Colonial era films dominate local screens

A scene from "Love, Lies" starring Han Hyo-joo

The colonial era has served as the backdrop in Korean films before. Indeed, films produced shortly after the liberation in 1945 dealt with this period including Choi In-kyu’s “Hurrah for Freedom” (1946) and “The Immortal Secret Envoy” directed by Kim Yong-sun (1947).

More recent examples include “Once Upon a Time” that was set in the final days of Japanese rule hitting screens in 2008, while “Modern Boy” starring Park Hae-il and Kim Hye-soo was released in the same year. Both failed, however, to enjoy much box office success.

With the exception of Kim Jee-woon’s take on the Spaghetti Western, “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” (2008) that featured an all-star cast (Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, and Jung Woo-sung), films set in this era tended to struggle in contemporary Korean cinema.

Promotional poster of "Spirits' Homecoming".

Two interesting mystery/horror films that take place during the colonial period “Epitaph” (2007) and “The Silenced” (2015) suffered similar fates.

Yet, it’s now becoming clear these films set during this timeframe (1910-1945) are resonating with audiences. One of Korea’s most commercially successful filmmakers Choi Dong-hoon tackled the era with an ensemble cast (Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Jung-jae and Ha Jung-woo) along with audacious set-pieces in the box office smash hit “Assassination” that amassed 12.7 million admissions last summer.

But it’s not just a summer tentpole release with a budget of $16 million that is pulling in the audiences. Cho Jung-rae’s crowd-funded film “Spirits’ Homecoming” that addresses the issue of comfort women has experienced tremendous box office success accumulating more than 3 million admissions since its release on Feb. 24. Only a handful of independent films have achieved such a feat.

A scene from Park Chan-wook's "The Handmaiden"

The excellent feature “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” directed by Lee Joon-ik has also struck a chord with audiences demonstrating longevity at the box office. The low-budget film has attracted more than a million viewers to date. Scripted by Shin Yeon-shick (“The Avian Kind”), shot in black and white the film explores the life of the renowned poet Yun Dong-ju who was imprisoned and died in Japan in 1945.

Nationalism has long played a significant part in Korean cinema; albeit in different forms. This is something that Im Kwon-taek has sought to convey in his films ― especially in the latter half of his career as epitomized in the box office hit “Sopyonje” (1993), which shares some similarities to “Spirits’ Homecoming” in terms of its narrative structure and use of traditional Korean music.

The relationship between North and South Korea is another example where this has manifested. “Shiri” (1999) and “JSA” (2000) are notable examples, which were released at a time when there was more political contact between the two countries under the Sunshine Policy spearheaded by former President Kim Dae-jung.

More recently, the unprecedented success of “Roaring Currents” (2014) about the famous battle between Admiral Yi Sun-sin and a Japanese armada in 1597, could be attributed, at least in part, to nationalism in some form. Released at a time when the nation was still reeling from the tragic Sewol sinking, the film attracted more than 17 million viewers making it the most successful film to be released in Korea.

“Ode to My Father” released six months later is another box office hit that chronicles modern Korean history became the second most successful film in Korea selling more than 14 million tickets. Including emotional reunion scenes between lost loved ones after being separated during the Korean war, it also feeds into this narrative ― although it was criticized by some critics for its “conservative” approach.

Nationalism is a complex idea not least in relation to Korean cinema, especially given Korea’s turbulent history, but it arguably continues to play a significant part in the nation’s cinema at least to some degree ­ as evident in this growing appetite for films set in the colonial era.

This trend could continue given the release of a number of films set during this period ― though whether audiences are as eager to see them remains to be seen.

In April, Park Heung-sik’s “Love, Lies” starring Han Hyo-joo alongside Chun Woo-hee is set in the 1940s during the Japanese occupation. It’s about jealousy and love that come between two female artists who dream about becoming the best singers.

Interestingly, two of Korea’s major auteurs: Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon have films set in the 1930s scheduled to be released later this year. Park’s “The Handmaiden” featuring Kim Min-hee and Ha Jung-woo is based on the British novel “Fingersmith” but has moved Sarah Waters’ Victorian setting to the Japanese colonial period about a swindler who recruits a young pickpocket in an attempt to steal the fortune of a Japanese heiress.

Kim’s new film “Secret Agent” follows the activities of an anti-Japanese independence movement starring Song Kang-ho and Gong Yoo.

Hur Jin-ho (“Christmas in August”) is also following suit with his next film “Princess Deokhye” about Korea’s last princess played by Son Ye-jin. Starring alongside her is Park Hae-il who plays a Korean independence fighter determined to bring back to Korea the Princess who has been taken hostage to Japan.

The release of such films does indeed raise the question why now there is a potential market for such films. Sure, relations between Japan and Korea are precarious ― but this is nothing new. Perhaps, this is an avenue for which nationalism can be narrated in a manner that audiences of today can respond to.

By: Jason Bechervaise [jase@koreanfilm.org.uk]
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