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Subaltern cinema: Korean and Indian parallels

Cinema is meant to entertain!

Who wants to spend money on a boring film?

I don’t want my money to go into an indulgent film!

Let them sell the film!

These are cliches, the product of a lazy and unimaginative discourse driven by a new sophomoric elite. After all, a market driven society can only end up with such a life-affirming view and there seems to be no way out from the death grip of this verbal fabric! Independent filmmakers have to face the daily ignominy of such admonitions, particularly in countries such as Korea and India, which have strong domestic industries.

For many East Asian cinema enthusiasts Korean film conjures up images of Shiri (1999), My Sassy Girl (2001), Oasis (2002), Oldboy (2003). Such films are credited with having introduced a Korean New Wave. This valorisation hides a problematic that is little known due to a systematic discourse that has fixed the spotlight on this “new wave”, which is nothing more than a commercial industry defined by popular films grounded in slick production values and embedded in local culture and politics. The usage of the term “new wave” is misleading as it invokes images of departure from the norm, the avant garde, while hiding the mainstream nature of these films. This is best problematised by Kim Gok and Kim Sun’s Anti-Dialectic (2001) in which a video-store clerk points to the irony of finding Korean blockbusters alongside Hollywood films (the same way Bollywood films can now be found playing in major exhibition venues in the UK and rented out by all major DVD rental services).

The valorisation of the Korean success is unquestioned, even by academics. In a parallel, an exact same situation is unfolding in India where enthusiastic (but thoroughly misguided) critics are welcoming a “new wave” Indian cinema (read here ). This is what Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi had to say about the Indian new wave:

Some of our new wave cinema taps into the toxicity of modern India – like Page 3 – but their characters are stereotypes that reaffirm popular notions instead of contradicting them. Cinema must challenge the imagination not feed it so simply, so slavishly. (read interview here)


Back to the Korean story: The discourse surrounding the commercial success of Korean new wave cinema overwhelmes the true picture of what happened to the Korean independent cinema. The desire to witness the realisation of a Korean film industry led to box-office figure chasing as the only barometer of a film’s success. Chung Sung-il, the editor of Kino, the cinephile weekly described the situation thus:

Gone are the days when producers and agents seeking young talent were common sights at independent film showcases and even student screenings. Radical films made by the likes of Kim Gok and Kim Sun become stigmatized,” says Chung. “Hong Sang-soo-esque films are the Maginot Line beyond which mainstream producers won’t go. But you wouldn’t say Hong Sang-soo is a daring independent filmmaker, right? (Film Comment, Nov/Dec 2004, p40-42)


(Note: Kino went bankrupt in 2003).


Caught between a rock (the rising box-office standards of genre films) and a hard place (the specter of Hong Sang-soo as the only truly successful independent in the last 13 years), Korean independent cinema is unable to find a true heir apparent.

The Korean commercial renaissance owes its success to short film festivals where people such as Chung Sung-il identified directors such as Yoon Jong-Chan and Park Kihyung. Both directors went on to make commercially successful films. So what is the point? Today’s local talent does not come from such independent centres, but through the mainstream media industry such as television. Film Comment reported that film festivals which showcased independent work (such as Busan’s Wide Angle and Inde Forum) are sparsely attended. The Seol Net Festival drew only 572 entries. The clamour for box office success has led even journals such as Variety to miss the point that it is a thriving independent scene that will drive the overall industry:

Now that local B.O. share for Korean films has slipped from 70% to a still enviable 50% and exports have plunged, both fest and the Asian Film Market, in only its second frame, have some tough questions to answer. (Variety )


Festivals such as Jeonju International Film Festival are trying to buck the trend:

Jeonju International Film Festival this year in an attempt to influence an alternative vision of the world through film. It’s an ambitious effort by the festival, which began eight years ago with a focus on digital and experimental films that steer away from the mainstream. Today they maintain the same non-comformist spirit.


On the other hand, some independent film platforms are diluting the the independent spirit, defined above. For example Mise-en-Scène’s Genre Film Festival promotes short films by genre, indoctrinating the independent talent for the mainstream. Organised by Korea’s mainstream big ticket filmmakers such as Park Chan-wook (Old Boy), Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder), Kim Ji-woon (Foul King), and Je-yong Lee (Untold Scandal ), the festival is focused on genres such as social drama, melodrama, action thriller, horror, and comedy.


Park Wan Chook himself admitted that the plugging into the mainstream had only led to overall skill improvement.

“You can always watch slick mainstream films. The intense and challenging films-action thrillers that are experimental, social dramas that are anti-establishment, and films that just have fire-are what I would like to see more of”


Korean cinema’s dilemma in the era of blockbusters and multiplexes is that success is still concentrated among the select few hits, like Taegukgi and Silmido. Indeed as Initial’s Eric Christiansen (Initial is the company behind The Departed and The Aviator) prognosis reveals: “The overall box office worldwide may be going up, but the number of pictures generating that dough has shrunk” (Variety article here). The enormous returns generated by a handful of titles have raised both the commercial bar and advertising costs across the board so that, even with three million tickets sold, Untold Scandal (2003) is considered only moderately successful. It was just seven years ago that Shin broke all records by selling one million tickets. When Hong Sang-soo’s masterful Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors sold 100,000 tickets in 2000, it was regarded as a success. And when veteran direclor Park Cheol-soo made a comeback in the mid-Nineties with his independent 301/302, even the most vulgar entrepreneurial types applauded his “experimental spirit,” though the film flopped. What has taken place between 1995 and 2007? When your financial portfolio is modest, it’s easy to tolerate, and even cultivate, more spirited, daring, experimental projects without necessarily betting the farm. But in the present climate, where marketing expenditures exceed production costs, box-office records are constantly broken, and the standard for what’s considered a high gross keep rising, the Korean mainstream could end up killing off not only its own independent sector but also that of other national cinemas as well. Can Chinese or Thai independents survive the onslaught of “the new Hollywood of Asia”? Wouldn’t it be better if they all just adopted Korean commercial strategies? After all, as Kim Gok’s Capitalist Manifesto makes clear, capitalism knows no boundaries. Once proven successful, a formula must be adopted by anyone who wants to play the game. This mentality produces and disseminates its own manifesto: the genre-film mandate with which all filmmakers working outside Hollywood must be indoctrinated.



Ayaz, Shaikh (2007) Our scripts are so clumsy Hindustan Times Sep 3 http://www.hindustantimes.com

Chatterjee, Saibal (2007) The Mumbai New Wave The Indian Express Feb 25 http://www.indianexpress.com

Frater, Patrick (2007) Pusan Intl. Film Festival Variety Aug 23 http://www.variety.com/

GUIDER, ELIZABETH (2007) Independent film sales struggles Variety May 16 http://www.variety.com/

Kim, Kyung Hyun (2004) “Korea Prospects: Independents: Risky Business: The Rise and Fall of Asia’s New Hollywood and the Fall of Independent Korean Filmmaking” Film Comment 40:6 (November-December) p. 40-42

1 comment

1 Hyun-Ki Noh { 09.14.07 at 1:39 am }

damn good analysis of Korean films. Pl read int by Jung Soo-wan and Yoo Un-seong of Jeonju International Film Festival. From interview http://www.koreanfilm.org/jiff06.html

YUS: A few years ago digital showed the illusion of creating democratic possibilities between the production and consumption of films. But I think it is still an illusion. In a sense, digital itself can’t be considered innovative anymore but it is a tool for creative works.

YUS: Many independent works are produced every year but not many find distribution in theatres, and even if they are distributed, the box office results are poor. That’s also why at JIFF we have always tried to show and promote minor and independent films.

JSW: The production condition for independent films is not good and the distribution condition is even worse. In the past, independent films were almost all about political and social issues. Nowadays the filmmakers are trying to see themselves through the camera. Since 2002 JIFF has published every year a little volume about Korean shorts at the festival, analyzing the trends and the themes. Unfortunately it is only in Korean language.

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