April 9: "Sopyonje and the Making of a Korean National Cinema" by David James, Professor of Critical Studies at USC (Revised)
David James' lecture was a fantastic start to this year's lecture series in that he provided an overview of Korean cinema, and in doing so clarified the concept of a national cinema, focusing on the enormous contributions of Director Im Kwon Taek during the early 1990s, which might be called the Third Golden Age of Korean cinema. Dr. James provided film several film clips to illustrate that development, including clips of films from the late 1950s/early 1960s, the Second Golden Age, Im Kwon Taek's Sopyonje, and even the recent film The Host, just to illustrate how far Korean film has come both in terms of technical expertise and creative story telling.
In discussing the creation of a national cinema in Korea, David James said that first one must have a prior concept of a nation. However, even before that comes culture, which creates the "imagined community" that connects people. Just as culture is transmitted through a shared language, a national cinema arises out of a shared symbolic language and is, in itself, an idiom that interprets the culture and life experiences of a nation. Culture is a nation-building force; a national cinema both interprets the cultural life of a nation and impacts its development. Dr. James explained, "Korea exists in extreme contradictions." With a history that dates back to 668 and the three unified kingdoms, Korea has more claim to be thought of as a nation. However, in the period of cinema, that Korea of 2,000 years of linguistic, ethnic, geographic, and cultural unity has not existed. It was part of Japan or divided, not a free nation."
Thus, films have a nationality. But what of Korean films? Are they just Hollywood films that happen to be made in Korea? Actually, the first film shown in Korea was a small film shown in a shed. An American tobacco factory was trying to sell cigarettes, so with every purchase, they gave away coupons that could be used to see the film. Early films in Korea were linked to foreigners and foreign business. In the 1930s, when Korea suffered severe oppression from Japan, the silent films of Na Un-gyu were not censored because the anti-colonial allegory was hidden within the story. However, silent films in Korea not only came with music, but also a narrator, who would tell the story and clarify the anti-colonial message. Perhaps some screenings were censored; evaluators were there to observe the film with narration. However, it was impossible for the Japanese to evaluate and censor every screening. Dr. James said that earlier this year a DVD came out with films made while the Japanese were in Korea, so now we can see films that Koreans saw at that time. He also mentioned "Hurrah for Freedom", which was released even before the war was over. Dr. James compared Korean films of this time to Italian neo-realism films from the end of the war to 1950, in particular "Rome, Open City," an Italian resistance film.
In discussing Korean films, Dr. James made reference to North Korean films, which are "different from what we think films should be" and are highly influenced by Russian and Chinese films.
Long after the anti-Japanese focus of the first golden age of Korean Cinema (1925-1935), came the second Golden era during the last part of the 1950s. At this point, Korea had been devastated by 40 years of occupation, three years of war, and immense poverty. A series of films were made. Dr. James showed a clip from one, entitled "Aimless Bullet", which depicts Korea occupied by America. In the world of this film, the men are crippled, and the women are prostitutes. The family in the film is a metaphor for the Korean nation after the occupation and war. In the clip, the mother is crazy, has nightmares of war and moans endlessly, a woman is crying, a child sleeps, and a man lies there, unable to sleep. The screen is very dark with brief areas of light. The structure of the small house with many supporting beams creates the look of a prison.
Dr. James also showed a clip of Shin Sang Ok's Flower in Hell. The film is very much grounded in realism (with some melodrama); in fact, some passages look like a documentary. Dr. James added that in civil war films, the national division is expressed by family division. In this film, one brother goes to the city and becomes a thief. The other brother goes to find him and tries to bring him back to his mother in the countryside. In Flower in Hell, men become criminals, the women, prostitutes. Shin Sang Ok made films at that time that were very complex. They succeeded visually and creatively. They were controversial in their own time, from the mid-50s to 1960s.
To frame the next period historically, there was the student rebellion against Rhee, and then Park began his 20-year rule. In 1963, North Korea was more advanced than South Korea. The average income in South Korea was $72 per year. Under Park Chun Hee, there was severe cultural repression. There were no unions. Instead of a vibrant film culture, cinema became escapist entertainment. People were not forced to think critically. Korean cinema was insignificant. This lasted for 15 to 20 years, during which time, Im Kwon Taek developed his craft.
Im Kwon Taek was born in 1935. He made his first film in 1962. He made the typical escapist, trash films of the time until he experienced a crisis of faith and made Mandala, in which Buddhism provides an answer about how a person should live.
In Festival and Im's other important films, there are three motifs: (1) the image of family, signifying how the the Korean nation is in good/bad shape; (2) bodies of beautiful Korean women, signifying the rape of Korea; and (3) beautiful images of Korean landscape, signifying the pristine state of Korean culture before all of the problems.
In Sopyonje, Im Kwon Taek focused on p'ansori, which no one was interested in listening to. In the film, townspeople chased after a small band marching through the street playing "Besame Mucho". Dr. James explained that p'ansori in the east was energetic, but that p'ansori in the west - sopyonje - was mournful and sorrowful, similar to the blues in the U.S. Sopyonje expressed the untranslatable concept of "han" - the unexpressible anguish, caused especially by the loss of national identity. Dr. James cited the example of how difficult it was for traditional Korean music to confront the influx of J-pop and American pop music.
In Sopyonje, Im Kwon Taek succeeded in making a truly Korean film. Through this film, Korean culture becomes articulated. The result of the huge popularity of Sopyonje was a renewal of Korean culture, including a craze for p'ansori.
In Sopyonje, Im Kwon Taek used a deep focus long take with all levels in focus at the same time. The scenes were agricultural with weaving stone walls. An ad hoc family is formed, united by the singing of p'ansori.
Im Kwon Taek bargained for the opportunities to make films like Sopyonje and Festival by agreeing to make the escapist films. Films like Sopyonje made the space for Korean cinema that has been filmed by other great young directors.
April 16: "Independent Filmmaking for the World" by James Kang, Film Producer
Producer James Kang was prepared to do a whole lecture series himself, having truly overprepared for the evening's presentation! He really didn't get beyond his discussion of the making of Dragon Wars; however, that was fascinating and more than sufficient! Actually, Dragon Wars, a first film for all involved, is a true example of independent filmmaking for the world. In wide release internationally, Dragon Wars essentially created a new film studio, bringing together creative and innovative novices at all levels and turning them them into experts through the filmmaking process.
Mr. Kang explained that when it came to film making, he was self-taught. This huge undertaking was actually his first production. Initially, Mr. Kang acted as translator when writer/director/comedian Hyung-rae Shim came to the U.S. Gradually, that relationship developed; Shim came to trust Kang, and Kang found that his talents and skills could be a valuable asset to the "twinkle" in Shim's eye that was to become Dragon Wars.
Kang's analysis of the different steps involved in making Dragon Wars was a fascinating entry into the world of independent film-making in Korea. His discussion provided insights into how films change each step of the way: Dragon Wars started as an over-the-top comedy, that hopefully people would enjoy, laugh at, and be impressed by its cool effects. However, the film ended up "conflicted - funny, but still wanting to be taken seriously." Although as Mr. Kang put it, "No one wants [plans] to make a bad film," he maintained that actually the film was an incredible historical accomplishment. At least seven years in the making, Dragon Wars suffered from piecemeal funding along the way, which necessitated many changes and compromises, including changing editors five different times. This point, in particular, affected the end product in many ways. Different visions of how to tell the story, indeed, different concepts of what the story was, resulted in the end product being conflicted, as mentioned above, and although the film has made money, it was not considered a critical success.
Throughout his presentation, Mr. Kang praised everyone involved with Dragon Wars. It was clearly a labor of love, total devotion, and almost abject poverty (!) for everyone involved. Kang especially praised Director Shim, who has a photographic memory and actually had done all of the sketches for the 500-page storyboard himself. Kang also praised the animators, all first-time filmmakers, who invented the tools and techniques to tell the story. Kang called their innovations "Korea's indigenous creations in filmmaking." According to Kang, everyone's efforts - not to mention personal and financial sacrifice - over a period of eight years and an accumulated total budget of $35 million, created the studio's infrastructure and made it into a full special effects production house.
As Kang mentioned, he had no prior experience in film. In 2000, he was a bilingual office assistant, who was teaching himself to write screenplays. With a Masters degree in English, he had the talent and background to approach that challenge. However, when the original US-side producer left Dragon Wars, Kang became the lead producer.
Early on, they barely had the money to prepare for production and pitches to studios fell flat. However, in 2004, they had the live action funding and began to shoot. It was a huge scale film. They put the crew together. Some people they approached to work on the film laughed or passed on it. His goal was to make sure that every dollar spent actually got on the screen.
It was back-to-basics filmmaking, but "raw, inventive, exquisitely planned and passionate!" Kang considers the production of Dragon Wars an allegory in filmmaking, driven by spirit. They had to put the crew together by making cold calls. The director of photography that they found, Hubert Taczanowski, gave the production an Eastern European flavor; the casting director joined the production team, charmed by their bold ambition!
They shot the backstory of the film in Korea during a three-week period. The wide open spaces that they needed were hard to find, so they ended up filming five miles south of the 38th Parallel. Kang said they had trouble shooting off explosions there! He added that Shim loves dynamiting things! More filming was done at the 400-year-old museum village.
Kang said that Director Shim worked 24-7. During the day, he was involved with the shoot; in the evening, he was courting investors. They were in a rush! They were casting 32 roles and hundreds of extras with no money to make offers. Somehow Shim came up with production money out of the blue! Offering more praise, Kang said Shim commanded the set - even with a lack of English! From the first day, he was able to charm everyone and have them drop to the floor, laughing. Kang said Shim had the necessary talent and the drive as well as the capacity to transfer both to filmmaking in the U.S.
When finally filming in the U.S., they were bound to a 29-day shooting schedule @ $100,000 per day. They could not afford to go over schedule. They shot things in only three or four takes. In one day, they might have eight set-ups. Kang clarified that a set-up included plotting out the special FX and the degrees of light. It was often necessary to keep the crew in ignorance about the production schedules and challenges they faced. Day by day, they just did what needed to be done.
They wrapped shooting in 2004, and the studio in Korea started to work its CGI magic. At the studio, nearly 100 animators worked for two years in post-production. In the meantime, Kang had to research the distribution prospects. They were always running out of money. My notes get a little confusing here- they either had 50% of the sound completed and needed to get a new sound designer, or they only had 50% of what was needed to do the sound design. In any case, they found Mark A. Mangini (sound re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor), who agreed to work on the project, saying "I'm a creative guy!" He had to design sounds for five different creatures, so this "creative guy" used the sounds of cheetahs, elephants, and indigenous birds. Kang said that they prodded a few animals at Korean zoos -- none were hurt, but maybe they startled them a little!
One of the exciting decisions made was to orchestrate "Arirang"! Kang asked why not use a Korean cultural anthem fully orchestrated and have it be heard worldwide?
As previously mentioned, there were five different editors: one did the assembly, one worked on the storyline, another one cut it and turned it into a special effects extravaganza (omitting the humor), another film editor, Timothy Alverson, saw how the humor could work and put back in the 0ver-the-top comedy (screened in Berlin @ one hour, 50 minutes), but that was eventually cut out.
They also needed an experienced color timer to smooth out the edges in CGI. They had a tiny budget, so tried to catch people who were between projects.
Then they began the search for the distributor. The production was out of money in 2005/early 2006. They had no prospects for distribution. Then they got a commitment from Show Box, which had distributed Tae Guk Gi, Welcome to Dongmakgol, and The Host. People at Show Box were hopeful Dragon Wars would be a hit. For the U.S. release, they worked out a deal with Freestyle Releasing for film distribution and home video release. They first thought about trying for 200 screens in the U.S., then told Freestyle to go for broke, aiming at 1200 screens. Freestyle built up a marketing team and set a U.S. release date of 9/14, right after the release in Korea, thus riding the wave of marketing in Korea. Ultimately, Freestyle, with their 20 years of experience, booked 2277 screens, some multiple screens in some of the busiest theaters! Then, of course, they had to come up with the money for print and advertising. They made a deal with Sony, delivered the video masters, sound, everything to them, and Sony paid for the prints, which were sent out to the theaters.
Dragon Wars made $11 million at box office in its 4-week run, which was so widespread that it helped to drive the substantial DVD sales, which totalled $40 million in sales and rentals.
Mr. Kang's next project is another English language film with the studio, which already has a co-production deal with Sony and Freestyle.
April 23: "The Politics of Remembering the Korean War: Blockbuster Films, History, and Memory" by Namhee Lee, Assistant Professor of Modern Korean History, UCLA (Revised)
Dr. Namhee Lee discussed the big blockbuster films about the Korean War as mass cultural artifacts, and stated that although they have achieved great success at the box office, drawing in huge crowds with big-name stars and special effects, historically they are not accurate. However, these films do have great emotional power and cultural agency, making a creative contribution to society. Thus, though their content is historical, their impact is on contemporary society. They render and interpret the tragic events of the war, simultaneously contesting, revising, and following prevailing views of the events that happened more than four decades before.
Since the 1980s, South Korean society has witnessed a flood of popular productions of historical knowledge. Also written into the popular arena are the grassroots/civic movements that have taken place from 1945 onward. In the 1980s, historical novels were at the forefront of interpreting Korea's modern history. One of the most popular of these was Cho Chong-nae's monumental ten-volume masterpiece, The T'aebaek Mountains, that came out in the 1980s and sold six million copies. According to Dr. Lee, this novel was considered by some critics to be the highest achievement of both nationalist literature and "divisionist literature."
In discussing post-modernity and the Korean Wave, one encounters the blockbuster film Tae Guk Gi, which was seen by a quarter of all South Koreans. This is one of the blockbusters that are considered "history-making"; however, historians in Korea were reluctant to examine why this film was so popular. This reluctance stems partly from historians' exclusive focus on the role of print, from their disdain of what they consider to be commercialization of historical events and the resulting distrust that the emotions generated by the films and novels are not "annotated by facts." Since much of the historical fiction or films are based on common tropes, anxieties and desires (even those which deal with supposedly larger historical issues such as the division and the Korean War), historians tend to dismiss them as "trivial" and "melodramatic." This kind of dismissing what is happening at the popular level is not limited to South Korean historians. Historian Ann-Louise Shapiro talks about contemporary society as a slightly "schizophrenic moment" when there is both considerable worry about "historical illiteracy, cultural amnesia, and intractable presentism - the loss of meaningful history - and an equally powerful sense of history as everywhere present" (films, museum exhibits, and theme parks, among others). She states that these worries - too little and too much -- are, in fact, not two different sets of problems, but aspects of the same larger concern: that the wrong kind of history (wrong-headed, or simply wrong) is producing an unfortunate kind of historical consciousness.
Even film scholars are skeptical: Why and how did ten million people see Tae Guk Gi? Some critics maintained that this film "de-idealized" and "de-historicalized" the Korean War. It was so abstract in some ways that it could have been about any war. In any case, these blockbuster war films are important. They cull the public memory and re-articulate the cultural narrative that defines South Korea. Through these films and their powerful storytelling, their intense images are immediately available to all classes. The result is the recovery of a different message from the past.
Previously, films that touched the South Korean national identity were shaped by antagonism by North Korea. In the building of the South Korean nation, South Korean culture was defined in contrast to North Korean culture to the extent that anticommunism penetrated into South Korean life. Before these films, there were so many studies about who started the war. In these new films, it's not so important who started the war. South Koreans can ask, "What does the war mean to us as an event, not as an experience?" Now diverse experiences are acknowledged. This was not possible during the Cold War. Films in the 1950s and 1960s portrayed the North/South conflict in confrontation. Now both sides can be seen as victims.
Dr. Lee stated that film reflects, informs and constitutes the reality, projecting the dreams and images you have. Consider one way these new images affect South Korean culture: As of 2000, textbooks began to show how the Korean War affected people of both North and South Korea. People no longer look at history through the prism of the state, with the double edge of the Korean experience: prior to 1945, there was the oppression by the Japanese while post-1945, the DMZ was armed to the teeth. The state suppressed experience, but now these films ask, "What is a state?"
These films look at fundamental issues of state and might even be considered subversive to the modern nation state, which places loyalty to the state over loyalty to family. For example, in Tae Guk Gi, the brothers ask, "If both of us are taken, who takes care of our mother?" Issues like this have entered the public discussion only recently.
Dr. Lee further commented on this experience of the brothers in Tae Guk Gi, saying, "Memories of the Korean War are incomplete until Jin Tae's experiences are included." The relationship of North/South adversaries is portrayed very differently than before: They [the North] are brothers, not devils. With regard to the blockbuster films and academia, these films reflect revisionist scholarship. One film critic commented on the film JSA, saying it was liberating and that the storyline was unthinkable a few years before. The fact that they can play like brothers one minute, but they have to be killed the next for some absurd reason "brings historical reality to the fore," commented Dr. Lee.
Dr. Lee maintains that the goal of including and understanding both sides of the conflict does not have to be reunification, but it could be reconciliation. South Korea cannot NOT engage with North Korea.
Dr. Lee commented on how films can supplement history with a psychological element, as exemplified in post-war films from different countries. She cited post-WWII German films, such as The Marriage of Maria Braun (dir. Fassbinder, 1979) as well as post-Franco Spanish cinema, which is more nostalgic and personalized with history and fantasy intertwined.
Dr. Lee concluded her remarks with reference to the film, Welcome to Dongmakgol, saying that it expressed a utopian longing for lost Korea. Fictionalized in film, history becomes allegory and fable and thus is able to express the dreams and aspirations of a people. The village Dongmakgol exists in our hearts, not in our world. The world of Dongmakgol is not based on ethnic nationalism. It is a "community of spectators," where one becomes Korean not based on ancestors or language, but on shared visions and dreams that enable people to build a community together. The films Dr. Lee discussed provide those dreams and images, the impetus for so much change.
April 30: "We're not anarchists: Documenting the rise of the Choseon Punk Movement" by Timothy Tangherlini, Professor of Asian Languages and Culture, UCLA
Dr. Timothy Tangherlini asked, "Why would a folklorist make a documentary about punk rock in Korea?" He maintains that tradition is always dynamic, interacting with the individual's experience and creativity. Thus, it was very appropriate -- and much more interesting for him since he was into punk rock himself! So, he decided to study the Choseon Punk Movement, examining the artistic experience in small groups that had begun to arise in 1994-95.
Folklore is usually rural and not modern, but Dr. Tangherlini thought that contemporary traditions should still be studied -- even if they were in the cities. He maintained that it was important to pay critical attention to middle class youth (age 16-24), and admitted that not much critical attention had focused on youth. He found the dynamism of their creativity very exciting. Plus he wanted to study middle-class, urban youth and how they were affected by both the positive and negative aspects of globalization and urbanization as well as the resulting trend toward anonymity and the tensions that motivate upward mobility, especially the college entrance exams.
But why make a folkloric film in an urban area, not the countryside? Choseon Punk was near Hyundae Op (Hyundae University), which is like the Cal Arts of Korea, is an exciting place. He said he would still be examining the creative process as a sociologist, anthropologist and musicologist. He also asked why such a small group if he was doing folkloric fieldwork without a specific narrative? And why not K-pop or K-rap? He's not a K-pop fan and can't dance, and he can't stand rap. Plus, as mentioned above, he's a punk rocker (!) so the myriad hours needed for the study would never become tedious to him! He could play music with them, get cool CDs and developed a rapport with at least two of the informants that went well beyond music. During that summer of filming, they would stay up until 2:30 in the morning talking and clarifying things with the informants.
It was an interesting community. He and his partner decided to let their informants drive the narrative. The club where Choseon Punk bands played used to be called Drug Club. Now it's called Skunk Hell. Tangherlini and his partner studied how the club and groups evolved over the summer, and one actually became a huge hit. All of this was possible because of the loosening of laws related to cultural exchange and the rise of the Internet. The youth were questioning the value of working hard for success since they'd seen their parents work hard all their lives only to lose so much in the fall of the superstructure after the IMF crisis.
Punk in Korea, Choseon Punk, is not the urban proletariat; the youth are well-educated and well-heeled, concerned about finding their way. Tangherlini was intrigued by the hybrid of the genre. There was no historical reference to much of the music that influenced them. Because the laws had loosened, suddenly years and years of music was made available to them all at once. They thus had no historical reference; everything was equally weighted.
Tangherlini also noted that in the club he found a gender equity that hadn't been encountered before. Young men and women were artistically equal. He mentioned that the young women were actually better at intellectualizing and theorizing about what they were doing.
The informants they ended up focusing on in the documentary included the members and several fans of two Choseon Punk bands, Crying Nut and Supermarket. In the early 90s, as mentioned above, they got all types of music through the Internet, music that had been very hard to get before. Besides the loosening of laws and the Internet, increased access to travel and an increase in buying power allowed those who traveled to bring things back with them.
The punk musicians were very often classically trained virtuosos. The first compilation CD from Drug Club was called "Our Nation" - as a gesture to Minjung Nationalism? No, it was something else - they were turning it into their own nation; it was part of the evolution, just as Drug Club used to be a hair salon and punk fashion boutique. The barbershop chairs are still there. What was different was the community and creative space that had evolved.
People from the student movements of the 1980s could ask what these young people had to be upset about. Weren't they just a bunch of spoiled kids? The youth, in expressing themselves, contested some boundaries of what is acceptable.
The group Crying Nut became incredibly successful. Tangherlini said that their big hit had been ripped off by an ice cream company, and that that exposure had actually spurred on their success.
Due to some technical difficulties, we weren't able to view the entire documentary. However, it was clear that Tangherlini's film captured the talents, passion, energy, and life challenges of the Choseon Punk musicians and fans, as told in their own words. The film presents not only the intensity of the music and fevered frenzy of the fans, but also the sincerity of the informants, who shared their lives with him that summer. Actually the DVD malfunction worked to our advantage in that, according to one attendee that evening, it gave us the opportunity to hear more of Dr. Tangherlini's experiences making the film as well as his insights into the Choseon Punk movement and its place in contemporary Korean culture.