Mark Morris on Lee Man-hee and the flowering of Korean film in the 1960s

Everybody in Britain has heard of Samsung computers or Hyundai cars. However, another aspect of South Korea today is its successful export of films, music and TV dramas to neighbouring countries, known as ‘Korean Wave’ or ‘Hallyu’.

The spire and bell of Myeongdong Cathedral loom large in the landscape of A Day Off (휴일)
The spire and bell of Myeongdong Cathedral loom large in the landscape of A Day Off (휴일)

In order to get a Western perspective on Korean cinema, I visited the Korean Cultural Centre in London in an event which was part of the 2011 London Korean Film Festival, to listen to Dr Mark Morris speak on the subject (Friday, November 11). Dr Morris is from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University. He normally lectures on Japanese Cultural History, so I was interested in what he thought about Korean cinema.

The talk accompanied a 1968 film called A Day Off directed by Lee Man-hee, about the lives of two young lovers. Dr Morris pointed out that in the years after the Korean war of 1950-53, the output of the Korean film industry was prolific (200 films a year during the 1960s). “Watching films in their own language, seeing Koreans walk around their own landscape… this was extraordinary for them,” after a diet of exclusively Japanese and American films, Dr Morris pointed out. “Korean film would not get the same level of popularity again until the last 15 years,” he said.

Also speaking of the commercial pressures that the industry was under he said: “People were in too much of a hurry; they had other needs and had to make a lot of money. This was an intensely commercial industry in a poor country”.

Heo-wook and his sweetheart Ji-yeon
Heo-wook and his sweetheart Ji-yeon

Despite problems with censors (the country was a dictatorship at the time of A Day Off), there were important foreign influences, including Hollywood and French film noir. I certainly thought that the way that the way A Day Off focused on the individual lives Heo-wook and his sweetheart Ji-yeon in the midst of urban sprawl of Seoul, was quite modern in its approach.

I enjoyed the evening, and its format was good in the way that an example of a classic Korean film was shown, followed by a lecture and discussion.

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