South Korea is one of the few countries whose domestic box office is larger than that of the United States. After decades of hardship under Japanese colonization, authoritative military governments, censorship, and strict regulation, South Korean cinema is booming. This, combined with its success in the international film festival circuit, has led Asian film scholar Chris Berry to call it, “a full service cinema” that includes “a range of modes of production and consumption,” distinguishing it from other Asian film industries, like those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, that focus almost entirely on commercial filmmaking.
The success of the South Korean industry is something that Professor Nam Lee wants students at Chapman to understand and appreciate.
“When I first came to Chapman, one of my goals and duties was to create a connection with the Asian film communities,” said Professor Lee. “In 2009, I helped organize a film festival at Chapman that would introduce current Asian and Korean films in partnership with the Busan Film Festival. With this venture drawing to a close, I am now trying to continue that effort in a different way, turning the three-day festival into a 15-week class.”
Lee’s Korean Cinema Today class introduces students to a variety of Korean films, including Veteran, a political thriller involving a corrupt millionaire whose questionable investments lead to a criminal investigation, and Memories of Murder, a movie based on the real life criminal investigation of an unsolved murder.
Students in the class have also meet Korean filmmakers, like first-time director July Lung, whose film A Girl at My Door was invited to the Cannes Film Festival this year, and director Seung-wan Ryoo, known for his action films and outspoken criticism of corporate and political injustice.
If the descriptions of these films make it seem like South Koreans are preoccupied with issues of criminal and political corruption, that’s no coincidence.
“Korea has a long tradition of social realism,” says Professor Lee. “Even commercial movies, like the monster film, The Host, deal with issues of injustice and corruption, with government soldiers chasing the victims instead of the monster.
“A lot of this stems from the country’s historical experience. Korea endured 36 years of Japanese colonization and is the only nation still divided by Cold War ideologies. There is a lot of distrust of government and that distrust is reflected in the country’s films. I want students to see that and to appreciate that good stories come from being conscious of the world around us.”