Jules Does

Jules Does K-Pop Academy: Week 7 (Sort Of)!

Posted on: November 4, 2014

This week was a bit different – unfortunately I was ill this weekend and couldn’t go to K-Pop Academy! I saw the photos of my fellow classmates promoting the London Korean Film Festival and felt even more sorry for myself than was necessary. It looked like fun – wandering around Leicester Square accosting strangers and spreading the good word about all the awesome films they can see between the 6th and 21st of November.

Shown here: happy-go-lucky scamps.

But I couldn’t just sit here doing nothing, so instead I thought I’d get into the spirit of the festival and talk a little bit about the history of Korean cinema and the part that cinema plays in Korean culture. As always, if I am wrong about any of this please do correct me in the comments.

Currently, Korean cinema is (arguably) best known outside of Korea for tales of revenge (such as Oldboy) and intense horror (The Omen), but like every film industry, it does a little bit of everything: rom-coms, crime dramas, family sagas, historical epics… The film industry in South Korea benefits from an enforced screen quota in cinemas, which limits the number of days per year that a non-domestic film can be shown on any one screen. By limiting the amount of time that people have to see a foreign film, the government frees up cinema space for domestic productions, which encourages attendance (although it might be seen by pessimists as a rather grudging attendance – ‘Ugh, we can’t see The Avengers, guess we should check out that new Bae Doo Na flick.’), but the policy does win results, and prevents SK cinema from being drowned out by shiny foreign imports. This policy is in danger of being undermined, however, through trade agreements with the United States, which tends to view cinema as an export like any other good, rather than as an art form. As part of the Korea-US Fair Trade Agreement, the percentage of domestic films shown on SK domestic cable has been reduced from 25% to 20% and the screen quota for Korean-made films has been halved (I am not a fan of KOR-US FTA).


Korea produced its own silent films from 1921 to 1935. Initially, Korean film was a blend of theatre and cinema called a kinoplay, where actors would act in front of a projected backdrop. Intertitles were used to suggest changes of scene and so forth. Documentaries were also popular, being produced from around 1919. The first Korean fiction film was, arguably, 1922’s Chunhyang-jeon (The Story of Chunhyang), a retelling of a popular Korean folktale which has since been filmed roughly 16 times.

A still from Chunhyang-jeon.

One of the most famous Korean silent films is 1926’s Arirang, which showed one young man’s struggle with the Japanese regime. Although it was not necessarily overtly political (despite what my synopsis might suggest), political and satirical factors could be stressed by the cinema’s byeonsa, a narrator who explained the proceedings of the film as they went on. This was also an economical alternative to translating foreign-language intertitles, although if Japanese authorities were not present in the cinema when a potentially sensitive film was shown, the narrator could use the film to discuss injustices under the regime and explain the film’s political slant. Unfortunately, since many early Korean films were made as a reaction against the Japanese occupation at the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese often heavily censored or banned films, which meant that the original negatives were not kept in good condition and quickly deteriorated. The loss of cinematic heritage is something that I care deeply about, and there is a group in Korea which is dedicated to spreading information about Korean films while also saving and restoring old film prints.


A still from Arirang (1926).

Sound was slow to come to Korean film. In 1935, the first sound film produced was another retelling of the story of Chunhyang-jeon, although audiences disliked the incorporation of sound. Eventually people were won round, but then the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1937 and put Korean filmmakers to work making propaganda films to support the Japanese war effort. Japan couldn’t be fighting a war and suppressing Korea to the degree it had without great difficulty, so in 1942 it just banned all films in Korean.


According to this very helpful website, only five films made in this period have survived. One of these is 1946’s Hurrah for Freedom, which you can watch legally in its entirety here. The film follows a group of Koreans fighting back against the Japanese in the last days of Japan’s colonial dominance over Korea. No wonder it was such a hit!

As one might expect, much of the Korean film industry was destroyed one way or another during the Korean War. After the armistice, the President of South Korea, Rhee Syng Man, exempted the film industry from tax in order to encourage its regeneration.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the history of North Korean cinema here, suffice to say that the DPRK regime is fully aware of cinema’s possibilities as a vehicle for ideology and propaganda. North Korea had been making films since 1949’s My Home Village, and the film industry was one of the first to be rebuilt following the armistice. Contrary to popular expectation, not every single film produced by the DPRK ends with a big ‘We Love The Leader!’ party, and some of them can be quite beautiful. The Guardian has a good list here.

Kim Jong Il, of course, famously had a collection of over 20,000 VHS tapes, wrote a book on film, and kidnapped two prominent South Korean artists to make films for him. Recently, the North and South worked together to produce an animated film, 2005’s Empress Chung, which re-told a popular folk story. North Korea has also been working with Koryo tours to disseminate DPRK film, as well as hosting a film festival in Pyongyang and collaborating with Australia in film production. If you’d like to read more about North Korean films, this blog is excellent.


A number of Korean films from the 1950s-1970s are up on the YouTube channel of the Korean Film Archive, which you absolutely should check out right away. Between 1960 and 1980, the South Korean government began to exercise much more control over the content of films, and was particularly quick to censor anything resembling pro-Communist sympathies, effectively rendering many films no more than simple vehicles or propaganda. Again, this website has a lot of interesting information, as well as a list of some of the most prominent films of the pre-1960s, many of which challenged contemporary mores and sought to understand Korean culture in a new, more modern context. In 1967, the screen quota system was enacted.

The late 1970s were a tumultuous time for Korean politics with assassinations and coups taking a prominent place in the nation’s media. It was only gradually that theatre attendance began to recover in the mid- to late-eighties, accompanied by a relaxation of the government’s censorship laws. However, in 1988, a relaxation of trade laws with the US meant that Hollywood film companies could open up centres in South Korea, which facilitated imports of foreign films. As a result, domestic film production struggled under the weight of foreign imports, even with the screen quotas in place. Help came in the form of, who else, Samsung, which got involved with film production in 1992. Large conglomerates could underwrite film budgets, ensuring that domestic films could compete with foreign investment and spectacle while telling stories relevant to Korean life and society. Big business can also afford to invest in multiplex theatres, which enables them to roll out new product on a massive scale immediately.

Since the late 1990s, South Korean cinema has experienced what could be called a total rejuvenation. This is partially due to increased investment and bigger budgets as a result of the economic boom in East Asia, but it would be unfair not to give artists appropriate credit. One of the key films responsible for this resurgence was 1999’s Swiri, an indulgent blockbuster about a group of North Korean sleeper agents working in the South. The film was seen by over 6 million people in South Korea, defeating Titanic‘s 4 million attendance. Since then, a new film has broken domestic records almost every year. Tempting though it is to ascribe the resurgence of SK cinema to Hallyu, this is clearly untrue – films made in South Korea are enjoyed by South Koreans, and enjoyed in abundance. They are not just made for export to foreign countries, which enables them to retain much of their authenticity and Korean identity. Even so, Korean films have also found an audience worldwide and have been given important awards at many prestigious film festivals, including Cannes (although so far no Korean film has been nominated for an Oscar).

Poster for Pieta.

I’d like to mention one director in particular, Kim Ki Duk, who debuted in 1996. In 2004, Kim made the devastatingly beautiful 3 Iron, which is a tale about a young man who drifts around the city staying in temporarily uninhabited flats, and his encounter with an abused housewife. The housewife and the young man never speak to each other, but it’s evident that their bond doesn’t require words. So many little things about the story bring it to life, from the man’s methods of finding a place to stay to the gap between how people want to be seen and how they actually are. In 2012 Kim released Pieta, which is being shown on Friday 7 November at the London Odeon West End.

I realise that in this brief overview I’ve left out a lot of important details and films, and this may drive some of you crazy, for which I apologise. Please let me know what your favourite Korean films are in the comments!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: