When Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min Sik), the protagonist of Park Chan Woo’s ′Oldboy' (2003) is abducted and moved to a private cell, locked up for the next 15 years without a word of explanation or warning, the only thing connecting him to the outside world is a television. As his right to freedom and communication is snatched from him, his very identity is threatened; he becomes a passive observer to the passage of time, quite literally barred from participating in it. Despite being an adaptation of Japanese manga, there is something in this crisis that echoes the invalidated frustrations of pre-Democratic Korea, particularly the adversities faced by its filmmakers. In that sense, Dae-Su’s forced isolation stands in as a metaphor of the Korean film industry; the impulse to tell one’s story, demonstrated in the three renditions Dae-Su seeks across the film, remains potent within filmmakers in spite of the struggle they faced, be it on a microcosmic or national level.

The Korean people suffered a barrage of nightmares in the twentieth century, facing oppression and life under continuous, successive authoritarian regimes; from the colonisation of Korea by Japan (1910-45), the nation’s division into mutually opposed states by Western powers (1948), to the horrors of post-war tyranny and military rule for decades. Needless to say, infringements on freedom proliferated at every turn, manifesting itself plainly, and especially, in expressions of art. The government exercised biased and heavy-handed control over the film industry via censorship, strict regulation of production and selective promotion of propaganda cinema; in the 1940s, even the use of the Korean language in domestic films was banned by the Japanese colonisers.

“... directors with differing thoughts and opinions were unable to comment on the very society they lived in.”

A definitive justification for such overwhelming control over the entertainment industry, beside instilling vehement nationalism through the education system, was in order to carefully curate a distinct definition of the South from the hostile North – director Lee Man Hee was arrested for his too forgiving and humane depiction of North Koreans in 'Seven Women Prisoners' (1965).

Freedom was not won in a day – it took years to undo the damage done by bad politics. Even once Japanese influence was forcibly limited (in an effort to undo the cultural erasure attempted by the Japanese government, Japanese media was banned all the way until the 1990s) the authority exerted over the film industry was so notorious that directors with differing thoughts and opinions were unable to comment on the very society they lived in.


Mountain View

Lovecraft Country and the Horrors of Racism

As Korean society then moved from a highly authoritarian state to a fledgling democracy, a group of cinema intellectuals in the 1980s started to bring about a remarkable change in local cinema. They explored darker themes and genres under the banner of the Korean New Wave which, at its core, was a story of breaking free from years of curtailed freedom. New Korean Cinema thus created a sense of urgency in filmmakers who realised that cinema was not obligated to speak for a nation. Contemporary Korean classics such as 'Peppermint Candy' (Baka-satang, 1999), 'Joint Security Area' (2000) or 'Memories of Murder' (Sarinui chueok, 2003) necessitate an acknowledgement of the demons South Korean society has faced in its past in order to fully appreciate how far it has come, today competing with, and even outperforming, Hollywood films in its home market. The 386 Generation of directors (as they were known) propelled this unprecedented boom in the South Korean film industry, creating everything from commercial films to high art cinema and independent films.

In the early 2000s, the term “well-made” started to circulate within the film industry in Korea, and comprised ambitious works that sought to bridge the gap between commerciality and aesthetics, defying genre conventions and earning international acclaim. Bong Joon Ho’s 'Memories of Murder' (2003) takes on the form of a police procedural, illustrating simultaneously the chaotic workings of a society under authoritarian rule, as well as how a government, so obsessed with controlling every aspect of its populace, remains ultimately unable to protect them. Kim Ji Woon’s subversive horror ('A Tale of Two Sisters,' 2003) provides another prime example of a “well-made” film, and one that plants the terror of the ‘Other’ squarely within the subject itself. It invites psychoanalytical interpretations of all kinds, Su-Mi (Lim Soo Jung) having manifested multiple personalities by the end of the film as a result of trauma and guilt. More broadly, in the Korean cultural context, this acceptance of the horror as residing within – an acknowledgement of Korea’s own tumultuous past – is a striking statement. The commercial success of these films and others, such as E J-Yong’s 'Untold Scandal' (also 2003), finally established the status of such highly individualistic and director-oriented cinema.

Finally, the masterpiece of Korean cinema, 'Oldboy,' was released in November 2003. The film combines stellar filmmaking and direction with shifting perspectives and fleeting clues and elisions, using the camera as an omnipotent, moving presence, set against a stylish set design and framed with archaic-sounding dialogue. Around all of this lies a darker sensibility, together with a surprisingly sober discourse on issues such as sin and vengeance. Its screening at the Cannes Film Festival (May 2004) and its receipt of the Grand Jury Award established Park and other distinguished Korean directors as household names once and for all, leading to translation of this fame into complete creative control over their films.

It was this latter generation of Korean film directors that laid the groundwork for Korean cinema as we know it today; it’s not surprising that Bong Joon Ho still remains a pioneer in this regard, with his recent commentary on class struggle in 'Parasite' (2020).