A burgeoning economy, an open, liberal society, and of course, an expanding middle class: the ingredients of a social art. “Hallyu,” as it has been called, is the new wave of South Korean mass culture. Now almost five years old, Hallyu has produced a rush of productions that have been saturating the televisions, radios and movie theaters of East Asia. A complex film culture has emerged along with this renaissance and particularly in the past decade, its works have been winning international awards and attention.
Five recent films from this flowering branch of world cinema are coming to Boardman’s Art Theatre tomorrow and Saturday. The Asian Film Festival, a joint effort of the University’s Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies (EAPS) and Asian Educational Media Services (AEMS), chose South Korea for its subject matter this year.
“It’s this phenomenon. It’s a timely country to feature,” said Tanya Lee, program director for AEMS. The films are myriad, reflecting a burgeoning aesthetic. “They really represent very different genres and very different styles.” AEMS is “an educational outreach program,” described Lee. “We do a number of different types of things to help educators find multimedia resources about Asia to help them teach Asia at all different levels.”
Some of these resources include an Internet database for Asian media and other Web resources like lesson plans, as well as a local lending library. AEMS publishes a newsletter, News and Reviews, three times a year with film reviews, profiles and other education-focused articles. Education workshops and the annual film festival are also a part of their services.
For those unfamiliar with South Korean film, Lee said that “this is very different from American cinema.” Assistant director of AEMS, Susan Norris, added, “The one thing that stands out for me is there’s never a Hollywood ending. It’s never happily ever after, the end. Most of the films, they just don’t end well. There’s some sort of tragedy a lot of times at the end. You leave the theater crying.”
A hospitable political environment has fostered this unique cinema. For the past forty years, South Korea’s domestic movie industry was protected from international, and particularly Hollywood, domination. As reported in The Korea Times, a state-wide quota system regulated screenings, decreeing that theaters had to show nationally created works 146 days a year, or 40 percent of the time. However, the endless cries for an open market, for Free Trade Agreements and liberalization, have caused a reduction of the quota. Today, Korean-only productions must be shown 73 days per year.
Today, both foreign and domestic consumption are at all-time highs, according to the Korean Film Council. Japan dominates importation, buying nearly 80% of South Korea’s film sales abroad for a total of almost $60 million US dollars, as of 2005. Nationally, more Koreans are going to the theater and, more importantly, seeing more homemade works over foreign-made.
Nancy Abelmann, director of EAPS, explained it: “You have both a vibrant producer and consumer community in an aggressively globalizing country that cares a lot about its own cultural production and place in the world … If you put all that together then you’ve got a mix for a lot happening.”
Opening the festival will be young director Yoon Jong-bin’s, The Unforgiven. The lauded and independently produced work depicts a young student’s term of compulsory military service and his confrontation and integration into its power hierarchy. The director will be in attendance for the screening and a discussion afterwards.
Also on Friday, Seungsook Moon of Vassar College lead an afternoon workshop. The topic will be “The Rise and Decline of Militarized Modernity in South Korea.”
Saturday begins with an educators’ workshop entitled “Teaching Korea Through Film.” The animated folk tale Empress Chung will start the day’s screenings. Directed by Nelson Shin, who has worked on American television shows such as The Simpsons and X-Men, the 2005 movie was the first to be released simultaneously in South and North Korea.
Next on the bill is Please Teach Me English, a slapstick, romantic comedy about a young official, played by Lee Na-young, enrolling in English language classes and becoming enamored with her handsome classmate, portrayed by Jang Hyeok.
Abelmann commented, “Please Teach Me English is a fabulous film because it shows both all the desires of globalizing and learning English as well as some of the anxieties. The film gets at a lot of ideological tension in Korea about English. It shows you the cultural fault lines.”
The third Saturday feature is Sad Movie. An interweaving of four stories of everyday youth and relationships, Abelmann added that, “this is a film that gives a little bit of the feeling for the way that young people are connecting with one another.” She explained that it presents the transformations to Korean society resulting from the embrace of new technologies and new means of communication.
Concluding the festival is the final part of director Park Chan-wook’s so-called Vengeance Trilogy. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the brutal story of a double-crossed and imprisoned heroine, who, you guessed it, is released and seeks violent vindication. Park’s previous film and second part of the trilogy, Oldboy, won the Grand Prix award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
These works “are part of a country celebrating its own position in the world,” said Abelmann. It’s a new surge of a transcontinental art form; a spring of ideas from a traditional, ancient society. Though the South Korean “hallyu” is unknown to most Americans, this new wave will soak into Champaign and Boardman’s Art Theatre this weekend.