Cinema: South Korea

South Korea is not without a colorful film history, one that has survived countless hands from oppression by the Japanese, who sought to make propaganda through film, and to the censoring of content by the Korean government in later years.

seoul_cinema_billboards_1950sSouth Korea is relatively a newcomer to cinema, as political turmoil from the occupation of Japan prohibited filmmakers from making nationalist Korean films, and instead films that were a rally of propaganda for Japan. During this occupation, Korean-language films were outright banned from being developed. The Japenese occupation was to the point where Korean values were forced into Japanese values, even to the changing of family names in Japanese ones. These sentiments do not erase South Korea’s earliest films, however, most of these films were destroyed by the Japanese. This period of oppression ended with the end of the second world war in 1945.

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It could be argued that South Korea did not really have a film heritage until the 1960s, when film auteurs really started appearing, and these filmmakers were not conservative. They liked to push their own creative and political edge into their films to thwart the censorship that had oppressed the nation. Titles like A Flower in Hell (1958) by Shin Sang-ok showed an on-screen kiss, which was taboo. Even in My Sassy Girl (2001), a romantic comedy that ran for two and a half hours wouldn’t show a kiss. While South Korea’s cinema was starting to boom, North Korea, in a famous case kidnapped Shin Sang-ok and his wife in a means to boost their own industry. North Korea’s films resulted in propaganda films, while South Korea suffered a significant loss by missing one of their prolific film auteurs.

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South Korea is one of the few nations which has successfully upheld a national film industry, one that can compete with Hollywood, and the surrounding Japan and China within the South Korean box-office. In places like Australia, there are very few successful films, and these successes are such by making back the budget and then profiting a little more.  The Australian film industry cannot compete with Hollywood films, when “the good,” Australian films are made for a select audience, and “the bad,” try to appeal to everyone. South Korea has had it very different. Firstly South Korea was censored by the Japanese occupation, and then by a new military regime with the thought that media can be used as a weapon of influence unless strictly censored. So when Ghost (1989), the first foreign film was being distributed in South Korea, the filmmakers strongly went against what they thought was going to be another form of oppression. These protestors did everything they could to trouble the release of the film by splashing paint on the cinema screens showing the film to releasing live snakes. This push was somewhat successful and probably the key to keeping their national film success in the form of a quota system. This quota system until 2006 required 146 days of screenings a year devoted to local South Korean films. In 2006 the quota would be reduced to 72 days as it was clear that international markets would not destroy their industry that was stronger than ever by the New Wave.

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The New Wave of South Korean films began around the mid 1990s, in fact it included music, television, and games too. This era was the start of high quality and stylistic films such as My Sassy Girl (2001), Oldboy (2003), and The Host (2006). There are certainly many more, but these are some I particularly like. The New Wave focused on being stylistic and understanding/creating diverse pop culture as South Korea was also modernising. This wave has redefined the future of the South Korean film industry, and the box office has shown twenty-seven of the top fifty grossing films there were made between 2009 and 2014. From a western approach, just look at Oldboy. It came into the appeal of international audiences with favorable reviews as Roger Ebert (2005) wrote on the value of the film, “We are so accustomed to “thrillers” that exist only as machines for creating diversion that it’s a shock to find a movie in which the action, however violent, makes a statement and has a purpose”. Ebert’s statement highlights the significance of everything working for the story’s sake, and not just for the benefit of an audience draw. This puts Hollywood films into a certain perspective where they fall into troupes as a device, whereas South Korea’s long-standing history of censorship has allowed filmmakers to be more respectful of the boundaries they are stepping over and approach violent material for a reason. The same can be said about My Sassy Girl, where some traditions are still upheld by filmmakers when it comes to the lack of an on-screen kiss, which did not trouble the film in any shape, but instead was used to create a quirky romantic comedy that feels fresh because of it. The new wave showed us that South Korea is a flourishing film industry that is unique and is a positive influence of cinema across the world.

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The history of South Korean cinema has been filled with disregard by controlling forces in the early years, taking away artistic integrity in place of pro-Japanese values, and only positivity was allowed in later years before creative freedom was permitted in films by the mid 80s. The New Wave of filmmakers such as Jae-young Kwak, Chan-wook Park, and Joon-ho Bong, are just a few iconic film directors that transitioned South Korea from a certain dictatorship, and into a place that can make creative works distinctive of South Korea. Today South Korea is thriving and expanding more than ever before with box office films at the highest they’ve ever been, and deals that are putting the country into working relationships internationally, while also being amongst them in the competitive marketplace.

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The best film of the year, in my opinion, is the South Korean film Parasite, so be sure to check it out and explore the vast library of films from South Korea.

Robert Ring

The Hollywood Blockbuster

Jaws is in many ways the first hollywood blockbuster. It changed the scope of everything before and everything that is seen today, and it proved to be successful as it was backed up by an even greater success shortly after with Star Wars. These blockbuster films have changed the power of the cinema going experience internationally, as nations all over the world share in the delight of this pop culture machine. The power and success of the blockbuster is contributed to high quality and heavily marketed films, to productions that are produced overseas and outside the home studio. There is also a power struggle that sees the independent film be overshadowed by these epic films that are more readily a language understood internationally.

The summer blockbuster, whether it is good or not proves to be successful from the marketing of a film. Each film is of the greatest production value at the time of its undertaking, with budgets that easily account for one hundred and up to two hundred million dollars. While money can perfect certain aesthetics of a film, it does not guarantee a great film, and for the most part a blockbuster must only be a good film to turn a profit. It is within the marketing that spans from billboards, to television spots, to merchandise at fast food outlets like McDonalds, and KFC that exhibit a film to be successful for studio executives who spend an undisclosed amount on the marketing campaigns, which can be estimated to be around fifty million per blockbuster. The power of the marketing pushed by executives is excessive to the point where anyone who hasn’t seen the film is at least familiar with the iconography of the film, and to some extent the plot through the tagline, or trailer. Most often these celebrated blockbusters are from a well known franchise with an audience who will see it because they have liked the set of characters in the past, and therefore are sold at the title alone. Not only is this marketing placed in the film’s national marketplace, but also internationally, and in the form of a runaway film.

A relatively new trend in blockbusters since the nineties is the runaway film production, which sees a blockbuster film produced internationally for tax incentive reasons. The primary reason may be money, but as attributed in the marketing of a film, filming in a foreign country is in itself marketing to that nation. Nations can find pride in a big budget blockbuster that will see major film distribution in their own country through a feeling of locations and being separated by less degrees of separation than a production shot nationally. Ironically, the most notable negative is for the crews who rely on the blockbusters to be shot in their own national vicinity for jobs, whereas a runaway production will impact positively on a country elsewhere in their economy with job creation and tourism. Ultimately it creates these great networks between international studio houses with places for example as Hollywood and Australia, and most recently Hollywood and South Korea.

While the blockbuster film has the power of strong marketing campaigns and star power, the independent film is crushed by this sort of stronghold on the industry. There are thousands of movies produced each year and a large percent of these cannot compete or recuperate costs because of the blockbusters that dominate the widespread release. This includes countries such as Australia, with a struggling film industry that sees its own box office dominated by hollywood films that take the money of the theatre going audience. These films of an independent nature are more of a niche marketplace and have their own audience and award seasons that propel it into the cinematic stratosphere that any average movie going audience would have knowledge on. Studio executives will also make predictions as to what the film going audiences will want to see within a five year track, which they in hand can create with the marketing of a film and make genre flicks for a set number of years, as “Zombie Apocalypse” has seen a saturation in the marketplace to now be taken over by the comic book film, which feels as if it is at least fifty percent of blockbusters produced today. Studios have spent time changing what an audience perceived as simply film and changed it into the blockbuster, something they can differentiate and know as a grand spectacle or a bang for your buck. This popular culture phenomenon is going to influence the audience in these years through social media, and idle talk to moderate fandom, where people will commit to costumes and exhibitions, living and breathing for updates on these films, but most of all to be included as international symbols.

These blockbusters create a shared commonplace of films that transcend the language barrier, while dubbed, they differ ever so slightly, but ultimately a man from Japan can see an image or poster from a blockbuster and has the knowledge of the popular culture behind it to communicate with western audiences whom have these characters that embody a certain celebrity element, for example the superman crest. This process of globalisation of the blockbuster is undeniably relevant at creating a social conscience in the entertainment industry over any other forms internationally. A science teacher I once had exclaimed that you could take only the periodic table to a martian planet and communicate with those figures alone that are at their base exactly the same wherever you go and this is the same as these blockbuster films. They transcend nationality, and come down to relatable stories of people like you and I, who strive to be better or see a prosperous new world from the ashes of everything bad. The blockbuster is not exclusive of any particular class, nor should it. If you look at a blockbuster film you can have every age bracket, every race all laugh, shriek and awe at the same things. The audience becomes one to the blockbuster that caters to all.

Robert Ring

2017, Say No More

2017 was a year that movie news and journalism really pissed me off.

Every movie news outlet is spending most of it’s time producing content surrounding DC, Marvel and Star Wars news. No joke, this appears to be eighty percent of the content on such sites as Screenrant. The content is mostly rumours and speculation for clicks. On top of that once the film comes out the backlash is unparalleled because all these fanboys have built up a comic book movie they don’t get in the final product. I cannot stand people defending the bad superhero movies for being “true” to the comics, or despising the good ones for deviating from the comics. Any excitement for comic book films now comes from the director helming the project, and even then I would rather their talents used elsewhere.

For now The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and Rolling Stone are about the best you can find for movie news, although this year Hollywood has been shaped by an actual movement and that is quite something indeed. Starting with Harvey Weinstein it became apparent that the untouchable hollywood echelon could indeed fall. Weinstein was always a bad guy and nobody would dispute it, however the shockwave that followed unveiled Kevin Spacey, John Lasseter, and Louis C.K., to name a few in a long and growing list of sexual assault perpetrators.

Not all was bad in 2017. Women have finally been given more of a stage on the long road to equality. On the screen people were cheering for the first superhero blockbuster starring a woman, and directed by a woman with Wonder Woman, while the indie film scene saw another female lead and director potentially looking to win Best Picture with Ladybird. Did I mention Mildred Hayes from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? I wouldn’t pick a fight with her.

I hope 2018 does a better job at celebrating film and film culture over the constant naysayers.

Happy New Year,

Robert Ring