Mother and a Guest (film still), courtesy of Shin Films Co., Ltd

Korean Cinema: The Golden Age

Our annual Korean Film Festival DC was supposed to kick off in May, so if you need a fix of Korean cinema, there’s no better place to go than the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel where you can stream dozens of classic films spanning the twentieth century, all with English subtitles. In this post, I highlight a few of my favorites from the Golden Age of Korean cinema. In the next, I’ll take a look at some choice offerings from the 70s through the 90s.

After you’ve watched them, join me on Sunday, May 31 for an online discussion here: https://smithsonian.zoom.us/j/3073785963?pwd=WjhNZXp4NmdmTmJxeEtsNTdta3pRdz09 (Password: 010838).

The first Korean films were made while the country was occupied by Japan in the early twentieth century, and the film industry suffered disruption during WWII and the Korean War, but as it recovered in the 1950s, what became known as the Golden Age of Korean cinema commenced. Two significant films, Aimless Bullet  (Yu Hyon-mok, 1961) and A Coachman (Kang Dae-jin, 1961)—which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival—movingly evoke the changes rippling through Korean society at the time.

Perhaps the most famous director of the Golden Age was Shin Sang-ok, many of whose films are streaming on the YouTube Channel. The one commonly regarded as his masterpiece (and one of my favorites) is Mother and a Guest (1961), which transforms a melodramatic plot into a visually precise, dramatically potent critique of the moral rigidity of traditional Confucian society. Also worth watching is the searing The Flower in Hell (1958). Filmed on location in a Seoul still recovering from the war, it stars Shin’s wife Choi Eun-hee as a prostitute torn between the ringleader of a criminal gang and an innocent young man.

Lesser known, but deserving of more attention in my opinion, is Lee Man-hee. He worked in several genres, but is at his best when he indulges his eccentricities, as in A Water Mill (1966), a fable rich in gorgeous landscape imagery and long-gone Korean folk traditions about a village appeasing the ghost of a woman who was murdered decades ago.

Korea also gave us one of the great weirdos of world cinema. Known as Mr. Monster, Kim Ki-young made films with a brazenly tasteless panache rivaling that of John Waters or George Kuchar. He is best known for the unhinged melodrama The Housemaid (1960), a restored version of which is streaming on the Criterion Channel along with testimonials from fans Martin Scorsese and Parasite director Bong Joon-ho. Another of Bong’s favorites (and mine) is streaming on the Korean Film Archive site: Insect Woman (1972) features, among other things, a rat-eating vampire baby and a sex scene on top of a glass table covered in hard candies that must be seen (and heard) to be believed.

Join me in my next post as we explore the resurgence of Korean cinema in the later twentieth century.

Tom Vick

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer and Sackler and the author of "Time and Place are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki and Asian Cinema: A Field Guide."

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