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Surfing the Korean Wave

The Korea Society

As part of the New York Korean Film Festival, The Korea Society hosted an Aug. 28 documentary screening and panel discussion on the past, present and future of Korean cinema and the Korean wave cultural phenomenon, Hallyu, sweeping across Asia and the West. 

"Cinema Korea," a documentary by Oscar-nominated director Christine Choy, combines talking head interviews with filmmakers and actors, archival footage of classic Korean films and an overview of national history and culture to contextualize its current popularity. The film dispels the notion that the golden age of Korean cinema began with Kwak Jae-young’s "My Sassy Girl" in 2001.

Samuel Jamier, senior program officer for The Korea Society, moderated the panel discussion and Q&A session with Ms. Choy, the director and also the chair of Graduate Film and Television at New York University's Tish School of Arts; Jung-bong Choi, assistant professor of Cinema Studies at Tisch; and Jina Kim, assistant professor of East Asian Studies at Smith College.

Ms. Choy previously directed a documentary about Chinese cinema, but doesn’t like to compare the two national cinemas. “Korea has its own distinct culture, traditions and cinematic expressions,” she said. “China wasn’t colonized, occupied, tortured, and repressed from 1910 to 1945. Both are affected by the West.” However, she concedes that Korean cinema is still behind China and Japan in gaining international recognition for its auteurs and attracting financial investment.

The Korean film industry was not central to the rise of the Hallyu, which was sparked by the immense popularity of Korean TV dramas such as “Winter Sonata” and pop stars such as recent American crossover singer-actor, Rain.

Mr. Choi partly attributes the rapid growth of the creative industries to the removal of state censorship and media regulations. Yet the very liberalization that enabled the nation’s groundswell in creativity may also be stifling it. “The irony is when censorship was stripped away there was a surge to cover themes that had been repressed,” Ms. Choy said. “But then people got comfortable, then they started imitating.”

Perhaps due to this, in 2007 fewer local and foreign audiences went to see Korean films and production became sluggish. “Next year less than 30 films are going into production,” Mr. Choi said. “Compared to over 120 in the prior two years. It’s a huge difference.”

All of the panelists dismissed media hype about the death of the Korean wave, preferring to view the recent decline as part of a cycle. “It’s a crisis if you only look at numbers,” Ms. Kim said, “numbers of films being exported, the number of dramas being shown during prime time in Taiwan are going down, but general interest [in Korean culture] is maybe even increasing.”

The panel was optimistic about the future of Korean cinema and the spread of Korean culture. Ms. Kim noted that she just spoke at a “Winter Sonata” fan club comprised of non-Asian housewives in New Jersey. Ms. Choi cited the Beijing Olympics as potentially changing views about Asia and envisions Korean films becoming less “West-centered” and hopefully more diverse. “As artists we have to be ahead of our society,” she said.


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