A Brief History of Korean Film
By Jon Marshall

Since its inception, the Korean film making industry has reflected the themes, concerns, needs, and morays of the society and culture that surrounded it. As events in world and Korean history came to pass, their influence could be seen in the kinds of films produced. Korean film helped give focus to the community, especially during times of national crisis and hardship.

1900 through 1945

Korean film making industry dates to 1919 during the Japanese occupation. The first film was a kino drama, a play that used film at the appropriate times, entitled Loyal Revenge. It was made by Kim Do-san and financed by Park Sung-pil. It was not until 1923, however, that the first feature length film, Wolha-ui Maengse (The Plighted Love under the Moon), a silent film, directed by Yun Baek-nam.

Arirang was made in 1926 and was the most famous of the nationalistic films made during this time. The premiere created quite a stir, and ads and posters were promoting the film were torn down by the censors. So began the Golden Age of Silent Film in Korea, which lasted until 1935.

The 1930's saw many changes in Korean film, such as the use of sound and increased repression by the Japanese. From 1930 until 1935 the Japanese allowed only two or three films a year to be made. As a result of many factors the Japanese loosened their hold somewhat in 1935 and the first sound movie, The Story of Chunhyang, directed by Lee Myong-u was made. National liberation was reflected in the themes of the movies of this time.

By 1942 the Korean film industry had come to a standstill. The Japanese closed all ten Korean film companies and established the Choson Film Co., Ltd. The goal of these films was to produce the illusion that Koreans no longer existed, and that they were Japanese. These were propaganda films showing the Japanese success in the World War II. 1940's By 1946 Korean film directors were hard at work again. The themes reflected in these films were about the liberation from the Japanese. In the late anti-Communist films began to appear. Many of these films were artistically done. Particularly fascinating is Han Hyong-mo's film of the Yosu/Sunchon Rebellions Songbyokul Ttulgo (Break Through the Castle Wall), from a vivid documentary by Kim Hak-song. These films depicted the pain of a divided people and the suffering after World War II.

1950 through 1980

During the Korean War many Southern filmmakers were kidnapped and taken to the North along with much equipment. Also, many of the classical films were lost at this time. The remaining filmmakers made many documentaries during the war. Due to the hardships of the war, understandably, not many feature films were made.

After the war, movies became an important source for public entertainment. The first big hit of this time was Chunhyang-jon, an unprecedented success, in two months in Seoul it drew over 200,000 viewers (10% of Seoul's population). This encouraged other films to be made and greatly boosted the revival of the film industry.

The first president of Korea, Dr. Lee Seung-man had a particular fondness for film and enacted a tax exemption measure to encourage the development of the domestic filmmaking industry. Several films won international awards during the late 1950's, such as Sijib Ganun Nal (The Wedding Day) which won the 1956 Special Comedy Award at the 4-th Asian Film Festival.

Reflecting the political, social, and economic instability that followed the two wars Korean film showed the discord between generations and the suffering of the people. Most often the genre chosen was the melodrama or a comedy. Some of these directors were Yu Hyon-mok, Sin Sang-ok, and Kim Gi-yong.

The military coup of May of 1961 changed Korean filmmaking abruptly generating the "Motion Picture Law," which restructured the entire industry. The laws actually limited the number of production companies to 16, there had been 71 in operation at the time and established a quota system for the production and importing of films.

The industry continued to grow during this time, however, until 1972 when 20 of the 23 existing production companies went bankrupt. The rising popularity of television and the diminishing quality of film are frequently blamed for these bankruptcies. Sympathy to communism, government criticism, artfulness and sexual obscenity were all reasons for censorship and confiscation causing creativity to disappear. Melodramas, sleazy comedy, and action films were the most popular genres of this time. The only genres showing any real creativity during this time were the literary based films and children's movies.

In 1973 the "Revitalizing Government" was formed and the Motion Picture Law was revised. Each year the amount of film issued was strictly controlled and every production company registered with the government had to make a specified number of movies. Each film had to reflect the ideology of the Revitalizing Government. To increase the profitability in the distribution and screening of movies, the government strictly limited the number of foreign films that could be imported and the number of days they could be shown in a year.

1980 through the Present

The 5th Republic replaced the Revitalizing Government in 1979. Gradually, Korean society was becoming more democratic, liberal, and open. Even with the new found liberalism, censorship continued to exist and limit the creativity of film made in Korea. Social themes were more easily explored and depicted. Interestingly, the Korean public did not always support or approve of what the censors allowed. For example, the distribution of Kim Su-young's Dosiro Gan Cho-nyo (The Girl Who Went to the City) was halted by the wild protests of the Bus Transportation Union in 1981. In 1984, Buddhists stopped the production of Im Kwon-tak's Biguni (The Buddhist Nun) because of objections to the screenplay.

As the 1980's progressed into the 1990's Korean film can criticize both the government and culture more freely. More film professionals continue to emerge and demand more change in the government policies to allow even more freedom in the Korean film industry.

1) Lee Young-il The History of Korean Cinema: Main Current of Korean Cinema, Motion Picture Promotion Corp. Seoul, 1988
2) Tony Rayns, Seoul Stirring: 5 Directors, ICA Institute of Contemporary Arts , London, 1994)

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