This article introduces a variety of free-ranging meditations on the recent state of the Korean cinema as I have witnessed in my privileged position as a key insider to the Korean film industry. As someone with experience as a film journalist and a columnist for the weekly film magazine Cine21, I identify a common thread that unites a selection of Korean Cinema Today articles in an attempt to complement the academic essays in this special issue. By assessing the particular character and identity of Korean cinema in the “post-boom” years of 2007 to the present, I demonstrate how the industry has recovered some ground since 2007, when the industry faced widespread losses at the box office, the bursting of a film financing bubble and a steep drop in export revenues led many in the film industry to declare a crisis. Since then, although, there is still a sense that Korean cinema has entered a less bountiful era than the one that preceded it, a constantly evolving film landscape continues to offer challenges of many kinds.
In May 2009 the first issue of
As someone with experience as a film journalist and a columnist for the weekly film magazine
If there is a common thread that unites these pieces, it is an effort to assess the particular character and identity of Korean cinema in the “post-boom” years of 2007 to the present. In 2007, widespread losses at the box office, the bursting of a film financing bubble and a steep drop in export revenues led many in the film industry to declare a crisis. Since then, although the industry has recovered some ground, there is still a sense that Korean cinema has entered a less bountiful era than the one that preceded it, and a constantly evolving film landscape continues to offer challenges of many kinds.
If you ask me what singular, quintessentially Korean, quality unites the films
My standard answer is that what is special about Korean cinema is its diversity. The Korean film industry, and Korea’s independent film community, turn out just about every kind of film you can think of, from low-budget films inspired by Buddhist philosophy to big-budget action films—and even big-budget action films inspired by Buddhist philosophy (does anyone still remember Jang Sunwoo’s
If we pick out certain sectors of the film industry, then we can speak more easily about relative strengths and the characteristics that make such films stand out. For example, the films of Park Chan-wook (
While the genre-benders are at work, other Korean directors are engaged in making very different kinds of films. Perhaps a broader influence on Korean cinema has been the persistence of melodrama throughout the history of Korean entertainment. Melodrama is the cornerstone of Korea’s television drama industry—bigger and more powerful than the film industry—and many viewers consider melodramatic modes of storytelling to be inherently “native”. Even though few Korean directors are engaged in making films that are labeled explicitly as melodramas, the genre’s prominent place in the national consciousness at some point forces every Korean filmmaker to develop a relationship with it. Directors like Kang Je-gyu or Yoon Je-gyun have incorporated melodramatic elements into big-budget blockbuster films like
How has contemporary Korea come to have such an intimate relationship with melodrama? One thing that marks Korean society is the furious rate of change it has undergone in the past several decades. Korea has modernized and democratized in a surprisingly short time and, while this process has brought many benefits, on a personal level this period of rapid—often bewildering— change has been turbulent. Change produces both winners and losers, and creates instability. Even those whose lives have improved a great deal often feel that their fortunes could be reversed at short notice. The anthropologist Nancy Abelmann (2003) argues that a society that undergoes such rapid development as Korea has done is particularly prone to embracing a melodramatic sensibility. Melodrama is good at portraying how rapid swings in fortune, or difficult societal conditions, affect individuals. It often asks the question: If fate or events push us in a certain direction, what does that say about who we are? How do we face adversity? Are we good or evil?
Similar questions are posed in Yang Ik-june’s critically acclaimed film
If genre and melodrama play a major role in the style and content of contemporary Korean film, so do the visuals. Many observers have noted the ability of Korean directors and cinematographers to create striking visual imagery. It wasn’t always this way: in the 1980s and 1990s, Korean directors were much more likely to adopt a highly realist aesthetic that avoided stylized or exaggerated images. But times change, and the present generation of filmmakers have taken a strong interest in expressing the emotions of a film through its “look”. New technology and developments in computer-generated imagery have greatly expanded the range of tools available to directors. Compared to films from other parts of Asia, the Korean product has a strong emphasis on visual effects. On a technical level as well, there is a glossy sheen to Korean films (even low-budget independent movies) that gives them a distinctive look—even if some appear overly packaged or commercial.
There are countless ways of describing what is distinctive about Korean cinema, but it’s much harder to pinpoint what makes it unique. My feeling is that its uniqueness lies in a particular combination of elements, rather than in some special—perhaps indefinable—“Korean” quality. Perhaps that’s just as well—if its exceptional qualities could be described in a quick soundbite, then they would likely be pretty lightweight.
In September 2010, the San Sebastian International Film Festival spotlighted nonfiction cinema in the 21st century. It is an appropriate time to be thinking about documentaries. The past decade has seen so many developments and innovations in the form that the term “documentary” itself is starting to feel somewhat restrictive. As filmmakers continue to explore the nature of truth and authenticity, and deliberately blur the lines between fact and fiction, a new kind of film is emerging.
A total of forty documentaries screened in San Sebastian last year. While Asia was represented by films like Wang Bing’s
Korean documentaries are a bit like rare birds—you have to search them out, but for the dedicated watcher they are worth the effort. In contrast to other countries where broadcasters are an important source of funding, in Korea most documentaries are shot within the independent film sector on very low budgets, with no corporate funding. While the topics they explore provide important insights into Korean society, they are often very local in scope. Last year, the documentary Border
Of course, there are tremendous hurdles for Asian documentary filmmakers to overcome if they want to become known beyond their own national borders. Chinese-born Wang Bing is a notable exception, but very few international filmmakers achieve broad exposure solely on the basis of their documentary work, particularly if they are focused on local issues. Theatrical distribution overseas is very rare and, even on the festival circuit, the attention paid to documentaries pales beside fiction films. In rare cases, a combination of directorial talent and highly marketable subject matter might allow a documentary to be seen more widely, but most filmmakers would be lucky to produce even one such film in the course of a career.
As Luis Miranda (2010) notes in an essay on nonfiction cinema in Asia, the documentaries most likely to receive exposure are those made by directors already recognized as global auteurs for their fiction films. Thus
If an A-list Korean director such as Lee Chang-dong or Park Chan-wook were to shoot a feature-length documentary, it would no doubt receive wide festival exposure, and we would be inundated with industry articles about “the emerging Korean documentary”. It would certainly be exciting to see what one of these directors might do with the documentary form. But at the same time, the prospect of a documentary by Bong Joon-ho or Hong Sang-soo strikes one as slightly odd. While it might be a small step for Kiarostami or Jia to make the switch to nonfiction, it would be a much greater leap for most of the leading figures in contemporary Korean cinema.
This perceived distance probably has something to do with the documentary’s links with the concepts of realism and authenticity. Viewers approach documentaries with a particular mindset, influenced by their supposed grounding in reality. Although many people might simply accept what they see in a documentary as “true”, the issue of authenticity is far more complex and elusive than it seems at first blush, as filmmakers and film scholars have long recognized. Over the past decade, one key trend has been to explore the boundaries between fact and fiction and to deliberately blur the lines, thus forcing viewers to confront the issues raised by the film head-on. Given this development, filmmakers already experimenting with realist cinema may be tempted to try their hand at documentary filmmaking. One notable experiment along these lines was made in 2006, when the fiction film
Throughout Korea’s cinema history, realism has been the dominant mode and an ideal vehicle for ambitious filmmakers—despite the fact that, at various times, the government has worked hard to suppress politically charged, realist works. However, the cinematic revival that has taken place since the late 1990s has formed largely in opposition to the realist tradition. Working with established film genres has become a key building block for contemporary Korean filmmakers, even as they seek to subvert and reformulate genre conventions. While a film like Bong Joon-ho’s
Hong Sang-soo stands at the ‘arthouse’ end of the film spectrum; while he is not significantly influenced by genre, neither is he much interested in realism. Although his works appear realistic in style, he has made it clear in interviews that his films are based not on reality, but on abstract, imagined “structures” of his own making. Thus, if Hong were to shoot a documentary, it would likely be something completely different from his previous work. For Kim Ki-duk, too, the dominant mode is not realism but an exaggerated, abstract expressionism that has little in common with the established aesthetics of the documentary. Lee Changdong, on the other hand, does pursue a realist aesthetic, and so a documentary from his hand would probably complement his existing work. Lee’s realism is very different from that of Jia Zhangke, based on a rigorous discipline rather than explicit experimentation. Thus far, Lee has not indicated any intention of adding the documentary to his oeuvre.
Korea’s most famous filmmakers do seem somewhat remote from the concerns of contemporary documentaries and documentary makers. Still, it would be foolish to assume that this will always be the case. It may be that one or more of them will simply find a subject that inspires them to make a documentary—as music and classic cinema inspired Martin Scorsese, and political events have inspired Spike Lee. If indeed it happens, the end result will be delightfully frustrating to predict.
During the 1990s, the international film community began to take notice of filmmakers from mainland China. The process had started with the critical success of Chan Kaige’s
This was a time of great energy in Chinese filmmaking, as many critics told us. However, had we asked those same foreign critics to name all the Chinese directors they knew, the list would probably have stopped at two. More informed observers might have added Tian Zhuangzhuang, director of
International interest in Korean cinema, which only really developed after 2000, has followed a very different trajectory. Beginning in the early 2000s, a combination of commercial success and a growing critical buzz created the sense that there was a new dynamism and vitality in Korean cinema. News stories began to appear hailing the beginning of a new generation of filmmakers. Major festivals also began screening Korean films although, as critic Derek Elley has noted, Korean cinema has depended much less than China on festival invitations and awards in building its international reputation. Even in 2011, a Korean film is yet to win the top prize at Cannes, Venice or Berlin, or be nominated in the best foreign language film category at the Oscars.
Lacking any breakout international hits or awards, the critical buzz did not attach itself to just a few names. Rather, it remained somewhat diffuse and widespread. I remember speaking with journalists at the time who clearly felt this was a problem. In order for Korean films to really make an international impression, they said, the press would have to rally behind a few key names. And perhaps they were correct, in the sense that in Europe and North America, Korean cinema of this decade has never attracted anywhere near the attention lavished on Chinese films in the 1990s.
But which names to back? A critic in 2003 or 2004 would have to decide who of Im Kwon-taek, Kim Ki-duk, Hur Jin-ho, Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo, Jang Jun-hwan, Bong Joon-ho, Kang Je-gyu, Lee Chang-dong, Kwak Kyung-taek, E J-yong, Lee Myung-Se, Im Sang-soo—and many others—deserved to be singled out as the leaders of this new movement. Many of these directors had only made a couple films at this point, so it was hard to predict who would have cinematic staying power. At the same time, it seemed unfair to place a strong focus on just a few of these names at the expense of the others.
At this time it had become sort of a catchphrase to say that the strength of Korean cinema was its diversity. In many ways it was true, and it was consistent with the experience of foreign audiences sampling Korean films. While viewers wanting to experience Chinese films in the 1990s knew exactly where to start (for example, by watching
As we encounter a new decade, it seems the international film press has finally plumped for a few key names after all. I’ve come up with a handy formula—“3 + 3” to describe the Korean phenomenon. First, three directors who fit the traditional mold of the arthouse auteur: Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, and Kim Ki-duk. Although not generally successful at the box office, their strong reputation allows them to attract acting talent, and they usually premiere their films at Cannes, Venice or Berlin. Recently, Lee Chang-dong seems to have generated the greatest critical momentum. Then there is a trio of directors which maintains a strong personal style while embracing a more commercial style of filmmaking: Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Kim Jee-woon. With their ability to make a significant impact at the box office, they are the Korean directors most actively courted by Hollywood and have been more successful than their arthouse colleagues in creating an image of Korean cinema in the minds of Western viewers.
In Asia, where ordinary Korean genre films already enjoy a wide circulation, there has been less of a concentrated focus on these six names. And the situation inside Korea, of course, is even more complex. Korean critics and audiences keep their ears open for news of interesting films by any director, and even talented first-time filmmakers can establish a reputation for themselves quite quickly. But internationally, a gulf is opening up between these six established directors and the rest of the pack. Apart from the obvious benefits accrued by this small group—particularly the commercial-leaning directors—this narrowed focus of interest is likely to foster the reputation of Korean cinema abroad.
But how will it affect other Korean filmmakers? On a basic level, it will be more difficult for them to attract the notice of the international press, or to be invited to compete at the most prestigious film festivals. Less publicity means that it might become even more difficult to sell films by lesser-known directors to other territories. If the trend continues for the biggest festivals to put up only the most established names for their main competition sections, it could even make it more difficult to finance films by arthouse directors, since the prospect of a high-profile festival invitation can be a motivating factor for some investors.
The gulf between established directors and the rest of the industry is only likely to grow wider. Whereas in the late 1990s Korean filmmakers had a unique opportunity to establish their careers (with fewer established directors to contend with), young directors today face an uphill struggle. It’s surely not impossible that in the near future some young parvenu may break through and be admitted to the exalted company of “the six”. Certainly there is no lack of talent: Lee Yoon-ki, for example, has created a very distinctive body of work in just a few years since debuting with
In 2007, a major crisis in the Korean film industry erupted and continued into 2008. A bubble in the film finance sector had resulted in too many films being made, and the resulting competition at the box office meant that few releases managed to achieve hit status. Costs had also grown so high during the boom years that even many hit films failed to turn a profit. A collapse in export revenues and the continued weakness of ancillary markets only exacerbated the troubles faced by production companies and investors.
While many filmmakers might argue that the crisis is still ongoing in 2011, at least 2009 had shaped up to be a better year on paper. Helped by two major hit films,
When it broke out in 2007, many commentators picked that the crisis would have an enduring impact. It was widely expected that levels of production would slow sharply or even crash. Some predicted that annual new releases of Korean films would fall below 50. However the industry’s state following this period was less dire than observers had predicted. Local filmmakers were on track to release 110 films in 2009—bigger than the number of releases at the height of the boom. A total of 17 Korean films opened in November alone. How does one explain this phenomenon as it occurred then?
The simple answer is that the type of film has changed. Big-budget films such as
Contemporary low-budget Korean films—conveniently defined as anything shot for less than about $900,000—can be divided into three categories. Arthouse projects such as
The second category covers independent projects such as feature film
The final category covers films like
One recent example from this third category is
On one level, it has been encouraging to see a relatively new filmmaking model adopted by the industry. Technological advances in digital cinematography and post-production make it possible for films to conceal their low-budget origins, so in theory it should be possible to make films targeted at a mainstream audience for much less risk. Alternatively, “commercial lite” films should be able to target specialty audiences (for example, the extreme horror crowd) while still turning a profit. In the past, creative projects by young filmmakers were routinely suppressed by producers or investors with the explanation that because millions of dollars were at stake, unnecessary risks should be avoided. Working with much lower budgets, directors should in theory be able to claw back a degree of creative control.
For me personally, one of the biggest disappointments of late was that so few filmmakers have attempted to bring anything bold or innovative to this new commercial model. There is an opportunity here, both for individual filmmakers looking to establish themselves and for Korean cinema as a whole to push into new aesthetic territory. Throughout film history, the introduction of a new filmmaking model has often, though not always, led to creative renewal. If these new low-budget, commercially oriented films continue to underperform at the box office and remain lackluster in creative terms, investment may simply dry up. The window of opportunity will not stay open forever.
Surely we can all agree that the screenplay is one of the fundamental aspects of any film. Occasionally, a director or a talented group of actors succeed in turning a mediocre screenplay into a great film (or vice versa), but this is not the norm. The screenplay is the base material from which the director, cast and crew shape a film. In the most general sense, good films require good screenplays.
Does it follow, then, that screenwriting is a fundamental aspect of any national film industry? While this seems a logical connection, a look at how film industries are actually structured may leave a different impression. In Korea, the resources and attention directed towards the art of screenwriting seem disproportionately small. This isn’t some dark and well-kept secret: just about every film professional working in Korea would readily admit that this is one of the industry’s major bugbears. But systems can be hard to change, even when there is widespread acknowledgment that change would be a positive thing.
The imbalance can be seen, for a start, in film education. The past two decades have witnessed an explosion in the number of film production departments in the nation’s universities. In 2010 there were over fifty. They offer degrees in directing, acting, and occasionally producing, but almost never in screenwriting. The subject is not neglected entirely, however. While most of these institutions offer courses in screenwriting, students wanting to build a career in this part of the industry have limited options. A few well-known private institutes, or occasional workshops, have taken over from the universities as the training grounds for the screenwriters of the future. Often, screenwriters simply learn by doing.
The universities’ reluctance to offer screenwriting degrees may just be a reflection of reality. The truth is, few people in Korea are able to make a living as full-time screenwriters. Even well-known writers receive only around $25,000$42,000 per film. A more common figure is $17,000, with an even smaller payout if the film fails to go into production. These numbers have remained static over the past decade, during which time Korea’s filmmaking industry has evolved quite rapidly. In contrast, pay for key crew members such as cinematographers has risen noticeably. A cinematographer may earn three or four times more than the screenwriter on many productions.
Why don’t screenwriters organize? Chiefly because, in Korea, directors usually write their own screenplays (the figures quoted above seem less unreasonable when added to a directing salary). The notion of the auteur who develops an original idea, writes a screenplay and then directs a film is widespread in Korea, even for commercial films. Indeed, there is an unspoken assumption that directors will write their own scripts if they wish to be taken seriously. There is a practical side to this as well. For the multitudes of young directors hoping to make their commercial debut, the most promising road lies in writing a good screenplay. Being named as the director of your own screenplay puts a would-be director in a stronger position than a person with little directing experience having to deal with a script written by someone else.
Of course, there are obvious benefits to having directors write their own screenplays. There is more chance of securing a close match between the screenwriter’s vision and the director’s execution. If a director has a clear idea of how a scene will be shot, then the corresponding scene in the screenplay can be shaped to the director’s vision, and artistic conflicts avoided—or at least minimized. Korea’s most famous directors, Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon, Lee Chang-dong, and Hong Sang-soo, all usually write their own screenplays. Still, the skills required to direct a film and to write a good screenplay are very different, and it would seem logical to pair a talented screenwriter and a capable director for most projects. So why isn’t this done more often?
The contrast between the status of screenwriters in the Korean film industry and the more lucrative television drama industry is striking. For a start, the pay in television is far higher. Contracts are more beneficial to the screenwriter, and the system in television is much more focused on the act of screenwriting. In the world of TV dramas, the screenwriter is more generally recognized as the author of a work, and the best-known writers are minor stars in their own right. Such figures wield real power. It is little surprise that writers who establish themselves in the film industry often end up moving into television drama, where their services are better appreciated.
If my tone seems despondent, there is another way to look at this issue. The Korean film industry has experienced major changes since censorship was lifted by the government in 1996, transforming itself from a weak, disorganized industry into something far more structured and mature. Most observers would agree that those changes were necessary and, indeed, overdue. One might also argue that much of the creative energy in Korean cinema over the past decade and a half was stimulated by these developments in production methods and working practices.
More recently, as the system has matured, a little bit of the energy has gone out of Korean cinema. This is not to say there aren’t any good films, or that the most talented directors aren’t advancing their careers in interesting ways. But the average Korean film feels less fresh than it did five or ten years ago. As a result, well-written screenplays have simply become more noticeable than they were in the past. Although producers lament that it is difficult to find financing in the current environment, they will also readily admit that an outstanding screenplay can very quickly attract investors—three examples are the recent hit films
The time may be ripe, therefore, for this neglected sector of the film industry to finally receive some attention. If demand for good screenplays starts to push up screenwriting fees, then more writers will be encouraged to try their hand at it. Influential screenwriters could start to push for changes in the system, as they did in the television drama industry.
There is no guarantee this will happen, of course, and if the status quo remains in place then the future looks cloudy for Korean cinema as a whole. If on the other hand the art and craft of screenwriting achieves a lift in status within the industry, this will undoubtedly enhance the quality of the product. Looking ahead to the coming decade, many observers have concerns for the continued vitality of Korean cinema, but here is an area where there is potential for vast improvement—particularly where an emerging generation of talented new Korean screenwriters are concerned.