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Social and Political Reflection on Korean Films Research Paper


The historical background

The first cinema to exist in Korea was the Tongdaemun motion picture studio, which started its operations in 1903. Thereafter, the Dangsung-sa cinema was opened in 1907 in Seoul and it commenced its operations immediately. Earlier on, before the domestic film industry was formed, the country imported films from America and Europe, which were later shown in the theatres.

The first film producer in Korea was Park Sung-pil, who played a major role in supporting the first Korean film that was named ‘loyal revenge’ inclusive of a documentary film known as scenes of Kyoungsoung city, which were later shown in his Dansung-sa theatre in 1919.

Most of the businesses at that time were owned by Japanese; hence, they contributed heavily towards limiting the growth of the filmmaking businesses, as at that time they were colonizing Korea. They however implemented rules concerning all the films, both domestic and foreign, in that, films had to be submitted to the government censorship board for approval before being screened.

Ironically, the police had to be present at the time of screening. However, in 1935, the Koreans were able to implement sound features in the films with the help of the sound technician Lee Pil-woo. Unfortunately, it was expensive to produce sound films for the local filmmakers, while the silent films were no good either.

However, Korean filmmakers were under pressure to only produce films that were supported by the Japanese military and thereafter, in 1942, the Korean language-based films were banned by the then government. Nevertheless, in 1953, the then president declared that the cinemas would be exempted from any taxes as a move to revive the collapsing industry, therefore, marking a fresh beginning of the Korean film industry in the late fifties.

Talented directors emerged in the sixties, thus leading to the production of amazing films, which drew the public to theaters once again. However, due to the dictatorial government that implemented restrictive laws, the industry was once again affected in the form of its creativity.

Without question, one of the most original directors of all times in Korea was Kim Ki-young, who mostly include women in his films, thus portraying the power of women over men in terms of relationships. The Korean motion picture promotion corporation was formed with an aim of reviving the industry in 1973; some of the booming films at that time were woman chasing killer butterfly, insect woman, and iodo, among others.

In the eighties, the censorship oppression reduced and the Korean films started gaining recognition internationally. With the government support on the film industry, young talented producers emerged and brought with them a taste to the Korean films.  However, with the government relaxing on the foreign films rules, and allowing them to re-establish in Korea, meant that the Korea film industry would have to face competition from Hollywood filmmakers.

It is however evident that the Korean cinemas experienced harsh regulations, restrictive measures and a strict censorship under the Japanese rule. Nevertheless, with the presence of a supportive government, the industry now enjoys a fair film policy, which has contributed to its growth (Young-II Para. 12)

The relationship of the Korean film to cultural context

According to McHugh (pp 1), the uniqueness of one’s culture is identified when one encounters other cultures; however, she explains how the Korean films were mainly based on love, romance and power. Additionally, most of the films produced after the Korean war were dominated by the presence of many women with children but whose husbands are absent, such as ‘the house guest and my mother’, ‘bitter but once again’ among others.

The absence of male characters in these films represented the emptiness in the women and children’s lives such that women have to take up the whole burden of economic and social strain. McHugh (pp 6) adds that personal frustration marks the basis of interpersonal identification that is familiar with the political and social factors.

This is evident in the ”the stray bullet”, which is based on a group of Korean war veterans, whereby, one of the crippled veterans breaks his engagement to his only love since he is incapable of taking care of her; in turn, the woman results to being a prostitute to make ends meets for her family’s sake.

In addition, the film named ‘my mother and the house guest’ illustrates the class and gender division and even difference in terms of wealth. Such films also encompass the formation and destruction of relationships, as well proving the characters innocence.

Moreover, the film “Madame Freedom” of 1953 involves a woman who is a housewife and married to a professor who concentrates mainly on his work but does not make enough compared to other men. Therefore, the wife starts working too in a shop so that she can assist her husband; however, she is exposed to a world of immorality. Her family’s state becomes a dilemma, since her husband demands separation while her son begs his father to forgive his mum.

Thus, this film signifies the class difference in Korea, since there are the rich, working classes, the married and the single; and literally focuses on the traditional gender roles in marriages. Moreover, an article on the revival of film industry (pp 142) illustrates that there were three main types of films in 1950s, which comprised of classics – used as a comfort for the audience as they prepared for a new chapter towards the end of dictatorship.

The second class of films comprised of the historic events, tragedies, and vengeance. The third type of films mainly focused on heroes. Nevertheless, foreign films had an impact on the local Korean filmmakers in that, they affected the local filmmakers in marketing their films, since the foreign films charged the same amount as the local ones, even if the foreign ones were outdated.

Indeed, this was an eye opener to the local filmmakers on concentrating on quality films. ‘The housemaid’, an ‘aimless bullet’, and ‘mother and a guest’ were some of the films concerned with social issues, like family and a normal individual’s livelihood and also social justice. An article by Stringer (pp 164) based on the film Sopyonje brings about the music mood since the film mainly encompasses songs, in which the audience gets to understand the character’s feeling through different songs played in the film.

In the Sopyonje film, Choi (pp 108) explains the courtesan culture of the pre-colonial Korea, when he describes the blind Song-hwa in a black skirt and her braided hair that hangs over her neck, signifying that she is still a virgin. However, later on, she appears with her hair combed up and she wears a flowing skirt.

This signifies that she is now a married woman. The author elaborates the Korean culture in the pre-colonial era, just by the mode of dressing. He further explains that, when a woman was a virgin, her hair was braided; however, when she lost her virginity, the hair was combed into a ‘bun’, which indicated that her status had changed.

The rise of the Korean film industry

Due the political tension in Korea in the fifties, the country was divided into the north and south in terms of land and culture. Therefore, the south emphasized mostly on the film industry and the film produced at that time reflected the situation that the country faced.

However, in the sixties and with the emergence of a new government, strict censorship policies were implemented thus leading to the closing of several production companies as these policies limited their creativity. According the article on revival of the film industry (pp 134), after the armistice agreement which took place in 1953, this industry started its road to recovery, while film production companies also increased and even locating in Seoul since it was regarded as the home of film makers.

The government also developed strategies that help in boosting the filming industry, such that, the 16mm black and white films were replaced by the 35mm films. Co-production with other countries was encouraged, hence allowing foreign filmmakers to settle in Korea. The first colour cinemascope film was made in 1961, hence marking a big step in the film viewing, from black and white to a colour view.

With the formation of the civilian film organization, the government censorship was eased, hence giving the filmmaker an easy time in their industry. With the film industry made suitable for operations, the rise of talented producers contributed to the growth of the industry by producing quality and spiced up films.

The South Korea region had already transformed from authoritative rule to democracy, thus giving its citizens the right to air their views. This applied to the film industry as well, such that, the issue that had been ignored in the previous years like love, sex and the livelihood of people were expressed in films, with a motive of describing the lives of people and teaching moral lessons.

The exemption of taxes on film industries was a move aimed at boosting the war-affected film industries. In 1950, the numbers of cinemas in South Korea were about a hundred and a total of 108 films produced in the 1960 compared to only six films that existed in the early fifties.

The article further explains that, in 1958, the Korean film and award for producing quality films was implemented with an aim of promoting the film industry and encouraging filmmakers to produce quality films. The ministry of culture issued a bill that ensured awards for producing quality films to those who had produced quality films, produced exported films, as well as those who produced films that had won awards at festivals, and imported quality films.

Peppermint candy movie in relation to Korea

Today, with a supportive government and reduced restrictive policies, the industry is booming with outstanding films such as “peppermint candy” which is presented in a backward manner and is based on the life of a man (Yongho) who commits suicide at the beginning of the movie, but then goes back to the time before the suicide.

He started as a policeman who was brutal, thereafter he loses his business and he is left bankrupt, then his wife leaves him and his marriage is crashed. He had earlier on lost all his dreams including marrying his one true love who at the moment is on her deathbed wanting to see him for one last time.

According to this movie, the dream of Yongho are crashed by the cruel, oppressive and manipulating society that we live in. Hence, he ends up a desperate man with no hope, no dreams, or aspirations in life. This movie explores how the political, socio and economic crisis that were experienced in the eighties under the authoritative regime affected the starring in this film.

The economic crisis contributed to his loss and left him bankrupt and hopeless to the extent of taking his own life. With reference to the peppermint movie, it is clear how a repressive system can destroy one’s personality in terms of harsh economic situations that contribute to tough choices that people make in their lives, thus ending up in loan and the family gets torn apart due to financial crisis.

However, it touches on the military rule that oppresses an individual; a military regime comprises of violence, calculating, and lack of reproductive activities, hence elaborating the calculativeness in Yong-ho when he purchases a gun and plans carefully on who he should kill to ease his pain.

Just as the authoritative regime use power to violate others’ rights; it is clear how Yongho uses his authority to brutally abuse a student in order to obtain information from him. This is similar to the Kwangju massacre, which according to BBC news happened on the 21st may 1980, where Korean paratroopers fired into a crowd of demonstrators who were demanding an apology for the arrests of their fellow colleagues in the previous days (Flashback: the Kwangju massacre Para. 2).

This was seen as a massacre as it claimed over 200 lives and 1000 were injured, just because they demanded for their rights. In the peppermint candy, it is clear that Young-ho does not have respect for femininity, since he leaves his pregnant wife alone when she is due to give birth to his child.

This signifies Young-ho character to that of the military regime that had no mercy and compassion for anyone, and even during demonstrations, they did not show compassion to the women, hence signifying how military service changes a man within 26 months of training. This is seen as criticism to the military system.

It is clear that Young-ho was a completely different man after the Kwangju massacre due to his torture experience that always clinked in his mind and reminded him of the rotten system of the then government. Nevertheless, Young-ho is not the only affected male in this movie; other male characters appear to be affected by the past traumatic experiences. However, Young-ho seems to think that the only solution to bring back the young and innocent, Young-ho, is by committing suicide.

This film portrays a masculine personality that is common in men, however, director Lee Chang enables the audience to imagine of a journey to happiness in the years to come, but at the same time elaborates that there has to be political and social changes for this journey to be compete and fruitful.

Additionally, movie focuses mainly on the male gender and the female role is limited, hence implying that in a male dominated world, women are oppressed and have little say. This is evident in the case of Honja who is Young-ho’s wife, who is left alone in the most crucial time of her life when she is pregnant and her feelings are not considered at all.

Young-ho’s first love character Sunim does not also play a huge role in the movie, her feelings are not well-expressed, as Young-ho puts an end to their relationship in their meeting. However, women are portrayed as an inspiration of love or an object that men use without consideration, such that, they can cheat on them and ignore them when women need them the most (Eyzell Para. 8).

This movie clearly symbolizes the political degradation in a country and the social degradation within the society whereby women are not appreciated. The train in this movie could symbolize a horrific journey, as it is always shown after he acts in an irresponsible manner. For instance, when he cheats on his wife after having physically battered her and when he sells his camera, which was an inspiration to him as he had aspired to be a photographer when he was full of dreams and hope, among other events.

The title of the movie “peppermint candy” is also symbolic in that, the candies symbolizes Young-ho’s gifts from his first love which comprise of a trophy and of which Young-ho remembers her while in the military service. However, when the trophy is crashed on the ground by a sergeant, his innocence is also crashed when his morals are defiled by the cruel world once he leaves the military; hence, these examples signify the symbolic title of the movie (Eyzell Para. 3).

It is clear that this movie symbolizes the Korea’s history illustrating the socio, political and economic turmoil of this country in its journey to attaining democracy. Young-ho represents the Korean people who were desperate as they climbed up towards democracy. When Young-ho accidentally shoots a student on her way home, this can be related back to the South Korea democratic movement, which yielded to a clash between the students and the government leading to the Kwangju massacre.

Nevertheless, young-ho brutality can be a symbol of the leadership of General Chun Doo Hwan who used authoritative rule and resisted all attempts towards constitutional reforms. As a result of the new constitution in 1988, the economy was picking up; however, in 1997, the Korean economy was in crisis hence leading to unemployment and bankruptcy.

This is well illustrated when Young-ho loses his business and he is in debt. Lee Chang Dong, the director of the peppermint candy takes his audience through a journey of Korea’s history up to the 21st century. According to Ungson et al (pp 6), with the election of Kim as the president of Korea, he represented a new dawn to political and economic liberalization in Korea. His main aim was on political and social reforms, economic renewal, and cultural development.

Conclusion

With the end of the military dictatorship and colonialization, the film industry in Korea has taken a positive toll, with the emergence of amazing creativity and different style of realism, thus enabling the industry to be at a competitive advantage with the presence of movie industries like Hollywood and bollywood among others.

It is however clear from Korean films related to the socio political and economic situations in their country, a clear indication of the journey to democratization. The peppermint candy movie is one such example that takes us through the authoritative regime era of the 21st century, symbolizing how a repressive system can shatter an individual’s dreams and personality.

Nevertheless, in the early films like ‘my mother’s guest’ and ‘ Madame freedom’, there was clear indication of livelihood of people in that era and how they related to each other, expressing the themes of love, betrayal and finances in relationships. Therefore, it is evident that the Korean film directors such as Lee Chang Dong relate most of their movies to the real events in the history of Korea.

Works Cited

Choi, Chungmoo. The politics of gender, aestheticism and cultural nationalism; Sopyonje and the Genealogy. N.d. (Attached document).

Eyzell, Perez. “Peppermint candy: redefining Korean masculinity.” The Film Journal. 2011. Web.

Flashback: the Kwangju massacre.” BBC News. 2000. Web.

McHugh, Kathleen. South Korean film melodrama and the question of national cinema. The Harwood academic publishers. 2001. (Attached document).

Stringer, Julian. Sopynje and the inner domain of national culture. (Attached document).

The revival of film industry; 1954-1962. (Attached document).

Ungson, Gerardo, et al. The Korean enterprise; the quest of globalization. Harvard business school press. 1997. Web.

Young-Il, Lee. The Establishment of a National Cinema under Colonialism: The History of Early Korean Cinema. N.d. Web.

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Avila, M. (2019, July 29). Social and Political Reflection on Korean Films [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/social-and-political-reflection-on-korean-films/

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Avila, Marco. "Social and Political Reflection on Korean Films." IvyPanda, 29 July 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/social-and-political-reflection-on-korean-films/.

1. Marco Avila. "Social and Political Reflection on Korean Films." IvyPanda (blog), July 29, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/social-and-political-reflection-on-korean-films/.


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Avila, Marco. "Social and Political Reflection on Korean Films." IvyPanda (blog), July 29, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/social-and-political-reflection-on-korean-films/.

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Avila, Marco. 2019. "Social and Political Reflection on Korean Films." IvyPanda (blog), July 29, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/social-and-political-reflection-on-korean-films/.

References

Avila, M. (2019) 'Social and Political Reflection on Korean Films'. IvyPanda, 29 July.

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