Usually when you meet a fan of Korean cinema, you’ll find their list of favorite films peppered with some of the obvious: “Oldboy”, “Memories of Murder”, “My Sassy Girl”, “The King and the Clown” and “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring”. But then, what about the classics? The great Korean films from decades ago?
Until now, it was quite difficult to view these films, even in Korea. Either you had to subscribe to a movie TV channel, purchase DVDs (not that all films are available, either), or do as the hardcore film buffs do and scour the arthouse theaters and go to film festivals. If you’re not in Korea or live in a community where access to Korean culture is quite non-existent; this would not be an easy task.
But thank goodness for the internet. And for the way Korean organizations use the internet. For the Korean Film Archive, the official organization that houses all of Korea’s cinematic history, opened an official YouTube channel last May and uploaded many significant classic Korean films from the 1940s to the 1990s in their entirety, with English subtitles. (Other languages are available for some as well.)
Their channel has playlists categorized by decade and by the noted directors in Korean cinematic history: Kim Ki-young, Shin Sang-Ok, and Im Kwon-Taek. They also have a playlist of films available in HD and a convenient “Top 10” that is updated weekly with the most viewed films. It is a great “Korean Cinema 101” class offered online.
What classic films can you watch? Not all are masterpieces, not all showcase cinematic greatness; however, all have significance in the history of Korean cinema. Here are a few suggestions:
NB: Click on the film title to go to the video page and watch with the red CC button on for subtitles.
Originally a popular farcical comedy on stage, it was adapted to the big screen and starred the most famous actors of the time. It depicts the wishes of a traditional Korean family to marry off their daughter to an even more influential family, and of course, things don’t always go as planned. In black and white, with scenes of the old Korean countryside, beautiful hanok (한옥, traditional houses) and hanbok (traditional clothing), and a traditional wedding, it also allows you a glimpse of how people of different social classes interacted with another, and how “saving face” is valued in Korean culture, in a light mocking way.
The film is based on a short story written in 1935 by the novelist Joo Yo-Seob (주요섭). A mandatory read in Korean literature class, most Koreans are very familiar with the story; it is quite popular as a recurring theme and has been interpreted in various art forms, including comedic parodies.
The story focuses on a young girl named Okhee, her widowed mother, her grandmother, and her late father’s friend who is boarding at their house. Okhee develops a friendship with the “Guest” and secretly hopes he will be her new father. Unfortunately, her innocent attempt to sway her mother and the guest in this direction is met with great disapproval by her grandmother.
The film is directed by Shin Sang-Ok and stars his wife Choi Eun-Hee and Kim Jin-Gyu; all were the biggest stars of Korean cinema at the time. The film is as innocent as the child’s perspective; Okhee narrates the story. It is also interesting to see how widowhood was viewed in Korean society, hear how the child actor dubbed by an adult voice actor, and note how even back then, or rather, since those times, Korean ladies used parasols to block the sun while walking.
Another film from the Shin-Choi-Kim trio, the film retells the famous folk tale of Chunhyang and Mongryong, a story of forbidden love between lovers of different social classes. Shot in color cinemascope, the film set a box office record with brilliant cinematography and acting from the two leading stars, despite their being rather too old to be playing young teen lovers. The film and is considered one of director Shin’s best films. The film also set the tone for future Korean period films/dramas; the easy juxtaposition of the dramatic with the light touches of comedy found in traditional Korean plays and pansori (판소리).
1961 was a good year for Korean cinema. Kim Jin-Gyu was the leading actor of the time. He also starred in this black and white film, a must-see classic. Based on the novel of the same name, it tells the story of an ordinary man Song Chul-Ho and his family who are struggling in the aftermaths of the Korean War. Song lives his everyday life as a son, a father, a husband, and a brother while trying to maintain a sense of tranquility and not succumb to his depressing state of state and inner turmoil. He suffers from a raging toothache but his extreme poverty keeps him from going to the dentist. His toothache gets worse, symbolic of what happens around him.
Poverty, Korean society after the war, family values, the sense of responsibility – personal, familial, social – the film is like an overview, a close study of Korean society without losing a sensitive touch but not getting too sappy or sentimental.
Director Kim Ki-young’s 1960 masterpiece “The Housemaid” is not available online, but some of his other films are: “Woman of Fire” (화녀, 1971) and “A Woman after a Killer Butterfly” (살인나비를 쫓는 여자, 1978). Kim’s films are mostly categorized as psycho-thrillers; life, death, love, lust, murder, betrayal are all laid out brutally. His characters are femme fatales, daydreamers, complex thinkers, those who deal with existential unease in an all too real world, which sometimes borders on the surreal.
“Woman of Fire” is second in Kim’s housemaid series, a wronged housemaid is determined to seek revenge; “Killer Butterfly” deals with a man’s dilemma of trying to sieve reality from hallucinations in a fantastical world.
NB: Both movies are rated 19+ in Korea, which may differ in other countries; parental guidance is recommended.
Everyone has read the book. Fully published in 1978, it is one the most important works of fiction in modern Korean literature. It tells the story of a midget and his poor family living in Haengbok-dong (행복동, Happiness district) in the 70s, and their troubles when facing eviction from the area due to redevelopment. The midget, his wife, and his grownup children try to deal with the changes in their lives while trying to keep the family together, with different consequences. The film stars “the nation’s actor” Ahn Sung-ki and despite slight differences from the novel, it stays true to the main message and its symbolism.
“Mulberry” is an important short story in Korean literature, published in 1925. The main character An-hyup picks mulberry leaves for a living and eventually turns to prostitution to save her family from poverty. It is a classic “tragic heroine” type of story. Although the book isn’t that explicit and only hints at this, the film emphasized this aspect and when looking at it now from the perspective of the 21st century, it actually seems tame compared to some things you see on TV but back then, it was a huge deal.
NB: To be on the safe side, parental guidance is advised.
Directed by Im Kwon-Taek, the film tells the story of Kim Doo-Han, the son of the famous General Kim Jwa-Jin, who continuously battled against the Japanese during their occupation of the Korean peninsula. Always proud of being the General’s son, Kim soon becomes a formidable force as a freedom fighter who does not refrain from using violent tactics. The film focuses on Kim’s activities during the Japanese occupation; his fights against the Yakuza while protecting the Korean merchants of downtown Seoul. (Kim is known as the greatest “jopok” (조폭, gangster) of that era, although after Independence he cleans up his act and is elected to parliament.) The many action scenes may seem a bit slow paced compared to today’s standards, but this film is still considered the Godfather of the many, many, Korean gangster movies that came later.
The pansori-ist Yu-bong teaches his young adopted wards Song-hwa and Dong-ho pansori and drumming, but Dong-ho starts to resent the endless hours of practice and the neverending poverty. He finally runs away, leaving Song-hwa behind. Yu-bong, who is afraid he might lose Song-hwa as well, feeds her poisonous plants to slowly rid her of her version, which will also aid her to have han (한, deep sorrow) in her singing. He is obsessed with perfecting her pansori, which is also his art. Dong-ho who returns in search of Yu-bong and Song-hwa, learns of all this to deep regret.
The cinematography is notable; some of the scenery is breathtaking. Some find the pace of the film slow, I’ve heard the younger generation complain that the music was boring – pansori can be explained as the Korean version of a solo opera performance – but it is still one of the Korean films which you can call a masterpiece with no qualms whatsoever.
An unpublished novelist, his lover and his lover’s husband, his fan and his fan’s admirer; their lives are intertwined with one another in almost banal ways. Their Moebius band of loneliness, longing, love, and lust direct their ordinary lives. The reason why it is a day a pig fell into the well becomes quite blatant in the end.
There are many more films to see at the official YouTube channel:
Photo images from Korean Film Archive Offiial site :