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Complicated Currents

Chapter 10



Brian Yecies, University of Wollongong

Brian Yecies is Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, and Research Affiliate in the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies (CAPSTRANS) at the University of Wollongong. He has published articles and book chapters in the areas of film policy and industry in colonial Korea and post-colonial South Korea, and the coming of sound to the Australian and Korean cinemas. In 2003–2004 he was the recipient of an Asia Research Fund grant, and in 2005 he was a Korea Foundation Research Fellow at the Korean National University of the Arts. An advanced research grant in 2008 from the Korea Foundation has enabled him to complete industry fieldwork in China, USA and Korea on the study of new challenges facing the Korean film industry, including international collaborations. Currently, he and Ae-Gyung Shim are completing a research manuscript called Korea’s Occupied Cinemas, 1893–1948 for the Routledge Advances in Film Studies series.

It is well-known from important studies such as Lee (2000), James and Kim (2002), Min et al. (2003), Kim (2004), McHugh and Abelmann (2005), Shin and Stringer (2005) and Yecies (2005; 2007; 2008) that Korean cinematic history has had various notable industrial and creative periods, from the silent cinema of the late 1920s and early 1930s to the melodramas of the mid-to-late 1950s and 1960s, the new wave of critical realism films of the 1980s, and the post-Shiri (1999) era. However, it has gone largely unremarked that this history is deeply infused with the presence of Hollywood, dating back to early film exhibition in the mid-1910s under Japanese colonial rule. In each of these creative periods, as in the 1990s and after, increased exposure to Hollywood films partially inspired the rise of Korea’s ‘soft power’ in ways similar to those explained by Nye (2004) and explored by other chapters in this book.1 This chapter briefly sets the context for Hollywood’s historical relationship with colonial Korea (1910–1945) and post-Liberation South Korea (hereafter Korea) before exploring the political/economic conditions that have impacted on Korean cinema, which reached its peak of success in 2005. Press releases, trade articles and archive materials involving the Motion Picture Export Association (hereafter MPEA, the international arm of the Motion Picture Association of America), the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) and US Department of State give us a new understanding of how the US film industry influenced the liberalization of Korea’s film market. Alongside the MPEA’s relentless volley of negotiations and its pointing to Korea as a ‘gold mine’, filmmakers, policy advocates and those managing the industry’s business affairs began implementing different methods of re-shaping Korean cinema and cinema-going in general.

While Hollywood was pursuing Korea, Korea’s national film industry – or what I call a ‘CinemaTiger’ (a metaphor for an industry that has the ferocity and tenacity of a tiger, and particularly appropriate here, given the Korean peninsula’s longstanding symbolic associations with a tiger) – began to wake from its slumber, rising to local and global fame. This CinemaTiger resulted from the social, political and cultural changes brought about after Korea’s first civilian president, Kim Young Sam, took office in 1993. The radical break from decades of military rulers led to the government’s elimination of film censorship in 1996 and the emergence of aesthetically provocative, genre-bending commercial filmmakers who captured the imaginations and ticket sales of young audiences. Global recognition of Korean cinema has focused on not only its fresh genre experimentation and narrative styles and the way it won the lion’s share of domestic box office revenue from 2001, but also its excellence in proactive film policy (Jin 2006; Park 2002; Kim 2000). Moreover, in 2005 this excellence had flowed outward to the export market, enabling filmmakers to attract international audiences.

Korea is but one of many territories where Hollywood films have reigned supreme and where local import and screen quotas have faced unrelenting pressure from the US. For instance, in the late 1980s, prior to the Mexican government’s signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the US and Canada in 1992, the number of Mexican films reached about 100 per year. Yet, after NAFTA went into effect on 1 January 1994, the US required Mexico to reduce its film import quotas, contributing to the decimation of the local production industry.2 After Taiwan began reducing import quota restrictions in the lead-up to joining the WTO in 2001, it too witnessed a sharp decline in its domestic film industry. However, in light of these cases and in the context of the effectiveness of the Hollywood major studios’ overseas campaigns illustrated by Vasey (1997), Jarvie (1992) and Thompson (1985), Korea’s cinematic history reveals complexities. Korea has kept its domestic market protected by safeguarding the Screen Quota System (SQS) – although it was cut in half in 2006 – and the opening of Korea to US films in the late 1980s eventually pushed the domestic film industry in directions that enabled it to achieve domestic and international recognition. This combination of internal and external factors makes Korea unique because its renaissance was leveraged into a net flow to the outside world.


For more than a hundred years, Korea has been nurtured as a valuable market for cultural content flowing from the US (and the UK) and more directly from the centre of Hollywood. From the mid-1890s, missionaries used magic lanterns and outdoor slide shows to educate and entertain Koreans as well as American, British, Chinese and Japanese expatriates living in or near Seoul, and throughout the 1910s regular screenings of commercial entertainment films from the US (and also from France, the UK and Japan) began to appear around Seoul.3 Between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s, Korea was a large market for US films, surpassing Japan for a time (Yecies 2005; 2007). Hundreds of Hollywood films distributed and exhibited in Korea, such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Captured (1933), 42nd Street (1933) and Blackmail (1939) tickled the imaginations of audiences. These visually entertaining films contained narratives that Korean (and Japanese) audiences could easily appreciate. The so-called Golden Age of Hollywood in colonial Korea – a largely one-way flow of foreign cultural content – lasted until the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. This period coincided with a relatively small boom of domestic silent film production, demonstrating that the domestic industry grew together with the increased exhibition of foreign films. At this time, in order to serve Japan’s military agenda, the Government-General of Korea began limiting people’s exposure to American culture by banning US films and controlling the film industry while initiating wide-scale suppression of Korean language and culture. In the post-liberation period (1945–1948), the US Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) allowed the re-introduction of hundreds of Hollywood films, which portrayed themes of democracy, gender equality and ‘everyday American ideals’, while the country was being disentangled from the Japanese Empire and its anti-American ideology. New cultural flows between the US and Korea had begun, giving birth to a new generation of cinemagoers while providing valuable training and experience to a small number of Koreans who joined documentary and newsreel production crews under the USAMGIK’s Department of Public Information and the US Information Service (USIS) (Bruns 1949).

The devastation of the Korean War stunted the film industry’s growth until the Park Chunghee regime (1961–1979). After the conflict, in the words of one Warner Bros. executive, South Korea was a ‘ripe field for American pictures’ because ‘the aftermath of war in any country leaves a great need for relaxation and entertainment’ (Cohen 1953). Hollywood’s return to Korea in the post-war era had begun, but it soon withered. Authoritarian President Park limited the distribution and exhibition of films and initiated a screen quota on top of strict import limitations by promulgating the Motion Picture Law.4

As a result, since the early 1960s the US – one of Korea’s largest trading partners – has been demanding that Korea liberalize its market by relaxing film import restrictions and opening up to ‘free competition’ and ‘diversity’. However, allowing a more robust flow of Hollywood films and American culture into Korea was a low priority for the Park regime. At the same time, the Park government prioritized market protection in order to elevate Korea’s competitiveness with foreign industries. Throughout the 1960s, filmmakers such as Lee Man-hee, Chung Chang-hwa, Shin Sang-ok, Yu Hyun-mok and Kim Ki-young were among the most notable directors in a ‘robust invalid’ industry that was juggling financial and government censorship demands (Wade 1969). During this time, the MPEA monitored Korean trade regulations and film industry statistics with continued interest (MPEA 1964).5 Jack Valenti, a key figure in this history, became the president of the MPEA and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1966, the same year that Korea’s SQS was born.6 For the MPEA, penetrating the Korean market could only be made possible by toppling Korea’s robust trade barriers, which in 1965 allowed only 53 imported films, and smashing the control of print rental prices held by government-licensed production companies in the Korean Film Producers Association.

At their peak in 1969, 173 million tickets were sold to films released in this single year (Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation [KMPPC] 1977: 156). This figure, astounding at the time, was equal to an average of 5.6 screenings per capita – five times higher than 1998 and double that of 2004, which is close to the peak of success for the Korean cinema’s latest Golden Age (Korean Cinema 2007: 495). The MPEA wanted a larger slice of these voluminous ticket sales, and local MPEA liaisons attempted to convince the Park administration of the long-term benefits of liberalizing the film market. Negotiators, such as Cha Yun, advocated the importing of a minimum of 100 US films and the opening of local MPEA offices, which potentially would streamline the distribution process (Cha 2003). At the same time, the MPEA offered to explore avenues for new technical and export training for the domestic film industry, which, if successful, would have enabled the aforementioned filmmakers to expose their aesthetic sensibilities and skills to a wider international audience. However, as Shim (2006) observes, Korean popular culture had minimal export facility before the late 1990s. In fact, according to figures from the KMPPC (1977: 79) filmmakers only managed to export about 37 films per year between 1962 and 1968. Before any deals could be brokered, Korean cinema had begun experiencing a ‘dark age’ in terms of declining box office revenues and the number (and quality) of films produced annually. However, before any deals could be brokered, Korean cinema had begun experiencing a ‘dark age’ in terms of decline in box office revenues and the number (and quality) of films produced annually. For the remainder of the 1970s an average of only 49 feature films per year were imported – mostly from the US. A quiet slumber fell over Korean cinema while this small number of US films, which were first imported to offices in Japan, were inefficiently re-negotiated on a flat-fee basis by MPEA-friendly (that is, Japanese) middlemen serving the Korean market.

Amid this slumber, and the production and release of a melange of soft-porn ‘hostess’ films, a new generation of hopeful artists and filmmakers began contemplating pathways for making films. One group of nascent filmmakers, calling themselves the Yeongsang Sidae (Visual Generation) and using the British ‘Free Cinema’ and the French ‘New Wave’ (La Nouvelle Vague) movements as models, created a manifesto that disconnected them from older generations of filmmakers. Despite, or perhaps because of, a lack of freedom of expression and limited aesthetic and narrative models to emulate, these aspiring filmmakers found new spaces for thinking about the form, style and purpose of cinema. Like-minded film buffs and other individuals such as Chung Ji-young, Chung Sung-ill, Huh Moon-young, Jang Gil-soo, Kang Han-sup, Kim Hongjoon, Park Kwang-su and Shin Chul gathered at special screenings, such as those that began in Seoul in 1977 at the French Cultural Center and in 1978 at the German Cultural Center, to wax philosophical on film (Kim 2007: 259). These centres played an important role in exposing Koreans to the diversity of foreign film culture and to the general study of cinema. Many members of this ‘cultural centre generation’ number among contemporary Korean cinema’s top directors, producers, critics, festival organizers, scholars, and policy and cultural diversity advocates.


During General Chun Doo-hwan’s military rule (1980–1988), the government upped the protection of the film industry and arts more generally as a national policy while simultaneously opening the market to free competition. However, censorship remained unchanged. Domestic and foreign films were closely reviewed by the Performance Ethics Committee (hereafter PEC), Korea’s primary censorship organization, which in 1979 began censoring films before their public release. Political and sexual themes had been long identified as chief targets for censorship, especially anything that showed communism and North Korea in a positive light.7 Nevertheless, ironically, or perhaps cleverly because sexual themes potentially enabled audiences to momentarily escape the reality of living under a dictatorship, censors generally overlooked eroticism and the exploitation of sex (including rape scenes). In fact, as Kim (2007) observes, allowing the portrayal of sex in ‘hostess’ and ‘ero’ genre films was an apparent part of a larger government approach to cultural policy (and to securing the 1988 Olympics), which became known as the ‘3S Policy’: ‘sex, screen and sports’. This sexualizing and athleticizing of the nation also drew public attention away from the bloody and horrific Kwangju Massacre that occurred in May 1980, and subsequent criticism of the government.

As Yim (2002: 40–41) observes, policy initiatives in the Chun administration attempted to forge a new national cultural identity by promoting excellence in the arts, growth in regional culture and the expansion of international cultural exchanges. As a mechanism for achieving this aim the government modified the SQS. By 1981 the number of required screening days for domestic films was set to a minimum of 165, Korea’s highest quota to that date. In order to meet this ambitious quota – and to offer something uniquely different from crowd-drawing Hollywood films – a variety of strategies emerged from within Korean cinema. However, because of the government’s authoritarian rule over the film industry and society, local filmmakers and artists had little freedom to engage in social criticism and thus were challenged by these constraints.

Im Kwon-taek is a well-known director who ‘stood up to the challenge of international art film standards’ (Kim Kyung-hyun 2002: 35) and made a slew of films during the 1980s (and beyond) – averaging nearly two per year in the 1980s alone. Im stood apart from other filmmakers by making thought-provoking films that probed Korea’s relationships with art, history and culture. One of Im’s best-known films from this period is Mandala (1981) – his 75th film – portraying a heavy-drinking, randy Buddhist monk who seeks enlightenment by helping others on a journey across Korea rather than through conventional practices such as meditation. The film only made about US$100,000 at the box office in Seoul (James and Kim 2002: 253), but it fared well in the West where it received the Grand Prix at the 1981 Hawaii Film Festival and was screened in the Panorama section of the 1982 Berlin International Film Festival.8 Other active directors who contributed films across multiple genres and in differing aesthetic and narrative styles include Lee Jang-ho, Bae Chang-ho and Lee Doo-yong. The 59 films made between the aforementioned four directors represent sparks of light under military rule – alongside the occasional erotic thrillers and ‘splatter’ films such as Kang Beom-gu’s Strange Dead Bodies (Goesi 1981) and Kim In-soo’s The Vengeful Vampire Girl (Heuphyeolgwi yeonyeo 1981) that helped to fill the quota of domestic films.

Meanwhile, intense discussions concerning trade barriers to the US film industry were now taking place on an annual basis before various US Congressional Hearings. Using bilateral trade agreements was seen as one of the most effective methods to liberalize the film trade and to expand the rental income of US films in Korea (among other countries). By making the restriction of US films a trade issue, the MPEA aligned itself with the USTR, whose core job was to open world markets for US goods and services, and thus, aligned its campaign with the US government’s counter-trade restriction policies. The Chun government took notice of the importance of catering to Hollywood. In July 1984, Screen International reported that the Korean government was terminating its film import quota while liberalizing the domestic production system. Lifting the foreign film quota had the potential to placate the MPEA by teasing open a door for US films, which was already ajar in the region due to Hollywood’s ‘very good’ business in Japan (Baskin 1985). The report simultaneously increased Korea’s chances of maintaining ‘Normal Trade Relations’ (NTR) status (formerly known as Most Favoured Nation status) with the US. Chun’s government was about to change the entire landscape of the film industry in Korea, which between 1975 and 1984 had imported an average of only 33 foreign films per year – all while guaranteeing lower tariffs for exported Korean autos, computer parts, and telecommunications equipment when they entered the US. Korea was one of the world’s fastest-developing film markets, predicted to yield upwards of US$40 million in rental billings per year (Park and Segers 1988).9 The MPEA went further than simply enticing Korea to lift the foreign film embargo.

On 11 September 1985, MPEA member companies filed a formal complaint with the USTR under Section 301 of the US Trade Act (San Francisco Chronicle 1985). The USTR, which develops trade policies between the US and foreign nations, welcomed MPEA claims of ‘unreasonable’ and ‘discriminatory’ limitations on film distribution in Korea. The MPEA reiterated that Korea’s screen quota obstructed its members’ rights to greater access. Throughout the 1980s the PEC hindered the distribution of Hollywood films because it mandated that only one foreign film could be censored at any given time. This was a key method used to maintain centralized control over the flow of foreign media content. MPEA complaints were also directed at the PEC’s practice of taking two to three months to approve a foreign film – clearly a long and drawn-out process.

The MPEA’s grumbles – voiced in Valenti (1986; 1987) – came at an opportune time because of the new prospects for contemporary art and transnational cultural exchange opened by president Chun’s Ministry of Culture and Information. In the lead-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, government spending on arts and culture grew by leaps and bounds, which diverted attention away from the military dictatorship and improved the image of Chun’s regime. A gate for the direct distribution of US films – closed since the 1960s – was about to be forced open. Few in Korea could have predicted the effects this development would have on the local film industry.

Film industry workers, policy makers, cultural diversity advocates, academics and the general public in Korea were reminded that Hollywood saw Korea as a ‘potential sleeping giant’ for English language films (Hollinger 1988). In addition, the 40,000 US troops stationed in Korea were considered a notable, captive audience for American films (Variety 1987). It was as if audiences in Korea were believed to be standing around waiting for Hollywood films. Yet, in reality, audiences were enjoying a new breed of local competition between established directors such as Im Kwon-taek and fresh talent – dubbed the ‘Korean New Wave’ by foreign critics – such as Park Kwang-su, Park Chong-won, Jeong Ji-yeong, Jang Sun-woo, among others. The latter group of young directors made a number of diverse social-realist and politically conscious films – broaching themes of human trafficking, family disputes, labour unrest, community protests and women’s issues – that were partly inspired by the sensibilities of Latin America’s Third Cinema movement, which emerged in the 1960s. This was a period of transformative political and social change led by a democratization movement to which the above filmmakers contributed an intellectual edge. In 1988, according to Korean Cinema (1989: 5), these younger directors were ‘on the move’, seemingly winning or at least influencing the hearts and minds of domestic audiences by producing the top seven box office performances and four out of the country’s best five films of the year. The CinemaTiger cub was beginning to mature.

In 1988, in order to maintain preferential trade status and probably to appear pro-American, the government of the newly elected president Roh Tae-woo (1988–1993) capitulated to MPEA demands, granting Hollywood distributors an opening that had been sealed to insulate Korea from external, mostly ideological, influences. MPL amendments reduced screen quota restrictions, and censorship measures limiting the number of films and film prints were removed. MPEA member companies could now open branch offices in Seoul and directly distribute Hollywood films. The floodgate for change had been pried open, and the MPEA surged forward with a deluge of films. Korean cinema was expanding from the outside in and the inside out. During president Roh’s administration the SQS remained fortified under neo-liberal economic and cultural policies; Roh’s Ministry of Culture mandated that every cinema must screen domestic films for a minimum of 106 days a year, or 29 per cent of total screening days. Although the government had preserved the integrity of the SQS, US distributors now had greater access to Korean audiences – a hostile foray that would soon encounter aggressive and highly organized resistance.


In September 1988, shortly after UIP opened its direct-distribution office and immediately before the Seoul Olympic Games, hundreds of filmmakers, stars, cultural protection advocates, opposition political party members, academics and film students protested against the Hollywood majors’ penetration of Korea by marching in the Myongdong ‘peace district’ area of Seoul. This was the first of many well-organized events designed to lure the world’s attention to the fight to protect Korea’s film industry. One of the first directly distributed US films was Paramount’s Fatal Attraction (1987). Protestors picketed Seoul cinemas screening this violent story about adultery. Red signs screamed ‘Yankee, go home’ and ‘Down with American movies’, drawing a frenzy of media attention (Park and Segers 1988). Protests called for a boycott of Fatal Attraction and other directly distributed American films because they were seen as a cultural invasion and a threat to Korea’s film industry. Staunch supporters of the industry had the reasonable fear that US pictures would dominate the market: in 1985 only 30 foreign films were imported, while in 1988 the figure increased fivefold to 176. Of dire concern was the prospect of US companies sucking the creative cinematic livelihood and all profits out of Korea’s film industry.

To elevate the protest against the US, members of the Korean film industry in mid-September threatened to release live snakes in cinemas screening Fatal Attraction and the teen-pic *batteries not included (1987) (Farhi 1988; Kramer 1988). Then on 30 September and 1 October – during the final days of the Olympics – protestors actually did release snakes in three cinemas, hoping to scare away patrons who might not agree with the protest or understand its ramifications. Multiple screenings were cancelled, and riot police kept protesters at bay as tensions between the KMPPC, Ministry of Culture and MPEA rose to new levels (Variety 1988; MPEA 1988). Valenti immediately lodged a new round of complaints of ‘unfair’ trade with the USTR, once again accusing Korea of hindering the distribution of US films. Naturally the MPEA and representatives of other US industries had a definition of ‘unfair’ that few nations agreed with. What neither party could possibly foresee, however, was how the Roh government’s open door policy towards Hollywood would soon foster a new type of cultural exchange that would impact positively on the film industry and Korean culture in general.

After 1988 and for most of the 1990s, the number of imported films increased dramatically. With this onslaught of foreign films, new cinemas had to be built and a new generation began attending movies. In just over a decade, the number of screens grew by 326 per cent (from 577 in 1995, to 1880 in 2006) in order to meet this demand. Unexpectedly, this new generation of cinemagoers became a crucial variable for making Korean films popular in their own domestic market. Hence, among a host of other factors that led to the success of contemporary Korean cinema, one could argue that the transnational flow of Hollywood (and a smaller number of other countries’) films in Korea had encouraged millions of new cinemagoers. Yet, Hollywood’s influential role in the domestic market had not been a fait accompli. In order to extract riches from the ‘gold mine’ US distributors focused on getting the Korean government to remove numerous obstacles, such as high import duties, and increasing screen time for US films that had been limited by the SQS. They also co-financed or at least encouraged the construction of additional and more modern cinemas that eventually overcame the previous decade’s spiraling downward audience figures. In doing so, a new Golden Age of Hollywood in Korea had begun.

Due to the MPAA’s success in negotiating with the Korean government, members of the Korean film industry and other cultural diversity advocates experienced an epiphany concerning what they could accomplish without the heavy hand of government – particularly after Kim Young-sam (1993–1998) was elected. As Korea’s first civilian president since 1960, Kim Young-sam initiated a wave of social, cultural, political and economic reforms. Part of the Korean film industry began testing the waters with new self-governing initiatives. One of the earliest accomplishments was the voluntary revitalization of the SQS in 1993 by the Screen Quota Watch Group (later known as the Coalition for Cultural Diversity in Moving Images, or CDMI). CDMI was formed by younger members of the film industry in reaction to exhibitors’ refusal to screen the required number of domestic films because of the larger profits associated with imported films. The group had emerged when other countries, such as France, were mounting fervent lobbying against the incorporation of ‘audiovisual industries’ in GATT and WTO negotiations. It aimed to ensure the survival of the SQS – as if it were the industry’s most important safeguard (Yang 2004).10 Their efforts became a crucial support mechanism and confidence builder for aspiring as well as established Korean filmmakers. The CDMI, KOFIC (Korean Film Council) and other bodies throughout the film industry in Korea and elsewhere believed (and still believe) that bilateral trade negotiations are inappropriate fora for exerting influence over another country’s audiovisual industry quotas and cultural policies.11

In 1996, in a move that benefited the importation and increased the flow of US and other foreign films, as well as the production and distribution of domestic films, the Korean Constitutional Court ruled that the cutting of a film by the government-appointed PEC review board was unconstitutional. Before this time, all domestic film scripts had to be approved in the pre-production stage and all foreign films had to be examined by the PEC, which had maintained these powers since its formation in the late 1970s. However, because of the 1996 ruling, filmmakers experienced an awakening and began self-consciously exploring freedom of expression; censorship was now considered a feature of Korea’s past authoritarian governments (Kim Hyae-joon 2002). The time was ripe for the production and exhibition of more domestic feature films, and new directors such as Lee Chang-dong, Kim Ki-duk, Lee Myung-se, Im Sang-soo, Kim Sang-Jin, Park Chan-wook, Jang Jin, Hong Sang-soo, Song Neung-han, Lee Young-jae, Lim Soon-rye and Kim Ji-woon, among others, rose to the occasion.

By the late 1990s, Korean films had begun making a mark at home and abroad. Although the number of cinemas was declining (from 507 in 1998, to 373 in 1999), the actual number of screens was on the rise (from 507 in 1998, to 588 in 1999). The number of cinemagoers was on the rise too, totalling 50 million for 1998 and growing to more than 54 million a year later (Korean Cinema 2007: 495). This surge – in the wake of the 1997 IMF crisis – was fuelled in large part by the unexpected and extraordinary success of Kang Je-gyu’s blockbuster Shiri (1999), which exceeded US$25 million at the box office and outsold Titanic to become the then top-selling Korean film of all time. Increased formal training opportunities for aspiring filmmakers at home and abroad, and increased public and private funding had contributed to the Korean film industry’s expansion – right before the eyes of the MPAA, which seemed caught off guard. During this period, Korean cinema began rising on its tiger’s paws to never before seen heights, which has been well documented in Variety and Hollywood Reporter headlines, on Darcy Paquet’s internationally known, comprehensive website Koreanfilm.org12 and in numerous KOFIC quarterly and annual online reports. By April 2000, Hollywood distributors were reportedly learning lessons from the Korean film industry and releasing US films at times that avoided vigorous competition from Korean blockbusters (Segers 2000). Indeed, the renaissance had come, but on Korean terms. The CinemaTiger had awakened. In 2005 Korea’s total export sales reached almost US$76 million, which is 365 times more than that of exports recorded for 1995 (Korean Cinema 2005: 400). Korea’s creative output, along with the intellectual debates its cinema had encouraged from the mid-to-late 1980s, effectively boosted its soft power. Despite the fact that since 2006 the industry has felt a sharp downturn in the value of its exports to the Asia-Pacific and Europe – with only US$24.5 million and US$12.2 million in 2006 and 2007 respectively – the number of films exported annually increased from 38 in 2000, to 321 in 2007 (Korean Cinema 2008: 464). Ultimately, this large reduction in sales has hurt domestic production values, but not the spread of Korean cinema.


Since the end of World War II and the formation of the MPEA, the US view of the global creative and cultural market has revolved around an economic imperative to dominate the transnational flow of films as ‘goods’. In response, the Korean government – although it did not always see eye to eye with the film industry – attempted to maintain an autonomous and overtly nationalistic imperative to control transnational cultural flows. Recasting this history in light of the boom and uncertain future of the Korean film industry is significant because it challenges conventional understandings of Hollywood’s global influence and Korea’s long-term negotiating abilities regarding cultural matters. Rather than causing the destruction of the local market, as once feared, the floodgates of cinematic possibilities that Hollywood opened in the mid-1980s had a positive impact. While Hollywood increased its presence in Korea, Koreans gained direct exposure to a global system, enabling Korea’s film industry to become what Berry (2002: 1) calls a ‘full service cinema’, which embraces ‘a full range of modes of production and consumption’.

Momentous changes occurred right before the 1988 Seoul Olympics when the number of Hollywood films allowed into the Korean market without interference from local middlemen soared to 176. The ‘dream factory’ had inspired young cinemagoers to study filmmaking and to think about ways of revitalizing the local film industry. At the same time, the deluge of Hollywood films was a goad to chaebols such as Samsung and Daewoo, which began investing in the local film industry. The chaebols got behind the production and widespread diffusion of VCRs and, as a result, created a production boom that was needed to fill the vacuum created by the loss of content due to Hollywood distributors gaining direct rights to US films and videos. Chungmuro – Korea’s ‘Hollywood’, and the centre of its film industry – was fundamentally transformed from parochial to creative and adventurous. The market, rapidly expanding with increased investment, facilitated new and exciting commercial entertainment films and directors. Combined, these variables have helped filmmakers to breathe universality into their narratives and characters while maintaining a distinct Korean sentiment. The growth that Hollywood had hoped to see in Korea had materialized, but in a Korean way.

After 1996, Korean cinema began to attract international attention for its diverse range of subject matter, genres, and narrative and aesthetic styles. A generation of directors that had survived the previous suppression of creative and cultural expression made films in new ways, capturing the attention and the purses of young viewers at home. Moreover, mainstream and festival audiences across Asia and beyond could not seem to get enough of Korean cinema – hence the outward shaping and flow of the cinematic component of the ‘Korean Wave’. The lid on a suppressed industry had been lifted, and the CinemaTiger broke free.

Nonetheless, 2005 apparently represents a high point for Korean cinema, and its days as a ‘CinemaTiger’ may be numbered. As of 2009, Korean cinema has continued to experience significant internal restructuring as part of its larger historical continuum of development, including new labour laws – which the industry is finding costly to implement – effective solutions to piracy and illegal downloading, expanded funding for diverse types of filmmaking and film exhibition, and the active pursuit of international co-productions. These are all major challenges confronting not only Korean cinema but also cinemas across the Asia-Pacific as they transform and look for new collaborations between diverse cultures and regulatory environments.13 While the growth and development of Korean cinema remains in flux, revisiting the antecedents of its contemporary boom offers a new understanding of the pivotal role that Hollywood has played and is still playing in the long-term transformation of media flows and the exercise of soft power in East Asia and across the globe.


The author thanks colleagues Ben Goldsmith from the Australian Film Television and Radio School and Ae-Gyung Shim from the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at the University of New South Wales, as well as the anonymous referees and book’s editors for their valuable suggestions. The Asia Research Fund and a Korea Foundation Advanced Research Grant provided crucial funding for this work in progress. Ned Comstock at the USC Cinema/Television Library, Joy Kim at the USC Korean Heritage/East Asian Library, Barbara Hall at the Margaret Herrick Library-Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and others at the USC Warner Bros. Archives–School of Cinema-Television and UCLA Arts Special Collections provided valuable assistance with their archive collections.


1   The term ‘soft power’ is used here in a general sense to describe the ambiguous attractiveness of one country’s culture and its ability to influence the consumption habits, tastes and attitudes of foreign peoples.

2   The number of domestic films produced between 1995 and 2002 ranged from 10 to 27, and the number of domestic films released between 2003 and 2007 averaged 25 per year – with a record low of zero in 2004 (Kim 2003: 89; Australian Film Commission 1989). Although the number of local films produced in Mexico has slowly increased from 36 in 2003, to 70 in 2007, limited screening opportunities due to the overwhelming number of US films in the market has enabled only between 47 per cent and 77 per cent of these films to be exhibited.

3   A detailed discussion of the beginnings of cinema and the regularization of film distribution, exhibition and reception activities in Korea can be found in Yecies and Shim (forthcoming).

4   Korea’s contemporary Screen Quota System originates from the 1966 amendment to the Motion Picture Law of 1962, which required every cinema to exhibit domestic films for a minimum number of days each year. This system guaranteed screen time, but not box-office performance. Park also protected the distribution and exhibition of Korean films by establishing an annual quota of imported films.

5   Since its formation in 1945, MPEA representatives have appeared frequently before the US Congress to speak against international trade blockades. Valenti’s dramatic testimony, and that of MPEA President Eric Johnston (1958) before him, presented these as life and death scenarios from which the American film, and potentially all, industries might suffer.

6   The MPEA benefited greatly from the appointment of Valenti because of his (and his advertising/political consulting agency’s) experience in dealing with the White House, dating back to John F. Kennedy’s administration. During his 38-year reign as president of the MPAA-MPEA (1966–2004), Valenti created a mini-State Department, speaking before Congress and utilizing field offices throughout the world to negotiate directly with high-ranking government, non-government and film industry leaders (Valenti 1968; Valenti 1976; Valenti 1977; Valenti 1989).

7   According to Doherty (1984: 844–845), Enter the Dragon (1973) starring Bruce Lee was released in Korea without showing the police getting beaten, but nearly all of the other violence and sex were untouched.

8   Building on this success, Im and Song Kil-han, a writer he often collaborated with, made Surrogate Mother (1987), which was invited to the 1987 Venice Film Festival. Here, its starring actress Kang Su-yeon won the Best Actress award – probably the foremost international accolade that a Korean film had won to that date. According to the Korean Cinema Yearbook, Surrogate Mother broke all previous export records by reaching sales of US$455,000 to Europe and Asia, grossing more than US$1 million at the box office in Taiwan (KMPPC 1989: 212).

9   In November 1985 the Ministry of Culture and Information proposed to increase the maximum number of annual screening days for foreign films from 200 days to 245. It also promised that US film companies could open direct distribution offices and service cinemas, TV stations and videotape rental businesses without restraint. It is precisely this increased access to the Korean market that pushed the industry in a host of new directions.

10  Since its formation, CDMI has calculated meticulously the total number of screening days for domestic films while actively participating in international meetings of cultural professional organizations. The organization was successful with this aim until early 2006 when the Roh Moo-hyun government halved the SQS from 146 to 73 days per year.

11  Korea’s ‘David and Goliath’ story was spotlighted at the October 2005 General Conference of UNESCO, which met in Paris. The Korean case became one of the catalysts for pursuing an international policy instrument – the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression – designed to enable member states to reinforce cultural diversity and protect cultural content while facing international trade giants such as China and the US. In January 2006, three months after the UNESCO meeting, the Roh Moo-hyun government halved the SQS, after 40 years of pressure from the US. While a majority of UNESCO member states have embraced the need for strong national cultural policy, the US has moved in the opposite direction, arguing against the need for any country other than the US to protect its locally produced cultural goods.


13  Co-production treaties serve as one of the key means of engaging with other countries and facilitating transnational cultural flows, yet all international collaborative productions need not go through formal treaties to apply for government and semi-government (Korean Film Council) support programs and investment funds. As of September 2008, Korea had formal co-production treaties with France and New Zealand. More research is needed in the burgeoning area of international collaboration and its impact on the Korean cinema.


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Cite this chapter as: Yecies, Brian. 2010. ‘Inroads for cultural traffic: Breeding Korea’s cinematiger’. In Complicated Currents: Media Flows, Soft Power and East Asia, edited by Black, Daniel; Epstein, Stephen; Tokita, Alison. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 10.1–10.14.


©Copyright 2010 Brian Yecies

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Complicated Currents

   by Daniel Black, Stephen Epstein and Alison Tokita