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Book review: Jinhee Choi — The South Korean Film Renaissance

Jinhee Choi South Korean Film RenaissanceJinhee Choi: The South Korean Film Renaissance
Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs
Wesleyan University Press, 2010

There seems to be an ever-growing pile of available books of Korean film, with more to come over the next two years. This is testament to the established interest in Asian film and the growth of media studies as an academic discipline. If you have read all the available books, will the current volume add anything to your understanding of Korean film? If you haven’t, is this a good place to start?

Maybe here is a good point to summarise the current Korean film bibliography:

Essay collections

Single author or collaborative works

As you will see, the majority of these are specialist in nature and / or a collection of essays rather than a through-composed book. While commissioning editors can ensure a reasonable coverage of topics they are of necessity more constrained in terms of being able to provide a cohesive view across topics. And of the other works, only one (Paquet) aims to give a satisfactory overview of the state of play in the Korean movie world, while the remainder focus with greater or lesser degrees of success on particular aspects. And in Paquet’s slender volume there is little time to discuss individual films.

So, if you’re a newcomer to Korean film, possibly Choi is a good place to start. With a good balance between film history, film technique, and analysis, this book will appeal to a number of audiences and there’s nothing too technical to put off a general reader. There is some assumed knowledge (for example, of the 180 degree rule) but a quick google will usually fill the gap. And reflecting the cinephilia of the cinema-going audience in Korea, Choi’s book is full of parallels and comparisons with films from other countries.

When Anthony Leong came up with the title for his lively collection of reviews (Korean Cinema – the New Hong Kong) he seemed to be speaking mainly from the consumer viewpoint. We had all been enthralled by the martial arts and gangster films of John Woo and Yuen Woo-ping, but then in the late 1990s Hong Kong seemed to lose its way as the star names drifted off to Hollywood. Just as Hong Kong was in decline, the narrative went, Korean film came out of nowhere and took its place as the most exciting country to watch.

Choi argues that this is more than coincidence. Hong Kong films were big in Korea in the 1980s, and Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat were already big names there. We are about to see a very explicit homage to Hong Kong gangster cinema in the Korean remake of the classic A Better Tomorrow, but Choi notes earlier, explicit references to Hong Kong action cinema in films such as Two Cops, when the veteran cop rebukes the rookie, telling him he’s watched too many Hong Kong movies.

Choi’s book examines a range of genres such as gangster cinema and romance films, devoting a chapter to each, and within each genre examines a representative sample of films – including some which might not immediately seem to fit in the genre. Hence the “Whispering Corridors” series is discussed in the “teen pics” chapter, while horror or comedy don’t have chapters to themselves. In fact one of the attractions of many of Korea’s most interesting films from the past decade has been the extent to which they haven’t really fitted into any particular box. Fortunately, it seems film critics have come up with a separate box for them: the so-called “well-made” films, which Choi admits is a vague term, encompassing as it does such films as Memories of Murder, Oldboy, Untold Scandal, King and the Clown and Tale of Two Sisters – interestingly, many of the films which appear on western critics’ top 10 Korean movie lists.

Choi helpfully references Kim Kyung-hyun’s book, putting it in the narrow context of the oeuvre of socially aware new-wave directors such as Jang Sun-woo and Park Kwang-su. Kim’s thesis is made much more understandable when applied to specific directors rather than as a generic model for Korean cinema as a whole.

Usually the chapter rises above a discussion of the individual films – for example in the chapter which examines whether there is anything particularly Korean about the Korean blockbuster. At other times (for example the section on Hong Sang-soo) you get the sense that there is not much to say other than to talk about the films themselves, but in such instances the discussion is never less than engaging.

There will always be things that a reader will want more discussion of. For my own part, I would have expected more discussion of the romantic melodrama that Korea does so well: the Romance chapter focuses more on rom-coms. And of the leading directors, I would have liked more on Lee Chang-dong. But these are quibbles: in summary, this book is a helpful introduction to the current state of the Korean film in the last 20 years.


One thought on “Book review: Jinhee Choi — The South Korean Film Renaissance

  1. Daniel Martin: I just reviewed this for the journal New Review of Film and Television Studies – I thought it was really great. It’ll be very useful for researchers new to Korean cinema, and I’ll use it a lot in my teaching.

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