Many in India have spent countless hours watching Korean films on YouTube – or at least have spent an excruciating amount of time ‘buffering’ Korean films. These films can be said to have a cult following in India; youth in the northeastern states of India thrive on Korean films and music. Therefore, a Korean director being honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the 47th IFFI, 2016 is an opportunity for many to get to know the people behind this prolific film industry, which has churned out classics like My Sassy Girl (2001), Old Boy (2003), and The Classic (2003) amongst others.
Im Kwon-Taek, the octogenarian who has directed over a hundred films has been awarded the IFFI Lifetime Achievement Award this year. Kwon-Taek is considered in South Korea as the “Father of Korean Cinema.” The global popularity and fan-following of Korean cinema owes its existence to the “New Korean Cinema” or “New Korean Wave” that produced commercially-driven films. Kwon-Taek is credited, along with a couple other directors, with founding this movement.
Kwon-Taek received critical acclaim in the 1980s, though he was making films even earlier. Films like Mandala (1981), The General’s Son I, II, & III (1990, 1991, 1992), and Soepyeonje (1993) are some of his well received films.
His influence cannot be denied. The tag of “Father of Korean Cinema” is very true, confirms Jong-Soo Kim, the New Delhi correspondent of Korean Broadcasting System, a media company. But for a man who has worked so much all his life and who is such an influential figure in Korean cinema, Kwon-Taek appears to be an unassuming man. He was kind enough to jot down the names of Indian movies like 3 Idiots and (and the not-so Indian) Slumdog Millionaire to respond to the obvious questions by reporters. He repeated several times that he is ashamed and embarrassed about some of the “immature” films he has made – especially during his formative “immature” days. The lifetime award is an indication, he says, to make more movies.
While the commercially-driven Korean New Wave movement has reached a global audience, boosting the Korean economy and tourism along the way, one is curious as to what these films can tell us about Korean culture. One of the most defining features of Korean films is the ‘twist’ to the story; the unexpected and unimaginable ‘twist’ that Korean filmmakers have been able to add to even the most simple of love stories, for instance. Is this ‘twist’ connected in any way to Korean culture?
Jong-Soo Kim explains, “There is an old Korean saying, ‘You have to listen till the end of the story’.” There seems to be a cultural requirement that the stories Koreans tell – even the most mundane ones – should have a twist at the end. “No twists, no fun,” Jong-Soo Kim states very simply. Korean people want their stories to be ‘fun’ and the ‘twists’ make their stories fun.
What makes Korean films (including K-POP music) so popular? Jong-Soo Kim explains that the films and music is made in a uniquely Korean style that he calls ‘Korean Dynamic Style’. It is the way the Korean artists dress, dance, and generally perform. Korean Dynamic Style is also the manner in which the sets and settings are composed in the Korean movies, he elaborates.
But Korean films are also a serious engagement with the culture and history of Korea. Many of Kwon-Taek’s films are about depicting the traditional culture; a culture that the Korean youth are rapidly moving away from. “You can learn about politics, sociology, or why our youngsters struggle in South Korea today from our films,” says Jong-Soo Kim.
Ultimately Korean films are about how Koreans “struggle to survive” in the world. This is how Jong-Soo Kim sums up the spirit of one of the largest filmmaking industries in the world, which earns over 50 million dollars annually from its domestic films.
(A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 21 November, 2016)