TWO YEARS ago, the Academy Awards—also known as Oscars—gave its heaviest trophy to a gay boy who grew up in a drug-ridden neighborhood. Seven months later, a female director’s motion picture starring a female protagonist became the most profiting original superhero film for Universal Pictures. This January, a two-hundred million-dollar picture based on Africa swept the world and people are still recovering from its charm. The films were met with avid acceptance around the globe and became a testimony against the fixed formulas for a film’s acceptability. These three films are the beginning of a chain of revolution which will reveal that there is only one inherent truth in cinema: the story.
Before the change of government administration in 2017, the Park Geun-Hye Cabinet collaborated with the Korean Ministry of Culture, National Intelligent Service, and Korean Film Council to censor and regulate films which contained material contradicting their political agenda. The blacklist included works such as The Island of Shadows, a documentary about Hanjin Heavy Industry’s labor abuse and police oppression; Diving Bell, a documentary about the Sewol Ferry disaster which had been banned from Busan International Film Festival; The Remnants, a documentary about the relocated residents of the Yongsan disaster, and many more. Independent films containing ‘sensitive’ material about national intelligence (The Anxious Day Out) and even those discussing war-time Japanese sexual slavery were also on the blacklist. The films above were excluded from funds which had been commissioned by the Korean Film Council to finance independent filmmaking in South Korea. The administration pressured both large and small film festivals to banish the screening of these films and disabled their directors from speaking to an audience of any scale. When the method for enforcing the blacklist was revealed, many in the cultural-artistic world were in shock: The film festival judges had automatically given the lowest score to films that contained sensitive keywords, such as Sewol Ferry and national security law.
Filmmakers who receive prestigious recognition around the globe were not exempt from the blacklist. The list includes director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer) and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), as well as actors Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder), Lee Joon-gi (King and the Clown), and actress Moon So-ri, who made her directorial debut in 2017 with The Running Actress. The government’s restrictions against creative expression significantly stagnated production by directly limiting the films’ financial support. The incident spawned an atmosphere of uncertainty and skepticism among the film industry; professionals who have been working in the industry for several decades were deeply traumatized. In addition to difficulties that abound in the production process, the Park Geun-hye Cabinet exerted political pressure into the realm of media--a field which must remain distant from the world of fiction.
The underdog’s revolution
Ever since the institutionalization of the studio system in the 1950s, large-scale studios or production companies have stood at the eye of the storm in the swirling vortex. The movie theater owners, investors, and executive producers in Korea, let alone Hollywood, have exerted the pressure of making an audience-friendly picture which must be agreeable and acceptable enough for a wide audience. To an extent, it may be understood that a few films dating from similar periods or regions might share similar appearances in outlook, or mise-en-scene. However, the theater loses its audience by only showing the same stories, such as undercover spy missions, police-turned-gangster films or the converse. The film industry is not likely to accept scenarios which would challenge the existing formulas for attracting audience. Thus, audiences have watched the same multibillion-dollar projects which provide spectacular distractions and hackneyed stories that are forgotten after several car explosions. There must be at least one starlet picture that is not bound to any pre-existing storylines and embedded into the audience’s minds. The liberation of those time-worthy films in the production and distribution from any bureaucratic and financial intervention must be preserved so that they may say whatever their message was at their original conception. Many great films are great for different reasons. For example, 1987 is remarkable for its documentary-like depiction of the militaristic regime and meticulous attention to the personages of the period. Fight Club and Moss are great for fearlessly exposing the ugly creature that lives under the calm, porcelain-like face of a modern man.
In this context, the global success of recent major-motion pictures such as Wonder Woman or Black Panther can be deemed remarkable. The international audience has shattered the myth that a major picture should be directed by a male filmmaker and the belief that a cast comprised of racial minors would have little chance for box-office success. Black Panther is not only a collective work of phenomenal artists, designers, and actors but also a picture that celebrates the wealth of African history. The audience is able to feast and indulge in the richness of African culture, learn its language, and steal a peek at traditional costumes and other cultural bearings while following the story. The film’s victory asserts that the cinema still belongs to the larger audience outside of the studio—to those who live in the era and breathe and eat on the street.
Thus, the cinema must strive to continue the legacy of bearing authentic stories of real people. Film festivals of all shapes and sizes are the hub of a celebration of creators who bring striking perspectives and features of the world. The annual Seoul International Women’s Film Festival (SIWFF) exhibits a selection of films that, according to its website, “show the world through women’s eyes” and strives to promote a culture of gender equality in the industry. The Arab Film Festival celebrates the creative works from an entire continent and provides a stark depiction of life and war which is not permitted in the media or press. The Asian Film Festival Berlin and New York Asian Film Festival preserve the creative voices of Asians and Asian diasporas across the world where their voices are silenced otherwise. A display of those films which are made in all types of ways and shown on any kind of screen is a gift to an audience that witnesses scenes of life in the remote and far world. Audiences gain courage by seeing that the world exists on a larger scale than their imagination. As a result, anyone who walks out of the theater can believe that all shapes of life can exist. The popularity of these film festivals and the recent success of films diverging from the conventional storyline confirms that the audience craves to see a diversity of culture and content on the screen and that the satisfaction of this thirst will bring success to the studio.
The vast future
Beginning from 1985 when a train approached the screen and caused the frightened audience to hide under the tables, cinema has taken the audience on a trip to the moon, through the Odessa steps, back to the future, and to the galaxy far, far away.* IMAX theaters became widely used less than a decade ago, and Netflix had launched its virtual reality application hardly two years ago. As platforms for screening, creating and distributing films diversify, the options for audience experience are rapidly transforming. There is no limit to the potential of cinema. According to an interview with Teri Schwartz, Dean of UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT) for the The Yonsei Annals, Director Francis Ford Coppola of The Godfather series is working to reconstruct cinema as a live experience. 50 cameras would be filming several sets simultaneously and the audience would watch it in real-time as if in a theater. Active movements to experiment available technologies and create shortcuts for creating visuals are spawning in Korea.** Daejeon Film Commission is continuously upgrading its special effects, aqua, and action studio while seeking to provide various locations and financial support for filmmakers. With the collaboration of research and development team facilities, it has already supported more than a dozen of domestic films since 2016. Together with Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), Daejeon metropolitan city is seeking to construct a highly technology-based infrastructure that will become a firm headstone to the future of filmmaking in Korea. The future of Korean cinema is open to be made by the brimming talent in this land and the production studio will strengthen its transformation.
Cinema must not only exist for a select few with the artistic and intellectual capabilities. Rather, it must be able to stay true to the spirit of its pioneers, which was to shock audiences and testify the wide breadth of the human imagination. The natural human instinct is to remain in a place of comfort and to see things that are known to them. It is up to the future filmmakers to break that cage by creating a visual spectacle that disturbs and shocks the beholder.
*Refers to The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1896), A Trip to the Moon (1902), Battleship Potemkin (1925), Back to the Future (1985), Star Wars (1977~1927).