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

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

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 FoolsIt 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 greatest in Korean cinema history. Choi Inho’s novels became successful films by other directors as well. The best example of this is director Kwak Jikyoon’s 1986 film, Winter Wanderer. The enormous success of this film is a good indication of how popular the author was at the time.

There were, of course, other prominent authors besides Choi Inho at the time. In the 80s, with Yi Mun-yol leading the pack, we began to see a variety of authors. Compared to Choi Inho’s brand of romanticism, these authors displayed a more socially critical outlook. Yi Mun-yol and the other authors’ works caught the attention of many new directors of this period. Im Kwon-taek is one of the greatest Korean directors working today. Starting in the early 80s, he began to make a string of noteworthy films that were unlike any of his efforts from the previous decade. His films such as Tears of the Idol (1981), based on author Jeon Sang-guk’s eponymous novel, and Mandara (1981), a faithful film adaptation of author Kim Seong-dong’s philosophical Buddhist novel, represent the achievements of early 80s Korean literature.
Cho Se-Hui’s A Dwarf Launches a Little of the greatest bestselling novels in Korea of all time.rose from the darkness to become a film by director Lee Won-se.

After the mid-80s, we began to see more author and director partnerships, and this immensely diversified Korean film culture. A good example is director Lee Jang Ho’s A Wanderer Never Stops on the Road, which is based on a novel by Lee Ze-ha. Lee Jang-ho’s film, which connects the pains of a divided country with Korean shamanism, is undoubtedly one of the greatest auteur films of the 1980s. Director Lee Jang-ho scored a huge hit in the 70s with a film adaptation of Choi Inho’s novel, Hometown of the Stars. And during the 80s, his films became much more personal and introspective in nature. And by tackling the film adaptation of Lee Ze-ha’s novel, the director also ventured into experimental cinema.

From Me to You (1994), ⓒ KiweckshidaeFrom Me to You (1994)

Yi Mun-yol was one of the most highly regarded writers of the 80s. Many of his novels were turned into films, the first being Son of a Man in 1981. After That Which Falls Has Wings in 1990 and Our Twisted Hero in 1992, his influence became even more far-reaching. Our Twisted Hero, which takes place in an elementary school, is a fable-like story that deals with issues of power and authority; and both the novel and the film displayed the essential core of the writer’s worldview. Yi Mun-yol’s novels usually take the rite of passage structure often seen in classic German novels, and the beauty of his elegant prose made him one of the best writers of his generation. After the 80s, a time when Yi Mun-yol dominated the literary scene, in the 90s, authors such as Ma Kwangsoo, Haïlji, and Jang Jung-il—who fused sex with literature—caught the attention of the public.

Director Jang Sunwoo focused on transferring these writers’ words to the big screen. His adaptation of Haïlji’s The Road to Racetrack (1991) spawned the famous “What is your ideology?” line and became a huge hit. And in 1994, with the film adaptation of Jang Jung-il’s From Me to You, forcefully brought the issue of sexuality into Korean cinema. Other film adaptations of Jang Jungil novels include director Kim Ho-sun’s When Adam Opens His Eyes (1993). Author Ahn Jung Hyo’s White Badge and The Silver Stallion Will Never Come were also turned into films. Ahn Jung Hyo’s novels cultivated a new field for Korean literature: the horror and trauma of war.

A Wanerer Never Stops on the Road (1987)A Wanderer Never Stops on the Road (1987)

In the early 90s, Korean society was swept by a wave of democratization. During this period, rather than one particular director or writer dominating the scene, we witnessed the rise of a variety of works that crossed the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. Bold depictions of sex made their way into not only literature but to the big screen as well, offering a fresh perspective on taboo subject matters as a result. While the works of Ahn Jung Hyo were concerned with issues such as understanding the war generation and the repressive nature of the past, the stories of Haïlji and Jang Jung-il, as filtered through the lens of Jang Sunwoo, perfectly captured the spirit of the 90s. Their focus was more on the sentiments of the urban individual rather than the scars of history. Of course the scars of history can still be felt in lines like What is your ideology?” But in Jang Jung-il’s When Adam Opens His Eyes, we see a man (not a woman) engaging in sexual activities just to buy the things he wishes to possess. This coming-of-age tale mirrors the spirit of the 90s.


1. The Road to Race Track
Haïlji, Minumsa, 2005, 701p
ISBN 89-374-2015-5
2. From Me to You
Jang Jung-il, Gimm-Young Publishers, Inc.
2005, 365p, ISBN 89-349-1971-X
3. Tears of the Idol
Jeon Sang-guk, Minumsa, 2009, 367p
ISBN 978-89-374-2005-4
4. A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball
Cho Se-Hui, Iseonggwa Him, 2008, 351p
ISBN 89-951512-0-X 03810
5. Son of a Man
Yi Mun-yol, Minumsa, 2009, 386p
ISBN 978-89-374-8048-5
6. Deep Blue Night
Choi Inho, Jisikdumi, 2007, 213p
ISBN 978-89-7124-083-0
7. A Wanderer Never Stops on the Road
Lee Ze-ha, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2008, 295p, ISBN 89-8281-174-5 03810