Lately, South Korea has seen phenomenal popularity in their films both critically and financially, but the relatively short history of the Korean film industry has weathered and reflected rigorous trials, including colonial and authoritarian censorship as well as maintaining their vigor against encroaching Hollywood rule.
South Korea by Era
At the turn of the 19th century, as foreign films first made their way into Korea, the Japanese annexation and colonization produced mostly Japanese government-owned studios. One theater, Dongdaemun Motion Picture Studio, however, which opened in 1903, was apparently the first and, momentarily, only theater operated by a Korean.
Jennifer Rousse-Marquet, in an INA Global article, “The Unique Story of the South Korean Film Industry,” suggests, “The Righteous Revenge, a kino-drama produced in 1919, is considered to be the first Korean film: while a motion picture was projected in the background, actors were playing live on the stage.” Nongjungjo, starring Na Woon-gyu, wooed audiences, but the films were heavily censored by the Japanese military, which maintained control of content and output during the duration of the silent era. Korean narrators would accompany the film and function as an official translator for the crowd, speaking the dialogue and descriptions live. During screening, if Japanese soldiers were not present, the narrators would engage in political criticism and satire concerning Japanese rule.
Korea’s first talking film by a Korean was director Lee Myeong Woo’s Chunhuang Jeon(1935), says Rousse-Marquet. Though the addition of sound revolutionized film in virtually every country, it introduced heavier restrictions and more censorship to Korea under Japanese colonization.
Movie output by Koreans remained small at this time, but Na Woon-gyu rode the popularity of his first break-through, writing and directing films Kanggeonneo Maeul (1935) and Oh Mong-nyeo(1937). Japanese films were principally promoted along with wartime newsreels and Japanese sponsor-backed shorts. The Japanese military enjoyed increased film production during these years with the Korean Colonial Cinema Unit in an attempt to procure cultural integration and modernization of Korean viewers.
Rousse-Marquet says, “The distribution and exhibition of films were limited to Japanese, who privately owned movie theaters, and the profits from exhibition were not reinvested in production.”
Furthermore, foreign films were limited in comparison to the number of Japanese films presented, especially after Japan’s invasion of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War when the Korean film industry was consolidated.
One such film to come out of the tediously censored colonial rule, You and I(1941) was directed by Korean director Hae Yeong and fearlessly featured a Korean-Japanese interracial relationship. Ultimately, the Japanese government officially banned Korean language films in 1942, though films in Hangul still appeared on occasion.
For a short period of time after Japan’s surrender, Korea relished in an unheard-of period of creative expression, discovering previously uncharted themes in film. Their newly established liberty became a commonplace topic in film, an example being Viva Freedom(1946) that depicted freedom fighters near the end of the Colonial Age.
Shortly after filmmakers began experimenting in unexplored subject matter, the Korean War broke out and film production grew stagnant and reserved again. Rick Curnutte, in his article for The Film Journal, “Passages of Time: Motifs of Past, Present, Future in Contemporary Korean Films,” says that after the ceasefire in 1953,the South Korean president Syngman Rhee looked to “rejuvenate the film industry by exempting it from taxation.”
Along with improved quality and production value, the South Korean film industry grew, but quantity floundered, reflecting the tumultuous and unstable political events that followed Korea’s accelerated, compact economic and technological evolution.
Though still under hefty censorship and reservation in the 1950s, and greatly occupied with nationalistic themes, Koreanfilm.org suggests the numbers of films centupled in the later 50s, due in part to President Syngman Rhee’s taxation break.
In the 1960s, after the military coup of Park Chung-hee and the ensuing Motion Picture Law that placed restrictions on the number of films produced and imported, government dictation recommenced supervision of Korean cinema. The film quota was an attempt to mute foreign sales stimulating national capital and produce high-budget Korean films. Rousse-Marquet says, “The number of domestic production companies was also limited, and went from 71 to 16 in a year.”
1973 introduced the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation with the purpose of supporting and promoting domestic films in Korea, but the organization predominantly centered on positive political films for the intention of pushing government principles. Min Eung-jun, Joo Jun-sook and Kwak Han-ju, in their book Korean Film: History, Resistance, and Democratic Imagination, say the films promoted by the organization were generally unpopular with Korean audiences, which at that time were effectively distinguishing between propaganda-burdened films and those that characterized Korean life and society available from the 1950s and 1960s. Televisions being widely accessible during this time exacerbated cinema turnout as well. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a lively political change and social unrest coupling Park Chung-hee’s assassination with the Gwangju uprisings.
Park Seung-hyun, in an article for Cinema Journal, “Film Censorship and Political Legitimation in South Korea, 1987-1992,” says that until 1987, the Public Performance Ethics Committee could censor films at two steps in a film’s development: in the preproduction stage and also after a movie was completed. The reservations of the PPEC were 1) “when a film impairs the spirit of the constitution and the dignity of the state,” 2) “when a film impairs social order and morals,” 3) “when a film impairs friendship between Korea and another country,” and 4) “when a film impairs the soundness of the people”.
“Only 44 of 88 domestic films were approved for screening in 1988, 55 of 110 domestic films in 1989, 52 of 113 in 1990, 51 of 121 in 1991, and 45 of 96 in 1992,” Park says.
With the screen quota regulating foreign films still in effect, South Korea experienced government-facilitated domestic box office success proportionately overtaking blockbusters from abroad in the 1990s, says Los Angeles Timeswriter Sam Jameson in “U.S. Films Troubled by New Sabotage in South Korean Theater.”
North Korea has traditionally utilized propagandist themes and techniques in their films – all being produced, maintained and censored by the state-organized film studio – fabricating praise from international audiences. A relatively small amount of films are reportedly released each year in North Korea, though the definitive numbers are, of course, unobtainable. The movies produced during the Korean War, such as Righteous War (1950) and Again to the Front (1952), suggest cinema was a vehicle for ideological interest and influence, and a recurring theme is, reportedly, sacrifice for the nation. In fact, as the BBC reports, in addition to cinemas, North Korean films are also displayed in factory complexes, on farms and in army units. Kim Il-sung developed the political principle, juche (self-reliance), that extended to art forms such as film, an ideology that was particularly upheld and promoted by Kim Il-sung’s son Kim Jong-Il.
In 1978, South Korean director Shin Sang-ok was allegedly kidnapped by North Korean intelligence under orders of Kim Jong-il. Kim reportedly intended to use Sang-ok to direct North Korean fantasy and propaganda films. Eventually, Sang-ok directed a Godzilla-esque monster film for North Korea titled Pulgasari (1985).
The Flower Girl(1972) and Sea of Blood(1968) were produced by Kim Il-Sung, with the latter said to have been directed by him as well, and are noted as some of the most popular films under the North Korea filmography. My Home Village(1949) purported Kim Il-sung single-handedly terminated Japanese colonial rule in Korea.
The BBC suggests North Korean film production reached a highpoint in the 1970s and 1980s, but pointedly slackened in the 1990s after famine hit.
Charles Jenkis, Larry Abshier, Jerry Parish and James Dresnok (who appeared in the documentary film Crossing the Line), all appeared systematically in the North Korean military series Unsung Heroesthat ran from 1978 to 1981. Once American soldiers, they defected and portrayed villains in the North Korean series.
- Jennifer Rousse-Marquet “The Unique Story of the South Korean Film Industry”
- Rick Curnutte “Passages of Time: Motifs of Past, Present, Future in Contemporary Korean Films
- Koren film .org
- Min Eung-jun, Joo Jun-sook, and Kwak Han-ju, in “Korean Film: History, Resistance, and Democratic Imagination”
- Sam Jameson, “U.S. Films Troubled by New Sabotage in South Korean Theater”
- Christiana Klein, “Why American Studies Need to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon Ho” www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23251187
Brief History of Korean Cinema Series