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How Korea Came to Dominate Asian Film

Dae Wong (great king) Se Jong, who ruled in the mid 1400s, is venerated for many reasons, not the least of which is his invention of the Korean system of writing, revolutionary enough to make the Ming emperor willing to crush his kingdom, so the king had to work secretly for many years.  Once he succeeded, he placated Ming by having his officials work in Chinese while the common people learned Korean.  Se Jong also freed and educated a slave who turned out to be a scientific genius, and was rewarded with advances in astronomy and weaponry that once again threatened Ming sovereignty, requiring the king to do some heavy political tap dancing.

Time after time, Se Jong adapted existing ideas and technology to the Korean culture, quietly gathered his strength, then pressed his advantage when an opportunity presented itself.  In a reign fraught with the difficulties of bringing unification and progress to his people, Se Jong’s behavior became the model for what is best in the Korean national character.

As with Se Jong and his alphabet, the rise of Korean cinema was long in the making.  World War II and its aftermath had unintended consequences for world cinema;  like the Hindu god Shiva, its destructive powers scorched the earth, clearing the way for creation and new birth.  Russia, Great Britain, and the United States, all of whom had successfully fought off invasion by their enemies, now faced off in an ideological Cold War, and ended up carrying that fight into their films.

Italy came out from under the yoke of Fascism with a powerful neo-realistic movement, and the French began the existential journey that gave birth to New Wave in the 1960s.  While the partitioning of Germany, combined with national self-flagellation, effectively crippled its cinema until the 1970s, former Axis partner Japan rose out of its radioactive ashes to give voice to revisionist history and social dissection.

India’s independence from the British Raj let loose the reigns of a film industry that would eventually become the world’s largest.  Mao Tse-dong drove Chinese film artists to take refuge in Hong Kong, changing a cottage industry into the “Hollywood of the East.” The rest of Asia, from Korea to Cambodia, was mired in the death throes of Colonialism and the threat of Communism, stalling development of native cinema well into the 1970s.


Bichunmoo - Anyone for swordplay? The Koreans have certainly learned a trick a two over the years!

For Westerners, especially Americans, the Korean film industry is like the Korean auto industry–we didn’t realize they had one until Hyundai showed up at the local dealership.  It began quietly, with KBS selling its TV shows to other Asian producers for a fraction of what it would cost them to create their own.  The Korean social dynamic reflected in the serials was just different enough to be intriguing, and they became wildly popular in Taiwan and Malaysia.

With Hong Kong’s film production already floundering in a sea of Handover jitters, the 1996 Asian market crash and rampant piracy dried up most of the financing, decimating output.  For the first time since the days of Bruce Lee, Hong Kong exports lost their luster, presenting an opportunity for whoever had the goods.  Japan certainly gained, but they were already working to capacity–could Korea now carve out its niche?


Attack the Gas Station - Crazy Plot, Fantastic Film!

Did Korea even know what its niche was? At that point, most Korean films were either romances popular at home, or imitations of Japanese and Hong Kong imports.  There was certainly no Big Plan, and they could have easily missed the boat.  Instead, they took their lead from Se Jong and adapted the borrowed genres to their culture, with often stunning results, such as Bichunmoo, which gave a new look and feel to the sword legend film, Nowhere to Hide, where Prime Cut meets primal scream, and Shiri, a devastating political thriller that cries for its bipolar motherland.

Korean film had found its footing, and it took few false steps from then onward.  Korean producers targeted film festivals, Media Asia and Miramax wanted to market product, and KBS began an ambitious program of producing high quality serials aimed as much at foreign markets (with subtitles) as in country.  The explosion of ideas was staggering: wild rides like Attack the Gas Station and Volcano High, harsh social commentaries like Friends and Beat, partition tragedies like J.S.A. and Tae Guk Gi, and of course the horrific horrors of Oldboy and Nightmare, to name only a few.


Oldboy - Truly helped put Korean cinema on the world stage

Korean DVDs made their way from Chinatown markets to Netflix inventory;  Typhoon played in mainstream American theaters;  and non-Korean television viewers around the world tuned into their local KBS outlet to watch 90 episodes of the epic series Dae Wong Se Jong–with Korean film employing Se Jong’s strategy to come into its own, I can only think the great king would be very pleased.

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