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[HanCinema's Feature] "The State of Korean Film - Part Two (The Film Archive)"

2015/12/05 | Permalink

From summer of 2013 to summer of 2015, concurrent with my starting to write for HanCinema full-time, I conducted research at the Korean Film Archive in Seoul, moving to live in that area. My purpose in this research was to get a fuller background in Korean film, as well as world cinema in general. While I was generally able to acquit myself well in this regard, in light of other events (see parts one and three of this series), certain experiences at the Film Archive need to be noted in order to add further proper perspective in regards to the problems of the industry as a whole. For further background I suggest reading Hal Swindall's excellent article on the troubles involved with academic-style research on the Korean peninsula (THE THREE WISE MONKEYS), as well as Lisa Espinosa's HanCinema feature on the Korean Film Archive to get some understanding as to what the institution is I'm referring to.

All right, moving on. Whereas the KFMA's actions are part of a larger industry-wide effort, I would characterize the problems at the Film Archive as being more the result of general indifference. A major issue with this is just the employment structure. Employees at the Film Archive are selected not based on an interest in film, but on utilitarian principles. The librarians simply studied library science at university, and the Cinematheque employees are hired the same way as as ushers are hired at any major movie theater chain. I cannot speak to the interest level the preservationists have in their work, as I never had a chance to engage one in conversation. Having spoken to all of the librarians and ushers present during those two years, however, I can definitely confirm their lack of interest in the Film Archive's mission statement. Most did not have any idea which materials the Archive held in what capacity or why, nor did they seem to think this was information they needed to know.

Not coincidentally, the Archive has had difficulty with trying to maintain a passable attendance level. Every movie screened at the Cinematheque is free of charge, but the institution's advertising is so appallingly bad that at any given screening chances are most of the audience just consists of retirees with nothing better to do than go watch a free movie mid-day, and aside from them the theater is largely empty. While this issue is most obvious with classic Korean films, even popular modern movies struggle. When the Archive does manage a sellout, it's usually because a screening was the result of a partnering with an organization that has a better idea of what they're doing. The Archive makes more money renting out their theaters to third parties than they do selling actual books and movies concerning classic Korean film.

I actually really like a lot of classic Korean films, even the so-called "quota quickies" because they often have this weird cult sensibility similar to American films from the same era, but with a distinctly Korean bend. I've seen an unromantic yet not terribly cynical melodrama about what drives a woman to prostitution, a harrowing story of an international Korean adoptee who discovers Sweden isn't all it's cracked up to be, a goofy Joseon-era vampire horror thriller, a weirdly self meta-analytical thief caper back before meta was all the rage, and countless other bizarre, fascinating stories. This isn't even getting into the international selection, or what's available at the library.

I've always wanted to write about these movies, but various problems have always prevented me from doing so. First, most of them aren't available with English subtitltes, so international exposure is just about impossible. Second, staff was consistently quite uncooperative about any attempt or suggestion I made regarding collaboration, so I always had to work by myself searching out movies at random. The result? Even though the Korean Film Archive has been enormously influential to my understanding of film, this was only because I stubbornly tried to go through all of their materials one by one. No other researcher I met at the Korean Film Archive stayed all that long, because the institution as a whole is simply not well-suited to in-depth research, even on the basic social level.

Though I had been going to the Archive nearly every day for two years it was a struggle to get anyone to even make eye contact with me, let alone smile. So anything besides watching media material and reading books was out of the question. I ended up getting banned from the facility when I lost my temper at an employee who interrupted my attempt to engage a local Korean reporter in conversation about a story she had just filmed regarding classic Korean films set during the Japanese Occupation, a very rare genre, and a subject which says a lot about the way South Korea has viewed its own recent history. This was not the first time I had been prevented from talking to a person with whom I shared an obviously mutual professional interest, but it did end up being the last.

This much explains why it's so rare these days to see anyone talking about "rediscovered" Korean directors, when modern film journals are filled to the brink with stories about rediscovered filmographies from nearly every other country. After the spike of energy in the first half of the Korean Wave which led to the popularization of films like "The Housemaid - 1960", classic Korean film has become a niche subject even in its own country.

That much explains why the mainstream and classic Korean film awareness is so bad. In the final part of this series, I'll discuss how this problem is affecting independent film on the festival level.

Article by William Schwartz. He can be reached at

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