11.07.2019 in Society

Changes in Contemporary Korean Cinema


Like many other national film industries, Korean cinema has originally functioned as a specified cultural medium that constructs and spreads out specific concepts and ideals that define Koreanness at any given time. This explains why the film industry changes with prevailing changes in the society. In particular, contemporary Korean cinema has undergone some significant changes, including an impressive shift from han-centered narratives and implications, even subtle, to more globalized concepts and themes, possibly aimed at appealing to a wider audience. Like many other cultures in the world, the Korean culture has heavily relied upon the film industry for preservation and, in most cases, the representation of Koreans’ memories and feelings. Notably, recent Korean movies do not carry around the concept of han. The absence of han in the contemporary Korean films does not signify demise of death of Korean cinema, however, it signifies the growth and versatility of the Korean film industry.

Defining Han As Portrayed In the Korean Cinema

Han is primarily an indescribable concept or feeling that is experienced by and thus defines all Koreans. It is considered an amorphous feeling that could be love, hate, or anything else, so elusive to describe and yet so strong and real. It can however be considered as a combination of emotions that are embedded in Korea’s history, the experiences of a people, and their definition of Koreanness. These emotions include bitterness, a desire for revenge, endurance, sorrow and a feeling of incompleteness. The emotions listed in this case, do not define the Korean culture. However, emotional elements such as bitterness and the desire for revenge mimic the Korean way of expression especially in the media. From a simplistic perspective, han is the general anger of the Korean society, especially towards their powerful neighbors who subjected them to severe hardships in the past (Klein 162). In movies, han can be identified as lamentations of the Korean people within various contexts as portrayed in a given movie. In the past, each Korean film had some element of han.
In Poetry, for example, there is an elderly woman whose life is not exactly pleasant. Her life is peaceful for the most part but it has its fair share of turbulence. Her grandson is rebellious and ill-mannered, her daughter is far away both physically and emotionally as it seems they rarely communicate, her elderly boss is trying to take advantage of their relationship by making sexual advances at her, and there is a police officer in her poetry class who makes inappropriate jokes. The film also features a young girl who commits suicide after being raped repeatedly by a group of five boys, including Mija’s grandson, Wook. Han in this case can be seen in the silence and anger of the young woman who commits suicide, the sadness of the elderly woman who also may or may not have ended her life, and the masked bitterness of Agnes’ mother when she accepts the settlement for her daughter’s death as a cover-up for the atrocities committed by the five boys.
When describing what han meant to the Korean cinema, one would say it captured Koreanness, representing the actual spirit and feelings of the Korean people (Klein 888). Every Korean is able to identify han, even without being able to describe it and, in some way, capturing han in each Korean movie is like a cultural prerequisite for Koreanness in cinema. It thus follows that the need to incorporate han would be considered central for Korean directors and audiences alike. Moreover, the ‘obsession’ with han can be justified as a period of nostalgia and search for an identity as a people within the film industry. The disengagement in this context can be viewed as  integration of the Korean cinema into the global film industry. This means that the Korean film industry is not losing its unique identity and the local identity has not really been compromised. To prove this, it is important to look at a few Korean movies that have disengaged from han and establish whether they are still considered Korean. The general argument here is that while han is probably the most unique aspect of Koreanness, it is not the only thing that can be used to identify the Korean culture in cinema. Each Korean film carries with it an element of Koreanness that is relevant within the current globalized context of the film industry.


This is a 2007 movie that is set in the 1970s and thus embodies some nostalgic ensemble, which in some way can be considered as a mixture of good and bad. By focusing on the past, this film is able to highlight a very specific aspect of Koreanness that is not necessarily han. In the movie, there are about two strong cultural representations that are Korean and yet can be applied to other contexts. First, the doctor’s fiancée had committed suicide before the doctor could meet her, it was an arranged marriage. This is a concept that is built on the Korean culture both in terms of the arranged marriage and the fact that the girl committed suicide. Without being too strongly built on han, the silent suffering that drove the young woman to suicide in this case can still be seen in the context of dire consequences of the Korean system of emotional suppression (Na, Han and Koo 341). The fact that this is expressed without a characteristic emphasis of han simply allows applying the same narrative to an American, Indian, and even African context. The second culturally relevant representation is in the serial killer who was targeting Japanese soldiers. The Korean culture continues to view Japanese soldiers in a historical context as oppressors and inflictors of pain and suffering. Using the Japanese soldiers as a symbol of justifiable targets simply reunites the Korean people with a historical sense of justice, albeit in a vigilantism. This concept can be applicable within any other culture that has a historical enemy. Consequently, this movie is able to embrace Koreanness in its own unique ways, without having to come out so strongly in the context of Korean han. In this way, the directors made it relevant to a wider audience.

Memories of Murder

This movie is also uniquely Korean, although it can be understood in other cultural contexts as well. In the movie, a couple of rape and murder cases go unresolved and numerous possible suspects are interrogated and later cleared from the crimes. In the end, these cases remain unresolved. The Korean concept that stands out in this movie is unresolved injustice, ensuing anger, and frustration felt by the lead investigator. The Korean people were subjected to numerous injustices that have never been punished. This means that as a people, Koreans know the pain of unresolved injustice. That is the element of this movie that unites the Korean people and helps them to identify this film’s narrative as their own. The story can also be relevant in a French, German, English, or even American context. The most disturbing thing in the movie is when the man with a ‘plain face’ visits the scene of the crime and claims to be remembering something he had done there a long time ago. This part of the movie seems to tell how Koreans think of or feel about the Japanese. The pain of the oppressed is a universal concept and thus it helps this movie be understood in a wider cultural and geographical context.

The Sassy Girl

This story is one of the few Korean stories that actually have a happy ending. The plot however does not entirely depart from sadness and sorrow that identify the Korean film industry. The happy ending may have been a necessity, considering that the movie is a romantic comedy, or perhaps it was simply a directors’ way of disengaging from typical sadness of a Korean narrative. The romance in this movie is relevant within a wider global context, as it is topical within Korea. The movie also has some unique aspects that represent the Korean culture. First, the young girl in the story is asked to break up with Gyeon-woo and she agrees despite her initial resistance. In addition, this girl is willing to be introduced to a nice young man by the mother of her late boyfriend. The culture of matchmaking or setting young people up with dates is rather common in Korea, as in some other parts of the world. This tradition also makes the movie widely acceptable in the global context. The happy ending is considered different because it is not a common characteristic in Korean narratives. In some way, it is however a concept that can be used to raise people’s hope, especially when it comes to love and romance. Gyeon-woo and his mystery girl end up together despite significant obstacles from the start of the movie. This means that regardless of the odds, success is always possible. Moreover, this is a mindset that the Korean people need as of now, having newly started seeing the possibilities of positive changes and a bright future.

The Servant

This film has true Koreanness in the narrative. Bangja is a loyal servant who despite all obstacles tries to bring out the best in his master until the end. The film has an interwoven narrative comprising romance, politics as well as social issues present in the Korean society. All these factors work together to paint a clear picture of the Korean people, without necessarily emphasizing sadness and yearning for justice as defined in the concept of Korean han. In order to identify this film as a unique Korean narrative, one would simply have to look at the relationships between the men and the women. Rather than wanting to stick with the servant that she loved, for example, Chunhyang wanted to marry Mong-ryong. Materialism in marriage is something that was at some point a norm within the Korean society (Na, Han and Koo 358 ). When given a choice, women in this culture were known to pick suitors based on their wealth and not feelings. This concept is not unique to the Korean culture. A number of other cultures also value the man based on how well he can take care of his new wife and her family (Lee 43). This means that this movie does not in any way compromises Korean-ness, it simply disengages from the concept of han in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Counter Argument

However, proponents of the idea of han have continued to protest against apparent absence of han in Korean films. In their arguments, people who have viewed han as a representative of Korean visual arts claim that the demise of han in most movies signifies death of Korean culture. Additionally, proponents of han ideology in films claim that Korean culture is being subsumed by powerful western cultures. Conspicuous absence of han in most movies of Korean origin therefore, represents a threat that the Korean culture is facing an a whole. Proponents of han ideology lament that, while some Korean movies still incorporate sadness and suffering into the narrative, such movies often do not dwell on sadness or suffering, as much as they initially used to. According to those who see han in movies as authentic Korean culture, the move by directors to limit elements of han in films is simply an affront to the Korean social and cultural fabric.


The four movies discussed in this paper show that the Korean cinema is not losing its uniqueness and relevance in the global film industry. Rather, the Korean cinema is embracing a new dimension in its expression of the Korean culture within a global context. Being overly Korean limited the Koran industry to the Korean audience since, in most cases, the international community would shun Korean content, owing to overwhelming and yet unexplainable sadness present in each Korean film. Currently, it is actually possible to watch something that is very entertaining like My Sassy Girl and enjoy the happy ending without forgetting that it is Korean. The Korean cinema seems to have joined the rest of the world by embracing subtlety in their cultural expressions in cinema in order to appeal to a larger audience, which is relevant in the global film industry. Even though, critics argue that absence of han in Korean media, especially the film industry in confirms the fear that the authenticity of Korean culture is under attack, such views are not entirely true. The film industry globally and in Korean is experiencing rapid development and its common for producers to produce movies that appeal to the global audience and not just Koreans.

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