description of the artists' hapless resistance to the marginalization of
p'ansori, the film subtly suggests modernization's destructive effects on the art.
In the film, people increasingly ignore p'ansori, which had been treated as a
popular art in the premodern period. The decline of/? 'ansori is vividly presented
by the sharp contrast between an early sequence depicting Yubong's
performance in a squire's birthday party and subsequent performance sequences
by Songhwa and Yubong. In the former, Yubong confidently and masterfully
shows the artistry of p'ansori, receiving a warm response from the audience.
But, years later, it is clear that p'ansori is no longer valued. The performance
sequence in the market epitomizes the decline of p 'ansori. In that scene,
Songhwa and Yubong sing p'ansori in front of a very small audience of
children, whose attention wanders to a cheerful brass band advertising a
Westernized show.
In fact, Yubong's family loses its means of living when confronted by
Western culture. Having earned their living by performing to promote a
peddler's products in the street, Yubong's family is eventually cast out by the
peddler. The employer, doubtful of the popularity ofp 'ansori, decides instead to
employ a violinist providing an alien but attractive cultural experience for the
Korean audience. Here it does not matter whether the violinist is a good
musician or not. What matters is the fact that the Korean people have come to
love Western, rather than traditional, music. When Dongho shouts to his
stepfather, "Now we can't make our living only by p'ansori in this world," he
figuratively expresses the marginalization ofp'ansori.
In Sopyonje, we find a disavowal or total negation of the "modernizing"
reality. This feature is represented by two folk artists, Yubong and Songhwa.
Despite the obvious decline of p'ansori, Yubong effortlessly but constantly
denies this situation. He manifests his presumptuous pride in p 'ansori, asking
"How could Japanese or Western songs be a match for p 'ansorft" Songhwa's
form of resistance to modernization is distinct from Yubong's. In her youth, her
innocence shielded her from the intrusions of modernization. Later, she has
become so transcendental that modernization no longer has any meaning to her
life. The whole discourses and practices of modernization seem too trivial for
her to deal with. The blind Songhwa appears to elevate p'ansori to a
transcendental way of life which is now vanished. It might be said that in
accordance with her stepfather's teaching, she has reached a sublime state in
which she sings p'ansori beyond haan, deep grief.
However, both forms of resistance are clearly passive and escapist, as the
historical process of modernization is too powerful to be denied. Yubong
intentionally disavows the positive aspects of modernization; Songhwa closes
her eyes to the reality, which, significantly enough, is inscribed in her body by
her subsequent loss of sight. Since their resistance offers no other alternative
than clinging to p'ansori or the regression to a lost past, it must be fatally
doomed. The escape from social reality culminates in Yubong's blinding
Songhwa. He later confesses that he intentionally blinded Songhwa by giving
134 Korean Film

her a poisonous herb to implant haan into her, and thus improve her singing.
This confession informs the audience that his act is nothing but a desperate
attempt to overcome the marginalization of p'ansori through the sublimity of his
stepdaughter's singing. His doomed efforts become evident when he is brutally
beaten by the farmer who discovered that Yubong stole his chicken to feed her.
The fact that Songhwa forgives his unjust act implies that she also supports his
attitude. In short, Sopyonje depicts either the beauty of the defeated or the defeat
of beauty.
The unprecedented box-office success of Sopyonje demonstrates the film's
enormous emotional resonance for the Korean audience. Koreans' response to a
film dealing with the artists' resistance to the decline of their art can stem from
the fact that the film's content is closely related to the Korean people's
collective experiences. The unique mechanism that made the Korean audience
find the past in Songhwa and identify themselves with Dongho comes from the
common memories of the national past. Thanks to the audience's collective
memories, the decline of p'ansori signifies to them the whole process of the
marginalization of the Korean/artistic/spiritual values by modernization.
Needless to say, the response to Sopyonje might be subject to time and place.
Any text appealing to national memories could not guarantee its success. It must
also be noted that what constitutes national memories of a nation, and that to
what extent memories are subject to change.
There is an underlying sense for the Korean audience that the defeated
represented by Yubong and Songhwa is actually "we." The audience possibly
realizes that it has paid a price for favoring the Western/material civilization.
Like the p'ansori artists, "we" have been marginalized and victimized by
Western discourse, being alienated from "our" tradition. "Our" way of life and
"our" system of values have been eroded and died out, replaced by the Western
customs and values which modernization necessarily introduces. Through the
very process of modernization we, Koreans, have become quasi-Westerners,
"inferior" Westerners, feeling "ourselves" as the other. As an audience
community, "we" cannot help sympathizing with the characters who desperately
try to escape from the totalizing power of modernization. In short, Yubong and
Songhwa are "our" father and sister, while p 'ansori is the metaphor for "our"
lost past.
It should be noted that the sympathy for Yubong and Songhwa differs from
the secondary cinematic identification, a concept used by Christian Metz (1973)
to designate the spectator's identification with characters. The spectator cannot
identify with Yubong or Songhwa on an individual level, because despite their
embodiment of our past, they are not like us. They are somehow beyond our
worldly existence. The most remarkable aspect of Sopyonje is that psychological
resonance, including sympathy and identification in the film, is accomplished
through the collectivity which the filmmaker and the spectator share, not by
cinematic devices such as point of view shot and subjective camera. Although
this film does not consciously encourage the spectator's identification with
individual characters, the audience nonetheless comes to identify with Dongho,
at least in the latter part of the film. In Sopyonje, Dongho is an exceptional
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 135
character in the respect that he reaches a compromise with reality. Dongho is the
alter ego of any common Korean, typifying the modern Korean experience.
Tired of poverty and maltreatment, he ran away from Yubong. The same exodus
occurred en masse in Korea from the 1950s to the 1970s. After long years of
striving, he successfully settles in a city, where he finds a job and raises his own
family. In the 1960s, having a stable job meant relative success. Now, he can
afford to look back upon the past. He starts a journey in search of his sister
Songhwa. His journey is also toward/? 'ansori and the past that he had deserted.
The audience identifies itself with Dongho because they share the same bitter
memories. Dongho is not simply a man of the past; he is now searching for his
abandoned sister. His longing for reunion with Songhwa//? 'ansorilihs past
implies that he is not totally satisfied with the present, a feeling which is
construed as the result of modernization. His departure from, and subsequent
return to, Songhwa//? 'ansori/thQ past signify his ambivalence toward
modernization. Historical change produced by modernization drove him to run
away. However, the more he is immersed in modernization, the greater his
alienation. Now he must be reconciled with the past he abandoned.
His journey from p 'ansor'//the past/the Korean to reality/modernization/the
Western and vice versa cannot be interpreted as a dialectical progress of
alienation and its sublation. This is because what Dongho finds in modernization
is not progress, but ambivalence. This ambivalence tears him apart and drives
him to search for his lost past. In this way, Sopyonje obviously favors the
past/the Korean over the present/the Western.
For many Korean viewers, figuratively speaking, Dongho's search for his
sister occurs on their behalf. Through his vicarious journey, they eventually
come to recognize that it is they who in fact deserted Songhwa and made her
blind, and who, at last, longed for reunion with the forgotten sister. In this way,
Dongho's search for his sister functions as a trigger to the memories of the past.
Even though Dongho had fled from his stepfather and stepsister, he is
necessarily linked to Songhwa even in the present; he shares the same
experiences with her; despite a long oblivion, he can still play the Korean drum
because the rhythm of p'ansori is deeply inscribed in his mind. He cannot
completely forget the past memories, which are still alive in the audience's
'national unconsciousness,' haunting their psyche again and again.
The Sopyonje phenomenon can be interpreted as a result of the audience's
reconciliation with the past, which most Koreans were ruthlessly forced to
ignore, forget, and, furthermore, to negate in pursuit of modernization. The tears
most of the audience shed in theaters were both a cry for the lost past and a
delight in redeeming the past with national pride. Sopyonje is nothing but a
rediscovery that, though miserable and weary, "our" past was noble and
dignified. The film reminds the Korean audience of the absence of the past by
offering a viewpoint from that same past. The viewer must find his or her own
lost past and recognize what he or she has sacrificed and destroyed for the sake
of the present. In a sense, viewing Sopyonje seems to have provided an
interaction with the individual's collective memories and the whole social and
national identity. It might be said that the film made the audience come to terms
136 Korean Film

with their own bitter memories as history. This implies that without Korean
collective memories, one could not understand the film in all its subtlety.
A detailed examination of Sopyonje9s ending allows for an investigation of
the Korean mode of signification. The ending, which displays the Korean way of
conflict resolution with remarkable economy, can be seen as the acme of Korean
peculiarity. Dongho finally finds his sister in a desolate rural town. Staying the
night in a shabby tavern where Songhwa lives with a widower owner, he asks
her to sing a piece of/? 'ansori. Thus Songhwa/the past/memory and Dongho/the
present/reality dramatically come together. Significantly, the sister and brother
reunite and make peace with each other through the mediation of p 'ansori. The
reconciliation between the past and the present is accomplished through
returning to p 'ansorilint past, not by the affirmation of modernization/the
present. Interestingly, Songhwa sings a sequence depicting the blind father's
reunion with his lost daughter of Shimchongjon, a well-known p'ansori adapted
from an ancient novel. After Dongho departs alone by bus in the morning,
Songhwa leaves for an unknown place, too. Songhwa thereby chooses a very
traditional Korean way of seclusion without any compromise and adjustment.
Songhwa's decision not to join her beloved stepbrother is very reasonable,
because they have already known that the present to which Dongho belongs
could never allow her to lead a life as a genuine p 'ansori artist. Even though
Songhwa exists in the here and now, she must disappear from the present and
remain in the past, for she is an existence rendered part of the past by the
universalizing effect of modernization. Here is the discourse against
modernization: the past is identified with p 'ansoriliht transcendental and, in
turn, the present is identified with the worldly/the degenerated. In this way, the
counterdiscourse of Sopyonje is paradoxically radical.
It is reasonable that the last sequence describes the reconciliation between
Dongho/the present/reality and Songhwa/the past/memory with ecstasy. The
widower tells Songhwa, "Last night I couldn't sleep, too. Your singing was so
vivid. It was as if two lovers were making love without touching," Songhwa
confesses "I cleared my deep-rooted haan away through singing." Thereafter
Songhwa disappears from the present/reality. Nevertheless, the audience
perceives that Songhwa does not disappear into complete oblivion, but remains
in "our" memory. Hence Songhwa, who is now a metaphor of the past, turns
into a nexus of the irrevocable and painful transition from Yubong/the past/the
indigenous spiritual values to Dongho/the present/the foreign material values.
It should be noted that Sopyonje's popularity originates not only from having
a subject matter related to national memories, but also from having a form
suitable for expressing such subject matter. The emotional power of Sopyonje
comes from the film's effectiveness in linking the audience to their bitter
historical memories without reservation. In the seen, after Dongho runs away
from Yubong, Songhwa follows Dongho and stops to call him back. Traditional
Korean villages commonly have a big old tree at the border. Thus a shot
portraying a person by the tree usually designates parting with, or waiting for,
someone. Moreover, since Songhwa is filmed in a long shot against daylight, her
face is invisible so that the spectator cannot read her countenance. Despite the
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 137
shielding of explicit expression, the meaning of the shot is clear to the Korean
audience. Rather, this understatement makes the ambiance of the shot more
The recurrent scenes of the aimless traveling of Yubong and Songhwa
(including Dongho in earlier part) are also very appealing. They carry only a few
small bags and a drum, their only means of living as well as their art, reflecting
the chaotic diaspora which so many Koreans experienced as a result of Japanese
colonization and the Korean War.
Sopyonje shows the aesthetics of moderation, which are indigenous to
Korean folk art. The film maintains a bleak visual tone in its form from
beginning to end. Cinematic techniques are kept to a minimum. Occasionally,
slow-moving panning shots and protracted static long takes are used to express a
deliberate and contemplative tone. It is characteristic that Sopyonje consistently
restricts the use of point of view shots. In so doing, it does not privilege a
particular point of view.
Nevertheless, the effective use of flashbacks contributes to the audience's
successful identification. The film's narrative develops through three long
flashbacks moving from present to past: Dongho's first and second flashbacks,
as well as a flashback by a friend of Yubong's, and finally returning to the
present. The device depicting the past memories revives the past at present,
implying the substantive concatenation between the present/reality and the
past/memories. It also amplifies the contrast between the two. In addition, it
should be noted that p'ansori is the most effective means of mediating between
the past and the audience. As portrayed in the film,p'ansori increasingly lost its
popularity throughout the 20th century, mainly due to the introduction of
Western entertainment, especially Western music. At present, it barely maintains
its existence under government auspices. Like other Korean arts, p'ansori has
been considered not merely a popular entertainment, but a way to the truth or
Tao. For foreigners, Yubong's obsession with p'ansori may seem unreal, but for
Koreans his act is quite understandable. Rather, Yubong and Songhwa's
dedication to p'ansori gives them a transcendental significance.

Festival (1996): Tradition in the Present

Three years after the phenomenal success of Sopyonje, Kwontak Im and
Chungjun Yi once again collaborated on Festival, a film addressing the subject
of traditional culture. This film's approach to traditional culture, however, is far
different from that of Sopyonje, in that Festival represents a victory of tradition
in the present while Sopyonje describes its bitter defeat in the recent past.
The famous novelist, Chunsop, receives a phone call from his remote
hometown, informing him of his mother's death. The mother, who suffered from
senile dementia, has finally passed away. Once dispersed across the nation,
Chunsop's family reunite in time for the funeral. Even Yongsun, Chunsop's
ostracized niece, returns. The funeral, despite all its small irregularities, is
successfully done in accordance with complicated procedures of Korean
funerals. Chunsop's family comes to terms with each other through the festival
like a ritual of death. Festival primarily addresses two discourses. One is that of
the mother, who embraces everything and nurtures everyone. The mother theme
138 Korean Film

overlaps with another, the issue of tradition. The film portrays reconciliation
between family members by the combination of these discourses.
Of the two, the mother theme is more evident. Mother's career, as recalled
by her family and other local residents, demonstrates her benevolence,
characterized by her endless love for her family and sympathy with the poor. In
the scenes of the fairy tale written by Chunsop, and narrated by his daughter,
Onji, the value of mother is most clearly presented. In the fairy tale, the
grandmother, the father, the mother, and Onji live together. The grandmother
physically shrinks, provoking Onji's curiosity. The father explains to his
daughter that this phenomenon occurs when the grandmother's wisdom and age
is passed on to younger ones. While Onji benefits from this occurrence, the
grandmother shrivels, eventually passing away. Here mother (or grandmother
from Onji's point of view) is presented as an absolute giver. She is like a
foundation on which everyone is based and a fountain from which everyone
benefits. The film can be seen as an homage to maternity, culminating in
Chunsop's dedication of his fairy tale book to the altar of the dead mother.

Festival (1996)

It should be noted that the maternity theme in the film is enriched by the
traditional funeral. Mother's power to bring about reconciliation to the family
can be fully manifested only through the traditional ritual, which is inherently
communal and carnivalesque. In a way, the film's discursive strategy centering
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 139

on the universal theme of mother enables the audience easily to accept the film's
underlying theme of tradition.
The most impressive aspect of Festival is the detailed documentation of the
Korean traditional funeral. The film reenacts the complicated procedures of the
traditional funeral, from witnessing the last moment of life to the burial of the
coffin, which now are nearly forgotten. This meticulous documentation is
reminiscent of an ethnographic documentary. The filmmaker, in fact, does not
conceal his "documentary" approach to the ceremony by inserting subtitles
explaining the title and meaning of each procedure. This noncinematic strategy
is no doubt meant to help young audiences, who are ignorant of the tradition,
understand the social meanings of traditional funeral formalities.
This is a major key to reading the film's tradition discourse. The filmmaker
invests the tradition of the Korean funeral with as much importance and
seriousness as its thematic motifs. In the construction of the film's discourse,
this cultural heritage from the past is greatly meaningful in two respects. First,
as the subtitles explain, every formality in the funeral has significant meanings
based on the traditional value system, which is an amalgam of Confucianism
and shamanism. Those are not annoying conventions and inconveniences which
should be discarded, but a prayer for the deceased's peace and for the
descendants' happiness. For example, the act of pallbearers breaking a gourd
dipper at the threshold is meant to prevent the ghost of the deceased from
returning. Thus the ritual formalities have their own meanings and rationality,
which modern Koreans, like foreigners, usually do not know. Second, as shown
in the film, the tradition has the positive effect of integrating antagonism and
disjunction between individuals. It magically turns a ceremony of mourning for
the deceased into a festival of reunion and harmony for the living.
In order to present the integrating power of tradition, the film initially poses
all kinds of human conflicts. The rural house where the funeral occurs is a
microcosm for exposing conflicts. First, the conflicts between family members
are conspicuous. The wife of Chunsop's elder brother has led a life filled with
grief. Without her husband, who committed suicide to end his life as a drunkard
she has had to do everything, including caring for mother in dementia, by
herself. She naturally criticizes Chunsop's wife, her sister-in-law, for not
cooperating in the work to prepare and serve food for the mourners. Yet
Chunsop's wife, who clearly comes from an urban family, is apparently not
accustomed to such tasks.
Sexual desire, which does not fit with the solemn ritual, is present. A man
who is invited to chant for the funeral does not conceal his desire for Yongsun,
one of the granddaughters. Even the hero's conjugal fidelity is suspect: it is
suggested that he had a sexual relationship with a magazine reporter, who
admires him. Conflicts owing to money also occur. Several individuals get
involved in a fight after gambling. Even when a local governor comes to mourn,
the local citizens interrogate him about why administrative services are so bad.
Among them, the one who primarily represents conflicts and disruptions
within the family is Yongsun. Her unexpected appearance and the fact that
nobody has informed her of her grandmother's death create serious tension
within the family. It is learned that, as an illegitimate daughter of Chunsop's
140 Korean Film

brother, she had experienced severe maltreatment from her stepmother, and she
ran off with some money stolen from her stepsister. Along with the
uncomfortable past memories, her gaudy looks, unfittingly colorful makeup,
black sunglasses, white clothes, and bold behavior reinforce the others'
repulsion. In this way she is a black sheep, who embodies of all of the conflicts
among family members.
The presence of the dead mother prevents all the conflicts from exploding.
After reading the uncle's fairy tale, Yongsun reveals the possibility of
reconciliation with other members of the family. Another source of resolution
comes from the communal chanting, which is meant to cheer tired mourners.
This procedure also makes the gamblers, who had been engaged in a fight,
intermingle together. The film's optimism for reconciliation is typified in the
last scene, in which Yongsun's acceptance by the family is symbolized through
everyone's posing for a picture. The title of the film suggests that a traditional
funeral is a festival, in which all conflicts are exposed and subsequently
resolved. However, it should be noted that what makes it a festival is not the
intrinsic feature of the tradition but the presence of the dead mother.
The harmonious victory of tradition in Festival is quite problematic, because
it is attained only through the temporary halt of modernity. This halt takes place
in a situation that those who live in a modern society can seldom experience. It
is caused by the combination of a rural location, the existence of a benevolent
mother and her natural death, and a traditional funeral. Festival, in short,
describes a Utopia where modernization does not have its overwhelming effects,
and where present lives and tradition intermingle together to form a whole.
This unusual triumph of the past is in nature short lived, because it comes
about not so much through the communality of the traditional funeral as through
the existential situation of the death of mother. It would last only during the
funeral, within the hometown. After the funeral, family members and relatives
would eventually disperse to their modernized spaces throughout the country.
Thereby they would get to recognize that the special harmonious community
which they have had during the funeral is an exception and may no longer exist
in the dreary reality. Until they witness the death of their benevolent mother, the
scattered family does not gather and reconcile with one another. If there were no
funeral, such a reconciliation would not be possible. As portrayed in Sopyonje,
tradition has its meaning only insofar as it exists as memory of the past.
Since the world of harmony brought about by traditional communality must
be transitory, in fact, no conflict was definitely resolved. Despite the film's
optimistic ending, the film lacks the power of negation that Sopyoje prominently
displays. This film offers no critical reflection on what tore the family apart and
then made them reconcile. Thus the harmonious finale, which is symbolized by
taking a picture together, is temporary, superficial, and illusory in that regard.
When a past tradition is presented as a practical centering point of our present
lives, not as negation of modernization, it, despite its surface charm, remains
fictional and powerless. This is why tradition is also the very source of
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 141

Festival can be seen as the result of the filmmaker's desire to modify and
supplement the conspicuous retrospectivity of Sopyonje. Although the film's
consistent efforts to maintain our heritage or cultural memories implicitly
insinuate the destructive effects of modernization in the form of a reappraisal of
tradition, the film, unlike Sopyonje, does not address the negativity of
modernization. Rather, some descriptions clearly show the bright side of
modernization, as typified by material affluence and increased leisure time. The
way in which Chunsop's family comes home demonstrates that point. Their
comfortable journey to the hometown in their own car along a highway is made
possible by modernization. The cellular phone which Chunsop uses in the car is
also a product of modern technology. The fact that most mourners drive their
own cars is the epitome of Korea's material achievements. In addition, the fact
that Chunsop's friends, who are supposed to be pallbearers, go fishing before the
funeral signifies an increased interest in leisure.
As the negativity of modernization is absent, the ambivalent meaning of
modernization is relegated to the past. This is symptomaticaily shown in that the
main conflict in the film is one that is rooted in the past. For example, the
conflict between Yongsun and the family is presented as a result of their past
plight, such as familial discord due to Yongsun's father's dissipation and his
subsequent suicide, and poverty. Now that this plight has been removed, a true
reconciliation can occur within the family. Thus what makes reconciliation
possible is ironically the material affluence attained by modernization. Here
modernization is presented as a necessary condition for a harmonious future.
The film does not interrogate the discursive effect of modernization. It does not
question why and how "we" have discarded our "splendid" traditional values
and institutions, although they were the sources which provided us with social
meanings by which human beings live. What matters in the film is the fact that
"we" do not know the deep meaning of tradition, as suggested in the explanatory
subtitles. This implies that the disappearance of tradition is due not to the
totalizing effect of Westernization, but to "our" negligence. In this way, the
tradition's negative power which is demonstrated in Sopyonje does not appear in
Festival, and tradition becomes a mysterious abstraction which we "should"
preserve and celebrate. Furthermore, by claiming through tradition the
possibility of the symbolic restoration of community, which has been torn apart
by the process of modernization, the film suggests that traditional culture can
coexist with Western customs and values.
The film's discourse claiming the positiveness of traditional values in the
here and now and its peaceful coexistence with Western values seems to
contradict the experience of the Korean audience. Repeating the rituals of
authenticity, Festival has the implicit danger of "encouraging the practice of a
'traditional' culture separated from the social conditions by and for which
cultural forms are shaped" (Willemen, 1995, pp. 22-23). This film is thus
warmhearted but unreal. Despite sharing a common theme of tradition with
Sopyonje, Festival has a very different orientation. Whereas Sopyonje
acknowledges the necessary and tragic defeat of the past/tradition in the course
of modernization, Festival claims the triumph of the past/tradition in the present.
142 Korean Film

Despite its unreality in relation to the distance from the present audience,
Sopyonje attracted unprecedented attendance due to its interaction with our bitter
memory (the past), rather than with our sweet reality (the present). The tradition
dealt with in Festival, however, is not only what occurs here and now, but also
what has real power. The film ignores the fact that the issue of cultural identity
arises only in response to a challenge posed by the other, so that any discourse
of cultural identity is always and from the outset oppositional, although not
necessarily conducive to progressive positions (Willemen, 1989, p. 18). By
failing to capture the tension stemming from the oppositionality of national
culture, Festival, despite its realistic rendering, remains a romantic fantasy film.

Against the rapidly changing sociocultural terrain of the 1990s, Korean
cinema has produced considerably challenging and innovative films. Among
them, Park Chulsu's 301/302 (1996) and Obstetrics Clinic (1997) are significant
in their adoption of a feminist perspective and noteworthy absence of significant
male roles, contributing to the dismantling of the deep-rooted patriarchal order.
Another notable film is Sunwoo Jang's A Bad Movie (1997), dealing with young
delinquents and the homeless in a semidocumentary manner. This film
demonstrates considerable subversive power through the use of a distancing
effect, which creates a technically "bad" film in an attempt to question normal
cinematic conceptions. Hong Sangsu's much-acclaimed debut film, The Day a
Pig Fell into the Well, has received the widest recognition from critics as a
radically "new" film. The film has awarded the Dragons and Tigers Award at
the 1996 Vancouver International Film Festival and the grand prize at the 1997
Rotterdam Film Festival.

The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996): Deconstruction of "Korean"

A radically different approach to social reality and film form is found in The
Day a Pig Fell into the Well. Despite its realistic representation of contemporary
Korean urban life depicted in a meticulous and detached manner, the film's
realism is quite different from that of previously discussed films. While those
are films of "traditional" realism, which implicitly assumes a deeper truth or
reality which must be presented through representational devices (O'Sullivan, et
al., 1994, pp. 257-259), The Day a Pig Fell into the Well is constructed on a
distrust of such an approach. The director's statement that "truth is on the
surface" (Cine 21, April 1998) expresses disbelief in the absolute truth or grand
narratives. The film attempts not to produce realist effects, but to urge the
viewer to confront the fragments of reality per se. It deconstructs "our"
traditional concept of reality by showing trivial details, which ceaselessly
collide, intersect, and intermingle with one another in a closed structure. What it
constructs, therefore, is not a tapestry of unitary reality, but the absence of such
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 143
The Day a Pig Fell into the Well consists of an interwoven but loosely
connected four parts, dealing with the discursive and complicated webs of an
interpersonal network. Each part has its own protagonist: Hyosop, a novelist, in
the first part; in the second, Tongu, a white-collar worker; in the third, Minjae, a
box-office attendant; in the last, Pokyong, the wife of Tongu. The first part of
the film revolves around Hyosop, a novelist of little promise. It shows an
ordinary day in his life, ranging from leaving home to futile pleading at a
summary court, without inner necessity. First, he visits a publishing company
only to find that his manuscript does not interest them. The next sequences
describe his double date with Minjae and Pokyong. In the latter half of the
segment, he, an unwelcome guest at a college alumni party, becomes entangled
in a dispute andfinallyfindshimself before a summary court.

The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996)

These sketchy portrayals convey the prevalence of desire. Hyosop is

described as a man of desires, which primarily lean towards sex and recognition.
His having sex with Pokyong at a cheap love hotel in the suburbs of Seoul in the
middle of the day expresses his sexual desires. He also seeks recognition as a
novelist from the public. He shows up uninvited at the party, because it is
supposed to be an event of intellectuals and literary people. However, the point
is that desire is essentially contradictory. The audience learns that Hyosop is a
man of contradictions. He meets Minjae, who clearly admires him, at a tearoom
and hands her his latest unpublished manuscript, which moves her to tears. As
they leave, the novelist receives some money from her. His acceptance of
Minjae's money, which must be from the small savings she earned from her
meager job, shows Hyosop as a parasite. What makes him worse is that he wants
to exhibit his power or masculinity to Pokyong by paying for the hotel room
with Minjae's money. Due to his contradictory desires, he is deeply split within
himself. In this sense, he is not so much a hypocrite as a schizophrenic.
As shown in Hyosop's case, the fragmented and disjointed state of being is
present throughout the film. The second part, tracing Tongu's business trip to a
regional city, is no exception. Tongu is obsessed with cleanliness and doubts his
wife's faithfulness. Staying in a motel, he makes a phone call to her in Seoul in
order to watch over her. When he accidentally overhears a couple having sex in
the motel, it is disclosed that Tongu also has a split self. Becoming aroused, he
144 Korean Film

calls a prostitute after a long indecision. The scene is very bizarre in that
although he examines a wallet photograph of his family in order to suppress his
sexual desire, he finally surrenders to it, and then clumsily has sex with the
woman on the bed, which he curses for its dirty spots. He cannot get sexual
pleasure because of his torn condom and the act instead becomes a source of
worry about venereal disease. The contradictions of his desire-he wants perfect
cleanliness but he becomes adulterer-signify his pathological problem.
In fact, the major characters are more or less schizophrenic without
exception. Among them, Pokyong is typical. When she recognizes her
husband's unfaithfulness-she in fact follows her husband and finds out that he
was diagnosed for venereal disease-she buys a photograph of her family
exhibited at a photo shop. She suddenly breaks the frame and tears it up. This
sequence depicting the compulsive explosion of a quiet housewife suggests not
only that her married life has been an illusion, but, furthermore, that the realist
mode of representation represented by photography is fictitious. It can be read as
much as an attack on the falsity of reality as that of superficial realism. The
darkness of the room and her inexpressive face signify her pathological illness.
This quality is more explicitly demonstrated in a scene which shows the brutal
murder of Hyosop and Minjae by Minsu, the man in the theater. The scene
viewed from Pokyong's point of view makes us aware that Minsu's obsessive
love for Minjae borders on madness. This suggests that the splits in inner self in
the film are structural.
The prevalence of contradictory desire produces not only internal splits but
also the disruption of relationships which are the most distinctive feature of The
Day a Pig Fell into the Well. A series of disjunctions can be observed after
several sequences: Hyosop is not in love with Minjae, but, he hides his
indifference toward her in order to get some of her money; he also has a
clandestine sexual relationship with Pokyong, who does not love her husband.
No constructive, harmonious relationship between these characters appears in
the film.
The relationship between Hyosop and Minjae is a prime example of
disruption. Minjae's love for Hyosop is too one-sided for her to recognize the
cruel reality that Hyosop does not love her and only keeps meeting her for
money. Rather, she increasingly nurtures a romantic notion of love, believing
that only her unselfish motherly love could save a poor soul who, in her eyes,
has a great talent for writing. As a result, she is victimized by Hyosop.
Sexuality is the film's most important motif for expressing this disruption.
The protagonists are interconnected through sexual desire. This relation,
however, does not make a difference to any of them. It merely creates an
additional source of meaninglessness, confusion, and disjunction. In addition,
their sexuality offers no bodily pleasure at all. Rather, it is always disjointed and
pathological. Every sex scene (the film presents one sex scene per part) is
bizarre and distorted. For the film's characters, sexual intercourse is like a death
act, not a rejuvenating, energetic one. Hyosop and Pokyong's sex sequence in a
motel lacks the thrilling pleasure usually associated with adultery. It seems
contingent, stale, listless, and pathological. This morbidity can also be observed
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 145

in a sex scene between Minjae and Minsu, who ardently lusts after her. This
scene occurs shortly after she is deserted by Hyosop. In short, every relationship
between the characters is disjointed in some way or another.
Another sign of disruption is the telling of lies. Hyosop lies to Minjae, telling
her that he would soon repay the money she gave him. For Minjae, lying is a
daily activity. When others ask her about something, she always lies. For
example, she lies to her friend when the friend asks her about the part-time work
payment, and makes a pretext for her absence during work time. Pokyong
habitually lies to Tongu. She tells a lie whenever she talks to him over the
phone. Here phone calls symbolize the absence of true communication as well.
Calling becomes a metaphor for meaningless formality, as shown in Tongu and
Throughout the film, everything that is conventionally regarded as
meaningful, valuable, and unified is under deconstruction. Hyosop's clinging to
authorial power is an example. His authorial power is very negative in two
ways. First, he exploits Minjae through his authorial power in both the practical
and figurative sense. Hyosop becomes a powerful author, while Minjae is placed
in the position of powerless reader. Minjae's visit sequence clearly manifests
this negativity. When she visits his home to congratulate him for his birthday,
she finds Hyosop with another woman, Pokyong. As she asks who the woman
is, Hyosop begins to berate her for visiting without any advance notice. Hyosop
clearly despises her, shouting to her, "Don't you distinguish purity from
childishness? You're not my type. You're shit!" Second, Hyosop experiences
the frustration of his authorial power in the restaurant. A waitress who spills
food on Hyosop does not make a sufficient apology, regarding him as a mere
customer, not as an author. Her treatment makes him go berserk. The absurdity
of his clinging to authorial power is exemplified in his statement before the
summary court judge. Pleading his innocence, he raises a strong question, "How
dare restaurant attendants whose job is serving roasted beef to intervene in the
talk between literary people?" Significantly, Hyosop is a novelist, a profession
which was once respected, but now draws little respect from people. Here the
novelist is a metaphor for traditional authority or authorship. The inability of
Hyosop signifies not only his lack of talent, but also the decline of authority.
Minjae is a box-office attendant, a job in the cinema, which has overtaken
literature in modern culture. She, however, ironically clings to Hyosop, a
representative of the world of literature. Her naive and romantic attitude turns
out to be a symptom of dislocation at the temporal level.
Given that the Korean people are often characterized by "amoral familism"
(Cummings 1997, p. 3 3 4), the total absence of family in the film is quite
significant. Maternal encouragement is crucial to the protagonists of Black
Republic and A Single Spark, and family relations play a key role in Sopyonje
and Festival. Despite their marriage, Pokyong and Tongu cannot be seen as a
family. This is symbolized by the fact that the couple does not appear in the
same frame until the last sequence. They communicate with each other only
over the telephone. The fact that they belong to a family is shown by two similar
photographs: one which Tongu looks at before having sex with a prostitute in a
motel, the other which hung at the photo shop before it was torn up by Pokyong.
146 Korean Film

Their child is curiously absent from the film. This family is apparently
disintegrating. Also, no family or relatives appear or are discussed. Ironically,
Minjae's sole mention of her mother is a lie. When the head of the theater
investigates her absence during work time, she uses her mother as an excuse.
The family-centered network of relationships, one of the most outstanding
features of Korean culture, has no practical meaning in the film.
By the same token, the grand narrative of social change no longer holds true.
It only serves as the object of cynicism. An example is found in the scene where
a publicity agent to whom Hyosop hands over his manuscript informs him of the
plan to write about an ex-activist who became a follower of Taoism. The fact
that the man who talks about the downturn of the Movement is in fact a person
who stands for crass commercialism is very sarcastic. Another scene is more
symptomatic. In the restaurant sequence, Hyosop gazes at a big photograph
hung on the corridor wall. This much-publicized photograph depicting the
magnificent top of Mt. Paektu (the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula)
with a large lake is actually distributed by a newspaper company in order to
evoke popular aspirations for the reunification of the Korean peninsula. Then he
enters the room and asks a friend across the table: "How was your trip to Mt.
Paektu? Have you swum there?" It turns out that the friend slept through the
famous sunrise. Here Mt. Paektu is no longer a sacred place of Korean
nationalism, but merely a place for fun. In this way, the given social meanings
are deconstructed and only amorphous trajectories drawn by atomized
individuals are consistently present. This is the typical way in which the film
portrays the total disjunction of contemporary Korean life.
In this way, reality conceived as a flawless unity of necessary concatenation
is thoroughly deconstructed. To the filmmaker, and even to the characters,
reality is the site of struggle between conflicting desires. This is represented by
obsession, repression or distortion of desire, misunderstanding and the closure of
communication, and explosions of madness. The film uses various formal
strategies to express disruption and disillusionment: episodic, circular, nonlinear
narrative structure; claustrophobic settings with low-key lighting; minimal use
of camera movements and long shots, inexpressive editing; and jarring
background music. Its episodic narrative structure is a device which effaces
temporal linearity. The adoption of a fragmentary narrative structure which
enables the shift of protagonists has the effect of suggesting not only the
complexity of modern life, but also the disjunction of it. The claustrophobic
quality typified in Minjae's room in the theater and the motel room where
Tongu stays expresses the theme of schizophrenic disjunction. The camerawork
is a major means for conveying this. The stationary camera creates a
suffocatingly morbid atmosphere beneath the surface. The camera never leads us
to a wide open space and its movement is kept to a minimum. The look of the
camera is emotionless and detached. In addition, the use of seemingly casual
editing conveys a sense of disjunction.
Although The Day a Pig Fell into the Well is concerned mainly with
phantasmagoric fragments of modern life in Korea, its imagination largely
depends on reflections about temporality. The malaise, the seemingly
Modernity and Postmodernity in Korean Cinema 147
omnipresent dislocation represented by the main characters, actually occurs in
time, not in space. It comes from the clinging to traditional ideas (Hyosop and
Minjae), the meaninglessness of the present (Pokyong and Tongu), and the
closure of the future (all of them). All attempts to escape from closed spaces
turn out to be failures. Pokyong fails to get out of Seoul, because Hyosop never
appeared at the bus terminal. Tongu's trip to a regional city is filled with
frustration. The last scene can be interpreted as a metaphor of desire for escape.
In that scene, Pokyong opens the apartment window and comes out to the
verandah after reading a newspaper, which must cover Hyosop and Minjae's
murder case. It, however, is unclear whether she would commit suicide by
jumping down or will keep living in the same state of disjunction. The film does
not allow the logic of necessity until the last point, implying that our reality is
not ruled by necessity, as we have thought and been accustomed to.
The Day a Pig Fell into the Well represents the cinematic achievement of a
Korean postmodern text, addressing the universality of disruption. First, it is a
dense multilayered text, whose aesthetics are in ambiguity expressed in
fragments, and whose standpoint is deconstructive, grounded in the
impossibility of unity. Therefore, the film is not a critique from a privileged
perspective, but a deconstruction, which disclaims the primacy of a particular
perspective. The film is postmodernist in its attack on modernity. The film
seems to be a text of the poststructural metaphysics of decentered subject, one of
whose features is the contradictory nature of human desire. It may have a
universal resonance to the contemporary audience. Nevertheless, it should be
noted that the postmodernity portrayed in the film is qualitatively different from
First World postmodernity, which is grounded in late capitalism, whose
consummation is the consumerist society. The film's postmodernity is inevitably
Korean, in that it is a symptom of a semiperipheral position in the world system,
such as that of Korea. It does not glorify the liberation of desire in a Deleuzian
manner, nor incline to the delirium of simulacra in a Baudrillardian manner.
Rather, the film's postmodernity expressed through its bleak tonality is
represented by the protagonists' marginality. They embody it through the
contradiction of their desires and the symptoms of lack. Westernized modernity,
uprootedness, and vulgar desires for money and sex intermingle and create total
disjunction in Korean urban life. The raggedness of Korean postmodernity,
which the film conveys without exaggeration, suggests that the meaning of
postmodernism in Korean society might be different from that in the West.
The Day a Pig Fell into the Well does not address directly the issue of
modernization. Nevertheless, insofar as the social reality of modern Korea is
considered the outcome of modernization, the film consistently shows how our
lives in the postindustrial society have become fragile, dislocated, and confused.
Viewed in the context of modernization, the film is a grim portrait of
(post)modernity, filled with symptoms of disruption. Thus the film's critique of,
or more properly, cynicism toward modernity is a powerful counterdiscourse
against modernization/modernity.
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Chapter 6

Hollywood Imagination, Foreign Films,

and Korean Identity: Resistance,
Assimilation, and Articulation

Hollywood is an industry with its own standardized product, marketing, and

management practices, specific conventions governing film structure and
content, and a combination of economic and political power rationalized by free
trade and other political reasons. In addition to this apparatus, the function of a
large market for films in the United States makes it possible for major film
companies to achieve dominance in the overseas markets. In most serious film-
producing countries outside the U.S., the possibility of generating investment
from local markets is difficult if not possible, because the markets are
insufficient in size or population. Despite the fact that the number of moviegoers
declined over the 1990s decade, American films usually are amortized in the
home market, which has about one-third of the world's theaters. Besides,
Hollywood's genius for tapping deeply and broadly into the common elements
of experience which bind humanity together, attracts foreign audiences.


Korea is one of few countries that have resisted Hollywood's hegemony over
the decades with some success. One can safely characterize, however, the
general state of the Hollywood presence in Korea as deep and
extensive—substantial fears about the Hollywood cultural colonization still
exist. In the early 1990s Korea returned to constitutional democracy after three
decades of military dictatorship by electing the first civilian president. Both
public and private sectors of the cultural establishment have tested the new
freedoms with satires and experimental performances and writings. From
traditional cultural forms like literary and folk arts to contemporary theater and
films, Korea has witnessed an enormous renewed cultural production since the
early 1990s. The films have been receiving special attention. Under the civilian
150 Korean Film

government's relaxed policy, mainstream films have resurrected themselves

with the freedom to depict social problems, sex, and violence in greater detail
with humor, imagination, fantasy, and new narrative strategies. For the
filmmakers, much of the 1990s were years of hope and optimism to revive and
reinvent new Korean cinema. This chapter examines (1) how Hollywood films
have affected both Korean mainstream and nonmainstream film industries in
terms of their modes of production and narratives; (2) how the Hollywood
dominance has forced workers, students, and intellectuals to create resistant
discourses; (3) how Korean's own political, structural and internal constraints
have forced complex relationships to form among Hollywood mainstream and
nonmainstream film industries today.
The most popular film genres in Korea have been melodrama, action
adventure (mainly martial arts), foreign stories, comedies, and war films.
Mainstream films that seek to attract a modern audience look for direction to the
U.S.—and more recently, Hong Kong's action adventure (a blend of its own
traditional martial arts action and Hollywood's gangster films) films,
represented by Jackie Chan, Chowyun Fat, Jet Li, and John Woo (Standish,
1994; Wilson, 1994). The resulting blend of Hollywood narratives and Korean
attitudes and locale creates an interesting outcome. Doherty (1984, p 845) wrote,
"the popular Hollywood film genres and their Korean counterparts crossbreed
with amazing ease. Westerns, private eye films, spy adventures, historical
costume drama, and the pop musical have all been adopted and put into an
indigenous setting."Doherty's observation is somewhat sketchy but it is partly
an accurate view of how Korean films have reflected the complex attitudes and
worldview of Koreans.
Kalton (1979) argues that Korean values and attitudes are the result of three
main factors: the traditional Confucian ethic, an underlying individualism that is
somewhat at odds with that ethic, and an overlay of Western ideas. In the
traditional Confucian ethic, harmony among men was the ultimate goal. The
harmony was often disrupted by social disorder or natural disasters. It was the
ruler's duty to maintain the social order and it was the people's duty to obey the
ruler's commands. There was no legitimate room for differing opinions among
the ministers under the ruler's command. Their differences had to be
compromised under the name of consensus. However, the Confucian ethic has
been forced to coexist with a strong, aggressive underlying sense of individual
assertiveness and ambitions. Therefore men's desire for choolse (wealth, power,
and social recognition) is often at odds with traditional values. Koreans are risk-
takers with attitudes like "nothing to lose," "anything goes," and "do it now and
worry about it later." Ironically the risk-taking mentality coincides with
traditional Confucian values: a person's feeling as an essential part of decision
and action. At least in the modern Korea, two conflicting views have always
existed in the Koreans' worldview. Koreans have been more comfortable with
the supporting role than the leading role. They often criticize themselves for
their sadaejuui—obeisance to power, or overrespect for greatness. The origin of
the belief is too complex to be included in this book.
The other worldview is of course the Western ideas of individual and
national independence. The dilemmas and challenges for Koreans have always
Hollywood, Foreign Films, and Korean Identity 151

been how to balance the two different values. Korean filmmakers have
experimented with all kinds of genres and styles from other countries. Some
have been well adapted and some have been discarded. Many of the traditional
values and attitudes continue to influence Korean individual and social behavior,
while alternate values and systems are being borrowed and adapted. As
mentioned, during the 1980s and the half of 1990s, in the wake of the political
turmoil and economic prosperity, the Munwha Woondong (cultural movements),
led by intellectuals, students, and laborers, brought renewed attention to the
positive element of traditional values as woorigut (our own). The National
Cinema Movement was a part of the movement. The persistent survival of
Confucian values makes Korean behavior sometimes incomprehensible to
For Korean cinema, however, Hollywood cinema has provided attractive and
liberating democratic ideologies. It has insinuated its way into the consciousness
of Korea and perhaps many other nations. On the governmental level, Korean
authorities have resisted Hollywood cinema by restricting the number of films
imported and imposing high tariffs. Sometimes the U.S. State Department has
twisted the Korean government's arm to import more Hollywood films and
lower the tariffs. On the cultural level, the dominance of American popular
culture gave a renewed urgency to questions about national culture in Korea.
Although these challenges have enable Korean cinema to identify forgotten
woorigut, Korean audiences have allowed Hollywood's irresistible fun and
pleasures to colonize the part of their consciousness. Thus the Korean National
Cinema Movement, for example, can no longer be interpreted in terms of
cultural resistance alone. It must include a manifestation, conditions, and
negotiations of its relationship to Hollywood.


There are a variety of accounts and opinions as to when the first public
showing of a motion picture was held in Korea. As described in the beginning of
chapter 2, the earliest accounts reveal that in October 1898 an American
businessman, Asthouse, who operated an oil company in Seoul, showed a film
to the public (Lee, 1992, pp. 20-21). This 1898 account was passed down
verbally through senior filmmakers in the early days of Korea's motion picture
industry and Japanese film historians.
At the beginning of the Japanese annexation of Korea (1910), more
American and European films were introduced. Koreans were mesmerized by
historical dramas like Quo Vadis (1913) and New General Othello (1913) as
well as American short newsreel documentaries such as Niagara, The Big Fire
of New York and Practice of Horse Race (Y. Lee, 1988, p. 342).
Under Japanese Occupation (1910-1945), the Korean motion picture industry
had to endure various forms of censorship and economic restrictions (Lee, 1988,
p. 324). First, all scripts of domestic films were to be approved and censored by
the Chongdokbu (Japanese general governing authority) and produced by
Japanese private citizens or companies. Obviously the right to distribute and
exhibit films also belonged to them. Few films such as Arirang and The Bird in
Her Cage by legendary director, Ungyu Na still depicted Koreans' anger and
152 Korean Film

resentment metaphorically without directly criticizing the Japanese oppression.

Second, the exhibition and production of Korean films was limited. By the
1930s, for example, the Chongdokbu increased censorship and limited the yearly
production of films to two or three (Lent, 1990, p. 125). During World War II,
the film industry was forced to produce pro-Japanese propaganda films.
Between 1940 and 1945, the Chongdokbu closed down film companies that
refused to produce the propaganda films. With the liberation in 1945, the Korean
film industry rebounded briefly by producing numerous films without
censorship. The themes were often realistic portrayals of the independent
movement against the Japanese power such as The Patriot, a true story about
Joongkun Ahn who assassinated the first governor of Chongdokbu, Hirobumi
Ito. From the liberation in 1945 to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950,
however, the industry suffered from political instability, lack of equipment, and
disorganization the film companies.
After the Korean War (1950-1953), foreign films including Hollywood films
suffered a sharp decline in box-office income as the result of a shrinking market,
although they still had dominant presence. As part of the government measure to
encourage production of domestic motion pictures, a 115% admission tax was
imposed on all imported Western films, and it was practically impossible for
foreign film distributors to expect any reasonable revenue. Only ten theaters
were showing foreign films, mostly in Seoul. Tickets were printed at the
government mint to prevent fraud in tax payment. Furthermore, the government
imposed a quota on foreign films at 165 films per year, but the annual quota
usually consisted of about 180 films with a bonus quota of 20 additional films
(Lee, 1989, p. 356). Table 6.1 indicates the number of imported and domestic
films between 1951 and 1959.

Table 6.1
Number of Domestic and Foreign Films between 1951 and 1959

Year Hollywood Films European Films Others Domestic Films

1951 5 15 0 0
1952 45 19 0 11
1953 48 31 2 10
1954 109 43 0 18
1955 99 21 3 16
1956 135 15 1 36
1957 114 15 1 47
1958 174 25 25 92
1959 89 15 10 91
TOTAL 818 199 42 321

Source: A Compilation of Data on the Film Industry, MPPC, 1984.

Despite the restrictive policies, the imported foreign films were only one-
fifth or less the cost of producing a domestic feature, and a blockbuster film was
only one-half of the average domestic production cost. Although few domestic
films occasionally beat out foreign films, block-booking tactics of Hollywood
Hollywood, Foreign Films, and Korean Identity 153
distributors made it impossible to sustain the trend. They leased their films on a
flat price per-print basis. This arrangement usually called for a one-or two-year
life for a print lease. In the case of Hollywood films, at the end of the lease
period, the print was returned to the U.S. Embassy where the local importer
received a certificate stating that he lived up the terms of the contract. The
theaters collected about 40% box-office tax on all foreign films (Lee, p. 348,
1988). Some of popular Hollywood films in this period were The Best Years of
Our Lives and The Young Lions. Because of the bitter past experience with
Japan, no Japanese films was shown until the end of 1998 (Screen, p. 124,
September 2000).
During the 1960s, the government limited the number of foreign films to
promote the increase in the domestic production. Some 200 Korean films were
produced in 1965, for example. It also introduced the screen quota system under
which theaters showing foreign films must exhibit domestic films for 60-90 days
per year. The results can be seen in Table 6.2. Under these guidelines, one
import quota was granted if a film company produced two domestic films (Joo,
p. 50-87, 1990).

Table 6.2
Number of Films Produced, Imported, and Theaters: 1961-1970
Year Domestic Films Foreign Films No. of Theaters
1961 79 84 302
1962 112 79 344
1963 148 66 386
1964 137 51 477
1965 161 64 529
1966 172 85 534
1967 185 64 529
1968 212 63 578
1969 229 79 659
1970 231 61 690

Source: A Compilation of Data on the Film Industry, MPPC, 1984.

Along with the government policy on export promotion, the Motion Picture
Law was revised in the 1970s to establish the Korean Film Union. It was
designed to promote exportation of films and to strengthen the requirement for
import quotas, increasing from two to five the number of domestic films
produced per one foreign import. It was, without much success, dissolved in the
Motion Picture Promotion Corporation (MPPC) in 1973. The economic
recession and the military martial law during the 1970s literally crippled the
Korean film industry. Twenty out of 23 film production companies went
bankrupt in 1972. Another revision of the Motion Picture Law was made on
February 16, 1973, in an attempt to save the film industry. It loosened the strict
provisions and requirements for new film production companies, the number of
import rights, and censorship. The industry slowly rebounded and fully
recovered at the end of the 1970s (Joo, 1998, pp. 56-59).
154 Korean Film

The Korean film industry had little chance to become stabilized in its history,
neither during the Japanese Occupation, nor the Korean War, nor the military
governments' repressive governmental control in 1960s and 1970s. The
liberation of film production in the mid-1980s lasted only briefly and was ended
by the encroachment of foreign film companies in Korean market. One more
revision of the Motion Picture Law needs to be considered by the government in
view of the series of events that happened in the fall of 1988. The revision of the
Motion Picture Law newly proposed by Korean film people attempts to change
the government policy, which mainly regulates the film industry, into a policy of
promotion and subsidy. What kinds of structural factors of the film industry
incited its people to launch such large demonstrations in the streets? The
following section discusses the structure of the Korean film industry in the late
1980s in order to understand the need for the latest revision of the Motion
Picture Law. The latter part of the 1980s was a critical period that characterized
and transformed today's Korean film industry. It also describes the network
surrounding the Korean film industry, including legal restrictions, regulating and
promoting government agencies, and the film industry itself, in order to explain
what happened in the fall of 1988.


The Motion Picture Law already had undergone several revisions. The sixth
revision (promulgated in July 1987) was primarily a surrender to pressure from
the U.S. government and the MPEA A, and did not address the needs of the
domestic film industry. Thus the core of the newly enforced sixth revision was
to enhance the business practices of foreign film production and distribution
companies. However, the supposed purpose of the Motion Picture Law was to
"contribute to the promotion of national arts by accelerating and fostering the
development of the motion picture industry and by improving the quality of
motion picture art" (Article 1, Motion Picture Act, 1987, p. 53). The sixth
revision hardly addresses the promotion of national film and its industry
expressed in its purpose. Most articles in the Motion Picture Law were
concerned with supervision, control, criteria of censorship and regulations, such
as the registration conditions for production and importing companies. Only five
articles (Articles 3, 22, 23, 26, and 30) were related to the promotion of the
domestic industry, and these were mainly provisions for MPPC and the screen
quota required for movie theaters.
The screen quota remains the only wall protecting the Korean film industry
from a flood of foreign (mostly U.S.) imports. But it was not a means of
promotion—it was a passive not an active intervention. The only provisions
protecting domestic films in the Motion Picture Law kept the screen quota at
146 days a year and alternated the screening of domesticfilmand foreign film in
any cities where the population was more than 300,000. In other words, the
screen quota was the only way that the revision "fosters the film industry," as
described in the purpose of the Motion Picture Act. Yet the screen quota itself
was not even a sure protection of Korean film industry. Even as it functions as
the last protecting wall for domestic films to maintain film production, at the
Hollywood, Foreign Films, and Korean Identity 155

same time, it offered and guaranteed time and space for the screening of foreign
An issue more serious than the screen quota was that the sixth revision of the
Motion Picture Law permitted foreign film companies to do business in Korea.
The revision stipulates that "any person who desires to engage in the motion
picture producing business or the foreign motion picture importing business,
shall register himself with the Ministry of Culture and Information" (Article 4,
Motion Picture Act, 1987, p. 56). It still permits any person, Korean nationals as
well as foreign nationals, to produce and import films, so there was no clear
division between foreign film and domestic film. This undercuts the assumption
of the quota system in which the screening of domestic and foreign films was
tied together.
The fifth revision of the Motion Picture Law, briefly practiced in 1987,
restricted eligibility for a motion picture business to Korean nationals. Yet, in
the sixth revision, even films produced by a foreign national in Korea were
counted as domestic films. Or, if a foreign company or agency finances a
Korean company to produce a film, that film would also be counted as a
domestic film. And the screen quota for domestic films could be satisfied by the
films produced or financed by foreign nationals if they were produced in Korea.
But even if such films were counted as domestic films, the profits from their
exhibition may not be recirculated or reinvested into domestic film production.
Thus the sixth revision did nothing to facilitate the promotion of the Korean film
industry. The sixth revision, along with opening the Korean film market, also
abolished the Motion Picture Promotion Fund (which domestic film importers
submitted to the MPPC) and lowered the registration deposit for film importing
businesses from $1,000,000 to $71,430—another example of a surrender to the
MPEAA. The promotion fund and registration deposit were used to support the
MPPC until the period of the fourth revision. The MPPC was supported only by
the Promotion Fund for Culture and Art (PFCA) collected through taxes on
theater ticket offices.
While the sixth revision offers benefits to foreign film companies, it also
permits domestic film producers/importers to import motion pictures without
limit. However, the future of Korean importers did not seem very promising. As
described above, U.S. film companies tried to avoid selling their films to Korean
importers on a flat fee basis in order to profit from the direct distribution of their
films in Korea. Korean film importers rarely could import new movies. Even if
Korean firms could import films on a flat fee basis from somewhere, the
competition with new foreign films directly distributed to Korean theaters would
be severe. In effect, the Motion Picture Law granted benefits to foreign film
companies rather than to domestic film businessmen. The only device for the
promotion of the national film industry was this screen quota, but the screen
quota did not securely protect Korean films. It was expected that direct
distribution of foreign films by foreign film companies under the Motion Picture
Law would destroy most domestic film importers' source of income as well as
the economic source of domestic film production.
This critical economic blow to most film people would make the Korean film
industry just another one of America's markets. For those reasons, film people
156 Korean Film

organized an association for another revision of the Motion Picture Law. In the
proposal, the qualification for film production and importing businesses would
be restricted to Korean nationals. The proposal also demanded that the screen
quota for domestic films be set up as 183 days a year, half of the total screening
days. The other issues presented in the proposal will be discussed in relation to
other sectors of the Korean film industry when appropriate later in the chapter.
The revision of the Motion Picture Law was not referred to in the National
Assembly despite the rare solidarity of film people. Nevertheless, United
International Picture's (UIP) films were not commercially successful in theaters.
People in the film industry were still fighting against the direct distribution of
foreign film companies by listing the names of theaters where UIP films were
exhibited in newsletters and urging people to call to ask the theaters not to show
the films. Actually it was called UIP-CIC (Cinema International Corporation).
CIC, was the world's largest film distributor in the 1970s, but was broadened
into a new organization in 1981. UIP handles overseas distribution of products
from Universal, Paramount, and MGM/UA. CIC handles video movies and UIP
feature movies.



The sixth revision of the Motion Picture Law was made in December 1986,
promulgated in July 1987, and became effective on January 28, 1988. As the law
was promulgated the MPEAA opened its branch office in Seoul in 1987 and
started to survey the Korean film market. At that time, since the Foreign
Currency Regulation Act did not permit outflow of any profits earned in Korea,
the MPEAA allowed joint ventures with Korean production companies to profit
from the flat-fee deals of films of its contracted companies. As the MPEAA
surveyed the Korean market, UIP, regarding the Korean film market as an "easy
road to distribute" their films, decided to launch its own business and opened an
office in January 1988 (Interview with Haejon Moon, July 6, 1988). Following
UIP, Twentieth Century-Fox opened its branch office in June 1988. As UIP and
Twentieth Century-Fox launched their own businesses and the Foreign Currency
Regulation Act was abolished in 1988, the branch office of the MPEAA shifted
its function from direct distribution of films and video movies of the contracted
companies to lobbying the Korean government, guiding other film companies,
and directly distributing video movies (ibid).
The direct distribution of video movies by the MPEAA and the CIC
proceeded without any trouble, contracting with several big corporations in
Korea. However, the distribution of films was not as easy as they expected. It
took six months for UIP to distribute its films in Korea, for several reasons. As
the business manager of the branch office of UIP said: (1) Korean exhibitors had
conflicting relationships with domestic film producer/importers; (2) most
exhibitors in the first-run theaters managed their own importing business and
thus their power became influential; (3) the review process of the Picture
Evaluation Committee (PEC) took a rather long period; and (4) since a group of
radical students threatened exhibitors that they would picket the theater and put
Hollywood, Foreign Films, and Korean Identity 157
live snakes in any theater that exhibited directly distributed films, the exhibitors
of first run theaters in Seoul hesitated to show their films (Interview with Euntae
Park, July 4, 1988).
Three of these issues were no longer barriers for direct distribution by UIP,
which "secretly" dealt with exhibitors and found a way to form a nationwide
theater chain of its own. Most exhibitors welcome UIP films because UIP
distributes recent films and offers a better split of the advertising expenses than
do domestic film producers (ibid). Even though exhibitors got a contract with
UIP, they would not make it public, afraid to provoke Korean
producer/importers. However, UIP seemed to succeed in breaking up the
relationship between exhibitors and domestic producers/importers, since the
number of theaters that decided to exhibit UIP films gradually increased.
Even though first-run theater owners carry their own importing business,
they could hardly import the films of major U.S. film companies. Major U.S.
film companies would not sell their films on a flat-fee basis because of the
presence of UIP in Korea. Other sources of importing films, such as American
Film Marketing Association (AFMA), which represents independently produced
U.S. films, would not be suitable for exhibition in Korea, because they aim at
American audiences, not at international audiences. Without any other proper
source of importing, theater owners would inevitably be inclined to accept any
offer from UIP. Regarding the third issue, the MPEAA filed a trade complaint
charging the Korean government with unfair business practice in September
1988. This complaint was withdrawn soon after the Korean government
promised "increased liberalization" of the reviewing process in late 1988. When
UIP first presented several films, including a 007 series, The Living Daylights,
and Fatal Attraction, to the PEC for review as soon as UIP opened its branch
office, the process took more than five months.
Regarding the fourth barrier (the threats of radical students), UIP finally
succeeded in showing its first film, Fatal Attraction, in ten theaters in Korea in
September, 1988. It took the advantage of the Summer Olympic Games when
the Korean government enforced strict restriction on collective movements such
as demonstrations. UIP did not contract with the first tier theaters in Seoul but
with two second-tier but first-run theaters. The first distributed film was
canceled in a month due to the fierce demonstration of film people. UIP was
trying to distribute Academy Award-winning Rain Man to another second-
tierfirst-run theater. Also, again, people in the Korean film industry picketed and
demonstrated in front of the theater even before the opening day.
In the early stages of the launch of UIP and Twentieth Century Fox in Korea
only a small group of people in the film industry, mainly directors and assistant
directors, were concerned with the fifth revision of the Motion Picture Law and
its "traitorous unpatriotic" nature. Domestic producer/importers hesitated to
stand against direct distribution, not recognizing what effects it would have for
them. As they realized that they could not import films from major U.S. film
companies on a flat-fee deal, because of MPEAA and UIP's pressure, they
joined with the group of assistant directors and film directors. A series of
demonstrations in the fall of 1988 thus united Korean film people for the first
158 Korean Film

Korean audiences in general were not concerned with the series of

demonstrations by people in the film industry nor with the issue of direct
distribution of foreign films. They commented that they preferred American
films because they could not find good domestic films. Filmmakers, listening to
such responses from the audience, promised (during the course of
demonstrations) that they would make good films. As a reporter sarcastically
commented, "the only people who want American films here (in Korea) were
the theater owners and the audience" (Variety, Sep. 14, 1988, p. 68). For people
in the Korean film industry, revision of the Motion Picture Law seems the most
urgent means of satisfying the audience with good attractive domestic films.
And that requires the acquisition of the freedom of expression. To sum up, the
Korean film industry in 1987-1989 was in a state of transition. Threatened by a
flood of U.S. films (due to direct distribution), the Korean film industry was
struggling to find ways to maintain its business.
Weakened by various historical and legal factors and suffering under the
vicious cycle of weak production financing, the Korean film industry confronted
one more component in its small market—the presence of financially stable and
strong U.S. distribution companies. The Korean film industry saw that various
political upheavals and accordingly numerous legal changes affected the
industry. Legal changes after the Liberation had not contributed to the
development of the film industry but unsuccessfully practiced trials and errors
on the industry. In other words, government policy did not stimulate the
economic basis of the film industry, but rather restrained it. Under repressive
government policy, the Korean film industry had no chance to establish a firm
industrial basis.
Despite the governmental efforts to reduce both the number of imports and
the effect on local culture and audiences, the presence of Hollywood narrative
modes in domestic films has been extensive. As the closest ally of the U.S. in
the Eastern Asian region, the Korean government has had little power to control
the flow of Hollywood films since the early 20th century. Cockburn (1991, p. 40)
wrote, "It has actually been force-fed to the world through the careful
engineering of taste, ruthless commercial clout, arm-twisting by the U.S.
Department of Commerce and State, threats of reverse trade embargoes and
other such heavy artillery". Although the number of Hollywood films may have
fluctuated over the years, the supremacy of Hollywood persisted for the most
part of the 20th century in Korea. In other words, the domination is never just
economic— the basic reason for the dominance is both artistic and cultural. The
conventions of Hollywood films have become inflected in their translation to the
Korean scene, while still showing the profound influence of their American
prototypes. Korean films that refuse to exploit or develop these conventions
have often failed in the box office. The Hollywood conventions include its
structural properties such as parallelism, repetition, contrast and variation, its
continuity editing; its preoccupation with individualism, and its compositions.
Although it is difficult to comprehensively chart all the roles of the
Hollywood conventions in Korean films, some of Hollywood's typical norms
can be found in many old and new Korean films. While some of superficial
aspects such as the presentation of violence and sex, have changed, the basic
Hollywood, Foreign Films, and Korean Identity 159
Hollywood narrative conventions with the moral polarization of the
melodramatic mode have not changed into the 21st century. They can be
summarized in the following ways:

1. Temporal and spatial coherence in stories;

2. A powerful beginning that provides the basis for regular audience involvement
through hypothesis-forming and subsequent narrative cues;
3. Goal-oriented, individual character-centered plots;
4. Patterned narrative tempos— repetition and delay;
5. Bipolar dichotomy (good vs. evil) and excessive emotion;
6. Multiple causes-effects that reveal the narrative process;
7. Emphasis on the climax and the resolution. (Cockburn, 1997, 280-230; Bordwell &
Thompson, 2001,3-24)

For example, the persistent presence of Hollywood narrative conventions is

apparent even in a traditional film like Sopyonje (1993), a winner of the Silver
Bear Award at the 1994 Berlin International Film Festival and arguably the best
Korean film ever produced. The initial appeal of a typical Hollywood film often
resides in its ability to involve audiences by posting character-centered and goal-
oriented plots. Sopyonje draws our attention by having the audience follow the
main characters' (Dongho, Yubong, Songwha) painful and sometimes joyful
journeys. The film's narrative process clearly encourages the successive
formation of hypotheses concerning future development, hypotheses that are
essentially based on audience expectations that may be formed, or learned
through repetitive narrative conventions.
The director, Kwontak Im, utilizes Hollywood visual styles such as eye-level
shots, point of view shots, reverse shots, multiple shots, graphic/temporal/spatial
editing techniques, and changing locales to achieve a tight cause-effect
relationship, internal coherence, and motivations. For example, unable to
tolerate his father's tyrannical treatments, Dongho decides to run away. By
using the above techniques, the scene is broken into three shots: (1) Songwha
stands still next to a huge dark tree and stares at Dongho's back (medium long
shot, static, dark in high contrast), (2) Dongho is running away (extreme long
shot, fast-moving, bright in low contrast), (3) Same shot as the first one. There is
no music to assist this emotional break-up of brother and sister. There is no
desperate attempt by Songwha to stop Dongho. Instead the hanging branches of
the tree and wind give the feeling of quiet mourning. This scene also functions
as a typical Hollywood narrative bridge that encourages the spectator to travel
with eager anticipation to the end. As another example of Hollywood narrative
styles, the separation can be seen as a parallel and a metaphor for the division of
North and South Korea by the superpowers (U.S. and Russia) and the
ideological differences. Similarly the director's search for Korean identity
through Yubong's p'ansori family becomes a painful and tragic metaphor to as
the national culture struggles to keep its identity in the wake of Western cultural
As Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson (1985) demonstrate in their study of the
Hollywood narrative conventions, there are three motivations that expose the
narrative process: realistic motivation (plausible explanations), generic
160 Korean Film

motivation (dramatically logical), and causal motivation (compositional). The

causal motivation is the most significant, although the three types are often
complementing each other simultaneously (pp. 4, 19-23). This form of multiple
motivation is evident in Sopyonje's narrative described above: Yubong adopting
Dongho/Songwha and teaching the art of p 'ansori (realistic motivation),
Dongho tired and disillusioned by Yubong's tyrannical treatments, including his
sister's blindness and the journey (generic motivation), Dongho running away,
Songwha adding more grief and sorrow to her p 'ansori and the endless journey
continuing as Songwha follows Yubong from behind by an arm-to-arm rope
(causal motivation). However, the presence of Hollywood narrative conventions
in Korean films should not be seen as a prototype for the entire industry. While
the presence is deep and extensive, many Korean films have developed Korean
subject matter, style, and content. Moreover, the conventions are by no means
totally unique to Hollywood. They resemble those aesthetic norms of the 19th
century European literature and theater. They were influenced by the ethical and
expressive elements found in the theatrical melodrama that developed in France
and Britain.
Nonetheless some Korean films in the 1980s and 1990s have rejected
Hollywood conventions in favor of Italian Neo-Realism, Third Cinema, and
Korean folktales. But then does this apparent presence of Hollywood discourses
and industrial standards in Korean cinema have a devastating impact of cultural
imperialism or synchronization on Korean culture in general? Is the theory of
cultural imperialism adequate to grasp contemporary Hollywood and Korean
cinema relations? What does contemporary globalization imply for the existing
cultural imperialism theory? Would it have been far better for Korean cinema
never to have known Hollywood?


The notion of cultural imperialism was a popular term of international
communication in the 1980s. Scholars from various disciplines presented
numerous theories about communication and development in the Third World
(e.g., Schiller, 1976; Hamelink, 1983). Some stress economic aspects (e.g.,
Varis, 1973; Murdock & Golding, 1979), some stress sociological or
psychological aspects (e.g., Hamelink, 1983). However, these theories have not
always been true to the economic, political, or social system of the developing
country. Academics in the Third World found other flaws in their media
situations that related to ties with the developed nations. They claim that
political and military imperialism have been replaced by cultural imperialism
and media imperialism. The terms cultural imperialism and media imperialism
have been frequently used to describe the concerns of the dependency paradigm
(Mohammadi, 1997, pp. 49-51). This is entirely different from the old paradigm
in terms of perspective and evaluation on the role of communication. While
some writers use both terms interchangeably, some argue that media
imperialism should not be confused with cultural imperialism. The use of media
imperialism is often restricted in a much more specific range of phenomena.
They are correlated in varying degrees of strength in different cases (Ibid.).
Cultural imperialism is a kind of normative component to the structural relations
Hollywood, Foreign Films, and Korean Identity 161
of dependence between developed and developing nations. It presumes that
developing countries are reluctant recipients of the media flow and that they are
caught in a trap, unable to defend themselves against the imperialists. It includes
the results of international media, educational and cultural systems, and thus, is
more inclusive term than media imperialism (Wasko, 1994, pp. 238-240).
Media imperialism involves a one-way flow of media products from
developed to developing countries, investment by transnational corporations
(TNCs) in Third World media, and effects on cultures and goals, as well as
media models. The concept of media imperialism may imply that governments
or corporations attempt to influence others deliberately with some premeditated
political, cultural, and economic end in mind. Thus, subjects in the literature of
media imperialism have been largely the behavior of TNCs that act to dominate
the value structure of developing nations. We believe that these studies have
been oriented to the fact that a high degree of influence is necessary in order to
effect change. There are several external reasons why Third World nations have
imported a considerable amount of American entertainment programs, although
less so than in the early 1970s. With its highly sophisticated communication
technology, the United States has shaped standardized communication hardware.
It was much easier for the developing nations to duplicate or buy these original
vehicles than engage in their own development activities. They were therefore
saddled with the results of choices made in alien conditions in response to alien
market demands. This standardization was able to be maintained by a
technological infrastructure developed in the United States. It provided much of
the technological equipment for other nations, creating a situation of hardware
and software dependency.
Another important reason would be TNCs' structural arrangements which
were contributory factors to dominate international film markets in the earlier
days. Their vertically integrated structure controlled production, distribution,
and exhibition. They generated the star system for the promotion of movies and
a unique pattern of distribution of new films. These organizational arrangements
were able to dominate some 80% of ail film screening throughout the world in
the 1970s. By utilizing the old formula, TNCs have controlled new media
systems without entailing ownership. One means whereby this occurs is through
the offer of initial capital aid and advice in the establishment of new systems.
For example, the United States has established its model of commercial TV
broadcasting in Latin America as the result of a partnership between U.S.
business and those governments' interests. In book publishing, there is also a
tendency to place manufacturing in countries that offer the best cost levels and
facilities for marketing these products internationally. This kind of aid serves the
interests of the adviser power in a number of ways. The new media system
which is thus established often becomes an important client for the export of
media products, and also for the necessary technology to maintain the system.
American media contents and American advertising money may also generate
public identification with consumption values in the Third World. Many Third
World nations have expanded broadcasting time, book and magazine publishing,
and other forms of media far beyond the local capacity. Television decision
makers, for example, are using imported programming of American origin to
162 Korean Film

help fill expanded telecasting days. Transnational marketing is closely linked

with advertising and therefore with the support of local media. Such marketing
campaigns encourage the local acceptance of television programming or films
which may establish consumer tastes. Some aspects of exported American
culture including fast-food restaurants, jeans, and popular music may also
contribute to promoting American programs. The curiosity about American
culture can sometimes be fulfilled through viewing those programs.
Imported Western entertainment programming was necessary particularly in
the early stage of television's introduction in a country, because of insufficient
domestic programming to fill even a limited telecasting day. Changes, however,
have occurred as some Third World nations' media systems have matured, and
as the circumstances and technology of production and distribution have
changed in recent years. Influences from TNCs are gradually diminishing in
those areas. Also TNCs may not be able to afford communication technology to
promote their media products for several reasons. First, international joint
ventures are providing increasing competition abroad and a toehold for foreign
producers in the US market itself. Second, average U.S. production costs are
soaring. Third, audience fragmentation in the United States is reducing
networks' revenues to such an extent that they will be unable to bankroll
productions that have dominated the international market. Finally, some Third
World nations have imposed protective laws which restrict the number of hours
for foreign programs. Many scholars, however, believe that U.S. programs will
continue to dominate the international trade in television programs and movies
despite those changes and the fact that countries such as Brazil and Mexico
successfully exploit the Latin market. People in Third World nations seek
alternative entertainment sources and they want to watch more U.S. and
European films and television programs as much as local programs. This,
however, doesn't necessarily produce direct effects on the local culture and its
Supported by Varis' studies (1973 & 1974) and other empirical studies, there
has been the commonly held belief that U.S.-made TV programs and movies
capture audiences' attentions in developed countries, and in turn, those media
products dominate the culture in those countries. Although the American
television industry is the largest worldwide, it is the indisputable number-one
exporter and its programming is seen in practically every country where
television exists, it exerts differential power in various countries. In other words,
it may not be correct to say that imported media products from the United States
always have a dominant presence within an indigenous culture and its people.
This is not to say that U.S. media products are not an important part of the total
structure of many countries of Third World broadcasting, nor that in some cases
they are not very popular. Imports from the United States are still important in
the Third World, although this dominance is decreasing in terms of quantity.
According to recent issues of Variety, a weekly entertainment magazine, the
U.S. media industry still maintains its strength in some parts of the world, but at
the same time, it is also losing revenues in some areas. The competition is heavy
from European TNCs and domestic film industries that capitalize on their
consumers who prefer to see local talents with Hollywood flavors.
Hollywood, Foreign Films, and Korean Identity 163
Whether it is clearly addressed or not, cultural identity has been the central
concern of international communication. There are some cultural aspects on
which imported media products may have some impacts. It is difficult to
distinguish traditional culture from foreign culture. It is also difficult to measure
how much of local culture is based on indigenous themes and how much is
influenced by Western models. One clear fact is that classical arts are dying in
the Third World. There should be various reasons to explain the difficulty for
traditional culture to survive. This is one aspect where we should investigate
how much the media flow has contributed to the decline of traditional culture
and to the changes of cultural activities. With a small audience and limited
repertoire, traditional opera, for example, has to compete with Beethoven,
Baywatch, as well as Michael Jackson. In addition, even less complex common
types of traditional music are in fact an integral part of the major individual and
collective events. Further, it is difficult to adapt to media usage, as it is often
popular especially in the immediate area in which it originates.
The change in the structure of taste in food, clothing, aesthetic appreciation,
native customs, and preference for human relations have been recognized by
many scholars (Mohammadi, 1997). In some cases, rock music enjoys
increasing popularity over native popular songs, and some youth in developing
countries imitate rock stars' appearances as a desirable way to seek personal
identity. Imported media products have been accused of changing indigenous
cultures and of providing a false consciousness. These occasional observable
effects, however, do not constitute scientific data. One must realize that those
media products may have influences and produce changes only insofar as other
elements of the social environment reinforce social change. Thus, to analyze the
social and cultural implications of the flow of media products in a more
satisfactory manner, a broader discussion of the relationship between leisure and
culture, work and family, ethnicity and national sovereignty should be the
starting point.
A film is the site of contestation and struggle within and between
professional practices in relation to other economic, political, and cultural
factors, rather than as a simple mechanism for the flow of dominant ideology.
The industrial discourse here is not limited to a mere corporate decision on
cultural production. It interacts with other related and unrelated industries.
National and international telecommunication policies and the status of the
international film market are not separate issues either. The fact that a rather
extensive amount of Hollywood films is used abroad does not necessarily mean
that effects on local cultures are identifiable and overwhelming. It is difficult to
measure how much of local culture is based on indigenous themes and how
much is influenced by Western models. The popularity of Hollywood films is a
phenomenon resulting from a complex history of globalization, nationalism,
representation, and popular imagination (Semati, 1999, p. 1). The Hollywood
hegemony has framed the national/transnational opposition in Korea. It is a
product of the political dynamics of the contemporary proliferation of political
identities and democratic struggles. Despite the opposition and resentments
against Hollywood in Korea, one cannot deny the fact that it has embodied a
164 Korean Film

democratic imaginary, romanticized resistance to authority, and homogenization

as evidenced in the films mentioned in this chapter.
The melodramatic imagination of Hollywood remains as a significant force
in Korean social and political thought. Hollywood's narrative strategies, along
with the cultural movement of the 1980s and 1990s, may have inspired to
construct positive and bold visions of social and political life for both the
National Cinema Movement and post-NCMfilmmakerswho oppose, reject, and
assimilate (conveniently) Hollywood's business practices and conventions. This
neoliberal perspective, which may seek to articulate the defense of free-market
globalization, is both positive force and irresponsible force. Laclau and Mouffe
(1985) argue that this perspective involves "displacement of the egalitarian
imaginary to ever more extensive social relations, and, as such, it is only a logic
of the elimination of relations of subordination and of inequalities" (cited in
Semati, 1999, p. 15). But it is this wish that makes hegemonic struggle possible
(p. 122). Finally, the notion of cultural imperialism, as an elastic concept that
has a particular reference to the Third World, may not have an adequate
interpretive power in understanding Korean cinema and its industry. It's an easy
and attractive theoretical framework in terms of general hegemonic cultural
transformations on Third World nations.
Korea, however, is not a Third World nation. Its colonial and postcolonial
socioeconomic experiences were largely different from Third World
experiences. Rather it's a dependent capitalistic nation under the guidance of the
United States and other Western countries. It is not to say that the cultural
imperialism concept is a useless one, but it should be related to other concepts
such as that of globalization. When Koreans go to see Hollywood movies, they
view them with their own imaginations of America constructed by saturated
American and Western cultures and idealism blended with the already saturated
and modified local culture. With its complexity of production practices, film
cannot be but polysemic despite its quest for a preferred meaning. It's not an
automatic reproduction of dominant ideology in the relation between text and
audience. It is also naive to believe that individuals are active selectors and
interpreters of media messages, thus individuals not only selectively expose
themselves to media messages, but selectively avoid media messages. Putting
the production of the subject inside the text is to ignore the social construction of
the subject outside the text as Morley argued (1980).
Hollywood is a more complex entity than this chapter has portrayed it to be.
First, it is not an institution that represents just American capitalism and its
national culture. Hollywood has been able to accommodate all genres and styles
and sets the action of many films in other countries and cultures. This is
versatility has made Hollywood an international phenomenon both culturally
and economically. Despite the fact that Hollywood has maintained its romance
with the classical genre conventions, it has managed to sustain the "transnational
popularity through a logic of difference, expanding and complicating the
diversities of audiences, cinemas, and markets" (Semati, 1999, p. 9). Second,
Hollywood has been involved with other cultural commodities beyond film.
Wasko (1994, p.6) argues that it is more than just film production, distribution
and exhibition; "it also has incorporated promotion, merchandising, theme
Hollywood, Foreign Films, and Korean Identity 165

parks, and other media forms such as television, cable, home video, etc. In other
words, Hollywood does not merely represent the film industry, but crosses over
traditional industrial boundaries and engages in transindustrial activities."
Hollywood major studios actively purchase foreign films and participate in local
production activities. They also own dozens of theater chains outside of the
United States. Wasko also argues that the changes and continuity in Hollywood
must be understood in light of deregulation of media sectors such as cable and
Direct Broadcasting Satellite (DBS), new technologies, privatization, and
commercialization tendencies in global markets, and the global struggle to
search and defend local identities and culture in the midst of globalization
If cultural dependency is the general effect of media imperialism, research in
this area should move away from a model of direct, single-centered, and
worldwide influence to one that functions as interactive, multicentered, and
regional. Data should be collected country by country to find out how programs
reach audiences and how those audiences react to the programs they use. The
model for investigation must include cultural as well as commercial and political
analyses. Culture is an elusive concept. It is difficult to trace a precise causal
link between mass media exposure and cultural change. In the case of the Third
World, the cultural changes might have occurred before the coming of mass
media, in the days of colonialism. The role of imported films has been
overstated in the study of media imperialism. The role of cinema in any society
is far more complex than is often allowed for. We must reexamine the claim that
imported films are both erasing traditional cultures and inhibiting the emergence
of authentic cultural changes. This task may not be easy to answer immediately,
but we need to get back to basics to assess what are the real cultural implications
of imported foreign cultural products and of TNCs.
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Chapter 7

Contemporary Korean Cinema:

A Boom or a Renaissance?


In early 1997, Seoul Cine Group published a book, Byunbang Aeseo Joongsim
Ero (From the Outside to the Center), which reflects and reevaluates the
National Cinema Movement (NCM) from the 1980s to the late 1990s. It divides
the NCM into three phases: (1) the era of searching for new cinema (1980 to
1986); (2) the era of revolutionary films (1987 to 1990); and (3) the era of
searching for new identity and direction of NCM (1991 to 1996). In the first
phase several cinema clubs like Yallasung and Seoul Cine Group attempted to
establish the concepts of minjoong youngwha (cinema). Several experimental
8mm short films were produced. Video documentaries were the dominant
format for the second phase. The easy access of video cameras was the practical
reason for the dominance. But the June struggle of 1987 was the ideological
reason for the movement. In the third phase, as the book acknowledges,
filmmakers, production companies, and nonprofit organizations like the
Independent Film Association could not contain their ideological differences on
how the NCM should be transformed. After the 1993 presidential election,
filmmakers from NCM began to debate their roles in the new era. They realized
that most urgent political problems (e.g., authoritarian rules, government
corruption) were diminished significantly, though some of these have become
subtle and invisible, and the change in NCM's practical course during this
period was inevitable.
More currently the Ministry of Information (Gongbocher) has abandoned
most of the censorship policies on films (Chosun Daily, April 29, 1997). The
National Cinema Research Institute, which published NCM's seminal books
Minjok Youngwha I and II, encourages filmmakers to get involved and compete
with the mainstream film industry, Choongmooro (main film district in Seoul).
Others insist on staying outside and call for a new alliance of independent
cinema to establish its own distribution system and production methodologies.
168 Korean Film

As a result, the collective efforts have been diminished and more and more
independent filmmakers try to find their unique ways to make films and survive
(1997, pp. 5-18). The revolutionary antiaesthetic filmic practice was no longer
an option for most filmmakers from NCM. They even view their own NCM
films as melodramatic and hysterical. Rather these militant films have been
reborn as the sites for expressing wooriui (our) haan and imperfection by
resisting and/or incorporating Hollywood's genre and nongenre conventions.
While filmmakers maintained their critical attitudes in politics, they
compromised with their moral position toward a film; a film should be in
addition to a form of entertainment, a site for controversial social and political
issues like sexual harassment, the pressing unification issue, and the continuing
patriarchy of Korean society.
Several trends of post-NCM or the third phase and thoughts that are inspired
by NCM should be noted here. First, post-NCM has shifted its attention to more
social and psychological issues than political issues. It often portrays actual
conditions of life as experienced by a specific segment of the population in a
particular situation. These films are, however, not based on typical
melodramatic and spectacular representations, but they attempt to transform the
languages and practices of the mainstream films into new forms of social
discourse. In addition, one aspect of NCM's manifesto, the maintenance of
national culture, is still a central issue in the discourses of these films. In other
words, cultural nationalism is posited as an integral element of the struggle to
establish a different order of things in Korea. Second, while it is not uncommon
for fictional films in general to build stories around actual places or persons,
post-NCM is distinguished by its position of identification with the people, folk
arts, and places it represents. It is not simply about, but how these things come
from the lives of common people, whether their voices are articulated through
the agency of an actor, by actual people portraying themselves, or are otherwise
incorporated by the filmmaker(s) into the text. However, this effort is often
tarnished by unnatural interpretations of filmmakers and intellectuals.
Third, the 1980s debate on nationalism and cultural and economic
imperialism was evaluated. Some moderate left-wing scholars, such as Wan-
Sang Han (1991), cautioned that extreme nationalism may have become another
form of imperialism. Intellectuals and radicals began to realize that a simple
theory, such as long-time anti-America rhetoric, would be unrealistic. Instead
the analysis of the hidden structures underlying thoughts, tactics, and actions of
imperialistic penetrations by transnational corporations is necessary. In addition
to the analysis, Seo (1997) argues, it is essential to challenge every aspect of the
dominant filmic apparatus: language, modes of production, consumption,
distribution, and aesthetics.
Fourth, while most male and traditional intellectuals focused on economy
and politics, a group of feminist directors, scholars, and activists attempted to
challenge the stronghold of patriarchy. This movement, whether in books or
films, exposed and politicized many social and moral issues that often were
ignored and marginalized: sexual harassment, domestic violence, child abuse,
inequality in workplaces, and the role of women in a democratic society.
Youngjoo Byun, for example, painfully documented numerous cases of sexual
New Korean Cinema 169

abuse from the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945) to the present in her trilogy:
The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997), and My Own Breathing
(1999). It took almost five years to complete due to reluctant interviews. One
young prostitute says that she had taken on this occupation because only this job
could cover hospital costs for her mother, who was a member of Jungsin Dae
(sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers) during the World War II. Her mother has
not been able to recover from the emotional and physical scars left by Japanese
soldiers. The documentary condemns both the past and the present for their
structural and systematic violence against women. Kwangsu Park's fictional
Umukbaemi ui sarang (Love of Umukbaemi, 1990) reexamines the expressions
of sexuality under a Confucian morality which tolerates male infidelity as long
as the marriage is not threatened. Similarly Jaeyong Lee's Jungsa (An Affair,
1998) examines the consequences of an extramarital affair by a woman with her
sister's fiance. The film captures most vividly the silent anguish of the wife
during the affair. It does not judge anyone but carefully examines the pain and
loneliness of the affair through stoic camera shots, settings, and music. But some
films go beyond the acceptable sexual norms. In the tradition of erotic
melodramas like Heyday of Young/a (1975), Sunwoo Jang's Gergitmal (Lies,
2000) and Sangsoo Lim's Chunyeo Dului Gernyuk Siksa (direct translation,
Ladies Dining Out, but released as Girls Night Out, 1999) have brought back the
genre with different tones. Girls Night Out is probably the first film to show
Korean women talking candidly and crudely about their sex life, pleasure, and
their marginalized roles in society (Seveon, 2001, p. 1). It created a mild
controversy, but Lies was banned for more than a year and released with severe
cuts in 2000. The film is about a controversial affair between a 18-year-old girl
and a 39-year-old sculptor. Several explicit sexual scenes were either blurred or
completely removed from the film. Jang, a product of the NCM generation, "has
long railed against the hypocrisy of Korean society, whose outwardly
conservative sexual mores mask a thriving sex industry and widespread
exploitation of minors" (Paquet, 2000, p. 1).
Fifth, as a direct influence of NCM, the debates on the nation, minjoong, and
minjok have been shifted to the discussion of subjectivity. Film and cultural
critics such as Jungha Lee, Youngkwan Lee, and Naehee Kang (1996) often
discuss the issue of subjectivity which was largely ignored in the early NCM
films. Subjectivity assumes that we are constructed as culturally classed and
sexed agents, already having a complexly formed subjectivity. Cultural reality is
necessarily rooted, at some level, in human subjectivity. And while culture is
clearly analytically distinct from human subjectivity, it profoundly and
continually affects human consciousness (Fiske, 1987, pp. 49-55). By applying
Morley's (1980, 1993) reception theory, in the context of national cinema,
viewing a film is a process of negotiation between this existing subject position
and the one proposed by the text itself; in this negotiation, the balance of power
lies with the viewer. The meanings found in the text shift toward the subject
position of the reader more than the reader's subjectivity is subjected to the
ideological power of the text (Morley,1980, 1993). Despite attempts by a
dominant cultural order to reduce the number of possible interpretations, due to
its complexity of production practices, the film is inescapably polysemic.
170 Korean Film
Sixth, a few films are discontented with traditional narrative structure
embodied in the mainstream and some of national cinema. Yoojin Kim's
Keumhong, Keumhong (the name of Sang Rhee's mistress, 1995), a biographical
film about a famous 1930s postmodemistic poet, Sang Rhee attempts to create a
montage that would be absolutely free from formalist poetic structure, rationalist
logic, and traditional narrative structure, just like his 32 years of life. This type
of film employs characteristically long shots, tracks, and pans following the
actors without interruption, similar to most MTV videos. This kind of film
becomes increasingly abstract and cerebral. Chulsoo Park's 301, 302 (apartment
room numbers, 1995), describes a strange relationship between a woman who is
estranged from her husband and becomes obsessed with cooking and a woman
who had been sexually abused by her stepfather and blocks herself from men
and foods. In this film, Chulsoo Park refuses to unfold the information we seek
in any logical order and treats many scenes through the depiction of complex
emotional reactions. This kind of film is basically dissatisfied with neorealist
insistence upon certain specific themes or techniques. It insists upon the
director's control over his or her material and over the role of fantasy and
imagination, drawing no real dividing line between imagination and reality.
Finally, these films try to avoid foregrounding recognizable and predictable
characters and narratives. Instead they foreground the mechanical, chemical,
perceptual, complex, and conceptual structures that make a film more
unpredictable and rich in narrative. Like a second cinema, "it runs in circles. It is
cut off from reality" (Solanas, 1989, P. 9, Quoted in Willemen, 1989, p. 2).
Although this kind of film refuses the rational discourse of NCM, its spirit in
freedom of expression was certainly inspired by NCM and Hollywood's
romantic idealism.
As the country returned to democracy and saw the rebirth of national culture
in the early 1990s, the production strategies of the mainstream of the film
industry were vastly different, and it seems as if the goal of synthesizing a
popular national style with social criticism has been weakened. The reasons for
this must be sought in the radical political changes in the 1990s, but also in the
long-standing national cultural conflict which is a product of the extreme
polarization of Korea's social classes. Today, with the influence of NCM
directors preoccupied with politics and ideology, films move to explore
dimensions of human life while maintaining social, economic, or political
concerns. They have shifted the focus of national cinema perceptively toward
psychological analysis or emotional behavior and away from themes directly
associated with the 1980s' cultural movement. Most of these films examine the
dimensions of contemporary marriage, emotional alienation, and personal
despair. They are generally successful at the box office, and the popular critics
greet them as an original and revolutionary force in film. A heartwarming real
life drama, Friends, (Kyungtaek Kwak, 2001), for example, is the number-one
box- office hit exceeding Hollywood blockbusters like Hannibal This is not to
say that directors have completely abandoned political and ideological films.
College cinema clubs like Donguk University's Didimdol (cornerstone),
Gunguk University's Hatsal (shine), Korea University's Dolbit (shine of stone),
and other independent filmmakers continue to make political films. More
New Korean Cinema 171

important, these cine clubs themselves often sponsor filmmaking courses and
contests. They also publish film journals as sites for debates and education. The
early college cine clubs like Yallasung of Seoul National University did exactly
the same activities but in the underground.
While she praises the Independent Cinema Association's effort to establish
alternative filmmaking practices against Choongmooro's studio production,
Eun-Young Park (1994, pp. 128-129), one of the national cinema critics, argues
that some of the independent films were commercial ventures, which were parts
of the NCM, betray the spirit of NCM. In other words, they conform to
Hollywood contents and narrative styles to attract the wider audiences. The
political environment has, however, changed dramatically. The long-time
military rule is over; Korean-style democracy is here to stay. Many college
students today are more interested in realistic and traditional values than
ideological movements or debates. One survey shows that the classes of the
1990s want good marriage, comfortable family lives, and decent incomes. First
on the agenda is getting one's career on track, then later working out the
domestic details (M. Kim, 1995, p. 466). Certainly, they are more realistic than
their 1980s' sunbae (seniors) but "ideology-less." Whether it is fortunate or not,
they like films in which Marxist issues of ideology and class are absent. But the
reality is that a few films are still preoccupied with politics and ideology,
although more than 70% of the industry's annual production aims at relatively
low-budget escapist entertainment (average less than $1.5 million) with some
naive but candid social messages (Park, 1994; Kirk, 1999, p. 2).
The lack of political consciousness does not seem to bother Jaekyu Kang, the
director of a blockbuster film, Shiri (1999) which broke the attendance record of
James Cameron's Titanic (4.5 millions versus 5 millions), Kang said, "I know
what the audience needs. Some people are divided between the commercial and
the artistic, but a movie is a movie, and it has to be mixed" (Kirk, 1999, p. 1).
Shiri seems to have everything in harmony within the context of the unification
and conflict between North and South: violence, political messages,
melodramatic idealism, good and evil, action adventure, suspense, thrill, and a
love triangle. It is a highly unusual phenomenon that some Korean films actually
beat out Hollywood blockbusters at the box office. Shiri was the all-time box
office champ among foreign and domestic films until another Korean film,
Chanwook Park's Gongdong Soobi Guyeok (Joint Security Area) grossed $8
Millions more than Shiri in 2000 (Johnson, 2001, p. 1). Joint Security Area
(2000) is a typical action thriller with a flavor of intense investigative military
drama like Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men (ibid.). Kang's philosophy may be
too obvious and practical for some critics, but it is "almost at the level of a fresh
discovery among Koreanfilmmakers"(ibid.).
Echoing Kang's practical philosophy, Myungse Lee makes no excuse for
making an extremely stylish and genre-bending (border crossing of formalism
and realism) action flick, Injung Sajung Bolgut Eopda (1999) (No Mercy in
translation but released as Nowhere to Hide for international markets). Although
Lee set out to differentiate his film from Hollywood and Hong Kong action
films, it is hardly an original film. "For the first time, I used the action genre,"
Lee says. "But I used it the way Sergio Leone used the spaghetti Western, with a
172 Korean Film

humor and music. I knew the movie would be compared to Hollywood and
Hong Kong action films, and it was important for me to define something to call
my own" (Dupont, 2001, p. 1). The film can be viewed as an original
compilation with modicum of creativity by selecting, arranging, blending, and
presenting existing styles and genres. "It's so stylish that some of location shots
look like they are sets," said film critic Tony Ryans (ibid.).

Joint Security Area (2000)

Lee grew up near U.S. Army base in Korea, where his father worked as a
cook (ibid.). His adolescent life around the base seems to be significant and
relevant for developing his original perspectives on different cultures and styles.
He admits that American culture and the U.S. military were a part of his life. He
said, "I never felt resentful" against American culture and "I didn't come from
the left, and I have a different approach to imagery" (ibid.). His encounter with
American films and European films at the base could have been a living
museum of comprehensive styles and genres. Lee had seen them all.

It was hard to see anything else at the time. Now I like nearly everything— Charlie
Chaplin, Frank Capra, Fellini. I like the poetic aspect of Abbas Kiarostami. I like the way
Godard thinks: I think the same way, but we make films in opposite ways. I like to get
close to the audience. Godard likes to alienate his audience. I like the younger directors
less because they are always coming up with a new product, a new idea. Like
merchandise. I'm going to investigate an object by Buddhist intuition: it's not an
emotional things, but more akin to impressionism. Monet created a lotus in a pond. That
was the subject, but the painting is about the color of the lotus and the light on the water.
The story in Nowhere to Hide is like the lotus (ibid.).
New Korean Cinema 173
Lee is apparently captivated by everything from Buddhist perspectives to
Monet's painting. His postmodemistic border-crossing style thus became a
cornerstone of his filmmaking approaches. He seems to have a third eye that
permits him to see differences where others perceived only sameness, especially
in the apparent wholeness of the color. He seems to be obsessed with "Who's



Filmmakers search for new film languages whether they are authentic or
nonauthentic, rooted in the legacy of cultural nationalism, capable of expressing
with more insight and sensitivity for social reality. The following are general
tendencies in the themes of films from the mid-1990s to the beginning of the 21 st

1. Honest examination of the traditional myths and imagination which underpinned

cultural nationalism.
2. Revisionist interrogation of the relationship between North and South Korea.
3. Symbolic and psychological examination of human relations.
4. Close interrogation of social phenomena according to the directors' personal attitude
and beliefs.
5. Renewed interests in urban experience largely ignored by the cultural movement and
6. Candid interrogation of social and political failures during the military regimes
(1960s to the early 1990s).
7. Testing morality, religion, and ethics through sexuality and education.
8. Reenvisioning of Korean history, tradition, and identity.
9. Rethinking the gender roles, especially in relation to the male-dominant rhetoric and
Confucian teaching and imagery.
10. Realistic, sensitive, and plain treatment of relationships in melodramas.
11. Revisionist examinations of historical and current relationships with neighboring
countries and the United States.
12. Contemporary dysfunctional absurd conditions with irony and incongruity of human
13. Unfolding the plot based on chance and irrationality, not cause and effect.
14. Stylish blend of Hong Kong and Hollywood action flicks with Korean melodramatic
sensitivity in gangster films.

Although the Korean cinema has produced a good deal of gangster films, it
was not until the mid-1990s that gangster films came to have more modern
settings, more sophisticated cinematic styles, and more bleak narratives than was
the case in Myungse Lee's stylish Nowhere to Hide. Action films together with
melodrama have been made steadily, spawning several (sub)genres such as
Independence Army films, Kungfu films, and gangster films. It is worthwhile to
examine the relationship between genre film and the sociohistorical context in
which films are inevitably rooted. A genre film is regarded as a site of ongoing
negotiations between various, often conflicting, social, political, and cultural
forces such as the industry's economic interests, audience's desires and
174 Korean Film
expectations, social-political constraints, and general film culture. These generic
texts can be cultural symptoms corresponding to the specific situation of the
1990s in Korea, particularly the transcodification of collective desires, anxieties,
and fantasies.
The gangster films produced in the mid-1990s are radically different from
their traditional counterparts in both narratives and visual styles. While
traditional gangster films usually dealt with heroic gangs of the past often
valorizing the protagonist's honorable behavior, the "new" gangster films
portray ruthless gangsters in contemporary urban settings, employing film noir-
like dark tones and visual stylization. Amid the relative stabilization of Korean
society and the fast-growing interests in popular culture, particularly film, in the
1990s, this genre produced a considerable amount of films, including some
important works ranging from Rule of the Game (Chang Hyonsu, 1994) to No. 3
(Song Nunghan, 1997). According to Korean Film Archive's online database,
the films that can be classified under new gangster genre are 11 out of 64 feature
films in 1996 and 9 out of 60 in 1997. The ineffectiveness and lack of capital of
the Korean film industry often entails the flooding of popular genre formula,
usually quickly made with insufficient funding and low technology. These films
aim at quick returns by virtue of the success of previous major work, usually
have little value, and, thus, turn out to be critical and financial failures. Thus we
believe that production statistics have little significance. This partly explains
why genre criticism in the Korean cinema is a hard enterprise. Another, more
important, reason might be the lack of discussible corpus of a genre.
Given the lack of serious scholarship on Korean film genres so far, to define
a genre by identifying its differential characteristics is prerequisite to any serious
discussion of Korean film genres. The new gangster genre, which is generally
called kkangpae yonghwa, is first and foremost characterized by its hero's
profession: professional gangster. Its narrative primarily revolves around a
young hero who is either a hustler eager for success or a professional killer.
Second, the new gangster film is, without exception, set in contemporary Seoul,
representing the immense centrality of the capital city in Korea. Thirdly, the
genre is defined by its stylistics distinctive from others. Abundance of night
scenes usually dimly lighted in red and blue which evokes the bleak tone of film
noir, fast-paced and stylized action scenes filmed by hand-held cameras, and
codified use of music are often observed.
In addition, the new gangster film has a variety in its iconography. The most
striking in the genre is the ubiquity of nightclub and room salon (a bar with
several rooms where women serve and entertain male customers) scenes. These
scenes are constituent components of the genre, being the space for criminal
activities, including plots, fighting, and murders, as well as that for male
pleasure. The use of primitive manual weapons, such as knives, clubs, iron
pipes, and broken bottles, also typifies the new Korean gangster genre. Even a
glass ashtray, in No. 3, is used as a lethal weapon. By contrast, firearms are
seldom used because private owning of firearms is categorically prohibited in
Korea. This implies a delimitation of gangster power, suggesting the
subordination of gangsters to the state power. The new gangster genre is
fascinated with black color; black costumes, leather jackets, gloves, and
New Korean Cinema 175
sunglasses are abundant. Frequently appearing luxury vehicles such as Harley
Davidson motorcycles and Mercedes sedans are also predominantly black.
The new gangster genre sharply distinguishes itself from the "old" gangster
genre, often called hwalguk(h\xst\ev movies). The latter, exemplified by
General's Son (Kwontak Im, 1990) and its sequels, are usually set in the past
such as the Japanese Occupation or the post-Liberation period. Even if an old
gangster film has a contemporary setting-for example, dealing with smuggling at
a bustling harbor-it is devoid of modern sensibility in terms of its narrative and
visual styles. By contrast, the new gangster film renders the gangland set in
contemporary Seoul a signifier of a world that is not only unremediably corrupt
and violent but also fully charged with desire, anxiety, and antagonism.
Whereas the old gangster film emphasizes the protagonist's heroism and
codes of honor, the new one puts stress on the ruthless logic of the underworld
and the consequent failure of the protagonist. "New" gangsters are far more
organized, more sinister, and more selfish than their "old" counterparts. They
thrive, so to speak, on a monstrously powerful, antagonistic, and evil regime. In
such a narrative the hero's consequential victimization is nearly of necessity. It
was not until 1994 when Rule of the Game was released that the dark world of
violence began to occupy a number of Korean screens. Furbished with
unprecedentedly excessive violence and dark tonality, the film traces an
ambitious hustler's dramatic vicissitude and was quite successful both in
criticism and at the box office, if not a phenomenal hit. Following Rule of the
Game, a host of films featuring gangster heroes with similarly modern,
sometimes postmodern, sensibility suddenly emerged so that the new gangster
genre became a major genre in the mid-1990s. Major products of this genre are
Run-Away (Kim Songsu, 1995), Born to Kill (Chang Hyonsu, 1996), Boss (Yu
Yongjin, 1996), Hustler Lesson (Kim Sangjin, 1996), Beat (Kim Songsu, 1997),
Wanted (Chong Hungsun, 1997), Green Fish (Yi Changdong, 1997), and No. 3
(1997). It was not unusual that many recent films not associated with the
gangster genre, like The Case of Mrs. Park's Runaway (Kim Taekyun, 1996)
and Take the Money and Run (Kim Sangjin, 1995), used the conventions and
iconography of the new gangster genre for social commentary and sarcastic
Violence pervades all the gangster films and constitutes their central
experience. Violence in the new gangster film has multiple layers, allocating
different meanings on each layer. First, violence is read as a specific worldview.
Presenting violence as the singular means of resolution of conflicts, the gangster
film describes society as a site of violence, in which plots and violence pervade
and the law is never observed. Thus the public sphere on the screen is
irreversibly corrupt, criminal, and evil. It is immersed with vulgar materialism
and insatiable hedonism. Generally, gangsters are terribly mean and materialistic
in their greedy quest for money and power. They even have no reverence for
honor, which traditional gangster films have glorified. Moreover, contemporary
gangs often have ugly complicity with the powerbloc. Mostly they are
dependent on, subordinate to, the real power. Like the American gangster film,
taint and corruption pervade the Korean gangster film and have consequences
that the character cannot escape (Mitchell, 1986, p. 162).
176 Korean Film
It is chiefly for material success that gangsters rely on violence. The heroes
Yongdae in Rule of the Game, Taesu in Beat, and Taeju in No. 3 are no
exception in their blind pursuit of down-to-earth materialism. These characters
suggest that the cinematic space of the new gangster film be primarily concerned
with worldly desires. A self-claimed small gang boss saying to his followers in
No. 3, "Before long, you could drive a Mercedes and frequent room salons
whenever you want," epitomizes gangsters' vulgar materialism. In this way,
violence represents a pessimistic worldview, and the gangster film is, to a
certain degree, like an outcry declaring, " Korea is a jungle of desires."
Second, at its surface, violence is represented as the only and ultimate means
of social mobility available to the hero. In Rule of the Game, Yongdae, a local
hustler who once worked at a parking lot, gains the boss's attention and begins
to climb the rungs of success by his reckless violence and unconditional loyalty
to him. Here his violence signifies his desperate desire for success. One is
charged with enormous libido to be a big shot, not with idealistic heroism or
spiteful vengeance. This is the same with Taesu, the gangster friend of the hero
in Beat.
Third, sometimes the character's violence is directly associated with his
resistance against the dominant system. When Yongdae goes berserk because of
the parking lot owner's chiding his tardiness, he damages a luxurious sedan with
a bat. The same is witnessed in Beat when Hwangyu stabs with a knife an
official who, as a member of unlawful housing destruction team, participates in
destroying his small snack bar. This desperate act resulted from despair. One of
the most powerful representations of this resistance occurs in Beat. While the
hero Min, then a high school student, has a consultation session with his teacher
about his college application, on the other side of the teacher's room another
teacher begins to hit with a bat his friend Hwankyu for punishment. Shouting,
"Who allowed you to hit your student like this?" Min snatches the bat from the
teacher and destroys the room outrageously. The next scene shows the jubilant
faces of both students, who would no doubt be expelled from the school.
Fourth, violence also serves as the reaffirmation of the logic of the system.
The heroes who bring disruption to the gang organization (and, by reasoning, to
society) by their "otherness"—rapid success both in Yongdae and Taesu, and
naivete in Makdong in Green Fish—are punished by the violence performed by
the gangster organization. Most heroes are killed in the end. The ending of No 3,
where the hero finds himself to be incarcerated, is rather exceptional.
Consequently, the disruption generated by the hero is contained narratively
within the system once again.
Last, and most important, violence can function to articulate the repressed
desire of the male audience at a psychic level. This is what makes the new
gangster film an interesting sociological text. According to Erich Fromm, hate
and destructiveness can be the central experience of a trancelike state of ecstasy
("to be beside oneself) through which man suffering from the awareness of his
powerless and separateness can try to overcome his existential burden and thus
regain unity within himself and with nature (Fromm, 1975, pp. 307-308). At a
deeper level, the performance of violence serves to represent repressed libido or
subversive impulse, which is sedimented and fermented in 1990s Korean
New Korean Cinema 177
society. In other words, the Korean new gangster film both crystallizes in and
"disturbs" by the performativity of violence the social and psychic
preoccupations of the 1990s Korean society.
Insomuch as ystallizes and "disturbs" by the performativity of violence of the
social and psychic preoccupations of 1990s Korean society, melodrama is
regarded as a women's genre, gangster films are unquestionably for male
audiences. As Barbara Klinger notes, the excessive sexual stereotyping of genre
films is considered to foreground rather than camouflage the representational
basis through which codes of "masculinity" and "femininity" are constructed in
the cinema (Klinger, 1986, p. 84).
The male hero of the new gangster film is an embodiment of untamed
masculinity and repressed desire, who refuses to be contained within the system.
He is so strong-willed and so ambitious that he disrupts the equilibrium of the
system. The gangland offers the most proper space for masculine values such as
tenacity, strength, ambition, and passion. While male protagonists are the
driving forces of the narrative, women in this genre are merely objectified.
Female characters are never represented as the agent of action, remaining the
mere object of male heroes' actions, either love or sexual pleasure. The
characters stereotyped by gender line are typically shown in Rule of the Game.
Yongdae even sells his lover as hostess to a pimp when he runs out of money in
the unfamiliar metropolis of Seoul. Despite his inhumane act, she eventually
takes him as her true love again, following him passively.
Through the performance of violence, the male audiences could temporarily
and fictitiously regain their masculinity, which is in reality threatened seriously.
The ways the Korean new gangster film addresses male desire and pleasure are
not singular, but two-directional. On the one hand, the hidden male desire may
be addressed in direct ways. The gangsters who are enjoying a sumptuous feast
with beautiful hostesses in a room salon are an object of envy for the male
audience, not of contempt. Unfettered indulgence in sensual pleasure is in fact a
common 'hidden dream' of ordinary Korean adult males. For them, sensual
pleasure through sex and alcohol is obviously related to the desire to escape
from everyday drudgery to a realm of freedom and plenitude. It also implies the
male desire to recover his masculinity and phallic power over the woman,
family, and world. In reality, however, to regain masculinity is possible only by
money and political power. This is why gangsters are so vulgar and
In connection with this observation, Hustler Lesson offers an interesting
example. In the film featuring Korean gangsters' adventure in Japan, the
protagonist, a novice gangster, visits a striptease club to collect money for
"protection." The club manager proposes to him a special sexual service for free
and he hesitatingly takes the proposal. A sexy girl leads him to a secret room,
takes off his clothes, and handcuffs him to a bed. Expecting a never-experienced
wild pleasure, he does not resist. When she suddenly draws aside a curtain, he
finds himself to be a victim of sadomasochist show on the stage. The girl whips
him in front of the cheering audience. Considering that this kind of sexual
performance is illegal in Korea, how this sequence, despite the abrupt shift from
a sensual to a comic situation, serves male pleasure is evident.
178 Korean Film

A nightclub scene from Born to Kill also offers an example. A drunken man
attempts to climb onto the stage in order to join the half-naked dancers, taking
his clothes off. Although, of course, waiters keep him off, he represents 'our'
hidden desire, too. On the other hand, violence (mainly the hero's) can serve to
articulate the audience's resistance against the hegemony of the capitalist system
or their desire for transgression to break down the working of the system.
Typically occurring in a closed space such as nightclub or room salon, violence
scenes in the new gangster films are unprecedentedly graphic and brutal. The
sense of brutality is much enhanced by direct physical contacts among
gangsters, who use their bodies and primitive weapons. The nightclub fighting
scene in Rule of the Game, where the hustler hero voluntarily helps the triad he
wishes to enter, is exemplary. Suddenly a group of gangsters armed with knives
and clubs attack the nightclub where the object of attacks, the rival triad's boss,
is having a drink. Under sleazy lighting, both rival groups engage in life-or-
death fighting, throwing punches and kicks, and brandishing knives and clubs.
Here actions explode like fireworks; the scene soon gets filled with bloodshed.
A shaky hand-held camera, use of slow motion, fast-paced editing, and stormy
rock music-all these elements emphasize the outrageousness of the fighting,
contributing to an ecstatic quality to the eruption of violence. That the
outrageous rupture of violence featured in the gangster film often has an ecstatic
quality suggests the intimate relationship between male pleasure and the
gangster film.
In its later phase, the Korean new gangster film has produced a few films that
have gotten down to the underlying cause of the period: the social system. Two
films released in 1997, Green Fish and No. 3, are the most successful in
reception and the most poignant in social critique. They utilize the gangland as
an allegory of contemporary Korean society. While Green Fish is a
straightforward realist film, No. 3 may be called self-reflexive. Green Fish
adopts little generic conventions. The film traces an ordinary youth named
Makdong, who is far away from a typical gangster hero. He has no ambition and
no excessive desire to be somebody, but merely wants a small fortune to run a
family business. When Makdong tells the boss about his dream to run a family
business, Pae Taegon, a self-made triad boss, criticizes him for not having "a
dream." For Pae, a young man's dream must be ambitious like his and must be
achieved by any means. In this reality a naive dream represented by Makdong's
cannot match Pae's. Eventually Makdong's dream was brutally victimized by
Pae's dream, when Pae kills Makdong, who stabbed the boss of a rival gang to
death in accordance with his order. Why Makdong is killed by the boss is
because his naive dream is implicitly against the existing system and, therefore,
disrupts the system represented by Pae. This testifies violence as the
quintessence of Korean social system.
The phone booth scene in which Makdong calls his home located in a seedy
suburb of Seoul suggests the impossibility of achieving his small dream. Right
after the murder, Makdong calls up while crying and shuddering from the guilt
of murder. Over the phone he talks to his eldest brother about their good old
days: when they were small boys, all brothers went to a creek together to catch
"green fish," which actually did not exist; the fishing spoiled when the youngest
New Korean Cinema 179
Makdong lost his slipper in the creek. It is metaphoric that he talks to his brother
who is disabled mentally and physically by epilepsy. By utilizing the gangster
mentality, represented by Boss Pae, as the dominant logic of the contemporary
Korean society, the film reveals that Korean society does not make room for a
small dream. Especially the sharp contrast between the marginalized Makdong's
hometown and the burgeoning Pae's urban locale extends its critique to the
whole process of modernization, which means nothing other than
industrialization and urbanization. In this sense Green Fish heavily leans toward
social critique rather than addresses male desire.

Green Fish (1997)

No. 3, the first film made by scenarist-director Song Nunghan, is another

achievement of social critique, but its strategy is far different from that of Green
Fish. Particularly it is a rare example of black comedy employing satire and self-
reflexivity. So Taeju, a mediocre gang with 15-year career, incidentally rises to
a high rank in the triad by taking advantage of rescuing his boss from being
murdered by a rival gang. Interweaving Taeju's and his wife's lives with a self-
claimed gang faction, the film hilariously caricaturizes contemporary Korean
This gangster film is revisionist in several ways. First, violence has a
predominately allegorical meaning; in the film violence is neither an eruption of
repressed libido nor an existential gesture. It is rather the expression of
gangsters' absurdity, signifying the absurdity of society. Violence is primarily
represented by "Ashtray," a brutal gangster using a glass ashtray as his weapon.
Rivaling Taeju for the second position in the triad-this is why Taeju becomes so
180 Korean Film
upset when he is called "No. 3,"-Ashtray is totally ignorant and believes in
violence as the ultimate means in any situation. At a triad meeting for an
ordinary check up, the boss tries to say that the U.S. Mafia recruits its members
via the Internet but fails to refer to the exact word, the Internet, only murmuring
"Inter...." At this moment Ashtray says, "You mean the Interpol?"
Extraordinarily, No. 3 describes female desire as well as male desire. Despite
her lack of talent, Taeju's wife longs to be a poet, and takes poetry lessons from
a charlatan poet. She eventually entangles with her teacher in a sexual
relationship. Like other characters, she proved to be another third-rate poet. Any
sphere of Korean society seems not able to evade the film's poignant parody.
Taeju, who is now in charge of general management of the triad, complains of
long working hours. He cites famous words from a Korean tycoon, Woojoong
Kim of Daewoo Group, "The world is so wide, there are so many things to do."
The film does not exclude the bourgeoisie from its satiric critique.
The last episode of the film entitled "Chaos," is one of the prime
achievements of contemporary Korean cinema. This long room salon sequence
("Chaos" is also the name of the room salon)-reveals kaleidoscopically how
chaotic Korean society is. While the boss treats the delegates from his Japanese
sister triad, his wife has sex in another room with a charlatan poet who is
actually her teacher of sexology; in another room Taeju's wife, who was also
taught by the same poet, throws a party celebrating her entry into the world of
poetry; the subordinates of both Korean and Japanese triads in the waiting room
quarrel around the issue of Tok Island-Japan's insistence on its possession has
always evoked a nationalist indignation from Koreans. At the moment when
other gangsters break into the room salon to kill the boss, the police arrive to
arrest all the gangsters. This sequence portrays in a tongue-in-cheek manner the
anarchic blending of gangland with business, loyalty and with infidelity, sex
with poetry, and violence with nationalism.
The new gangster film in Korean cinema is a cinematic response to the
repression structured in the 1990s Korean society. Even though the disruptions
created by the hero are in the end contained safely within the narrative of
"dangerous" success necessitating his death (Warshow, 1962, p. 133), it
provides counterhegemonic moments against the capitalist order based upon
instrumental rationality, if not intended, mainly through its performativity of
excessive violence. At the same time, it should be noted that the new gangster
film is prevalently phallocentric and, albeit not explicitly, antifeminist. It
eventually reinforces the other axis of the hegemony, the order of patriarchal
male domination. In this regard, this genre reveals the ambivalence toward the
hegemonic order, reflecting the contradiction of masculine desire in modern
Korean society.
In cultural history, the new gangster film could be read as a salient
articulation of the radical difference between old and new generations in the
1990s. In its attempt to address the "new sensibility," which has largely been
attributed to the emergence of young generations and could not be satisfied by
traditional realist films, the genre has consciously employed stylized
visualization and urban overtones. In terms of narrative, the ruthless logic of
gangster narrative allegorizes the refusal of the traditional narrative of haan, the
New Korean Cinema 181
endurance and acceptance of painful life within community. Now this
characteristic regarded so long as typically Korean is no longer taken for granted
and gives way to new sets of values such as materialism and individualism.
In retrospect, the Korean new gangster genre seems to fail to develop its
potential fully. Although some films attempted to mythify the gangster character
as existential hero or to surmount the limitations given by its locality through an
international setting, these variations turned out to be unsuccessful. Born to Kill
is an example of the former and Hustler Lesson featuring Korean gangs in Japan
and Wanted set in Australia are examples of the latter. Some minor productions
deal with Korean gangs in Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Rather it was Green
Fish and No. 3, two gangster films employing few generic conventions, that
achieved remarkable success. Since late 1997 when Korea entered under the
International Monetary Fund supervision caused by the unprecedented financial
crisis, this grim and violent genre abruptly stopped, and no noticeable films have
been produced.
At least viewed from this moment, the Korean gangster film seems to have
failed to develop this generic potentiality by aestheticizing violence and
mythifying the gangster world. The genre's inherent tension between the force
toward fantasy and that of verisimilitude might have conditioned this situation.
Given the genre's strong requirement for verisimilitude, it could not overcome
the weight of the socially constructed and acknowledged image of gangster, as a
"social evil." The Korean gangster genre could give the audience the pleasure of
explosion of violence and masculinity, but not an aesthetic pleasure. These
factors eventually undermined its own ground, preventing it from creating
refined, sophisticated gangster genre films. The new gangster genre may reveal
the "tenacious" correlation between social reality and the Korean cinema.

Despite the apparent absence of political consciousness and ideology, from a
new gangster flick to psychological realism, Korean cinema is certainly
experiencing a "boom." In fact, the Korean film industry generates more box-
office revenues than United Kingdom., France, and Japan in domestic films
(Shim, 2001, p. 1). There are several factors that have contributed to this boom.
First, the presence of UIP, which has handled Hollywood majors' film
distribution in Korea for a decade, has created a "sense of crisis." And it has
actually strengthened the domestic industry, according to Shim (ibid.). The
devastating impact of direct distribution has become a positive stimulus for the
industry. Many young filmmakers (e.g., Sunwoo Jang, Kwangsu Park, Myungse
Lee) were ready to explore the possibility of new Korean cinema. Some were
trained in the field with harsh conditions during the NCM era. Some were
trained abroad and some studied films in local film schools. With few
exceptions like Kwontak Im (Sopyonje & Chunhyang), the old generation of
filmmakers who battled with years of censorship and the Hollywood dominance
were ready to yield or create a favorable environment for the young filmmakers.
And the audience for Korean movies was getting younger, with the largest group
of moviegoers being in their late teens and twenties (The Korea Foundation,
1999, p. 2). Second, Hollywood-style capitalist enterprises have been
182 Korean Film
established, handling all three major aspects of filmmaking: production,
distribution, and marketing. Foreign and domestic corporations are eager to
invest in American-style multiplex theaters around the country. Several
ambitious young producers strive to be ahead of others in both domestic and
international markets. Sim Jae Myung and Lee Eun's production company,
Myung (Brightness) Film, for example, managed to produce the record-breaking
blockbuster, Joint Security Area in 2000. The American entertainment industry
magazine Variety named them as one of the "Ten Producers to Watch" in 2001
(Shim, 2001, p. 3). The system is far more efficient than a decade ago. Theater
owners are eager to work with distributors, production companies cooperate
with the actors' guild and the unions, and marketing firms aggressively pursue
the possibility of creating a space for Korean cinema in the international film

Friend (2001)

Third, the relaxed government policies on the freedom of expression have

paved a way for young unknownfilmmakersto explore new cinematic language
through low-budget or no-budget short films. The Educational Broadcasting
Service has allocated time blocks for those short films and the Korean Film
Commission (formerly MPPC) also began to fund the production of short films
in 1999 (Shim, 2001, p. 3). Domestic and foreign film festivals have recognized
their qualities: Song Il-gon's The Picnic, the recipient of the grand prize in the
short film category at the 52nd Cannes International Film Festival in 1999, as
well as Ginger, Refrigerator, and Making Sun-dried Red Peppers are a few
examples of short films' success. Shim also argues that those short films
New Korean Cinema 183
reinforce the basic infrastructure of the overall film industry in that their
producers often go on to produce features. They are the second generation of the
NCM (ibid.). Finally, high-speed Internet-access movie services provide
additional revenues for the industry. They also have created numerous sites for
games, trivial movie pursuits, and film discussion groups. Other media such as
newspaper, television, and radio have pages and programs related to Korean
films, such as "quizzes and parodies of famous lines and scenes from past
movies" (The Korea Foundation, 1999, p. 4).
For the first time since Arirang Korean films are able to provide such an
honest, entertaining, intimate, and important vision of its culture and people.
Euisuk Kim, the director of Wedding Story, is the most visible filmmaker in this
phenomenon. His Chongjabi (Gunman, 1995) reflects many distressed low-
salary, white-collar workers' ultimate dream: breaking rules and getting crazy.
In this film, Daeseo Park, a paranoid pharmaceutical employee with a delusion
of persecution and depression, gets a gun by chance. He then goes on to
challenge just about everything with the gun. This film demonstrates the
resistance or desperate struggle against sosimin's (ordinary people) uncertain
future and the society's unbalanced distribution of wealth and power. Even
though Daeseo enjoys the momentary control over everything he encounters, he
ultimately loses them all and more (Screen, May 1995, p. 256).
Another box-office record breaker, Chingu (Friend, 2001) is also an intimate
and stark visual treatment of a real-life friendship based on the director's
(Kyungtaek Kwak) three childhood friends from Pusan, the second largest city
in Korea. The film tells the story of how four high school buddies, confronted
with fate and violence, fall apart and face the ultimate test of friendship. With
the combination of compelling performances of actors, serene cinematography,
and plain storytelling, the film has become the highest grossing film ever in the
history of Koran cinema. Its record, however, can be broken within few months
again as happened to Shiri (1999) and Joint Security Area (2000). In addition,
even a recent remake of a folktale, Chunhyang (Fragrance of Spring, also the
name of film's heroine, 2000), has received a rave review from international
film festivals like Cannes ("The Morning Edition," National Public Radio,
March 1,2001).
In general, the realistic films from the early 1980s did not have what these
escapist films have today: freedom of expression, spoken with Hollywood and
unknown accents. Although Korean films of the last decade (1991-2001), known
as Korean New Wave cinema, do exhibit some of the qualities of Hollywood
films, it is not entirely fair to characterize new Korean cinema as its one of its
god-children. Hollywood is diversifying its genres, styles, and formats through
its vertical integration of entertainment industries and reinforcing its power to
carry out the transnational quest of globalization in the international media
markets. You can avoid rain, but can't hide from the humidity it creates.
Hollywood is owned by multinational corporations. A Korean company, Jeil
Jedang (First Sugar Co.), owned by a daughter of the late Byungchul Lee
(founder of Samsung Jaebol), is the largest stockholder of DreamWorks partly
owned by Steven Spielberg. Whether they are authentically woorigut (ours) or
not, we should move beyond the bipolar debate. Whether the current status of
184 Korean Film
Korean cinema is a momentary boom or a monumental renaissance, one thing is
clear: Korean films of the last decade are, in a way, films of individual liberation
and peace.

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Action adventure films, 150, 171 160, 164, 168, 175, 178, 181
Aimless Bullet, 41,46 Council of Europe, 13, 15
Amoral familism, 145 Cultural dependency, 165
Arirang, 30, 33-37, 71-72, 151, 183 Cultural movements, 4-5, 34, 58, 60,
Attack Order, 40 68,70,74,87,91, 100, 108, 151,
Auteur theory, 85 164, 170, 173
Culture (concept of), 1, 11-12, 113
Bae, Changho, 8, 62-63, 66, 70, 97
Bang, Hanjun, 33 Daejong Sang, 78
Black Republic, 71, 115, 118-119, 121, Day a Pig Fell into the Well, 115, 142-
123-124, 128, 130, 145 144,146-147
Byun, Jangho, 54, 64-65, 76 Deconstruction, 38, 78, 142-143, 144,
Byun, Youngju, 169 146,163
Discourse, 2-4, 6, 9-10, 23, 70, 76, 79,
Canadian Film Development 83,85, 100, 110-117, 119, 121,
Corporation, 14 123-124, 128-134, 136-138, 141,
Choi, Ingyu, 42-43 147, 150, 160, 163, 168, 170, 186,
Choi, Inho, 70, 97 189
Chong, Soyong, 54 Documentary, 40, 42-43, 67, 77, 79,
Cinema International Corporation, 156 90, 107-108, 138, 141, 169, 185
Class, 2, 4-6, 13, 28, 30, 37-38, 44, 63,
65,67,69,71-76,78,83,87, 108- Ferryboat with No Ferryman, 31, 33,
109, 119, 122-124, 128, 130-131, 36
163, 170-171, 174 Festival, 115, 131, 137-142, 145
Colonialism, 113, 118, 165 Fracture (class), 123
Comedy, 44, 53, 55, 66, 86, 91, 93, 97, Friend, 170, 182-183
103-104, 106-107, 179
Confucianism, 8, 45, 138 Gangster films, 150, 173-178, 181
Conventions (Filmic), 8, 19-21, 71, 74, Globalization, 129, 160, 164-165, 184
78-79,90,99-100, 138, 149,158- Gondongche Moonwha, 74
196 Index
Government's oppression, 58, 63, 76, Korean Motion Picture Association, 47
78, 109,118,122,124, 126, 131 Korean War, 1, 4-6, 25,40,42-44,49,
Grand Peace March, 75 93, 109, 111, 115,117,136, 152,
Green Fish, 175-176, 178-179, 181 154
Gunman, 183 Kuro Arirang, 71-72
Kwangju Uprising, 3-5, 57-58, 69, 72,
Ha, Giljong, 55 75-78,115,119,128
Ha, Myungjoong, 64
Haan: concept, 6-9; applications to Labor movements, 70, 80, 124-125,
films, 133-134, 136, 168, 181 129
Han, Hyungmo, 44 Labor News Production, 80, 82
Hegemony, 2, 12-13, 69, 72, 79, 149, Latin American film industry, 16-18
163, 178 Lee, Duyong, 64
Heteroglossia, 2-3, 70 Lee, Gyuhwan, 30-31
Heyday of Youngja, 54-55 Lee, Jangho, 8, 54-55, 57, 62-65, 70
Hollywood, 2, 8, 60, 70, 72-73, 78-80, Lee, Jeonggook, 78
94, 101,111,114, 149-153,158- Lee, Manhee, 52
160,163-165, 168,170-173, 181- Lee,Myungse, 171, 173, 181
Hong, Sangsu, 142 Madanggeuk, 87-89, 91, 94
Hong, Sunggi, 43 Mandala, 57, 62-63, 65
Hyunjang Moonwha Woondong, 74 Marxism, 74, 119
Marxist, 4-5, 74-75, 114, 171
Identity, 1, 5-6, 11-12, 50, 83, 93, 113, Melodramas, 8, 32-34,40,43-44, 53-
117, 119,123, 131,135, 141,149, 54,62,64-66,69,169, 173
160, 163, 167, 173 Ministry of Culture and Information, 47
Ideology, 10, 13,21-22,29-30,37-38, Minjok, 6,69, 72, 168-169
44,49-54, 57-58, 61,64, 73-74, 78, Minjoong, 6-9, 69, 72-73, 76, 78-79,
85, 109, 111-112, 116,119,163- 118, 122, 124,127, 130, 167, 169
164,170-171,181 Minmoonhyup, 74
Ideology-less, 171 Minmoonyon, 74
I Hate But Once More, 53-54 Modernity, 113, 115-116, 139, 142,
Im, Kwontak, 131, 137, 159, 175, 181 146-147
Imperialism, 4, 34-35, 76, 113, 160- Modernization, 4, 23, 41, 114-119, 122,
161, 164-165, 168 125-126, 128-136, 140-141, 147,
Independent Film Association, 83, 167 179
Motion Picture Export Association of
Jang, Sunwoo, 22, 67, 85-112 America, 17,57,59
Japanese Occupation, 5-6, 25-27, 30- Motion Picture Law, 32, 47-51, 53, 58-
34,36-38,44,62,65,68, 151, 154, 61,68,81-82,95, 153-158
169, 175 Motion Picture Promotion Corporation,
Joint Security Area, 171-172, 182-183 50-51,60,82, 153
Movement approach, 118, 130
Kang, Jaekyu, 171
Kim, Dongwon, 83 Narrative structure, 79, 97, 125, 146,
Kim, Euisuk, 183 169-170
Kim, Hosun, 54-55 Nation (concept of), i, 6-7
Kim, Kiyoung, 45 National allegory, 113-114
Kim, Sooyong, 70 National cinema, 4, 6, 11,22, 57, 70,
Korean Artistic Proletariat Federation 72-74,76,78,80,83, 114-115, 167-
(KAPF), 30, 37 168, 170-171
Korean Film Commission, 182 National Cinema Movement, 2-3, 9, 23,
Index 197
69-74, 76-80, 82-83, 151, 164, 167- Third Cinema, 2-3, 11,73,76,79
171,182-183 Tradition approach, 131
National Cinema Research Institute, 73, Transnational corporations, 161-162,
167 165
Nationalism, 4-6, 31, 34, 36-37, 68,
109-110, 146, 164, 168, 173, 180 United International Pictures, 80-82,
National Laborer's Union, 82 156-58, 181
Na, Ungyu, 30-31, 33-35, 151
Neo-Marxism, 119, 128 Whale Hunting, 66
Neorealism, 41, 69, 73, 79 Woorigut, 5-7, 151, 184, 196
New cinema, 72-73, 79, 88, 167 Wooriui, 168
New Pledge, 39
Night Before the Strike, 6, 77-78 Yoon, Bongchun, 33, 42-43
Yu, Hyunmok, 41, 44-46, 52, 57, 62-63
P'ansori, 16, 86, 88, 131-137, 159-160
Park, Chanwook, 171
Park, Chulsu, 67, 142
Park, Jongwon, 71
Park, Kwangsu, 67, 71, 77, 119
Political economy, 4, 5, 10
Popular culture, 12, 20, 74-75, 151, 174
Popular memory, 1, 3
Postcolonialism, 4, 118, 185
Postmodernity, 113, 146-147

Realism, 44-45, 47, 57, 67, 69, 70-72,

76,97,101, 103, 107, 109-110,
123, 142, 144, 160, 172, 181
Representation, 114, 116, 118, 125
Republics: 1st, 38, 41; 2nd, 40, 47, 52;
3rd, 49-50, 57-58, 62; 4th, 57; 5th,
57-58, 63, 97; 6th, 49, 58

Sammintu, 75
Sanggyedong Olympic, 68, 83
Sexuality, 101, 122, 144, 169, 173
Seoul Cine Group, 67, 72, 76-77, 167,
Shin, Sangok, 44-45, 52, 94
Shiri, 171, 183
Single Spark, 115, 118, 123-124, 127-
130, 145
Song of Resurrection, 78
Sopyonje, 115, 131-137, 140-141, 145,
159-160, 181
Story of Chunhyang, 28, 31, 41, 181 -
Story of Simchong, 29, 33
Subjectivity, 79, 85, 107-108, 169

Taste of Heaven, 85-112

Testimony, 51
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About the Authors

EUNGJUN MIN is Associate Professor of Communication at Rhode Island


JINSOOK JOO is Professor of Film Studies at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, Ko-

rea. She is a producer of the documentary Keep the Vision Alive, an ethnography on
Korean women filmmakers.

HAN JU KWAK is an independent researcher. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Critical

Studies at the School of Cinema and Television at the University of Southern