A Brief History of Korean Cinema: From “Arirang” to “Parasite”

Feb 27, 2024 | Articles, Movies

A Brief History of Korean Cinema is a pivotal guide for anyone looking to delve into the rich tapestry of South Korean cinema. The article traces the evolution from the 1926 silent film “Arirang” to the Oscar-winning masterpiece “Parasite.” This journey through Korean film history not only reveals the thematic depth and artistic innovation of the industry but also parallels the exhilarating experience of exploring diverse narratives and cultural expressions. Similarly, for those who appreciate the excitement of discovery of engaging with varied stories, https://www.staycasino8.com/en-AU offers a gaming online platform that resonates with the spirit of adventure and creativity found in Korean cinema.


1926: “Arirang,” directed by Na Un-gyu

“Arirang” is considered a masterpiece of Korean silent film cinema. The film’s title refers to the famous folk song symbolizing freedom and unity. It tells the story of Korea during the Japanese occupation, when some fought against the invaders while others were forced to become collaborators. The main character, a participant in the Korean liberation movement, loses his sanity due to torture in prison. After being released, he returns to his native village and, due to a tragic turn of events, kills a fellow villager who had become a collaborator. The film’s political message made it popular among contemporaries, and it became a source of inspiration for future generations of filmmakers. Like many other films of the period, “Arirang” was lost during the Korean War but entered the annals of Korean cinema history as one of the first anti-colonial Korean films.


1960: “The Housemaid” (“The Maid”), directed by Kim Ki-young

Korean cinema in the first half of the 20th century existed despite circumstances – Japanese colonizers controlled culture, including the filmmaking process, and films in the Korean language were banned. During the Korean War, dozens of early films were destroyed, and it was only by the 60s that the film industry began to recover. “The Housemaid” was one of the first harbingers of the renaissance of Korean cinema, a thriller about the family of a middle-class music teacher, Mr. Kim. His pregnant wife, struggling to manage the household while raising two children and working overtime, leads Kim to hire a maid, Myung Suk (Lee Eun-shim), which turns out to be a fatal mistake. “The Housemaid” shocked audiences with its erotic undertones present in every frame, marking a turning point in Korean cinema history. For the first time, an emancipated woman was portrayed on screen, albeit in a negative light, through the prism of horror.


1992: “Marriage Story” (“A Story of Life in Marriage”), directed by Kim Ui-seok

In 1988, restrictions on the distribution of foreign films were lifted. Audiences began to prefer Hollywood cinema, leading to a crisis in the Korean film industry. The number of films produced sharply decreased, and many film companies ceased their operations. By 1993, Korean cinema accounted for only 15.9% of the market, the lowest figure since the mid-1950s. At this point, chaebols – large business conglomerates – entered the scene. As manufacturers of electronics, including VCRs, they were interested in producing films for video rental. “A Story of Life in Marriage” was created by Samsung’s video division. Kim Ui-seok’s film became the highest-grossing South Korean film of 1992 and the fourth most attended Korean film from 1990 to 1995. The plot of the film was revolutionary. A newlywed couple discovers they have less in common than they thought after their honeymoon and learns to overcome their differences.


1999: “Shiri,” directed by Kang Je-gyu

The most expensive film in the history of South Korean cinema at the time of its release, with a budget of $8.5 million. “Shiri” not only recouped its costs but also set another box office record, firmly establishing Korean commercial cinema in leading positions. “Shiri” is a secret terrorist unit of elite special forces from North Korea, named after a small and defiant fish. The pride of the unit is an agent named Hee (Kang Ho-sung) – a desperate fanatic whose spirit cannot be broken. Now, two of South Korea’s best agents face a dangerous task: to catch the elusive Hee and neutralize the North Korean spies. “Shiri” was the first major film to directly address the theme of the division between North and South Korea.


2002: “Chihwaseon” (“Strokes of Fire”), directed by Im Kwon-taek

Another important work by the classic Im Kwon-taek, dedicated to Korean history and culture. The film won numerous awards at various Korean film festivals, and the director became the first Korean to take the prize for Best Director at the 55th Cannes Film Festival. The events of the film unfold at the end of the 19th century, against the backdrop of internal political tension in Korea, torn apart by Japanese and Chinese ambitions. The main character is the artist Jang Seung-up (Choi Min-sik), who was among the greatest painters of the late Joseon era. The film tells the story of his life and work, his struggle with fame, addiction to alcohol, his complicated romance with the geisha Mae-hyang, and conflicts with Japanese clients. Director Im Kwon-taek’s career underwent a very interesting transformation from craftsmanship to authorship. In his mature years, he stopped making mass genre films and focused on art cinema. Kwon-taek became a researcher of national culture and ultimately a living classic. “Chihwaseon” solidified his status in this role.


2006: “The Host,” directed by Bong Joon-ho

The film once again broke box office records. From this point on, the share of all Korean films in distribution increased to 64%. Bong Joon-ho masterfully mixes genres, presenting a family drama and social satire under the guise of a disaster film. The main characters are three generations of average Koreans who run a snack bar on the riverbank. Due to the carelessness and cynicism of American soldiers, a monster appears in the water, threatening local residents and destroying everything in its path. The film was inspired by a real story: in February 2000, a civilian employee of a US military base located in the center of Seoul, on the orders of his superiors, poured formaldehyde into the sewage system, leading to pollution of the Han River.


2016: “The Handmaiden,” directed by Park Chan-wook

South Korean cinema was freed from censorship only in the 90s, but movies and series still contain many taboo subjects. First and foremost, this concerns physicality and sex. In this sense, Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” was revolutionary. It is the first Korean film about the relationship between two women in the genre of an erotic thriller. “The Handmaiden” participated in the Cannes Film Festival competition and received a BAFTA award as the best film in a foreign language. The film is an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” but the action is transposed from the Victorian era to Korea occupied by the Japanese. According to the plot, conman Count Fujiwara offers a girl from a poor family, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), to participate in a certain scheme.


2018: “Burning,” directed by Lee Chang-dong

The first Korean film to make the shortlist for the Oscars. Although “Burning” was ultimately not nominated for the prestigious award, the precedent was important for South Korean cinema and paved the way for the future success of “Parasite.” “Burning” is an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning.” A young man named Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), in love with the young model Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who he grew up with, is asked by Hae-mi to look after her cat while she is traveling. She returns with a wealthy friend Ben (Steven Yeun). The trio spends time together, but a growing tension is felt in their relationship. During one of their joint walks, Ben tells his friends about his strange hobby, which completely changes the lives of all the characters. The presence of several plotlines and a shift in genre focus provide ample space for the interpretation of the film’s events.


2019: “Parasite,” directed by Bong Joon-ho

The first South Korean winner of the Oscar in two main categories – “Best Picture” and “Best International Feature Film.” “Parasite” took home four statuettes, including for directing and screenplay, and was the first film in history to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Bong Joon-ho’s sharp social satire tells the story of the Kim Ki-taek family (Song Kang-ho), who, with his wife and two children, lives in a semi-basement apartment and barely makes ends meet. One day, his son is offered a part-time job as a tutor. Forging educational documents and making a good impression on the clients, the newly minted teacher finds a way to employ all his family members. Encountering luxurious life, the Kim family loses caution, which jeopardizes their cunning scheme and leads to unimaginable consequences. “Parasite” collected a colossal number of awards, including the “Golden Globe,” “Saturn,” “César,” British and American Academy Awards.


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Thomas B.