The rise of South Korean docs

Not long ago South Korean filmmakers could only make documentaries if they were monitored by the government. Today independent South Korean docs are in abundance and are being spotlighted in the 'Made In...' program at Hot Docs.
May 4, 2009

At the moment, the most unlikely star in Korean cinema is a dead ox. The late animal is featured in the independent documentary Old Partner, which, since its domestic release in January, has broken an admissions record in Korea for docs, drawing over a million people to theaters, and become the first independent film ever to sit atop the country’s box office standings.

The film is the flag bearer for a slate of Korean productions being featured at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival this year, in the international spotlight program, ‘Made In…’ Five films are included in the program, in addition to Old Partner, which is screening separately in competition. Showcasing a wide variety of subject matter and styles, the program suggests that Korea’s independent documentary community is entering a new period of maturity and public importance after years of slow but steady development.

‘It was only really [in the] mid-’80s that it became possible to make these independent documentaries outside of the government system,’ says Darcy Paquet, a longtime observer of Korean cinema who runs the online resource, ‘Prior to that it was illegal to make independent films.’ In 1988 the country adopted a new constitution easing the strong censorship laws that had been in place under the country’s previous military government, allowing filmmakers to explore formerly restricted subjects. Paquet says the biggest change in recent years has been diversification of subject matter, which is apparent in the Hot Docs selections.

‘There’s a lot of production going in South Korea around documentary,’ says Sean Farnell, Hot Docs’ programmer. ‘A lot of it is dedicated to a kind of grassroots activism – we have a couple of examples of that in the program, with [Yun Do-chun's feature] Farmer’s Song and [Choi Jung-min's 38-minute] Black Badge.’

Farnell says many of the submissions considered for the Korean spotlight were rooted in national politics, but there were also films that showed a sense of self-awareness and a personal perspective, such as Mun Jeong-hyun’s Grandmother’s Flower, which tells the story of the filmmaker’s family history, and Action Boys, a doc by Jung Byung-gil which follows several graduates from the Seoul Action School for stuntmen.

‘Part of the maturity of a national cinema is also seeing filmmakers transcend the notion (of documentary as activism) as well, and you do see that in films like Old Partner and Action Boys,’ says Farnell.

Old Partner, directed by Lee Chung-ryoul, was originally produced for TV. South Korean television is friendly to non-fiction, with comedy- and talk-based shows drawing large audiences. However, the success of Old Partner, which looks at the relationship between an aging farmer, his wife and their loyal, decrepit ox, is unusual given its subject matter, languid pace and minimal music and dialogue.

‘I think the film kind of serves as an opportunity for self-reflection,’ says Paquet. ‘Korea modernized extremely quickly, and so there’s this kind of sense of collective loss or guilt towards an older generation. It’s a topic that has caused people to kind of look back on how the country has been developing.’

Further evidence of the health of Korea’s broadcast doc sector came at MIPTV, where RTL Disney paid US$100,000 for a two-part doc about dinosaurs, produced by Korean public broadcaster EBS – the highest price ever commanded by a Korean doc.

Paquet says there’s reason to believe docs in theatrical release will also continue to enjoy an increased profile.

‘It’s become more commercially viable [to make] local documentaries,’ he says. ‘It’s more common for them to be released in theaters, and the number of people who are going to see Korean documentaries is rising.’

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