Classic Korean film enters the DVD eraCineastes the world over have been increasingly grateful to the DVD, which has done more to restore historically important films, to make them look (and sound) better and to make them widely available than any technological change in recent memory.
Lately, vintage Korean films have begun to receive the DVD treatment. And non-Korean-speakers are among the prime beneficiaries.
On Jan. 4, the state-funded Korean Film Archive released DVDs of two classic Korean films ― 1946’s “Jayu Manse” (Viva Freedom) and 1955’s “Yangsando” (Yangsan Province) ― subtitled in English for the first time. What’s more, the special features on both of these DVD releases, such as interviews and biographical information, also have English subtitles, which is rarely the case with Korean DVDs.
Even before the film archive, a division of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, began these releases, a company called Bitwin had begun resurrecting vintage Korean cinema on its own. Since late 2002, Bitwin has released six films in its “Korean Classics” series; the latest, released in January, is 1961’s “Mabu” (The Stableman), which won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival that year. The “Mabu” DVD comes with Japanese subtitles as well as English.
Bitwin says more “Korean Classics” releases are planned for this year, though its staff wouldn’t say which titles are in the works. Its DVDs are free of regional coding, which means they can be played on DVD players made anywhere in the world. The special features are scanty, which is understandable considering the scarcity of surviving material related to the films.
“This project is meant to expand the opportunities for cinephiles around the world, as well as in Korea, to get to know the veiled history of the Korean film,” staffer Jeong Jong-hwa of the Korean Film Archive says about its project. Kim Jung-min at Bitwin echoes the sentiment, saying, “DVD is quite a useful medium for keeping an archive, which is why we chose to pursue this project.”
Another DVD company, Cine Korea, has released a single classic film: “Obaltan” (The Aimless Bullet), from 1961, which the company released with English subtitles in 2002. One video rental shop owner in Seoul says he’s happy to carry it, despite the fact that it’s hardly among the most popular in his inventory. “With more time to be publicized, [classic films] will be much more in demand,” he said.
Besides the films mentioned above, Bitwin’s “Korean Classics” released so far are “Jang Huibin” (Jang the Concubine), from 1961; “Maengjinsadaek Gyeongsa” (The Happy Day of the Maeng Family), 1962; “Doraoji Anneun Haebyeong” (The Marines Who Never Returned), 1963; “Gaetmaeul” (The Seashore Village), 1965; and “Suhak Yeohaeng” (School Trip), 1969.
The earliest Korean film released on DVD so far is “Viva Freedom,” which Jeong at the film archive calls historically significant because it was made soon after Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule.
Directed by Choi In-kyu, who during the occupation had been forced to make films friendly to Japan, “Viva Freedom” went strongly in the other direction; it tells the story of a Korean resistance fighter’s struggles shortly before the liberation.
The Korean Film Archive’s other release so far, a tale of star-crossed lovers called “Yangsan Province,” was the second film by the prolific director Kim Ki-young, who was well-liked by the public and critics alike. The DVD’s special features include an interview with the director, who died in 1998 at the age of 79. Smoking from a cigarette holder, Mr. Kim shares a number of interesting anecdotes, such as his memories of ransacking trash bins at a U.S. Army base in search of film to use.
Kim Jong-won, a senior film critic and co-author of “Korean Film’s 100 Years,” was interviewed by the Korean Film Archive for both of its DVD releases. He calls Mr. Yang “the most outstanding stylist of the early Korean film scene,” though he says he wouldn’t call “Yangsan Province” his best.
Still, he said in a phone interview this week, “‘Yangsan Province’ is indeed a noteworthy production in the director’s early filmography.”
The vintage films released on DVD so far are mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, which Mr. Kim calls the renaissance of Korean cinema.
Given the Korean War and the long Japanese occupation, it was the first real chance Korean film had to flourish, he said. In fact, under colonial rule only eight scripted, fictional films were made by Korean filmmakers, he said.
“But after the mid-1950s, the film scene started to see the birth of star actors and directors,” Mr. Kim said. “Films soon cemented their status as the biggest entertainment medium for the public, at least until the arrival of television in 1961.”
Unfortunately, the decisions about what classics will be brought back to life on DVD aren’t going to be based solely on which are the best or most historically significant movies.
Copyright issues prevent the release of some films, said the film archive’s Mr. Jeong; the films released so far have been in the public domain. What’s more, complete prints for many films simply don’t exist.
Little effort was made to save many of the movies from Korea’s past. For example, there are no surviving prints whatsoever of director Na Un-gyu’s 1926 film “Arirang,” one of the very first Korean movies.
Also, because of the censorship that was imposed on Korean films in the 1950s and 1960s, some of the prints that do survive are only partially complete.
Even “The Stableman,” which won the Silver Bear in Berlin for its 120-minute version, exists now only as a 98-minute film. In the new DVD of “Yangsan Province,” the ending is not the one originally intended; a “lost scripts” feature explains how the film was supposed to end.
“It’s a great shame that the Korean film scene has so far made little effort to build an archive, which makes the recent DVD releases all the more meaningful,” Mr. Kim said.
Vintage Korean movies, now playing in your living room
“Jayu Manse” (Viva Freedom), 1946)
Director: Choi In-kyu
Stars: Jeon Chang-geun, Hwang Ryeo-hee
Running time (on DVD): 60 minutes
Toward the end of Japan’s rule over Korea, a resistance fighter is taken into hiding by a nurse. She falls for him, but it is not to be. This DVD’s special features include original scripts, biographical information about the cast and crew, stills and an interview with film critic Kim Jong-won.
“Yangsando” (Yangsan Province), 1955
Director: Kim Ki-young
Stars: Kim Sam-hwa, Kim Seung-ho, Park Am
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running time (on DVD): 90 minutes
The second film by the prolific Kim Ki-young is about two young villagers who fall in love; tragedy and the social hierarchy intervene when the playboy son of a high-ranking village official decides he wants the young woman too.
Special features include cast and crew information, scripts, stills and interviews with the director and with film critic Kim Jong-won.
“Jang Huibin” (Jang the Concubine), 1961
Director: Jeong Chang-hwa
Star: Kim Ji-mi
Running time (on DVD): 128 minutes
This beloved classic stars Kim Ji-mi, one of the most famous actresses of her time, as the beautiful, ambitious and ferocious concubine Jang, who is willing to do anything to attain power. She meets a tragic yet magnificent end.
“Obaltan” (The Aimless Bullet), 1961
Director: Yu Hyun-mok
Star: Choi Mu-ryong
Running time (on DVD): 105 minutes
Chul-ho, a low-paid office worker with a mentally ill mother and a pregnant, malnourished wife to support, makes the unfortunate decision to rob a bank. Screened at the 7th San Francisco Film Festival, critics often cite “Obaltan” as the best Korean film of its time. The DVD includes an interview with the director (without subtitles).
“Mabu” (The Stableman), 1961
Director: Kang Dae-jin
Stars: Kim Seung-ho, Shin Yeong-gyun
Subtitles: English, Japanese
Running time (on DVD): 94 minutes
Winner of the Silver Bear award at the 1961 Berlin International Film Festival, this is about a widowed stableman raising four children. He never complains about his misfortune and poverty, but his sons and daughters are quite dissatisfied with their lot and go astray, making the stableman’s life much harder.
(The Happy Day of the Maeng Family), 1962
Director: Lee Yong-min
Stars: Choi Eun-hee, Kim Seung-ho
Running time (on DVD): 100 minutes
Maeng Gap-bun, the apple of her father’s eye, is engaged to Mi-eon, an aristocrat’s son from a nearby village. When someone tells Mr. Maeng that Mi-eon is disabled, he comes up with a plan to switch brides; but on the wedding day, he sees that the groom is a healthy, handsome young man. Thus begins much ado about marriage, with a surprise ending.
“Doraoji Anneun Haebyeong”
(The Marines Who Never Returned), 1963
Director: Lee Man-hui
Stars: Choi Mu-ryong, Gu Bong-seo
Genre: Drama, War
Running time (on DVD): 110 minutes
During the Korean War, a unit of marines is sent on a secret mission to the North after the Incheon landing. With their camaraderie and manly gung-ho, they seem bound for success, but as the title suggests, an unhappy fate is in store for them.
“Gaetmaeul” (A Seashore Village), 1965
Director: Kim Soo-yong
Stars: Shin Yeong-gyun, Go Eun-a
Running time (on DVD): 94 minutes
A series of unfortunate accidents leaves several women in a small, seaside village widowed. They live hand-to-mouth, picking seaweeds and clams off the beach, until one of them decides to try to make it in a big city. But soon she comes to realize that city life has its hardships too.
“Suhak Yeohaeng” (School Trip), 1969
Directed by Yu Hyun-mok
Starring Gu Bong-seo, Mun Hui
Running time (on DVD): 115 minutes
Starring the then-popular actress Mun Hui, this is about a teacher who comes to an island to teach students who haven’t been exposed to the modern world, and decides to take them on a trip to show them what they’re missing. Director Yu Hyun-mok is considered one of the best of the period, along with Shin Sang-ok and Kim Ki-young.
by Chun Su-jin