South Korean Cinema: Historical Background

South Korean contemporary cinema is a significant part of today's world culture. Latest Parasite (2019) and Squid Game TV series (2021) became a huge pop-culture phenomenon worldwide, and that's only the tip of the iceberg. The recognition of the South Korean film industry is growing among Western countries. The latest Asian products already compete with Hollywood films or among independent works at the festivals.

by Maria Mamontova


Such increasing popularity is not a surprise. South Korean cinema draws Western viewers' and critics' attention with its high-quality visuals, a wide range of topics and the directness of a narrative. In these cases, the film is a true depiction of reality in its both beautiful and ugly aspects. Hollywood cinema lacks it: its usual blockbusters show the world shining and polished, from quite a narrow point of view. It is different for independent Western cinema, but that kind of films doesn't usually get enough recognition. Korean cinema isn't limited by any restrictions. It portrays life in its worst and represents violence as it is. It might be chilling and poetic like Burning (2018), surreal and silent like A Quiet Dream (2016), or absurdist and contradictory like Maggie (2018).

Tony Rayns, a film critic and Asian films' commentator, thinks the specifics of Korean cinema may lie in the history of the country: "I suspect that the kind of macho action violence that you get in a lot of modern Korean films is partly rooted in this history of brutality." It sounds reasonable, considering how violent the 20th century was for Korea.
Industry developed through war
The first public screening in history took place in 1895 in Paris. In a couple of years, cinematography spreads worldwide — most major capitals held screenings as well. Korea was an exception. Although the Koreans saw their first film in 1903, the actual spread of cinematography began only with Japanese colonisation, which started in 1910. Cinemas were under Japanese control. They played only foreign movies, and the colonisers always collected the whole income. It took nine years to produce and release the first Korean-directed film. Though there wasn't much progress later: film production was limited by strict censorship for decades. Moral standards were strict as elsewhere; every film must have been politically correct regarding Japanese governance. The allowed genres were drama, melodrama and action. The formation of Korean cinema lingered, but its rise was yet to come.
The sixties were the golden age of Korean cinema. When the Japanese occupation and civil war were over, a cultural revival started in South Korea. During the late fifties, the industry developed rapidly. The government supported cinematography by decreasing taxes and buying new equipment, and the directors got the opportunity to experiment with genres and subjects. With the weakening of censorship the number of new films greatly increased.

One of the most significant works is The Housemaid (1960) — the film became revolutionary. Not only was it extraordinarily explicit for the time, but it also depicted a cunning and powerful woman, who was controlling a man. This was a revelation.

Obaltan (1961) is another significant work of the period. Its sincerity was way too straightforward back then, so the government banned the film even despite the censorship decrease. The film portrays post-war poverty and destruction with an example of one struggling family. Obaltan presents a realistic picture of industrial South Korea and sets an ambience of suffering and despair. Its expressionist form was quite new, and its honesty was a breakthrough. Ten years later, such sincerity wouldn't be possible. The censorship was strengthened with a new force in the seventies, and the primary focus shifted from social issues to personal ones.
With slight mitigation of censorship in the early eighties, the first half of the decade promised to be productive for the industry. Independent cinema had finally got some legal support — it used to be somewhat in the grey area before. The late 80s were marked with some reformations: the government decreased restrictions on screenings of foreign films. It broadened the industry's horizons, but it also caused a huge competition between national cinema and foreign products. Hollywood was winning the battle. South Korean films lost many viewers, and the market faced great losses — it was clearly a step back.
Global success: the climax
The nineties were a turning point: though the golden age of Korean cinema was long over at the time, its worldwide success hadn't come yet. The financial situation was the key point, especially when it came to distribution and advertisement. Because of the severe competition, these were the hard times for the industry. The only way to survive them was to offer something completely new, different from what Hollywood did. Thus new specific genres began to appear. Action, horror and drama merged, creating something unique — something that was ultimately South Korean, and its only. The industry was extremely dynamic compared to its past state, and it was also quite different from the Western market. And most importantly, cinema was one of the key development trends of the country.

With conglomerates taking control over the film production South Korean cinema reached a new level. Not only the industry could fairly compete with Hollywood inside the country, but it went worldwide as well. Such cult films as Oldboy (2003) or In the Mood for Love (2000) gained huge global recognition, including acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival. These works combined in them everything that the Korean cinema could offer: a fresh perspective, a picture of non-Western mentality and quality production. Unusual violent stories wrapped into stylish visuals were something unique for the global public. The genres of thriller, crime and drama were extremely popular, with such noticeable examples as Memories of Murder (2003) or Shiri (1999).
South Korean films still feel unconventional for a Western viewer, even despite the absence of censorship as such. Many works from the nineties remain contradictory and keep viewers' attention. Nowadays, they are shown during film festivals and retrospectives all around the world and many of them are finally showing up on streaming services.
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