Why is Korean Filmmaking So Much More than Just a 'New Wave'?

By: Ritika Ghai & Om Jha
21 Oct 2021 4:00:10 PM Chitkara University & Shoolini University

The tidal rise of Korean filmmaking peaked last week when the American-centric international streaming giant Netflix crowned Korean director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s acclaimed drama ‘Squid Game’ as the company’s most profitable production that had raked in $1 billion.


It was a historic moment, not just for foreign language cinema, but for the wide breadth of the Korean film industry whose pictures regularly transcend language and cultural barriers, from cult classics like Old Boy to sci-fi blockbusters like Snowpiercer and Parasite, the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.


For the uninitiated, it may be hard to understand how this happened. So why is Korean cinema now the darling of the worldwide film community? While Japan boasts legends like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, and Hong Kong has Wong Kar-Wai, Ann Hui, and John Woo, the most renowned artists of South Korea did not emerge until the 2000s. 


Here is where the term ‘Korean New Wave’ comes in. 


New waves are characterised by their rejection of traditional filmmaking conventions favouring experimentation and a spirit of dissent. So far, since the Lumineer brothers invented the video camera, we have seen the Italian Film Renaissance, French New Wave, the German Expressionist and the American Blockbuster. These movements have created some of the most iconic films of our era, ranging from Journey to the Moon and Metropolis to Avengers: Endgame and Run Lola Run.


The Korean New Wave started a boom in domestic cinema during the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was partly instigated by the phenomenal success of the action thriller ‘Shiri’ at the local box office in 1999.


Before the New Wave, South Korea did not have a home-grown commercial cinema of note, and viewers preferred to watch Hollywood films in cinemas and follow American stars.


The box office success of Shiri opened the way for a blossoming of commercial films. It introduced the term “Korean blockbuster”, which described big-budget – for Korea – crowd-pleasing movies like Silmido, Friend and Taegukgi. These films quickly smashed box office records in the country.


This was a new generation seeking to recreate the relationship between films and society by utilising the expansion of materials and topics since the democratisation of South Korea in 1987 and contemplating on the art of cinematography aroused.


Some of the most famous directors of this generation are Park Kwang-su, Jang Sun-woo, Chung Ji-young and Lee Myung-se. They tried to reinterpret the historical events considered taboo during the military dictatorship, including conflicts between the left-wing and the right-wing before and after the Korean War or the changing significance of the Vietnam War.


They also attempted to draw eyeballs towards the changes in Korean society that continued to experience suppression and created an aesthetic convention for Korean cinematography appropriated for the new era.


The film boom meant that talent was needed in front of the cameras, which led to establishing a star system, with stars like Choi Min-sik not only matching but replacing American actors such as Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise, who had become household names. In terms of adulation, the movie stars of the period were a precursor to today’s K-pop superstars.


By the 2000s, Korean films became the ‘hot commodities’ at international film festivals and achieved high-profile showings at major festivals like Cannes and Venice.


Filmmaking is, of course, not just limited to cinema and the success of Korea’s small-screen endeavours come in.


There are several reasons why ‘K-dramas’ have found their audience. 


In addition to stellar storytelling, visual appeal, themes, and stellar acting, there are wholesome rom-com vibes, a taste of a slow-burn all-consuming romance in most of the shows, rather than the same old pattern of broken relationships and constant partner switching, a trope that most Western (as well as Indian) shows fall victim to.


Coffee Prince was one of the first international TV hits to navigate the murky waters of sexual identity. Boys Over Flowers, which made actor Lee Min Ho a fan favourite, has a cheesy premise. It is a teenage romance set in the backdrop of a high school. Where Boys Over Flowers leaves its contemporaries in the dust is in its nuanced premise: more than just academics and romance, it was noted for its realistic portrayal of the obstacles of teenagers. 


If the romances are sentimental, the thrillers keep you on your toes with their taut and edgy premises.


In 2013 and 2014, Lee Jong-suk emerged with his revenge-angst driven dramas, I Can Hear Your Voice and Inside Men, which portrayed realistic insights into law proceedings and the desperation of media houses to sensationalise coverage for TRP’s. Finally, 2016’s sleeper cult classic Stranger delved into the nitty-gritty of Korea’s much-maligned law enforcement system. The show sparked protests across southeastern Asia and caused parliament proceedings to limit federal law enforcement powers at home and in Vietnam and Japan.    


K-dramas are also usually short. They end a story in a self-contained season of 16-20 episodes. Superhits sometimes spawn three seasons. Though, no Korean production can be accused of being an endless drag of eighteen plus seasons.


The pandemic-led OTT boom added a new audience in Korean drama viewers when many Indian watchers moved past their staple diet of American, British, and desi shows to discover K-dramas. As a result, the viewing for K-dramas on Netflix in India increased over 370% in 2020 over 2019, a spokesperson for the OTT platform had claimed to the Indian Express.


The success of the Korean New Wave primed international audiences for hall-yu, the pop-cultural phenomenon that saw Korean television shows and musical acts become popular in Asia and then worldwide.


It was born out of the Asian financial crisis that hit South Korea in 1997. After borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, the country was drowning in debt and used the money to restore its depleted foreign currency reserves.


President Kim Dae-jung realised that the entertainment industry could also serve as an economic engine in the middle of the crisis. As a result, the Ministry of Culture was restructured. They injected funds into the Korean Film Council to propagate pop culture while ensuring that the art colleges produced the talent. In addition, several government ministries, including food, foreign affairs, sports and tourism, invested heavily in the entertainment industry.


Today, hall-yu is one of the main exports, as the South Korean government spends more than $500 million annually on its promotion through the Ministry of Economy and Finance. However, the wave doesn’t restrict itself to just Korean popular culture. It has also generated a deep interest in Korean food, products and lifestyle and created more tourism opportunities. 


Hall-yu has grown exponentially since 1999 and is now recognised even by the United Nations as a global cultural phenomenon.

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