The First 80 Years: Korean Cinema From 1919 to 1999

by Darcy Pacquet

News category: General
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Some nations have film histories that read like expansive, multigenerational novels. Old masters lay the foundations for major cinematic movements that hold sway for a time until young mavericks strike back and push the art form in new directions. Eras of creative plenty give way to dry spells, followed in the end by signs of rebirth. But the history of South Korean cinema is a different sort of narrative. This is not to say that it lacks drama: Korea in the 20th century experienced wave after wave of tragedy and upheaval: colonisation, national division, war, dictatorship and oppression, interspersed with periodic eruptions of mass protest (some successful, others brutally suppressed). The film industry in those decades rose and fell with the fortunes of the nation.

But that is the point: Korean cinema was so closely bound to historical and political forces that it never was able to forge a separate, multigenerational narrative of creative evolution. Up until the 1990s, the various governments that oversaw the country saw film primarily as an ideological tool to influence the masses. They exercised strong control over the structure of the industry and the content of its output. In such an environment, Korean writers and directors struggled to express themselves within the constraints imposed on them. When films of a new type did emerge, this was often linked to a change in external circumstances. For this reason, context is particularly important when reading into Korea's cinematic past. Even the most original and provocative talents of Korean cinema history had to adapt to the difficult filmmaking environments of their times. Therefore, to tell the full story of Korean cinema means not only to speak of gifted filmmakers and artistic trends, but to engage with other, broader issues, from ideology and social movements to the wider geopolitical conflicts of the twentieth century. In that sense, this essay serves as a brief synopsis to a much more complex and involving story.


At first glance it may seem surprising that a full 24 years passed between the Lumière brothers' invention of the cinematograph in 1895 and the production of the first Korean film in 1919. But in an era when Korea had been colonised by Japan, and subjected to particularly harsh policies of cultural suppression, Korean cinema had to be developed from the "bottom up". The first movie theaters to appear in Korea were built with Japanese capital and targeted at Japanese audiences. Later, as a mass Korean-speaking audience and market developed, a handful of Korean theatre owners managed to amass enough capital to move into production themselves.

The first Korean film Righteous Revenge (1919), about a man fighting back against his greedy stepmother, was actually a blend of film and live theatre known as a kino-drama. Although it appears not to have left much of a mark in the cultural conversation, Korea's first film to be hailed as a masterpiece, Arirang (1926), appeared just a few years later. The debut feature of 24-year old actor-director Na Un-gyu, Arirang was acclaimed for its sophisticated filmmaking and strong performances. But local audiences also picked up on another aspect of the work: that it expressed the frustrations of the Korean populace, and could be read as a subversive critique of Japanese colonial rule. A strong commercial hit, Arirang helped launch a sustained period of success in Korean silent films, stretching from 1926 to 1934. Many of these works fall into the category of "nationalistrealist" films, in which narratives of ordinary hardships stand in for the muted frustrations of the Korean people.

Sound came to Korean films in 1935, but Japan's invasion of China two years later heralded an age of steadily rising censorship and increased government control of the film industry. Military-themed films coexisted beside dramas of everyday life until, by 1942, the industry had been consolidated into a single company that produced only Japanese-language propaganda films. Korean filmmaking had, at least temporarily, been extinguished.

The great tragedy of colonial-era Korean cinema is how much of it has been lost, including Arirang and every other film produced in the 1920s. Nonetheless, efforts by the Korean Film Archive to relocate lost films have borne fruit in recent years, with the rediscovery of Crossroads of Youth (1934), Sweet Dream (1936), Tuition (1940), Spring of the Korean Peninsula (1941) and other titles giving us a new appreciation for the diversity of filmmaking in that era.


Japan's surrender at the end of World War II brought independence to Korea, but crisis quickly followed. With the Soviet army occupying the northern half of the peninsula, and allied forces occupying the south, the resulting stalemate proved impossible to break. The 38th parallel thus became an arbitrary dividing line for the country. After three years of stewardship by the U.S. Military Government in Korea, the Republic of Korea was formally launched in 1948 as a separate country.

Filmmaking in the years after 1945 proved difficult, in part due to a severe lack of film stock and cameras, and in part due to ideological skirmishes within the film industry itself. Under U.S. Army rule, filmmakers with leftist sympathies were viewed with deep suspicion, and denied access to resources. Japan's old censorship regime was left in place in order to block ideologically suspect films. Under such circumstances, much of the film industry's left-leaning talent (which was the majority) relocated to the North.

The result was a bit of a talent drain, but a few gems do exist among the handful of surviving works from the late 1940s. A Hometown of the Heart (1949), a subtly-presented story of a boy in a Buddhist temple hoping to find his mother, is one such example, with its restrained acting and touching story. War broke out in June 1950 when the North invaded the South and quickly captured much of the country. The landing of Allied Forces at Incheon dramatically changed the momentum of the war, until the arrival of Chinese troops led to another stalemate. The armistice signed in 1953 brought an end to the fighting, but the two sides still remain technically at war to this day.


The Korean War had leveled the South Korean capital and left the economy in ruins. The country now ranked as one of the world's poorest, and was highly dependent on U.S. aid. But the film industry enjoyed surprisingly robust growth in the 1950s. Encouraged by tax breaks, and inspired by the box-office success of Han Hyeongmo's 1956 film Madame Freedom (an adaptation of the decade's most scandalous serial novel), investment began to flow into the industry. Whereas only 15 Korean films were made in 1955, by 1959 annual output had climbed to 111.

In this way, a film culture developed in the 1950s. The films of this time directly confronted some of the key issues facing Korean society as it rebuilt itself anew. Like Madame Freedom, many of them centred on women who symbolised the tension between collapsing traditional values and the influence of Western capitalism. Shin Sang-ok's The Flower in Hell (1958), inspired by both Italian Neorealism and Hollywood genre films, paints a hard-edged portrait of a broken city where the only way to get ahead was to break the law.

This decade also saw the first major attempt in cinema to confront the recent war and its ideological divisions. Piagol (1955) focused on partisan Communist fighters based in the South who, hiding in the mountains, continued to fight on behalf of the North. Director Lee Kang-cheon's intention was to show how the ideological contradictions of Communism would inevitably lead to the partisans' downfall. But a protracted censorship battle ensued, with the government objecting to the way the film placed Communists at the film's centre, thus invoking some degree of audience sympathy. Not for the first time, a filmmaker would discover that the government promoted morally black and white depictions of recent history, and strongly discouraged nuance.


The next decade opened with political upheaval. A mass uprising in April 1960 against the corrupt authoritarianism of Rhee Syngman succeeded in toppling the government and driving the president into exile in Hawaii. A new constitution was adopted that guaranteed, among other things, freedom of the press and creative expression. Filmmakers took advantage of weakened censorship to introduce more pointed social criticism into their films, none more so than director Yu Hyun-mok in his masterpiece Aimless Bullet (1961). A searing depiction of the economic wasteland of post-war Seoul, Aimless Bullet's brooding pessimism and superlative filmmaking helped establish it as an all-time classic.

South Korea's experiment with parliamentary democracy did not last. A downturn in the economy and a perceptible shift to the left motivated Major General Park Chunghee to execute a coup in May 1961. After consolidating power, he would remain president for the next two decades. For filmmakers, harsh censorship returned, and the government imposed a consolidation of the film industry to exert greater control. Nonetheless, cinema in the 1960s enjoyed something of a boom. As the primary source of mainstream entertainment, production levels increased and a star system developed. A new kind of film targeted Korea's youth culture, which for the first time was asserting itself as an independent entity. And a particularly talented group of directors, which includes Kim Ki-young, Shin Sang-ok, Yu Hyun-mok, Lee Man-hee, Kim Soo-yong and others, created some of their most ambitious works.

Although the films of the 1960s told personal stories, many of their most iconic characters symbolise the historical and social forces that were transforming society. The central character in A Coachman (1963), which won a Silver Bear at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival, is an aging widower whose profession is gradually becoming obsolete. His struggle to adapt to the breathtaking pace of change in society reflects the experiences of an entire generation. The struggles of the younger men in Aimless Bullet point more broadly to a sense of masculinity damaged by the war and economic collapse. Even the lead character in Lee Man-hee's elegiac Homebound (1967) – the wife of a disabled veteran, who develops feelings for another man – can be seen as an indirect casualty of the Korean War.

AGE OF DECLINE: 1970-1987

There are several ways in which cinema lost its place at the centre of the culture in the 1970s. The spread of televisions in middle-class homes, and the broadcasting of the first Korean TV dramas, gave mainstream audiences a more readily accessible source of entertainment. As a result of this and a general decline in the quality of Korean films, box office figures plummeted across the decade, from 166 million admissions in 1970 to only 66 million in 1979.

At the same time, cinema's ability to say anything meaningful about contemporary society was hampered by increasingly harsh censorship. Censors were known not only to remove problematic content, but to re-edit entire sequences in order to lighten the mood of a film. Many political activists and intellectuals began to view cinema as a hopelessly compromised medium. For filmmakers it was an especially dark and frustrating time to be working, although in the best works of the 1970s, one still feels a determined spirit of resistance.

President Park Chung-hee was unexpectedly assassinated by his chief of intelligence in 1979, ushering in brief hopes of democratic reform. However after staging an internal coup, General Chun Doo-hwan moved to take control of the country, executing a brutal crackdown on dissent. When the citizens of Gwangju rose up in protest in May 1980, he sent in an army division, resulting in widespread killings.

The cinema of the Chun Doo-hwan era is best remembered for a string of softcore erotic films, following the government's relaxation of censorship of sexual content in 1982 (censorship of political content remained high). But some notable works did emerge, particularly from Lee Jang-ho, known for his sardonic experimental style, and the veteran Im Kwon-taek, who mid-career reinvented himself as a nuanced chronicler of Korean traditional culture, history and society.

TRANSITION: 1988-1996

1987 was a year when mass protests changed the course of Korean history. Bowing to public pressure, the government agreed to the adoption of a new constitution and direct presidential elections, though by skillfully playing off a split in the opposition, it managed to get former general Roh Tae-woo elected as president. The end result was a slow, rocky transition towards democracy, that would only pick up momentum after the election of the next president Kim Young-sam at the end of 1992.

In this transitional period, a partial loosening of censorship was enacted, and filmmakers leapt to take advantage of it. Director Park Kwang-su's Chilsu and Mansu (1988) was the first salvo in a movement later dubbed the Korean New Wave (not to be confused with the Korean Wave) – a group of films by young directors that tackled explicit social and political themes. Such works exposed the social costs of economic growth (Jang Sun-woo's 1988 satire The Age of Success), explored subjects that were previously off-limits (Park Kwang-su's 1995 A Single Spark, about a legendary labor activist), and looked back on the major historical events of the 20th century from new perspectives (North Korean Partisan in South Korea, 1990), which forms an interesting bookend to 1955's Piagol).

Meanwhile other changes were taking place. Policy reform opened the door to a new generation of producers who had previously been shut out of the industry. Their steady efforts to modernise film production methods and reform the industry would bear fruit in the coming decade. Finally, the government also changed its approach to the film industry. This was famously motivated by a presentation made to President Kim Young-sam in 1994 that observed how in the previous year, Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park earned more than twice as much money as South Korea's entire automotive industry. Awakened to the economic potential of cinema, Kim shifted the government's stance toward active support of the film industry, which continues to this day.


One might say that it was only in the late 1990s that South Korea achieved a normally-functioning film industry, free from ill-designed, heavy-handed policy measures and crippling censorship. That goes some way to explaining the stark contrast between Korean cinema's buoyant success over the last 20 years and the challenging decades that preceded it.

But there were other factors at work.With local audiences' strong interest in world cinema – much of which had been shut out of the country due to the import quotas of previous decades – Korea gained a reputation as a nation of cinephiles. When a new generation of directors arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, they benefited from local audiences' support of complex, challenging films. A strong film culture was built in the 1990s, symbolised best by the launch of numerous film magazines and the creation of the Busan International Film Festival in 1996.

The new directors, including such familiar names as Bong Joon-ho, Park Chanwook, Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sangsoo and many more, had chosen the perfect time to make their debuts. Producers and investors, convinced of the need to break with the past and attempt something new, showed a willingness to finance unusual, risky projects. The films that resulted were highly original, helping these directors to gain attention both inside and outside the industry, and to rise quickly to positions of prominence.

The boom in box-office receipts, the overseas festival awards, and the accumulating power of the Korean film industry in the 21st century are by now a familiar story. But contemporary Korean cinema now faces its own challenges. In particular, many critics now bemoan a lack of creativity in the commercial sector, with its increasingly systematized, corporate approach to filmmaking. Young directors are finding it ever more difficult to establish their own distinct style. Business pressures have created a system whereby only top directors like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chanwook enjoy true creative freedom.

So perhaps the time is ripe for the young filmmakers of today to revisit the films of the past. Directors such as Lee Man-hee and Kim Ki-young succeeded in finding their own voices despite working in a largely hostile environment. Although, in a technical sense, the films of the past show many weak points, their fundamental spirit of resistance to the system of their day is something that could benefit today's filmmakers. The directors of past decades have largely faded from view, or lost their place in the mainstream industry, but their work can still exert an influence.

Darcy Pacquet
(Film Critic, Academic, Author)