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Korean Cinema: Before the Wave

May 20, 2020 | Tom Vick

In my last post, I wrote about the movies from Korean cinema’s Golden Age that are available to stream on the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel. In this post, I’ll highlight some titles streaming there from the era preceding the early 2000s Korean Wave, which brought Korean movies to the world’s attention.

After you’ve watched them, join me on Sunday, May 31 at 2 p.m. for an online discussion.

The 1970s are commonly regarded as Korean cinema’s low point, owing to strict censorship under the then-ruling military dictatorship, but there are some brilliant and eccentric gems to be found. Lee Man-hee’s final film, The Road to Sampo, follows three poor vagabonds across a wintry landscape, varying in tone from Beckettian to bawdy to unexpectedly poignant, as one of them makes it home to Sampo and is shocked by the changes that have taken place in his decade-long absence. The year 1975 also saw the release of Ha Kil-jong’s March of Fools, a political allegory in the guise of a college comedy that would prove influential on filmmakers in the 1980s looking to sneak political statements under the censors’ noses.

One example of this is Lee Jang-ho’s enigmatic 1987 road movie The Man with Three Coffins, which follows a widower on his way to scatter his wife’s ashes in her hometown. Its hallucinatory, sepia-toned style includes references to Korean shamanism, and one of its major themes is the splitting of families caused by the divide between North and South Korea. In a more comical vein, Jang Sun-woo’s 1988 satire Age of Success stars charismatic icon Ahn Sung-ki as a ruthless businessman at a sweetener company locked in an absurdly escalating marketing battle with his competitors. Beneath its comedic exterior lurks a sharp critique of Korea’s stressful corporate culture.

Before movies like Old Boy and The Host brought widespread attention to Korean films in the United States, Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyang, released in 2000, was probably the most widely seen Korean movie here. Beautifully filmed and making innovative use of the traditional Korean opera form known as pansori, it is a sumptuous retelling of a famous folktale.

Im has made over one hundred movies since his debut in 1962, and the Korean Film Archive has loads of them available. A particular favorite of mine is Sopyonje, the story of an itinerant family of pansori singers, which went a long way to reviving interest in the musical form.

Now that you are all caught up on Korean cinematic history, I hope you will join us next month for the online edition of the Korean Film Festival DC!

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