Much like the Silk Road that twists its ancient path through vast continents and difficult terrains, South Korea’s cinematic trade has battled against harsh adversities since the division of Korea. Born amidst an ongoing political antithesis between the Communist North state and the Capitalist South and in the aftermath of the both the Second World War and Cold War, the nation’s film industry has long sought after its own distinct identity. From the late 1940s onward, both North and South Korea decided to embrace Western technological advances including the ‘moving picture’, with both states producing differing filmic content. While the North concentrated on exploring domestic issues through a more traditional filmmaking approach (contained via stringent censorship and regulation), the South moved towards a blend of Western ideology with South Korean culture/subject matter, producing modern interpretations of genres such as romance and horror. Segregated from outside influences and locked in an internal enforcement of Communist regulation, North Korea has been seemingly unable (or unwilling) to emulate the kind of filmic experimentation and global success of the Capitalist South.
Prior to South Korea’s 2002 success at the Venice Film Festival with Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (the film picking up four awards and a nomination of the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion), the nation’s cinematic offerings were relatively unknown outside of Asia. Oasis changed this, its subtle focus on tender subject matter (in the form of an unconventional romance between a woman suffering from Cerebral Palsy and a mentally handicapped man) winning plaudits both home and abroad, whilst marking a definitive step towards worldwide recognition for South Korean avant-garde cinema.
Ever since, South Korean cinema has gone from strength to strength and now supports a number of globally-recognised directors. The visceral work of Park Chan-wook (perhaps best known for 2004’s Old Boy, which stormed the Cannes Film Festival winning the Grand Jury Prize and finishing as runner-up for the coveted Palme d’Or) garnered the attention of Quentin Tarantino, who praised the director’s artistic representation of the plight of a wronged man in the fantastic Old Boy, the second entry in his ‘Vengeance Trilogy’. Yet the director is by no means confined to action, having also produced the bizarre comedy I’m a Cyborg (2006) and vampire horror/romance Thirst (2009), a refreshingly ‘loose’ adaptation of the Emile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin.
Seeping into mainstream Western vision, South Korea’s quiet cinematic successes inevitably attracted the eager commercial eye of Hollywood. In an incredible deal, DreamWorks paid $2 million dollars for the rights to a remake of the Ji-woon Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), with the psychological horror making an unsatisfactory return to cinema screens in the guise of Hollywood remake The Uninvited (2009). In addition, distributors such as Tartan, Tartan Asia Extreme and Optimum Releasing have continued devoting both time and effort to spreading South Korean film. Home audiences have also shown their enthusiasm and support for their blossoming film industry, with Bong Joon-ho’s The Host(2006) currently holding the record for Box Office takings. The film’s success can only truly be put into context when you look at the figures. 13,019,740 tickets were sold for screenings of The Host;this equates to Bong’s film being viewed by over 20% of the country’s entire population.