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1970s: the missing decade in Korean film?

Newcomers to Korean film can sometimes get the impression that Korean cinema started with Shiri. Indeed, one contributor to the recent Korean Film Blogathon claimed “Korea’s cinema was virtually non-existing until the new millennium”. Not a sentiment with which I strongly agree. While the last decade has certainly seen more than its fair share of exciting and award-winning films, the film industry didn’t come from nowhere. But having said that, what are the memorable of Korean films from the past? From the golden age of the 50s and 60s, Madame Freedom (Han Hyung-mo, 1956), Aimless Bullet (Yu Hyun-mok, 1961) and Housemaid (Kim Ki-young, 1960) among many others come to mind, while from the 80s and 90s The Man with Three Coffins (Lee Jang-ho, 1988), Sopyonje (Im Kwon-taek, 1993) and Lovers in Woomuk-Baemi (Jang Sun-woo, 1989), before we get in to the early works of the current directors.

Was the 70s a missing decade, with any spark of innovation stamped out by censorship and the commercial need to churn out quota quickies to qualify for the more lucrative foreign imports? The KCCUK tried to answer that question with three films from the 70s as part of its regular series of screenings.

Yalkae, a Joker in High School
Yalkae sneaks out of the room while the Principal says prayers for his soul

The most forgettable of the three is Yalkae, a Joker in High School (Seok Rae-myung, 1976), the second film to be based on a popular novel of that name from the 50s. It was introduced by Dr Mark Morris, who lectures in Korean film at Cambridge. He highlighted that through the medium of a teenage prankster it was possible to poke fun at the establishment in a way that would not be possible in a straight film: but nevertheless the joker had to see the error of his ways in order for the film to escape the censor’s scissors. The main figure of fun in the film is the American principal of the Presbyterian high school, but Yalkae also plays pranks on classmates – particularly the swots. One of these backfires badly, and after hearing a moving speech espousing the values of hard work in rebuilding the country, Yalkae is a reformed character. The film was popular in its time, but without the introductory talk it would have held limited interest for a modern viewer. For a more up-to-date take on misbehaviour in high school, Morris recommended Dasepo Naughty Girls (E J Yong, 2006).

The girl takes shelter from the shower – but the damage is done.

The two remaining films needed no apologies. A Shower (Lee Jin-mo, 1978) was a charming story of young love, based on a popular children’s story by Hwang Sun-won from 1959, lovingly filmed in beautiful countryside. In fact, the landscape was as much a star of the film as the young actors. The plot – a girl returns to her ancestral home when her father’s business in Seoul goes bust, and forms a relationship with a local boy – is fairly straightforward. At first, the boy is irritated by her, but soon grows fond of her. The weak spot of the film is that in a Korean melodrama people die with extraordinary ease, and a downpour of rain proves too much for our young heroine. But it’s a film that will linger in the memory. And was there a hint of moralising in the film? The boy was meant to be helping his father in the fields on the afternoon he went for a long walk with the girl and got caught in that fatal shower. Whatever, it was a pleasant way to spend two hours, and the film seems to have been remade almost frame by frame for a TV programme in 2005.

Lee Man-hee: The Road to Sampo
Lee Man-hee: The Road to Sampo

The other film to be shown can possibly claim to be one of the best Korean films of the 70s: The Road to Sampo (Lee Man-hee, 1975). Based on a novel by Hwang Sok-yong, the film follows three drifters as they walk together on the road. Again, the spectacular scenery is one of the things that make this film memorable as the travellers battle against the winter snows, but in this film there is more substance as we follow the developing relationship between the three characters and understand some of their backstory. One of the characters has just served a 10 year prison sentence and is on his way to his home town (the fictional island of Sampo), another is a rootless labourer who roves the country looking for work, while the bar girl has no home town she can call her own. The film tries to address the difficulties faced by some of the poorer members of society during the period of industrialisation, and ends with the ex-convict arriving at Sampo on a brand new suspension bridge which is curiously out of place with the landscape the travellers have just been walking through.

This was Lee’s last film – he died while editing it, and flaws are evident: at one point we see the shadows of the camera crew in the snowy landscape. But this is one which deserves its transfer onto DVD.

It would have been nice to have had a film from Im Kwon-taek such as Genealogy (1979) to fill out the series, but although we didn’t see a film to match the original Housemaid or Memories of Murder, at least it was demonstrated that the 1970s was not a complete movie wasteland.

6 thoughts on “1970s: the missing decade in Korean film?

  1. Charles Montgomery: An ignorant statement really… Korea turned some of its best literature into movies in those decades.

  2. Indeed, and the three films the KCC showed were all adaptations of books. I always think it’s a shame that the films are presented at the KCC with very little if any introduction (the 5 minute introduction to Yalkae by Mark Morris was extremely rare). But as I wrote this post the literature connection became evident, and also a link with the Park Chung-hee film regime – because weren’t people encouraged to make films adapting novels (if they couldn’t bring themselves to do patriotic, anti-communist stuff)?

  3. Tom Giammarco: I liked your article, but I was dismayed that the 70s (and 60s) are so easily dismissed. These are my favorite decades for film.. there were some excellent works produced under impossible circumstances. Besides the films mentioned in the article, March of Fools, Robot Taekwon V, and any of the ‘Really Really’ movies of Moon Yeo-song, which I think are better example of the ‘high-teen’ trend than Highschool Joker were all produced in the 70s and all have merit.

  4. Hi Tom. Yes, I deduced from your blog that you have a soft spot for 70s film. It’s a shame that so few are available with English subtitles, but it’s good that the KCC in London are occasionally showing us some of these older films so that we get a better perspective.

  5. Young-ja’s Hey Day! That’s a brilliant film. Kim Ki-young had several twisted offerings in the 1970s. I’m not a Bae Chang-ho fan, but the 1980s were his decade. And Im Kwon-taek’s Surrogate Womb was 1987 (winning Kang Su-yeon a best actress prize at Venice, so you cannot even say Korean movies were not recognized outside of Korea). Declaration of Fools was in the 1980s, too.

    And then there were those Shin Sang-ok films he made in North Korea…

  6. Ack, in my haste, I wrote about the 1980s more than the 70s. Anyhow, plenty of good stuff back then (even if the business side of things suffered back then). The first half of the 1970s also had a bunch of films that tied into the then-blooming music scene.

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