A Short History of Korean Film

by Darcy Paquet

1903 -- First public screening of a film in Korea (the exact year is debated).
1910 -- Korea is formally annexed by Japan, after several years of effective colonization.
1919 -- First Korean film, a kinodrama (play with motion picture inserts) named The Righteous Revenge(Uirijeok Gutu).
1923 -- First silent film, Plighted Love Under the Moon (Wolha-ui maengseo) directed by Yun Baek-nam.
obaltan 1926 -- Arirang by Na Un-kyu.
1935 -- First sound film, Chunhyang-jeon directed by Lee Myung-woo.
1937 -- Japan invades China; censorship of film industry increases.
1945 -- Japan surrenders; Korea regains independence, but is soon divided in two.
1949 -- Korea's first color film, The Women's Diary by Hong Seong-gi.
1950 -- War starts on the Korean Peninsula.
1953 -- Cease-fire agreement signed at Panmunjeom.
1956 -- Box office smash Madame Freedom inaugurates industry revival.
1960 -- The Housemaid, directed by Kim Ki-young.
1961 -- Obaltan, (pictured right) directed by Yu Hyun-mok.
1961 -- Military coup leads to consolidation and heavy regulation of film industry.
1973 -- Establishment of Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation (KMPPC).
1974 -- Establishment of Korean Film Archive.
1979 -- President Park Chung Hee is assassinated.
1980 -- Gwangju Uprising.
1981 -- Mandala, directed by Im Kwon-taek.
1988 -- Hollywood studios open first branch offices in Korea, led by UIP.
1992 -- Marriage Story is first film financed by a member of the chaebol (Samsung).
1993 -- Democratization spreads in Korea under new president Kim Young Sam.
1993 -- Sopyonje, directed by Im Kwon-taek, sets new local box office record.
1997 -- Opening of Namyangju Cinema Complex outside of Seoul.
1999 -- Shiri, directed by Kang Jae-gyu, kicks off commercial boom.
2001 -- Local market share tops 50%, boom in overseas sales.
2004 -- Silmido and Tae Guk Gi become the first films to sell 10 million tickets.
2004 -- Oldboy wins Grand Prix (second prize) at the Cannes Film Festival.
2006 -- The Host breaks box office record and helps local market share reach 64%.

1903-1945: Korea Under Japanese Rule

Only fragments remain of Korea's early film history. The vast majority of Korea's early film footage was lost due to neglect or the destruction brought about by the Korean War, and not a single feature produced before 1934 survives in complete form today. Nonetheless, historical records paint a picture of a lively and creative industry that produced over 160 features from the early twenties until Japan's surrender to Allied forces in 1945.

From 1909 to 1920, a series of theaters were built in Seoul and in regional cities such as Pusan and Pyongyang. Most of these theaters were owned by Japanese businessmen, but a few Korean theater owners built up a significant amount of capital screening European and American imports. This capital would eventually be used to help finance the first domestic productions. Korea's first "film" (The Righteous Revenge), a kinodrama in which actors performed against the backdrop of a projected feature, debuted at Seoul's Danseongsa Theater in 1919. The public reportedly loved the show, but the long-term prospects of this and other kinodramas were hampered by intellectuals who criticized the mixed-media format as an insult to both theatre and film.

Arirang Korea's first silent feature was produced in 1923, and over the next few years, seven Korean film companies would appear. The masterpiece of this era is considered to be Na Un-kyu's Arirang (1926, pictured left). Na, only 25 years old at the time, produced, directed and starred in this film about a mentally unstable man who kills a wealthy landowner's son who is linked to the Japanese police. The title is taken from a popular folk song, which in its newly re-arranged form would become an anthem of sorts for the Korean independence movement. The film, admired for its aesthetic qualities as well as for its hidden political messages, became an inspiration for a wave of young filmmakers who hoped to make films based on principles of realism and resistance to Japanese power.

Despite the increasing popularity of local cinema, however, Japanese censorship played a large role in limiting its growth. The colonial government required all foreign and domestic features to be submitted to a government censorship board for approval before being screened, and police were present at theaters for screenings. Although a few works extolling Korean nationalism reached audiences in the late 1920s, from 1930 censorship became much more strict, such that melodramas, costume dramas, and pro-Japanese films became more prominent. Several features were banned outright and subsequently destroyed.

By 1935 the first sound feature Chunhyang-jeon (based on Korea's most famous folk tale, which has been filmed over a dozen times) was directed by Lee Myung-woo, with the assistance of pioneering sound technician Lee Pil-woo. Nonetheless, local filmmakers found it difficult to raise enough money to produce sound features, and Korean talkies faced much harsher criticism than the silent films which preceded them. It was only two years later, with the runaway commercial success of Lee Gyu-hwan's Drifter (1937) that sound films were established as the norm. In the same year, however, Japan invaded China, and the Korean filmmakers would come under increasing pressure to shoot films that supported the Japanese military and the war effort. By 1942, Korean-language films were banned outright by the government.


Only five films have survived from the period between the U.S. occupation of Korea and the end of the Korean War. Of them, the most famous is Choi Un-gyu's Chayu Manse! ("Hoorah! Freedom"), released in 1946. An ode to patriotism with strong anti-Japanese sentiments, the film proved to be a hit with audiences.

During the Korean War, much of the country's film reinfrastructure was destroyed and the center of the industry temporalily moved to Busan. Many filmmakers became involved in shooting newsreels and war documentaries. Following the armistice agreement in 1953, President Rhee Syngman declared cinema to be exempt from all tax, in hopes of reviving the industry. Foreign aid programs provided South Korea with film technology and equipment, setting the stage for the rebirth of Korean cinema in the late-fifties and sixties.

1955-1969: A Golden Age for Korean Cinema

The latter half of the 1950s can be considered a period of revival for the Korean film industry, as the number of domestic productions increased from 8 in 1954 to 108 in 1959. The public also returned to the theaters, embracing such features as the now-lost 1955 version of Chunhyang-jeon, which drew 200,000 viewers in Seoul (over a tenth of the city's population), and Madame Freedom (1956), based on a scandalous novel that had been published the year before in a local newspaper.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the emergence of some of Korea's most talented directors. These filmmakers worked during a time when the domestic film industry enjoyed an unprecedented surge in box office receipts. However in 1962, military dictator Park Chung Hee instituted a highly constrictive Motion Picture Law which caused a severe consolidation in the number of film companies, and which strengthened government control over all aspects of the industry. Although accomplished films continued to be made up until the end of the decade, such restrictive policies would ultimately have a severe effect on the industry's creativity.

The Housemaid Without question, Korea's most shockingly original director is the late Kim Ki-young. Kim, renowned for his gritty domestic dramas, released his most famous feature, The Housemaid (pictured right), in 1960. This film -- the tale of a manipulative housemaid who seduces her master -- transgresses the laws of contemporary cinema to the same extent that its heroine tears apart the Confucian order of her household. As in many of Kim's features, the women in this film possess a great deal of power and become a direct, menacing threat to their male counterparts. Although Kim's work remained largely forgotten for many years, he was "re-discovered" in the 1990s and afforded his rightful place in Korean film history.

Another significant talent to emerge from this era is Yu Hyun-mok, who captured widespread attention with his 1961 feature Obaltan (translated as "Aimless Bullet"). This film, which combines the social concerns and themes of Italian Neorealism with more expressionist sound design and visuals, expresses the pain and despair brought on by the destruction of the war and Korea's industrial development. Yu's work, which focuses on marginalized members of society, is highly stylized and the most obviously intellectual of the period.

Lastly, Shin Sang-ok established himself as a major figure with early works such as A Flower in Hell (1958) and his best-known film The Houseguest and My Mother (1961). The latter work, told through the perspective of a young girl, portrays the struggles of a young widow who falls in love with her tenant, but cannot express her feelings due to a restrictive social code. Later in the decade, Shin would turn to color and a more sensual tone in works such as The Dream (1967), based on an ancient tale about a libidinous Buddhist monk, and a masterful work set in the medieval Chosun Dynasty: Eunuch (1968). In 1978, after having made some 80 films in his home country, he and his wife were mysteriously "kidnapped" and taken to North Korea. After working in the film industry there for eight years he moved to Hollywood, where he would produce The Three Ninjas and its sequels under the name Simon Sheen.

The 1970s

In the seventies, the film industry entered a long period of declining admissions and increased levels of government censorship. In 1973 the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation (the precursor to the Korean Film Council) was formed in an effort to revive the industry, and in the following year the Korean Film Archive was founded, but as an industry Korean cinema would not reverse its commercial slide until the mid-1990s.

Nonetheless a number of interesting works from this period display a high degree of originality in their exploration of personal (and, often on a symbolic level, political) themes. Highlights include some of the most distinctive works by Kim Ki-young (Insect Woman, Iodo, Woman Chasing Killer Butterfly, and more); the debut work by gifted director Lee Jang-ho, The Hometown of Stars; and Road to Sampo, the last film by celebrated filmmaker Lee Man-hee, who died in 1975 in his mid-forties. The seventies also saw witness to the short but dazzling career of Ha Kil-jong, described by many as one of the most talented directors ever to work in Korea. Ha directed seven features including his best-known work March of Fools (1975) before his early death in 1979 at the age of 38.


An infusion of new directorial talent in the early eighties would bring about a modest revival in the film industry. Although attendance remained at low levels, the eighties witnessed a slight relaxation in censorship and an increasing recognition from the international film community, culminating perhaps in Kang Su-yeon's Best Actress award at the 1987 Venice Film Festival for her role in Surrogate Mother.

Sopyonje Many critics would argue that the most significant name of the decade is Im Kwon-taek. Although Im had already directed over 70 features by 1980, it was with Mandala (1981) that he emerged as Korea's best-known filmmaker. Moving away from his earlier, commercially-oriented style, Mandala focuses on two monks in order to explore the meaning and place of Buddhism in Korean society. Im has become known for his efforts to capture and enshrine the older, forgotten elements of Korean traditional culture. His most popular and acclaimed feature, Sopyonje (1993, pictured left), brought about a revival in the Korean vocal art known as pansori. To date, Im has directed 100 features and he remains a central figure in Korean film.

In the 1980s, the Korean film industry undertook the first steps of a major transformation with several important developments. Firstly, military leader Roh Tae-woo enacted a new constitution in 1988 which led to the gradual easing of political censorship. One early film to take advantage of this was Park Kwang-soo's Chilsu and Mansu (1988), which cleverly invokes images of a street demonstration in its memorable final scene. Park would go on to direct more acclaimed films, such as Black Republic (1990), To the Starry Island (1993) and A Single Spark (1995).

Meanwhile back in 1984, a revision to the Motion Picture Law loosened some of the regulatory restrictions on Korean filmmakers. Independent production, which had formerly been illegal, was permitted under certain circumstances, and the government also repealed laws which had kept the film industry consolidated under a few large companies. The end result of this is that by the late 1980s a new generation of young producers had entered the film industry, and their new approaches to filmmaking would eventually have a major effect on Korean cinema.

However the news was not all positive for local filmmakers. In 1988, a change in policy lifted import restrictions on foreign films, and allowed Hollywood companies to set up branch offices on Korean soil. Up until this time, the screening of movies from Hollywood or Hong Kong had always been strictly controlled and limited by the government in various ways. These new laws would mean that for the first time, Korean films would have to compete directly with Hollywood product. Over the next few years, domestic films would gradually lose their market share, reaching a low point in 1993 when Korean cinema made up only 16% of overall attendance figures. The Screen Quota System, whereby theaters were obliged to screen Korean features for 106-146 days out of the year, remained the only protectiong against foreign competition at this time.

However in 1992, Marriage Story by first-time director Kim Ui-seok opened to rave critical and popular reviews, heralding not only the introduction of a new popular genre (the sex-war comedy), but also a new era. With this film, Samsung, one of South Korea's five major conglomerates, would become the first of the so-called chaebol to enter the film industry. In time these conglomerates would transform the structure of the business, introducing a vertically integrated system whereby the financing, production, exhibition, distribution, and video release of films were all controlled by a single company. Although many chaebol including Samsung dropped out of the industry after the 1997 ("IMF") financial crisis, major conglomerates such as CJ, the Orion Group (Showbox), and Lotte remain the industry's most powerful players in the present day.

Several directors who debuted in the 1980s continued to produce interesting work in the 90s. Notably, Jang Sun-woo, who shot his first feature Seoul Jesus in 1986, presented audiences with a series of challenging and controversial films ranging from Road to the Racetrack (1993), a dark and meandering portrait of two Korean intellectuals having an affair, to A Petal (1996), about the lasting effects of the Kwangju Massacre in 1980.


The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well However beginning in 1996, a new generation of directors began to take over the industry. Arthouse master Hong Sang-soo made his debut with the award-winning The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996, pictured right), which weaves the experience of four characters into a single story. In this and his subsequent films, Hong built a reputation for his honest depiction of the cruelty and baseness of human relations. The year 1996 also saw the debut of controversial filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, known for his rough but visually striking film style (largely self-taught) and his tendency to shoot films very quickly on a shoestring budget. Unlike most other leading Korean directors, Kim's films such as The Isle (2000) were first championed internationally, rather than by local critics. Then in 1997, Lee Chang-dong made his debut with Green Fish. A former novelist, Lee would eventually win a Best Director award at Venice for Oasis (2002), and also served as Korea's Minister of Culture and Tourism from 2003-2004.

At the same time, a group of younger, more commercially minded filmmakers were also making their debut. In 1997, the release of the hit film The Contact by Chang Yoon-hyun marked a resurgence of box-office popularity for domestic features, leading up to the unprecedented success of Kang Je-gyu's 1999 film Shiri. Since then, Korea has entered a boom period that ranks as one of the most sudden and notable developments in recent world cinema. Local audiences have rushed to embrace local films, so that by 2001 the 60-70 Korean films made each year sold significantly more tickets than the 200-300 Hollywood and foreign titles that were released. In the international arena as well, festival screenings and international sales expanded at breathtaking speed, as more and more directors began to make a name for themselves.

One could argue, however, that the current boom being enjoyed by Korean cinema is less of an extraordinary circumstance, than a case of the industry finally reaching its natural state. Since its earliest beginnings, Korean cinema has been hampered by Japanese colonization, national division, civil war, authoritative military governments, strict censorship, and highly restrictive, distorting film regulations. Only in the 1990s did Korean cinema finally enjoy a supportive government, a stable economic environment and a sensible film policy. Although the amazing commercial boom that has powered the film industry in recent years may well fade to more modest levels, one hopes that Korean cinema will never again face such extreme disruptions as it did in the 20th century.

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Koreanfilm.org, last updated March 1, 2007.