(Short Cuts)London: Wallflower Press, 2009
(Review copy supplied by Wallflower Press)
New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves reads as a series of vignettes through which the reader glimpses the turmoil of the last three decades of South Korean history. The glimpses are in fact iconic scenes from the films of New Korean Cinema that the author, Darcy Paquet, weaves seamlessly into accounts of the social, economic and political histories that have impacted upon a resurrected national film industry. Paquet lays out his book’s purpose as being to “chart the creative and commercial rebirth of Korean cinema between the 1980s and the mid-2000s” (p. 3). Paquet’s sense of the periodisation of the film movements, in this case the Korean New Wave and New Korean Cinema, is taken from Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer’s 2005 volume New Korean Cinema, in which the Korean New Wave is placed as occurring from the early 1980s and overtaken by New Korean Cinema at democratisation (1988-1992) (Stringer pp. 5-6). New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves appears as part of series called Short Cuts by the publisher Wallpaper. The series, and as a consequence, the book are introductory volumes of issues in film studies aimed at film students and enthusiasts. Prior to the publication of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves, the only other work that could be described as an introductory volume to South Korean film was Korean Cinema: the New Hong Kong – A Guidebook for the Latest Korean New Wave (2002). The book aims to familiarise the reader with key films that represent the developments that have occurred in the cinema industry over the last three decades. To further supplement his readership’s knowledge, the author promises to contextualise the film industry’s development with brief political and historical commentary (p. 4). The outcome of this is a concise overview of how South Korean political, economic and social pressures created an insular, failing industry and transformed it into a global national brand.
The book follow a quasi-chronological order in the telling of the history of New Korean Cinema with chapters one and two focusing mainly on the events of the 1980s and early 1990s (though there is a brief history lesson on the government’s film policies of the 1960s and 1970s in chapter two), chapter three looks at the 1990s and early 2000s, and chapter four, the 2000s. The first chapter, ‘A New Society,’ opens with a harrowing scene from Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal (Kkonnip, 1996) of the massacre of innocent citizens by the South Korean army in Gwangju on 21 May 1980. It traces this event and others like it through the 1980s, examining the interface between cinema and society during the politically volatile times prior to democracy in South Korea. It touches upon the Fifth Republic’s censorship regulations that fettered the political ambitions of filmmakers of the Korean New Wave and otherwise. Paquet pauses to highlight the films that mark the watershed between the filmmaking of the Korean New Wave and that of New Korean Cinema: Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (Dalmaga dongjjogeuro gan kkadalgeun?, 1989) and Sopyonje (Seopyeoje, 1993). The former gained high critical acclaim abroad, earning a Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival and the latter broke box office records (pp. 30, 33). The chapter concludes with the change of political and social attitudes towards their national cinema that occurred in the early to mid-1990s. The chapter comes full circle to discuss how in the 1990s the atrocities of the 1980s were revisited as a society through films like A Petal and A Single Spark (Areumdaun cheongnyeon jeontaeil, 1995).
Government legislation of the film industry and the economic realities of the 1980s and 1990s are the topic of the second chapter, ‘A New Film Industry.’ It describes the legislative and economic pressures that transpired in the late 1980s to weaken the native film production in South Korea until it appeared to be on the brink of collapse. The remainder of the chapter relates the revitalisation of the industry after the introduction of chaebols (large, family-owned conglomerates) to the film industry in the mid-1990s. Chapter three focuses on the boom in the industry that occurred after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and considers the role of individual directors and other professionals in shaping the film industry. The period from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s saw the emergence of the South Korean blockbuster and high concept comedies. Three film are singled out for their impact on audiences of the time: Shiri (Swiri, 1998), Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA, 2000), and Friend (Chingu, 2001). Three auteurs who gained fame in that period are also profiled for the reader, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong and Kim Ki-duk. ‘New Ambitions,’ the final chapter in this introduction to South Korean film, reviews the most recent activity in the film industry. It introduces the reader to another trio of South Korean auteurs: Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon. The strength of the film industry is made apparent in Paquet’s description of the big-budget blockbusters that appeared all vying to exceed ten million admissions at box office, epitomised by The Host (Gwoemul, 2006). The decade was also dominated by the success of South Korean pop culture abroad, which toured the continent under the name hallyu or Korean Wave. The chapter ends with an explanation of the slump in the industry that occurred after 2006 reigning in the end of the boom years of New Korean Cinema.
For an introductory text, New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves includes a solid bibliography spanning the wealth of literature on contemporary South Korean film studies in the English language. Paquet’s account of the rise of South Korean film is factual and well-referenced. It evens adds new evidence to some rather tired examples of protesting in South Korea, such as the snakes released during Fatal Attraction (USA 1987), which has been often quoted by academics writing on South Korean film. This book is an excellent gateway into academic literature on New Korean Cinema, particularly for film students. Looking to the future, South Korean film studies would benefit from a book of a similar nature focusing on film genre, for instance, the Golden Age Melodrama.
Leong, Anthony. Korean Cinema: the New Hong Kong – A Guidebook for the Latest Korean New Wave. Victoria, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2002. Print.
Stringer, Julian. Introduction. New Korean Cinema. Eds. Chi-Yun Shin & Julian Stringer. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. 1-12. Print.