Korean movies are no longer a means to cover up social conflicts

Nor should it be a tool for people to have fun and to transfer people’s pain


Following the Palme d’Or for “Parasite” in 2019, Korean films have once again captured the world’s attention.
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, South Korean filmmakers Park Chan-wook and Song Kang-ho won two awards for Best Director and Best Actor for their “Resolve to Break Up” and “The Broker” respectively. On June 12, South Korean President Yoon Seok-wyeh gave a special dinner to the South Korean filmmakers who have won this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and said on the spot:
Our culture and arts policy aims to “support, but not interfere”
Cinema is our national dignity and national potential Korean cinema has undoubtedly moved towards “prosperity”, but this success is by no means an overnight success and has nothing to do with good luck. In fact, Korean films have been experiencing different development environments since the beginning of the twentieth century. Several generations of filmmakers have explored and tried the boundaries of film expression during regime changes, focusing on the film industry and legislation, and outside the Hollywood narrative, Formed its own cinematic representation. Under the guidance of the government, the film market has gradually formed a perfect mechanism, responding to the efforts made by filmmakers.
Today, we share an excerpt from the book “Korean Cinema: History, Resistance, and the Imagination of Democracy” to travel back in time to the 1980s and re-examine the film industry, which was going through upheaval along with Korean society at the time. From this, we can see the acceptance and exploration of liberalization in the Korean film industry from the outside, and constantly try to use films to expose social contradictions and awaken people’s consciousness.

Korean Movies (Excerpt)

Written by: [America] Min Yingfan [Korean] Zhu Zhenshu [Korean] Guo Hanzhou

The term national cinema first appeared in the Seoul Film Group’s 1983 book Toward a New Film: National Film is a marginalized, political film practice that resists imitation of Hollywood Dominate the mode of production, creating new forms and contents. Its main goal is to liberate the people and fight for progress. It should be placed at the center of the popular movement, closely linked to the nation’s labor struggle.

The critically acclaimed films of the early 1980s were Lee Jang-ho’s “A Good Day with the Wind” and Bae Chang-ho’s “Lower Citizen.” “A Good Windy Day” describes the life of the emerging middle class on the outskirts of Seoul through the eyes of three young people who come to Seoul to hunt for gold. Three young men work in a Chinese restaurant, a barber shop and a motel, and Lee Jang Ho criticizes the existing social order through their lived experiences. “Bottom Citizen” is Pei Changhao’s first film. He uses various characters, such as taxi drivers, crazy women, small traders and missionaries, to use naturalistic methods to show the realistic picture of life in the urban slums. With the emergence of these films, Korean films have traversed a long and dark tunnel, seeming to usher in an era of real, vivid and free expression of various themes. Movies of this trend were made by major directors whose creative aspirations were suppressed in the 1970s and new directors who emerged in the early 1980s. However, the good times did not last long, and this trend of filming was quickly suppressed by the government of the Fifth Republic in 1981.

The military government’s oppression of cultural expression has resurfaced, with censorship more severe than ever. This time, the standards of government censorship are different from those in the 1960s and 1970s. In response to the film industry’s dissatisfaction with the domestic film censorship system, the Performance Ethics Committee has allowed free shooting of films with publicly descriptive content, but has not eased censorship of films that express social awareness. This change in censorship led to a new trend in filmmaking in the 1980s, erotic and historical films. With the removal of the import quota system, the criteria for good films in the mid-to-late 1980s also changed. The Film Promotion Corporation distributes approximately $200,000 in grants to producers of selected films.

The selection criteria for outstanding films are as follows:

(1) Must be carefully planned, filmed in an expressive style, and original, so as to give the audience a good emotional experience; (2) Must express traditional Korean culture and be able to enter the international stage; (3) Must encourage unique Korean Spirit, which helps to promote official views on Korean history; (4) must contribute to the development of Korean films; (5) must foster healthy emotions in young people. However, these criteria are almost never used to judge great films. A member of the excellent film jury commented that no one selects films according to the above criteria; excellent films are selected on the basis of a basic idea – it must meet the wishes of each jury member, and receive the approval of each jury member. favorite. (Movie, September 1986, p. 24) Despite the ambiguity of the new standard, in the 1980s movies no longer encouraged the “restoration” thinking of the 1970s.


“Windy Day”

In the 1980s, melodrama remained the mainstream of Korean cinema. (“Korean Film Yearbook”, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987) Unlike other periods, melodrama in the 1980s focused primarily on how the protagonist “undresses”. They depict love stories and spark the curiosity of viewers who have never seen pornography in domestic films. In 1982, Jung In Yep’s “Mrs. Aima” set off an erotic film craze, attracting more than 300,000 viewers in its first screening. The film tells the story of a housewife who ran away from home because she was dissatisfied with the sex life of her husband and wife. After boldly pursuing a series of sexual adventures, she finally returned to her husband and regained her disappointment. The film’s three sequels were also successful, the last of which, “Madame Ima in Paris,” came out in 1988. This film, also directed by Zheng Renye, still follows the story mode of the first film, but changed the location to Paris and the object of her sexual experience to the French. “Mrs. Oh’s Outing” (Kim Soo-young, 1983), “Love and Farewell” (Bian Jang-ho, 1983), “Between the Knees” (Lee Jang-ho, 1984), “Divorce Court” (Kim Soo-cheon, 1984), “Charming Temptation” ( 1985), “Mrs. Liberty 2” (1986), “Red Prunes 3” (1986) and “Wild Strawberries” (1987) were all melodramas with erotic content.

While erotic melodramas and historical films remained mainstream, many directors in the 1980s also began to explore new cinematic aesthetics. Im Kwon-taek, Lee Jang-ho, and several other new directors present the new potential of Korean film aesthetics in the film. Lin Quanze made more than 80 films in the 1960s and 1970s, and even shot several problematic dramas in his authentic style, thus establishing his status as an excellent director. Since “Mandala”, Im Kwon-taek has tried to express the reality of Korean society in his restrained style. In “Reunion is the Second Breakup” (1986), he explored the issue of national division through the stories of three people, and in “Ticket” ( 1987) depicts a group of marginalized people who work in coffee shops and openly engage in prostitution.

Lee Jang-ho started filming in the 1970s with “Hometown of the Stars”. He is versatile, has shot a variety of genres and has developed his own style of film. As a producer-director, Lee Jang-ho made socially conscious and erotic films in the early 1980s; at the same time, he was constantly experimenting with new genres, themes and styles of cinema. He once said that he made erotic films to finance socially conscious films, such as the melodrama “A Good Windy Day” (1980) and “People in the Dark Street” (1981), the dark comedy “The Fool’s Manifesto” (1983) and The Traveler Does Not Rest (1987), based on the novel. These films use a wealth of experimental film skills, and some have also participated in international film festivals, and “The Traveler Does Not Rest” won the Special Jury Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1987.

The emergence of a new generation of film creators has injected vitality into the Korean film industry. Against the backdrop of this creative trend, a new film movement was launched by university film societies and small-format filmmakers shooting 8mm or 16mm. This movement originated in the general climate of the democratic movement and was part of the popular cultural movement. Popular cultural movements originated in traditional performing arts and later spread to other cultural disciplines such as music, painting, literature and theatre. Its main task is to express the life experience of the oppressed or the working class, and to use cultural works to awaken people’s consciousness and expose the contradictions in Korean society. Another film movement of the same period began with criticism of conforming to the mainstream political and commercial production system. It mainly expressed the unreported or distorted social reality that was obscured by the mass media and commercial films, and produced in small-scale films. The film strives to reflect the lives of the poor, peasants, and underclassmen, with the ultimate goal of making a “people’s film”. The mission of the film movement is to “produce and distribute in practice films that help to establish a true national culture and promote social change” (M.Hong, 1985, P.209) . That is to say, the task of popular film is to promote social and political change by describing the life experience of the people as the subject of change.

With this aim in mind, the Seoul Cinema Group was formed in 1982 and produced many 8mm films such as “Water Tax” (1984), “That Summer” (1984) and “Blue Bird” (1986). “Water Conservancy Tax” is a documentary that records interviews with farmers and recreates farmers’ struggle for the implementation of a tax in kind. “That Summer” is based on a true story and reflects on working-class life. “Blue Bird” is based on a farmer’s story called “Mother Sinner”, which depicts the rural economy going bankrupt and the hardships of farmers under the government’s policy of liberalizing the import of agricultural products. “Blue Bird” was planned and filmed at the request of the peasant movement, showing their lives through conversations with peasants, and was screened free of charge to peasants across the country for one month. After the film was shown, farmers discussed the issues raised in the film. Two people involved in the filming were sentenced to six months in prison after the film failed to pass censorship and was screened privately. Under the Film Act, films shown for commercial purposes must be censored. And “Blue Bird” does not involve commercial interests, so it does not have to pass censorship. But the government insisted that the “Blue Bird” screening violated the law and suppressed the film movement as part of a popular cultural movement without a legal basis.

The film movement continued within the University Film Society and became part of the labor movement and the voice of the disadvantaged in society, with works such as When That Day Comes (1987) and Sanggyeong Olympics (1988). “When That Day Comes” (1987), shot by students at Seoul Arts College, depicts the contradictions of a policeman who was drafted as a police officer during his college days and now faces student demonstrations attended by his college friends , in a dilemma. “Sanggyedong Olympics” was filmed on videotape and was created in collaboration between the film’s creators and people who lost their homes as a result of the government’s plan to beautify Seoul for the 1988 Summer Olympics. The film took two years to record the entire process of the confrontation between the people who lost their homes and the government. This trend of short filming has been relegated to a subversive movement instigated by a small group of activists by those in the existing business establishment. However, it has prompted those in the film industry to realize that in the face of the invasion of foreign direct distribution, it is necessary to redefine national cinema on the basis of the concept of popular cinema. For filmmakers, it represents breaking free from the shackles of 20 years of censorship and fighting for freedom of expression, thereby revitalizing the stagnant South Korean film industry. The proposed changes to the Motion Picture Promotion Law are not so much about fighting for more rights for South Korean films, such as the funding system and the removal of clauses that allow direct distribution by foreign film companies, as a means of gaining freedom of expression for the film’s subject matter. In this context, Korean filmmakers realized the necessity of redefining national cinema: “Korean films should no longer be a means to cover up social conflicts”, “Korean films should no longer be a means of people seeking pleasure and diverting people’s pain. Tool of”.


“Bottom Citizens”

The production trend of Korean films has always been closely linked to historical, social and political factors, such as the import quota system and censorship. Historically, there were only two periods when Korean filmmakers actively filmed people-nation films: the era of Japanese colonial rule and the golden age of the late 1950s and early 1960s before the establishment of the military government in 1961. In the mid-1980s, a small group of filmmakers began to make ethnic films as a tool to expose social contradictions. Movies during the Japanese colonial period often combined new-style dramas with the spirit of nationalism, and used symbolism to express the anger and sadness of the subjugated people. The films of the late 1950s and early 1960s showed a strong tendency towards realism, using an unprecedented style of artistic expression. Some films from this period are still considered to be some of the best Korean films.

In the 1970s, as the government tightened restrictions on film content, films with a strong realist style were on the decline; sentimental, tear-jerking melodramas were popular because they did not touch censorship.

In the early 1980s, several socialist films that used realistic representations were short-lived in the short-lived democratic atmosphere. But as the new military government came to power and eased censorship of films that publicly expressed sexual content, melodramas and historical dramas with erotic elements flourished. Since most commercial films choose to “beat around the bush” in order to pass the censorship smoothly, and try to avoid realistic expressions, a group of small-scale filmmakers launched a popular film movement, seeking a new type of national film to express the oppressed The people’s life experiences reveal to the people the deepening social contradictions in Korean society.

In this context, Korean filmmakers have adopted the concept of national cinema proposed by non-commercial filmmakers in order to revitalize Korean films and resist the invasion of foreign direct films. At that time, the prospect of practicing ethnic films in the commercial production system was not clear. The government has been imposing a high-handed policy on the cultural sector, and it is widely believed that this policy will continue to be implemented. But given the number of courageous filmmakers emerging from commercial filmmaking, and given the constant evolution of culture, it seems feasible to continue making ethnic films.

In the early 1980s, some film critics bemoaned contemporary Korean society and led a new trend in filmmaking, but rarely challenged the status quo, mainstream filmmaking models, and government control over the film industry. Instead, they romanticized social issues such as prostitution, family problems, and the confusion of traditional values ​​due to Westernization. Therefore, it is impractical to use these superficial topics of the present as the key to unlocking complex histories. And it must be kept in mind that although a film is shot with national funds and expresses national issues, it is not necessarily a national film. Therefore, it is clearly inappropriate for some to regard these films as “ethnic films”. They had little effect on the development of the national film movement. In addition, the films of Lee Jang-ho, Im Kwon-taek, Bae Chang-ho, and Choi In-ho examine many pressing issues of Korean society, showing the lives of non-elite or ordinary people in Korea—the consequences of unbalanced social development. Still, they lack real political ambition and historical authenticity. But such films are popular and earn significant box office revenue. Due to political repression, the films of the 1980s shifted to a more popular and compromised social stance.

Here are the five manifestos of the National Film Movement:

1. Propaganda and agitation: Ethnic films seek voices for the people to resist the ideology of the ruling class. Its most important mission is to educate the people on the importance of history and the necessity of class struggle.

2. Creating a national culture: National films are a medium for exploring ways of self-expression in Korea, as well as a medium for seeking cultural liberation from the West and dictatorship.

3. Democratic distribution system: National films resist Hollywood’s dominance in the international market and the government’s monopoly and control over distribution.

4. Exemption from censorship: National films resist any form of restriction and censorship by the ruling class.

5. Improve labor conditions in film production: National Films denounces the mainstream film industry for exploiting film creators and violating their rights and welfare. It also promotes the development of alternative film styles and production strategies to counter the appeal of Hollywood and mainstream films. (National Film Institute, 1989, PP.12-70)

The national film movement is worth examining for the following reasons: (1) it provided a venue for experimentation and expression with new forms and content, especially political themes; (2) it created selective modes of production and consumption; ( 3) it forced the mainstream film industry and its audiences to rethink the social role of cinema – as Graeme Turner put it, “film as a social practice”; (4) the national film movement was committed to accusing corruption of power and social injustice, consistently pushing for cultural and ideological emancipation. In addition, a closer look at ethnic films is helpful in film studies, as the term ethnic film indicates the inherent tendency of filmmakers to oppose traditional hierarchies. At the same time, the national film movement sought to draw attention to films that were culturally excluded and marginalized from mainstream cinema. The national film movement opposed the practice of mainstream cinema, but as Lee (1989, pp. 12-15) pointed out, it did not advocate cultural isolationism, but sought to diversify and democratize the film industry . The complete rejection of dominant cultural forms such as mainstream cinema is not only counterproductive, but naive in itself.

Mainstream cinema has been ignoring and marginalizing the multiplicity of various social discourses and languages, while artificially compiling its own dominant language and artificially stylizing it. Therefore, it cannot reflect social reality in an authentic style. The creators of ethnic films often set up multiple characters in the film, there is no obvious protagonist in the story, and they often use calm and objective lenses. The narrative of the film also rejects traditional predictability and simple causality, so there is no Entertaining. This kind of film may be unpleasant and disappointing, but its dialectical representation of social reality helps to solve the mystery of Korean society. Mainstream films always formulate their own language according to the dominant culture, often constructing subjectivity in a closed way. Subjectivity cannot be constructed any other way. However, they ignore the fact that it is the complexity of the production process that makes possible a variety of interpretations.


“Fatal Attraction”

For some time, major Hollywood studios have viewed South Korea, with a population of about 47 million, as Asia’s largest potential market outside of Japan. According to United International Pictures, South Korea is one of the top ten film markets in the world. (Variety, August 8, 1990; M. Kim, 1995) Despite facing endless hostilities, United International decided to open a branch in Seoul to direct the films. Fearing retaliation, only about 10 percent of movie theaters decided to release Fatal Attraction. The protesters were mainly directors, assistant directors and members of the Union of Korean Motion Picture Business. In the past, there have always been conflicts of interest between various groups. And now, for the first time in the history of Korean film, the vast majority of Korean filmmakers are united for a common goal – to oppose the direct distribution of foreign films. At the same time, many movie theater owners and importers were indifferent and took the opportunity to curry favor with foreign studios. The protests, however, continued for more than a month until the movie theaters cancelled the screening of “Fatal Attraction.” During the protests, a number of directors issued a joint statement demanding that “the Korean government repeal the policy of opening up the film market in its name, which has Americanized the Korean film market” (“Screen International, November 1988”) , p.246)

The proposal for the Film Revitalization Act was drafted by the Film Directors Guild and endorsed by other sectors of the film industry, such as the Cinema Owners Association. The proposal not only spells out the reasons why so many Korean filmmakers oppose U.S. distribution companies and the current Film Act, but also pinpoints the issues that the Korean film industry currently needs to correct and improve. Its main contents are as follows: (1) the government should clarify the policy of revitalizing the Korean film and film industry; (2) the taxes and fees collected by the state for movie theaters should be used as subsidies for domestic film production, and the state should also establish a government funding system; ( 3) The 8% tax on movie ticket prices collected by the government as a cultural promotion fund should be used as a film promotion fund; (4) A Motion Picture Promotion Council, managed by the public or filmmakers, should be established to replace Film Promotion Commune; (5) In order to support domestic studios to accumulate shooting funds, the “Film Law” should stipulate that only Korean nationals can engage in film production and import; Cinemas implement preferential tax policies; (7) The screen quota time for domestic films should exceed half of the total screen time of the year, that is, 183 days a year. (“Screen International”, November 1988, PP. 255-256)

The national film movement is a theoretical and politicized practice, usually an underground film activity, a discourse that speaks for the people and provides a platform for the creation and experimentation of new forms and contents. It inspired many cinematic themes and opened up the possibility of creating non-capitalist cinematic practices. In a nutshell, the entire process of national cinema, both cinematic and non- cinematic practices, has given film viewing a new meaning. In other words, the national cinema movement has transformed the social role of Korean cinema . The national film movement is committed to social practice and re-examines social politics in order to achieve equality and justice. Therefore, it is clearly inappropriate if we understand the movement in isolation from its broader political, social, economic and cultural context. Since ethnic films and later films are devoted to expressing the daily life experiences of ordinary people, the field of Korean film theory often regards the process of filming as a medium of cultural exchange. As Graeme Turner (1990, p. 38) points out, cinema is not the ultimate goal of inquiry. People can use film to amplify their social presence and participate in the cultural process of defining their own identity and reflecting on their lives on a linguistic and cultural level.

(Excerpted from “Korean Movies:

History, Resistance and the Democratic Imagination”

Provided by China Film Press)


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