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South Korea’s Political Turmoil: How Its Presidential Crisis Will Change the Film Industry

With the vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye, South Korea's film industry faces an uncertain future.

south korea protest

A protester wears a mask of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a rally demanding the arrest of Park in Seoul, South Korea.

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In early December, the political crisis engulfing South Korea took a consequential turn when the country’s Parliament voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye. The crisis – spurned by an ongoing political scandal involving corporate coercion, government embezzlement, and a religious shaman – has crippled the government and scandalized the nation, leading to massive protests on the streets of Seoul.

While it is unclear if President Park will remain in office – the country’s Constitutional Court will now decide whether to let the impeachment stand – it seems clear that this scandal will have far-reaching effects in South Korea, up to and including its vibrant film production industry.

There’s certainly no love lost between Park’s government and many of the leading light of the so-called Korean New Wave. Indeed, many of the actors and directors who, building on local acclaim and box office success, burst onto the international stage in the early to mid 2000’s, have been vocal with their dissent.  Directors Kim Jee-woon (“The Good, The Bad, The Weird”, “I Saw The Devil) and Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”, “The Handmaiden”), alongside actor Song Kang-ho (“The Host”, “Snowpiercer”) all signed a 2015 declaration critical of Park’s policies, and ended up on a government mandated blacklist for the efforts.

The recent reveal of that blacklist – a list of 9,743 artists, enemies and critical voices who were to be denied governmental support – caused a minor stir in the national media, until the more sensational aspects of the larger scandal (we cannot stress this enough – it involves a wrathful, charismatic cult leader) understandably seized public attention.

Speaking with IndieWire at the Marrakech Film Festival, director Kim Jee-woon, whose film “The Age of Shadows” opened the fest, evoked both political climate of today and the one of several years ago, when he emerged as a major name on the international stage.

kim jee woon

Kim Jee-woon in Marrakech

“About ten years ago, there was a more left-wing Korean government who imposed no limit on subjects to be treated in films or other artistic pursuits,” the director told us, via translator, the day after his film “The Age of Shadows” opened the festival. “Only [that government] has since lost power. 

That would be the government of President Roh Moo-hyun, who followed the equally liberal presidency of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung, and whose collected terms in office – from 1998 to 2008 – coincide with the surge and crest of the Korean New Wave. As Kim puts it, things have changed. The successive governments of Lee Myung-bak and current President Park Geun-hye have led to a sea change in the country’s artistic culture as well its political one; as political figures grow more conservative, South Korea’s leading producers have as well.

“There’s currently a lot of repression in Korea, and because of that most studios do not dare broach certain subjects that may cause the government to grit its teeth,” said Kim. One of the biggest issues is that “in Korea, there are four big studios,” most of them “giant conglomerates. They hold the power, and have a close relationship with the government. In that way everything is linked.”

The Age of Shadows

“The Age of Shadows”

It’s a delicate dance. “All directors, and all people who work in creative fields, we always to tell the stories that interest us,” Kim added. “But if you’re a director, you first have to find a producer willing to play along with you. And with this government in power, it’s been very difficult to find a producer who’s ready-for-anything.”

“The Age of Shadows” was made with a number of bold-faced names on that famous blacklist, including star Song Kang-ho and producer Jay Choi, CEO of Warner Bros. Korea. In Choi, Kim found both a formidable ally and detour around an establishment he considered stifling. Flush with studio bucks and eager to agitate what he viewed as a moribund system, Choi turned out to be the exact kind of ready-for-anything financier the director was looking for — although, for what it’s worth, it was actually the studio that sought him out. 

“[He] brought me the script for “The Age of Shadows”, asking if I would be interested in making the film with them,” Kim explained. The film, which is set during a fraught era of Korean history and carries what counts as a mega-budget back home, was not the kind of proposition local studios were willing to take on. “This was an investment on Warner Brother’s part, and I think they were stimulated to tackle this difficult subject.”

Speaking to the Yonhap news agency in September, Choi put his desire to disrupt in even clearer terms. “The Korean film market is controlled by four big investor/distributors,” said Choi. “So I thought somebody should shake the framework and create a chasm in the static big-four system to turn it into a creator-oriented one.” 

While Hollywood’s gamble paid off – “The Age of Shadows” dominated the Korean box-office for several weeks this fall, and is the country’s entry for the Foreign Film Oscar – what of Kim Jee-woon’s concerns about the government’s heavy hand?

Well, see the news. President Park is under impeachment, her government on shaky ground, and the opposition parties looking to make great gains in the 2017 elections. Though IndieWire spoke to Kim before news of the impeachment broke, he sounded a note of cautious optimism when asked how the ongoing political upheaval might affect the local film industry “If that government falls in the coming year or less,” he remarked, a wry smile in his eyes, “we will be freer to find producers ready to play the game.”

Long live the New New Wave?

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