Colette Balmain reports from the book launch of Discovering Korean Cinema at the Korean Cultural Centre UK Tuesday 23 Nov 6pm
For the launch of the book, Discovering Korean Cinema (edited by Daniel Martin and Mark Morris, The Korean Cultural Centre: London, 2010), both the editors, Daniel Martin and Mark Morris, and one of the contributors to the short but useful volume, Jinhee Choi, gave an introduction to the book and to Korean Cinema generally for a packed audience at the Korean Cultural Centre in London, shortly after the Korean Film Festival had come to the end of its successful 2010 run in London and elsewhere in the UK.
One of the purposes of the launch event was to commemorate the end of the 2010 Korean Film Festival. Daniel Martin explained that the book was aimed at the general public, rather than academics in the field, in order to make Korean Cinema more widely accessible to fans and cinephiles of cinema generally. He told us that the 2010 Korean Film Festival was the most successful so far. Certainly in comparison to the 2009 Film Festival, there was a much wider range of genres on offer and the screenings I attended were packed to capacity.
Daniel then offered the audience, a potted and extremely illuminating history of the London Korean Film Festival, putting the start date of the Festival in its current form at 2006. However, he also pointed out that the roots of the Festival can be found much earlier, in fact to 1994 when the BFI put on Seoul Stirring: 5 Korean Film Directors (a catalogue of this festival can be obtained through the BFI and was put together by leading Korean film critic, Tony Rayns). For those interested, the five leading Korean film directors whose work was shown at the event were Im Kwon-taek, Jang Sun-woo, Kim Ui-seok, Lee Myung-se and Park Kwang-su. Since then there had been a range of film events showcasing Korean Cinema until the London Korean Film Festival took its current form in 2006.
He then went on to state that while there was a long tradition of Korean cinema (as elsewhere), the last ten years have seen Korean Cinema go from virtual obscurity outside of Korea and its immediate neighbours, to being a leading World Cinema today. While Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1999) was the first South Korean film to gain a limited theatrical release in the West, it was released into a critical vacuum with critics comparing it to the better known Hong Kong action cinema. It took time for Korean cinema to establish itself in the West. The cult status of directors such as Kim Ki-duk (Bad Guy/The Isle) helped to pave the way, but the pivotal point in the recognition of South Korean cinema came with the release of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003). Purportedly Tarantino was reduced to tears on seeing Oldboy, which garnered the Grand Jury Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and which as a result of positive word of mouth went on to be a critical and commercial success. The subsequent year marked the peak of success for South Korean films in the UK with a month of screenings in London.
Partly riding the wave of Korean cinema’s popularity, the Korean Cultural Centre opened in London in early 2008 and the Korean Film Festival in its new form was launched, taking over from the private sector festival which had been going since the beginning of the decade. The Festival showcased a diverse range of genres including melodramas that challenged preconceptions of Korean cinema, and made possible the release of films that would never have seen the light of day outside of Korea. Classic films demonstrated a rich history of Korean film while Korean animation demonstrated that anime was not a genre merely confined to Japan, or that Korean animators were not merely working in a sweatshops animating for other countries, including Japan and the USA.
Daniel said that the book, Discovering Korean Cinema, needed to be seen in the context of the London Korean Film Festival with chapters on blockbusters, war films, gangster films and key directors bringing together the work of leading academics in the films including Chi Yun Shin, Julian Stringer and the two other speakers at the event, Mark Morris and Jinhee Choi.
Jinhee Choi was introduced and gave a brief but illuminating talk on Korean gangster cinema. Jinhee Choi is the author of the recent critically acclaimed book on contemporary South Korean Cinema – The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs, Wesleyan University Press (15 Mar 2010).
Jinhee discussed the emergence of the Gangster film in the 1960s as a trend in action cinema along with spy films and hwalgeuk. She said that one of the key differences between Korean and Hong Kong gangster films was that Hong Kong Cinema emphasised the training process, while Korean fighters are born fighters. Jinhee gave a brief background to the gangster genre, discussing the embargo on Japanese culture after the end of Japan’s colonisation of South Korea (1945-1998/2004), the relationship between the quota system and cinematic production in South Korea and outside pressures in the form of Hollywood cinema. With the radical overhaul of the South Korean film industry in the 1990s which was modernised and modelled after the Hollywood system, gangster cinema benefited from the high production values of the new system and has sustained the boom, being part of the phenomena often called The Korean Wave (Hallyu) which is often dated to 1997. Jinhee explained that the 386 generation of South Korean film directors had grown up watching Hong Kong Cinema and therefore it is no surprise that there are similarities (sense of doom, hard-boiled style) between the two genres. However, Jinhee argued that the both the pace and mise-en-scene of South Korean gangster films is markedly different to its Hong Kong counterparts and showed clips to demonstrate her point. She concluded her talk by briefly referring to Korean ‘Noir’ as a term under which South Korean gangster cinema has been marketed, even though Korean gangster films rarely have the key figure of the femme fatale as crucial to Western forms of noir cinema.
The last speaker was Mark Morris, who is currently writing a book on Korean War Films, that from his brief discussion, I am very much looking forward to reading. He introduced the topic by talking about the success of recent Korean War Films such as 71: Into the Fire (John H. Lee, 2010) and A Little Pond (Yi Sang-woo, 2010). Mark talked about how humour is used in Korean War films as counterpoint the horror, citing Welcome to Dongmakgol (Park Kwang-Hyun, 2005) as an example. The history of the war genre in South Korea is a fraught one, facing numerous challenges including lack of funding and the difficulty posed by the current situation. As Mark said: “how do you make a war film about a war that is still going on”? The ongoing conflict between South and North Korea and their allies means that war is a sensitive subject for South Koreans, and a difficult one for directors to tackle head on. He discussed little known films outside of Korean such as Piagol (Lee Kang-cheon, 1955) and The Marines Who Never Returned (Lee Man-hee, 1963) and showed clips which made me want to track down these films and realise how much of Korean film history remains to be understood and explored. Mark said that despite the subject matter, Korean war films have been commercially successful within a niche market.
After this brief introduction to Korean Cinema, the three speakers opened the floor for questions. I asked Mark about the relationship between Korean Cinema and European cinema as it always seems to me that Korean cinema gets discussed within a binary of Hollywood/not-Hollywood while there are distinctive European elements to Korean films. Mark said that European Cinema and film theories had been an influence on Korean Cinema, and in particular Italian Neo-Realism, citing de Sica’s neo-realist masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, Italy: 1948) as one such example of an influential film on Korean Directors at the time. Continuing from this, pockets of European film culture could be found in Korea n the 1970s and 1980s and theories from Germany were also influential on Korea’s cinema culture in the 1920s and 1930s.
A couple of questions followed on the Korean gangster film. One of which was on the specificity of Korean gangster film as compared to Hong Kong and another on the relationship between organised crime and the film industry in South Korea. In terms of the first, Jinhee discussed the importance of class issues to South Korean gangster films and its emergence at a time in which Hong Kong cinema was in a decline, and for the second, said there was little evidence to support such an assumption. Another question was the old chestnut, violence in Korean cinema, which seemed to come up at every Korean film event I attended last year. And as Jinhee pointed out, Korean gangster films also include slapstick comedies alongside the more violent ones that get press in the West (around the moniker of Asia Extreme) and that violence should not be considered the defining characteristic of the Korean gangster genre or Korean cinema generally.
The discussion concluded with some background to the success of South Korean cinema, which although the relation to ‘Extreme Cinema’ was mentioned as a key factor, other significant events were talked about including the changes and shifts in the Korean film industry in the 1990s such as governmental support for the film industry and the creation the Korean Film Council which paved the way for the international success of South Korean film today.
If this brief write-up of the event makes anyone interested in learning more, then I highly recommend getting hold of a copy of Discovering Korean Cinema, which is a short and accessible introduction to the topic.