Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today: Film Debuts and Korean Independent Filmmaking


Editor’s Notes: The following article and review is a a part of Rowena Santos Aquino’s coverage of the Korean film series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today”. Additional entries can be found here

One could argue that increasingly, the distribution and exhibition of Korean independent, low-budget films has been making strides in establishing a place for itself alongside blockbuster productions. Contributing to such strides is none other than the multiplex cinema chain giant CJ CGV, through its program called Movie Collage, which began in 2007. Movie Collage is a program that reserves screens in CGV theatres across the country to showcase independent, arthouse titles. Furthermore, beginning in 2011 the CGV Movie Collage Award presented at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) serves to cultivate the production, distribution, and exhibition of specifically Korean independent, low-budget filmmaking.

The bittersweet irony of a multiplex making room for independent features is hard to miss. In fact, the distribution and exhibition of Korean independent, low-budget productions continues to pose a frustrating challenge. As Maeng Soo-jin, programmer of the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) Korean Feature Film Competition section, stated rather plainly in 2011, “The situation of the production and distribution of Korean independent films is extremely poor, far beyond imagination,” even when taking into account the aid of film festivals like JIFF and BIFF and the Korean Film Council (KOFIC). Maeng continues, “Although specialised independent film distributors like Indiestory, Indie Plug or Cinema Dal lessen the hardship to some degree, the situation is still so bad and it is difficult to secure any stable revenue. In such a situation, talented directors cannot have a future vision for planning further production.” And the situation is not about the issue that audiences do not go for independent films, documentary or fiction. Indiestory distributed the documentary film Old Partner (2009, Lee Chung-ryeol), which went to set the record for the highest-grossing independent film in the history of Korean cinema.

While no other independent film has of late met with similar box-office success like that of Old Partner, it appears that the challenge of distribution and exhibition of independent, low-budget productions has not stopped both veteran filmmakers and Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) graduates from making their films. (While Kim Ki-duk, of course, is part of this world of Korean independent filmmaking, his role in this world will be addressed in another piece.)

In relation to MoMA’s Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, all of the above summary details are meant to converge on the evident significance of this film series that privileges independent productions over blockbuster fare to showcase a different side to contemporary Korean cinema. The three films examined below are singled out together not only because they are independent, low-budget films but also because they mark feature film debuts.

For better or for worse, these three films carry the marks of being debuts. Put simply, better in the case of Mirage (2011), worse in the case ofStateless Things (2012), and somewhere in between in the case ofJesus Hospital (2012).

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Rowena Santos Aquino

Senior Film Critic. Recently obtained my doctoral degree in Cinema and Media studies at UCLA. Linguaphile and cinephile, and therefore multingual in my cinephilia. Asian cinemas, Spanish language filmmaking, Middle Eastern cinemas, and documentary film.