If you’ve never seen a Korean film theatrically, don’t be too hard on yourself, or on Fresno theaters for that matter. While South Korean cinema may be the latest “new wave” from the Pacific Rim, very few of the films creating all the excitement have made it to U.S. commercial theaters – only nine in the past three years! Of course, Korean cinema has been a frequent visitor to North American film festivals since the late-80s: the Zen-inspired art-house film Why Has Bodhi-Darma Left for the East? (1989) is the most widely known of these earlier works, even if less representative of Korean cinema then or now. Distribution companies have not exactly been ignoring this Asian boom either, for dozens of new Korean films have gone directly to video in the U.S. since 2000.
So what’s causing all the stir, and is it worth paying attention to? Just ten years ago, there was little to be excited about, a sentiment shared by South Korean audiences themselves. Censorship still dictated what could be shown within the country; restrictions on exports kept homegrown films out of foreign markets; and the domestic box office was overwhelmed with imports from the U.S. All that has changed dramatically. Not only have government censors been replaced by a liberal ratings system, but now South Korean films compete with other Asian film industries in their markets and take in nearly 50% of their own domestic box office, making it one of the healthiest film industries in the world.
Unfortunately, commercial success threatens to dilute the distinctiveness of this national cinema. To stem the deluge of U.S. movies, young Korean filmmakers have tried to beat Hollywood at its own game, borrowing from American genres as well as embracing style over substance. Just as likely to alter the characteristics of Korean film language, production companies, with their eye on international markets, have imitated the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by joining with studios from China, Japan, and Thailand to create big-budgeted Pan-Asian films, the Pacific Rim’s equivalent of Europuddings.
Two of the more impressive examples of this new stylized wave are Chang Youn-hyun’s neo-noir thriller Tell Me Something (1999) and Park Chan-wook’s male-bonding melodrama Joint Security Area (2000). The former inventively plays with the conventions of the serial killer genre, “outgrossing” Se7ev in its home market, not only by box office figures but also by the number of severed body parts discovered on the streets and apartments of Seoul by the film’s handsome, bad-boy police investigator. Joint Security Area, the first Korean movie to be shot with Super-35mm film, capitalized on the temporary thaw in North-South tensions with a military mystery set in the DMZ to become the most popular film of 2000 with South Korean audiences.
Such films are by no means the whole story. In addition to action thrillers, the new Korean cinema abounds with farcical comedies, serious dramas, art-house fare, and more. The Way Home (2002), for example, much in the tradition of neorealist films like Pather Panchali and Not One Less, is a touching family drama about the deepening relationship between an aged woman living in the countryside and her young grandson from Seoul. Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care of My Cat (2001) is distinctive not only because its director is a woman in a male-dominated industry but also because its uncompromising story about the difficulties young women face in South Korean society is seldom told from a feminist perspective.
Then there are the films of Im Kwon-taek, ninety-seven over the past four decades. By all accounts, including Im’s own, his first twenty years as a filmmaker produced little of distinction: low-budget melodramas and action films made on the quick. Over the years he began to approach his role as a film artist much more seriously: his self-avowed intent is to develop that distinctively Korean film language I spoke of earlier, to use it as a means of presenting Korea to the world and to itself. He has accomplished these goals brilliantly in his two most recent films, the only two to receive theatrical release in the U.S. – Chunhyang (2000) and Chihwaseon (2002).
In Chunhyang, Im brings to the screen a traditional Korean folktale about love and fidelity, one that has been adapted many times in Korean cinema. But Im’s version is no simple retelling of this story but rather a complex, integration of a modern art form (cinema) with a traditional Korean art (a pansori performance). The film crosscuts between Im’s actors in their rich cinematic pageant and a spoken/sung version performed before a contemporary audience, that singing and drumming serving as the film’s narration, sometimes even simultaneous with the actors’ dialogue.
In Chihwaseon, Im turns his attention to another traditional art form, yet this film could not be more timely for South Korean cinema. Set in a time of social upheaval, this biopic about legendary painter Jang Seung-ub (known as Oh-won) mirrors the current drama of brinkmanship between North and South. Even more pointedly, the character’s iconoclastic dismissal of non-native influences upon his art carries a message for younger filmmakers: turn away from foreign models; make Korean cinema an alternative to Hollywood. Those who value diverse national cinemas around the world must surely hope that the filmmakers of the Korean New Wave heed the advice of this grandmaster.