Cinema of South Korea

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Cinema of Korea
Movie theater in Sinchon
Number of screens 1,974 (2011)[1]
 • Per capita 4.3 per 100,000 (2011)[1]
Main distributors Cj E&M Corporation 22%
Showbox 17%
Walt Disney Korea 11% (2015)[2]
Produced feature films (2005-2009)[3]
Total 118 (average)
Number of admissions (2015)[2]
Total 217,000,000
National films 113,000,000 (52%)
Gross box office (2015)[2]
Total 1.72 trillion
National films 884 billion

The Cinema of South Korea had a total box office gross in the country in 2015 of 884 billion and had 113,000,000 admissions, 52% of the total admissions.


Theatrical poster to Viva Freedom! (1946)

Liberty (1945–50) and War (1950–53) eras[edit]

With the surrender of Japan in 1945, and the subsequent liberation of Korea, liberty itself became a predominant theme of its films. Choi In-gyu's Viva Freedom! (Hangul자유 만세; Jayu manse!), about Korean freedom-fighters during the waning days of the colonial period, is considered the major film of this era.[4]

According to Korean film archive, 14 movies were produced during the Korean War; only five or six films were produced each year from 1950 to 1953.[5]

Golden Age (1953–73)[edit]

With the armistice of 1953, South Korean president Syngman Rhee made an effort to rejuvenate the film industry by exempting it from taxation.[6] The renaissance that was seeded in 1945 began to grow with director Lee Kyu-hwan's successful remake of Chunhyang-jeon in 1955. Within two months, 10% of Seoul's population—over 200,000 people—had seen the movie, giving the film industry further impetus.[7][8]

1955 also saw the release of Yang san Province (Hangul양산도; Yangsan-do) by Kim Ki-young, marking the beginning of a career that would remain productive until his death in 1998.[9]

The quality and quantity of films in South Korea increased through the 1950s. In the early 1950s, five movies were made per year, whereas 111 films were produced in 1959.[10][11]

Korean cinema enjoyed a brief period of freedom during the 1960–61 year interval between the administrations of Rhee and Park Chung Hee. This year saw the production of Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (Hangul하녀; Hanyeo), and Yu Hyun-mok's Aimless Bullet (Hangul오발탄; Obaltan), both of which have been listed among the best Korean films ever made.[12]

With the ascension of Park Chung Hee to the presidency in 1962, government control over the film industry increased substantially. Under the Motion Picture Law of 1963, a series of increasingly restrictive measures were placed on the film industry. The number of films produced and imported were limited under a strict quota system.[13] The new regulations dropped the number of domestic film-production companies from 71 to 16 within a year. Government censorship at this time also became very strict, focusing mainly on any hint of pro-communist messages or obscenity.

Despite these governmental policies, however, a consistently large and devoted theater-going audience, and many films continued to give South Korea cinematic culture throughout the 1960s.[14] Also, the Grand Bell Awards were established in 1962, which has been awarding the excellence in film in South Korea since then.[15]

"Revitalizing Government" era (1973–79)[edit]

Governmental control over the film industry reached its height in the mid- and late 1970s, nearly destroying the vibrant film culture that had been established in the preceding decade and a half. This time period can also be called as "the winter of the sixty years in Korean film". This was due to the fact that South Korean had a very authoritarian political system that was led by Park Chung-hee. His program of Yusin Restoration (Revitalizing Reforms) caused Korea Cinema to come into a depression period with oppression through censorship.[16] Because the government feared that cinema would disrupt the good taste or customs, harm the pride and dignity of South Korea, praise or support North Korea and Communism, or criticize the political and government politics, filmmakers were wary of this censorship and they were not allowed to produce films that they wanted,[17] making directors or movie workers to be blacklisted or even in prison.[16] Writing in 1981, the International Film Guide said of South Korean cinema, "No country has a stricter code of film censorship than South Korea-- with the possible exception of the North Koreans and some other Communist bloc countries."[18]

The "Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation" (영화진흥위원회) was created in April 1973. It took the place of the Union of Korean Film Promotion. The authoritarian government of Korea said that the MPPC was created to support the domestic films and promote Korean film industry. However, this organization was primarily created to control the film industry and promote the "politically correct" films in order to support censorship and the government ideals.[19]

These propaganda-laden movies (or "policy films") proved unpopular with audiences who had become accustomed to seeing real-life social issues in the quality films of the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to dealing with government interference in the making of their films, Korean filmmakers began losing their audience to television ownership, which grew suddenly beginning in the late 1960s. Movie-theater attendance dropped by over 60%, from 173,043,272 in 1969 to 65,518,581 in 1979.[20] Nevertheless, talented filmmakers like Im Kwon-taek and Kim Ki-young were able to survive this era and occasionally even produce works of value.

Recovery (1980–96)[edit]

After a turbulent year from 1979 to 1980, which included the assassination of president Park Chung Hee, the Coup d'état of December Twelfth, and the Gwangju massacre, South Korea had experienced political confusion. Though theater attendance remained low throughout the 1980s, the government's relaxation of censorship and control over the film industry enabled the production of more adventurous and interesting movies. During this decade, however, South Korean film began reaching an international audience for the first time, in large part through the recognition of director Im Kwon-taek's work. After his 1981 film, Mandala won the Grand Prix at the Hawaii Film Festival, Im became the first Korean director in years to have his films shown at European film festivals.[21]

In 1988, president Roh Tae-woo began the gradual elimination of the government censorship of political expression in films. Directors were quick to begin re-exploring social and political themes in their films. During this period, producer Lee Tae-won made domestic films just to get an import quote. This import quota system controlled the films and restricted the directors to produce films that would supplement the government. Because the import quota system was controlled by the MPPC and because the government mainly controlled the MPPC, the government basically had all the control to display whichever film they want and cut out all the films that would go against their views. Filmmakers were instructed to reveal the bright side and good of social reality and they focused mainly on cultural traditions to school and public based on traditional virtues.[22]

However, the audience for domestic films reached a low point, due partly to the opening of the market to films from overseas, especially the United States and Hong Kong. By 1993, only 16% of the films seen by South Korean audiences were made domestically. The local film industry persevered through this lean period.[8][23]

Current (1997 through present)[edit]

From the late 1990s, South Korean cinema managed to attain domestic box office success exceeding that of Hollywood blockbuster movies due largely to laws placing limits on the number of foreign films able to be shown per theatre per year.[24] This government-enforced screen quota system has stood since 1967, and limits the number of days per year non-domestic movies can be shown on any one movie screen in South Korea. This practice has come under fire from non-Korean film distributors as unfair. As a prerequisite to open negotiations with the United States for the Free Trade Agreement, the Korean government cut the screen quota for domestic films in half (from 146 days to 73 days per year), thus allowing more foreign films to enter the market.[25] In February 2006, South Korean movie workers staged mass rallies to protest a quota cut resulting from a deal with the United States.[26] Today, according to Kim Hyun, "South Korea’s movie industry, like that of most countries, is grossly overshadowed by Hollywood. The nation exported US$2 million-worth of movies to the United States last year and imported $35.9 million-worth".[27] However, such a law has been abolished, and no longer the Korean films have the privilege of being shown in the theaters with the government protection. A recent study of Parc (2016) suggests different consequences of this screen quota cut.[28] From 1997 to present is considered golden age for Korean films, and now Korea is being considered an Asian film powerhouse, producing movies from various genres, not just for Korean market but also widely for the rest of the Asia.

The 1999 film Shiri about a North Korean spy preparing a coup in Seoul was the first in Korean history to sell more than 2 million tickets in Seoul alone. The movie's popularity, coupled with the screen quota, helped Shiri to surpass Hollywood box office hits such as Titanic, The Matrix and Star Wars in South Korean theaters. The success of Shiri motivated other Korean films with large budgets for Korean circumstances.

In 2000 the film JSA (Joint Security Area) was a huge success and even surpassed the benchmark set by Shiri. One year later, the film Friend managed the same. The romantic comedy My Sassy Girl outsold The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter which ran at the same time in South Korea. As of 2004, new films continue to outperform older releases, and some Korean productions are more popular than Hollywood films in South Korea. Films such as Silmido and Taegukgi were watched by over 10 million people per film, which is a quarter of the South Korean population. Silmido is a film based on a true story about a secret task force in the 1970s. The other blockbuster movie, Taegukgi, was described about two brothers in the Korean War.

Films such as Shiri have been distributed in the USA.[29] In 2001, Miramax even bought the rights to an Americanized remake of the successful Korean action comedy movie, My Wife is a Gangster.[30] Other Korean movies such as Il Mare (remade as The Lake House),[31] Oldboy, My Sassy Girl,[32] and Joint Security Area[33] have also been bought by Hollywood firms for remake as well.

The 2003 psychological horror A Tale of Two Sisters was successful as well, leading DreamWorks to pay $2 million (US) for the rights to a remake, topping former highest record of Asian movie, Infernal Affairs by USD 1.75m.[34][35][36]

Festival success[edit]

Korean film first garnered serious international recognition in 2002 at the Venice Film Festival, where the film Oasis won the second prize award. In the story an isolated young woman with cerebral palsy falls in love with a simple minded man who has recently completed a term in prison for the hit and run accident that killed her father.

Oldboy was another Korean film to achieve international recognition when it came in second place in the Cannes Film Festival, second to Fahrenheit 9/11. The story traces the life of a man who is put into solitary confinement by someone he does not know. He lives there for 15 years until he is released and given 5 days to discover the bizarre reason for his cruel entrapment. Dark and gloomy, Oldboy experiments with the themes of psychological madness and sexual distortions.

In February 2004, Kim Ki-duk won the award for best director at the 54th annual Berlin Film Festival, for a film about a teenage prostitute, Samaritan Girl. In addition, he won the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for his 2004 movie, 3-Iron.

In 2010, Poetry won the Best Screenplay Award and was selected for the main competition at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. In November 2011, the leading actress, Jeong-hee Yoon won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress for her performance.[37]

In 2012, Kim Ki-duk won the Golden Lion award for his film Pietà. Pietà became the first Korean film in history to win the top prize at one of the world's three most prestigious film festival, the Venice Film Festival.

New wave films[edit]

Main article: Korean Wave

There are three important dates in new wave Korean films: first in 1992, Marriage Story was financed by Samsung, marking the first non-government funded film. In 1999, Shiri was released and led to Korean films taking over 50% of the local market. Ultimately, My Sassy Girl became the most popular and exportable Korean film in history.

Korean Horror[edit]

Main article: Korean horror

Korean horror movies in Korea are different than those of the United States. Korean horror films tend to look at the suffering and the anguish of characters rather than focus on the “Gore”" aspect of horror. In the Asian film markets there is a demand for “action, melodrama, or horror content” Conrich, I. (2010). Korean horror movies have been around since the early 60’s and 70’s. However it was not until the late 90’s that it made a return (So-Young, K., Kim, S., & Berry, C. (2000)). During an interview with Korean film historian Chong Jongwha, during the 60’s and 70’s horror films were targeted more for women who were middle aged and middle income (So-Young, K., Kim, S., & Berry, C. (2000)).

Korean horror comes from the word seolhwa which means “tales”. It is further broken down into myth, legend and folklore. There are several types of Gwishin or Ghosts in Korean horror movies. The first is the Cheonyeo Gwishin which is the virgin girl ghost. These types of ghosts are usually in a sobok. They also have long black hair, this is because traditional single women wore their hair up. The male version of the cheonyeo gwishin is the Chong-gak gwishin. These two types of ghosts are cursed to walk the earth because they had unfinished business as it relates to their gender, women taking care of the men in her life and the male being married. There are certain rituals that a shaman can do that marries the two spirits so that they may have peace. The next ghost is the Mul Gwishin or water ghost. These ghosts are usually associated with a death from drowning. Then we have the Dalgyal Gwishin or egg ghost which usually are located in the mountains. In Korean folklore these are the most horrorific and deadly ghosts. These ghosts usually go after campers and hikers targeting them primarily at night.

Korean horror also has the equivalent of the Grim Reaper which is known as Joseung Saja. He only appears to people whose time is just about out. He only appears usually where death occurs frequently such as cemeteries and hospitals. However; Jeosung Saja is merely an employee of King Yeomna, king of the underworld.

Next we have Gumiho a nine tailed fox that is able to shape shift. More often than not it takes the form of a beautiful young woman. The Gumiho can usually be identified by their pointy nose or nine white tails which they cannot hide. Gumiho usually seduce men and then eat their liver.

Notable South Korean directors[edit]

Box office[edit]

Year Gross
(in trillions of
Tickets sold
(in millions)
Number of
2013 1.55[38] 59.7%[38] 213[38]
2014 1.66 [2] 50.1%[38] 215[2]
2015 1.72 [2] 217[2]


  1. ^ a b "Table 8: Cinema Infrastructure - Capacity". UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Retrieved 5 November 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Kil, Sonia (January 4, 2016). "Korea Cinema Sets Box Office and Admissions Records in 2015". Variety. Retrieved January 5, 2016. 
  3. ^ "Average national film production". UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Retrieved 5 November 2013. 
  4. ^ Starting point of South Korean films Cine21, 2005-01-14
  5. ^ Face real facade of Korean movie produced during war Korean Film Archive, 2013-08-10, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  6. ^ Passages of Time: Motifs of Past, Present, Future in Contemporary Korean Films Rick Curnutte
  7. ^ "A Short History of Korean Film". Retrieved 2013-03-15. 
  8. ^ a b "A Brief History of Korean Film". Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  9. ^ Filmography of Kim ki young
  10. ^ "A Brief History of Korean Film". Retrieved 2013-03-13. 
  11. ^ Darcy Paquet. "Darcy's Korean Film Page - 1945 to 1959". Retrieved 2013-03-13. 
  12. ^ Min, p.46.
  13. ^ Hyung Gu Lynn, Bipolar Orders: The Two Koreas Since 1989, p.77
  14. ^ Min, p.48-49.
  15. ^ Grand Bell Awards
  16. ^ a b Kate Taylor-Jones, Rising Sun, Divided Land: Japanese and South Korean Filmmakers, pp.28-30
  17. ^ Marshall, Jon. "A Brief History of Korean Film". Retrieved 2008-01-25.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  18. ^ Kai Hong, "Korea (South)", International Film Guide 1981, p.214. quoted in Armes, Roy (1987). "East and Southeast Asia". Third World Film Making and the West. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 156. ISBN 0-520-05690-6. 
  19. ^ Seung Hyun Park, "Korean Cinema after Liberation" p.18.
  20. ^ Min, p.51-52.
  21. ^ Hartzell, Adam (March 2005). "A Review of Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema". Retrieved 2008-03-13.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  22. ^ Seung Hyun Park, "Korean Cinema after Liberation" p.18-19.
  23. ^ Darcy Paquet. "Darcy's Korean Film Page - 1980s". Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  24. ^ Jameson, Sam (1989-06-19). "U.S. Films Troubled by New Sabotage in South Korea Theater". Los Angeles Times. 
  25. ^ "Movie Industry Heading for Crisis". 
  26. ^ Brown, James (2007-02-09). "Screen quotas raise tricky issues". Variety. 
  27. ^ "Korean movie workers stage mass rally to protest quota cut". Korea Is One. Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  28. ^ Parc, J. (2016) The Effects of Protection in Cultural Industries: The Case of the Korean Film Policies, The International Journal of Cultural Policy, 1-16. DOI:10.1080/10286632.2015.1116526
  29. ^ Shin Jee Young, Negotiating local, regional, and global: Nationalism, hybridity, and transnationalism in New Korean Cinema, Indiana University(2008), Retrieved 2014-09-09
  30. ^ Miramax married to Korean ‘Gangster’ Mihui Kim, Variety, 2001-10-16, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  31. ^ Korean Film 'Il Mare' Remade by Hollywood Son Heekyung, Arirang News, 2006-09-04
  32. ^ Retrieved 2014-09-09
  33. ^ Hollywood Remake of 'JSA' in the Works Lee Youngsung, 2005-05-13, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  34. ^ Special Feature: South Korean cinema Clare Bruford, Cine Vue, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  35. ^ '장화, 홍련' 할리우드서 만난다 Joongang Ilbo, 2003-07-01, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  36. ^ Warners hot for ‘Infernal Affairs’ Michael Fleming, Variety, 2003-02-02, Retrieved 2014-09-09
  37. ^ Kim, Kyu-han. "<Poetry> Yoon, Jeong-hee won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress.". Maxmovie-Maxnews. 
  38. ^ a b c d Ma, Kevin (January 8, 2015). "South Korean films lose domestic dominance". Film Business Asia. Retrieved January 5, 2016. 

External links[edit]