Korea came to the cinema relatively late, with its first silent film not being produced until 1923. In 1935, the sound film was introduced, but any further artistic development was cut short when Japan invaded China in 1937 and the Korean cinema was given over to outright propaganda. In 1945, with the surrender of Japan, Korean film began a renaissance, although the country was soon split into two. The first Korean color film didn’t appear until 1949, and for the most part the Korean cinema of the 1950s and 1960s was given over to escapist genre films. One of the most popular directors of this period was Kim Ki-young, whose film Hanyo (The Housemaid, 1960) tells the almost Buñuelian tale of a young woman who enters the house of an esteemed and happily married composer and soon has an affair with him that brings pain to all concerned. The director of more than thirty films from 1955 onward, Kim was one of the most prolific genre filmmakers of the 1960s, although his work was unknown outside Korea. It was not until 1974, when the Korean National Film Archive was finally established, that these historic postwar Korean films finally found a permanent home.
Modern Korean cinema is dominated by the figure of Im Kwon-taek, an incredibly prolific director with more than 100 films to his credit since 1962, although his work has received, as with so many other excellent Asian filmmakers, scant attention in the West outside of film festivals. Born in Jangsung, Cholla Province, in 1936, Im is known for his careful examination of Korean life, but he takes his vision and expands it beyond the boundaries of Korea into something that becomes universal to the human condition. Beginning with Dumanganga jal itgeola (Farewell to the Duman River, 1962), a film that dramatized the lives of a group of young students who fought against the Japanese in Manchuria, Im began making films at a furious pace, many of them action films but with deep psychological penetration, dealing with the events of Korea’s war-torn past. Initially considered to be a reliable genre director who could bring projects in on time and on budget, Im began to move outside genre norms with his breakthrough film Mandala (1981), a more contemplative work about the hard lives of two Korean monks. Since then, he has directed Seopyeonje (known as Sopyonje in the West, 1993) and Chunhyang (2000), both of which deal with “pan-sori,” a style of nineteenth-century popular music that specializes in love stories or satiric narratives.