The surprising sweep of the top Oscars by Parasite, auteur Bong Joon-Ho’s jaw-dropping ode to class warfare, is still reverberating through the South Korean movie industry. For the past two decades, Bong and his Korean contemporaries have produced a steady stream of films that won acclaim from international critics. But this was different, and much bigger. For better and worse, becoming the first non-English movie to win Best Picture signaled a turning point for South Korea’s cultural influence.
From a distance, it appears like the South Korean film industry rose out of seemingly nothing in 20 years. But the arc of Korean cinema is longer, and more diverse, than its most popular films would suggest. Early 20th-century Japanese occupation and the Korean war in the early 1950s dismantled the economic, cultural and social lives of millions of people. But the consequent recovery, known as the “Miracle on the Han River,” developed South Korea into an economic and cultural force, largely thanks to massive international aid and the eager work ethic of a burgeoning Korean middle class. As corporate industry and manufacturing stabilized, the government looked toward entertainment as its next priority, with the belief it could grow South Korea’s political standing in the world, especially alongside the West.
Few entities capture this arc quite like the Korean Film Archive, a government-supported project that curates a collection of more than 200 films on YouTube that stretches from the 1940s into the 2000s. The bulk of the collection consists of 1960s-era films, considered the “Golden Age” of classic filmmaking in South Korea, along with an array of 1980s features that highlight the softening of censorship laws. But there’s more than enough to mine from every decade for curious browsers, with genres ranging from classic coming-of-age tales (1992’s Our Twisted Hero), to erotic drama (Between the Knees by the influential Lee Jang-Ho), to satirical comedies with a tragic bent (1975’s The March of Fools).
This type of free curated film collection is practically unheard of, even on the internet where you can find everything. The fact that the KFA continues to update the selection every few weeks should be a boon to anyone who has gotten over the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” And this collection serves as a worthwhile look into the cultural soul of Korea, a complicated country with a chaotic past and a massive chip on its shoulder. The power of K-Pop and “Hallyu” is considered a given these days, but none of that cultural influence could exist without major growing pains in the 20th century.
Case in point: The first Korean film studios at the turn of the 20th century were owned by Japanese operators — one symptom of an occupation that wouldn’t cease until the end of World War II. Because of this, the golden age of silent Korean films were girded by a subversive resistance, largely thanks to the use of “pyeonsa,” or in-theater narrators. These speakers often found the freedom to speak up in pro-Korean statements and political satire without attracting the attention of Japanese censors. The growth of talking pictures brought this to a halt, however, and by 1942, all Korean-language films were permanently banned in the country. Many original reels were destroyed, and things didn’t get much easier during U.S. occupation and the Korean War that followed; only five feature films survived the conflict that divided the peninsula at the 38th parallel.
That’s partly why discovering Korean films from the 1940s and 1950s feels so much like finding treasure — and why it’s impossible to ignore the backdrop of Korean melancholy that sits in so many of these films. Consider the 1949 feature A Hometown in Heart, which follows the life of a young boy at a Buddhist monastery who forms a bond with a lonely widow while searching for his biological mother. Even despite a limited budget and the lack of industry resources, the clarity and beauty of the filmmaking here is on par with anything from Europe or America at the time.
“The cinematography in here is something to admire. I really could see this film becoming part of The Criterion Collection or part of The Masters of Cinema Series, as I feel this film deserves world recognition,” writes film blogger Joshua Parmer. “It is a classic in every sense of the word, and needs to be sought out and shown to many, many more people.”
Despite the obvious talent in the country, things didn’t get much easier for Korean filmmakers after the national war. A singular focus on rebuilding society and the economy led to brutal “morality laws,” which instituted curfews and regulations on pop culture in the early 1960s. The highlights from that time, like Yoo Hyun-Mok’s 1961 postwar drama Aimless Bullet, shine all the brighter for it. But the later half of the decade saw massive growth in film, and is today considered another “Golden Age” for Korean auteurs.
The ups and downs within the Korean film industry didn’t end there; increasing government censorship in the 1970s, along with declining admissions, created a long depression for movies until the 1990s revival with blockbuster hits like Shiri (which outdrew Titanic in the same year with Korean audiences). Yet it’s in this slump that you’ll find some startlingly original works, including from the legendary Im Kwon-Taek, whose art-house flair and vivid storytelling propelled him to the forefront of the Korean indie scene. The Korean Film Archive is packed to the gills with his works, ranging from the communist-versus-cop drama Jagko to his masterful 1981 feature Mandala to his 2000 retelling of a classic Korean folk story, Chunhyang.
The Korean Film Archive uploaded Jagko three weeks ago, and its ability to continue restoring and adding films to the collection is a resource unlike few else on the streaming platform. Unfortunately, you won’t find a lot of the best-known modern classics, like the aforementioned Shiri or the groundbreaking works of Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy), Kim Ki-Duk (3-Iron, Pietá) or Bong himself. But given their accessibility on other platforms, that’s not really a task left for the KFA. Instead, it’s lifted the curtain on a cultural legacy that even hardcore movie lovers may find wholly new — and completely free, to boot.