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					Jeong Chang

Professor Wasko

Journalism 512

June 6, 2004


                 Review of Im Kwon-Taek:   The Making

                     of a Korean National Cinema

    This book is a collection of essays written for a festival

of films by Im Kwon-Taek and a conference about them held at the

University of California in 1996.   Im Kwon-Taek is considered

South Korea's most prominent film auteur.    In a career

stretching from the 1960s to the present, Im has directed over

100 films.    As the title implies, the book is a collection of

essays concerned with determining Im's place in constructing a

Korean national cinema in the face of post-Korean War

censorship, state control, and the invasion of Hollywood.      While

the essays are largely concerned with a textual analysis of Im

Kwon Taek's films, economic and political concerns constantly

emerge throughout these essays.

    For the interests of the political economy of the Korean

film industry, the preface and the first chapter are the most

relevant.    The preface outlines the recent prominence of South

Korean cinema with success at international film festivals and

commercial successes in the domestic market and Asia.      Im's
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prominence is due to the fact that his 1994 film, Sopyonje,

became the highest grossing film in Korean history (James 14).

Korean directors' success in international film festivals (led

by Im) and the realization of the commercial viability of hit

films led capital to become interested in the film industry.    As

the preface states, Jurassic Park made more money in the year of

its release than Hyundai's annual exports to the U.S. (14).

Before the Asian financial crisis in 1998, Korean conglomerates

began investing in Hollywood much as the Japanese had.    One of

the largest investments was Cheil Jedang's $300 million

investment in DreamWorks (14).   While the Asian financial crisis

in 1998 led many conglomerates to pull out of their film

investments, capital started trickling back into the Korean film

industry as the recovery began and films like Shiri proved that

films were attractive investments, pulling in higher domestic

box office grosses than Titanic.

    The first chapter, titled "Korean Cinema and Im Kwon-Taek:

An Overview" gives us a history of the Korean film industry and

Im's position within it.   Kyung Hyun Kim states, "The editors of

this volume chose to focus on the career of Im Kwon-Taek not

because he stands apart from the Korean cinema's historical

contradictions but because his films demonstrate any filmmaker's

inability to escape the contradictions embodied in the national

cinema" (22).   His work in the 1960s was largely formulaic as he
                                                             Chang 3


learned how to work within the industry.    The 1960s are regarded

as the Golden Age of Korean cinema.    During its peak from 1968

to 1971, Korea was producing over 200 films a year.     In 1971,

Korea exported 210 films, with many going to Hong Kong

entrepreneurs (25).   In contrast, by the 1980s and 1990s, Korea

was importing seventy to eighty films a year from Hong Kong

while exporting none in return (25).

    However, in 1973, the Park Chung Hee administration passed

the Motion Picture Law amendment that centralized the film

industry.   The law essentially censored content, requiring films

to be "morally correct" and to promote "the state ideology of

hard work, frugality, and anticommunism" (26).    The law had the

effect of concentrating the film industry, since the only

production companies that could get permits for making films

were ones that already owned large production facilities.     These

ideologically correct films were known as "quality films."

Furthermore, the government limited the number of film imports

in any given year, which had the effect of increasing demand for

Hollywood fare.   The government rewarded producers of "quality

films" with foreign import licenses, which were incredibly

lucrative (especially since most "quality films" were anything

but).   By controlling both foreign and domestic film

distribution, the state was able to put into place a system
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that, above all, valued ideological loyalty.    The Korean film

industry thus went into stagnation and decline.

    However, this situation did not last long.    In the mid- to

late 1980s, pressure from the U.S. government due to lobbying by

the Motion Picture Export Association of America led to the loss

of the Korean government's monopoly over the distribution of

foreign films (Kim 33).   In 1986, an amendment clause the Motion

Picture Law "allowed foreign film companies to run their own

distribution branches in Korea" (33).   Almost overnight, a

woefully unprepared domestic film industry found itself in

direct competition with the full distribution might of

Hollywood.

    While the collection of essays are clearly geared to a

cultural studies audience and deal with questions of meaning and

constructing a Korean national identity through Im's films, the

political and economic context under which these films are

produced always loom in the background.    In an interview with

Im, the director himself discusses the presence of Hollywood as

a factor in the subjects he chose to film:    "I realized that in

every aspect—power, technology, and human resources—competing

with American films was impossible.   I began to think, 'How can

I survive as a film director'" (Im 247)?

    His solution was to "capture the look of Korea as a

specific region, along with the people and culture that grow out
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of that regional condition" (Im 248).   Many of Im's films are

Korean period pieces, which foregrounds the discourse of a

Korean national identity.   It must be noted that while Im's

choice of subject matter has much to do with Hollywood's renewed

presence, his penchant for producing films that were marketed to

international film festivals and art houses occurred only when

censorship was relaxed and financial incentives were in place to

produce movies with the goal of international recognition:

         During the 1980s, the state initiated programs that

         subsidized the development of subtitled film prints

         for festival use, underwrote filmmakers' trips to

         foreign film festivals, [. . .] and also provided

         financial rewards for films that won prizes in those

         festivals (Kim 31).

    In an analysis of two Im films, Sopyonje and The Genealogy,

Chungmoo Choi notes the problem with packaging Korean culture

for international audiences.   In essence, the culture that is

used to attempt to form a national identity becomes a commodity

for Western consumption.    Essentially, these pre-modern, non-

Western film constructs becomes "the site where the nostalgia

industry thrives and becomes directly connected to the tourist

economy" (Choi 130).   Thus, while approaching the films as texts

and seeking to find meaning in the texts (much of Choi's piece

concerns how gender is allegorically used to construct a
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national identity), Choi does an admirable job of problematizing

Im's mission to construct a national identity by pointing out

that his films also serve to reinforce the identity of the

viewers either by identifying with the characters or exoticizing

them as the Other.   But no matter what meaning is taken from the

film, the danger is that it may simply become yet another

commodity.

    The group of essays are very often aware of how cultural

commodification can undermine and weaken attempts to craft a

national identity through the use of native and pre-modern

cultural forms.   Julian Stringer argues in his essay, "Sopyonje

and the Inner Domain of National Culture" that Im's attempts to

craft a national identity have been politically efficacious

(179).   Nevertheless, he points out that the traditional

p'ansori folk singing that is foregrounded in the film is often

played in excerpts, since most p'ansori performances can take

hours (178).   Thus, p'ansori can be nothing more than another

station on the FM dial.

    The essays in the collection are a good primer into one of

Korea's most prolific and well-known film directors.   By tracing

his work through the various historical moments that determined

the kinds of films Im made, it is a very comprehensive case

study of the Korean film industry and its attempts to formulate

a unique paradigm in the era of Hollywood's globalization.
Chang 7
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                                Works Cited

Choi, Chungmoo.    "The Politics of Gender, Aestheticism, and

    Cultural Nationalism in Sopyonje and The Genealogy."             David

    E. James and Kyung Hyun Kim, Ed.          Detroit:   Wayne State UP,

    2002.

James, David E.    "Preface."     Im Kwon-Taek:    The Making of a

    Korean National Cinema.        David E. James and Kyung Hyun Kim,

    Ed.   Detroit:    Wayne State UP, 2002.

Kim, Kyung Hyun.     "Korean Cinema and Im Kwon-Taek:       An

    Overview."      Im Kwon-Taek:    The Making of a Korean National

    Cinema.     David E. James and Kyung Hyun Kim, Ed.        Detroit:

    Wayne State UP, 2002.

Stringer, Julian.    "Sopyonje and the Inner Domain of National

    Culture."     Im Kwon-Taek:     The Making of a Korean National

    Cinema.     David E. James and Kyung Hyun Kim, Ed.        Detroit:

    Wayne State UP, 2002.

				
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