Literary and Cinematic Imagination Rising from the Darkness (1970s-mid 1990s)

During the time of rule by military dictatorship to riding the historical wave of democracy, the boundaries between literature and cinema naturally crumbled and interaction between the two fields increased. Turning bestselling novels into blockbuster films was a major trend at the time.


During this period, Korean culture was considered to be at a crossroads of darkness and light. Under military dictatorships that began in the 70s and lasted until the early 90s, there were limits to what artists could express. But with the advent of the so-called hangeul generation, growing interest in popular culture and the wave of democracy all led to the deluge of popular culture seen in the 90s. Within this historical context, the boundaries between literature and cinema naturally crumbled, and the interaction between the two fields increased. Certain authors not only started writing screenplays early on, but also began to participate in film productions. And some authors went on to forge steady partnerships with specific directors.

From the late 60s to the 70s, author Kim Seungok was without equal. Considered to be one of the best modernist writers of the 60s, his writing defined an era. But before Kim Seungok made his literary debut, he worked as a newspaper cartoonist. And even after he became an author, he also worked as a screenplay writer and a film director. In his autobiography, The Lord I Met, the author says that after he directed Potato (1968), he anguished over whether to continue working as a director or to commit fully to his life as an author. Of course, his film, Potato is by no means a masterpiece, but it should be notated that he helped usher in the 70s: a time when film and cinema blossomed together. And this proves how multi-talented he was.

Kim Seungok began his career with a political cartoon called Old Man Pagoda. Korea was then at the height of what is called the 4.19 student-led revolt, a turning point for Korean news organizations. His first screenplay was for Mist, a film adaptation of his most famous short story, “Journey to Mujin.” Mist, directed by Kim Soo-yong, went on to become an important film in Korean cinema history. Screenplays for director Lee Jang-ho’s Hometown of the Stars and director Kim Ho-sun’s Yeong-ja’s Heydays were both written by Kim Seungok. Hometown of the Stars was based on a bestselling novel by Choi Inho, an author who, in the 70s, effortlessly crossed the boundaries between serious literature and popular culture. Yeong-ja’s Heydays was based on a bestselling novel by Jo Seon-jak.

Bestselling novels becoming blockbuster films were a major trend at the time. Most bestsellers were first serialized in newspapers. At the time, people followed these stories as closely as they would a television soap opera. Serialized stories then went on to become novels, and they usually became bestsellers the moment they were released. It was an important industry practice then for film producers to buy the rights to serialized stories around the time they ended.

As mentioned earlier, there were three bestselling novels that shook up Korean popular culture in the 70s: Jo Seon-jak’s Yeong-ja’s Heydays, Choi Inho’s Hometown of the Stars, and Jo Hae-il’s Winter Woman. These stories all feature a young female protagonist, whose names became iconic in the 70s. Youngja, Kyungha, and Leehwa were their names, and they came to represent an era. Among these characters, both Youngja and Kyungha are hostesses, or prostitutes. And the fact that the female characters of two major bestselling novels from the 70s happen to be prostitutes speaks volumes about the era. These characters represent the lives of lower class women who came to the city expecting better opportunities; they also represent a period when women were becoming more and more commodified. These works also comment on the era by having their female protagonists meet tragic deaths.

Among these bestselling writers of the 70s, Choi Inho’s accomplishments definitely stand out. During the 70s, the author often teamed up with one of the best directors at the time, Ha Gil-jong. We can see from numerous articles that Ha Gil-jong treated Cho Inho like his own sibling, and the director often let the author participate in the filmmaking process. The most famous film from this partnership is The March of Fools. It was first serialized in a college newspaper, then was a novel, and finally was made into a movie. The March of Fools was about the 70s college culture, and both the novel and the film came to represent the youth culture of the 70s. While the film was a portrait of young Koreans back then, it was also a portrait of the writer and the director.

In the 80s, Choi Inho begins to collaborate with a new director: Bae Chang-ho. After the sudden death of Ha Gil-jong in the late 70s, the author was in need of a new cinematic partner. And in Bae Changho, he found a master director who breathed new life into his novels. Their collaboration began with The Flower at the Equator in 1983. Whale Hunt, from 1984, was a road movie, a genre that many Koreans were unfamiliar with at the time. Deep Blue Night, released the following year, was yet another successful collaborative effort. The film, which deals with the phoniness of the American dream, looks unflinchingly at the illusion and horror of the Americanism that swept the nation in the 80s. The two went on to make a wide range of films including Hello God. The last film they made together was Stairways of Heaven, in 1991. It was an end of a long and fruitful partnership, which is still considered to be one of the greate...