New Korean Cinema

Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer (eds.),
New Korean Cinema.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 7486 1851 1 (hb) £45.00
ISBN: 0 7486 1852 X (pb) £16.99
(Review copy supplied by Edinburgh University Press)

South Korean cinema is the latest in a line of national cinemas which have come to international prominence in the past decade. Unlike national cinemas built around New Waves with a small number of internationally renowned art cinema directors (think of the importance of Abbas Kiarostami to studies of the Iranian cinema for example), Korean cinema has become prominent not so much for art cinema auteurs, as for its general success as a regional commercial industry. As such, it has excited the imaginations of those who see hope for national and regional cinemas sustaining themselves and even beating back the supposedly irresistible hordes of the global Great Satan Hollywood.

Part of the importance of Korean cinema has stemmed from the ways in which things have changed so quickly – both in Korea as it has emerged from a long period of totalitarian military rule and then through the IMF financial reconstruction of the late 90s, and consequently also in the Korean cinema from the involvement of the chaebols to a post-chaebol period which has come to be increasingly dominated by a single company, Cheil Jedang. Of course, the problem with such rapid change has been that, other than the websites of Darcy Paquet and the Korean Film Commission, there has been such a small amount of up to date analysis published in English.

This anthology concentrates on the period from the election of civilian government in 1992 up until 2004 and constitutes a vital addition to the body of work available to those teaching Asian cinema in the west. It is a clearly structured and well written series of approaches to Korean cinema as an industry, as an expression of cultural change, and as a series of supple genres and texts. A majority of the authors are Korean, albeit virtually all of them are working within the American and British university systems and it certainly benefits from the ability of the writers to lay out relevant issues in Korean social history for the non-Korean reader. It also usefully includes a glossary of terms which will be important for introducing students to the specificities of Korean social history.

The collection is structured in three parts. The first, “Forging a New Cinema” is by far the strongest and the one which will be read with most enthusiasm and excerpted for course reading lists. It is exemplary in working logically from the most general to the most specific in its attempts to provide a general historical context as a background for the rise of Korean cinema.

Michael Robinson’s essay begins from the contention that the distinctive changes in contemporary Korean cinema are “a direct result of political changes in South Korea” (15). By itself, this might be a contentious point in casting the aesthetic simply as a reflection of political determinations, but as a stepping stone to further contextualisations, it sets the scene for the introduction of important themes. One of the most significant of these is the contention that many South Korean films can be symptomatically read as “revelling in the lightness of liberation of the master narratives of their past” (28-29) While other authors here will take issue with that reading (Julian Stringer, in his introduction refers to the past’s inevitable return), there is a strong sense from many of the Korean authors that the commercial cinema needs to be read as a break with the political struggles which sought to find expression through the 1980s. South Korean cinema responds to a distinctively post- situation as a post-totalitarian cinema in which new questions are coming into prominence, and new social interests are struggling to be articulated.

Robinson’s emphasis on solely political determination finds a useful corrective in Darcy Paquet’s essay on the political economy of the South Korean film industry. Paquet (whose website has long been the major source of English-language news on Korean cinema) sketches out the importance of factors such as the various revisions to the Motion Picture Law, the influence of direct distribution by Hollywood companies, the involvement of the chaebols (large diversified conglomerates) and the changing patterns of vertical integration that have combined to produce the conditions for a commercially viable production industry. At an event organised by the Australia-Korea Foundation prior to the 2004 Pusan International Film Festival, I recall various Australian film industry figures saying that there was much to be learned from the Korean film industry, and Paquet’s historical overview is probably the best starting point for these lessons.

The other startling factor in the success of recent Korean film has been not only the growth of domestic box office, but the exponential growth in export sales, particularly throughout East Asia. Truly, Korea is the new Hong Kong in this respect. Jeeyoung Shin’s chapter tracing the factors in this international export growth is essential reading for those interested in the complex nature of globalisation as a highly diverse set of relations in which localism, regionalism and globalisation coalesce. Shin traces the influence of Kim Young-sam’ssegyehwa policy in the 1990s in which the South Korean government prioritised the internationalisation of its economy while culturally, seeking to mediate potential contradictions between globalism and nationalism. This inevitably leads to talk about the hybridisation of culture (has anyone ever really presumed that cultures aren’t hybrid?), a point pursued by Hyangjin Lee in her analysis of the way that Im Kwon-taek’s 2000 version ofChunhyang can be read as a version of the local for international consumption.

The middle section of the book dealing with genre covers territory such as horror and military films with Chi-yun Shin’s essay on buddy movies usefully marking out local inflections in sub-genres such as the jop’ok cycle of gang films, while the final section of essays mixes thematic analysis with a variety of familiar symptomatic approaches to a small number of films.

This anthology provides further proof that some of the most interesting questions in cinema studies at the moment concern the material conditions under which national cinemas function, rather than the interpretations of texts according to the authority of various paradigms producing symptomatic readings. It will provide an important introduction to a cinema which is sure to gain increased international prominence in the next few years as the cool of Korean pop culture makes itself felt throughout our region.

Mike Walsh
Flinders University, South Australia.

Created on: Tuesday, 7 March 2006 | Last Updated: 7-Mar-06

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →