K-Movie Series – The Birth of Korean Movie

In 2007, Korean actress, Jeon Do-yeon, won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in the movie, Secret Sunshine  (밀양), and in 2014, she was named as a member of the jury of the Cannes Film Festival.  Korean movies also won a number of awards at international film festivals, e.g., Best Director award won by Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon (취화선)(2002) at the Cannes Film Festival, Best Screenplay prize won by Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (시)(2010) at the Cannes Film Festival, Golden Lion prize won by Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà (피에타)(2012) at the Venice Film Festival, etc. It is no doubt that Korean movies have gained worldwide attention.  So, I am going to write a series of posts talking about the development of the K-movie.  In this blog post, I will first talk about the birth of K-movie.

Imported Motion Pictures and Kino-dramas

Until the 1920’s, motion pictures imported from the western countries dominated the Korean theatres.  There was also a form of production called the kino-drama which was in fact a combination of stage play by actors and moving pictures projecting outdoor scenes and an imitation of the Japanese melodramas’ style and content.

The first kino-drama was Fight for Justice (의리적 구토) (1919) in which 1,000 feet of moving pictures inserts showing the outdoor scenery of famous places of Seoul were projected onto the backgroup against which the actors were performing live on the stage.  Fight for Justice was an action kino-drama about rewarding the good and punishing the evil. After that about 20 kino-dramas were produced up to 1923.  Such kino-dramas were prelude to the birth of Korean silent films.

Silent Films

After 1920, there was a boom in educational silent films on topics such as hygiene, savings, paying taxes, home improvement, use of electricity, etc. sponsored by the Japanese colonial government. For example, Vow Made Below the Moon (월하의 맹서)(1923) was a story about a brother and sister making a vow below the moon to save money and restore the family fortune wasted by their uncle and was generally regarded as the first Korean fiction film.

In 1924, the first Korean-made, Korean-funded silent film called The Story of Jang-hwa and Hong-ryeon (장화홍련전) was produced.  The film was about the story of two sisters, Jang-hwa and Hong-ryeon, who were abused to death by their stepmother.  Their ghosts appealed to the governor for revenge which was granted in the end.  The film was a great hit.

The silent films gave rise to a profession called byunsa.  Byunsa commented on the silent films, explaining the plot and the title like what the subtitles did in the Western silent films, and also provided the characters’ voices.  At that time, byunsa were like film stars and a film’s success depended on them.  An orchestra box was also located in front of the screen to provide musical accompaniment to the film.

Nationalistic Films and Censorship by the Japanese Colonial Government

According to the records, 140-150 films were produced during the Japanese colonial period.  The Korean film producers wanted to produce nationalist films with national independence as the core value but Korean film industry was subject to the political oppression and censorship of the Japanese colonial government.

However, in 1926, Na Woon-kyu’s Arirang (아리랑) managed to make a breakthrough. Arirang was a story about a mentally ill man who killed a wealthy landowner’s son linked to the Japanese police.  The film was admired for its aesthetic qualities and its hidden political message.  It was considered as the first Korean film masterpiece as it became inspiration of young film-makers who hoped to make films based on principles of realism and resistance to Japanese power. The title song of the film, Arirang, also became the theme song for the Korean independence movement.

Nevertheless, as the Japanese colonial government felt the growing influence of films over the public, its censorship also tightened.   For example, about 25,000 meters of films were cut from about 19 million meters of films censored in 1927.  By 1942, Korean-language films were banned outright.

Appearance of Sound Films

In the 1930’s, advances in technical areas such as cinematography, sound recording and film developing were noted.  Before 1935, the Korean films produced were all silent films.  Lee Pil-woo was considered as the pioneer of Korean sound film and the godfather of Korean cinema technology as he shot Korea’s first talkie, The Story of Chun-hyang (춘향전)(1935), by developing his own sound production technology with Japanese engineers.  However, as it was difficult to raise enough money to produce sound films, silent films continued to be produced.  In 1937, with the commercial success of Lee Gyu-hwan’s Wanderer (나그네), sound films became established as the norm.  The byunsa profession also gradually disappeared with the increasing popularity of sound films.

In the next post, we will continue with the development of K-movie in the 1950’s in which the Korean film industry was first adversely affected by the Korean War and then revived and boomed.

Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 4 June 2015.  Watch this space!


Related Blog Posts

K-Movie Series – Golden Age in the 1950’s and 1960’s” dated 4 June 2015

K-Movie Series – 1970’s and 1980’s” dated 9 June 2015

K-Movie Series – 1990’s to 2011” dated 11 June 2015

K-Movie Series – 2012 to Present” dated 16 June 2015



Dean Napolitano, “Jeon Do-yeon joins Cannes jury“, The Wall Street Journal, 2014-04-29

Jennifer Rousse-Marquet, “The unique story of the South Korean film industry“, ina global, 2013-10-07

Youna Kim (ed.), The Korean Wave: Korean media go global, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013, pp.9-11

Lee Eun-joo and Lee Hoo-nam, “Giving voice to a time before talkies“, Korea JoongAng Daily, 2008-08-06

Darcy Paquet, “A short history of Korean film“, Koreanfilm.org, 2007-03-01

Kim Mee-hyun (ed.), Korean Cinema: from origins to renaissance, Korean Film Council, 2006

2 thoughts on “K-Movie Series – The Birth of Korean Movie

  1. This was very useful in my study of Korean cinema as a whole. Thank you so much for bringing all this together. It was comprehensive and very helpful in rounding out my knowledge on the subject.


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