Reliving the Korean Film Renaissance (1950s-1960s)

After the liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and the declaration of a cease-fire in 1953, Korean society began its reconstruction phase in earnest. Amidst the wave of Western modernism—best represented by American culture—audiences became enamored with the glamorous American life shown in Hollywood genre films.


Poet and literary critic Lim Wha once stated that cinema in the Joseon era first began by “cooperating with different neighboring cultures.” In fact, throughout its history, Korean cinema has constantly negotiated and merged with different art forms. It probably goes without saying that Korean cinema has always maintained a close relationship with literature. Traditional classic novels that are familiar to native Koreans, popular novels including newspaper serials, and literary fiction, which guaranteed the artistic level of the film, were always in constant demand from the film industry.

As is well known, a screenplay is the basic foundation for a film; without a screenplay, a film cannot exist. And screenplays, of course, consist of words; and therefore, screenplays and literature are related at the most basic level. Also, finding a good novel to adapt for a film can also mean considerably lowering film production costs. More than any other art form, filmmaking is a costly endeavor, and often times a popular novel serves as a financial safety net for film productions. For example, a popular novel can continue to be loved by the public as a radio play, then subsequently as a film. This section focuses on how film and literature engaged with and influenced each other during the 50s and 60s, a time when Korean cinema rose to prominence and entered a glorious renaissance period.


The Popular Novel: the Seed of 1950s Korean Popular Film

After finally being liberated from the Japanese on August 15, 1945, Korean filmmakers struggled to free themselves from Japanese influences and produce film independently. But the start of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, seriously stalled their efforts. This didn’t deter filmmakers; not wanting to leave a vacuum in Korean cinema history, the filmmakers continued to make films by mostly producing newsreels and documentaries for the military and its associated organizations.

Madame Freedom (1956)

Of course this doesn’t mean filmmakers stopped producing feature length films during this period. The Korean War period was a time when the future giants of Korean cinema such as Shin Sang-ok (1926-2006), Kim Ki-young (1919-1998), and Yu Hyunmok (1925-2009) each sought to make their directorial debut. While seeking refuge in Daegu, Shin Sang-ok made his directorial debut: a film adaptation of Kim Gwang-ju’s short story, “The Evil Night.” In “The Evil Night,” a prostitute helps out a writer and lets him spend the night in her room. The writer is shocked by the realities of the streets.a miniature version of society. The themes of social indictment in the original story are well represented in the film version, and today this film is considered to be a touchstone of Korean cinematic realism.

On July 27, 1953, a cease-fire was declared, and along with the people’s return to the capital, Korean society promptly entered its reconstruction phase. At the time, Koreans were overwhelmed by a wave of western style modernization, which was best represented by American culture. Audiences especially were enamored with the glamorous American culture shown in Hollywood genre films, and Korean melodramas set in chic urban settings became equally popular.

Madame Freedom (1956),                              The Star of Lost Paradise (1957)

During the mid to late 1950s, the primary source of mainstream Korean film was the popular novel, especially those written by authors including Kim Mal-bong, Park Gyeju, Chung Bi-suk, and Kim Lae-sung. No discussion of this period would be complete without mentioning Madame Freedom, an immensely popular novel by Chung Bi-suk, which was serialized in The Seoul Shinmun from January 1, 1954 to August 6, 1954. The story dealt with social issues such as the “mutual aid-group craze,” the “dance craze,” and the “overspending craze.” At the time of its serialization, the story was harshly criticized as “…a national enemy as equally dangerous as five hundred thousand enemies.” The film version from 1956, directed by Han Hyung-mo, was probably the most controversial film in Korean cinema history. The original story is about a professor’s wife who catches the dance bug and begins an adulterous relationship. The film, which recreates the novel’s sensational subject through sensuous images, was unable to pass censorship even right before its release. Only after some of the kissing scenes were cut was it released. Eventually Madame Freedom became the blockbuster Korean film of the 1950s.

Director Han Hyung-mo was not afraid to venture into different genres. Considered to be at the vanguard of 1950s Korean popular cinema, the director fully embraced popular literature in order to expand his viewership. In 1957, he directed the film version of Park Gyeju’s The Pure Love, a novel about platonic love that was eventually reprinted over 30 times. Director Hong Seong-ki, considered the giant of late 1950s Korean melodrama, also adapted two of Park Gyeju’s novels into films: The Star in MyHeart, made in 1958, and Waking or Sleeping, in 1959. The works of Kim Lae-sung were a frequent source of inspiration for directors of Korean-style genre films; they include Lover (1956) and The Starof Lost Paradise (1957), both directed by Hong Sung-ki, and what is considered to be the first-ever Korean detective film, The Devil (1957), directed by Han Hyung-mo.


The 1960s and the Literary Cinema Boom

Sixties Korean cinema began with director Yu Hyun-mok’s masterpiece, Aimless Bullet (1961), which is still...