South Korean films are commonly said to have enjoyed a "Golden age" during the late 1950s and 1960s, but the poor quality of most films, as well as government control leaves this term very questionable. Even in the 1970s most Korean films had become generally considered to be of low quality. A slow rebirth of the domestic film industry led to South Korea, by 2005, being one of a very few nations to watch more domestic than imported films in theatres.. South Korean films generally differ from Hollywood films by their exploration of domestic social issues and their often unpredictable plotting.
American traveler and lecturer Burton Holmes was the first to film in Korea as part of his innovative travelogue programs. In addition to displaying his films abroad, he showed them to the Korean royal family in 1899. An announcement in the contemporary newspaper, Hwangseong sinmun, names another early public screening on June 23, 1903. Advertised by the Dongdaemun Electric Company, the price for admission to the viewing of scenic photography was 10 jeon.
Korea's first movie theater, Tongdaemun Motion Picture Studio (Tongdaemun hwaldong sajinso), opened in 1903. The Dansung-sa Theater opened in Seoul in November 1907 and is still in operation today. Before the creation of a domestic film industry, films imported from Europe and the United States were shown in Korean theaters. Some of the imported films of the era most popular with Korean audiences were D. W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922), and Fritz Lang's Nibelungen films, Siegfried and Kriemhilds Rache (both 1924).
Not merely a theater-operator, as the first film producer in Korea, Dansung-sa's owner, Park Sung-pil, took an active part in supporting early Korean cinema. He financed the first Korean domestic film, Loyal Revenge (의리적구토 - Uirijeok Guto), as well as the first Korean documentary film, Scenes of Kyoungsoung City and showed both at his theater on October 27, 1919. Uirijeok Guto was used as a kino drama, a live theatrical production against the backdrop of film projected on stage.
For the next few years, film production in Korea consisted of the kino dramas and documentaries. As with the first showing of a film in Korea, the first feature film produced in Korea also appears to be unclear. Some name a filming of Chunhyang-Jeon (춘향전) in 1921 (released in 1922) as the first Korean feature film. The traditional story, Chunhyang, was to become Korea's most-filmed story. It was possibly the first Korean feature film, and was certainly the first Korean sound film, color film and widescreen film. Im Kwon-taek's 2000 pansori version of Chunhyang brought the number of films based on Chunyang to 14. Other sources, however, name Yun Baek-nam's Ulha ui Mengse ("Plighted Love Under the Moon"), released in April, 1923, as the first Korean feature film.
Like the folksong "Arirang", on which its title was based, Na Woon-gyu's Arirang did not have an overtly political theme. However hidden or subtle messages could be magnified through the common use of a live narrator at the theater. A newspaper article of 1908 shows that this tradition of byeonsa (변사, or benshi in Japanese) appeared in Korea almost from the beginning of the showing of film in the country. As in Japan, this became an integral part to the showing of silent films, especially for imported films, where the byeonsa provided an economical and entertaining alternative to translating intertitles. One interesting aspect of the byeonsa tradition in Korea is that, when Japanese authorities were not present, they could inject satire and criticism of the occupation into the film narrative, giving the film a political subtext invisible to government censors. Some of the more popular byeonsa were better-paid than the film actors.
The immense success of Arirang inspired a burst of activity in the Korean film industry in the late 1920s, causing this period to be known as "The Golden Era of Silent Films." More than seventy films were produced at this time, and the quality of film improved as well as the quantity.
Na Un-gyu followed Arirang with popular and critically respected films like Punguna (풍운아) (1926) and Deuljwi (들쥐) (1927). He formed Na Un-gyu Productions with Park Sung-pil for the purpose of producing films by Koreans for Koreans. Though this company was short-lived, it produced important films like Jalitgeola (잘 있거라) (1927), Beongeoli Sam-ryong (벙어리 삼룡) (1929), and Salangeul chajaseo (사랑을 찾아서) (1929).
Another important director of this period was Shim Hun, who directed only one film, Mondongi Tultte (먼동이 틀 때) (At Daybreak). Though the reviews for this film were as strong as those for Arirang, Shim died at the age of 35 while directing his second film, based on his own novel, Sangroksu (상록수) (The Evergreens). The novel was later filmed by director Shin Sang-ok in 1961 and by Im Kwon-taek in 1978.
The number of films produced increased during the latter part of the decade. Na Woon-gyu began making a larger number of films again with significant works like Kanggeonneo maeul (1935), and Oh Mong-nyeo (1937), before his premature death in 1937.
Coming as they did during the mid- to late-1930s, sound films in Korea faced much harsher censorship from the occupying forces than did the silent films before them. Also, the loss of the byeonsa narrators with the coming of sound film meant that anti-authority messages could no longer be sneaked around the censors in this way.
The showing of American and European films decreased at this time, and were replaced by Japanese films. Korean-made films became a propaganda tool for the government of the Japanese occupation. Starting in 1938, all film-making in Korea was done by the Japanese, and by 1942 the use of Korean language in film was banned.
The rebirth of Korean cinema which seemed to be coming had to wait, however. First the country was divided into North and South, and then civil war was to break out in 1950. Though film production did not completely cease during the war years, only five or six films were produced each year from 1950 to 1953. Much worse for Korea's film legacy, the vast majority of Korea's film history was lost in this devastating war.
With Korean cinema for the first time working under something similar to conditions in other countries, both the quality and quantity of film-making had increased rapidly by the end of the 1950s. South Korean films, such as Lee Byeong-il's 1956 comedy Sijibganeun nal (시집가는 날) (The Wedding Day), had begun winning international awards. In dramatic contrast to the beginning of the 1950s, when only 5 movies were made per year, 111 films were produced in South Korea in 1959. ,
Korean cinema enjoyed a brief period of unprecedented freedom during the 1960-1961 year interval between the administrations of Rhee and Park Chung Hee. This year saw the production of Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (하녀 - Hanyeo), and Yu Hyun-mok's Aimless Bullet (오발탄 - Obaltan), both of which have been listed among the best Korean films ever made.
With the ascension of Park Chung Hee to the presidency in 1962, government control over the film industry increased substantially. Under the Motion Picture Law of 1963, a series of increasingly restrictive measures were placed on the film industry. The number of films produced and imported were limited under a strict quota system. The new regulations dropped the number of domestic film-production companies from 71 to 16 within a year. Government censorship at this time also became very strict, focusing mainly on any hint of pro-communist messages or obscenity.
Despite these repressive governmental policies, however, a consistently large and devoted theater-going audience, and many quality films continued to give South Korea a healthy cinematic culture throughout the 1960s. Also, the Grand Bell Awards were established in 1962. Called Korea's equivalent to the Academy Awards, they are the country's longest-running film award.
These propaganda-laden movies (or "policy films") proved unpopular with audiences who had become accustomed to seeing real-life social issues in the quality films of the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to dealing with government interference in the making of their films, Korean filmmakers began losing their audience to television-ownership, which grew suddenly beginning in the late 1960s. Movie-theater attendance dropped by about a third, from 173,043,272 in 1969 to 65,518,581 in 1979. Nevertheless, talented filmmakers like Im Kwon-taek and Kim Ki-young were able to survive this era and occasionally even produce works of value.
During this period, however, the audience for domestic films reached a low-point, due in no small part to the opening of the market to films from overseas, especially the United States and Hong Kong. By 1993, only 16% of the films seen by South Korean audiences were made domestically. The local film industry persevered through this lean period, and it was at this time that events were set in place for the impressive success Korean cinema was to enjoy during the next decade. ,
The 1999 film Shiri about a North Korean spy preparing a coup in Seoul was the first in Korean history to sell more than 2 million tickets in Seoul alone. This helped Shiri to surpass box office hits such as Titanic, The Matrix and Star Wars. The success of Shiri motivated other Korean films with large budgets for Korean circumstances.
In 2000 the film JSA (Joint Security Area) was a huge success and even surpassed the benchmark set by Shiri. One year later, the film Friend managed the same. In South Korea the romantic comedy My Sassy Girl outsold The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter which ran at the same time. As of 2004 new films continue to outperform older releases, and many Korean productions are more popular than Hollywood films. Both Silmido and Taegukgi were watched by over 10 million people per film, which is a quarter of the Korean population. Silmido is a film based on a true story about a secret special force. The other is a blockbuster movie about Korean War directed by the director of Shiri.
This success attracted the attention of Hollywood. Films such as Shiri are now distributed in the USA. In 2001, Miramax even bought the rights to an Americanized remake of the successful Korean action comedy movie, My Wife is a Gangster. Recently, popular Korean movies such as Il Mare (remade as The Lake House), Oldboy, My Sassy Girl, and JSA have also been bought by Hollywood firms for remake as well.
The 2003 psychological horror A Tale of Two Sisters was successful as well, leading Dreamworks to pay $2 million (US) for the rights to a remake, topping the $1 million (US) paid for the Japanese movie The Ring.
Many Korean films reflect how much the Korean people long for reunification and suffer from the division of the peninsula. Many of the films underline feelings, which causes Korean films to be likened to French films. The Korean film industry, however, now produces all genres with widely varying themes.
Oldboy is the second great victory for Korean film when it came in second place in the Cannes Film Festival, second to Fahrenheit 9/11. The story traces the life of a man who is put into solitary confinement by someone he does not know. He lives there for many years until he is released to find out the bizarre reason for his cruel entrapment. Dark and gloomy, Oldboy experiments with the themes of psychological madness and sexual distortions.
In February 2004, Kim Ki Duk won the award for best director at the 54th annual Berlin Film Festival, for a film about a teenage prostitute, Samaritan Girl. In addition, he won the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for his 2004 movie, 3-Iron.
New wave Korean films came as a result of competition in the film industry, directors trained outside of the USA (in France, Spain, the Netherlands, China and other European nations), and new models of scripts that included more Korean situations, and spoke in contemporary vernacular, and used younger actors, younger scriptwriters, and less formulaic Hollywood clichés or 90 minute frames. The impact of the Busan Film Festival and Jeonju Film Festival in screening year after year hundreds of new European, Canadian, South American, Chinese and even Japanese films rewrote the basic templates towards originality.
The number of films produced in North Korea is difficult to determine. In 1992, Asiaweek reported that the country produced about 80 films annually, and a BBC report in 2001 indicated that North Korea was then producing about 60 films a year. In spite of these claims, Johannes Schönherr, an attendee of the 2000 Pyongyang Film Festival of Non-Aligned and Other Developing Countries, found little evidence for actual films or titles. He notes that the country offered only one domestic feature and one documentary at their most high-profile film festival, and suggests that the high number of reported films includes short films and cartoons, and short installments of long-running series. He also cites a 1998 North Korean pamphlet containing a list of films which had been made in the country up to 1998. This gives a total of 259 titles, and indicates that the 1980s were the most prolific decade with about 15 to 20 films made yearly.
North Korea's principal producer of feature films is the Korean Film Studio, a state-run studio of about 10 million square feet (930,000 m²) founded in 1947 and located outside of Pyongyang. Other North Korean film studios include the Korean Documentary Film Studio (founded in 1946), the April 25 Film Studio of the Korean People's Army (founded in 1959 and previously known as the February 8 Cinema Studio) and the Korean Science and Educational Film Studio (founded in 1953 and also known as the April 26 Children's Film Production House, and Science Educational Korea, or SEK.) These studios produce feature films, documentaries, animated films, children's films and science films. According to a report from 1992, the Korean Feature Film Studio produced about forty films per year, while the other studios together accounted for another forty.
In addition to animation for the North Korean domestic market, SEK has become a resource for international animation, including some well-known American animated films. Production costs in North Korea are very low, and the quality of animators is well perceived. Disney's The Lion King (1994) and Pocahontas (1995) are two films which were worked on by SEK. Presumably work on these films was subcontracted, rather than sourced by Disney directly, to avoid violating the Trading with the Enemy Act. Empress Chung is a 2005 animated feature film which was a co-production between the North and South Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Il-sung believed in the message of the saying attributed (probably falsely) to Lenin: "Cinema is the most important of all arts." Accordingly, since the country's division, North Korean films have often been used as vehicles for instilling government ideology into the people. A common theme is martyrdom for the nation. The film Fate of a Self-defence Corps Member, based on a novel written by Kim Il-sung during the fight against the Japanese occupation reflects this theme, as does the highly-regarded film, Sea of Blood (피바다 - Pibada) (1969). The latter film comes from a novel telling the story of a woman farmer who becomes a national heroine by fighting the Japanese.
Another favorite theme is the happiness of the current society. This theme can be seen reflected in titles of feature films like A Family of Workers, A Flowering Village, Rolling Mill Workers, When Apples Are Picked and Girls at a Port. All of these films were awarded the People's Prize before 1974.
Judging from the IMDB's entries, the 1950s were a relatively productive time for North Korean cinema. 10 of the 41 films listed for the country were produced during this decade. Post war titles seem to reflect a toning down in the militaristic themes, and a turning to more optimistic stories. Titles like The Road of Happiness (1956) and Love the Future (1959) indicate that films were being used to rally the country into rebuilding after the devastation of the war.
Kim Il-sung made a famous call for juche art in 1966, saying, "Our art should develop in a revolutionary way, reflecting the Socialist content with the national form. In a 1973 treatise on film entitled Theory of Cinematic Art, Kim Jong-il further developed this idea of juche art into the cinema, claiming that it is cinema's duty to help develop the people into "true communists," and as a means "to completely eradicate capitalist elements." The ideology-heavy nature of North Korean cinema during the 1970s can be seen in titles such as The People Sing of the Fatherly Leader and The Rays of Juche Spread All Over the World.
Part of this ideological usage of the arts was a treating of the same subjects repeatedly through various art forms. Consequently, the most prominent films of the era took their stories and titles from pre-existing novels, ballets or operas. the film Sea of Blood was also an opera and a symphony, as well as the name of an opera company. Future Minister of Culture, Choe Ik-kyu's The Flower Girl (꽃파는 처녀 - Kkotpaneun Cheonyeo) (1972, 130 min.) later was remade as a dance. This film won a special prize and special medal at the 18th International Film Festival, and is one of the more well-known North Korean films of the 1970s.
Unsung Heroes, a 20-part spy film about the Korean War, was released between 1978 and 1981; it achieved notice outside of North Korea two decades later mainly because United States Forces Korea defector Charles Robert Jenkins played a role as a villain and the husband of one of the main characters.
IMDB lists only four North Korean films made in the 1990s. The Nation and Destiny (민족과 운명 - Minjokgwa ummyeong) is a 56-part series of movies produced from 1992-1999, on Korean subjects and people like General Choi Duk Shin (parts 1-4) and composer Yun I-sang (parts 5, 14-16).
The 2000s appear to be reasonably productive for North Korean cinema, having five listings so far. In a sign of thawing relations, the animated film, Empress Chung (2005), is a co-production of South and North Korea. This film is said to be the first released simultaneously in both countries. Another recent North/South co-production is the 3-D animated television series Lazy Cat Dinga.
The Journal of a Schoolgirl is the first film from the state to be sold to a Western distributor (the French company Pretty Pictures) in several.
In August 2008, KCNA reported the screening in Pyongyang of a "documentary film" entitled The Respected Comrade Supreme Commander Is Our Destiny.
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