Anyone who has been watching for the last decade or so has witnessed the rapid growth and blockbusterization of South Korean cinema and its transformation from what was a marginal pop-cultural backwater into local success story gaining increasing attention from audiences across Asia and even in the West.
A number of authors have grappled with this transformation in different ways over the years, from thoughtful discussion of the cinema, and sharply focused explorations of specific filmmakers’ work, to the pointless boosterism of a few touting the so-called “Korean Wave.”
Jinhee Choi charts a different tact in this monograph, approaching the subject with a sharp eye for detail and a keen theoretical practice. Inherent to her argument is the sense that what is most central to understanding the transformation of Korea’s national cinema is the content and composition of the films themselves, and how they are called upon to function as both products and artworks. The balancing of dual role is, for Choi, explains the ongoing success of Korean film today. The “South Korean Film Renaissance” is decidedly academic.
While Choi doesn’t stray too far into the murky terrain of academic jargon, its methodology and arguments are quite unabashedly scholarly in nature.
Choi assumes no particularly specialized knowledge of Korea on the part of the reader, and indeed provides a good deal of relevant background information on Korean social and cultural conditions in a way that manages not to be too burdensome to those readers already familiar with it. Her arguments, however, turn not on history, nor on the mechanics of the film industry or auteurs alone, but rather on the contents of specific films and genres.
Through Choi’s eyes, we see the films themselves — across a range of genres — revealing, resisting, and embodying the trends shaping Korean cinema.
After tackling the question of globalization and national cinemas, and providing readers with basic historical and cultural background — the politics of the 1980s, the business environment for film in Korea through the 80s and 90s — Choi turns to the peculiarities of Korean-styled blockbusters.
Korean directors, she explains, must carefully balance the expectations of the Korean public with the demands of the festival crowd, just as they must satisfy the sensibilities of a specifically Korean aesthetic while recognizing the inescapable (and necessary) influence of Hollywood; this set of balancing acts has, according to Choi, both shaped not only the earliest Korean blockbusters, such as “JSA” and “Shiri,” but also more recent successes like “Taegukgi,” “Silmido,” and “Old Boy.”
From there, Choi’s excursion into various genres begins: gangster films, romances, teen flicks, so-called “high-quality” films, and the Korean “New Wave” films of Hong Sang-soo (“Woman is the Future of Man”), Kim Ki-duk (“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. . . and Spring”), and Park Chan-wook (“Old Boy”).
Choi’s close readings of many films manage to be incisive, thoughtful, quite theoretical, and yet also quite fascinating and evocative, situated as they are in historical, political, and cultural context. For one example, anyone familiar with recent Korean teen horror films will find her discussion of the society to whom these films are marketed — adult and teen alike — quite fascinating.
There are shortcomings; such are inevitable in any monograph of this kind. Parts of the book read very much like graduate student work — unsurprisingly so, given the fact that this is (as mentioned at the outset) the reworking of a graduate dissertation. The reworking is slightly uneven, most notably in a sudden and jarring drop in the quality of editing in Chapter 5.
Other disappointments are, however, primarily omissions: Choi does not tackle the recent and growing trend of melodramas (particularly sexual melodramas) set in the Joseon Dynasty; she mentions, several times, the constant failure of Korean-made SF blockbusters but doesn’t offer an explanation, beyond a surprisingly gentle treatment of the 2008 flop “D-War” and puzzling misunderstanding of the science-fiction genre evidenced in her exclusion of The Host from it. (Choi neither accounts for the success of the latter film, nor discusses it very much at all, despite the fact its poster graces the cover of the book.)
One also wishes that Choi’s readings might have explored more deeply the often-praised (in Korea) commercial exportability of Korean films, in terms of their pan-Asian and global reception.
But such omissions needn’t necessarily be seen as faults, and on the whole Choi’s book does admirably what it sets out to do: to explain, from a theoretically critical, technical/aesthetic point of view, how Korean cinema modernized itself in the face of many challenges, both domestic and international.