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Kim ki duk

A Brief History of Korean Cinema, Part Two: Today’s Influence

In the second of a three-part series, Clinton Stamatovich takes a look at the interesting and rich history of Korean filmmaking.

In recent years, South Korea’s film quota placing restrictions on the number of foreign films imported—as well as how many of those imported films are played a day, a week, and a year—has attracted criticism from international distributors. The re-established quota delegated that each cinema screen domestic films for at least 146 days a year, but was unable to thwart a plodding shrinkage in national cinema sales.

During the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, Korea negotiated with the U.S. for the Free Trade Agreement and subsequently reduced the restrictions on the annual quantity of foreign films imported. Following the laxation of the quota, Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, and Warner Brothers established circulation offices in South Korea and the Korea Herald reported a swift drop in domestic sales.

By the late 1990’s, however, with a new government strategy in expanding cultural and media production as an export, film sales grew exponentially. Shiri (1999), a film following a spy from North Korea endeavoring a governmental overthrow, became a historically popular film, selling two million tickets in Korea, says Rousse-Marquet.

The film quota has enabled films like Shiri, Silmido (2003), and Joint Security Area (2000)to sell more tickets domestically than massively popular Hollywood hits such as Titanic (1997), The Matrix (1999), Harry Potter (2001), and Lord of the Rings (2001). Rousse-Marquet says, “As a consequence [of Shiri’s success], the number of admissions and box office revenues doubled between 2001 and 2007.”

Eventually, in 2006, South Korea cut the screen quota from 146 domestic films a year to 73, abiding by the free-trade agreement set up previously with the US. Rousse-Marquet mentions film industry protesters materializing during the change, believing the quota to be the central reason for the fruitful growth of domestic film.

The industry, nevertheless, has continued on an exponential growth path, surpassing sales of former years repeatedly. “195 million tickets were bought in 2012 up 22 percent from the previous year: that’s the highest number of tickets sold in the history of the Korean film industry,” says Rousse-Marquet.

Along with ticket sales, the Korean film industry has also garnered critical acclaim from International film festivals. Oasis won second prize at the Venice film festival in 2002. Oldboy came in second at Cannes. Kim Ki-duk (lead photo) took home best director for Samaritan Girl (2004) at the Berlin film festival and won the Silver Lion in 2004 for 3-Iron at the Venice film festival.

Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010) was awarded Best Screenplay Award and went on to compete at the 2010 Cannes film festival main competition. Later on Yoon Jeong-hee won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for best actress for a portrayal of Yang Mi-ja in the film.

Kim Ki-duk, further pushing provocative limitations with his films, won the Golden Lion for Pieta in 2012, becoming the first Korean to win the Venice film festival award.

Critical Reaction

International critics immediately attached to films like Park Chang-wook’s Oldboy (2003)—preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)—for its stylized vision, violence, and plot, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), which masked political undertones with a monster-genre film procedure, and Memories of a Murder (2003) that followed the typical American police/detective gimmick with added commentary on modernity and the relationship between America and South Korea.

Park Chan Wook
Park Chan Wook

All these films have been heralded by critics for their sleek style, attention to detail, and pace–simultaneously able to establish themes and commentary while moving swiftly forward with the action. Oldboy, in particular, based on a Japanese manga, brought Korean film into a global limelight and opened up interest to cinema enthusiasts previously unaware of South Korean films.

Park Chang-wook, Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, and Kim Ji-woon, riding the popularity of the Korean New Wave of cultural significance and popularity, sprouted from the 1990’s to international levels in the early 2000s, soon after screen quotas were lessened and political atmosphere settled.

Nationalism has frequently been a primary theme in Korean cinema and homogeny is an underlying theme that has inundated Korean cinema, especially with films like The Host, which identify the American military as reckless and stoic with reference to Vietnamese war crimes committed. The creatures and later the foreign military can be read as threats to Korean well-being, infiltrating an innocent land, untouched by outside agents.

Lee Sang-woo’s dysfunctional family trilogy beginning with Father is a Dog (2010), followed by Mother is a Whore (2011), and culminating in I am Trash this year, delves into  Korean society usually left untouched by mainstream directors and into darker, poignant themes. Sang-woo’s films, relevant and immediate, ostensibly made on small budgets, follow families having fallen victim to domestic abuse, obsession, incest, and alcohol abuse, recalling films like Steve Mcqueen’s Shame in style and content. His films also comment on rape culture in Korea—something virtually concealed—and social corrosion under the economic progress Korea has endured in such a condensed time. Particularly, in Father is a Dog that follows a brother who observes and tidies problems created by his family members. In one scene, after a different brother preoccupied with masturbation picks up an intoxicated girl on a subway he continues to rape her in an underpass, analogous to the climax of Gaspar Noe’s film Irreversible.

Korea has hollowed out a niche in style, definitively, in the past 30 years, adapting to world cinema while retaining their own perspectives. They’ve grown successfully creating action and drama blockbusters, but intrigued critics at home and abroad with stark, at first undetectable themes that solidify their place in innovative and relevant filmmaking.

Works Cited


Brief History of Korean Cinema Series




About Clinton Stamatovich

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