What is Korean Independent Film?
What kind of significance does independent film have in the history of film in Korea? Also called by different names such as “small film” or “the people’s film”, independent film in Korea has been more comprehensive in its concept than its counterparts in the US or Japan. In resistance to the dismal days of the 1980s and the mainstream film industry as represented by “Chungmuro,” independent film gained its momentum, forming a strongly political and progressive identity. However, it revealed its potential as "different film” with its attempts and challenges towards novelty and aesthetics, as opposed to commercial films, and has created a realm of its own that cannot be replaced by commercial films. What’s more, with independent film, individuals are no longer confined to the receiving end; they can also pick up a camera to create a film of their own. Independent film has heightened the sense of creativity in individuals.
Early History of Korean Independent Film: Film Clubs Prior to the 1980s
The first clues to tracing Korean independent film before the 1970s are in the activities of the theater, the school projects or graduation projects of film majors and clubs at universities, and the activities of amateur groups. The first official university club was Yeongsanghoe (Film Club, 1971) at the Department of Theater and Film at Seorabeol Art School, which later became the College of Art at Chungang University. The club members such as Lee Choon-yun, Kim Yu-jin, Kim Su-nam and Jeong So-nyeo are still currently and actively involved in the Korean film industry as producers, directors, actors and scholars. There were also other film groups in the early 1970s such as the “Korean Small-scale Film Club” founded in July 1970 which made 8mm films, and the Film Study Group (1972) that produced 16mm films, and the Kaidu Experimental Film Group.
“Sea Breeze” (1950): Student short film made before the 1970s directed by Yu Hyun-mok, who was a Korean literature student at Dongguk University at the time. According to the record, it was shown at the US Public Affairs in Korea.
Cine Club and East West Film Study Group
Film watching clubs: Film Aesthetics Group (1974) at Yonsei University, Cine Club (1978) at Institut Français Séoul, East West Film Study Group (1978) at the German Goethe-Institut, etc. East West Film Study Group issued the East West Film Newsletter three times.
Youth Film Study Group (1979) and “South River” (1980)
Youth Film Study Group: Six crew members, selected from “Age of Film” led by Director Ha Gil-jong, studied directing and created 16mm short films. Participated by Jang Gil-su, Shin Seung-soo, Lee Say-mean, Jeong Yu-seong, and more.
“South River” (Jang Gil-su, 1980): The first 16mm film by the Youth Film Study Group. Running 14 minutes, this short film was set in the construction site of today’s Eunma Apartment Complex in Gangnam, Seoul, portraying the exhausting life of the people who get by day after day at the site. First released at Yonsei University in 1980.
Awareness of Film as Part of Cultural Movement
Yalashung (Founded in 1979)
A film study group at Seoul National University. The first group to start making independent film as a creative group. It was first founded in 1979 when graduates who were interested in film were recruited. After the Gwangju democratic movement, the group developed propensity for political activity and regarded independent film as part of the cultural movement. Members such as Park Kwang-su, Kim Hong-joon, Hong Ki-seon, Moon Won-leep, Song Neung-han, and Lim Byung-yong are still active in their career.
Seoul Film Group (1982 – 1986)
Formed by Yalashung graduates, the group started with a commitment to new films and produced many independent films, sometimes jointly. Starting with “Pannori Arirang,” the group produced different films such as “The Eve,” “Leaving,” “Duel,” “The Street of the Blind,” “Living,” etc., and published “For the New Films” as the result of research and study to be more engaged in reality. Despite the criticism that the group adopted Latin American film movements without any critical analysis, the Seoul Film Group nevertheless became the starting point from which film was regarded as part of cultural movements. Through rigorous analysis and study of film, the group has provided a basis for the latest trend where we see the fever for films and the number of movie fans and enthusiasts increase. The members included Park Kwang-su, Moon Won-leep, Hong Ki-seok, Kim Eui-suk, Kim Hong-joon, Jeon Yang-jun and others, and its films include “Duel” and “That Summer.”
Small Film Festival (1984): “Protecting Small Films”
The experimental film festival of two days from July 7 to 8, 1984 held for the first time jointly by the Film Academy, Film Madang “Woori”, the East West Film Study Group and the Seoul Film Group. It showed 6 films: “South River” (Jang Gil-su), “Door” (Suh Myung-soo), “Tears of the Monk” (Choe Sa-gyu), “Panori Arirang” (Seoul Film Group), “The Eve” (Hwang Qu-duk), and “Tent City” (Kim Eui-suk). Institut Français Séoul launched Saturday Short Film to publicly discuss the issues regarding film related laws, which was the main agenda of the film movements of the time. The festival, focused on introducing films of diverse themes, presented a concept of the “small film” that embraces and conveys different ideas, distinguished from independent films. In a broader sense, it was open film where reality was interpreted critically and future-oriented alternatives were presented. In a narrower sense, the focus was on 16mm and 8mm films (a contrast to 35mm) and films that were isolated from reality.
The Small Film Festival of 1984 continued as an 8mm workshop hosted by Film Madang “Woori”, which first began in January 1985. This became important in establishing counter culture within the university and encouraging the foundation of film clubs. Consequently, ten university film clubs were created, such as Geurimja Nori (1985) of Kyunghee University, the Film Community (1985) of Sogang University, Yeonghwapae (1985) of Yonsei University, and Sonagi of Hanyang University, in addition to the existing ones such as Yalashung (1979) of Seoul National University and Dolbit (1983) of Korea University.
Seoul Video Group and the “Parangsae” Incident
On October 18, 1986, the Seoul Film Group and other small film groups were integrated at Shinchon Woori Madang to create a new group called Seoul Video Group, to convey a message that they are not confined to the film. In 1986, they produced “Parangsae” with the help of the local farmers to portray the reality of farming villages coming to ruin due to import of farm produce and livestock. Accused of showing the film without prior consent, the group’s representatives such as Hong Ki-seon and Yi Hyo-in were arrested. After the so-called “Parangsae Incident,” the group publicly requested that the government guarantee the freedom of expression as stipulated in the Constitution and to stop the suppression of film movements.
“Parangsae”: A 40 minute long 8mm film produced by the Seoul Film Group in 1986 with the help of the Catholic Farmer Association during their volunteer activity in farming villages. Some of the scenes were shot by a local farmer. The film is significant in that the circuit showing of the film helped the farmers to become more aware of their issues, that it was produced and shown at the visiting sites, and that film as media was regarded as a means of communication and was used accordingly.
University Film Alliance and “For the Talented”
The college film clubs formed in 1985 experienced the difficulty of making films individually. When the Parangsae Incident broke out, they participated in the trial, and the series of these events encouraged the 13 clubs to establish the University Film Alliance on May 24, 1987. In the course of recording the resistance in June 1987 and the August 15 incident in 1988, many short films of a progressive and philosophical nature were made, such as director Chang Yoon-hyun’s “For the Talented” and director Chang Dong-hong’s “When That Day Comes”. Fifteen films, among them “Gangaji Jungneunda,” “When That Day Comes,” “Discarded Umbrellas,” “Yellow Flag,” “Light of a Factory,” “For the Talented,” and “Over the Fence,” were shown at Yeonwoo Theater in December 1987 at “For the Open Films Festival, jointly hosted by Film Madang Woori, the University Film Alliance and the National Film Alliance and shown at universities across Korea.
“For the Talented” (Chang Yoon-hyun, 1987)
A 45-minute medium-length 8mm film. The fifth workshop film of Sonagi of Hanyang University. This film was on torture, influenced by the torture of Park Jongcheol and the June resistance. It enjoyed great success, attracting 40,000 to 50,000 viewers at university showings. It was later released on video tape in 1988.
The 38th Berlin International Film Festival Forum
In 1988, Korean independent films were introduced to the world at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival Forum. Seven short films were shown, including “Light of a Factory,” “When That Day Comes,” and “The Announcement of Mr. Kant.”
Emergence of Independent Feature Film and Independent Documentary
Jangsangotmae and “The Night Before Strike”
In the late 1980s, the Korean independent film industry was faced with a new challenge. At a regular presentation at Sungkyunkwan University in 1987, Chang Yoon-hyun, Chang Dong-hong and other filmmakers got together and discussed the making of 16mm feature film. In the winter of 1988, the first independent feature film “O! Dreamland” was made and shown at Theater Hanmadang in January 1989. The filmmakers, with Hong Ki-seon on the lead, created a group called Jangsangotmae and sought to make full-length independent films as opposed to commercial films. The background of “O! Dreamland” was Gwangju, which was a forbidden topic at the time, and director Hong Ki-seon and Yu In-taek, the head of Theater Hanmadang, were brought to trial.
Since then, Jangsangotmae renewed their commitment to making professional film drama and made “The Night Before Strike” in 1990. “The Night Before Strike,” a turning point in the history of Korean independent film which attracted two million viewers unofficially, has been the essence of Korean independent films so far.
Korean Academy of Film Arts and Short Films
The emergence of full-length independent films was in a sense a daunting moment for short films, which continued until the beginning of the Seoul Short Film Festival in 1994. Nonetheless, the Film Academy, out of many, did not stop making quality short films. It was around this time when talented directors, who are still active in their careers, came up with creative short films such as “Homo Videocus” (1990) by Daniel Byun and Lee Jae-yong, “Gocheoreul Wihayeo” (1992) by Hur Jin-ho, “Incoherence” (1994) by Bong Joon-ho, and “2001 Imagine” (1994) by Jang Joon-hwan. Kim Sung-su’s sensational style in “Dead End” (1993) and Kim Dae-hyun’s “A Black Christmas Eve” (1993) also grabbed public attention.
“Sanggye-Dong Olympic” and Independent Documentary
In May sometime during the 1980s, a video was circulated anonymously. Capturing what had happened at the Gwangju democratic protest, the video exposed the shocking reality that was hidden from the public, reminding us of the power of media. In the shadow of the nationally celebrated 1988 Seoul Olympics was the dire reality where residents were removed, as described in “Sanggye-Dong Olympic” (1988). It reconfirmed the power and influence of the media, which was employed by Pureun Yeongsang, the documentary group.
Korean independent documentary began in resistance to the dismal days of the 1980s through social awareness and reaction to mainstream films. Since the 1990s, it has served as a foundation for the growth and development of the identity of political and progressive independent films. Video, which is mobile and easier to operate in comparison to film, attracted public attention to the struggle of labor, poverty issues and female rights movements and quickly encouraged intervention in these issues. Social and political awareness were all the more noticeable in the early days. Works by the Labor News Production or “Kkangsuni” were in breaking news format to give the viewers the sense of being there and hearing news straight from the source. Ever since, they have become distinguishing features of Korean independent films and documentaries.
“Sanggye-Dong Olympic” (1988, Kim Dong-won)
This documentary is about residents who were suddenly driven out of their home for the Olympics. This is a monumental documentary filmed by a director who spent three years with the residents and was the first Korean documentary to be invited to the Yamagata International Documentary Festival.
“Habitual Sadness” Series
A 3-part series made by director Byun Young-joo and “Documentary Company Boim” from 1995 to 1999. As the tension between citizens and the government lessened relatively with the emergence of a civilian government, local governments, and new social movements in the 1990s, the focus was shifted to exploring the aesthetics and identity of the documentary in itself, rather than as the tool of promotion and propaganda, and this series captured the transformation well. The documentary observed the daily lives of women who were forced to serve as sex slaves to the Imperial Japanese army and listened to their stories to emphasize their identity as rebuilt by the women themselves, not as victims of the history. The documentary successfully expanded what used to be treated as a personal problem into a problem to be shared by society and as part of history. “Documentary Company Boim” was the first to adopt the independent production system, responsible from planning to production and distribution. As the first Korean independent documentary to be released at the theater, it has become a significant precedent to independent film production and distributors.
After the mid-1990s
Seoul Short Film Festival (1994–1998)
From November 5–11, 1994, the first Seoul Short Film Festival was hosted by Samsung Nices. This has raised public awareness of independent films and boosted production. For four years since its inception in 1994, new directors who studied abroad, such as Moon Seung-wook and Lim Soon-rye, came onto the scene presenting outstanding short films: “Walking in the Rain” (Lim Soon-rye, 1994), “The Sonmambulist” (Kim Bon, 1994), “Behind The Camel” (Lee Sang-in, 1996), “A Bit Bitter” (Jung Ji-woo, 1996) and “Recollection on the Bridge” (Chung Yoon-chul, 1997). However, the Seoul Short Film Festival was limited in its nature by its own mission statement: “We expect the festival to serve as a system where new directors are discovered and fostered and a buffer is provided for them before they join the ranks of commercial film directors.” The festival in its essence thought of short films only as a phase the directors go through to make commercial films.
Independent Film Festivals and the Association of Korea Independent Film & Video
The independent film industry soon recognized their limitations. In response, many film festivals were organized, such as the Seoul Independent Film Festival in 1995, and the Indie Forum and the Seoul Documentary Video & Film Festival in 1996. Employing the characteristics of its nature as “documentaries from below” or “video media,” many festivals took on different challenges. For example, the $100 Video Festival encouraged the public to create their own films, granting even greater freedom and creativity than the makers of existing independent films had. When Kim Dong-won, the representative of “Pureun Yeongsang” was arrested in 1996, voices were raised within the independent film industry asking everyone involved to stick together. By 1998, the Association of Korea Independent Film & Video was established as a result of bringing every committed person together and has been maintained ever since.
Curator — Mo Eunyoung, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
English translation — Free Film Communications