Unexpected Alliances: Independent Filmmakers, the State, and the Film Industry in Postauthoritarian South Korea

Unexpected Alliances: Independent Filmmakers, the State, and the Film Industry in Postauthoritarian South Korea

by Young-a Park


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ISBN-13: 9780804783613
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/05/2014
Pages: 221
Sales rank: 920,224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Young-a Park is an Assistant Professor of the Asian Studies Program at University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

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Unexpected Alliances

Independent Filmmakers, The State, And The Film Industry In Postauthoritarian South Korea

By Young-a Park


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9347-6


Film Activism

Cinema as Politics

It is impossible to talk about Korean independent film without understanding its predecessor: film activism. This chapter takes readers through the formation and evolution of film activism: its ideologies, practices, and dilemmas in the 1980s and early 1990s, leading up to the emergence of independent filmmaking in the mid-1990s. Our analysis will help readers understand the genre, practitioners, and viewers of activist films. Special attention will be paid to the efforts to make activist film into a political medium that was uniquely anti-commercial and communal. Film activism was a radical movement in that the practitioners refused the mainstream model of producing films that were profit driven. It also rejected the mainstream model of film consumption, which assumed isolated individual spectators who passively sat in the darkness of the theater. In this regard, film activism was a movement that attempted to constitute totally different kinds filmmakers and viewers with agency that were distinct from their commodified counterparts.

As I briefly discussed in the Introduction, the tension between disenchantment and re-enchantment is productive in analyzing the activist film production and consumption that I examine in this chapter. Christopher Pinney (2002) argues that it is hard to uphold Walter Benjamin's assertion that mass reproduction of art destroys the ritual qualities of images. He discusses the way Indian villagers view mass-produced, chromolithographic images of Hindi religious figures, which denotes a different kind of visuality that is "tactile, embodied, engaged form of looking," radically departing from the "paradigm of the disinterested, exterior, and objectified gaze that marks the dominant mode of Western visuality" (Ginsburg et al. 2002: 20–21). In agreement with his call for a departure from Western visuality, I believe that the complex production and consumption practices of Korea's activist films transformed a disenchanted film medium into an enchanted medium of ritual quality: activist films in the 1980s and early 1990s were produced and consumed as political rituals, not as film texts without aura and ritual quality.

Since the personal trajectory of Kim Dong-won, director and the first chairman of KIFA, parallels the transformation of a generation of activist filmmakers across the apex and decline of political radicalism, I use his story to illustrate the cultural landscape of film activism.


Kim Dong-won has been often called the mathyong (the eldest brother) in the social movement circuit because he became one of the most prominent video activists with the production of his well-known documentary Sanggyedong Olympics (Sanggyedong ollimp'ik, 1988). He was born in 1955, in an upper-middle-class family in Seoul. His mother was a doctor, a rare career choice for women of her generation, and his family lived a comfortable life. Kim often told the story of his "sheltered" life growing up to accentuate the stark difference between his youth and later life: as a teenager he "experimented with drugs" and grew to love rock 'n' roll music so much that he played in a band in high school. He attended Sokang University, an elite college in Seoul, where he studied communication.

During his college years he became deeply moved by the work of radical Catholic social activists and became involved in a movement mobilizing the urban poor. While he was working as an assistant director for a respected mainstream filmmaker after graduate school incommunication studies, he made his first documentary about a poor urban area, Sanggyedong, in Seoul. His work was a representation of a destitute urban neighborhood being bulldozed as part of the "re-development" project in the state's preparation for the 1988 Olympics. To erase the images of 1950s war-stricken Korea, prevalent in the Western media and mindset before the Olympics, the Korean government was dismantling impoverished hillside neighborhoods and relocating the residents to satellite cities or basement apartments in Seoul. This was, according to Kim, to render the residents "invisible."

The violence of the "eviction squad," local gang members hired by the development agencies and endorsed by the state, shocked Kim and transformed his worldview. His video camera was passed around among the shantytown residents during the struggle, and the documentary was not credited to Kim but to the shantytown community as "directors/producers." The documentary chronicles the evicted families' struggle to keep their homes, which in the end turned out to be unsuccessful. The shaky camera follows the residents as they confront the state-appointed eviction gang's thuggery and eventually search for new homes during the frigid winter after their eviction.

The distinct stylistic feature of this documentary is that the subjects are filmed in long shots and the camera follows groups of indistinguishable shantytown residents. In fact, most of Kim's earlier documentaries do not have main characters. This aesthetic decision has been interpreted by fellow KIFA members as Kim's attempt to represent poor urban neighborhoods as "a community with a unified future and hope" (Nam and Yi 2003: 35).

Since the production of Sanggyedong Olympics, which was widely circulated in the social movement network (hillside neighborhood residents themselves, Catholic activist groups, college campuses, and other civil movement organizations) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kim has been regarded as a "living history" of Korean independent filmmaking. As of December 2013, he has produced around twenty films (mostly documentaries) covering various social issues ranging from "comfort women," or sex slaves during the World War II, to oppositional movements against the construction of a U.S. marine base on Cheju Island. His work has consistently and passionately dealt mainly with the struggle of the poor of Seoul, and he has been actively involved in that struggle, working with migrants from the countryside. Kim has been living among his documentary subjects and in a sense has become "one of them." In describing him, some of his admirers stated that "he has gone native."

Kim's documentaries on blighted urban neighborhoods, which were circulated among the documentary subjects themselves, have been characterized by film scholar Chris Berry as a "socially engaged mode of independent documentary film and video making" (2003: 139). Berry, who has written extensively on East Asian cinema, points out the moment of his revelation when he was watching another Kim Dong-won documentary, Another World We Are Making: Haengdang-Dong People 2 (Ttohanaui sesang, 1999).

Berry characterizes Kim's documentaries as a "particular independent documentary practice," distinct from that of the Western independent documentary world he is familiar with. This film scholar has been involved in the creation of a global independent filmmakers' network, connecting Asian independent filmmakers from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea with their Australian counterparts. While Berry was connecting both independent film worlds, he had not yet realized"that although both sets of documentary makers are 'independent,' they are independent in quite different ways" (2003: 141). He contrasts these two modes of independent documentary making as the "commodity mode" and the "socially engaged mode":

The Australian independents are mostly engaged in commodity production, although often with the hope of furthering debate about important issues. They work with a linear sequence that takes them from the gathering of materials to the marketplace. They travel to meet with their subjects, make their films, edit them, and then sell them as commodities to television stations and any other buyers they might find.

In contrast, as I (finally!) realized when I watched Another World We Are Making, Kim Dong-won's documentary practice and the social movements he works with are committed to the construction of 'another world' not based primarily in the production of commodities. The primary audiences for Kim's films are the subjects of the film itself, and they do not watch it as consumers. Rather, as is clear in the scenes in Another World We Are Making, the viewing of the documentary tapes is an occasion for gathering the community together, for reflection, and for further mobilization. (2003: 141)

Throughout Berry's article, he argues that Kim's socially engaged documentaries have actively constructed a "counter-public sphere," or what he calls "forms of public space without universal pretensions and with radical possibilities" (2003: 140).

Berry's concept of the "socially engaged mode" is productive in analyzing how Kim's work was consumed in the 1980s and early 1990s. I argue, however, that the concept of a "socially engaged mode"—conceived as the antithesis of the "commodity mode" in Berry's sharp dichotomy—needs modification when applied to understanding how Kim's documentaries have been consumed since the late 1990s.

Kim's documentaries are no longer circulated solely among his film subjects and activist networks. He has won many awards at major film festivals held in Korea, and a retrospective of his work was held in 2001 at an art house targeted at the upper-middle class in Seoul. His audience now cuts across social classes. In short, Kim has earned wider national and global recognition that goes beyond the immediate community he is involved in.

Kim became a spokesperson for the Korean film industry as a whole during the anti-Hollywood protests in the late 1990s and played a major role in reformist state-sponsored film institutions. He is occasionally featured in newspapers and magazines and became a professor at a prestigious film school in 2007. He was elected one of the fifty most powerful people in film—in 1999, 2001, and 2004—by Cine 21, a popular film magazine. His film Repatriation (Songhwan, 2003)—a moving account of North Korean POWs' return to North Korea after several decades of imprisonment in South Korea—was also voted #1 on the "Ten Best Korean Films of the Past Decade (1995–2004)" list by a hundred Korean film critics and reporters ("The Top 10 Korean Films from 1995 to 2004," Cine 21, April 20, 2005).

Since 2001, retrospectives of his work have been held at art houses in the United States, and he has traveled to many universities in the U.S. In 2004, Repatriation was the first Korean film to win an award at the Sundance Film Festival. And there have been ongoing discussions between Kim and New York City's Guggenheim Museum regarding a planned retrospective.

This fame, however, does not mean that he has abandoned activism. As I have mentioned, his network and political influence have expanded far beyond the KIFA circle and his work transcends the intimate social movement community that he still is part of. Although his films are circulated at elite cultural institutions such as art houses and film festivals, he still lives in the same working-class neighborhood, occupying the same dilapidated office building, and aspiring to live the simple and frugal lifestyle exemplified by his documentary subjects. His intimate audience is still his neighbors—the shantytown activists and residents. The concerns that materialized in his work still represent progressive politics in many Koreans' eyes. He continues to believe that "the world has not changed much" since he made his first documentary, and considers himself an activist filmmaker.

The way he conveys his political sensibility, however, has changed: Repatriation is Kim's only documentary in which he himself is a narrator. He reflectively recounts his very personal encounters with the POWs, some of whom he had "grown to love like his own father." Before I examine the changing economic, social, and political environment in which Kim Dong-won and his KIFA peers make and circulate their films (in Chapter 2), I illustrate below the development of film activism from which Kim Dong-won and his peers—often called the 3-8-6 generation—emerged.


In the 1980s and early 1990s, the movies film activists produced were not intended to be distributed through commercial theater chains, but instead were circulated in alternative distribution networks such as shantytown associations, labor unions, peasant associations, and student movement organizations. The films that came out during this period were reflective of the intensified solidification of activist social movements: the production and distribution of activist films drew on the mobilization of underground financial resources, technology, and social networks.

The radical films of this era opened up a marginal but alternative space vis-à-vis the state-controlled and commercially driven Korean film market inundated by hastily made domestic films produced to earn rights to import foreign films, especially Hollywood movies. In what follows, I will briefly describe how the film industry operated in Korea before and during the rise of film activism.

The Korean public's initial exposure to film occurred in the late 1890s and was quickly followed by the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910 (Lent 1990). Korean filmmakers struggled in this colonial environment, and often had to depend on Japanese theater owners for funding and distribution. The first Korean film made by Koreans came out in 1923, but Japanese colonial control (i.e., Japanese implementation of the Motion Picture Censorship Guidelines in 1926) of Korean films became tighter as the "Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the escalating war efforts gradually transformed the cinemas of both Korea and Japan into propaganda machines. The prohibition of Korean as a civil language in the 1930s virtually dismantled the national film industry, since Korean 'talkies' could no longer be made" (James and Kim 2002: 21).

Even Korea's independence from Japan in 1945 did not automatically lead to the flourishing of autonomous Korean film production, as Korea experienced U.S. military occupation and the subsequent Korean War (1950–1953). In 1946, the American military government replaced the 1939 Choson Film Regulations (imposed by the Japanese) with a similar censorship system. Hyangjin Lee describes this period as one in which the "Americanization of the viewers' taste" took off as the "South Korean film industry was mainly engaged in importing and distributing American films" (2000: 45).

The Korean film industry, however, slowly gained strength with the support of the government in the mid and late 1950s (Lee 1969; Lee Hyangjin 2000; Lent 1990). The April 19 Uprising of 1960, a public outcry for a democratic Korea, also brought about changes in film policy: censorship authority was transferred from the government to a civil organization (the Film Ethics National Committee) (Lee 1969: 229). But this was a short-lived reform, and was followed by a military coup in 1961, a counter-revolution carried out by Park Chunghee. The Park government's film policy, according to Lee Young-il, a renowned Korean film scholar, was driven by a level of strict state control that was "unprecedented anywhere else in the world" (Lee 1969: 252).

The Motion Picture Law enacted by Park consolidated "the film industry into a limited number of companies, and [made] them dependent on the government for their long-term success" (Paquet 2009: 46). The Motion Picture Law required production companies to be equipped with studios and a certain level of facilities, and be registered with the government. This effectively reduced the number of production companies from 65 to 17 (Lent 1990). The Park administration (1961–1979) also limited the number of imported films by placing quotas and import duties on the industry. The Motion Picture Law stated that to qualify for importing a foreign film, a producer had to make a minimum of four domestic films and earn from them at least $20,000. As a result, to earn an import license local filmmakers churned out low-quality films (Lent 1990: 135).

According to Kyung Hyun Kim, "all film production companies now had to meet strict government guidelines, which required them to make films that were not only 'morally correct' but also promoted the state ideology of hard work, frugality, and anticommunism" (2002: 26). Hyangjin Lee comments that the Motion Picture Law was "quite similar to the Choson Motion Picture Act enforced during the Japanese occupation" and required production companies to get a state license to operate. It also required "double censorship": "all films had to be reported to the censor before production and submitted again for a second censorship before being released to the public" (2000: 51). Freedom in cinematic expression was severely curtailed under the long military dictatorship.


Excerpted from Unexpected Alliances by Young-a Park. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Note to Readers xiii

Acronyms xv

Introduction 1

1 Film Activism: Cinema as Politics 25

2 Independent Film: Cultural Production under Postauthoritarian Conditions 48

3 Beating Titanic: Independent Filmmakers at the Helm of Cultural Nationalism 77

4 Transforming Activist Culture: Women Filmmakers and New Filmic Spaces 108

5 Film Festival Fever: The Circulation of Independent Films 137

Epilogue: New Cultural Spaces, New Sensibilities 163

Notes 171

Bibliography 181

Selected Filmography 193

Index 195

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