1897 - 1923

The Age of Motion Pictures

Korean Film Archive

寫眞活動勝於生人活動 “The Activity of Photography Exceeds the Activity of People.”
Editorial, <Hwangseong Sinmun> / Sept. 14, 1901

1. Forward

From the late 19th century through the early 20th century, the Joseon Dynasty underwent very rapid changes by opening its doors to the Western powers and going under the rule of Japanese Imperialists. There are many varying opinions on when exactly motion pictures were first introduced in Korea; however, the pictures, imported during this period, captivated the people with images of the new world and also functioned as a useful tool for enlightenment. “Hwaldong sajin,” the direct translation of the English term “motion picture” was first used in Japan followed by Korea in 1897. According to Im Hwa, the age of motion pictures in Korea was the age of film decal and also an age when films were not made but only watched in the country. Like Japan and China, the history of Korean film began with importing and watching motion pictures from Western countries.

Before the 1910s, most of the motion pictures imported and screened were actuality films, while afterwards, film dramas including serial films were introduced to draw great attention from motion picture fans (Aehwalga). Amid the popularity of Western movies, actors, and actresses, the first movie magazine “Nokseong” was published in 1919, and the first Korean play combined with motion pictures <fight for justice> (Uilijeog guto) was produced in the same year. This is when Korea began to make its own movies. In the early 1920s, the age of silent films began in Korea with the production of kino-dramas (Yeonswaegeuk) , films for enlightenment, and dramatic films like <the story of chunhang) (chunhyangjeon) and <the story of janghwa and hongryeon< (janghwahongryeonjeon) of 1923. lee yeongil noted that the age of motion pictures, mostly imported from abroad, was most meaningful in that it had become the foundation for the film industry to take root in korea and nurtured the industry’s human resources and capital.< /p>

This editorial of the September 14, 1901 publication of “Hwangseong Sinmun” was written after viewing the motion picture featuring the Boxer Rebellion. It was the first written article in Korea mentioning the term “motion picture.” According to the context of the article, it can be assumed that the term “motion picture” was used commonly in Korea. 

"People are simply awed, can’t keep their mouths closed when watching a motion picture, and marvel at its amazing sight. Mere pictures of an object arranged and screened in the order of time look as if the object was alive and moving before our eyes. It is truly a motion picture. What I want is not people moving in films, but seeing the people in real life more active. … The activity of the people in moving pictures (hwain) look so vital and lively while real people (saengin) look so weak and feeble like intellectuals (seonbi) of Korean empire (Daehan Empire) who prefer to stay silent and lead a quiet life. … For this reason, I say I wish for not the activity of people in movies, but the activity of people in real life.”

2. Stereoscope and Stereoscopic Photography

Stereoscope was an optical play equipment developed around 1850 and gained its huge popularity until early 20s century.

A specially designed viewing device through which you can see three-dimensional images by simultaneously looking into two pictures of a single object fixed side by side 60 to 70mm apart from each other. The images mostly of new, exotic cultures and attractions, and landscapes of European and Asian countries were popular among Westerners with exotic tastes. Stereoscopes that produce three-dimensional images were also an amazing attraction to the Joseon Dynasty people and were enjoyed at the royal court as well. Today, there still remain a large number of stereoscopic images of Wongudan, Dongnimmun, Gyeongseong scenery, and everyday life of the public. 

Stereoscopic photography

3. Emergence of the Magic Lantern

The photos did not move as in motion pictures, but before the emergence of motion pictures, it was a popular form of media for displaying images. The magic lantern (hwandeunggi) is a slide projector that can only produce still-life images, but was used often to show slides on the screen as a substitute for film. The earlier magic lanterns were used mostly for enlightenment activities, lectures, advertisement, and education. It was first introduced in Korea during the late 19th century.

▶ ⊙(Sunday activity)

“Mr.Badcock from the United Kingdom invited the Heunghwa School’s day and night time students to Nakwon Bonje and served tea and snacks to run the magic lantern room. Afterwards, every Sunday evening, Mr. Badcock invited Haegyojehakwon(school) to suggest a magic lantern room.”

<Hwangseong Sinmun> Dec. 22, 1899

4. Hwangsileoram and Burton Holmes’ travelogue

The imperial family of the Korean Empire was also showing great interest in motion pictures, the gem of the new century. The royal family’s movie watching activity was called Hwangsileoram and it first began by viewing motion pictures with Burton Holmes’ motion picture projector and travelogue. Some say motion pictures were screened for Koreans residing in Japan, but according to the records found so far, Burton Holmes was the first to introduce motion pictures in Korea.

<The Burton Holmes Lectures)>(1901) 1901 edition The story of Burton Holmes’ travel around Seoul was recorded in the final 10th volume in 1901 among the 10 volume collection of “The Burton Holmes Lectures.” At first only 1,000 sets were printed. Later on, more were printed and published in New York with the same edition. The travelogue was introduced in the form of lectures for decades.

According to Burton Holmes’ records, his visit to Seoul took place in 1901. Via the Trans-Siberian Railway that opened in 1900, Holmes carried out his Asian project traveling the Far East regions starting from Moscow. He visited Korea for a short period during this project. In the 10th volume of “The Burton Holmes Lectures” published in 1901, “Seoul, The Capital of Korea” is included, depicting in detail his travels in Seoul.

According to the book, royal court minister Lee Jaesun watched Burton Holmes’ films for the first time at his villa and afterwards asked Holmes to bring his small projector to the palace. This is how a film was screened in Korea for the first time. The small projector used then was assumed to be a mutoscope or Kinora. The mutoscope and Kinora are devices that spin the row of thin image cards in order to make the objects seem as if they were moving. Since the invention of film, many devices were also invented for viewing. The small, portable devices for watching movies alone were quite popular at the time. 

Photo from “Seoul, the Capital of Korea”(1901) Crowds of people in Holmes‘ filming of Gyeongseong.
Photo from “Seoul, the Capital of Korea”(1901) The photo clearly depicts the relationship between modern times and early motion pictures. An American engineer is surveying the site for railroad construction. Convergence of railway, geology, and motion pictures.
The photo is at times mistaken as a scene of the first car accident to occur in Korea. In actuality, it is a scene where the tracked vehicle for the filming of Burton Holmes and his team and a cart nearly crash into each other on the rail. 

It is not certain whether the travelogue of Burton Holmes’ visit to Seoul was filmed during his first visit to the capital in 1901 or if some of the scenes had been taken on his second visit in 1913. The travelogue combined with lectures gave people a second-hand experience of traveling around the world and also provided material for education and enlightenment as well.

Footage from Burton Holmes’ Seoul Travelogue

The Seoul travelogue images do not exactly match with the photographs in Holmes’ book. No one knows whether this difference was an intended one or was due to the time difference of when the images were taken. Burton Holmes arrives in Seodaemun via the Gyeongin Line from Jaemulpo. The scene taken from the street car going through Seodaemun in the beginning of the film is impressive. Burton Holmes filmed not only ethnographic landscapes, but also the Korean people bustling on the street car.

Advertisement in “Daehan Maeil Sinbo” published on April 24, 25, and 26, 1907

“The motion picture that was currently released is famous in Paris, France. The imperial family inspected it beforehand. In just days after its release, many noblemen came to watch it as well. So, come early for a good seat before it gets too crowded.”

According to the ad, we learn that the Imperial family viewed a motion picture at this theater run by a Frenchman called in Korean as “Majeon” (Martin) before it was screened for the public. 

5. Motion Pictures Meet the Public

Motion pictures were first introduced to the general public around 1903. Motion picture screening at an electric company’s machinery lot (gigyechang) in Dongdaemun and Hyeobryulsa(Wongaksa) created a sensation in 1903.

▶ “The electric company’s machinery lot (gigyechang) in Dongdaemun screens motion pictures every evening from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. except for Sundays and rainy days. Exquisite scenery from Korea and Western countries have been prepared for viewing. Admission fee is 10 jeon.”

Ad in June 23, 1903 publication of “Hwangseong Sinmun” 

The ad in the June, 23, 1903 publication of “Hwangseong Sinmun” stated that exquisite scenery from Western countries would be screened at a machinery lot (gigyechang) of the electric company in Dongdaemun. It was for publicity purposes so that more people would use the street cars. Thousands of people had flocked to see the amazing foreign inventions.

Hanseong Electric Company co-founded by the Imperial family and Americans Henry Collbran and H.R. Bostwick had installed street cars at Seodaemun and Hongneung(Cheongnayngni) in 1898. The motion picture was screened to attract more passengers. Afterwards, the company changed its name to Hanmi Electric Company, and in 1907, built a motion picture theater (called Gwangmudae) on the same site. Early American movies were primarily screened here. 

Opening ceremony of Korea’s first street car in 1899

Initially, the Hanseong Electric Company was founded and run by the Imperial family solely under the investment of King Gojong, who had great interest in the electric business for Seoul. Lacking in technology and experience to install street cars, it gave the job to Americans Henry Collbran and H.R. Bostwick, who had been in charge of the Gyeongin train line. After completion of the garage in Dongdaemun, the street car connecting Seodaemun and Hongneung began operation in May. However, due to frequent accidents and disputes between the Imperial family and Collbran regarding debt from expanding street car facilities, an anti-street car campaign had been organized. The public’s eye was rather negative towards street cars. In order to turn this around and attract more passengers, Hanseong Electric Company screened motion pictures for the public at its electricity warehouse in Dongdaemun.

Street car in front of Dongdaemun, 1899 
Street car station. The Hanseong Electric Company street car ticket box can be seen amid the rail and crowds of people. Photo from Burton Holmes’ travelogue.

Generation plant and warehouse of Hanseong Electric Company that began the paid screening of motion pictures to the public since June 1903. It is located inside Dongdaemun and was also used as a street car garage.

Ad printed in the August 4, 1904 publication of “Daehan Maeil Sinbo.” According to the ad, Hanseong Electric Company established its amusement department to operate its motion picture theater and merry-go-round.

Hyeobryulsa theater was founded in 1902 on the site of Bongsangsa, Jeongdong (area near the current Saemunan Church). The round, indoor theater with 500 seats was built for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of King Gojong’s reign. Choi Namseon said it had been designed after the Colosseum in Rome. At first, traditional banquets were primarily held here. However, reflecting public trends and for financial reasons, dancing and singing were later on staged and films screened as well. In 1908, it was renamed the Wongaksa Theater.

Article in the July 10, 1908 publication of “Hwangseong Sinmun”. Regarding the screening of a motion picture at Hyeobryulsa(Wongaksa) theater. As motion picture viewers crowd around the Dongdaemun street car garage, Hyeobryulsa also installs a projector to screen motion pictures but screening is halted due to a fire.

Ad printed in the April 29, 1906 publication of “Daehan Maeil Sinbo”

Earlier motion pictures were introduced to the public for publicity purposes to promote product sales rather than through the efforts of producers and distributors. Yeongmiyeoncho Company offered free admission to those who brought empty cigarette cartons in order to advertise its cigarette products such as Goldfish and Hero.

6. Sontag Hotel and Station Hotel(Astor House)

Motion pictures were also screened at Sontag Hotel in Jeongdong for foreign ambassadors. However, no exact records can be found.

Sontag Hotel
Early years of Station Hotel(Astor House) from “The Burton Holmes Lectures”(1901)

The Station Hotel that stood outside of Saemun(75-2, Chungjeongno 1ga, behind the present Nonghyeop Central Office) was opened by a British, Amberly right in front of Seodaemun in April 1901 following the completion of the Hangang Railway Bridge, after which the Gyeongin Line had finally been finished. In 1905, Frenchman “Majeon” (Martin) who ran the 'Palais Hotel,' took over the hotel and renamed it the “Astor House.” It was also called Majeon Yeogwan after his name written in Chinese characters. Beginning in 1907, it was not used merely as a lodging facility, but was also famous for screening motion pictures.

July 2, 1907 publication of “Daehan Maeil Sinbo.” Article about Frenchman “Majeon” screening French films at the brick house east of Saedarimok outside Saemun.
Station Hotel(Astor House) (Carlo Rossetti, “Corea e Coreani” 2, 1905)

7. Wumigwan and Danseongsa

Between 1910 and 1920, commercial movie theaters were founded and the motion picture industry began to take root. In 1912, the first Korean movie theatre, Wumigwan, was established. Danseongsa was founded in 1907, but mainly staged performances. It was transformed into a motion picture theater after Park Seungpil took over in 1918. Another famous Korean movie theatre, Joseon theater, opened in 1922.

Wumigwan’s motion picture ads. King of Adventures “The Broken Coin,” June 24, 1916 publication of “Maeil Sinbo”
Wumigwan’s motion picture ads.  Chaplin’s comedy “The Count,” April 7, 1918 publication of “Maeil Sinbo”

Danseongsa was founded in 1907 as a private-run theater. Traditional banquets and performances were held there. It was renovated into a motion picture theater in 1918 when taken over by Park Seung-pil, who also ran Gwangmudae. It became representative theater of Bukchon where most residents were Korean.

Park Seung-pil was the first Korean motion picture manager. He began showing motion pictures after taking over Gwangmudae and Danseongsa.

Photo in an article on the newly built Danseongsa, January 17, 1914 publication
Report on the reopening of Danseongsa. December 21, 1918 publication of “Maeil Sinbo” “After completion of the new main hall, exemplary motion pictures will be screened starting today.”

8. The Beginning of Foreign Film Viewing

“The Broken Coin”(Francis Ford, 1915) Action series produced by Universal Pictures composed of 13 episodes and 50 volumes. The movie was released in the U.S. in 1915 and in Korea in 1916. The film was a big hit in Korea and was translated and published as a novel in the 1920s.

“Shoes” (Lois Weber, 1916)

Such sentiment called Blue-bird films leaving the viewer teary-eyed were very popular at the time.

“Way Down East”(D.W. Griffith, 1920) 

Imported by Lee Phil-woo and released in Korea at Danseongsa in 1924, the movie was a huge hit. The common theme of Griffith’s works, mainly adventure stories about overcoming hardships was popular among the people of Joseon.

9. First Korean Film Magazine “Nokseong”

It was the first film magazine to be published in Korea. The first issue was published on December 5, 1919. It is assumed that Lee Il-hae had been the editor and publisher, and the magazine had been produced and distributed in Korea by Koreans who had studied in Japan. However, no more issues were published after the initial one. French-born Hollywood actress Rita Jolivet appeared on the cover and a pictorial of Grace Cunard, who was well-known to Koreans through the film “The Broken Coin,” had been inserted in the magazine. Articles included movie ads of Gwangmudae and Danseongsa, information on newly released movies such as “Shoes” (Dokryu, 1916) and “Lure of the Circus” (Gokmadane Wah, 1918), and gossip columns about stars including Charlie Chaplin and Eddie Polo. The magazine demonstrates the interest Koreans had in Hollywood stars and foreign movies.

10. The Age of the Bensi

The silent film narrators called bensis played a big role in popularizing motion pictures in Korea. As films grew longer, bensis were necessary to explain the story and dialogues of the characters. These bensis thrived and were loved by motion picture fans (aehwalga) until around 1910 when sound films began to appear. Each theater had 3 or 4 bensis. When a motion picture was screened, the bensi would appear on stage along with the music band, greet viewers, announce movies to be newly released, and finally begin to explain the film being screened. Each bensi had his or her own narration style by which they made viewers both laugh and cry.

Korea’s first bensi U Jeong-sik who narrated at Wongaksa and Gyeongseong Godeung Yeonyegwan

Seong Dong-ho

Seo Sang-ho was famous for doing various dances such as the Hawaiian dance and tap dance during intermissions when the film was being changed.

Management and bensis of the Joseon theater. Seong Dong-ho is in the far left of the top row. (P. 154, “Allow Dance Halls in Seoul”)

11. Prevalence of Kino-drama

Kino-drama (yeonswaegeuk) is a form of performance where certain scenes on film are showcased during a play. Previously, Keneorama had been applied to create various effects on stage. Afterwards, Kino-dramas, where scenes that were difficult to express on stage, had been inserted and became very popular. The first Korean Kino-drama was “Fight for Justice” (Uilijeog guto) in 1919. Danseongsa hired a Japanese cameraman to shoot the work with Kim Do-san and his theater company Singeukjwa. It is a melodrama about how a stepmother’s scheme is justly punished. It was released simultaneously with “The Panoramic view of the whole city of Kyeongsung,” (Gyeongseongjeonsi-ui gyeong) a documentary film including images of the Hangang Railway Bridge, Jangchungdan, and Namdaemun Station. Kino-dramas produced in Korea include Munyedan’s “A Truly Good Friend”(Jigi, 1920) and Hyeoksindan’s “The Fidelity to a Student’s Principle”(Hagsaengjeol-ui, 1920). The Kino-drama period helped shape the frame for early Korean movies and also functioned as a channel for producing directors, actors and actresses to establish a foundation for Korean film production.

October 28, 1919 publication of Maeil Sinbo, ad for the release of “Fight for Justice” (Uilijeog guto).

All 8 volumes of the actuality film “Fight for Justice” will be screened along with “The Panoramic view of the whole city of Kyeongsung”(Gyeongseongjeonsi-ui gyeong).

In Kino-dramas, when the cast disappears from the stage, a screen is rolled down and a film starring the cast is screened. For “Fight for Justice”, car chases and fight scenes were filmed into motion pictures and screened.

Kim Do-san, who led the theater company Sin Geukjwa and made Korea’s first Kino-drama.
Im Seong-gu of Hyeoksindan
Lee Ki-se led the Munyedan and produced Kino-dramas “A Truly Good Friend”(1920) and “Eternal Love of Suil and Sunae”(1920).
Lee Phil-woo. With “A Truly Good Friend” in 1920, he became the first Korean cameraman. A pioneer of Korean film technology.

12. The Beginning of Film Production

Some say the first feature film made in Korea was <the vow made below the moon> (Wolha-ui maengseo) (produced the Japanese Government-General of Korea , 1923), while some say it was “The Border” (Guggyeong) (produced by Songjuk Kinema Corporation, 1923). As for “The Vow Made Below the Moon,” it was funded by the Japanese Governor-General of Korea as Koreans lacked capital and was filmed in order to promote savings sponsored by the post office. In the case of “The Border,” though the cast included Koreans, the production, direction and filming were all done by Japanese staff. From this aspect, the first real Korean film made with Korean capital and produced by Korean staff, is <the story of janghwa and hongryeon> (JanghwaHongryeonjeon) made in 1924. Before Na Un-kyoo’s <arirang> came out in 1926, most films made in Korea were remakes of Japanese films or based on Korean classic novels.

Lee Weol-hwa, actress of “The Vow Made Below the Moon.” She was a member of the Minjung Theater Company. She was discovered by Yun Baek-nam and cast for the movie “The Vow Made Below the Moon” to become the first Korean movie actress. Before Lee, Ma Ho-jeong had starred in the Kino-drama <eternal love of suil and sunae> (Janghanmong), but Lee had been the first to act in a real motion picture.

Yun Baek-nam, the pioneer of Korean film. He directed the first Korean play film “The Vow Made Below the Moon” followed by <the story of woonyeong> (Woonyeongjeon) and <the story of shim cheong>(Sim cheongjeon). In 1925, he founded Yun Baek-nam Production. The production company gave birth to early filmmakers such as Lee Gyeong-son and Na Un-kyoo.

<the story of chunhyang> (Chunhyangjeon) directed by Japanese Goshu Hayakawa in 1923 starred the renown narrator Kim Joseong as Lee Deoryeong and gisaeng Han Ryong as Chunhyang. Hayakawa founded the Hayakawa Entertainment Company for importing films from Japan and opened the Hwanggeumgwan and Joseon theaters. He also formed the Donga Cultural Association for producing films. He selected Chunghyangjeon, a story well known among Koreans for his first work.

13. The First Korean Fiction Film made by Korean, ”The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon”

Joseon theater’s huge hit <the story of chunhyang> affected the business of its rival Danseongsa. Danseongsa manager Park Jeong-hyeon and Lee Phil-woo suggested to its president Park Seung-pil to make motion pictures. To test the filming technology of Korean filmmakers, Park had them shoot “National Women's Tennis Tournament” (Jeonseon-yeojajeonggudaehoe)(1924) hosted by Donga Ilbo. Satisfied with the results, Park Seung-pil founded Danseongsa’s filming department to produce “The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon.” The script was written by Lee Gu-yeong and Kim Yeong-hwan, and bensis U Jeong-sik and Choe Byeong-ryong were cast for sthe film. ”The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon” is the first Korean film to be made solely on Korean funding, based on a Korean story, and done by a Korean staff and cast.

Kim Yeong-hwan wrote the screenplay for “The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon.” Kim Yeong-hwan was an exclusive bensi for Danseongsa at the time. When “The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon” was screened, he narrated it as well.

“Maeil Sinbo” Still cuts of the film printed in the editorial article of August 24th and September 2nd in 1924. “Nothing is lacking in the entire film. Everyone will be awed by the film’s versatility.”
Credits: Story

Curator — Park Hye-Young, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
English translation — Free Film Communications

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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