The Rise and Fall of Korean Film Magazines

News category: General

Korean film and Korean film magazines developed alongside one another. 27 October 1919 saw the opening of Righteous Revenge, known as the first Korean film; less than one month later the first issue of Korea’s first film magazine, ‘Noksung’, was published. Though we could put this down to a historical coincidence, amongst the 80-or-so Korean film magazines that have received publication to date, Noksung maintains its status as the central supporter of Korean cinema. However, things have not always gone smoothly for Korean film magazines across their long history. The majority of these magazines either struggled to maintain momentum internally, or couldn’t respond quickly enough to the changing external environment. As a result, they were unable to break out of the vicious cycle that ran from initial publication to inevitable discontinuation. 

The run of Korean film magazines, feeling at the same time both long and short, failed to establish its permanence. Even after the brief period of revival they experienced in the 1990s, they still fell into the same repeating pattern. With the approaching millennium, Korean film magazines were being discontinued one by one. The spot left empty by film magazines was instead being occupied by online journals, cinema websites and YouTube channels devoted to film. Korean film magazines experienced continual ups and downs throughout their history; while they were in search of their own identities as a magazines, they also had to come up with ways to pull themselves out of the red, and back into the black. This text divides the history of Korean film magazines into three time periods – the Japanese Colonial Period, the period after the Korean War, and the period from the 1990s onwards – considering the key features of Korean film magazines, and how their goals changed over time. 

Noksung, considered to be the very first Korean film magazine, carried the personality of an art magazine. According to Lee Hyung-kyung’s PhD thesis, “A Study on the Formation of Modern Korean Film Magazine”, from the time Noksung was first published up until the mid-1930s, magazines covering film bore more of the character of art magazines than film magazines. These magazines often didn’t separate film and theatre, and included columns covering novels, poems and essays. It is of course difficult to claim that for this reason Noksung was not a film magazine. This is because, by printing posters of foreign actors, and by publishing novels based on films that had been popular in Japan, it presented itself as a magazine with film at its centre. In particular, we can assume that the magazine utilised the adaptation of films into novels as a way to stimulate the imagination of its readers, when the Hollywood source films themselves were not officially allowed into colonial Korea (then Choseon). 

After the Japanese Colonial Period came to an end in 1945, the majority of Korean film magazines suffered an early demise; however, there was one magazine that lasted almost twenty years from its initial publication. This magazine was called ‘The Motion Picture Age’, first published in April 1931 by Park Lu-weol, one of the cineastes who had studied abroad in Japan. The magazine went through a number of cycles of being shut down and started up again, before it finally reached its end in 1949. During this colonial era, a section of Korean film magazines established their own political standpoints, and thus faced early discontinuation due to censorship and oppression from the Japanese colonial government. Right from the beginning, however, The Motion Picture Age focused on expanding its film gossip columns, and thus naturally was able to get around the censorship rules of the colonial government. Aware of the high standards of film-goers, it prioritised meeting their needs, and thus was able to survive amidst the barren market of the Korean film magazine. 

From the 1950s onwards, Korean film magazines worked hard to build on their expertise. At the time the majority were published at irregular intervals, and there was no consistency in the editing process. Just like during the Japanese Colonial Period, the magazines tended to cover theatre and literature alongside film. However, these magazines typically had a number of problems: they devoted their pages to a limited spectrum of films; they emphasised the entertainment aspects of cinema instead of the artistic elements; and, due to their nationalistic leanings, they were often over-generous in their praise of Korean cinema. In order to resolve these issues, the magazines started to see film as an art-form, and prioritise the role of critics who could view films from a level-headed perspective. In the late 1950s a section of Korean film magazines launched open competitions to select film critics. The magazines were creating a basic system that would produce articles at the peak of specialist film reviewing. 

However, simply increasing the number of specialist writers was insufficient to ensure the quality and continued-publication of Korean film magazines. Both during the Japanese Colonial Period and the subsequent Korean War, Korean film was unable to establish any kind of system of production, screening, viewing, education, or review; this proved to function as a huge obstacle for Korean film magazines in forming their own identities and breaking into the market. When reflecting upon this situation, what ‘The Motion Picture Age’ achieved - i.e. the forming of collectives and using this as the basis to publish their own film magazines - can be seen as rather progressive. In July 1975, upcoming film directors Lee Jang-ho and Ha Gil-jong came together and formed a new group; in 1977 they published their own magazine under the same name of ‘The Motion Picture Age’. Members of their new ‘The Motion Picture Age’ (magazine) emphasised a ‘new generation’ and ‘new cinema’. They were highly critical of the Korean film industry, dominated by national propaganda and films made for mass appeal, and instead drew upon the avantgarde films of Europe and America to come up with a new type of film. Even though their ambitious plan did not come to fruition, they believed at the very least that through their magazine, they had offered an opportunity for people to consider film critically. However, Korean film magazines, ‘The Motion Picture Age’ (magazine) included, consistently failed to draw a response from readers sharing their vision, and thus had no choice but to retire bitterly into the back streets of history. 

The 1980s demonstrated that film magazines could attract readers from all sorts of backgrounds. With the boom in the video market, and the emergence of a new group of film enthusiasts, there was a surge in popularity for magazines such as ‘Video Movie’ and ‘Video Plaza’ that offered encyclopaedic information about film, as well as for magazines like ‘Film Journal’ which had more of the style of a tabloid, and thus offered a mass appeal. Meanwhile, the magazines taking a more logical approach to film, which had a smaller readership base, established prominence. The quarterly publication ‘Film Language’, first released in 1989, is symbolic not only of the context of the time, but also of the modern day. Its editors, Lee Yongkwan, Jay Jeon, and Kim Jiseok, who would later play key roles in the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), produced a magazine that focused on discussion of Korean and Asian film. The late Kim Jiseok, former Vice Director of BIFF, openly said that the activities of Film Language played a key role in fortifying the foundations of the festival. In this way the film magazines of the 1980s built their success through their close ties with their devoted readers, and would later provide the help necessary to ensure the development of the film industry and its culture, functioning like a storage unit for information about film. 

It was around the 1990s that Korean film magazines began to seriously expand their committed readership base. At the time a whole variety of film magazines were being published; these magazines provided film-goers not only with information about film as an industry, but also about its mass appeal and existence as an art form. The two magazines regarded as representative of the era were ‘Screen’ and ‘Roadshow’. ‘Screen’, first published in March 1984, and ‘Roadshow’, first published in May 1989, both ran monthly, and were in healthy competition with one another. At the time the video market was booming in Korea, and demand for information about cinema was growing by the day. In this environment, for readers these magazines satiated a craving for film, and were an easy way of satisfying their intellectual curiosity. For example, in one interview with director Bong Joon-ho, who won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he explained that by the time he was a middle-school student, he was already an avid reader of ‘Screen’ and ‘Roadshow’, and it was at this point that he first began to dream about working in film. 

In the 1990s Korean film magazines entered into their prime years. 1995 came to be talked about by all as a monumental year, with the first publication of both ‘Cine 21’ and ‘Premiere’. The monthly ‘KINO’ presented a condensed version of Western film theory and cultural discourse, following France’s ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ in its aim of leading a culture of auteurism and Cinephilia. The weekly ‘Cine 21’ saw itself as a magazine that would grow alongside the Korean film industry, while ‘Premiere’ was quick off the mark in sharing Hollywood film news, which was difficult to come across elsewhere. What unites these two magazines is that the publication of both was a resulting effect of the rapid growth of Korean cinema. 

The 1990s somewhat unusually saw concentric growth of both commercial and arthouse Korean film. At the beginning of the decade, director Im Kwon-taek’s The General’s Son (1990) and Seopyeonje (1993) were both box-office smashes, while later director Kang Woo-suk’s comedy Two Cops (1993) broke all box-office records at the time in Korea. At a similar time, directors Hong Sangsoo, Kim Ki-duk and Lee Chang-dong, who would later come to represent Korea in film festivals across the world, all announced the release of their debut films (The Day a Pig Fell into the Well [1996], Crocodile [1996], and Green Fish [1997] respectively). The response of cinema-goers to these arthouse films indeed suggested that they had reached cult-like status. There were also arthouse cinemas such as the Koa Arthall and the Dongsoong Cinematheque now opening in Seoul. When in 1995 Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986) received its delayed official release in Korea, around 100,000 people went to watch it at arthouse cinema screenings. Audiences’ passion for arthouse cinema reflected not just a refined taste, but can be said to originate from a desire to see cinema as an art form. Through video cinematheques, university film clubs, and PC-to-PC communication (what can be considered as the first version of the internet), people were able to exchange specialist information about film. Towards the end of the 1990s, film festivals both large and small were emerging in Korea, Busan International Film Festival included. In this way, it was almost as if in 1990 Korean film culture, after being contained for a long period of time, all of a sudden burst out, and grew rapidly (in both quantitative and qualitative measures) within a short period of time. 

KINO was a magazine that sought to promote film by building solidarity amongst friends. Having in mind the upcoming 100th Anniversary of international cinema (b. 1895), KINO had the slogan “The Magazine that has Waited 100 Years” appear on the cover of its first issue and, declaring the cultural battles that can be fought through cinema, called those joining them in this fight their ‘friends’. They warned against seeing film as pure entertainment, or madly consuming it in a film frenzy; and they believed that cinephiles, and only cinephiles, could save the world through film. This strategy achieved partial success. The magazine became legendary when its first issue had 50,000 copies put out into circulation. According to Lee Sun-Joo’s “The Age of KINO - The Film Magazine KINO and the Cultural Politics of the ‘Critical Cinephilia’ in the 1990s”, KINO offered an alternative cultural discourse within the 1990s renaissance of Korean cinema, and increased awareness of the vibrancy of academic study and critique of film. However, there were endemic issues facing Korean film magazines that KINO left unresolved. The writing style of translated texts, and the total lack of consistency in editing and design left readers struggling to understand its contents. Furthermore, the success of its strategy of reaching out purely to cinephiles was only temporary. KINO’s strength lay in its base of devoted readers, but the fact that its number of readers remained small was its weakness. Though KINO proved that a magazine serious about film can also be successful, it also demonstrated how a magazine dedicated to a minority of committed readers can end up turning itself into a closed-off community. 

At the beginning of the new millennium, monthly film magazines disappeared without a trace, while instead weekly film magazines dominated the market. KINO, which had come to be the representative in specialist print material about film, built an allied front with its ‘friends’, while the weekly magazines, which had strengthened cinema’s mass popularity, joined forces with the film industry. New film magazines were constantly appearing, seeing if they could challenge the stronghold of Cine 21, which had gained trailblazer status within the Korean film industry. In the year 2000, ‘CINEBUS’ and ‘FILM 2.0’, and in 2001 ‘Movie Week’, all printed their first issues. Following trends in the Korean film market, these magazines introduced the week’s new films, alongside thoughtful and personal critiques on these releases. As much as they needed to adhere to current market trends, their most important task was in their response to their readers’ implicit question: “What film should I watch this week?” The majority of weekly film magazines sorted releases into ‘good films’ and ‘bad films’ through scores or star ratings; these ratings became one of the factors upon which audiences based their decisions of what to watch at the cinema. In this way, the weekly film magazines appointed themselves in the role of middlemen between film production companies, distributors, marketing agencies and audiences. 

However, the boom in weekly film magazines was to be short-lived. Nobody had predicted their demise, but as time went on the majority disappeared. The roots of their disappearance lay in a chain of events. Films were being released more and more quickly, and the main platform for introducing new films moved away from printed material towards the Internet; audiences could now easily search for the film information they wanted online, without having to rely on film magazines. ‘CINEBUS’, ‘FILM 2.0’ and ‘Movie Week’ were all discontinued in 2003, 2008 and 2013 respectively. The key people from ‘Movie Week’ were absorbed into the bi-weekly ‘Magazine M’, but this magazine was also discontinued in December 2018. Now all the main film magazines have disappeared. The spread of the Internet and the development of digital technology have been named as the main causes of the decline of printed media. However, it is perhaps fairer to argue that more fundamentally, the film industry and film audiences who were once seen as committed partners, simply no longer saw any necessity in weekly film magazines. 

Today, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that information about film can be found in its entirety on the Internet. When weekly film magazines went into decline, and it became difficult to increase their regular subscribers, a variety of platforms and channels which could replace them appeared. For example, consider Korea’s main internet portal sites. These sites independently created their own film databases, equipped with systems that allowed audiences to easily check film information, allowing advance booking of tickets, access to online film journals, and even film download services. Through this, these sites are involved in the actual circulation and distribution of film. As a result, advertisements for new releases, which had been one of the main sources of revenue for Korean film magazines, moved to the online sites. Cinema-goers are no longer turning the pages of a film magazine, and are instead turning to the Internet to decide what film to watch. The interesting thing is that this has allowed audiences to have an influencing effect on film reviews. Audiences can use their social media accounts to share their impression of new releases with their acquaintances, or leave comments on websites’ pages containing film information or on web articles about film; in this way they can exert their own influence on the opinion of particular titles. This can also cause word of mouth to spread. Sometimes films that have received a poor review from audiences, or that have been subject to “Rating Terror” (where a large number of viewers give the film a 1 out of 100 score on the portal site to keep the average rating low), often suffer a crushing defeat at the box office. 

If this is the case, where does that leave the many film magazines, film writers, and film critics, and what are they doing now? The pre-existing magazines are battling with online film journals, searching for a survival strategy. Instead of reducing the number of pages dedicated to film reviews, they are producing a substantially larger number of articles focusing on entertainment. We might call this regression rather than reform. There are only a few places to publish film writing, what’s worse is the small number of remaining film magazines don’t support serious film writing. Professional film writers and critics, rather than working for film magazines, have moved to positions providing a better living, working for fashion magazines, broadcasters, film festivals, and universities amongst others. Only the film writers and critics that gained widespread popularity were able to survive. These individuals are holding conversations with audiences at showcases of newly released films, or participating in discussion panels on TV channels introducing films. Looking at this situation, it is fair to argue that the status of Korean film magazines has hit rock bottom. However, we must remember that there are still those printing articles about film and seeing the value of readers being able to read something they can physically hold in their hands; key players include ‘anno.’, ‘Okulo’, and ‘FILO’. First going to print in July 2013, ‘anno’. contains reviews and critiques of films, divided into sections named ‘Montage’, ‘Story’, and ‘Genre’. In March 2016, working with film critic Yoo Un-seong, ‘Okulo’ saw its first publication; presenting itself as a magazine specialising in the critique of the moving image, it continues to produce reviews of moving image works, encompassing both film and art. ‘FILO’, first published in March 2018, worked with a number of critics who had previously worked for ‘Cine 21’, including Lee Hookyoung, Jung Sung-il, Heo Moonyeong, Nam Da-eun, and Jeong Han Seok. Each issue, rather than following any kind of specific themes, adopts a system of allowing its writers the freedom to choose the films they review, working under the same love of film that first turned them into cinephiles. 

It is not simply the case that the power of Korean film magazines weakened and they then disappeared. Even film-specialist channels found on video-sharing sites such as YouTube carry the same personality as film magazines. In the first half of 2018 there were over twenty film-specialist channels in Korea which had more than 100,000 subscribers each. These channels produce and upload videos telling the stories of newly-released or well-known titles, breaking down their hidden meanings. As these channels are based on the culture of widespread participation fundamental to the “Web 2.0 Generation”, they question the distinction between expert and non-expert, consumer and producer. The new digital platform of YouTube can be said to be a remediation of the older printed magazines. Their makers still ‘publish’ (in this case their videos), and exist due to their connections with their ‘subscribers’. Though the pages of magazines have become the pages of the internet, and text has become video, we can say that specialist film channels on YouTube continue the work of film magazines. The key thing is that there has been a paradigm shift from thinking about film based on what one has read, to thinking about film based on the videos one has seen. As we have seen how the concept of film magazines can be preserved through other mediums, the challenge for our generation now is to establish where and in what way we continue to protect their legacy. 

Do Hoon Lee (Film Critic)