If I were to ask even the more seasoned of cinephiles in my circles of friends and colleague and even fellow bloggers about their experiences with South Korean cinema the likelihood of their awareness will only extend to, at most Oldboy and maybe The Host. This is not entirely their fault as much of the knowledge around South Korean cinema specifically, is trapped under the weight of its contemporary Asian film predecessors with successful global offerings in the Hong Kong action cinema of the 90's and Japanese horror films of the early 2000's. Running alongside these two movements was an emerging South Korean film world unfolding some of the most avant-garde and challenging films of the past two decades and has since garnered much more writing both academic and general interest, much of which I have read. When figuring how I could possibly include a text on Korean cinema for this my final offering to Out of the Past and their 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book challenge, I was fortunate to stumble upon the text Korean Film: History, Resistance and Democratic imagination, which pulls deep into the traditions of Korean film, both before and after it divided into its respective North and South political spaces. Co-authors Eungjun Min, Jinsook Joo, and Han Ju Kwak compile what proves to be not only the most detailed account of the century old tradition of filmmaking with Korea, but also manage to depict the troubled historical landscape of a country(ies) whose cinema invariably and irreversibly influenced by the presence of Chinese, Japanese, British and American occupations, noting the ways in which each foreign entity influenced the film of the Koreas both in highly positive, as well as problematic situations. While the pinnacle of classic Asian cinema still proves to be the late Donald Richie's love letter to Japanese cinema, this text offers an astute, albeit, specialized set of voices on a country who has become both a point of revolutionary filmmaking in the past decade by showing that as a moviemaking entity the wild themes, challenging cinematic landscapes and inherent subversiveness of the work of the Koreas is nothing new and certainly only seems to be expanding beyond all other countries at an exponential rate
This co-authored text works, precisely because it is clearly influenced by film theorist, historians and even possesses a keen eye for the economics of filmmaking and distribution. Despite it being authored by three distinct individuals, the narrative voice is that of a singular statement, pulling upon ideas inherent to Korean culture, lifting phrases that have contexts inexplicable to Western audiences using the moments in the countries storied history to develop this enigmatic concepts. While, the book does often fall into the trap of listing every film possible from an era, particularly true for the post-Korean war film section, the authors do afford it a considerable amount of space to explain particularly important authors or ideas, both in terms of how they relate to the historical narrative of Korea and the various regulations of filmmaking from the prospective eras. While it can prove a bit dense at times, it is refreshing to visit a text that does not feel it necessary to overexplain the ideas it is working with, making only brief notes on political factions and economic burdens from era, always remember that it is firstly a text about film, allowing discussions of Im Kown-taek to receive precedence than overly detailed accounts of the various student revolutions and failed political coups which occurred, and for awhile were still occurring, in the respective Koreas. Furthermore, the authors do something that is often impossible in this kind of work, they manage to insert their opinions of certain films or filmmakers without it coming off as flippant, pretentious or worse, ill-informed. This is perhaps most evocatively and engagingly done when discussing the melodramas of the fifties, wherein, the authors note the heavy degrees of exploitative politicized filmmaking that is neither subversive or well-executed making the works seem hokey and ill-conceived by a contemporary gaze. Any opinion posited in this book is always reason, almost over analyzed as though the authors realize their text will serve as the only work of reference. Indeed, many of the works mentioned escape a global audience, but the optimism spouted within the various chapters only proves to make the case for their emergence on a global scale in the near future.
Best Film Discovery of the Book: This is a bit tricky as much of this is unavailable, however, I will say that it has made me want to hunt down the early works of Cheol-su Park whose films seem as though they were wildly subversive well before his cerebral 301, 302. It is worth noting that this book is quite expensive, I would suggest do like I did and rent it from a library, through the wonder of inter-library loans.