Jun 2016 VOL.62


  • The Secret of PERIOD DRAMA
  • by LEE Yong-cheol / 01.24.2014
  • Korea’s Past Illuminates the Future

    Period dramas look to be one of the key trends of Korean cinema in 2014. Though there won’t be any more of them released than films of other genres, there are two reasons why they will be taking their place in the spotlight: big budgets and major stars. Since the remarkable success of War of the Arrows (2011), Masquerade (2012) and last year’s The Face Reader, many producers and distributors have jumped onto the period bandwagon, and people are curious to see what the result will be. The question is whether the current craze will continue or if a new type of period drama will appear: their box office performance is likely to decide which way to go for producers in future. Looking forward to the new releases in 2014, this report takes a look at the history of the genre.

    Period films have been popular since the 1950s. Back then, as original scenarios were not as common, popular stories from other mediums like novellas, radio shows and traditional dramas were transferred to the screen. However, the periods and environments depicted in their stories were quite different from today’s period films. In recent examples, most stories are set in the Joseon dynasty with realistic costumes and props, but in the 1950s, most period dramas were set in older times like the Three Kingdoms Era, most often depicting dramatic love stories. Since they were set in the distant past, they were less concerned with details and realism.
    The 1960s was the heyday for period dramas and during this time the setting switched to the Joseon Era. Films made at this time have become role models for the genre, influencing elements such as the relationships between kings and officers, the way people talk and dress, and so on. Furthermore, audiences expected to witness a historical event, rather than a far-fetched legend from the remote past. To this end, SHIN Sang-ok’s Prince Yeonsan (1961) was the film that marked the advent of period dramas depicting the Joseon Kingdom. Popular historical figures like Dan-jong, Yeonsan, Kwang-hae, Suk-jong, Cheol-jong, Jang Hee-bin and Jeong Nan-jeong were played in many films and in several different ways, and these traditional stories have become familiar to audiences.

    Period films of the 60s more or less overlap with the genre known as the ‘historical drama,’ but the events in those historical dramas do not necessarily correspond to real history. With little room for creativity, historical dramas were just cinematic renditions of what had been used and reused in other genres. In this aspect, historical dramas were quite different from today’s fusion period dramas that blend fact with fiction, wherein totally new ideas are combined with historical events. Period films reached their peak in the late 60s, spanning many subgenres, but declined in the 70s due to the overall stagnation of Korean cinema and the expansion of the TV market. Period dramas were popular once again in the 1980s when eroticism became a clear trend in Korean cinema. Erotic period dramas attracted many viewers, although the level of the genre’s past popularity never quite revived, and the amount of works produced remained modest.

    In the 1990s, whenever a noteworthy period drama came along in Korean cinema, it was one of those made by IM Kwon-taek, each marked with his auteurist style. While period dramas on TV became popular again in the mid-1990s, it took longer for cinema to latch on to the once popular genre. Period films go through ups and downs in roughly ten-year intervals, and following their downfall in the 1990s they are now heading towards a new plateau in the 21st century.

    The reason why period dramas are gaining popularity is because they are based on the remarkable success of the Korean film market from the late 1990s, both in terms of quality and quantity. The expansion of the market brought about more significant capital, which enabled the production of big budget period dramas. Moreover, developments in stunts, choreography, art, costumes, makeup, music and props have resulted in the production of high quality features.

    Although Bichunmoo (2000) and The Legend of Gingko (1996) were successful at the box office, it was in 2003 when the genre truly became familiar with spectators once more. Since the releases of Untold Scandal (2003) and Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield (2003), period drama production has been fluctuating in 3-5 year cycles, exhibiting a higher success rate than that of other genres.  In fact, the films that familiarized audiences with the genre were the foreign films Gladiator (2000), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002), which all came out in the early 21st century and achieved global success. Gladiator made young audiences perceive the old genre in a new light, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero added a sophisticated and literary touch on the Asian martial arts genre that was beginning to feel outdated. Moreover, the popularity of fusion period drama shows on TV helped create new audiences.

    What is remarkable in the trend of the 21st century period drama is the birth of the ‘faction’ genre. Unlike the period dramas of the past where the main story remained the same with little room for variation, today’s period dramas leave the door open to much wilder and freer imagination. They twist historical events and sometimes even switch historical figures. Audiences that had grown used to old-fashioned period dramas have also been replaced by new audiences. These ‘faction’ films are both realistic and imaginative at the same time, which has proven enormously appealing to today’s audiences. King and the Clown (2005) and Masquerade are good examples of this trend, where fictitious characters are combined with historical figures like Yeon-san and Kwang-hae, and the trend seems to be marching on.

    What appeals the most to viewers are period dramas with action. In the past, this subgenre was made with wire action and monotonous martial arts and did not achieve great success, but today’s improved technology has led to spectacular action scenes, and, combined with dramatic and thriller elements, have result in a new mainstream trend. Top-notch wire action is combined with CG technology, creating images reaching beyond imagination and attracting audiences who crave for vivid and epic spectacles. Attracting a remarkable number of viewers, War of the Arrows is likely the root of this popular subgenre that is predicted to be a leading trend in the future.

    Another noteworthy subgenre is the combination of period drama with comedy or eroticism. Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow (2011) and The Grand Heist (2012) both feature a comic touch and now it is a given that one or two comedic supporting roles will be featured no matter what the overall tone of the film. Erotic period dramas in the 21st century are influenced by those of the 1980s, but their appearance and themes are quite different. A lot of energy and resources are spent on remarkably vivid and sophisticated costumes, as well as art and music, rather than just focusing on physical lovemaking. The relationships between the characters are more important, clearly avoiding the prejudice that erotic period dramas are cheaply made. Good examples that show the modern sophistication of this subgenre include Untold Scandal, Forbidden Quest (2006) and The Concubine (2012).

    Considering the explosion of the genre, it should be pointed out that what really counts in period dramas is the meaning and significance of imagination, rather than imagination itself. Creativity is already abundant, but in some cases, films fail to be popular due to too many fantastical elements. Silly twists, low class erotic jokes and hollow humor are not what audiences look for in such films. Because it is an expensive genre to produce, it is vital to ensure box office success and thus films should be well made, exercising a careful balance between fantasy and fiction.
    Furthermore, it is important to consider the issue of properly understanding history. If period dramas were satisfied with the mere reflection and consumption of popular tastes, the real meaning of history would be lost, and this would constitute a genuine tragedy. It may be for this reason that films from the genre are less well known on the global stage.

    The 2014 line-up already features six big titles which are all distinct from each other. LEE Jae-kyu’s The King’s Wrath (working title), YOON Jong-bin’s Kundo: Age of the Rampant, KIM Han-min’s Roaring Currents, LEE Suk-hoon’s The Pirates (working title), PARK Heung-shik’s Memories of the Sword and KANG Woo-suk’s Du Pojol (W/T) all depict different time periods, different historical events and different characters. It will be interesting to see if they will carry on the success of this genre and also how innovative they will be in resolving the issue of understanding history and demonstrating a fresh perspective in the genre. The answer, just like their themes, will be proven through time.
    By LEE Yong-cheol
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