Is This the End of South Korean Film?

There’s a reason the festival retrospectives don’t contain much from the present day

Throughout the first half of September, Film at Lincoln Center and Subway Cinema will be screening a massive retrospective of two dozen 60s-era South Korean films. The event itself is, of course, centered around the significance of the movies themselves. From the intensity of The Housemaid to the patriotism of The Marines Who Never Returned  to the ennui of Mist, it’s easy enough to find fragments of the same spirit that informs better known modern works like Parasite and Squid Game.

Yet having gotten my start in media writing with South Korean film, I’m unnerved by the symbolism of these past films compared with the industry’s present trajectory. While the Subway Cinema screenings are a deliberately curated selection of the best films, South Korean film in the sixties in general was quite bad, with more of a quantity over quality centered approach used in concert with a quota system to bolster the county’s film industry. While not exactly successful, there’s a reason the so-called Golden Decade is the sixties and not the fifties. They had to attempt some sort of strategy, or the South Korean film market would have been strangled in its crib like most international film markets were by Hollywood.

The quantity over quality approach also worked wonders just for fostering an expressive mindset, such that by the late nineties the First Korean Wave was able to achieve significant international penetration with Park Chan-wook of Oldboy among any others becoming recognized international names. The Second Korean Wave of the teens saw South Korean filmmakers take firm control of the domestic market even without regard to quotas. The Admiral: Roaring Currents was the apex of this trend, the historical film about the real-life sixteenth-century military hero Yi Sun-shin, earned 17.6 million theatrical admissions in a country of only 50 million people. Every year ambitious projects struggled to hit the 10 million admission mark, and plenty of them succeeded.

Then COVID happened. I had a fairly optimistic impression of the effect that was having on South Korean film, since a focus on streaming has been a huge boon for scripted South Korean in media in the international market. Less because people were watching Parasite and more because they were watching the romantic series Crash Landing on You, but the point was, people were watching South Korean media. That had to be good for something, right?

Maybe not as much as it seemed. Recent reporting in the Los Angeles Times discussed how Netflix has been cannibalizing much of the top level talent in the South Korean film industry to make shows that, frankly speaking, not many people actually watch, something they can only even afford to do by ripping off minor actors. South Korean television dramas are going as strong as ever. But weekly shows like King the Land that South Korea produces for television and only licenses to Netflix do substantially far better internationally that prestige-oriented stuff like Narco-Saints.

 What exactly is going on with South Korean film at this point? Despite the seeming trendiness of the topic with Squid Game clickbait still making its rounds on online news carousels, interest in reading or writing about South Korean film seems to be at an all time low. There isn’t any serious scholarship about the teens, which is especially bizarre considering how much people wrote about the first Korean Wave in the aughts, which also inspired a lot of the reevaluation of the 60s, leading to the Lincoln Center event. The very topic is one of recursive nostalgia. The work of archiving South Korean film hasn’t stopped, which is why there are new titles at this event. But the event itself still feels eerily detached from the context of previous screenings.

Looking at the path taken from then to now, I actually find myself thinking a lot about one of the stops on the way. The popular comic Alien Baseball Team of the eighties, itself also a movie, has a complex, interesting history. But the short version is that our hero, Oh Hye-sung, dedicates himself to becoming a baseball player of almost supernatural skill to impress the girl he loves. As they become adults, he succeeds in this goal more than once, yet can’t win her over because the materialist society they live in and the lengths they have to go to fulfill those obligations have a deleterious impact on their hearts and souls.

This story represents the whole gamut of more narrative-focused South Korean media at this point, from The Housemaid in 1960 to Squid Game in 2021. Yet it’s all so frustratingly unconnected. At best we might hear South Korean film described aspirationally in fragments, as if the sheer bleakness of South Korean society is something to admire because some people are able to make good movies out of it. The extent to which such discourse encourages racist stereotypes is also, frustratingly, unexamined, probably because just acknowledging that a non-white-male-focused movie even exists these days qualifies as progressive thought.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You could walk into a random movie theater in the Philippines right now, or at least a week or two ago, see that there’s a movie called The Moon playing, go in, and watch it, and say hey, South Korea made a neat movie about moon exploration. South Korean film has fairly strong penetration and distribution in southeast Asia, although unfortunately white supremacy is far from one way as far as this topic goes. South Korean media tends to be far more interested in discussing the scraps of attention South Korean film gets from the United States than their far more expansive cultural influence in southeast Asia.

The Toronto International Film Festival in September will likely be more of the same as they’re running their own, longer-spanning retrospective of South Korean film, this one starting with Madame Freedom (1956) and ending with Poetry (2010). I don’t like the TIFF spread as much, partially because of its vagueness, but also because while I know full well that TIFF is running contemporary South Korean films, their terribly designed website just makes it impossible to search for them. But even a strong festival slate can’t compensate for how weird, inventive films like Alienoid with all the right pedigrees flounder compared with boilerplate action cop stuff like The Roundup, with a domestic box office that anime dominated for the whole first half of the year.

Even when South Korean film is successful, it’s hard not to look back and think about a time when this industry had more of a soul, even when there aren’t retrospectives going on.


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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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