For many Westerners, Korean cinema didn't enter their consciousness until the unparalleled success of the film Parasite in 2019. The gripping film deals with socio-economic discrepancies specific to modern-day South Korea, but the clever and sometimes brutal storyline hit a nerve with filmgoers worldwide. The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and a BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
To paraphrase Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, it seemed that mainstream Western audiences had finally overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.
While Parasite was the first Korean film to win an Oscar, it wasn't the first to win a BAFTA. That honour went to Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden in 2018. But despite the media attention that both films received internationally, neither features in the top 10 highest-grossing domestic films in South Korea. Topping this list is the 2014 epic war film The Admiral: Roaring Currents directed and co-written by Kim Han-min.
In this article, culture writer Jae-Ha Kim guides us through a history of Korean cinema since the 1950s, including key events affecting the industry and its most significant releases.
1950s: A decade of struggle
In the decade following the Korean War (1950 – 53), Korea's film industry was struggling financially and didn't have the necessary infrastructure in place to produce many films. Despite the post-war chaos, 1956 saw the release of the decade's most influential film, Han Hyeong-mo's Madame Freedom. The film deals with a liberated, married woman who challenges patriarchal norms, working outside the family home, frequenting dance halls, and engaging in scandalous affairs. (Until 2015, adultery was illegal in South Korea).
By the end of the decade, stimulated by post-war reconstruction programmes, the Korean film industry was producing more than 100 films a year.
1960s: The growth of Korean cinema
In the 1960s, the Korean film industry was producing more than 200 films a year. The most famous film of the decade – and regarded as one of Korea's most important films of all time – was Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (1960). The growth in quality and quantity of Korean movie production was partly due to the new Motion Picture Law of 1962, which limited the number of foreign films that could be imported into the country. President Park Chung-hee's regime stifled artistic freedom to ensure that films critical of the South Korean government wouldn't get made. But the law did include a perk. For every three acceptable films, the studios would be allowed to distribute one foreign feature film – something that Korean cinemagoers were eager to watch.
1970s: Increase in government censorship
With Park in power until his assassination in 1979, government censorship increased throughout the decade. Under his dictatorship, poets, musicians, artists, and politicians were targeted. Filmmakers had to submit scripts to committees that ensured the original approved script was followed. Meanwhile, the number of Koreans attending cinemas decreased. Despite this, filmmakers like Kim Ki-young flourished. Known for his strong, femme fatale characters, Kim remade his critically-acclaimed 1960 film The Housemaid twice more: 1971's Woman of Fire, starring Academy Award-winner Youn Yuh-jung, and 1982's Woman of Fire '82. Both addressed the same basic story, but in a new setting and decade.
1980s: International recognition
In 1984, the Motion Picture Law was revised to include some independent productions. And in 1988, the government allowed Hollywood companies, such as United International Pictures (UIP), to have satellite offices in South Korea. Im Kwon-taek's film Mandala (1981), about Buddhist monks in Korea, was a hit. And Kang Su-yeon won Best Actress at the 1987 Venice Film Festival for her lead role in Surrogate Woman.
1990s: Chaebols enter the market
In the 1990s, the electronics corporaton Samsung moved into films, financing 1992's Marriage Story, which was both a commercial and critical success. Other chaebols (family-owned conglomerates), such as CJ Entertainment and Lotte followed suit. Im Kwon-taek's musical drama film Sopyonje set Korean box office records in 1993 with more than one million tickets sold. That record was broken in 1999 when Shiri was released. Starring Choi Min-shik (see also Oldboy (2003), I Saw the Devil (2010) and The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014)) the espionage thriller surpassed the epic Titanic (1997) with nearly 2.5 million filmgoers purchasing tickets in Seoul alone.
The Busan International Film Festival was launched in 1996 – the first of its kind in South Korea – screening 173 movies from 31 countries.
2000s: The international emergence of the auteurs
Park Chan-wook's Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. And in 2006, Bong Joon-ho's The Host broke box office records, selling more than 13 million tickets by the end of its run. The brutality depicted in these films had some foreign critics complaining that South Korean filmmakers could only produce excessively violent films. Film scholar Jeeheng Lee notes that when Park Chan-wook was questioned by a Western journalist as to why his film was so violent, he responded, "Even though the violence in my film is considered cruel, I think it’s more ethical compared to those films that treat violence in a playful way and present it lightly. At least my films show how terrible violence is".
The decade also saw the release of Lee Jeong-hyang's 2002 slice-of-life drama The Way Home (Jibeuro), which depicts the dynamics between a spoilt child from Seoul and his grandmother who can't speak. And classism was dissected in Once Upon a Time in High School (2004), where screenwriter/director Yoo Ha presents a cold-blooded world of students battling a corrupt system with their fists.
2010s: Global appeal
History seemed to be repeating itself when Park Geun-hye – the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee – was herself elected president in 2016. Before she was impeached just a year later in 2017, it was revealed that she kept an extensive blacklist of more than 9,000 filmmakers and creatives whose work was deemed critical of the government. Bong Joon-ho and his future Parasite star Song Kang-ho were among those blacklisted.
But the 2010s was also a successful period for Korean cinema. Kim Ki-duk's psychological thriller Pieta won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 2012, becoming the first Korean film to win a top award at a prestigious international film competition.
Opening in January 2014, the feel-good film Miss Granny was a huge box office hit, selling almost 9 million tickets. Despite being the fourth highest-grossing film in the history of South Korean cinema with 14.2 milion tickets sold, Yoon Je-kyoon's Ode to My Father was panned by the New York Times for being "syrupy" and for having "packaged pain … likely to leave Western audiences cold", proving that sometimes films about uniquely Korean experiences (like having your country split into two nations that are still technically at war) just don't resonate with Western audiences.
Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan – which had its world premiere in 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival – became the first Korean film to sell more than 10 million tickets. Set almost entirely on a high-speed train, the film is a socio-political parable disguised as a zombie thriller. When it was announced that the United States would remake the film as Last Train to New York fans were not happy.
2020s: Streaming sites and accessibility
South Korea has been submitting films for consideration to the Academy Awards since 1962, but it wasn't until 58 years later that the country won its first Oscar with Parasite. So why the sudden interest in Korean films?
"It cannot be said that cinematic perfection is the most important reason for the popularity of Korean films", said Jiyoung Lee from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. "There have been great movies before. Why didn't they enjoy global popularity then and why is it possible now? The answer requires a broader context to understand: networks that connect people around the world in real time, social media, and the expansion of platforms have made it possible for people's cultural tastes to cross national boundaries".
One such platform is Netflix, which has invested more than $700 million into original Korean content since 2016, helping film lovers worldwide understand that watching a foreign film isn't a burden once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles.
This article was written by Jae-Ha Kim, culture writer, Chicago Tribune Publishing
Special thanks to professors Hye Jin Lee (University of Southern California), Jeeheng Lee (Chung-Ang University), and Jiyoung Lee (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies) for their invaluable contributions to this article.