In the 2000s, Korean cinema rose to prominence as one of the hot spots of the world film market, backed by impressive local box office returns and an enhanced reputation on the international film festival circuit. Along with the U.S., India and Japan, Korean cinema has now taken its place as one of the world’s strongest local film industries. Directors such as Kim Jee-woon (Kim Chi-un), Park Chanwook(Pak Ch’an-uk), Kim Ki-duk (Kim Ki-dŏk) and Lee Chang-dong (Yi Ch’angdong), to name a few, frequent invitees to international film festivals, have become internationally renowned auteurs; between them, they are responsible for greatly enlarging the spectrum of Korean cinema. Films such as
In 2000, when Korean cinema began seriously attracting the attention of the world film market, Korean film critic and reporter Darcy Paquet expressed pleasant surprise at the arrival of a new stream of filmmaking—one marked by its willingness to experiment with Hollywood genre conventions—freely mixing and matching—and predicted that this trend would continue (6 July 2000 Koreafilm. org). Since then, Korean directors such as Bong Joon-ho (Pong Chun-ho), Kim Jee-woon, Jang Jun-hwan (Chang Chun-hwan) and Lee Muung-se (Yi Mung-se) have become iconic ‘genre-benders,’ inspiring film-makers in other countries in their turn.1
In his discussion of genre-bending in American films of the 1970s, Todd Berliner emphasized the ability of these films to wrong-foot the audience: ‘A genre bender relies on viewers’ habitual responses to generic codes, thereby misleading them to expect a conventional outcome. The film seems true to form at first, then, like a booby trap, it catches the spectator off guard’ (2001: 25). These films constituted an attempt to rebel against a set of genre conventions and formulae established in the past. For film critic Kim Young-jin (Kim Yŏng-jin), contemporary Korean cinema is following in the footsteps of Hollywood’s New American Cinema of the 1970s in this respect (
In an interview, director Bong Joon-ho took Berliner’s definition of cinematic genre-bending a stage further. Bong avoids basing his storytelling on a particular genre because ‘in this way, a chasm definitely opens up. Genre is something that has been constructed to fit the Hollywood version of reality and the formulae established by Hollywood, and Korean characters, situations and realities are of course very different from them. I take an interest in chasms of this kind’ (Kim et al. 2007: 33). Thus, genre-bending occurs as the natural outcome of interweaving Hollywood genre conventions with local (non-Hollywood) realities. In another interview, Bong confessed that he enjoys the ‘pleasure of betrayal’ involved in bending Hollywood genre conventions (
In her discussion of the new Korean blockbusters, Kim Soyoung (Kim So-yŏng) asserts that this category of film is conceived as a ‘compromise between foreign forms and local materials,’ and is a response to the industry’s ‘voluntary mimicry of, as well as resistance to, large Hollywood productions’ (2001: 11).3 Kim’s response appeared not long after the successful launch of the experimental Korean blockbuster
However the terms of the discussion are precisely framed, Korean cinema is undoubtedly a hybrid entity mixing the local and the global (mainly Hollywood) through the cultural and artistic processes of assimilating, modifying and recreating. What we have come to call the ‘New Korean Cinema,’ with its origins in the mid-1990s, has now reached maturity, and its exponents take pleasure in manipulating what they have learned from Hollywood, showing a confidence and willingness to take on the creative challenges involved. This process has had broader cultural ramifications. According to Sun Jung, the hybrid character of this contemporary cinema has enabled Korean popular culture to move out beyond its traditional boundaries, creating multi-directional transcultural flows (2011: 16). For Klein, this cinematic hybridity has been historically constructed through ‘the embeddedness of Hollywood’ in Korean cultural life since the post-war period, citing works produced in the golden age of Korean cinema in the 1950s and 1960s as evidence (2008: 891). Klein further claims that the genre-bending proclivities of contemporary directors such as Bong Joon-ho see him ‘following in the footsteps of his commercially minded Korean forerunners such as Kim Kiyoung (Kim Ki-yŏng) and Han Hyeong-mo (Han Hyŏng-mo) (2008: 894). While his analysis is unexceptionable, one type of film overlooked by Klein is a hybrid unique to Korea’s film history, indeed, one that is characterized by its genre-bending quality—the anticommunist film
1A recent article in Variety magazine ,”New-gen of Genre Benders,” reported that new wave filmmakers in Morocco claim inspiration from Korea’s genre films (Jan 3 2011: 3). In another Variety piece, director Kim Jee-woon is characterized as a ‘genre-bending helmer’ for his continued pursuit of genre-mixing since his debut film, the gothic-horror-comedy The Quiet Family (Choyonghan kajok, 1997) (Elley Variety 24 May 2008). Film scholar David Bordwell has called director Bong Joon-ho a ‘genre-hopper who’s hard to pin down’, referring particularly to Bong’s dexterous technique of mixing comedy, horror and social commentary (www.davidbordwell.net 29 September 2009). 2In a similar vein, Darcy Paquet refers to these directors as ‘commercial auteurs’ (2009: 93). 3In an article on blockbusters in China and Korea, Chris Berry declared that ‘the blockbuster is no longer American owned’ (2003: 218). Berry defines the Korean blockbuster as ‘a small-scale emulation of Hollywood’s deployment of big-budget entertainment to win international audiences (224)’, using the form ‘as a site to speak to local Korean issues’ (226). For further discussion of the Korean blockbuster, see Blockbusters, Korean Style (Choi 2010: 31–59). 4Klein further suggests that the dominant notion of globalization as led by America is being challenged by Hollywood’s exploitation as ‘an object rather than an agent of globalization, a reservoir of symbolic resources from which Korean filmmakers draw as they navigate their way through their own globalized cultural economy’ (2008: 783).
The Korean film industry has long used the backdrop of the nation’s bitter civil war to engage both young and older audiences, with the added elements of ‘spectacle’ fighting scenes and emotionally charged drama. Political rhetoric has always been a very prominent component of these productions. In the post-war period, war films quickly gained popularity, largely due to the government’s support for them as a propaganda tool bolstering the national policy of anticommunism (Yu 1997; Lee 2001; Cho 2001; Kim 2003; Lee Young-il 2004; and Chung 2010). Hence, war films produced in Korea became identified in the public mind as a specifically anticommunist genre, demonstrating the extent to which Korea’s political situation influenced the conventions (and limitations) of the war film, as opposed to other genres such as melodrama.
As the name suggests, the anticommunist genre encouraged a sense of nationalism and positioned the nation in opposition to communist North Korea. Thus, films in this category became defined by their ideological bias rather than by elements such as setting, style or plot. In other words, anticommunist films encompassed a variety of types (genres) of films that were united by their polemical subject matter. As David Scott Diffrient puts it, these films show ‘a level of genre intermixing rarely attempted in Hollywood movies about the war’ (2005: 23). As such, the anticommunist genre encompasses conventional narrative forms associated with various genres such as war, melodrama, comedy, horror and spy action films. As we will see, this filmmaking phenomenon arose as a direct outcome of the industry’s efforts to negotiate two closely linked political and commercial agendas.
From their beginnings in the late 1940s, anticommunist films were identified by their overt political messages. One of the earliest examples is
Split families, partisans, spies and armed infiltrators to the South, as well as the war itself, provided material for a variety of narratives. Lee Kang-cheon’s (Yi Kang-ch’ŏn)
These themes ran their course in the cinema, and the production of overtly anticommunist films had almost ceased by the end of the 1950s.8 The Syngman Rhee (Yi Sŭng-man) government did not fully utilize film to mobilize the public, at least not in the same aggressive way as characterized the subsequent Park Chung Hee (Pak Chŏng-hŭi) era. For the Rhee government anticommunist ideology was subordinated to anti-Japanese ideology, a political stance which helped promote President Rhee’s participation in the independence movement (Cho 2001: 333). Under the Rhee regime, anticommunist films focused on the eradication of any remaining North Korean partisans and spies—and supporters or sympathizers—who were seen as the most immediate threat to the government’s survival. Hence, when the process of eliminating these infiltrators was almost completed in the late 1950s, the anticommunist filmmaking project lost its impetus (Chung 2010: 410–412). Under Park Chung Hee’s military government, which gave anticommunist ideology prime place on the national policy agenda, anticommunist films re-emerged as one of the dominant genres of the 1960s.
This renewed ideological emphasis made its mark in both official and private filmmaking circles. The National Film Production Centre (NFPC) produced newsreels and cultural films about the new government and its military revolution, and private industry was called on to make ‘revolutionary films (
For Thomas Schatz, a film genre is created on the basis of a formula characterized as a ‘coherent, value-laden narrative system’ (1981: 16). As Maltby (2003: 75) points out, this formula contains recurring and overlapping elements such as plot, aesthetic styles, emotional expectation, settings, locations, motives and textual styles, and the particular ways in which these elements are handled give them the status of conventions. Audience responses to these elements are a major factor motivating filmmakers to modify the conventions of a given genre through ‘repetition in difference’ (Neale 1980: 50). Hence, a particular genre will experience fluctuations of fortune: ‘the genres that are successful at the box office become immediately fashionable, are widely imitated and spoofed by inferior quickies, and then, as soon as the genre or type has peaked and the market performance drops, fall out of favor’ (Yau 2001: 4). In this way, new genres replace older ones.
However, these conventional factors are inadequate to explain the longevity of the anticommunist genre in Korea, because the ‘reciprocal’ relationship between the audience, filmmakers and cinematic entrepreneurs (producers and exhibitors)—which Schatz regards as key to the success of a particular genre (1981: 5)—is missing.9 With these films, the possible responses of these stakeholder groups were an afterthought, if considered at all, resulting in a ‘top-down’ design rather than in projects with mutual contributions. Hence, in making anticommunist films, as long as the film touches on the requisite theme, there are no particular structural conventions to follow. In other words, content was typically given priority over form. Thus, filmmakers working in this mode could respond freely to the genres popular at a given time, pleasing audiences as well as satisfying the commercial interests of producers.
As an article in the trade journal
The crossing of conventional genre boundaries in this way has been characterized as ‘parasitism (
This conceit, along with the idea of an ‘umbrella genre’ (Diffrient 2005: 23), better explain how these films are able embrace ‘everything from war films and division dramas (narratives centered on divided families and ideological conflicts) to espionage thrillers and melodramas’ (Diffrient 2005: 23). In fact, the strength of the anticommunist genre was its assimilation of different conventions and formats as a regular practice. This film type has a power that transcends conventional boundaries, merging with the other genres that it encounters and drawing additional strength from them. While this form was a precursor to the new wave of genre-bending Korean films, in many ways it had a wider scope.
Aware that they had to please the government as well as audiences, the decision to meld genre boundaries was made deliberately by producers and directors, taking into account artistic considerations and the popular genres of the time. In the 1960s film funding did not come from the government; financial support was raised from provincial exhibitors, who had to please their patrons. Under these complex circumstances, a director had to strike a balance between supporting the official ideology and delivering a commercially viable product to local audiences. Producers pursued anticommunist filmmaking projects as long as they resulted in either an import license—a subsidy given by the government—or box office success.
Among the popular genres cannibalized as a result of this filmmaking activity were (in addition to war films) espionage, melodrama, literary adaptation, comedy and horror. Straight war films such as
5The film tells the story of two brothers who escape from the impoverished North and find a new life in the South. One brother becomes a soldier and the other a policeman, each working to eradicate communism. The ideological split between South and North was soon embraced on a wider, popular scale by the film industry. 6The film was released in October 1954, two months after A Fellow Soldier. It was produced by a private film company, Kim Bo-chul Productions. Given that A Fellow Soldier was produced by the USIA, Breaking the Wall was the first Korean-produced anticommunist film. 7The final scene of Piagol is famous because of the director’s run-in with government censors, who altered the scene to endorse official anticommunist ideology after initially banning it from public screenings. (In the original version, it was unclear where Ae-ran was fleeing.) After the final scene was dissolved with the image of the Korean flag, suggesting that Ae-ran was indeed headed for South Korea, the film passed censorship and was screened in cinemas across the country. According to the Ministry of Education, however, Piagol was not considered to be an authentic anticommunist film and could have had a negative impact through its depiction of South Korea as a lawless country without an effective military or police force (Chosun Daily 25 August 1955: 3). 8In the late 1950s anticommunist film productions were minimal: none in 1957 and one apiece in 1958, 1959 and 1960 (KMPPC 1997: 47). 9The transformation of the anticommunist genre was largely supported by direct government pressure as well as financial support from the Import License Reward System (ILRS). That is, the primary demand for anticommunist film came from the government. 10For this reason, film scholar Lee Young-il (2004: 365–378) omitted the anticommunist genre from his discussion of the eight genres dominant during the 1960s and placed the anticommunist film in the thriller/action category. Although the term ‘anticommunist genre’ was often used in newspapers, film trade magazines and government documents, Lee’s avoidance of it suggests that the genre is still awaiting full recognition in Korea’s film history.
Anticommunist films generally depicted the brutal nature of communism by stirring up recent memories of the Korean War and creating a continuous reminder of the threat from the North. Because the war had not only destroyed millions of lives but had also ‘left its scars on an entire generation of survivors, a legacy of fear and insecurity that continues even now’ (Eckert et al. 1990: 346), the genre ultimately aimed at educating the public about the need to strengthen national security. War film conventions were introduced for this reason and used to depict brave South Korean soldiers on the battlefield.
The early adaptation of the conventions of the war film was a response to two factors. First, it was a simple way for producers to show their support for government policy. Second, cinema audiences would be attracted to war films for their entertainment and spectacle value. It seems that, from the beginning, producers perceived the anticommunist film as a commercially attractive form. As Lee Young-il (2004: 368–371) observed, war films, which in the Korean context depicted either the Korean or the Vietnam War (aka the ‘American war’ in Vietnam), were perceived as having more entertainment value than other, competing, genres. These films were perceived as commercial ventures whether they were propaganda-driven or not, and the prospect of commercial success was a significant rationale behind their production.
Some directors of war films appeared to sidestep the ideological demands of the government and dealt directly with issues such as recent history and social reality. As the following analysis of
The story of
Despite the foregrounding of the protagonists’ personal lives and relationships, the film’s military subject matter meant that the narrative was nonetheless permeated with anticommunist sentiment. The gallant commandos are portrayed as strong and affectionate male heroes and role models, helping their compatriots recover from their memories of defeat and carrying out a dramatic escape under the noses of the North Korean military. They had volunteered for their dangerous mission in order to protect loving wives, mothers and family members at home. The passionate images of self-sacrifice and courage presented by
Despite the commercial appeal, making a war film was a financially difficult decision for producers. In general, war film production involved bigger budgets than other genre films such as melodramas and comedies as they involved special effects and additional extras for the combat scenes. Yet, as the success of
In the intensifying Cold War environment that culminated in the Vietnam War (1962–1975), the South Korean government’s ideological focus was more acute than ever. In his address to the National Assembly in early 1965, Park Chung Hee once again emphasized the importance of strengthening the national defense system, particularly in the light of renewed fears of an invasion by North Korea. Korean combat soldiers were dispatched to Vietnam in 1965. These fast-moving political developments added a new and urgent dimension to the production of anticommunist war films.13 The Vietnam War was quickly picked up as a new film subject, offering the opportunity to showcase the South Korean army’s brave struggle against the communist regime’s Viet Cong forces. Films engaging with the Vietnam War included
11One sub-plot depicts a father-son relationship: Second Lieutenant O craves the love and approval of his father, the battalion commander. Another squad member, Yŏng-sun, is missing his newly-wed wife, and writes long letters to her every night. A third marine, Hŭng-gu, is missing his elderly mother, and trying his best to be a good soldier for her sake. 12The influence of Hollywood on Korean films is explained by Korea’s historical relationship with American cinema since the beginning of the 20th century. Yecies (2005: 59) observes that the huge influx of Hollywood films during the Japanese occupation period led to the decade 1926–36 being dubbed ‘Hollywood’s First Golden Age’ in Korea. The flood of American films stimulated local film production and offered a sense of modernity to Korean filmmakers. Later, during the U.S. occupation period, Hollywood’s dominance in Korea was intensified after the Central Motion Picture Exchange (CMPE), a semi-government body under the USAMGIK and representative of the Motion Pictures Export Association of America, gained control over all film imports and distribution. The flood of Hollywood films continued after the Korean War and had a significant impact on genre formation within the Korean film industry, recovering from the wounds inflicted by the war. 13While Park’s assistance to the U.S. in the Vietnam War was mainly ideological, there was also an economic rationale behind it. Many commentators have suggested that the war was a significant factor in the eventual rise of the South Korean economy.
While most anticommunist films from the early 1960s were war films, some directors had begun engaging the conventions of melodrama as a way of adding complexity to understanding the civil war. Melodrama first made its appearance in Korean films in the late 1950s, and quickly became the most popular cinematic genre. In the 1960s melodrama accounted for over half of all film productions, dealing mostly with themes of family, love and sacrifice.14 As the genre grew in popularity, this format was adopted by the anticommunist film, focusing particularly on family tragedy caused by war. The type became known as ‘separation (
The original score composed by Park Chun-seok (Pak Ch’un-sŏk), with its haunting theme tune ‘Has anyone seen this person?’, enhances the movie’s themes with its tender lyrics and sad melodies. Screenwriter Han Un-sa wrote the lyrics, which encapsulate Chang’s desperate quest for his lover.16 The title of the song was also used as a promotional tag line, summarizing the major theme of the film. In the film poster, the title,
Almost 100,000 people turned out to see the film in Seoul alone and, according to a review published in the
Separation melodramas have had a continuing afterlife beyond the 1960s; notable examples include
14For more information on melodrama and its formation as a genre in Korea, see “A Study of Korean Melodrama as the Pivotal Point of a Hybrid Genre” (Park 2010). 15Scholars such as Worland (1999: 360) have compared this trend to its appearance in Hollywood films. For example, The Bridges at Doko-Ri (1954), a Hollywood film dealing with the Korean War, also utilizes elements of family melodrama. 16This song later became the theme song for the national campaign to re-unite separated families launched in 1983, and was also used in another separation drama, Kilsoddeum (Kilsottŭm, 1985) , directed by Im Kwon-taek.
In 1966 the government increased its support for anticommunist filmmaking by revising the Motion Picture Law (MPL), which strengthened the Import License Reward System (ILRS).17 Under the direction of the government, the official Grand Bell Awards for film established two new categories, best anticommunist film and best anticommunist screenplay. Winners of these awards received an import license, which enabled them to distribute and exhibit foreign—primarily Hollywood—films. As one of the most popular film genres of the time, spy action films joined the growing stream of anticommunist film productions.18
Since the mid-1960s foreign films had become more popular than domestic films in Korea, and spy action films, represented by the James Bond series, were no exception. In 1965,
Films such as
17The MPI distributed import licenses in accordance with the Import License Reward System (ILRS), which was designed to be a financial subsidy for registered producers. Import licenses were distributed on the basis of four main factors: 1) production results; 2) export achievements; 3) international film festival awards; and 4) government-sponsored film awards. 18Spy action films were produced as early as 1962 as part of revolutionary filmmaking efforts. These included Body Is Sad (Yukch’e nŭn sŭlp’ŭda, 1962), Red Roses Are Gone (Pulgŭn changmi chida, 1962), and Find a Secret Path (Pimil t’ongno rŭl ch’ajara, 1962). However, spy action films dealing with domestic espionage activities were overtaken by war films and soon disappeared. 19Director Lee Hyeong-pyo (Yi Hyŏng-p’yo) (2004) agreed that imitating popular foreign films was the usual way of creating a new trend. 20Overseas travel including immigration was difficult for most Koreans until the late 1980s, following the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988.
As the result of the intensified Cold War situation represented by two political incidents that occurred in early 1968, Park Chung Hee reinforced the regime’s anticommunist policy as well as Korea’s defense system. First, on 21 January 1968, 31 North Korean commandos attempted to assassinate President Park. Although the mission failed, the fact that they reached within 500 meters of the Blue House, Korea’s presidential residence, shocked the public.21 Second, two days after this attack, North Korean troops captured the USS
Anticommunist education at school level was also expanded, and the Ministry of Education encouraged primary schools to hold anticommunist speech competitions and devise political posters and slogans.22 Articles and opinion pieces filled the daily newspapers and film magazines encouraging anticommunist film productions, which increased as a result of the escalating political tensions between South and North. In 1968, officially recognized anticommunist films increased to 22 from only 5 in 1967 (KMPPC 1977: 46). However, if we take into account the flexibility of the genre, 10 times as many anticommunist films could have been made in the late 1960s as were acknowledged in official statistics.
While the quantity of anticommunist films increased, and other genres such as horror and comedy were also harnessed to the cause, their quality decreased: many films were ‘quota quickies’ tailored to receive the coveted import license rather than to pursue box office success, and they failed to win approval from audiences (
In the 1970s, with the help of the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation (KMPPC), under the aegis of the MPI, the anticommunist film was given the chance to re-invent itself. Between 1974 and 1975, the KMPPC produced five large-scale anticommunist war films:
Within this historical context, a notable gap existed between the propaganda agenda of the Park regime and the kinds of films that producers and directors wanted to make for public consumption. For the government, the anticommunist genre needed to inform audiences that communism was an evil ideology. For producers, anticommunist filmmaking was about making money, either by box office returns or by winning the government subsidies given to make this kind of film. For film directors, it was a chance to apply their artistry on the big screen in a variety of forms and find ways of overcoming the limitations inherent in restricted narratives and polemical subject matter. The genre-bending potentialities of the anticommunist film enabled producers to make films that satisfied the government as well as audience tastes, leading the genre to flourish over a thirty-year span.
Anticommunist film production was not unique to Korea. Such films were also produced in Taiwan, which shared similarities with Korea as a result of its ideological and geographical split from Mainland China. Hollywood also produced anticommunist films under the name of the ‘anti-Red’ and the ‘Communist-asgangster’ movies of the 1950s and 1960s. However, Korea is one of the few countries where the genre flourished for over a decade. This phenomenon is not surprising given that the making of genre films in other countries under military control, such as Taiwan, Greece and Brazil, was not as heavily influenced by the government as in the case of Korea. In Korea, the government provided systemic support, including financial subsidies and censorship shortcuts, encouraging the production of an increasing flow of anticommunist films. This level of state assistance eventually inspired Korean filmmakers to transform the anticommunist film into a dynamic genre-bending form, enabling films of this type to overcome the limits placed on all other genre categories and conventions. For these filmmakers, ‘anticommunism’ was the magic password to success.
Hence, the genre progressed rapidly in the beginning, driven by the friction generated between the government and filmmakers as a result of their varying agendas. However, these disparate energies and the complexities and nuances that they had generated in films like
In the 1960s, many filmmakers worked on anticommunist productions dressed in a variety of guises inspired by Hollywood. In pursuit of the propaganda task laid on them by the state, they willingly crossed genre boundaries and, in so doing, created a new norm of filmmaking in which genre-bending played an essential role. Given this background, it is little wonder that Korea’s new generation of filmmakers has so readily adopted similar techniques as pathways for expressing local stories. Through the process of appropriating and modifying Hollywood genre conventions, Korean cinema—which up to now has flourished at the local, regional and national levels—has been re-invented as a ‘glocalized’ cinema, exemplifying the contemporary nature of intercultural flows and the positive outcomes they can produce.
21For more information, see Kang (2004). This so-called ‘1.21 incident’, named after the day it occurred, resulted in 30 deaths, with 52 injured. Three North Korean soldiers escaped back to the North and one was captured. This man, Kim Shin-jo, stated at a press conference that 31 commandos had planned to attack the Blue House with the purpose of beheading Park Chung Hee. 22The Charter for National Education was implemented in December 1968, setting primary educational objectives that included anticommunist values. It includes the ringing assertion: “The love of country and fellow countrymen, together with a firm belief in democracy against communism, is the way we will prosper and the basis for realizing the ideals of the free world” (Lee 1974:17–18). Anticommunist education in schools was replaced by reunification education in the 1980s. 23In particular, director Yu Hyun-mok (Yu Hyŏn-mok) argued at the seminar that there was already an oversupply of anticommunist films, audiences were bored with them, and censorship pressures on directors were high. Other complaints raised during the seminar included a lack of information about the North. The MPI officials present apparently made no suggestions on solving these problems (Yŏnghwa TV yesul September 1968: 26).