The Yu Hyun-mok Page
Yu Hyun-mok is remembered today as one of the three master filmmakers from Korea who debuted in the 1950s (together with Kim Ki-young and Shin Sang-ok), and as the creator of Obaltan (1961), which has repeatedly been voted the best Korean film of all time in local critics' polls. Passionately committed to making and teaching film throughout his career, Yu took a decidedly intellectual approach to cinema which at times left him out of favor in an industry dominated by Korea's military government and commercially-oriented producers. Although often described as Korea's foremost practitioner of cinematic realism, a closer look at his work reveals an eclectic mix of styles and approaches that defy easy definition.
Mommy, Star, and Sea Anemone (1995)
Yu Hyun-mok was born on July 2, 1925 in Hwanghae Province, in what is now North Korea. He moved to Seoul in 1939, and after entering Dongduk University as a Korean Language major, he decided to become a playwright after seeing the plays of Yu Chi-jin and Lee Hae-rang. His first experience in the film industry was as an assistant director for Cho Jung-ho in 1946. The following year he directed and starred in a 45-minute film called Sea Dragon, and instituted a "Film Art Organization" which was the first film group in a major Korean university. In 1949 he graduated from university and assisted on Shin Sang-ok's debut feature Evil Night.
Yu made his directorial debut with The Crossroad in 1956. Two years later, in 1958, he would marry visual artist Park Keun-ja, whom he has credited with having a strong impression on his work. Yu's most famous film Obaltan was shot in 1960 and screened the following year. It was invited to the 7th San Francisco Film Festival in 1963, and Yu attended the event together with actor Kim Jin-gyu.
Yu continued making a considerable number of films throughout the 1960s (though not near the number of some of his contemporaries), while also teaching at Dongguk University from 1963. His first film as an independent producer was Martyr (1965), which also became the first Korean film ever to be exported to the U.S. That same year, Yu was arrested for violation of the Anti-Communist Law, but was later pronounced innocent. In 1967, Yu participated in Korea's first omnibus film, titled A Regret. In 1971 he established his own production company, Yu Productions.
Apart from his filmmaking, Yu remained active in the film community in a number of different roles. He formed the Korea Amateur Filmmakers Association in 1970, was elected chairman of the Korean Directors' Association in 1974, was elected as vice president of the Motion Pictures Association of Korea in 1975, and was appointed a full professor at Dongguk University in 1976. In 1977 he was elected director of the Korean Film Archive, and then he organized the East-West Film Group in 1979. He was elected chairman of the Film Art Society of Korea in 1989, and then became Dean of the Department of Arts at Dongguk University. The following year he officially retired at the age of 65, but continued to teach as an honorary professor.
Yu also published several books: The Development of Korean Cinema in 1980, Theory of International Film Directors in 1984, and he also wrote the cinema portion of the book History of Korean Theatre, Dance, and Cinema in 1984. Later he would write Critical Essays on Film Studies in 1990 and My Life: Yu Hyun-mok in 1995.
Yu directed his last film, Mommy, Star, and Sea Anemone in 1995. His work has been the subject of several retrospectives in the 1990s, including at the Korean Film Archive in 1990, in Aix-en-Provence, France in 1999, and at the 4th Pusan International Film Festival in 1999. In addition, his works were presented along with that of Shin Sang-ok and Im Kwon-taek in a special film series "Three Master Korean Filmmakers" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1996.
Essays and Thoughts
School Excursion (1969)
by Darcy Paquet
Awards and Honors
Honorary Director Award - 33rd Grand Bell Awards in 1995
Presented with an Order of Cultural Merit from the Korean government, 1988
Best Picture, Flame (1975) - 14th Grand Bell Awards
Best Director, Bun-Rye's Story (1971) - 10th Grand Bell Awards
Best Picture/Best Director, Descendent of Cain (1968) - 6th Blue Dragon Film Awards
Links and Printed Sources
Cho, Eunsun. "The Stray Bullet and the Crisis of Korean Masculinity." In McHugh, Kathleen and Abelmann, Nancy, ed.
South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema.
Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Lee, Yong-kwan, and San-yong Lee, eds. Yu Hyun-Mok: The Pathfinder of Korean Realism.
Pusan: Fourth Pusan International Film Festival, 1999.
Paquet, Darcy. "Obaltan." In Boyer, Justin, ed. The Cinema of Japan and Korea.
London: Wallflower Press, 2004.