Cinema of South Korea

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Cinema of Korea
Movie theater in Sinchon
No. of screens 1,974 (2011)[1]
 • Per capita 4.3 per 100,000 (2011)[1]
Main distributors CJ E&M Pictures (22%)
Showbox (17%)
Walt Disney Pictures (11%) (2015)[2]
Produced feature films (2005-2009)[3]
Total 118 (average)
Number of admissions (2015)[2]
Total 217,000,000
National films 113,000,000 (52%)
Gross box office (2015)[2]
Total 1.72 trillion
National films 884 billion

After the Pacific War and the 1945 liberation of Korea, the cinema of South Korea emphasized the theme of freedom. After the Korean War, South Korean president Syngman Rhee incentivized the film industry. This was followed by a two-decade golden age and increased government control.

Korean film first received serious international recognition in 2002. Well-known films include Oldboy (2003). Similar to Japanese films, South Korean films are known for their violent content.


Liberation (1945–50) and war (1950–53) eras[edit]

Film poster with a man and a woman with a gun
Theatrical poster for Viva Freedom! (1946)

With the surrender of Japan in 1945 and the subsequent liberation of Korea, freedom became the predominant theme in Korean cinema.[4] Choi In-gyu's Viva Freedom! (Hangul자유 만세; Jayu manse!), about Korean freedom fighters during the waning days of the colonial period, is considered the major film of this era.[5] According to the Korean film archive, 14 films were produced during the Korean War: four or five each year from 1950 to 1953.[6]

Golden age (1950s and 1960s)[edit]

During the armistice of 1953, South Korean president Syngman Rhee attempted to rejuvenate the film industry by exempting it from taxation.[7] The cinematic renaissance which began in 1945 advanced as a result of director Lee Kyu-hwan's successful remake of Chunhyang-jeon in 1955. Within two months, 10 percent of Seoul's population—over 200,000 people—had seen it, giving the film industry further impetus.[8][9] Kim Ki-young's Yang san Province (Hangul양산도; Yangsan-do) was also released that year, marking the beginning of a productive film career which ended with the director's death in 1998.[10]

The quality and quantity of South Korean films increased during the 1950s. Five films per year were made early in the decade, increasing to 111 in 1959.[11][12]

Korean cinema enjoyed a brief freedom from censorship in 1960–61, between the administrations of Rhee and Park Chung-hee.[13] Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (Hangul하녀; Hanyeo) and Yu Hyun-mok's Aimless Bullet (Hangul오발탄; Obaltan), both listed among the best Korean films ever made, were produced in 1960.[14]

When Park became president in 1962, government control over the film industry increased substantially.[15] Under the Motion Picture Law of 1963, a series of increasingly-restrictive measures was enacted; the number of films produced and imported was limited under a quota system.[16] The new regulations reduced the number of domestic film-production companies from 71 to 16 within a year. Government censorship became very strict, focusing on hints of pro-communism or obscenity.

Despite these policies, a large and devoted theater-going audience sustained the South Korean film industry throughout the 1960s.[17] The Grand Bell Awards, established in 1962, remain prestigious South Korean film awards.[18]

Censorship and propaganda (1973–79)[edit]

Government control of South Korea's film industry reached its height during the mid- and late 1970s, nearly destroying the vibrant film culture which had been established in the preceding decade and a half. This era has been called "the winter of 60 years of Korean film"[citation needed] due to Park Chung-hee's authoritarian administration. Park's program of Yusin Restoration (Revitalizing Reforms) triggered oppressive censorship.[19] Because the Park government feared that cinema would disrupt public taste or customs, harm South Korea's pride and dignity, praise (or support) North Korea and communism or criticize government policies, filmmakers were wary of the censors.[20] During this period, directors and other members of the film industry were blacklisted and imprisoned.[19] According to the 1981 International Film Guide, "No country has a stricter code of film censorship than South Korea – with the possible exception of the North Koreans and some other Communist bloc countries."[21]

The Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation (Korean: 영화진흥위원회, or MPPC) was created in April 1973, replacing the Union of Korean Film Promotion. Although the MPPC was ostensibly created to support domestic films and promote the Korean film industry, its primary purpose was to control the film industry and promote "politically correct" support for censorship and government ideals.[22]

These propaganda-laden movies (or "policy films") were unpopular with audiences who had become accustomed to seeing real-life social issues onscreen during the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to government interference, Korean filmmakers began losing their audience to television during the late 1960s. Movie-theater attendance dropped by over 60 percent from 173,043,272 in 1969 to 65,518,581 ten years later.[23] Nevertheless, talented filmmakers such as Im Kwon-taek and Kim Ki-young survived (and occasionally rose above) the era.

Recovery (1980–96)[edit]

After a turbulent year in 1979–80 which included the assassination of Park Chung-hee, the coup d'état of December Twelfth and the Gwangju massacre, South Korea was mired in political turmoil. Although theater attendance remained low throughout the 1980s, the government's relaxation of censorship and control of the film industry enabled the production of more adventurous and interesting movies. South Korean films began reaching an international audience for the first time, in large part through the recognition of director Im Kwon-taek's work. After his 1981 film Mandala won the Grand Prix at the Hawaii Film Festival, Im was the first Korean director in years to have his films screened at European film festivals.[24]

President Roh Tae-woo began the gradual elimination of government political censorship of films in 1988, and directors quickly began re-exploring social and political themes. During this period, producer Lee Tae-won made domestic films to reach the import quota. This import-quota system restricted directors to producing films supporting government policies.[clarification needed] Because the system was controlled by the (government-run) MPPC, the government could still exercise control of the film industry. Filmmakers were instructed to present the positive aspects of society and focus on a culture of school and public life based on traditional virtues.[25]

The audience for domestic films reached a low point, due partially to the opening of the market to overseas films (especially from the United States and Hong Kong). By 1993, 16 percent of the films seen by South Korean audiences were made domestically. However, the local film industry persevered through this lean period.[9][26]

Since 1997[edit]

South Korean cinema has had domestic box-office success exceeding that of Hollywood films since the late 1990s, largely due to laws limiting the number of foreign films per theater per year.[27] The screen quota, in existence since 1967, limits the number of days per year that foreign films can be shown on a given South Korean screen and has been criticized by film distributors outside South Korea as unfair. As a prerequisite for negotiations with the United States for a free-trade agreement, the Korean government cut its annual screen quota for domestic films from 146 days to 73 (allowing more foreign films to enter the market).[28] In February 2006, South Korean movie workers staged mass rallies to protest the cut.[29] According to Kim Hyun, "South Korea's movie industry, like that of most countries, is grossly overshadowed by Hollywood. The nation exported US$2 million-worth of movies to the United States last year and imported $35.9 million-worth".[30] 2017 studies by Parc and Messerlin & Parc described several consequences of the screen-quota cut.[31]

Shiri (1999), about a North Korean spy preparing a coup in Seoul, was the first film in Korean history to sell more than two million tickets in the capital city.[32] Its popularity, combined with the screen quota, helped Shiri to surpass Hollywood box-office hits such as Titanic, The Matrix and Star Wars in South Korean theaters.[33] In 2000, Joint Security Area was more successful than Shiri; a year later, Friend did the same. The romantic comedy My Sassy Girl was more successful than The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, released at the same time in South Korea.[34] New films continued to outperform older releases in 2004, and Korean productions attracted bigger audiences than Hollywood films; Silmido and Taegukgi were each seen by over 10 million people domestically.[34]

Koreans began to film on location in China with Anarchists (2000), written by Park Chan-wook, followed by Musa (2001) and The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008).[35][36] The Korean–Chinese co-productions became a trend, permitting larger films with wider releases across East Asia.[37]

Shiri has been distributed in the US,[38] and Miramax bought the rights to an Americanized remake of the Korean action comedy My Wife is a Gangster in 2001.[39] Other Korean films, including Il Mare (remade as The Lake House),[40] Oldboy, My Sassy Girl[41] and Joint Security Area,[42] have been bought by Hollywood producers for remakes. DreamWorks paid $2 million for the rights to the successful 2003 psychological-horror film A Tale of Two Sisters for a remake, breaking the record for an Asian film (Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs) by $1.75 million.[43][44][45]

Festival success[edit]

Korean film first received international recognition at the 2002 Venice Film Festival, where Oasis won second prize.[46] Oldboy placed second at the Cannes Film Festival to Fahrenheit 9/11.[47]

Kim Ki-duk received the best-director award at the 54th annual Berlin Film Festival for Samaritan Girl,[48] a film about a teenage prostitute, in February 2004. Kim received the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his 2004 film, 3-Iron.[49] He received the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Film Festival for Pietà,[50] the first Korean film to receive top prize at one of the world's three most-prestigious film festivals,.[51]

Poetry received the Best Screenplay Award and was selected for the main competition at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.[52] Its lead actress, Jeong-hee Yoon, won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association best-actress award in November 2011 for her performance.[53]

New-wave films[edit]

Marriage Story, the first Korean non-government-funded film, was financed by Samsung in 1992.[54] When Shiri was released in 1999, Korean films were over 50 percent of the domestic market. My Sassy Girl is the most popular Korean film abroad in history.[55]

Horror films[edit]

Korean horror films generally focus on the suffering and anguish of their characters, as compared to the use of graphic scenes and gore. They began production during the early 1960s and 1970s,[56] primarily targeting middle-aged, middle-income women.[57] Interest in horror films eventually subsided until their comeback in the 90s.[58][full citation needed]

Korean horror films are known as seolhwa (tales).[59] The genre is divided into myth, legend and folklore,[59] often featuring several types of gwisin (ghosts).

One of many tropes in horror films covering Korean mythology is to feature Grim Reapers known as Jeoseung Saja, as well as nine-tailed shapeshifting foxes known as kumiho.[60]

Notable directors[edit]

Box office[edit]

Korean films grossed ₩884 billion and had 113,000,000 admissions in 2015, 52 percent of the total.[citation needed]

Year Gross (trillion won) Domestic share Tickets sold (millions)
2013 1.55[61] 59.7%[61] 213[61]
2014 1.66 [2] 50.1%[61] 215[2]
2015 1.72 [2] 52% [62] 217[2]


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  2. ^ a b c d e f g Kil, Sonia (January 4, 2016). "Korea Cinema Sets Box Office and Admissions Records in 2015". Variety. Retrieved January 5, 2016. 
  3. ^ "Average national film production". UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Retrieved 5 November 2013. 
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  5. ^ Starting point of South Korean films Cine21, 2005-01-14
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  14. ^ Min, p.46.
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  16. ^ Hyung Gu Lynn, Bipolar Orders: The Two Koreas Since 1989, p.77
  17. ^ Min, p.48-49.
  18. ^ Grand Bell Awards
  19. ^ a b Kate Taylor-Jones, Rising Sun, Divided Land: Japanese and South Korean Filmmakers, pp.28-30
  20. ^ Marshall, Jon. "A Brief History of Korean Film". Retrieved 2008-01-25.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  21. ^ Kai Hong, "Korea (South)", International Film Guide 1981, p.214. quoted in Armes, Roy (1987). "East and Southeast Asia". Third World Film Making and the West. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 156. ISBN 0-520-05690-6. 
  22. ^ Seung Hyun Park, "Korean Cinema after Liberation" p.18.
  23. ^ Min, p.51-52.
  24. ^ Hartzell, Adam (March 2005). "A Review of Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema". Retrieved 2008-03-13.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  25. ^ Seung Hyun Park, "Korean Cinema after Liberation" p.18-19.
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  32. ^ Rampal, Kuldip (2007). The Media Globe: Trends in International Mass Media. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 41. ISBN 978-0742540934 – via Amazon. This was the first film in South Korean history to sell more than two million tickets in Seoul alone 
  33. ^ "Beyond Asia". The International Eye. 2007-02-25. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 
  34. ^ a b "THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX | Film Journal International". Retrieved 2017-02-16. 
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  36. ^ Choe, Youngmin (2016). Tourist Distractions: Traveling and Feeling in Transnational Hallyu Cinema. Duke University Press. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-8223-7434-3. 
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  38. ^ Shin Jee Young, Negotiating local, regional, and global: Nationalism, hybridity, and transnationalism in New Korean Cinema, Indiana University(2008), Retrieved 2014-09-09
  39. ^ Miramax married to Korean 'Gangster' Mihui Kim, Variety, 2001-10-16, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  40. ^ Korean Film 'Il Mare' Remade by Hollywood Son Heekyung, Arirang News, 2006-09-04
  41. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-03-15. Retrieved 2015-05-01.  Retrieved 2014-09-09
  42. ^ Hollywood Remake of 'JSA' in the Works Lee Youngsung, 2005-05-13, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  43. ^ Special Feature: South Korean cinema Clare Bruford, Cine Vue, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  44. ^ '장화, 홍련' 할리우드서 만난다 Joongang Ilbo, 2003-07-01, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  45. ^ Warners hot for 'Infernal Affairs' Michael Fleming, Variety, 2003-02-02, Retrieved 2014-09-09
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  52. ^ "POETRY". Festival de Cannes. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 
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  58. ^ So-Young, K., Kim, S., & Berry, C. 2000
  59. ^ a b "Korea Haunt: The Most Famous Korean Ghosts". SeoulSync. 2015-10-26. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 
  60. ^ Sister, Doctor Fox (2015-06-03). "Monster of the Week: Kumiho". The Supernatural Fox Sisters. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 
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  62. ^ "South Korea: domestic vs. foreign films market share 2016 | Statistic". Statista. Retrieved 2017-02-16. 

External links[edit]