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Korean cinema: a history of Korean film and ten best Korean movies from recent years

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The following text and list was originally published earlier this year in a brochure produced by Reference & Advisory Services department head Wol Sue Lee for the New York Library Association.

The history of the Korean movie industry from the silent screen to the present box-office blockbusters has been shaped by changing historical and cultural forces. Many films were destroyed because of political situations, WWII, and the Korean War. During the ‘50s and ‘60s movie theaters began to exist. As a result, young Korean actors and actresses became very popular, appearing in films ranging from crime, suspense and Korean War movies to melodramas. Then in the ‘70s there was a worldwide decline in the movie industry due to the influx of television.

The ’80s brought a democratic presidential election to Korea and the inclusion of three Korean films at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. Even though the first Korean film to receive recognition in a foreign film festival is a 1978 film, Shijibganeun nal (The Wedding Day), Korean films had been virtually unknown in the West until 1986, when Gilsoddeum, directed by Kwon-taek Im, was entered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. At the 1988 Montréal World Film Festival, an actress in Adada won the award for Best Actress. In the ‘70s and ‘80s more Hollywood movies were allowed to come into Korea. In order to prevent the total collapse of the Korean movie industry, a screen quota system was set up which forced Korean theaters to play only Korean films 146 days out of the year. In 1996, a new generation of directors led a renaissance in the Korean film industry. In addition, the ‘80s and ‘90s witnessed the transformation of historical and small theaters into modern multiplex theaters. Major film festivals, such as the Busan International Film Festival (BIIF), the Jeonju International Film Festival and PiFan, the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, were hosted in South Korea. A big moment occurred in 1990, when the Pesaro International Film Festival of New Cinema in Italy mounted a retrospective of Korean cinema. This, in turn was followed by more comprehensive representation of Korean films at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1993-1994.

After the ‘90s Korean films improved drastically in terms of quality, and there were many box-office hits. 2001 marked a new height in terms of smash hits. Some of the recent successful blockbusters that are not listed in this bibliography, include: Chingu (Friend), Chunhyang, Yeopgijeogin geunyeo (My Sassy Girl), Oasis, and Bin-jip (3-Iron). The biggest Korean film of 2006 was a monster film, Gwoemul (The Host), which broke every record in the book.

The presence of so many blockbuster films has not meant a lessening of more artistic works. Some critics thought that Korean cinema had “gone commercial,” however, they were pleasantly surprised by the high quality films produced, such as Friend; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and…Spring; and Jibeuro; to name a few. Korean cinema’s rapidly expanding talent base gives hope that the industry will continue to prosper in the future.

10 Award Winning Korean Films (in no particular order)

Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo… bom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring). 2003, color,103 min. Directed and starred by Ki-duk Kim.
This small floating Buddhist monastery is set on a beautiful, serene landscape. The film has five segments, with each season representing a stage in a man’s life – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring. From an old monk, a child learns the nature of sorrow. In the heat and lushness of summer the monk, now a young man, experiences desire. With winter he atones for his past actions, and with spring, a new cycle begins. The seasons symbolize the human spirit, moving from innocence, through love and evil, to enlightenment and finally rebirth. (Winner of 10 awards, including: Audience Award, San Sebastian International Film Festival 2003, Spain; 2003 Award, Locarno International Film Festival, Switzerland;Grand Bell Award 2004, South Korea; Silver Condor Award 2005, Argentinian Film Critics Association; 2005 Chlotrudis Award, Massachussetts Society for Independent Film.)

Gwoemul (The Host). 2006, color, 120 min. Directed by Joon-ho Pong.
Kang Du, who runs a small snack stand near the Han River, has a dysfunctional family. His brother is a foul-talking, Molotov-cocktail-throwing, unemployed college graduate, and his sister is a professional archer with self-esteem issues. His family’s only hope is his daughter Hyun Seo. Life seems to be relatively normal until a giant monster living in the polluted river snatches his daughter. The family is determined to do anything to rescue her. (Winner of 14 awards, including: Asia-Pacific Film Festival Award 2006, Taiwan; Blue Dragon Award 2006, South Korea; Orient Ex-press Award 2006, Catalonian International Film Festival; Interna-tional Fantasy Film Award 2007, Fantasporto, Portugal.)

Jibeuro (The Way Home). 2002, color, 87 min. Directed by Jeong-hyang Yi.
A spoiled city boy is forced to live with his grandmother, who is deaf, illiterate, and old-fashioned and lives alone in a remote farming village. Despite his unhappiness in an unfamiliar environment, he slowly accepts her simple but hard way of existence, making friends with other country boys, and in the end develops affection towards his devoted grandmother. (Winner of 7 awards, including: Grand Bell Award 2002, South Korea; Baek Sang Film 2003, South Korea; Bronze Castle, Castellinaria International Festival of Young Cinema, Switzerland, 2003.)

Milyang (Secret Sunshine). 2007, color, 142 min. Directed by Chang-dong Lee.
The title,”Milyang,” where the action is set, means “a place with good sunshine,” but it can also mean secret sunshine. After her husband is killed by a bus, Shin-ae relocates with her son to Milyang, the town where her deceased husband was born. She tries to cope with her new environment and teaches piano lessons. She finds the place comfortable, people welcome them, her son likes his new school, and she meets a man who is dedicated to her. Then tragedy strikes her once more. Her only son is kidnapped and killed. Initially traumatized with pain and suffering, she goes to prison to forgive the man who killed her son, but is confused and angry to see him at peace with his newfound religion. In the end, she deals with the nature of suffering and finds hope again. (Best Actress Award 2007, Cannes Film Festival.)

Oldboy. 2003; 2005, color, 120 min. Directed by Chan-wook Park.
Dae-su Oh is kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years in a private cell. He tries endlessly to escape, but in vain. Dae-su has no idea why he is in this desperate situation and who is keeping him there. When he is released one day, his only desires are to find out why he was imprisoned, and kill the one responsible in the slowest, most painful way possible. (Winner of 17 awards, including: 2004 British Independent Film Award; 2004 Audience Award, Bergen International Film Festival, Norway; Grand Prix of the Jury 2004, Cannes Film Festival; 2004 Asia-Pacific Film Festival Award, Japan; Golden Kinnaree Award 2005, Bangkok International Film Festival; Critics Choice Award 2006, Austin Film Critics Association, Texas.)

Shiri (Swiri). 1999, color, 125 min. Directed by Je-gyu Kang.
Who is killing a slew of South Korean intelligent agents and who are the phantom terrorists trying to steal the powerful new explosive CTX? South Korean agents Ryu and Lee try to get to the bottom of this North Korean infiltration, but they suspect each other of being a double agent because of a security leak. They must find the source of the leak and the target of the North Koreans before it is too late. (Asia-Pacific Film Festival Award 1999, Thailand; Grand Bell Award 1999, South Korea.)

Silmido. 2003, color, 136 min. Directed by Woo-suk Kang.
Based on a true story. In 1968 a group of thirty-one North Korean commandos tried to infiltrate South Korea to assassinate President Park Chung-hee, but failed. This incursion prompted the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) to pay back the favor by recruiting thirty-one death row convicts, whose main purpose was the assassination of North Korean president Kim Il-Sung. In 1969 the political climate between the two Koreas changed dramatically, which prompted KCIA to abort this top secret mission and make the recruits virtual prisoners in Silmido, a remote island. The film concludes in 1971, with the recruits revolting, killing the training officers, and trying to escape…Only four survived the ordeals but were later executed. (Winner of 7 awards, including: Blue Dragon Award 2004, South Korea; Grand Bell Award 2004, South Korea.)

Sopyonje (Seopyeonje). 1993; 2006, color, 113 min. Directed by Kwon-taek Im.
Youbong is a master of pansori, a type of Korean folk music. He travels the countryside with two adopted children, searching for his soul mate with whom he grew up. They were raised by a pansori master, but when he ran away to explore the exciting city life, the girl stayed behind and lost her sight and wandered around the land singing pansori. (Blue Dragon Award 1993, South Korea; Grand Bell Award 1993, South Korea; Golden Goblet 1993, Shanghai International Film Festival.)

Taegukgi hwinalrimeyo (Tae Guk Gi : The Brotherhood of War). 2004, color, 120 min. Directed by Je-gyu Kang.
Two brothers, Jin-tae Lee, a shoeshine boy hoping to become a shoemaker, and Jin-seok Lee, a bookish high school student, are caught in the Korean War (1950-53). Living with their ailing mother and Jin-tae’s fiancée, they are poor and struggling but remarkably happy. Then both brothers are drafted into the army; the older brother volunteers for a dangerous mission in order to save his younger brother. (Winner of 9 awards, including: Blue Dragon Award 2004, South Korea; Grand Bell Award 2004, South Korea; 2004 Political Film Society Award, U.S.A.; Asia-Pacific Film Festival Award 2005, Malaysia.)

Wang-ui namja (The King and the Clown). 2005; 2006, color, 119 min. Directed by Jun-ik Lee.
Two street clowns perform a political satire mocking King Yon San, an evil, cruel dictator who is hated by his people. They are hauled into the palace and given a tall order - - make the king smile or else. They are invited to stay on and perform for the king. It turns out that the king is smitten with the younger clown, and the plot thickens. (Baek Sang Film Award 2006, South Korea; this film was selected as the official Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the 79th Academy Awards, U.S.A.)

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