Books Map Out Korean Film History

2008-04-25 : 17:26

Above is a rare photo from the set of ``Arirang'' (1926), the most representative piece from Korea's silent film era. Directed by superstar Na Woon-kyu, it was an ambitious project starring some 800 extras. It was Korea's first ``blockbuster'' but unfortunately, the original film is long lost. /Courtesy of Korean Film Archive

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

Korea is increasingly becoming an important film market ― ranking sixth and seventh in the world in terms of audience size and ticket sales, respectively, according to the Korean Film Council.

Last week, the Asia junket for the anticipated blockbuster ``Iron Man'' took place in Seoul ― the second big Hollywood event to be held here the one for since last summer's ``Transformers.''

In international film festivals, more and more Korean filmmakers and actors are stealing the limelight, notably actress Jeon Do-yeon (2007 Cannes Best Actress) and directors Kim Ki-duk (2004 Best Director awards at both Venice and Berlin), Park Chan-wook (2004 Cannes Grand Prix) and Im Kwon-taek (2002 Cannes Best Director, 2007 Dubai Lifetime Achievement Award).

Local production companies and investors are now out to play in the big league. Last year, Shim Hyun-rae's ``D-War'' marked the first widely released Korean film in the United States, while domestic talent whipped up the special effects for ``Assembly,'' China's first blockbuster. Recently, Taewon Entertainment launched a ``global film project'' starring international stars Maggie Q and Andy Lau.

In order to better understand the present, of course, you need to glance back at the past. Two books offer comprehensive retrospectives of Korean cinema: the Korean Film Archive brings ``Korean Film History'' while the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) offers ``Korean Cinema From Origins to Renaissance.'' Both offer 100 years of film history in 10 chapters, decade by decade.

Film specialist Jung Jong-hwa provides a short but all-inclusive anthology in ``Korean Film History'' (271 pp., 8,000 won). It's a nice pocketbook for Koreans and is filled with movie stills and posters as well as antique photos and newspapers clips. You can flip through it and skim the yellow boxes that summarize trends such as ``Korea's first film director'' and ``Actresses of the 1960s.''

``Korean Cinema From Origins to Renaissance,'' edited by Kim Mee-hyun, is available in both Korean and English. The latter is the ultimate ``bible'' of Korean cinema for non-Korean speakers, as it includes all the standardized names of films, filmmakers, actors and significant terms in both English and Korean.

The drawbacks, however, are its hefty price ($65), weight and length (477 pp.). It's great for those who are seriously committed to knowing all the facts and figures. But good news is that the KOFIC Web site (www.koreanfilm.or.kr) provides free, downloadable excerpts from the book (each of the 10 chapters summarized in essay format).

It is generally agreed that motion pictures were first introduced here as early as 1897, when shorts were played for Japanese residents. The chronicles of Elias Burton Holmes, an American traveler, reveal that movies were being shown around 1901.

Called ``moving photos,'' films were an imported luxury, and in 1919 as many as 218 were brought in. Early homegrown works largely comprised of kino-dramas, or theatrical productions that featured screenings of outdoor scenery as backdrops.

As Korea was under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), art had political undertones. In 1924, Park Seung-pil, owner of Dansungsa Theater (which, now a part of Cinus multiplex theater chain, still stands today in Jongno 3-ga), made a breakthrough with ``The Story of Jang-hwa and Hong-ryeon,'' the first ``purely Korean feature film.'' It was a response to the hit Japanese-Korean work, ``The Story of Chun-hyang,'' and the two competed for audiences at theaters.

There was more organized resistance against imperialism, such as the Korea Artista Proleta Federatio (KAPF). Founded in 1925, the group produced its own films. While KAPF was weakly funded and failed to make a great impact, it marks a significant effort in Korean history and Korean cinema.

Soon, sound films were introduced but Korean cinema faced regulations by the Japanese government. There were also co-productions of propaganda movies. After 1945, there were a host of ``liberation films'' celebrating Korea's independence. Then with the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-53), filmmakers concentrated on documentaries.

Post-war Korea was poverty stricken, but it was also a time of revival and boom. Melodramas and comedies were all the rage and film studios sprang up. Chungmuro in central Seoul became home to filmmakers, becoming the Hollywood of Korea. The 1960s are usually called the Golden Age of Korean cinema, with representative directors like Shin Sang-ok and his wife and actress Choi Eun-hee making one hit after another.

But the 70s and 80s were woeful times, with the strict regulations under the Yunshin regime and censorship of military rule, respectively. Yet these were also times of many firsts, with awards at international film festivals and the direct distribution of Hollywood films.

In the early 1990s, local romantic comedies swept box offices while the Screen Quota System ― obligating theaters to show Korean movies for a minimum period ― was enforced to protect domestic films.

In 1998, Korea's ``first blockbuster'' ``Shiri'' (aka. ``Swiri'') ― a North Korean spy story combining action, melodrama and suspense ― sent a shockwave through the industry. With the establishment of multiplex theaters, the number of screenings across the country tripled. Box office smashes drawing over 13 million people (Korea has a population of about 49 million) like ``The Host'' took flight, also faring well abroad.

In addition to the already institutionalized Korean TV soaps, ``hallyu'' (Korean Wave) stars paved the way to box office hits in Japan, China and other Asian countries. For subtitle-phobic American audiences, Hollywood bought the remake rights for some 25 homegrown hits. One example is ``The Lake House'' starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock based on ``Il Mare'' with Jun Ji-hyun. Jun (aka. Gianna Jun), who appears in Hollywood's upcoming ``Blood: The Last Vampire.''

More stars are making their way beyond Asia into the American entertainment capital, notably actors Kim Yun-jin (ABC's ``Lost''), Jang Dong-kun (``Laundry Warrior'' produced by Barrie M. Osborne), Lee Byung-hun (``I Come With the Rain'' opposite Josh Hartnett) and pop star Rain (``Speed Racer'' by the Wachowski brothers) among others.

The Korean film industry, while gaining international reputation however, stands on shaky grounds. It saw an unnatural vertical growth as chaebol or large conglomerates heavily invested, withdrew then came back. Big monster production companies control the distribution of major movies, while those made by small- or medium-size firms find it hard to squeeze in.

But there is a leeway, as Mary K. Evjen Olsen, executive director of corporate marketing at Dreamville Entertain said in a Korea Times column. Hyun Jin Cinema, a medium-sized production company, made a smart move to team up with Japanese and American partners for the upcoming gangster movie ``Streets of Dreams,'' starring Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia and Korea's Choi Min-soo.

As Korean movies and cineastes make their way near and far, there is room for improvement. Archiving and restoration of classic films are big ongoing projects for the Korean Film Archive. But there is also a serious lack of support for a decent cinematheque. While KOFIC provides a set standard, the omnipresence of irregular Romanization of Korean titles and names is still a problem. It is hoped that Korean cinema gets past these growing pains.

hyowlee@koreatimes.co.kr