Darcy Paquet: New Korean Cinema – Breaking the Waves
Wallflower Press, 2009
This brief introduction to Korean film is packed with insight based on Darcy Paquet’s unique viewpoint on Korean film.1 Do not expect to find lots of analysis of individual films, or discussion of cinematography, lighting or editing techniques. But what you have in abundance is context. The development of the Korean film industry over the last 30 years is explained in the context of historical, political and sociological developments, and in the related context of changing methods of film financing. From the time of censorship, when a director could get arrested for portraying North Korea in too human a light, through promotion and protection, when the government realised that Jurassic Park earned as many dollars as the sale of 1.5 million Hyundais, Paquet traces film’s modern history with a deftness that will inform the newcomer and give new insights to eose who thought they knew the ground already.
Many fans of Korean film will never have heard of Marriage Story (결혼 이야기, Kim Ui-seok 1992), one of the first major “planned films” in Korean film history. Think in terms of a film whose plot is tailor-made in accordance with the output of a series of focus-group discussions, targeted at a particular segment of the market. The script was rewritten 16 times following interviews with that target demographic. A commercial success at the time, it is now virtually forgotten among the films of more highbrow directors such as Im Kwon-taek, Jang Sun-woo and Park Kwang-su, but Paquet highlights the planned film as an important attempt to reconnect with the audience after the “quality films” of the 1970s and “quota quickies” of the 1980s, which were designed to meet government bureaucratic requirements rather than audience taste.
Moving on from the “planned film”, Paquet touches on other production styles and genres: the director-led auteur film; the commercial producer-led film; the blockbuster; and films which aimed to cash in on the hallyu, stopping along the way to discuss some of the major directors which have caught our attention over the past two decades.
It is a mark of a well-written book on film that it makes you want to want to watch the films it references. I even found myself hunting the internet (without success) to see if I could find a copy of Marriage Story. With too many books a movie is analysed to within an inch of its life – it’s a specimen to be dissected rather than a work to be appreciated. With this book, because of the compelling narrative, you want to get hold of the films which Paquet highlights to see why they are important in the history of Korea’s modern movie and social history. Paquet’s book will appeal to those who want to understand Korea better through its films as much as those for whom film studies are an end in itself. Its brief discussion of The Host, for example, focuses on how the family at the centre of the film seems to mirror Korea’s development over the past 50 years
Paquet pinpoints 2006, the year of The Host and King and the Clown, as possibly one of the turning points in the history of the latest wave of Korean film. Domestic productions captured over 60% of local box office, but such was the boom in film-making that there weren’t enough cameras to go round. Inevitably, many films lost money, and continue to do so. Jang Jin, in his recent Q&A at the ICA, suggested that the film industry needed to take greater risks rather than stick to the same formulas. Paquet sees that the independent sector also has a role to play in keeping the industry vibrant.
At 135 pages including index and bibliography, it’s a slender volume, but it’s packed with content. I’m tempted to say that best things come in small packets. But while on the subject of bad puns, here’s hoping that this is the last Korean film book to have a play on “Seoul” or “Wave” in the title.
- Most readers will not need to be told that Paquet’s Koreanfilm.org was at one time the only online source for reviews and discussion of Korean film, and while the growth of the blogosphere has meant that forum members are now running their own review sites rather than discussing film with each other on Koreanfilm.org, the site is still the most authoritative and comprehensive on the web.