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Ko - production in Busan
  • Korean Modern History and Korean Films
  • by KIM Hyung-seok /  Jan 12, 2015
  • How the Modern History is Dealt with in Korean films
    It’s not easy to come across 20th century history in Korean films. Historical films which have become quite popular due to its spectacular action scenes are usually set during the Joseon dynasty or earlier, yet the modern era is rarely treated. The colonial time, the Korean War, division and dictatorship contain many stories, but films seem reluctant to talk about them. The main reason might be ideologies. Different ideologies have clashed along the modern history of Korea. Moreover, the conflict is still ongoing today.
    In this sense, the setting of Ode to My Father is unusual. There was a large invested in the film which is about an ordinary person who stands at the center of Korean modern history. Deok-su (HWANG Jung-min) and Yeong-ja (KIM Yun-jin) are fictional characters, but their path of life shows the history of the generation right after the Korean War. They experienced war as children and devoted their lives to industrialization as they grew up. This follows the modern history of Korea. Another epic film about the modern history is The President’s Barber (2004). SEONG Han-mo (SONG Kang-ho), who runs a barber shop near the Blue House, was always around crucial political incidents such as the April 19 Revolution, the May 16 Coup and the Coup d’etat of December Twelfth. The film is about Korea’s modern history through the eyes of the president’s barber. His profound love for his family helps him tolerate the time.
    The Korean War has been treated more often in Korean films compared to other issues in the modern history. When the film industry started developing in the 1950s after the war, a number of war films came out, but they were made under the propagandist intention to instill anticommunist ideas. Attempts to go out of the ideological trend were made often in the 1990s. CHUNG Ji-young’s North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990) is a good example. It is a film about the partisan during the war, which had been a taboo subject until then. IM Kwon-taek’s The Tae Baek Mountains (1994) also deals with people living under the conflict of ideologies during the war.
    PARK Kwang-su’s To the Starry Island (1993) is another film about people who were sacrificed because of ideology.
    Other major films about the Korean War are KANG Je-kyu’s TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War (2004), PARK Kwang-hyun’s Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005) and JANG Hun’s The Front Line (2011). TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War focuses on the love of brotherhood and talks about the wound the war left behind. Welcome to Dongmakgol sends an antiwar message through the good people of a village called Dongmakgol, who are irrelevant and ignorant of the merciless war happening outside. The Front Line shows the tragedy of war and its fierce struggle to take over the high ground. Each of these films contains a message against war by showing humanity destroyed by the madness of war and people who are innocently sacrificed. There is also a film that shows what it was like after the war; Once Upon a Time In Seoul (2008). It is about war orphans surviving everyday in the middle of a traditional market.

    An experienced play director LEE Sang-woo dramatized the No Gun Ri Massacre to make A Little Pond (2010). In July 1950, the American army misconceived civilians as enemies and massacred them. This incident had remained forgotten for a long time until it was uncovered in the 1990s. The scene was reconstructed in A Little Pond and the last part of the film shows interview footages of the survivors from the massacre. Jiseul (2013), the winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, poetically visualizes the Jeju Uprising, a tragic incident that happened between the independence and the war.
    Second most common time period in Korean films after the Korean War is the Japanese colonial era. My Dear Keumhong (1995) is a film about LEE Sang, a genius poet who died very young, and a Korean Geisha Keumhong, while Blue Swallow (2005) is about the first Korean female pilot. These two films are biographical stories that show the phases of the time. Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinary (2004) tells a story about pro-wrestler Rikidozan and Fighter in the Wind (2004) is about the martial artist CHOI Bae-dal, both portraying how Koreans lived in Japan after the war. YMCA Baseball Team (2002), Modern Boy (2008), Radio Dayz (2008) and Once Upon A Time (2008) show us the culture of Seoul in the early 20th century.
    There are also films about Korean armies in the Vietnam War. CHUNG Ji-young’s White Badge (1992) was cinematized from a novel written by AHN Jeong-hyo. It deals with a terrible incident a soldier dispatched to Vietnam experienced and his trauma. Some Korean soldiers were forced to fight in the Vietnam War, and it became their worst nightmare. LEE Jun-ik’s Sunny (2008) portrays Su-yi (Su Ae), who travels the battle field as a singer to find her husband. It was unusual because it shows war through a woman’s eyes. Obsessed portrays a fatal romance that takes place at an officers’ residence in Vietnam.
    Very few films show what the society was like in the 1960s and the 1970s, and Silmido (2003) is a rare example dealing with a political issue of the time. It is a story about anti-North spies, who were unknown until then, so it created a sensation as soon as it was released and it became the first Korean film to sell over 10 million tickets. My Dictator uncovers the hidden story about the inter-Korean summit, which was almost held but canceled at the last minute in the 1970s. In this story about the man who had to play a double of KIM Il-sung, tells us a sorrowful story about father and son who are stuck living in the past. The President’s Last Bang (2005) handles the most shocking event in Korea’s modern history. It is a cynical black comedy about what happened on October 26, 1979, the day that president PARK Chung-hee was shot by his devoted retainer KIM Jae-gyu. The film starts with the recorded footage of the funeral for the late PARK Chung-hee.
    Some other films talk about Gwangju Democratization Movement in the 1980s. A Petal (1996) cinematized from a CHOI Yun’s novel, highlights the pain of the days through a little girl’s eyes. May 18 (2007) explicitly portrays the incident. It shows how the citizens united and how they perished. In the film 26 Years (2012) which is based on a webtoon created by KANG Full, a group of people who bear grudge gather together to assassinate the ex-president who is responsible for the massacre in Gwangju. LEE Chang-dong’s A Peppermint Candy (2000) travels back in time from 1999 to 1979 to show seven episodes. Yeong-ho (SUL Kyung-gu) was a soldier dispatched to Gwangju. What he did there remains like an original sin and dominates his whole life. Later he becomes a torturing detective, then a materialistic business man, before he kills himself in the end.

    Two recent films talk about the 1980s. CHUNG Ji-young’s National Security (2012) is a film about the late KIM Geun-tae, a former politician. The terrible torture he suffered in the 1980s is a sad portrait of the autocratic period. The Attorney (2013) stands on an extension of the story. A lawyer who only chased money one day defends an innocent student falsely accused of acting against the government. Then he starts to see the world in a new stance. It is about the young days of the late ROH Moo-hyun. Although the story is from 20 years ago, it still strongly moves us today.
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