The Rise of Classic Korean Cinema Abroad

by Pierce Conran   11.30.2012
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Building an audience through festivals and KOFA’s youtube project
To qualify 2012 as a blockbuster year for Korean cinema would be something of an understatement. With two films to date cracking the 10 million admissions mark, record cinema attendance, and the domestic market share pushing 60% (second only to 2006’s 63%), there is plenty of cause for celebration. However, now is also a good time to reflect on the roots of today’s industry. Though Korean film largely became a major player on the international scene beginning in the late 1990s, it has a rich and largely unheralded cinematic heritage that has yielded many classics over the decades.
Korean films have become increasingly popular on the festival circuit and as more titles have found their feet through limited runs in overseas markets, so too have the fortunes of classic Korean cinema risen. Older Korean films can now be found lurking in festival retrospectives and the names of some past Korean filmmakers are slowly becoming known to the world. Most notable among the cinephiles that have come to embrace classic Korean films is Martin SCORSESE, who had a hand in the remastering of KIM Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), long considered a seminal work of Korean cinema.
Retrospectives of classic Korean cinema have traditionally been a rare event. Even when they were contemporary, scarcely any works were screened at international film festivals prior to the 1990s. KIM Ki-young was invited to Sitges a few times and after Mandala (1981), IM Kwon-taek slowly carved a small space for himself on the festival circuit but these instances were few and far between.
The first major retrospective of classic Korean film occurred in 1997 at the 2nd Busan International Film Festival, which devoted a program to KIM’s work. Following his death a year later a number of festivals held posthumous sidebars, including the Berlin, San Francisco and Belgrade International Film Festivals. In 2006, the French Cinematheque put on a comprehensive program of his work featuring 18 titles.
Among the thousands of features that the Korean film industry produced before the recent boom of Korean cinema (generally considered to be around 1997-1998), three specific titles have been afforded substantially more exposure than all the rest. These include: the aforementioned The Housemaid, a brilliant and subversive work that shocked audiences in the early 1960s; YU Hyeon-mok’s Obaltan (Aimless Bullet, 1961), an intense and realistic portrait of a struggling family in Seoul; and IM Kwon-taek’s Sopyonje (1993), an immensely popular tale of a family of pansori singers which was the first Korean film to draw over a million viewers.
This trio of films can serve as a strong introduction to older Korean films but they only hint at the depth and quality, not mention sheer number, of classics gathering dust at the Korean Film Archive.
As modern Korean cinema has exploded in the last 15 years, there has been an increase in curiosity about the country’s cinematic history but it is still largely the job of film festival programmers to introduce these titles to audiences. Thankfully, of late these retrospective have become more prominent. This year alone has seen a number of showcases pop up around the globe.
As usual, Korea’s main festivals held classic film retrospectives including: The ‘Yeongsang-sidae Movement and LEE Jang-ho’ at the 13th Jeonju International Film Festival; a ‘1970s Korean Comedy’ program at the 16th Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival; and a retrospective on actor SHIN Young-kyun, called ‘Male Icon of Korean Cinema: From Farmhand to King’ at the 17th Busan International Film Festival.

Elsewhere around the world in 2012, a retrospective was held at the 14th Udine Far East Film Festival called ‘1970s Korean Cinema: The Darkest Decade’. The program, curated by Darcy PAQUET, featured the works of classic Korean cinema luminaries such as YU Hyun-mok, KIM Ki-young, KIM Soo-yong, IM Kwon-taek, HA Kil-jong and KIM Ho-sun. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) featured two SHIN Sang-ok features during its second annual Yeonghwa: Korean Cinema Today event.  The inaugural Look East Film Festival in Los Angeles, which opened with the historic casting of AHN Sung-ki and LEE Byung-hun’s foot and handprints outside of Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, screened Hometown in My Heart (1949) and The Flower in Hell (1958). Meanwhile, the Paris Korean Film Festival also got in on the act as they played Madame Freedom (1956), The Empty Dream (1965), and Yeong-Ja's Heydays (1975) among others.
Pat of what makes these programs so impressive is the inherent difficulty of tracking down some of the older titles. Besides the frequently subpar quality of older and poorly preserved prints, acquiring the rights to screen them can often be a demanding (not to mention expensive) task. Also, given how unknown this period of cinema is internationally, there are still relatively few people seeking out this sort of content. Considering the expense and effort involving in staging these programs and the dearth of demand, not many undertake the task: it perpetuates a vicious cycle.
Comprehensive retrospectives are a wonderful resource but in the context of bringing a cinematic culture to a larger audience, they face one crucial problem: accessibility. Geography, finances and schedules prevent many from attending such events. However, six months ago the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) launched a service that has largely remedied this issue and radically changed the way we can view classic Korean films. The ‘Korean Classic Film Theatre’ on Youtube (www.youtube.com/user/KoreanFilm) is a free channel featuring 70 Korean classics: all available in high quality streaming and with English subtitles. It is a unique and remarkable project that has instantly granted easy access to a previously hard-to-come-by national cinematic heritage.
KOFA has selected a broad selection of films that range from 1949’s Hometown in the Heart all the way to HONG Sangsoo’s debut The Day A Pig Fell into the Well (1996). The intervening decades are well represented with a slightly larger focus afforded to the 1960s. Particularly the early part of that decade that was notable for a brief spell during which censorship was relaxed: yielding an incredible body of socially aware work. KIM Ki-young, SHIN Sang-ok and IM Kwon-taek are also heavily featured, each the focus of their own subsection.
As it approaches 10,000 subscribers and half a million views there is no doubt that the venture has been a success, yet it is still relatively unknown. This is partly a result of classic Korean cinema’s low profile. It’s difficult to get people excited about something they are not familiar with. Yet the growing presence of these works in various international venues proves that its’ standing is slowly rising within the cinematic community.
While uncertain, the future is looking bright for classic Korean cinema. With increased availability, the remastering of classics, lesser known works receiving subtitles, the release of new academic books and essays, and the promise of more titles becoming available in the ancillary market (DVD, Blu-ray, Video-on-Demand), it looks like Korean cinema’s rich history may finally receive its due recognition on the world stage.

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