One of the most widely talked about cultural phenomena of the last decade or so is the renaissance of the Korean cinema and TV. Korean cinema has become a major success story both commercially and artistically, and both in domestic and international markets. Just in recent months, "Shilmido", a movie based on the true story of a secret government plot in the 1970s to assassinate former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, has become the first domestic film to attract an audience of over 10 million. Meanwhile another blockbuster, "Taegukgi"
, based on the Korean War, has drawn over 6 million viewers in just 3 weeks since its release.
Some of other recent Korean blockbusters, and some of my favourites, include "The Ginkgo Bed" (1996), "Shiri"
(1999), "Joint Security Area" (2000), "My Sassy Girl"
(2001), "My Wife Is a Gangster"
(2002) (attracting over 8 million viewers), "The Way Home"
(2002), and "Memories of Murder"
A common characteristic of many excellent Korean movies is the capacity to bring intense emotions right to your heart. There is often a highly contagious passion undercurrent in a good Korean movie. Who could forget the performance of "grandma Kim" in "The Way Home"
, or the train scene in "Taegukki", when Jang Dong-gun
and Won Bin
are being forced to leave their families behind and board a train for the frontline of the Korean War.
It is not surprising then that the Korean movies are not only commercial successes (attracting record number of viewers), but that they are also receiving international critical acclaim. Just this past February (2004), at the Berlin Film Festival, a Korean director for the first time won the best director award. Kim Ki-duk
, won the prestigious award for his film "Samaria"
which portrays a teenage girl's sexual exploitation. Also for the first time for a Korean director, Im Kwon-taek
(who is often referred to as the "father of Korean cinema") won the best director award at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2002. Im won the award for his film "Chihwaseon
", a masterly depiction of the life of legendary 19th-century Korean artist Jang Seung-up.
International interest in Korean movies has grown to such an extent that last September (2003), at the Vancouver International Film Festival, no less than 16 Korean movies were showcased.
My own personal introduction to Korean cinema began with the Canada's first major retrospective of Korean cinema in 1997, "Three Korean Master Filmmakers: Shin Sang-ok
, Yu Hyun-mok
, Im Kwon-taek
", at the festival international du film du Montreal (my hometown). I saw another of director Im Kwon-taek
's masterpieces, "Seopyeonje"
(1993), a beautiful visual and aural meditation on pansori - a traditional form of Korean musical story telling often called the Korean opera. The movie left me enthralled by the images of an alluring exotic land with a rich culture and history. I have to admit that I probably find myself in Korea today partly due to the attraction that "Seopyeonje"
and other Korean movies instilled in me.
Apart from Korean movies, beginning in the late 1990s, Korean TV dramas have also become extremely popular around the world, especially throughout east and southeast Asia, as well as in Hawaii, where they are screened with English subtitles.
Today, from Hanoi to Hong Kong, and from Jakarta to Shanghai, it's often hard to turn on the TV without seeing a Korean soap opera being played (in fact, once in Shanghai, I saw two different Korean soap operas on TV at the same time!). A large number of the latest Korean TV dramas have been imported by local TV stations in these places as the Korean TV dramas are well made, are financially viable, and most importantly appeal to local audiences, likely due to cultural affinities and family values Korea shares with its Asian neighbours.
My all time personal TV drama favourites include such hits as "Dae Jang Geum"
, "Cat on the Roof
", "All In"
and one of the most popular TV dramas of all times "Autumn in my Heart
". "Autumn in my Heart
", in particular, has been such a hit in places such as Taiwan and Hong Kong that fans from there take group tours to visit the Korean city of Sokcho, about 150 kilometres northeast of Seoul, where the story's lovers grew up, fell in love, separated, and met again after years apart.
This popularity of Korean pop culture, including Korean movies, and TV soap operas, has been so strong that the Chinese referred to it as "Hanguo Re" -- literally, "Korea fever".
Although, the most important impact of the Korean movies and dramas remains in the promotion of Korean culture and values both domestically and overseas, the economic benefits are also significant. In 2002 alone, the three nationwide TV networks - KBS, MBC and SBS - received a combined revenue of $17.7 million in overseas sales for their soap operas. While this may be a paltry amount compared to the sale of American TV shows overseas, it nonetheless marks the huge potential and a whopping 58.8 percent growth from the previous year at $11.4 million.
Figures from 2003 are expected to be even higher. Export of Korean movie and TV drama has a more far-reaching economic effect as well, as illustrated in the sweeping fever for Korean entertainment products in Southeast Asia and China. It was actually Korean TV dramas that set the pace for the Korean pop culture fad in the late 1990s. All things Korean -- from food and music to eyebrow-shaping and shoe styles -- became the rage across Asia, where pop culture had long been dominated by Tokyo and Hollywood. Korean movies and TV soap operas, remain amongst the most powerful mediums to promote all kinds of Korean products and garner increased international recognition.
Korean cinema and TV dramas were not always this successful. As recently as in 1997, according to the Motion Picture Producers' Association of Korea, Korean movies attracted a mere 25.5 percent of the domestic Korean market while American movies controlled over 60 percent of the Korean market.
This is perhaps not surprising, given that Hollywood has a monopoly on 85% of the global film market, and that the average Korean movie today is made on a relatively shoestring budget of US $ 1 million, compared to the average Hollywood movie that costs around US $100 million.
That Korea is flourishing, despite the odds, in such an important cultural medium with a far reaching economic impact, is a testament to the maturity of its industry, the ingenuity of its producers, and the general support of the average Korean public.
Foreign Service Officer (Political/Economic Stream)
Canadian Embassy in Seoul