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A Small Look on the Turning Point in Korean Cinema

We all remember the days (not so long ago) when Korean cinema suddenly impressed not only film festival goers but asian movie lovers in general. Those who didn't know where to turn to after the golden years of Hong Kong cinema in the 80s and early 90s now finally had found a new sense in life. Well, at least a new way to pass their free time. But when exactly did the hype of the korean wave start? That's not easy to say, but I'd say somewhen around 2001. You could argue that movies like "Shiri" back in 1999 and "JSA" in 2000 ignited the success story of korean box office hits, but it wasn't really until "My Sassy Girl" and "Musa", as well Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy" in 2003, that everyone who at least was a little bit interested in asian cinema was now aware that there was another country they maybe didn't really know anything about that made movies of an unusually high level of quality. Entertaining, captivating, funny and most importantly: innovative.

Let's make one thing clear. Those times are gone. The output of original movies has declined drastically. Since this article is written as part of the Korean Blogathon you might have expected some kind of laudatory speech on korean cinema, but as a critic I will naturally take a more critically look at the subject.
Since somewhat around 2006 there aren't really coming out that many great movies from Korea, anymore. In fact, it seems the korean film industry is taking the same road as Hollywood. But let's be fair, that has already been the case since the aforementioned "My Sassy Girl" when rom-coms were mushrooming as if filmmakers were afraid they would never have the chance again to sell their half-baked scripts to the audience. Nevertheless, there were enough genuine movies of every genre to be found like "Save the Green Planet", "The President's Barber" or Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance"-Trilogy. There was also a newfound aesthetic look to the pictures. Even every single rom-com had appealing visuals to it, so that it wasn't possible to differentiate good from bad movies just by looking at them, anymore.

As time went by it became apparent, though, that most of those movies were simply rip-offs of some few interesting additions to the (mostly rom-com) genre. The korean drama has a special place in the industry, however. It was always loved by korean viewers and it still is. It's not easy to say if those movies have become worse over time as there have always been cheap "disease-of-the-week"-flicks, too. Still, you got the feeling that some of them had something more special about them during the first half of the last decade. "A Moment to Remember", "Failan" or "Bungee Jumping of their Own" come to mind.
Furthermore, there was this guy named Kim Ki-duk who made some really impressive movies during that time like "3-Iron" (aka Bin-jip) or "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring". Kim went on to make some movies after that, but they never had the same class. He hasn't made a movie for the last three years. He once said that if he hadn't any storys to tell anymore he would simply stop making movies. Maybe there isn't anything to tell for him anymore? He deserves some commendation for this work attitude since other filmmakers make movies no matter whether they have a story to tell or not. As long as they can rake in some money.

There is some kind of turning point in 2006, at least in my book. It marked the year of the last wave of really good movies, at the top being "The Host". After that comes the time that actually should be to focus of this article. After 2006 there isn't really much going on. Bong Joon-ho's "Mother" is just good, but not nothing extraordinary and Park Chan-wook's "Thirst" is just a disappointment. It seems as if "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" was his last good film. Instead he is going to Hollywood with his upcoming movie in 2012, "Stoker". A lot of good directors didn't live up to the expectations with their newest movies and there seems to be strong need for fresh blood. Maybe Na Hong-jin is one of them? His box-office hit "The Chaser" really shook up korean cinema in 2008, but then again, even though this is in fact a good movie, the hype around it wasn't really justified.
Another point is, that there are also a lot of movies which must be labeled shallow entertainment, e.g. "Jeon Woo Chi - The Taoist Wizard". I wouldn't consider this an innovative movie, despite loving fantasy. Think back when we had fun-rides like "Arahan"! There just isn't the same energy and compassion to be found.

An interesting fact, though, is that 2006 is also the year when korean government changed its current screen quota from 146 days to 73 days. That means that since 2006 only on 73 days of the year local productions are to be seen in cinemas. Therefore, you could expect that competition would stimulate business since it would be more difficult for a filmmaker to get the funds for making a movie. Accordingly, only good movies would get the funds. But think this through more thorougly. What is a good movie for a producer? Right, one that is expected to make a lot of money. Surely, you wouldn't take the risk of producing an inventive movie if it could be hit or miss at the box office. And that's most likely where the problem lies. No one dares to experiment anymore and the level of originality went down the drain. The aspect of "art" vanished from the movies.
Did I already mention that the screen quota wasn't changed since 2006, despite protests, because of the free trade agreement between South Korea and the USA in 2007!? Anyone wants to point fingers at America?

Park Chan-wook at the Berlinale in 2006

Am I too pessimistic, here? Well, in a way, maybe... There are still directors like Kim Ji-woon who manage to do both: be inventive and deliver a box office success. If it weren't for "The Good, the Bad and the Weird" or "I Saw the Devil" korean cinema really would be nothing to talk about. Yeah, right, I'm exaggerating here, as there is also Yu Ha who delivered "A Frozen Flower" or Lee Hae-jun's "Castaway on the Moon", altough latter might have copied a lot of "Cast Away". And there are also the horror movies "Epitaph" and "Hansel and Gretel" which had some breathtaking visuals to offer.
Moreover, as you will have noticed, one good thing about the screen quota is, that there aren't that many sappy rom-coms produced anymore. Instead, there is a shift to gritty thrillers which isn't that bad in my opinion. Nonetheless, you can't fight the feeling that the golden days of korean cinema are gone. However, despite all that being said and as some sort of closing words, you should also realize that Korea is still delivering more qualitatively appealing movies than China/Hong Kong or Japan! Dammit... Is this still some kind of laudatory speech after all?

(03/12/'11 - Webmaster)

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