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

  • onOctober 28, 2014
  • Vol.6 Winter 2009
  • byKim Dongin

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 considered one of the best Korean films of all time. Adapted from a short story written by Lee Beom-seon, this literary film cinematically captured the poverty and mental anxiety of postwar Korean society. That same year, Shin Sangok released Mother and a Guest (1961), a film adaptation of a story by Joo Yoseop that subtly portrayed the conflict between feudalistic codes and women; with this film, the director inched one step closer to the level of an auteur. Director Kim Soo-yong’s 1965 film adaptation of Oh Young-soo’s The Seaside Village is considered to be the film that sparked the literary cinema boom. The women divers and the potent beauty of primal sex detailed in the original is beautifully transferred onto the screen through Kim Soo-yong’s unique cinematic language.

In 1966, the government passed a law concerning Korean films; and in order to promote and reward excellent Korean films, the government initiated the foreign film screen quota system. Films that were considered excellent by the government were anti-communist films, educational films, and literary films. The flood of literary films from 1966 to 1968 is a result of government policies. Originally, “literary film” was a term used for film adaptations of artistically renowned literary novels, but due to the government’s reward policies, it became a widely used term for a film with high artistic value.even if it wasn’t an adaptation of a novel.
No discussion about the literary films of the 60s would be complete without mentioning director Yu Hyun-mok. His films include The Curse of Kim’s Daughters (1963, from a novel by Park Kyung-Ri), a tragic film about a family caught between shamanism and modernism, fate and will; The Guests of the Last Train (1967, from a novel by Hong Seongwon), a film about an intellectual’s despair in a society with no exits; and Descendants of Cain (1968, from a novel by Hwang Sun-Won), a film about the countryside in post-liberation era North Korea, which confounds our notions of left and right, and good and evil. Through these literary films and many more he became an active film director working within the Chungmuro studio system.

Director Kim Soo-yong was also one of the masters of the literary film genre. The director was famous for being prolific; in 1967 alone, he made 10 films. But still, through excellent films such as Full Ship (from a story by Chun Seungsei), Flame in the Valley (from a play by Cha Bumsuk), Mist (from a story by Kim Seungok), and Sound of Magpies (from a story by Kim Dongni) he proved his consistency as a filmmaker. His incredible productivity is largely due to his preference for films based on novels. Especially worth noting is Mist, an adaptation of Kim Seungok’s “Journey to Mujin.” This film shows director Kim Sooyong, inspired by European modernism, trying his hand at depicting a modernist film language. The author Kim Seungok handled the screenplay and also wrote the lyrics to the theme song for the film. This film was the start of a fruitful film career for author Kim Seungok. After this film, he wrote numerous screenplays for the Chungmuro studio system, and with Potato (1968), he made his directorial debut with a film adaptation of Kim Dongin’s eponymous novel. In addition, he won the 7th annual Daejong Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on The General’s Mustache (1968).

Mist (1967)     /     The General's Mustache (1968)

The General’s Mustache, a film adaptation of a story by Lee O-Young, is considered to be a masterpiece of Korean modernism. The film deals with the loneliness and isolation of the modern man, and director Lee Seong-gu, who dreamed of creating the Korean nouvelle-vague, effectively utilizes the screen languages of modern cinema to handle this cerebral theme. The director’s other efforts include When Buckwheat Flowers Blossom (1967, from a story by Lee Hyo-seok), a film with a traditional Korean folk setting that deals with the trials and tribulations of wandering peddlers; A Plateau (1969, from a story by Chung Bi-suk), a film about a fateful love affair that arises from ideological conflict; 7 People in the Cellar (1969, from a play by Yoon Jo-byung), a story of a man without any hope, and the will of a clergyman who yearns for the man’s salvation. Through such literary films, director Lee Seung-gu reached new aesthetic heights by not merely telling the story but showing the story.

Through novels already proven popular with the public, commercial film directors were able to develop distinctly Korean genre films, and for aesthetically ambitious directors, adapting renowned novels into films enabled them to reach new artistic levels. During the developments of the 50s and the golden period of the 60s, literature stimulated both blockbusters as well as art films that are an important part of Korean cinema history. And by doing so, it expanded the level and depth of Korean films.

*For those interested in Korean films based on Korean novels, among the films mentioned in this article, Madame Freedom, Mother and a Guest, and The Guest of the Last Train are available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive Classic Film Collection DVD Series. English subtitles included.
*images courtesy of Korean Film Archive 

1. Potato
Kim Dongin, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 2009, 454p
ISBN 89-320-1553-8
2. Descendants of Cain
Hwang Sun-Won, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 2009, 593p
ISBN 89-320-1669-0
3. The Curse of Kim’s Daughters
Park Kyung-Ri, Nanam Publishing House, 2009, 387p
ISBN 978-89-300-0529-6
4. Journey to Mujin
Kim Seungok, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp., 2009
439p, ISBN 89-8281-866-9 (set)