“Anti-communist films stress disenchantment with the communist ideology or aim to engender antagonism against communists. Given the spread of the Cold War ideological paradigm and political contingencies and goals after the Korean War, there was an all-out, multi-pronged effort to make anti-communism an integral part of the Korean national psyche. Movies were deemed the most effective means of bolstering anti-communism. Anti-communist films were thus produced in large numbers from the post-liberation period to the late 1970s, evolving in terms of genre and message with regime changes.”
Anti-communist films under the Rhee Syng-man and John Myeon Jang administration
The extreme rightwing Rhee Syng-man administration focused on concealing its pro-Japanese affiliations and highlighting its nationalist legitimacy. In some sense, anti-communism was weaker than the anti-Japanese ideology during this period. Anti-communism reached its peak in 1959 when Koreans living in Japan began to repatriate to North Korea. Anti-communism under John Myeon (Jang Myeon) was much more subdued given that his administration was born of the April Revolution. With the Korean War fresh in people’s memories, anti-communism was not an appropriate subject for entertainment. Moreover, Korea did not have the technological competencies to make large-scale war movies nor was the government sophisticated enough to use film as an ideological tool for anti-communist propaganda.
Lee Kang-cheon’s Piagol (1955) is about North Korean sympathizers (commonly referred to as “partisans” in Korea) that set up camp in Mount Jiri after the Korean War and their guerrilla activities. There was heated controversy over whether or not the film was pro-communist as the film highlighted the human and personal side of the partisans rather than the heroism of the government forces.
pursuing them. The film was deemed to have brought humanism to the fore by author Choi Jeong-hui and other writers and critics. Some newspapers took issue with how the film portrayed partisans not as a ruthless rebel group but as individuals experiencing personal conflict, and the screening of the film was banned for the film’s violation of the Anti-communism Law. The censors found the final scene especially problematic, citing that it was unclear whether Aeran, who walks out alone onto the beach, does so to seek freedom. Poet Kim Jong-mun criticized the last scene in the July 24, 1955 publication of Hankook Ilbo, citing that it underscored Aeran’s relationship problems and her weariness with her life in the mountains rather than delivering an anti-communist message. Screenwriter Oh Yeong-jin, however, defended the film as a sophisticated anti-communist work with a humanist focus. Thus, controversy over the film played out in print media as well. In effect, a film that had been produced to spread anti-communism came to be accused as being pro-communist. When this led to the cancellation of the screening scheduled for August 24, 1955, at Gukdo Theater , the director inserted the Korean flag in the final scene to show Aeran, the sole surviving partisan, walking into the warm embrace of a “free South Korea.” Only then was the ban lifted.
Isan melodramas (melodramas about separated families):
Melodramas depicting families separated by the territorial division of Korea
In the 1950s, melodramas about separated families dominated the films set during and around the Korean War. Although these melodramas did not directly advocate anti-communism, they spearheaded the anti-communist propaganda effort by indirectly expressing antagonism toward communism through their depiction of the tragedies of the Korean War. During this period, the Korean public saw the war as a personal tragedy rather than an ideological conflict. Accordingly, melodramas about separated families practically supplanted anti-communist films in the late 1950s. Notable works include The Life (Lee Chang-geun , 1957), Wife and Mistress (Kim Seong-min, 1957), and There is No Tragedy (Hong Seong-ki, 1959).
Anti-communist films in the first half of the Park Chung-hee era
After the May 16 Coup, the Park Chung-hee regime, anti-communism was made a national policy and anti-communist propaganda efforts went into full drive. In the meantime, the nation set out to pursue modernization driven by economic growth. The coupling of anti-communism and economic growth spurred full-on competition for regime legitimacy between the two Koreas, and any activity considered an impediment to South Korea’s economic growth, and in turn, benefitting North Korea, was suppressed in the name of anti-communism. Park Chung-hee deemed cinema an especially effective medium for propaganda and thus aimed to spread anti-communism by revising the Motion Pictures Act, strengthening film censorship and other institutional measures. Against this political and social backdrop, anti-communist films came to comprise a cinematic genre of their own and production reached its zenith. The need for movies about political revolutions or national reconstruction was brought to attention after the May 16 Coup, and anti-communist films were produced in large numbers after 1962. Until 1966, large-scale war movies comprised the most dominant sub-genre of Anti-communist films. This indicates that Anti-communist films were consumed by moviegoers as entertainment rather than for their propagandistic purpose as intended by the government.
While hardly any anti-communist films were produced in 1960 and 1961, production increased significantly when the military junta took power in 1962.
After the May 16 Coup, the government pressured filmmakers and film stars to join the national reconstruction effort and produce films about revolutions. Against this backdrop, anti-communist films were probably produced to meet government demand.
The film industry started experiencing full-on government intervention in 1962. The government revised the Motion Pictures Act in 1963, merging film production companies and further tightening censorship regulations. Films from this period that faced challenges due to government censorship include Aimless Bullet (Yu Hyun-mok, 1961) and The Seven Female POWs (Lee Man-hee, 1965). Directors such as Lee Man-hee and Yu Hyun-mok showcased their individual styles within the institutionalized genre of anti-communist film. In so doing, Yu ran into trouble Aimless Bullet with “Let’s go. Let’s go,” the old mother’s line in Aimless Bullet, which the censors claimed could be misconstrued as a call to go to North Korea. Meanwhile, Lee was accused of violating the Anti-communism Law for his personal and humane portrayal of North Korean sympathizers (“partisans”) in The Seven Female POWs. The obscenity charge against Yu for The Empty Dream (1965) was in retaliation against Yu’s defense of Lee. Chief Prosecutor Choi Dae-hyeon of the Seoul District Prosecutors’ Office provided the following explanation for charging Yu for the violation of the Anti-communism Law: “At a seminar on March 25, 1965, at the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Yu Hyun-mok presented an opinion statement entitled ‘Freedom on the Silver Screen’ in which he argued that the ‘portrayal of the North Korean soldiers in The Seven Female POWs, which the Prosecutors’ Office has taken issue with, should not be a caricature as it has been in existing works but present them as real, living human beings.’ Yu has thus sympathized with North Korean propaganda that the North Korean puppet army is comprised of human beings capable of showing mercy.”
Recognition of outstanding anti-communist films
In 1966, an award segment for best Anti-communist film/screenplay was added to the Grand Bell Awards (Daejong Film Award). Then in 1967, it was decided that the production company that won the best communist film/screenplay would be allotted the right to import one foreign film. Against this backdrop, the production of anti-communist films continued to grow.
The production of anti-communist films skyrocketed in 1966. The release of the 007 James Bond series in Korea led to the production of the very first Korean international spy film in 1966. It was also in 1966 that the first film set in Vietnam was released with the dispatch of Korean troops to Vietnam. The production of melodramas about separated families never waned, so while few and far between, art films such as Flame in the Valley (Kim Soo-yong, 1967) and large-scale war films set in Vietnam such as Vietnam is All Right (Kim Muk, 1966) were released. The most notable subgenres during this period were large-scale war films and spy films. Furthermore, with the integration of these two subgenres, anti-communist films came to possess entertainment value. The explosive growth in the number of anti-communist films in 1966 can be attributed to an interest in new subject matters and the re-production and expansion of existing subject matters. The fact that the two subgenres with the greatest entertainment value comprised the mainstream of anti-communist films suggests that while the production of anti-communist films was triggered by government demand, mass appeal and box office performance were important standards in the production of individual films.
Anti-communist films in the second half of the Park Chung-hee era
The late 1960s and the early 1970s were a period of crisis for the Park Chung-hee regime. There was an assassination attempt on the president and high-ranking government officials by a North Korean spy unit on January 21, 1968, and the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence ship, was captured by the North on January 23rd. The times demanded domestic unity and international response measures. The government touted the July 4th North-South Joint Statement of 1972 as part of its efforts to respond to the crisis. However, it turned out be a mere cover-up for the groundwork leading up to the October Yushin (Park Chung-hee’s October 1972 self-coup through which he assumed dictatorial powers). Eventually, the inter-Korean Red Cross talks were even suspended on August 28, 1973, with an ultimatum from North Korea. Thereafter, “self-reliant defense” became the main theme and rallying call for Korea’s anti-communist ideology. It goes without saying that this development stemmed from the sense of crisis engendered by the communization of Vietnam despite US intervention. The Motion Pictures Act underwent two more revisions during this period. The third revision in 1970 took away film import rights from production companies, which in effect was an abandonment of the government’s film corporatization policy. The import quota allotted as per the outstanding film scheme was restricted to outstanding anti-communist films. With the 1973 Yushin, the fourth revision to the Motion Pictures Act was enacted. The import rights were returned to production companies while censorship regulations were toughened, and the Korean Film Council was founded.
Korean Film Council’s state-sponsored films
In 1973, the Korean Film Council spent a whopping 120 million Korean won on producing Testimony (Im Kwon-taek, 1973), The Wild Flowers in the Battle Field (Lee Man-hee, 1974), I Won’t Cry (Im Kwon-taek, 1974), Parade of Wives (Im Kwon-taek, 1974), A Spy Remaining Behind (Kim Si-hyun, 1975), and The Tae-Baeks (Gwon Yeong-sun, 1975).
For state-sponsored films, which were made to promote national policies, the Korean Film Council set up a production team that planned the subject and theme and handpicked the screenwriter and director. These films were given large budgets that private production companies would not have been able to come up with and produced with full-out support from the interior and national defense ministries and other government organs.
Full-blown anti-communist education was implemented during the 1970s. There were speeches, essays, and poster contests on the theme of anti-communism, and the anti-communist General Ttoli animation series played an important role in shaping the perception of North Korea. The series was screened not only in theaters, but was used as anti-communist education material at schools, playing a pivotal role in etching the imagery of North Korea as a monster or a wolf in the Korean national psyche. General Ttoli (1978) takes after The Adventure of Ttolttori (Lee Gyu-hwan, 1946), which was produced and released soon after Korea’s liberation from Japan. The three-part General Ttoli series enjoyed great popularity.
Popularity of spy films with B-rated action sequences
“The fact is, the puppet regime north of the 38th parallel has been focusing on a tripartite intelligence warfare—dispatching armed spies to South Korea, using underground tunnels for infiltration, and intelligence gathering in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and maritime routes; thus, veering away from the invasion scheme it had opted for the Korean War.” (Lee Yeong-il )
Anti-communist films as a genre started showing visible signs of decline in the late 1960s. As part of this development, there was a significant fall in the production of war movies. International spy films, on the other hand, went on an upswing. The popularity of international spy films in the late 1960s was undoubtedly the influence of the huge success enjoyed by the second installment of the 007 James Bond series, which was released in Korea in 1965.
Toward the end of the Park Chung-hee era, however, the public began to turn their back on anti-communist films. Producers were unable to find new subject matter, and anti-communist themes came to be used in TV dramas. By the late 1970s, spy films also took a downturn.
Curator — Park Hye-Young, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean FIlm Archive
English translation — Free Film Communications