On Korean Documentary Film

Pok Hwan-mo

Introduction: A Periodization of Korean Documentary Film

It is extremely interesting that one can cleanly divide the eighty-year history of documentary in Korea using the following three functions evident in documentary: (1) recording and reproduction of street and nature scenes; (2) news/propaganda; and (3) social intervention.

The first Korean productions and screenings of documentary film occurred in 1919 during the first stages of Japanese imperialism. Korean documentary at that time was composed chiefly of recordings intended to introduce the county's scenery. The pleasure of "real" reproductions offered by the moving images were the sole form of popular entertainment that an oppressed public could enjoy at that time.

At the time of liberation from Japanese colonial control in 1945, the country was split into North and South and the tragic internecine war--the Korean War--was born. When the three-year long Korean War ended in 1953, the dictatorships of first Rhee Syng-man and then Park Chung-hee appeared for the supposed reason of containing North Korean Communist political power. The Korean people would once again have to endure, for nearly 40 years, the severe hardships of political oppression. Korean documentary film during this period was composed solely of the ubiquitous war promotion newsreels and propaganda films supporting the dictatorship which theaters were obliged to screen as part of the effort to maintain dictatorial rule.

With the murder of President Park Chung-hee at the end of 1979, it looked as if thirty years of dictatorial rule would finally end. The "Seoul Spring" was the name given to this moment by a public which waited with great expectations for democracy to bloom. But, again, in the following year another military regime appeared and the end of oppression was not to be. As Korea's Spring came to naught, the people's thirst for democracy was manifest in organized resistances against continued military rule that lasted until the beginning of the 1990s.

By way of documentary film, the youth in the film movement were able to provide a voice for the people oppressed by military rule. Film students, centered around the university areas, would screen their independently produced documentaries on human rights, labor, education, and other problems sensitive to the government in small theaters located in large college areas. From this moment on, Korean documentary cinema, unlike the films utilized by the dictatorship, began to take on the function of social intervention, criticizing politics and society. This sphere of documentary film, galvanized by the liberalization of film production, has developed into a crucial cultural genre in present-day Korea.

Part 1: Scenic Films--The First Stage of Korean Documentary

American and European films were first unveiled to the general public under the name "moving pictures" in 1903. When looking at the advertisements published in daily newspapers at that time, one notices that these were short documentary films, about 30-50 feet long, depicting local features of the U.S. and various European countries. In order to promote sales, foreign trading companies established in Seoul made available to the general public imported films of such spectacular cities as London, Paris, and New York. When the motion pictures took up their position as popular mass entertainment, there were attempts by Koreans to make films themselves. After the success in 1918 of a rensageki performance by "Setonaikai," a Japanese shinpa theater troupe touring the provinces, a similar performance entitled Righteous Revenge occurred the following year in Korea. 1 At that time the photographer of Righteous Revenge, Park Sung-pil, and his staff recorded scenes from the center of Seoul and its outskirts and made the films Scenes of Kyoungsoung City and Scenes of the Suburbs of Kyoungsoung City. When the former was screened alongside Righteous Revenge at the Dansongsa Theater on 27 October 1919, Korean documentary film was inaugurated.

With the success of Righteous Revenge and Scenes of Kyoungsoung City, filmmakers, gaining experience in production and technique, continued to produce rensageki and documentary film. In 1919, a 4-reel 35mm documentary film entitled The Great Movement of Mt. Kumgang was produced which shot the whole area surrounding the famous tourist spot of Mt. Kumgang. The same year saw the production of Actual Scenes of King Kojong, a documentary which recorded images from the state funeral of the king. In addition, the Tongj-A Daily News Corporation sponsored a number of films, such as All Korean Women's Tennis Tournament (1924), recording the first annual Korean women's tennis tournament; The Hangang Great Floods (1925), documenting the great Seoul floods; and Ceremony for King Soonjong at Changduk Palace (1928), depicting scenes from the king's state funeral.

The first stage of Korean documentary film was composed of simple recordings of scenic and historic events centered around Seoul. These types of short films were steadily produced until the censorship regulations on moving pictures, promulgated by the Korean governor general in 1926, suspended production--a suspension that lasted until the liberation from Japanese rule in 1945.

Part 2: News and Propaganda Films

With the issuing of the Potsdam Declaration immediately following liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and other powerful nations split Korea so that all areas south of the 38th parallel would be under the control of the U.S. military. In September 1945, the Korean Press Department of the U.S. Army's Military Government Office in Korea established the Choson Film Construction Headquarters within which Koreans were compelled to produce news films. Film director Yun Baek-nam was selected as chairperson, with several other directors participating, such as Lee Myong-u, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Song-chun. A film team was prepared to be dispatched at a moment's notice to film events in any city for a newsreel entitled Liberation News, and this series marked the point of departure for film activities following liberation.

At the same time, a left wing group named the Korean Film Alliance was organized with the objective of recording news films related to leftist activities. In contrast to this leftist trend, starting in 1948 the U.S. Army's 502nd military unit made documentary films such as A Record of Korean Progress and Comrade to be screened in theaters twice a month. With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the 502nd military unit began producing Liberty News and later established the Korea National Film Unit to specialize in the production of documentary film.

Accompanying this active production of news films were the creation of propaganda films by Korean administrators themselves. In 1948, the 6-reel 35mm film The People's Shout, a record of speeches and achievements of then president Rhee Syng-man, was publicly screened at the Seoul International Theater. Propaganda films about presidents, which began with The People's Shout , continued to be produced not only during the twenty year period of President Rhee's grip on power, but even until recently as a means of informing the people about great presidential undertakings.

On 15 August 1948, the independent government of the Republic of Korea was established in the south, thus cleanly dividing the Korean Peninsula into North and South through the opposition of Communist and anti-Communist ideologies. From this moment on, Korean film opposed to Communism (anti-Communist documentary cinema) occupied a very significant position as a genre. In October of 1948 in Yosu, a city on the peninsula's southernmost tip, a revolt took place by Korean military troops stationed there. A leftist commissioned officer, in an attempt to liberate the people through Communism, revolted with forty of his own men. The officer and his supporters seized Yosu within the night and their power rapidly spread as they were joined by left-wing students. Government troops suppressed the revolt and many lives were lost in this incident stemming from ideology. The Ministry of Defense sent cameraman Kim Hak-song to the scene of the tragedy to record it. In November of the same year, with the objective of revealing communist brutality, the film Yosu/Sunchon Rebellion was released at the International Theater and other theaters throughout Seoul.

At about the same time, director Yun Bong-chun made The Collapse of the 38th Parallel (1949) for the Association of Film Instruction. By interviewing a Japanese man who had returned to Japan after being interned in the Soviet Union, this documentary designed to expose the brutality and misery of a communist nation, and is another film in line with those whose primary objective was to disseminate anti-Communist thought. Just as presidential propaganda films, beginning with The People's Shout, evolved into a significant genre over the next forty years, so too were anti-Communist films, inaugurated by Yosu/Sunchon Rebellion, made in large numbers up until recently for the purpose of enlightening the people about Communism. News and propaganda documentary films that were produced from liberation through the Korean War by the Choson Film Construction Headquarters, the U.S. Army, the Ministry of Defense came to be made by the Korea National Film Unit entering the 1960s.

The formation of the Korea National Film Unit occurred subsequent to a coup d'état in which political power fell under the military rule of Park Chung-hee. Putting the studio in charge of all documentary film production, the government banned the production of any documentary film that did not receive official permission. The studio, under the jurisdiction of the military government, produced what were called "culture films" such as Korea News which recorded President Park's achievements and informed people of government policy. The government not only controlled the production of documentary film, but also made it obligatory to screen Korea News and other culture films prior to every dramatic film shown in a theater. From this moment on, and for close to thirty years during the extended military rule of Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, and Roh Tae-woo, Korean documentary production and exhibition were under total control, becoming mere tools bearing the names Korea News and culture film that ultimately served to maintain government power.

Part 3: Social Intervention Documentaries and
the Independent Film Groups

Young people living in the college towns became aware of the socially interventionary functions of documentary film within the Korean people's democratization struggles that developed in the early 1980s. This occurred in congruence with Seoul Spring and in March of 1982 the Seoul Film Group was established. The group had already embraced documentary film with great fervor as they gathered to research film at the French and German Culture Centers in the latter half of the 1970s. In the midst of such a miserable situation, the group produced short films in 8 and 16mm and made research advances in what came to be termed "people's film." The concept of "people's film," which argued that film should be an art that focuses on the masses and that stands on the side of the people against their oppressors, became the spiritual base for the "independent film" organizations.

Two representative works of the Seoul Film Group were Water Tax (1984, 8mm, 35 minutes) and That Summer (1984, 8mm, 35 minutes). Water Tax is composed of direct interviews with farmers and documentary footage of events surrounding the farmer's struggle over the payment of water taxes. That Summer depicts the members of the alienated class of people starting with the workers and draws attention to the neglected life that they must live within the structural contradictions of Korean society. Both That Summer and Water Tax, by critiquing the present through the actual lives of farmers and workers, are critical films that deal with the type of taboo matters that had yet to be treated by any other documentary film prior to this moment.

With all documentary production and screenings under the bureaucratic control of the military government, their movement for social reform through documentary film was indeed a courageous struggle. Encouraged by the social resistance of the Seoul Film Group, other film production groups centered on students, such as Film Square We and Open Film, were established. These advances as well as the emergence of short-film festivals were crucial in spurring the growth of independent film production.

In 1986 the Seoul Film Group brought together various small scale film production groups that were making social intervention films from the people's perspective, and founded the Seoul Visual Collective. The collective's founding principles reveal the members' perspective on film: "The film movement must make efforts to secure social rights for the masses and take the side of farmers suffering from low grain prices, of workers compelled to work under awful conditions, and of low-income earners whose numbers are growing due to the worsening division of wealth between rich and poor. Given this situation we must work to expel all elements that are anti-democratic and anti-national." The founding principles of the Seoul Visual Collective point to the interventionist direction of subsequent political movements regarding various political and social realities. The group made available to the public realistic documents of the actual lives of workers, farmers, and low-income earners.

Of course, the Seoul Visual Collective was not alone in provoking friction with the military's political power; all independent film became the object of the powerful oppression of the government. The earliest example of that is probably the film Bluebird (1986, 8mm, 40 minutes), which depicts the miserable lives of farmers and the ruined family-farming economy. The film, screened in both villages and universities, was made at the request of the farmer's movement in order to record the actual situation and struggle of the farmers. Charging it with inciting farmers, the government arrested the production staff of Bluebird offering the justification that the screenings of the film were illegal because they occurred without the prior review of the Performance Ethics Committee. With this event, the film activities of the independent film groups entered a period of stasis, but only momentarily.

Following the Seoul Spring of 1980, in 1987 there was another great turning point in the development of Korean democracy. In a continuation of the June Struggle, the students and farmers of the democratization movement produced--as a mutual base in their struggle for democracy--the "June 29th Declaration" which overturned the regime of Chun Doo-hwan.

Within the heated atmosphere of democratization, Korean independent film and the student movement cooperated once again to lodge a spirited offensive. In addition to this, video, which was just then becoming popular, gained much attention as a convenient and economical medium of video among small independent production crews. With video cameras in hand, young filmmakers criticized society from the center of the people's movement by producing real records of the ongoing political struggle. These independent film activities were instrumental in developing Korean documentary film and--to this very day--these crews continue to make such on-the-spot documentaries.

In 1988, director Kim Dong-won made the video Sangye-dong Olympics (shown at YIDFF '91) which today remains the model work of independent documentary. For years Sangye-dong, located in Seoul, had been a place where a large number of low-income earners built houses without permission. With the idea to build high-rise apartments, the city of Seoul sent in a removal unit to mercilessly evict the residents. With no where else to go, the poor residents resisted the removal unit and stressed their right to live there. Planning to record the removal of homes and the destruction of furniture, Kim Dong-won went to the scene of the eviction in Sangye-dong with video camera in tow. Taking the position of the residents and made from their perspective, Sangye-dong Olympics is acknowledged as a prototypical work when considered in terms of documentary film's socially interventionary function.

After Sangye-dong Olympics' focus on low-income earners living in big cities, several documentary films were made that recorded the labor struggle. In 1988 the Center for Popular Culture Research was formed with the intent to theorize the concept of "people's film" and present their own ideas and methodologies of documentary film. They strongly emphasized that the production of "people's film" must place importance on people's rule led by the working class and that the subject matter of film had to be the struggle for liberation and the winning of independence, democracy, and unification. The Center produced on video a great number of documentaries from the actual scene of the worker's struggle in order to protect worker's rights and publicize their unjust treatment. The representative films of the movement include The National Workers General Meeting to Improve Poor Labor Laws (1988, video, 35 minutes); Hero Che Yunbom: Born Again in the People's Labor Union (1989, video, 50 minutes); and, Workers of Kansuni Shoe Products (1989, video, 40 minutes). In Kansuni the film staff joined the Shoe Products workers in their struggle to stop a fake strike, turning that process into a documentary film. They lived with the Shoe Product's workers for over a month and, sharing the same fate as the workers as in Sanggye-dong Olympics, were able to make a film praised for its splendid realism and sense of "being there."

With the opening of the National Workers General Meeting in 1989, the Korean worker's movement, no longer characterized as small scale and diffuse, came to take on the characteristics of a struggle for solidarity. In conjunction with a worker's solidarity struggle now on a national scale, young filmmakers also came to consider documentary films as an extension of the worker's movement. Several film groups rallied together and established Labor News Production whose basic precept was to cooperate with the worker's movement through documentary film.

The primary aim of Labor News Production was to educate workers in the factories who were the leaders of the labor movement and to disseminate crucial information about them. United with the various organizations of the worker's movement, the staff worked in the factories and produced news style documentaries called Labor News which were distributed within the organizations themselves and screened to workers throughout the country. This production and distribution of worker's documentaries by the Center for Popular Culture Research and Labor News Production along with the workers themselves in the latter half of the 1980s was instrumental in clearing the ground for significant developments in Korean social intervention films.

Emerging with the documentary film boom of the second half of the 1980s were several groups trying to make documentaries concerning the problems of women and children. In 1989 the Bariteo film group was formed by people active in the universities and film centers. Bariteo's first work, Even a Blade of Grass Has a Name (1990, 16 mm, 42 minutes), treated the problems of women office workers. The film was composed of two parts, the first of which was about the life of a married working woman, and the second exposed the working conditions of women while depicting the process of creating a women's labor union. In Bariteo's 1990 video production entitled Our Children (featured at YIDFF '91), the focus moved to children's issues. The founding members of Bariteo, directors Byun Young-joo, Hong Hyo-sook and Hong Hyong-sook, have presently formed documentary film companies that specialize in documentary film and have become recognized as the leading documentary directors who treat women's, children's, and educational issues.

The Seoul Visual Collective, which developed in the beginning of the 1980s as Korea's first organized film movement, started again in 1990 as a progressive group specializing in documentary film. Thematizing general social problems, such as housing, labor, environment, and education, the filmmakers of the new Seoul Visual Collective work hand-in-hand--from planning to distribution--with various social groups connected to these themes and cooperate (just as Labor News Production does) to make documentary films from the people's perspective.

Some of the most recent representative works of the new collective include The Site of Daily Life--The Site of Struggle (1995, video, by Hong Hyong-sook), which treats housing problems; 54 Days: Record of a Summer (1993, video, Hong Hyo-sook), which depicts the worker's struggle at a Hyundai factory; and Doomealee: A New School is Opening (1995, shown at YIDFF '95), which covers educational issues. Director Hong Hyong-sook's Doomealee won the grand prize at the First Annual Seoul Documentary Film Festival, the first of its kind held in 1996. In December 1993, when a village primary school in Doomealee was closed after the government's reorganization of small scale schools in farming and fishing villages, residents took on a court battle to demand a repeal of the measure. Living in the village for six months, Hong documented the distress of the residents. By toning down as much as possible the use of artificial narration or background music, the director minimized her subjectivity and was able to paint the resident's struggle from an objective standpoint. Through this work director Hong was not only able to deal with Doomealee village, but also able to lodge a criticism against Korea's fundamental education policy.

Following the Seoul Visual Collective, in 1991 a progressive documentary film group called Green Image was formed with the intention of endorsing various societal reforms by way of the image. With works such as We Are Not Soldiers (1995, video, Park Ki-bok), Those Who Have Crossed the Divide (1995, video, Kim Tae-il), and Mother's Purple Handkerchief (1996, video, Kim Tae-il), Green Image began by producing approximately twenty films involved with a variety of social problems, starting with North-South reunification, and including workers, the impoverished, the environment, and prostitution. We Are Not Soldiers, which was the first film to take up the problems of the homeless, is just one more testament to the great diversity of documentary film.

Director Byun Young-joo joined the staff of Green Image and made A Woman Being in Asia (1993, presented at YIDFF '93) a video sponsored by the Association of Korean Women's Unions and previewed at the Association's annual meeting. The fifty-six minute documentary, made by an all-woman staff, examined international prostitution, with special emphasis granted to the various forms prostitution takes in the Asian region.

In July of 1993, DocuFactory Vista was established as a company specializing in the production of documentary film as a basis for Byun Young-Joo's production of The Murmuring. That film focuses on the way the Japanese military used Korean women during WWII in order to create a rear-guard of "comfort women." The present state of these women near 70 and their stories reveals how much damage was inflicted upon them by the war. The Murmuring, which won the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize at the 1995 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, is the first Korean documentary to gain notoriety abroad. In a country such as Korea in which documentary film has long been hostage to government regulations, the general release of The Murmuring in April 1995 certainly attracted attention.

In Conclusion

The young filmmakers who were at the forefront of the Korean struggle for social transformation in the Seoul Spring in the early 1980s are now at the center of Korean documentary. To be sure, they have not broken out of their small production environment, yet their possibilities will no doubt expand given the passion with which they use documentary film to explore various issues. One recent example of the significant changes in the social environment for Korean documentary film is the opening, in 1996, of the first Korean documentary film festival in Seoul. The festival witnessed rave reviews from the general public who viewed over 50 films, and with corporate support the festival is expected to become an annual event. In addition, domestic works will be actively introduced with the newly established cable television channel which specializes in documentaries. Thus, for the first time documentary films that were limited to university districts and small theaters will now be introduced to a much wider audience. Moreover, with the abolition in October 1996 of the system of regulating film through pre-release review, total freedom of expression has been guaranteed. With the disappearance of controls over production and screenings, circulation will expand and the potential of documentary film established in the 1980s will, at last, be realizable.

--Translated from the Japanese original by Eric Cazdyn


Translation notes

1. Rensageki is a form of theater presentation mixing scenes performed on stage with scenes previously filmed that are projected between the live scenes. Shinpa, or literally "New School," was an early attempt to modernize Japanese theater by adding modern, often melodramatic subjects.

Pok Hwan-mo

Born in Korea and studied in the Graduate Faculty of Literature at Waseda University in Tokyo. Currently lectures on cinema at Honam University in Kwangju City, Korea.