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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

South Korean Films from the 1950s

by | February 28th, 2014 | 07:00 am
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UCSD launched a new program in Transnational Korean Studies last week, and we had the pleasure of meeting Christina Klein, an English professor at Boston College who has worked extensively on American perceptions of Asia (Cold War Orientalism in the Middlebrow Imagination 1945-1961). She is also doing fascinating work on early-postwar Korean cinema.

Those who have dipped their toes in this water have typically done so through Kim Ki-young’s extraordinarily noir—and sexually-charged–1960 film The Housemaid. But Klein introduced us to a treasure trove of other cosmopolitan and modernist directors from the period, including her favorite, Han Hyung-mo. Here is her top ten list:

  • Han Hyung-mo: The Hand of Destiny [1954], Hyperbolae of Youth [1956], Madame Freedom [1956] and A Female Boss [1959])
  • Shin Sang-ok: A Flower in Hell [1956], A College Woman’s Confession [1958]; A Sister’s Garden[1959]
  • Lee Yong-min: Holiday in Seoul [1956].
  • Park Nam-ok, Korea’s first female director: The Widow [1955), her only film
  • Gwan Yeong-sun, Drifting Island [1960]
  • Lee Byung-il. The Love Marriage [1958]

A common theme in these films, according to Klein, is what was called the “après-girl,” as in “after the wars” who is competent, independent and as a result threatening and often punished.

Better yet, Klein offered us an introduction to how to secure these films, many for free and with subtitles:

  • KOFA or Korean Film Archive. They publish DVDs from their collection. This English-language page is not a 100% complete listing of what they have released (http://www.koreafilm.org/publica/dvds.asp); there is also a Korean-language page (http://www.koreafilm.or.kr/index.asp). KOFA also runs the Korean Movie Database at http://test.kmdb.or.kr/eng/. You can type in names and titles and it gives you credits, photos, etc. Again, the Korean-language version may be more complete than the English-language one.
  • KOFA YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/KoreanFilm). The earliest film is from 1936, and they have a decent selection from the 1950s and 1960s.  All are subtitled.
  • Yes Asia (http://www.yesasia.com/us/en/home.html). You can buy KOFA DVDs here as well as regular commercial releases. If you search for “Korean Film 1950″ you will pull up several KOFA box sets.
  • KOFA Video on Demand. This subscription service offers access to a broader selection of films without subtitles, but you have to be in Korea (or be a Korean national) to subscribe, and it must be accessed from a PC (http://www.kmdb.or.kr/VOD/ ). An institutional subscription costs about $100 for a year, but may be of interest to our Korean colleagues.
  • KoreanFilm.org.  According to Klein, the best website on Korean film in general, with essays, reviews, box office data, etc. (http://www.koreanfilm.org).

We often assume that North Korea is opaque, but South Korean history is well-known. Think again. Klein argued that scholarship on this period of Korean cinema is thin in both English and Korean and even contemporary directors do not have the knowledge of Korean film history. Thanks to Prof. Klein for her help and enthusiasm.