1987 - 1996

Korean New Wave

Korean Film Archive

In the late 1980s, new Korean films and directors suddenly emerged.

The resistance movement arose in June 1987. The people rebelled against the military dictatorship that had continued for 26 years since 1961 and won themselves a system of direct election of the president. However, at the presidential election in December of that year, the opposition party’s candidates divided, extending the military dictatorship. With the extension of the military dictatorship, full democracy and freedom were postponed, but the great momentum could not be stopped. Korean society was rapidly changing.

The 6th revision in the Motion Pictures Act in 1986 liberalizing foreign film imports made it possible for foreign companies to conduct the film business in Korea. This action meant film companies in Hollywood could distribute films directly in Korea and earn profit, unlike before when only Korean film companies imported and distributed films. In September 1988, an American distributor UIP released Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987), Korea’s first directly distributed film. Rigorous censorship and absurd film policies nearly destroyed the foundation of the film industry during the military dictatorship, so the people in the Korean film industry felt threatened by American film companies’ free access to the industry. They resisted the showing of Fatal Attraction and demanded the blockage of direct distribution and revision in the Motion Pictures Act. The people of the Korean film industry who resisted direct distribution by Hollywood were joined by the anti-American movement of the Korean intellectual society following the June Democracy Movement in ‘87 and grew powerful. The June Democracy Movement and resistance against direct distribution by Hollywood introduced the Korean intellectual world and the art world’s progressive and nationalistic view, which later became an important background in understanding the emergence of the Korean New Wave.

First directly distributed film, Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)
People of the Korean film industry resisting direct distribution (1990)

Around this time, a new movement appeared in the Korean film industry. A new generation seeking to recreate the relationship between films and society by utilizing the expansion of materials and topics since democratization and contemplating on the art of cinematography aroused. Some of the most famous directors of this generation include Park Kwang-su, Jang Sun-woo, Chung Ji-young and Lee Myung-se. They tried to reinterpret the historical events that were considered taboo during the military dictatorship, including conflicts between the leftists and the rightists before and after the Korean War or the changed significance of the Vietnam War. They also attempted to draw prospect towards the changes in Korean society that continued to experience suppression and create an aesthetic convention for Korean cinematography that was appropriate for the new era. In the history of Korean films, they are called the Korean New Wave.

Director Park Kwang-su
Director Chung Ji-young
Director Jang Sun-woo
Director Lee Myung-se

If Park Kwang-su and Jang Sun-woo never gave up experimenting with cinematic language while engaging sensitive social issues, Chung Ji-young relied on traditional cinematic language to address important issues of modern Korean history. Meanwhile, Lee Myung-se focused on exploring the essence of film media outside the ground of social criticism. So, the Korean New Wave Directors are difficult to group into a single disposition or tendency outside the large category of auteur/art films. – Jeong Jonghwa

Park Kwang-su during the 1990s had been of a preservative for Korean films and the label of an inventor. In terms of style, he was an explorer who experimented with various methods. And in terms of content, he was an intellectual who dug deep into the irony of Korean society without making any compromises. In “Chil-su and Man-su,” he connected the two characters’ tragic family history with Korean history and expanded the domain of Chungmuro. With “Black Republic,” he became one of the top figures in the Korean film industry with new cinematic aesthetic. “To the Starry Island” was a fine piece that comforted the tragedy of national division with resolving bitterness and making efforts for coexistence. And “A Single Spark” was a masterpiece which was a result of the encounter of an artist’s belief and the spirit of the times.

- Lee Dongjin

Park Kwang-su (1955~ )

While majoring in sculpture at Seoul National University, he joined the cinema club ‘Yallashyeong’ and started to make films. Afterwards, he also did some theater work. 

He studied in France and graduated from Ecole Supérieure d'Études Cinématographiques (School of Film Studies) and made his debut in 1988 with Chil-su and Man-su (Won the 2nd runner up prize for the Young Critic’s Award at the 42nd Locarno International Film Festival).

He directed films such as Black Republic (1990, winner of the Judges’ Award at the 12th Festival of the Three Continents), Berlin Report (1991), To the Starry Island (1993), A Single Spark (1995) and The Uprising (1998).

His movies portray heavy social nature in picturesque Mise-en-scene. He preferred cinematic intervention into reality from a progressive position, but later, moved towards a more in-depth perspective on modern Korean history.

Chil-su and Man-su (1988) Man-su must live in the dark shadow of his unconverted long-term political prisoner father and make a living by painting billboards, and Man-su’s assistant, Chil-su dreams of fleeing to America. The films portrays the hopeless life of two men in an allegorical manner.
<Chil-su and Man-su>(1988) @YouTube
Park Kwang-su (on the right) at the shoot of Chil-su and Man-su (1988)

◀ Man-su’s father is an unconverted long-term political prisoner. So, he’s intimidated by the conflicts caused by division like red complex. However, Chil-su’s character is a combination of social consumption which appeared after the Fifth Republic and trauma due to foreign powers. You can assume I portrayed the issues of Korean society through these two characters.

- Park Kwang-su 

▶ Black Republic was planned from the black color of a coal mining village. A wanted political activist enters a society that is a collective image of the black land. He meets a woman there and learns something, and by the time he leaves the village, snow has covered the mines, turning it white. That was the initial motif. But the film company kept delaying the filming because there were afraid it wouldn’t sell, and I had to begin shooting in April. I lost the snow scene.

- Park Kwang-su

Black Republic (1990) It portrays a love triangle among a an intellectual activist who comes to a coal mining village to avoid getting arrested, a teahouse waitress, and a thug who is the son of a local rich man.
Director Park Kwang-su (on the right) at the shoot of Black Republic (1990)
<Black Republic>(1990) @YouTube
Black Republic (1990)
Berlin Report (1991) tried to find the cause of the division in Korean society on global issues through the stories of Yeonghui, who had been adopted by an extreme rightist and became a sex toy of her stepfather, her brother, who became an adamant socialist, and a Korean reporter Sung-min, who falls in love with Yeonghui.

Berlin Report is the starkest film of Park Kwang-su and it conveys the director’s message to the world. Park is asking what is right when caught between the Western world and Asia, the South and North Korea, and love and lust. 

– Lee Hyoin

What I wanted to say was that the divided state of Korea isn’t just an issue for Korea, but it’s also a global issue. 

– Park Kwang-su

To the Starry Island (1993) A film that portrayed the conflicts and tragedies between the left and right wings, heartache and reconciliation during the Korean War.
Director Park Kwang-su (center) at the shoot of To the Starry Island (1993)

◀ The theme of my films is the ‘current state of Korean society.’ Because that is what I’m trying to portray, the issue of the division keeps appearing on my films.

- Park Kwang-su 

▶ The film was about Jeon Taeil, who was a real person, but rather than just covering his life, I wanted to compare the intellectuals of the 60s and 70s to current intellectuals and ask what they were going to do about this.

- Park Kwang-su 

 

A Single Spark (1996) A film based on the real life of Jeon Taeil, who worked at a clothing company in Seoul during the 1960s and burned himself to death in 1970 demanding improvements in working conditions. It was the chronicle of Jeon Taeil through the eyes of intellectuals of the time. A part of the budget for this film came from public subscriptions, and over 7,000 people donated money.

Jang Sun-woo is probably the director who has stirred the most controversy and created most topics of issue in the history of Korean films. He had the freedom that allowed him to make fun of social taboos and struggled continuously with society and himself. … His films were always avant-garde, political in the comprehensive sense, and represented a cross section of reality caught between satire and criticism.

- Kim Hyeongseok 

Jang Sun-woo (1952~ )

He was arrested in the mid-1970s for protesting against the dictatorship, drafted into the army and imprisoned. Afterwards, he worked as a film critic and aesthetic activist, and in 1986, he debuted as a director by co-directing Seoul Emperor.

He then directed The Age of Success (1988), A Short Love Affair (1990), The Road to Race Track (1992), The Avatamska Sutra (1993), To You from Me (1994), A Petal (1996), Timeless, Bottomless (1998), and Lies (1999). Beyond The Age of Success , which allegorically criticized the success story of the age of capitalism, he captured the everyday lives of the people or double lives of intellectuals rather than directly criticizing reality. Also, affected by the Buddhist view of the world, he often showed a futile perspective. The films he made in the 1990s were always at the center of controversy both inside and outside the Korean film industry. He hasn’t made any films since the failure of the 2002 film “Resurrection of the Little Match Girl,” which took on a massive budget. He is one of the most controversial directors in the Korean film industry. 

The Age of Success (1988) Jang Sun-woo’s second film and debut as a solo director. He tried to criticize capitalism by portraying the main character’s dash to success and the tragic demise in an exaggerated and allegorical manner.
Director Jang Sun-woo (far right) at the shoot of The Age of Success (1988)

◀ In the beginning, I pursued satire, humor, and allegory. There were outside reasons, such as censorship, but that was also the result of emotional training from being in the outdoor play (Madang play ) for a long time. And even now, I still want to embrace it in a critical manner and portray it in my films again.

- Jang Sun-woo 

▶ In A Short Love Affair, I focused on the honesty of the portrayal instead of the social or class model or their prospects.

- Jang Sun-woo 

A Short Love Affair (1990) It portrayed an affair between a married woman and a married man of lower class in a warm and humorous perspective. Rather than the romance between a man and a woman, the films depicts the simple but healthy lifestyles of average people.
<The Road to Race Track>(1991) @YouTube

When looking at the world, there is no ultimate objectivity. In other words, there is no objectivity outside the subjective observer. Even in the novel, the literary style showed R’s subjectivity and the narrator’s objectivity simultaneously.

- Jang Sun-woo 

The Road to Race Track (1991) It is based on the novel with the same title which brought on post-modern controversy in Korean society. After returning to Korea from studying in France, R can’t seem to get used to the reality of Korea’s frustrating society. He plays tug of war concerning sex with J, who wants to stay away from him, unlike in France. Self-reflectivity toward the hypocrisy of intellectuals and the self-critical view in the novel is also portrayed in the film. Beginning with this film, Jang Sun-woo started deeply experimenting with films. 
The Avatamska Sutra (1993) A film portraying the journey of a boy called Sunjae, looking for his mother. By crossing reality and fantasy, the film represented the story in Buddhist allegory. It won the Alfred Bauer Award at the 1994 Berlin International Film Festival. 
Director Jang Sun-woo (on the right) at the shoot of The Avatamska Sutra (1993)

◀ I’m not a Buddhist, but I’m fascinated by Buddhism as a philosophical and cognitive system… As long as I continue to believe in the world of Hwaeom which transcends subjectivity and objectivity, accepts both stillness and movement, and pursues tragedy and comedy at the same time, I plan to continue to carry on these type of experiments.

- Jang Sun-woo

▶ By sticking to his own unique lightness which comes from refusing to be locked in a certain tendency towards ideology, Director Jang Sun-woo is attempting to convey the overall irony of the current era. 

– Lee Jeongha

▶ He falsely believes he is challenging suppression while taking away the reason to fight against suppression by mixing satire or criticism for the betrayal of sincerity with suspicions on sincerity itself. 

- Kim Jongyeop

Director Jang Sun-woo (center) at the shoot of To You from Me
To You from Me (1994) It created a huge controversy when it opened due to explicit sex scenes and the self-reflection and mockery of intellectuals and progressivism. 
A Petal (1996) This film was based on the Gwangju Democratization Movement in 1980 where demonstrators were massacred by the military government. It portrays the sadomasochistic relationship between a girl who had lost her mind from the shock of losing her mother during the Movement and a tramp working in construction site.

I hate repeating the same thing. I wiped To you from Me cleanly from my head and started working on A Petal. I never even looked back. I’m only interested in what I’m going to do next. I do my best at all times, and I do that out of desperation.

- Jang Sun-woo

I started working on this film not only because I wanted to work on this topic. It was more out of my personal and selfish desire to wash myself clean and escape from the weight of Gwangju.

- Jang Sun-woo

Chung Ji-young (1946~ )

He debuted with Mist Whispers Like Women in 1982. In his early days, he directed a few films with leading female characters. His view of films and society changed because of the changed social atmosphere after the June Democracy Movement, and most of all, after protesting against the direct distribution of Hollywood films. He was devoted to the protest against direct distribution, and in 1990, he received attention for his film regarding Communists who were partisans in South Korea during the Korean War, North Korean Partisan in South Korea. Afterwards, he directed White Badge (1992) about the cruelty of the Korean military in the Vietnam War and their trauma experienced through the war and Life of Hollywood Kid (1994), which criticized the psychological effects of Hollywood films on Koreans. His works in the late 1990s didn’t receive much interest, but his recent films, Unbowed (2011), which criticized the Korean judicial system, and National Security (2012), which exposed the torturous acts carried out by the military government, have put him in the spotlight once again.

North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990) This film realistically portrayed the partisan activities in South Korea during the Korean war. This sort of subject was considered taboo during the age of the Cold War and military dictatorship. Because the beliefs and sacrifices of the partisan members were portrayed in a humanistic view, it received some criticism from both the right wing and the left wing.

The students questioned how it was possible to portray partisanship as individuals instead of as a group united under a common belief. But I couldn’t agree with that. I don’t think it’s possible for any group or organization to unite only under a common belief. If I were to join such an organization, I would always be skeptical about the organization, trying to grow with it by checking it. 

- Chung Ji-young

 After North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990), Chung Ji-young directed another taboo-breaking film called White Badge (1992). The film exposed the hidden nature of Korea sending troops to the Vietnam War under the pretense of protecting ‘the free world.’

◀ In the novel, the concept of mercenary soldiers isn’t quite clear. So, while researching for the film, I thought I should make the government’s intention of using it as a springboard for economic development more apparent and show how participating in a war without any righteous cause could affect the soldiers in the war.

- Chung Ji-young

▶ South Korea is No. 6 in the world in the direct distribution of Hollywood films, and Seoul provides the second largest profit for Hollywood films in the world. So, what historical foundation were the films of ‘Korea’s Hollywood’ Chungmuro founded on? Director Chung Ji-young’s ‘Life of Hollywood Kid’ is a film of self-examination while following the chronicles of failure, and at the same time, the devastating and degrading yet heart-wrenching sentimentalism of self-criticism of the Chungmuro kids. 

- Jeong Seongil 

Life of Hollywood Kid (1994) reviews the tragic life of a screenplay writer whose memories of his teenage years had been eaten away by Hollywood films in a critical manner. This film carries significance for director Chung Ji-young, who devoted himself to fighting against direct distribution of foreign films after 1988. It won the International Critics Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

I tend to look for universality. I don’t consider an individual’s unique experience or a certain group’s common experience. When telling my story, I leave out the time and historical situation. I might be greedy, but I want them to still exist 100 years from now as a living being by doing do.

- Lee Myung-se

Lee Myung-se(1957~ )

Lee Myung-se is different from the rest of the Korean New Wave directors. Unlike other directors who started filmmaking by intervening critically through social movements or cinematic movements, he developed within the existing Korean film industry and showed an artistic tendency and tendency towards escaping reality. After majoring in film in college, he studied under Director Bae Chang-ho in 1982 and became his assistant director in key films. He debuted with Gagman in 1989 and directed films such as My Bride My Love (1990), First Love (1993), Affliction of Man (1994), Their Last Love Affair (1996), and Nowhere to Hide (1999) in the 1990s. Afterwards, he underwent a 4-year hiatus in the U.S. He directed the Dualist in 2005 and M in 2007. Instead of being a realistic, his films were more stylistic, expressive, and oneiric. These traits made him stand out among the group of Korean film directors during the second half of the 1980s where realism had been the major trend.

“Gagman” (1989) Director Lee Myung-se’s debut film. It is a road movie of a third-rate comedian who comes across some rifles, a barber from the suburbs, and a mysterious woman. A film that fantasy and reality mix like a dream in a summer night.
<Gagman>(1989) @YouTube

The film ended with Ahn Sung-ki’s narration,“Is all that we see a dream in a dream, or do they just appear like a dream in a dream?” In “Gagman,” Director Lee Myung-se tried to express “the feeling of a mirage of films which must remain a part of the popular arts” and “life and film.”

- Kim Hyeongseok 

“My Bride My Love” (1991) was a movie that captured the everyday lives of newlyweds in a delicate and charming manner. Lee Myung-se’s unique artificial sense of space and display of props were deemed interesting.
Director Lee Myung-se (second from the left) at the shoot of “My Bride My Love”

Cheerful rebellion against the dreary reality and the Korean film scene which pays respect to heavy and serious films.

- Kim Hongsuk 

“First Love” (1993) portrayed a college freshman’s memories of first love in fantastic and artificial scenes. It was reviewed as the film that established Lee Myung-se’s own style. Being a perfectionist, Director Lee Myung-se ordered the set to be rebuilt a dozen times until it satisfied him.

If Director Bae Chang-ho’s “Our Joyful Young Days” was the most romantic Korean film in the 1980s, that position during the 1990s would be taken by “First Love.”

- Lee Dongjin 

I think I try to capture the time that I have lost. I want to capture time by leaving traces of the things that are disappearing.

- Lee Myung-se

During the second half of the 1990s, formal democracy had settled in Korean society. And in 1997, Korea had been faced with a financial crisis that required assistance from the IMF, leading to the emergence of neo-liberalism. Meanwhile, the Korean film industry witnessed rapid growth during the second half of the 1990s and established a new industrial system. The age of Korean blockbusters had arrived along with next-generation directors such as Kang Je-kyu, Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong, and Kim Ki-duk. The Korean New Wave came to an end around this time, approximately 10 years after the June Democracy Movement in 1987.

References

. 이효인, 한국의 영화감독 13인, 열린책들, 1994 외

Credits: Story

Curator — Cho Jun-Hyoung, 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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