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The Relationship between Korean Movies and Society

Feb 06, 2018
  • Writerby JEONG Min-ah
  • View699
Social Issues Succeed as the People Desire Justice

From December 2017 to early 2018, 1987: When the Day Comes (directed by JANG Joon-Hwan, 2017) and Steel Rain (directed by YANG Woo-suk, 2017) were at the top of the Korean box office. 1987: When the Day Comes deals with real-life events from modern Korean history and tells the story of a university student’s death from torture, which eventually led to the 1987 Democracy Movement. The dynamic process of a tragic event of an individual eventually leading to the public masses standing up against a tyrannical government is dramatically portrayed throughout the film. 1987: When the Day Comes is a well-made movie with its historical content delicately intertwined with elements of a political thriller and drama.

While 1987: When the Day Comes deals with the past, Steel Rain imagines a near future where the governments of South and North Korea engage in direct conflict regarding the North Korean nuclear issue. The North is on the brink of a coup d’état and the South’s administration has changed from a conservative party to a progressive one. Two men, one from South and the other from North Korea, end up in each other’s company and are left to make a decision that will change the fate of both countries. The message of the film, which is even mentioned in the movie, is clear: “Divided nations suffer more from those who use the separation for political purposes rather than the divide itself”. There have been many films that deal with national division, but Steel Rain, rather than portraying the emotional aspects of the subject, is based on a more political point of view – requiring audiences to think rather than to simply feel.

In addition, The Discloser (directed by HONG Ki-seon) was released in late January. The movie deals with real-life events regarding corruption in the military. The film follows a soldier who finds an irregularity related to the weapons within the military and begins to investigate the situation.

A Certain Trend in the Korean Box Office

Korean movies released at the beginning of 2018 often portrayed a conflict of justice between the people who stand up for what is right and the corrupt who are in power. Looking back at 2017, the success of such films was very clear. A Taxi Driver (directed by JANG Hun, 2017), is a film about a man in 1980 who is brought into the middle of the Gwangju democratic movement, where those who seized the government through a coup d’état massacred the people. The Battleship Island (directed by RYOO Seung-wan, 2017), is about Korean people who have lost their land to Japanese colonialism. The King (directed by HAN Jae-rim, 2017), is a movie spanning 30 years dealing with modern Korean history, where district attorneys unjustly used their power to control the law. I Can Speak (directed by KIM Hyun-suk, 2017) deals with the Japanese military’s sexual enslavement of Korean women. New Trial (directed by KIM Tae-yun, 2017), based on real events, tells the story of a man wrongfully charged with murder who is serving a decade in prison while exposing problems in the Korean legal system. Anarchist from Colony (directed by LEE Joon-ik, 2017) portrays the spirit of resistance of a Korean anarchist against Japanese colonialism. OUR PRESIDENT (directed by LEE Chang-jae, 2017) is a documentary about a progressive politician who changed the course of Korea’s political history.

The above films have been at the forefront of the Korean box office. The reason why such movies have been favored by audiences is closely related to what Korean people have recently experienced as a society. Starting in October 2016, Koreans lived a reality more dramatic than cinema. Korean citizens protested for the resignation of a corrupt president and in 2017, their wish became true. For the first time in Korean history, power was taken down by the power of the people. Without a single drop of blood, the Korean people created a revolution, built a new progressive government, and began to reconstruct the democracy that had slowly been torn down for the past nine years. In 1987, 1997, 2008 and 2017, Korean society experienced events that changed the nation’s system as well as the mentality of the people.

Films Reflecting the Public Mentality and the Regime

In 1987, the people were able to end the military dictatorship that had reigned since 1961. 1997 saw a change in the Korean economy due to the IMF bailout situation. In 2008, with the administration shifting to the conservative party along with the global financial crisis, people began to focus on economic issues, leading the public mentality to revert back to that of 1997. In 2017, the administration shifted to the progressive party and people channeled their attention towards pulling out the roots of corruption that had been plaguing the country.

Korean sociologists call these the ‘87 regime’, ‘97 regime’ and ‘2017 regime’, and have defined the distinct public mentality for each year’s ‘regime’. Each system has a mentality that captured the public, and this, in turn, is reflected in films. Korea has achieved rapid economic growth through short periods of modernization and industrialization. However, with democracy also being embraced at a fast pace, problems regarding social and political growth have occurred. Therefore Korean society frequently experiences dynamic conditions, which lead to dynamic changes in Korean films as well.

During the ‘87 regime, people were turning their attention to social issues in the age of democracy after the success of the democratic movement. If you take a closer look at the films which were successful at the Korean box office during this period, the public’s mentality appears quite clearly. 

Chil-su and Man-su (directed by PARK Kwang-su, 1988) is a social drama that tells the story of two laborers who grew up under unfortunate conditions. The film examines the division of the Korean peninsula, as well as political prisoners, US armed forces in Korea and the issue of prostitution. Guro Arirang (directed by PARK Jong-won, 1989) is a realist film on the struggle of a female labor union. The Age of Success (directed by JANG Sun-woo, 1988) is a comedy about the rise and fall of a salesman working in a conglomerate. Gagman (directed by LEE Myung-se, 1989) is a road movie about three lower-class armed robbers. Happiness Does Not Come In Grades (directed by KANG Woo-suk, 1989) criticizes the pressure given to teenage students. Through movies of various genres, the ‘Korean New Wave’ gained popularity during this time.

With the ‘97 regime’, which directly followed the IMF foreign exchange crisis, Korean society experienced restructuring, recession, limitless competition, and neo-liberalistic globalization. Authenticity started to sink, due to the focus on economic survival. Success was the most important factor for survival, forcing many to become workaholics, yet in order to work long hours, one had to be healthy. Obsession on success, riches, and health led to narcissism, political apathy, and introspection.

During this time, melodramatic films received universal praise from audiences. The Letter (directed by LEE Jung-gook, 1997), A Promise (directed by KIM Yoo-jin, 1998) and Christmas in August (directed by HUR Jin-ho1998) all have main characters who are terminally ill and conclude with tragic endings. The Contact (directed by CHANG Yoon-hyun, 1997), Happy End (directed by JUNG Ji-woo, 1999) and An Affair (directed by E J-yong, 1998) deal with unrequited love and infidelity, also leading to tragic endings. The gangster drama Green Fish (directed by LEE Chang-dong, 1997) follows a rookie gangster who must fight for survival, and the gangster comedy No. 3 (directed by SONG Neung-han, 1997) is about a low-ranking gangster working with a judicial officer to shake things up. Beat (directed by KIM Sung-soo, 1997) portrays the inhumane environment of schools, which serve as a reflection of capitalism. Popular movies of this period are not completely cut off from social issues, but focus more on the individual’s health, success and private concerns.

After the shift of administration in 2008, Korea began to revert faster towards conservatism. The coveted values of health, success, and survival led to movies with unrealistic heroes, which people would watch to make themselves feel like those powerful characters. These include the great commander (CHOI Min-shik) of Roaring Currents (directed by KIM Han-min, 2014), the legendary thief (KIM Yun-seok) of The Thieves (directed by CHOI Dong-hoon, 2012), the king (LEE Byung-hun) in Masquerade (directed by CHOO Chang-min, 2012), the charismatic cop (HWANG Jung-min) in Veteran (directed by RYOO Seung-wan, 2015), the patient father (HWANG Jung-min) in Ode to My Father (directed by JK YOUN, 2014) and the former intelligence agent (WON Bin) in The Man from Nowhere (directed by LEE Jeong-beom, 2010). Popular genres in Korean cinema shifted from drama, romance and comedy to thriller, action and period dramas.

Turning from Heroes to the People

The neo-liberalistic globalization and conservatization of Korean society, which occurred over two decades, have led to many problems. Decisively, the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014, which led to the death of over 300, caused the public mentality to change. This tragedy was the result of all the corruption and defects of the people in power in Korea. The public began to realize again that people are more important than money, the community is more important than an individual’s success, and political participation is more important than opposition towards politics. They also came to understand the importance of overcoming one’s struggles and avoiding the fall into self-deprecating depression. People began to look back at the faults of the past decades and had come to a realization of humanity. Such a change is passionately reflected in recent films. The age of justice and politics, the ‘2017 regime’, will lead to a harmonious society of post-neoliberalism. The people of Korea have become the main agents of political activity and are in search of a new sense of truth. It is no coincidence that movies directly dealing with political issues have become so well-received in 2017 and 2018. Today’s Korean films move away from unrealistic heroes who act alone and instead feature individuals who act together to create a change. 1987: When the Day Comes is a film with a democratic point of view – it does not focus on a small group of main characters, but a range of characters and events that intertwine with one another to become larger than themselves. Steel Rain serves as a platform for discussion, laid out through the director’s imagination and the logical assessment of the political situations in Korea and overseas. The Discloser, which became director HONG Ki-seon’s last film following his passing in December 2016, provides a genuine portrayal of a worker’s spirit of resistance against the banality of evil, offering audiences a topic to discuss. 

1987 led to the arrival of the Korean New Wave films and after 1997, there was an increase of genres and standardized blockbusters. Now after 2017, movies focusing on social issues are receiving the support of the public. It’s worth waiting to see how the fast-changing social and political conditions in Korea will fuel local cinema. With dynamic films reflecting a dynamic society, today’s Korean cinema is indeed intriguing.
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