January 1, 1999

South Korean Documentary Since 1995

From <em>Habitual Sadness</em>

Documentary film is not immune from the impact of social change. This is especially evident in a country where politics and social structure have undergone radical change. In the Republic of Korea, documentaries have reflected military dictatorship, independence from Japanese colonial rule, democratization and the more profound political developments of the 1990s throughout the world. Today the challenge for South Korean documentary is paramount to meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

Prior to the 1990s, two major trends were apparent in Korean documentaries, as was the case elsewhere: there were those documentaries produced for television viewing, particularly by the major public broadcasting network; and there were the independent documentaries, produced by small crews with more of a social agenda and aimed for activist screenings and the film festival circuit. In Korea, the independent documentary movement goes back to the previous decade, when university students and labor unions entered the filmmaking field to express their outrage over the socio-historical condition of oppression in the country.

In the June 1997 issue of the Yamagata International Film Festival's magazine, Documentary Box, Professor Pok Hwan-Mo of Honam University's cinema division reviewed the history of the documentary in Korea from the beginnings of the 20th century into the '90s. According to Professor Pok, documentary films during Japanese colonial rule, such as Kyongsung City (1919), Han River Great Floods (1925) and others, can be best categorized as from the "scenic film era." Films such as Liberty News (1945) and People's Shout (1948) were made right after liberation and are classified as "news and propaganda"; films made following liberation tended to  concentrate on freedom for laborers and farmers, and democratization in general. Bluebird (1986, 40 min., Seoul Film Group) Sangyedong Olympics (1988, Kim Dong- Won) and Water Tax (1984, 35 min., Seoul Film Group) of the '80s are grouped as "social intervention documentary films." Although documentary films produced during the military regime in the '80s contributed to the movement towards democratization, they were far from the mainstream of documentary in Korea.

After the collapse of the military regime in the early 1990s, many independent documentary film producers abandoned their interest in protecting laborers and promoting the democratization movement. Instead, their attention shifted towards the weak in society-women and children and their rights, and the social phenomenon known as "comfort women," those captured by invading armies to serve as prostitutes for the military. These films focused on social imbalances that occurred during the democratization process, along with various socio-cultural conditions that spread among the younger generations. By 1995, changes within Korean media and related events suggested new avenues for documentaries.

When the Q Channel transmitted its first cable television signal in 1995, it announced its intention to specialize in documentaries. This was considered a courageous step, since dramas and other entertainment programming always received the very highest ratings. Nevertheless, for the past four years ratings for the Q Channel have slowly been growing as audience members discover the rich variety of offerings and a different sense of satisfaction from the usual entertainment fare.

The programming strategy at the Q Channel includes showing various international documentaries and producing its own films for airing. More than 800 titles per year are included on the Q schedule, including Academy Award® nominees and winners, works recognized and praised at festivals and widely-acknowledged documentaries of impact and quality: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Robert Epstein), Days of Waiting (1990, Steven Okazaki), In the Shadow of the Stars (1991, Allie Light and Irwin Saraf), I am a Promise (1993, Susan and Alan Raymond), Anne Frank Remembered (1995, Jon Blair), Girls Like Us (1996, Jane Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio), The Bells of Chernobyl (1996, Kurt Langbein) and Experimentum crucis (1997, Taras Popov and Vladimir Toulkin)—just a few of the titles selected from elsewhere for screening in Korea. Television documentary series such as Nova (U.S.A) and 52 sur la une (France) are also included.

Q channel also produces its own documentaries about Korea: Nests of Insects (1996, 90 min.), Traditional Medical Science of Korea (1997, 60 min.), The Microworld of Moss (1998, 90 min.) and Traditional Martial Arts of Korea (1998, 60 min.), to name only a few.

The road for cable companies in Korea has not been an easy one, and recent economic difficulties bode even more difficult times ahead. Viewers have a hard time affording the monthly cable fees. Networks can't raise the funds necessary to produce or present new programs. In this climate, cable companies have failed, repeatedly. And yet, Q Channel remains on the air, basing its future on marketing its programs domestically and, more importantly, internationally. Various film festivals in Korea have enhanced the development of the documentary in the country. In the Spring of 1996, the 1st Seoul Documentary Video and Film Festival (SDVFF) was held. Hailed as part of "Daehak-Ro " (youth culture), it was an ambitious film festival with two goals: to screen foreign documentaries, and to encourage support for independent documentary directors in Korea. The success of this first documentary festival in Korea stunned the staff: almost all screenings were sold out! The opening film was Hoop Dreams (1995, U.S.A., Steve James), followed by Ethnic Notions (1987, U.S.A., Marlon Riggs), Osaka Story (1994, Japan, Toichi Nakata), Panama Deception (1992, U.S.A., Barbara Trent), The Square (1994, China, Zhang Yuan), Kieslowski I'm So So (1995, Poland, Krzysztof Wierzbicki) and many others. Most of those screened were award winners from such festivals as Sundance and Berlin, also the Academy Awards® and the Emmys®.

In the following year, classic documentaries were screened­ Nanook of the North (1922, U.S.A., Robert Flaherty), Louisiana Story (1948, U.S.A., Robert Flaherty) , Drifters (1929, U.K., John Grierson), The Spanish Earth (1937, The Netherlands/US .A., Joris Ivens)—also documentaries from Latin America. The 3rd Seoul Documentary Film Festival is now being planning to be held in 1999.

Continuing the success of the 1st Seoul Documentary Film Festival , that autumn saw the 1st Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) open with 23 documentaries featured, a full 13% of the total films screened in festival. At the 1998 PIFF, documentaries included Night and Fog (1956, France, Alain Resnais), High School (1968, U.S.A., Frederick Wiseman), Reclaiming Sans Soleil (1982, France, Chris Marker), Homeworks (1989, Iran, Abbas Kiarostami), all of these part of a special series called "Documentaries of Our Time." Under the title of "Wide Angle" were screened Artists in Wonderland (1998, Japan , Sato Makoto), Fragments*Jerusalem (1997, Israel, Ron Havilio) and Reclaiming Our Names (1998, Korea, Hong Hyung Sook). Many of the directors accompanied their works for discussions with audiences following the screenings.

From festivals come a new appreciation for documentary throughout the world. With this appreciation is also some publicity for Korean documentaries whose works may gain entry to theatrical and television audiences from the attention they've received at the festivals: Hong Hyoug Sook's A New School is Opening (1995 ; grand prize, 1st SDYFF) and Reclaiming Our Names (1998; grand prize; 3rd PIFF) are two examples of prize winners that moved easily from the festival cir­cuit to theatrical audiences. Another director who is introducing works to audiences through festival successes is Byun Young-Joo, whose Murmuring (1995) received the Ogawa Shjnsuke prize at the 1995 Yamagata International Documentary Festival, and Habitual Sadness (1997) was invited to the 2nd PIFF. This latter film has gained a great deal of attention, recently with the Silver Award at the Taiwan Documentary Film Festival.

Apart from these two major film festivals, there are many smaller events in Korea since the early 1990s: the Human Rights Film Festival, the Queer Film Festival, the Labor Film Festival, the Women's Film Festival, the Independent Film Festival, and the Indie-forum Film Festival, all of these including documen­taries in their fares.

With such encouragement, however, there are obstacles. Documentary film producers are not completely free from censorship. One film in particular—The Three-Legged Crowd (Ohjung Hoon, 1997), profiling the labor movement poet Park Ro-Hae—has received severe pre-censorship and has been screened publicly only at the 3rd PIFF. And in 1997, the Seoul Queer Film and Video Festioval, having been approved and scheduled, was suddenly canceled by the government, with the announcement that "Existing censorship regulations in Korea classify 'homosexually-related' materials as perverse behavior along with bestiality and necrophilia , [so] this is not permitted to be screened." A recent statute, however, has been introduced by the government to eliminate prior censorship.

The award-winning film Reclaiming Our Names has been the center of some controversy over its originality. While feature films sometimes face charges of plagiarism, the accusation against Hong Hyoung Sook's film is the first in recent memory to be leveled against a documentary. According to Professor Cho Hee-Moon, of the Cinema Division, Sang-Myoung University, there are moments , in Reclaiming Our Names directly copied from the film Waving Heart by Yang Young-Hee. The PIFF has affirmed its support of Hong's film, with Hong publicly insisting that Yang gave permission for any instances from her film that appear in Reclaiming Our Names. Without passing judgment on the matter, it can be said that the interchange of charges and counter­ charges has had a chilling effect on documentary producers throughout the country. It remains to be seen how this situation will be resolved.

Professor Pok concluded in his article that "Newly established cable channels which specialize in documentaries, and such , events as the Seoul Documentary Film Festival are good signs for future prospects of Korean documentary films." Time will tell how the continuing economic and social change will affect the development of docu­mentary in Korea.


SAENAL KIM is a freelance writer and a producer for South Korea's Q Channel.