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Korean Film – History, Resistance and Democratic Imagination

Buy this book at AmazonEungjun Min, Jinsook Joo, Han Ju Kwak (Praeger, 2003)


Proof that an academic book on film does not have to be unreadable; and apart from the first chapter this book is accessible to the general reader.

The first chapter can, however, be safely ignored, as it seems simply to serve to establish that the authors are up to date on all the latest academic reading and therefore qualify for further funding.

Chapters 2 and 3 give a highly readable history of the Korean film industry from its humble beginnings as a way of promoting novelty goods, through the Japanese occupation, to the underground and national cinema movements of the 70s and 80s. One interesting passage chronicles the questionable acts, verging on terrorism, carried out by protestors against the first directly distributed American film in 1988, the bunny-boiling Fatal Attraction.

The fourth chapter might be of interest to film students generally, not just Koreanists, and discusses how events can get in the way of an “auteur” film actually reflecting the auteur’s personal manifesto. The film discussed is Jang Sun-woo’s Taste of Heaven.

The fifth chapter starts to get really interesting, examining different approaches to dealing with modernity in Korean films in the early to mid 90s. Firstly, the negative aspects of modernity (appalling working conditions, collusion between the factory owners and the authorities such as the police and those whose responsibility it is to enforce the labour laws) are examined via Black Republic and A Single Spark. In both films the role of the underground resistance movement is a theme. The book points out that A Single Spark was produced in the early years of the civilian-led democracy. The pro-democracy movement had therefore achieved its main objective and was now in danger of fragmenting. The book suggests that the film is a call for the ongoing relevance of the movement.

There follows a discussion of two Im Kwon-taek films dealing with the collision of modernity and Korean tradition: Sopyonje and Festival. Sopyonje depicts how a part of Korea’s traditional culture is being lost in the process of modernisation. Im identifies the contemporary Korean audience with the brother of the singer in the film, who abandoned his sister and the (harsh) musical training (=Korean tradition) to get a job in the city (=modernity), and now is trying to find her again. Finally, a useful discussion of Hong Sang-soo’s Day a pig fell into the well, which lays bare the dislocation in the lives of typical modern Koreans.

The next chapter is probably the least successful in the book — it’s probably a subject which requires more than just one chapter. It starts by picking up where the third chapter left off — the history of the Korean film industry in the mid 80s — with particular focus on the screen quota. It then tries to document the response of the film producers themselves to the threat from Hollywood, particularly in terms of Hollywoodising their narrative technique. The authors list out elements of a typical Hollywood storyline (this in itself needs a lot more support and detail), but unfortunately don’t list out the corresponding typical features of a Korean narrative — maybe because it’s obvious to readers. But most contemporary readers are going to be familiar with Korean film since the mid-90s rather than 80s and before. So it’s difficult to put the discussion in context. On the plus side, it’s good that this chapter doesn’t argue that the adoption of Hollywood elements (if in fact there is such a thing, which I’m not sure they fully established) was a universally bad thing for the Korean film industry. But I would have welcomed some discussion as to whether in fact the adoption of new influences was beneficial, and in what way. The success of the industry since the mid 90s surely argues that openness to new ideas (dare one say globalisation?) can have a positive effect.

The final chapter tries to identify post-democratisation trends in Korean film. It’s a brief chapter, but then there are other books which examine the Korean New Wave. The chapter focuses on the gangster genre, contrasting the violent, materialistic machismo of the modern gangster film noir with the more moralistic tone of the traditional gangster movie exemplified by Im Kwon-taek’s Son of a General. Films discussed include Rule of the Game (1994), Beat, and in more detail, my own personal favourites No 3 and Green Fish. It also introduces the concept of remasculinization, which means that maybe I’m now ready to renew my struggle with Kim’s book.

On a closing note, despite being more readable than the average academic book on Korean film, it could still have benefited from having a proofreader. There’s a lack of consistency in the ordering of names, with the majority of the time (but not always) the authors preferring the annoying western style of family name last. Thus Kwontak Im, but also Yi Changdong and a strange Hong Kong actor called Chowyun Fat. Some of the publications referred to in abbreviated form in the text are not included in the bibliography, and there’s a paragraph at the top of p177 which is complete gibberish. It’s also a hardback, costing upwards of £30. Nevertheless, despite the price and minor shortcomings, this is a book which contains useful material on the history of the Korean film industry — probably the best available in English — and also provides stimulating food for thought on the interaction of Korea’s turbulent modernisation process and its film industry.


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