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 Chang 2 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 Chang 4 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 Chang 5 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 Chang 6 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 Chang 8 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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