New Korean cinema is a period in the movie industry of South Korea, which resulted in transformation and innovation on all levels of film production. It was the entrance of South Korea into the world stage, an ability for filmmakers to express creativity or criticism, and allowing the industry to reach a natural state without restrictions. Old Korean cinema was limited in all aspects, the majority focusing on low-quality budget melodramas.
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The few classic films of the era were mostly known for emphasizing traditional conservative values. Meanwhile, the political leadership of South Korea throughout the 20th century virtually maintained strict control and suffocated the industry by introducing quotas, propaganda, and censorship.
Various political factors contributed to the transition to the New Korean Cinema inside the country. The Cold War was over and despite North Korea and China remained Communist, the tension dramatically eased. Meanwhile, internal South Korean politics experienced a shift as the country gradually transitioned to a constitutional democracy in 1988. This affected the film industry in several ways. The transition resulted in an economic boom and open exposure of South Korea to foreign influences. While the country continuously remained close to the US, the 1990s saw a rapid entrance of consumer culture as well as an increase in the population’s financial abilities (Robinson, 2005). However, that also led to a growing class divide and a period of cultural transition, which are often portrayed in New Korean films.
In this period, South Korean films began to achieve critical and financial success, including in the domestic box office, which has been dominated by Hollywood productions. A political and economic shift in the country led to a change in social values and cultural taboos, which, combined with an elimination of government censorship, gave the film industry to use its medium to express ideas and provide social commentary openly. There were no longer strict requirements to obtain licenses, review the script with appropriate censorship agencies, or requirement to insert propaganda that was evident before.
At times, this transition created clashes in social and cultural values. For example, The King and the Clown was one of the first films to portray open homosexuality in Korean cinema. It explored a traditional concept of family in Korea and how it contrasted with sexual identity. The audience, relating to the struggles and emotions of the characters, began to accept homosexuality. The film essentially localized the Western cultural model of gay identity (Shin, 2013).
That was possible by portraying the origins of such beliefs from Korean tradition and history. Another example could be seen in the famous Attack the Gas Station! Which was a direct commentary of the social strife and youth culture that was occurring during a monetary crisis in South Korea at the end of the 20th century? The film used an unorthodox type of narration and did not adhere to logical plot devices, which were symbolic of kynyang or the resistance of society to the status quo of things in the country (Abelmann & Choi, n.d.).
Although violent, the film was a statement that has rarely been seen in South Korean cinema to date, encouraging the audience to publicly resist corruption and class divide, which has overtaken the country. Various films in the New Korean cinema era used their plot, characters, and symbolism to drive forward specific criticism or reflection on social issues.
The changes manifested themselves regarding film creation and style as well. The transition led to the rise of independent filmmaking, which allowed minor studios and directors to create their ideas without external pressures. Many of these films rose to prominence and achieved box-office success. The subject matter that could be portrayed in film greatly expanded, from homosexuality to violence, it gave films more depth and emotion.
This led to the popularity of individual styles and genres. Attack on the Gas Station! Was extraordinarily bold and ambitious, influenced by Western pop culture influences and the dark tones of crime dramas. Even the traditional melodrama genre changed as well. Christmas in August successfully redefined the genre through avoiding clichéd emotional and dramatic elements but focusing on the sincerity of the narrative. The film finds its emotional substance in common interactions of the characters, which are living a life severely grounded in the reality of life in South Korea at the time.
Although the “renaissance” of the New Korean cinema has seemingly passed, the period has dramatically benefited the national industry as a whole. Korean films became a centerpiece of Asian cinematography for their content, style, and creativity. However, this aspect created certain stereotypes and prototypes of filmmaking, which many directors attempt to follow without successfully recreating the uniqueness of the 1990’s period. As with many film industries worldwide, Korean cinema has been overtaken by the trend of remakes and reboots. The future of the industry will rely on a creative approach to these films while supporting the exploration of new styles and ideas.
Transnationalization of Korean Cinema
Since 2005, collaborative transnational productions between East Asian countries, including South Korea, have increased tremendously. The globalization of capitalism in the 21st century allowed for historical and material circumstances to align to make such collaborations possible. The primary models of international co-production include treaty, which relies on government tax breaks, and equity, which funds private corporate activities.
This allows studios to take advantage of various economic benefits that come as a result of co-production. Modern transnational co-productions have significantly increased in scale, with every part of the filmmaking practice practiced within the context of cooperative practice based on the market. Asian co-productions succeed in the international market by drawing away from local audiences. The critical aspect of transnational productions is the method of symbolic intervention rather than a simple aspect of cost-sharing or cultural influences. (Wei, 2011).
Foreign cultural influences are adopted through international casts and production crews, which can bring their unique national contribution to the process of filmmaking. Styles, techniques, and specific genre-based specialties were evident in East Asian co-productions.
However, it is important to note that external cultural influences have been present in South Korean cinema long before the contemporary era. For example, the film Spring of the Korean Peninsula, which was produced under the Japanese occupation, could technically be considered a transnational production. Cultural influences in this instance were forced, as the Japanese language, propaganda, and film techniques were inserted into this iconic production. Cultural influence can have a lot of impact on a movie due to the ideas which are reflected in the audience.
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Another aspect of Korean cinema gaining popularity internationally is the flow of ideas into Hollywood, which then remakes and Westernizes the films, often achieving critical and commercial success. The attention often reflects on the original Korean productions as the audience sees its inherent cultural origins. A large part of commercializing Asian co-production is attracting international audiences.
This includes adding settings and film elements that are familiar and appealing to the specific viewers. For example, the film Daisy attempts to combine aspects of international cinema by attempting to insert a traditional melodrama action plot into a Western setting. By mixing cultural influences, films like Daisy attempt to attract Western audiences by introducing Asian aesthetic elements into familiar locations. This makes it appealing to American audiences (Xu, 2008).
Cinematic exchanges in East Asia are focused purely on attempting to grow the commercial aspect of various national film industries. It does not follow a standard formula and is rapidly changing. Hollywood maintains a viewer base and has the resources or influence to spread its films globally, knowing that audiences will view its films as the epitome of commercial filmmaking. All Hollywood international films, including those with foreign actors and settings, are entirely under its control, and there is not an aspect of collaboration often seen in East Asian cinema.
The transnational practices of distribution and production of Korean films have had mediocre success in achieving international fame. Many of the co-productions have been unsuccessful outside of the Asian markets. Meanwhile, attempts to create commercial films appealing to Western audiences are uncreative and do not achieve critical success. South Korean films that truly captured the attention of Western audiences were unique.
For example, Oldboy was considered a paradigm shift for cinematic thrillers, which were emphasized by an unorthodox style of Chan-wook and his start as an auteur director. He was able to efficiently mix Korean culture with European film techniques while introducing thriller-driven plot elements that intrigued the audience. However, international hits like Oldboy unintentionally created a stereotype for Korean cinema. Its popularity made this type of film part of South Korea’s cinematic cultural identity. A film industry that was dominated by melodramas ironically became stereotyped for violence and horror. A viewer unfamiliar with a culture of society may only be able to judge it based on the only perspective they are given through the film (Shin, 2009).
Abelmann, N., & Choi, J. (2005). “Just because”: Comedy, melodrama and youth violence in Attack the Gas Station. In C. Shin & J. Stringer (Eds.), New Korean Cinema (pp. 132-143). New York City, New York Kingdom: NYU Press.
Robinson, M. (2005). Contemporary cultural production in South Korea: Vanishing meta-narratives of nation. In C. Shin & J. Stringer (Eds.), New Korean Cinema (pp. 15-31). New York City, New York Kingdom: NYU Press.
Shin, C. (2009). The art of branding: Tartan ‘Asia extreme’ films. In J. Choi & M. Wada-Marciano (Eds.), Horror to the extreme: Changing boundaries in Asian cinema (pp. 85-100). Frankfurt, Germany: Springer.
Shin, J. (2013). Male homosexuality in The King and the Clown: Hybrid construction and contested meanings. Journal of Korean Studies, 18(1), 89-114.
Wei, T. (2011). In the name of “Asia”: Practices and consequences of recent international film co-productions in East Asia. In V. Lee (Ed.), East Asian Cinemas (pp. 189-200). London, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
Xu, G. (2008). Remaking East Asia, outsourcing Hollywood. In L. Hunt & W. Leung (Eds.), East Asian cinemas: Exploring transnational connections on film (pp. 191-202). London, UK: Tauris.