Haeundae-gu, Busan, Republic of Korea,
KO-pick: From page to screen
Eight Korean films adapted from novels
Korean cinema's storytelling often bridges the realms of literature and film, as witnessed in the opening of the 2023 Busan International Film Festival with Because I Hate Korea. Directed by Jang Kun-jae and adapted from Chang Kang-myoung's novel, this film is a prime example of how literature has constantly influenced and inspired Korean cinema, reflecting the nation's cultural heartbeat.
The entwining of Korean literature and cinema traces its roots to the post-colonial era, with the birth of the new Korean cinema industry following liberation from Japanese colonization. After liberation, the nascent Korean film industry turned to the rich reservoir of early 20th-century Korean literature to weave stories that would form the foundation of a truly Korean cinema. In the 1960s and 1970s, the government actively promoted what became known as "literary films." The aim was not only to enhance the global reputation of Korean cinema but also to foster national identity through narratives reflecting Korean culture and context. Additionally, adapting best-selling books provided a safer path for risk averse producers. The 1980s marked another literary resurgence, coinciding with democratization and leading to a wider range of topics discussed. Today, a new generation of young authors has found platforms in smaller publishers, self-publishing, and online portals to challenge societal norms and express their ideas. Many filmmakers have eagerly embraced these new narratives and took up the challenge of transforming them into visually captivating stories for the screen, which explains why film adaptations of books are still a trend in Korean cinema. This week, we are going to take a look at eight films that are worth watching to get a sense of the breadth and scope of this body of works.
Evergreen Tree (1961) by Shin Sang-ok
based on Shim Hun's book of the same name
Directed by Shin Sang-ok and based on Shim Hun's 1936 novel of the same name, Evergreen Tree is set during the Japanese colonization and follows two young teachers who return to their hometown with a mission: to modernize education and farming. The male protagonist works tirelessly to build new facilities and upgrade the local farms, while the female lead focuses on teaching children reading, writing, and mathematics, despite their parents’ disapproval. Their noble efforts attract the attention of Japanese authorities, leading to a crackdown on their activities. The film features Choi Eun-hee, a true icone of her generation, who was also the wife of the director. Evergreen Tree later played a crucial role in former President Park Chung-hee's campaign to promote economic reforms and education in rural areas, as it would be screened in villages around the country to show the benefits of modernization. In 2003, it gained international recognition when it was included in a retrospective at the Cannes Film Festival.
Deep Blue Night
Deep Blue Night (1985) by Bae Chang-ho
based on Choi Inho’s novel Desert on the Water
Deep Blue Night was as a significant milestone in Korean cinema during the 1980s, as it became the biggest commercial success of the decade, with an impressive 495,000 tickets sold. As opposed to the earlier generation of literary films, those of that decade were often based on contemporary novels. Director Bae Chang-ho had found a provider of timely narratives that resonated with the generation of the time in Choi Inho, a writer known for his dissecting the harsh realities of people alienated by industrialization and consumerism. Deep Blue Night marked their third collaboration, after The Flower on the Equator (1983) and Whale Hunting (1984). While the film's title is derived from an acclaimed novel from Choi, it intriguingly weaves its narrative from another of Choi's works, Desert on the Water. It explores the life of a Korean man who ventures to Los Angeles in pursuit of the American Dream, living as an undocumented immigrant with hopes of securing a marriage to obtain a green card. This compelling narrative struck a chord with audiences and inspired a wave of US-set movies, as other filmmakers sought to capture the same magic that made this film a hit. Bae later continued to adapt Choi's writings for the silver screen, notably in Hwang-jin-i (1986).
That Which Falls Has Wings
That Which Fall Has Wings (1990) by Jang Gil-su
based on Yi Munyeol’s novel All That Falls Has Wings
That Which Fall Has Wings stands as a compelling piece of Korean cinema, adapted from Yi Munyeol's most popular novel, All That Falls Has Wings, which is also notable for starring Kang soo-youn, a talented actress who left us last year. Yi Munyeol, one of the most prominent writers of his generation, wove a narrative that delves into the complexities of love and societal expectations in the modern age. The story revolves around Hyeong-bin, a law student who falls in love with a free-spirited woman determined to live life on her terms, unburdened by social norms. They embark on a shared journey, but a confrontation with his father leads to her departure. She marries an American soldier and relocates to the US. A decade later, Hyeong-bin, now a professional lawyer and a married man, seizes an opportunity to move to the US, hoping to reunite with his lost love. Their paths cross again, and they marry, but their life of indulgence depletes their resources, and Hyeong-bin loses his job. When he finds out that she is cheating on him with her boss, he knows this is the last straw. This dramatic tale portrays a man perpetually drawn to a woman even though her chosen lifestyle is constantly at odds with his rather conservative values. The film made a remarkable impact, dominating the Grand Bell Awards with seven trophies, including Best Picture and Best Director. It is also notable for featuring future star Choi Min-shik in his first credited role.
Bunshinsaba, Ouija Board
Bunshinsaba, Ouija Board (2004) by An Byung-ki
based on Lee Jong-ho’s novel Mother and Daughter Phantoms
Building on his previous success with A Nightmare (2000) and The Phone (2002), Director An Byun-ki decided for his follow-up project Bunshinsaba, Ouija Board to venture into the popular sub-genre of high school-set women-led horror. The story revolves around a new transfer student and her two friends who bear the brunt of constant bullying from their classmates. In response, they decide to seek vengeance by attempting to place a curse on their tormentors using a Ouija board. The next day, the discovery of one of the bullies dead on her desk sends shockwaves through the group. As the mysterious deaths continue, a sense of unease and fear creeps in, with the possibility that the curse they invoked might be real. The situation becomes even more perplexing as the protagonist begins witnessing strange phenomena, suggesting that one of the bullies may be lingering beyond death. An's work delivers a thrilling cinematic experience that climaxes with an unexpected twist that gives an additional layer to the story, therefore cementing its place in the genre's ever-expanding library of spine-tingling tales.
Secret Sunshine (2007) by Lee Chang-dong
based on Yi Chung-jun’s short Story of a Worm, aka The Abject
Secret Sunshine marked Lee Chang-dong's return to filmmaking after his stint as Korea's Minister of Culturen between 2003 and 2004, following his earlier work Oasis. The story revolves around a widowed woman who moves with her son to her late husband's hometown. Tragedy strikes when her son is kidnapped and murdered by his own teacher. In her quest for solace, she turns to the local church, seeking inner peace. However, her journey takes a complex turn when she attempts to forgive the convicted murderer, only to find that he has already received divine absolution. Yi Chung-jun's original story, inspired by a real-life case, touches on notions of guilt, repentance and absolution, and ultimately questions who should have the privilege to grant forgiveness to a murderer. Lee, who first read this story shortly after the democratization of South Korea in 1987, could very well relate to the protagonist, considering that he was hearing calls to unity and forgiveness after years of violent and bloody military dictatorship. In Lee's adaptation, the narrative offers a more hopeful perspective for the main character, who seeks a unique form of "revenge" against the church by trying to commit some sins or by challenging the congregation. The film's emotional depth and exploration of forgiveness, grief, and human complexity earned it critical acclaim. Jeon Do-yeon made history as the first Korean actor, male or female, to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Silenced (2011) by Hwang Dong-hyuk
based on Gong Ji-young’s novel The Crucible
Hwang Dong-hyuk, best known today for the Netflix series Squid Game, crafted a gripping narrative that sheds light on a long overlooked injustice. The story follows a new teacher in a school for speech-impaired children, where he uncovers a disturbing truth – students have been abused by teachers and the school's administration. His brave act of exposing these crimes initiates a relentless quest for justice, but the perpetrators, shielded by connections within the justice system and local authorities, fight to protect themselves, while the community turns against the teacher. The book it came from, The Crucible by Gong Ji-young, was a fictionalized account of real events dating from the early 2000s. Lead actor Gong Yoo, deeply moved by the source material, was determined to bring this story to the forefront through cinema and convinced his director friend Hwang to make it happen. Silenced gave voice to the victims, and people listened. Transcended filmmaking, the film reigniting the national dialogue on court rulings deemed too lenient for child sexual crimes and led to the reopening of the actual case and the conviction of the guilty. The film also spurred legislative change, resulting in a billed named after the movie that removed the statute of limitations and increased sentences for such crimes against children and the disabled. Silenced demonstrates cinema's power to raise awareness and drive meaningful change.
Punch (2011) by Lee Han
based on Kim Ryeo-ryeong’s novel Wandeuk
Published in 2008 as a bestseller, Punch is a heartwarming tale that transcends generations. It revolves around Wan-deuk, a teenager who grew up without his mother, leading a modest life with his father. He despises his homeroom teacher, a strict and single man living next door. When Wan-deuk's father embarks on a journey to find work as a clown, he's left in the care of his teacher. Over time, an unexpected bond forms between them. One day, the teacher reveals that he knows about Wan-deuk's mother, who happens to be a Filipino immigrant, as well as her whereabouts. The story delves deep into societal issues, shedding light on how migrant workers, multicultural families, and individuals from humble backgrounds are treated in Korean society. Remarkably, it tackles these weighty subjects with a touch of comedy, offering a fresh perspective on important issues. The film also marked a significant shift in Kim Yun-seok's acting career. Previously known for his roles in thrillers, Punch showcased his versatility, proving his ability to excel in a broader range of genres.
Eungyo (2012) by Jung Ji-woo
based on Park Bum-shik’s novel of the same name
Jung Ji-woo, known for the critical hit Happy End" helmed this daring project, bringing a provocative narrative to the screen. The story unfolds as an aging and renowned poet becomes infatuated with Eun-gyo, a 17-year-old, whom he hires for household chores. His attraction to her is not only for her beauty but also because of her youth, rekindling his dormant sexual desires. He channels these desires into a short story, creating a literary representation of his fantasies. Meanwhile, his younger assistant, appalled by the burgeoning relationship between the two, attempts to thwart it. Both the book and the film courted controversy due to their explicit representation of sexuality with a minor, but Eungyo is commendable for offering a frank exploration of unspeakable desire among male elders ang challenging societal norms. The film also marked the debut of actress Kim Go-eun, who portrayed the titular character. Park Hae-il, the other star, underwent an aging transformation through makeup for his role.
Boomerang Family (2013) by Song Hae-sung
based on Cheon Myoung-kwan’s novel Modern Family
This film swiftly transitioned from page to screen, with the film adaptation emerging just three years after novelist-cum-screenwriter Cheon Myoung-kwan had the book published. The story revolves around an unsuccessful film director who grapples with a decade of project rejections, financial woes, and a troubled marriage. Faced with these challenges, he makes the decision to return to the home of his mother, played by Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung. Little does he know that this move will entangle him in the lives of his dysfunctional family. Sharing the house are his older brother, a man in his forties with a history of multiple convictions who has long relied on their mother, and his sister, who seeks refuge with her daughter as she undergoes her second divorce. Boomerang Family takes a humorous and candid look at the complexities of family dynamics in the 21st century while introducing us to characters who feel inherently human in their inability to fit in the typical, normal adult role society expects from them.