When Park Kwang-su (b. 1955) and Jang Sun-woo (b. 1952), the two key directors of the New Korean Cinema, began their careers in 1988, Ch'ungmuro had already lost its earlier glory. Most Korean moviegoers shunned domestic films in the 1980s. Throughout that decade and most of the 1990s, the percentage of the domestic market share for Korean films fell below 20 percent, while Hollywood films brought in the overwhelming majority of box office receipts. The Korean film industry was forced to reinvent itself, against the background of a restless sociopolitical climate. The spirit of democratization during the 1980s influenced many young filmmakers to seriously challenge the status quo. The activist film movement in turn helped cultivate a generation of cinephiles, who were instrumental in the success of film festivals in Pusan, Puchon, and Jeonju and in the diversification of Korean film. Some of the films that best represent this period include Park Kwang-su's To the Starry Island ( Kŭ sŏm e kagosipta , 1993) and A Single Spark ( Arŭmdaun ch'ŏngnyŏn Chŏn T'ae-il , 1996), which are realistic films set against grim historical backgrounds. Jang Sun-woo, on the other hand, refused to be tied to realism and has instead explored questions of representation through the issues of sexuality, desire, and power. Both wry and cathartic, his films, such as To You, from Me ( Nŏ ege na rŭl ponenda , 1994) and Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie ( Nappŭn yŏnghwa , 1997), feature young people in crisis and reveal a strong inclination to debunk cinematic conventions. Both Park and Jang also hold the ignominious record of making two of the most commercially disastrous films in the history of Korean cinema: Park's Uprising ( Yi Che-su ŭi nan , 1999) and Jang's The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl ( Sŏngnyang p'ari sonyŏ ŭi chaerim , 2002).
Widely regarded by critics as the best contemporary Korean director, along with Im Kwon-Taek (b. 1936) and Park Chan-wook (b. 1963), is Hong Sangsoo (Hong Sang-su, b. 1960), whose work is distinguished by deeply personal dramas. Hong's films also often manipulate the linear flow of time, splitting time into segments and repeating them without disrupting the narrative center. The characters in The Power of Kangwon Province ( Kangwondo ŭi him , 1998) and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors ( O! Sujŏng , 2000) are unforgettable, as his mise-en-scène masterfully selects the intolerably sublime moments from the insignificant everyday.
Having begun his career in 1961, Im Kwon-Taek has, as of 2006, directed ninety-nine films, and he remains one of the rare directors to have achieved success in both the domestic box office and international film festivals.
Success eluded Im Kwon-Taek until he was nearly fifty years old. Though a proficient director of various popular genres during the "Golden Age" of the 1960s and the 1970s, Im was considered merely a B-grade studio director. His maturation as a director of art films had been impeded by several factors: government censorship, his social class, his family's ideological affiliations (as leftists), and his regional background (he was born in Chŏlla province, which has historically suffered political oppression). Im imposed self-censorship throughout the early stage of his career, and he steered away from making personal films until the democratization of the 1980s and the 1990s removed sanctions on sensitive political subjects.
Im Kwon-Taek's career is as paradoxical, dramatic, and tumultuous as the history of modern Korea itself. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Im directed films for small companies, often shooting as many as eight films per year. By 1973, the government had centralized the film industry, and Im began to develop as a director by refining his trade without the pressure of the box office. He became known as the director of "quality film," making numerous adaptations of period novels in such films as Chokpo ( The Genealogy , 1978) and Kippal ŏmnŭn kisu ( The Hidden Hero , 1979). From 1981, his films began to garner international recognition. During the 1990s, they diverged along two paths: one that would remain close to art film subjects and another that would utilize genre conventions for popular consumption. For instance, Sopyonje (1993) tells the story of an itinerant family of musicians who practice a dying traditional art ( p'ansori ), and the han (pent-up grief) that underpins both their music and their lives. While aesthetically uncompromising, the film also tapped deep into the melodramatic impulses that had been lurking beneath the tragic history of modern Korea.
Korean audiences were drawn to Sopyonje ; it shattered the local box office record, created a national fanfare around p'ansori , and restored—albeit briefly—confidence in the commercial viability of art films. Im returned to his successful roots of p'ansori seven years later with Chunhyang (2000), a musical based on a one-man vocal performance of the famous folktale about a loyal courtesan who remains faithful to her true love. Chunhyang and his subsequent film, Chihwaseon ( Strokes of Fire , 2002), a real-life story about a maverick painter of the nineteenth century, garnered commercial successes in the United States and France, and it remains one of the biggest box office successes for Korean films in those two countries.
Chokpo ( The Genealogy , 1978), Kippal ŏmnŭn kisu ( The Hidden Hero , 1979), Mandala (1981), Gilsottum (1985), Tik'et ( Ticket , 1986), Ssibaji ( Surrogate Mother , 1986), Sopyonje (1993), Chunhyang (2000), Chihwaseon (2002)
James, David E., and Kyung Hyun Kim, eds. Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema . Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2002.
Kyung Hyun Kim
In the early twenty-first century, it became routine in Korean cinema to distribute a single film to more than
500 screens in multiplexes, following aggressive marketing campaigns, to maximize the return of opening weekend box office results. Shiri (1999), a spy thriller about North Korean infiltration in the South, sold over 5.7 million tickets, several million more than the previous record holder. This practice radically restructured the entire film industry; in the early 2000s, it was not unusual for local blockbusters to gross over $20 million. Since 2003, Korean films consistently outdraw their Hollywood competitors, representing one of the highest shares of domestic movie consumption in the world. Lee Chang-dong (Yi Ch'ang-dong), the winner of the director's award at the Venice Film Festival for Oasis (2002), was appointed minister of culture in 2003.
Korean cinema is at a crossroads: in addition to the international blockbusters, such as Shiri and Silmido (Kang U-sŏk, 2003), there are provocative independent films, like Camel(s) (Park Ki-yong, 2002) and Invisible Light ( Kŭ jip ap , Kim Gina, 2003), which are not included in the standard distribution circuit. Multiplex theaters have redefined what was once a comprehensive film culture, and the box office is ruled by crass comedies about gangster families and oversexed teenagers, making investors reluctant to finance films that are outside the scope of low-risk genre films. The New Korean Cinema, which has the potential to stimulate audiences intellectually, waned at precisely the moment that the industry became commercially rejuvenated.