Beginners’ Guide to Korean Cinema

From under the shadow of state control, we look at how Korean cinema has evolved to where it is today...

The Good, The Bad & The Weird

This week sees the release of The Good The Bad The Weird, an Eastern Western from South Korea. What better excuse could we have to introduce you to the cinema of Korea?

Public screenings, or cinema as we know it, was first introduced to Korea in the late 1800s – early 1900s. The exact date is somewhat disputed, but it’s cited that the first screening took place in a shabby barrack, on loan from a Chinese landlord in October 1897. Silent films were shot in Korean film studios from the early 1900s, however, all output from the Korean studio system was operated by the occupying Japanese forces, as The Korean Peninsular was occupied by Japan between 1910 and 1945.

Dansung-sa, Korea’s first movie theatre, opened in Seoul in November, 1907 and is still in operation today. In 1919, although Korea was still under the occupation of Japan, the country was annexed and produced it’s first ‘film’ Uirijeok Gutu. This is, in fact, a ‘kinodrama’ – a stage play interspersed with projected motion pictures.

It was common in Asia for silent screenings to be accompanied by a byeonsa (or in Japanese – benshi), a live narrator who would substitute for translated intertitles as much of the moving picture material in Asia was provided by French newsreel companies, such as Pathé.

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After Japan’s defeat in 1945, Korea enjoyed a very brief period of joyous liberation (which was reflected in films of the time) only to descend into civil war five years later and divide into what we now know as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and The Republic of Korea (South Korea).

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, efforts were made by the government to rejuvenate the film industry, however, film censorship in South Korea escalated. Additionally, any pro-communist messaging was totally outlawed. Due to a change in leadership, control and censorship reached a pinnacle in the mid 1970s, when filmmakers were forced to include government ideology in their productions. Many feel this was the lowest point in Korean’s film history. Meanwhile, North Korean cinema went the way of propaganda, with all film output having an explicit or implied Socialist message.

1985 saw the release of a North Korean and Japanese co-production called Pulgasari, a film infamous for the story behind the production, rather than its fairly sub-Godzilla content.

Pulgasari was directed by native South Korean Shin San-Ok who was kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il’s father. Reportedly a big fan of the director’s work, Kim Il-Sung kept Shin San-Ok under house arrest for many years while he produced dramas of a political slant for North Korea. The plot of Pulgasari alludes to The Party’s line: A poor man crafts a doll from rice while in prison; a drop of blood brings the tiny doll to life. At first a friendly and happy companion, the doll soon becomes a menace to society as it grows to an enormous size by eating metal, an allegory of capitalism.

Pulgasari

In the late 1980s, censorship laws in South Korea were relaxed after president Park Chung Hee was assassinated and the country moved towards democracy. Although theatre attendance remained low, more adventurous and exciting films were starting to be made. In 1992, Samsung financed the romantic comedy, Marriage Story, which became the first non-government funded film in Korean history.

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By 1999, Korean films overshadowed Hollywood productions domestically. Notably, the spy film Shiri out-sold Titanic, The Matrix and Star Wars, and shortly later the South Korean film My Sassy Girl outsold Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

Shiri

D-War, or Dragon Wars was a seventy-five million dollar monster epic, shot in English and specifically designed to sell to international audiences. A huge hit in Korea, D-War took record-breaking numbers in the first week but didn’t fare so well in the US and UK with Variety calling it “Z-grade”. The story concerns (as you’d guess by the title) various large lizards and humans fighting each other in the feudal past and a modern city. Due to the financial success of D-War, a sequel is in the works, however it has been put on hold as director Shim Hyung-rae completes other projects, including The Last Godfather – an unofficial sequel to The God Father and Fish Wars, a film in which fish take revenge on humans. We kid you not.

D-War

Park Chan-wook introduced the West to his so called ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance in 2002, which was then succeeded by Oldboy in 2003 and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (or Lady Vengeance) in 2005. Each film depicts cases of extreme revenge and violence. The Vengeance films were very well received in Korea and have a respectable cult fan base in the UK and US.

The winner of the Gran Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Oldboy, is perhaps the Korean film with which most UK audiences are familiar. Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece is noted for its expertly crafted corridor fight scene, which took three days to shoot and a scene in which the main character eats a live octopus. Four octopuses were eaten in the making of this film.

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Oldboy

The highest grossing Korean film of all time was The Host, a monster film with some very significant connotations. The Host was inspired, in part, by an incident in 2000 in which a large amount of formaldehyde was dumped down a drain by a mortician in Seoul. The local American Military base accused the South Koreans of complacency towards their environment. In retaliation, the chemical agent used by American forces in The Host to defeat the monster is called ‘Agent Yellow’, a thinly veiled reference to ‘Agent Orange,’ the herbicide used by the US to destroy crops during the Vietnam War. Ironically, the US has bought the rights to The Host. Gore Verbinski, director of Pirates of the Caribbean, is attached to produce a remake.

The Host

Before working on The Good The Bad The Weird, Kim Ji-woon made the highest grossing Korean horror film of all time, A Tale of Two Sisters. DreamWorks bought the rights to the story and produced ‘The Uninvited’, which will be released later this year and stars David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum) and Emily Browning (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events).

A Tale of Two Sisters

2008 saw the release of Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser, an underworld detective drama. In March last year, Warner Brothers bought the rights to The Chaser for 1 million dollars. William Monahan, the writer of The Departed, and Leonardo DiCaprio have been attached to the US remake.

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The Chaser

The Good The Bad The Weird has had similar success to previous big budget Korean films. Director Kim Ji-woon says that the films is a “story of three men who love their homeland but are forced out of their country to take refuge in the vast deserts and plains of Manchuria,” a subtlety to which Korean audiences have recognised as an attitude towards exile from their mother country, or an undertone of division. The film picked up four prizes at the 29th Blue Dragon Awards, Korea’s version of The Oscars. Byung-hun Lee, who plays ‘The Bad,’ has been cast as Storm Shadow in next year’s remake of the classic ’80s cartoon G.I. Joe – The Rise of Cobra.

Korea seems to have provided Hollywood with some decent remakes in the last few years, however this isn’t a new phenomenon. The West has always looked east for filmic inspiration; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was the basis for The Magnificent Seven. Ironically, many of the original Spaghetti Western films owe their inspiration to Eastern cinema; Yojimbo (cited as Clint Eastwood’s favourite film) became A Fist Full of Dollars. Korean cinema completes the circle with a (semi) homage to The Good The Bad and The Ugly; The Good The Bad The Weird.

The Good The Bad The Weird

The Good The Bad The Weird is released in cinemas from Friday 6 February.