[OUTLOOK]The function of filmmakingIf the movie “Kandahar” had not portrayed the flickering existence of living in a sandstorm, we couldn’t have understood the disrupted lives of the people of Afghanistan. If “Where Is the Friend’s Home?” did not poetically depict the joy and sorrow of Iranians through the boy Nematzadeh running through low hills and bushes, we couldn’t have understood the lifestyle of that land faraway from the center of modern civilization. The depictions from these movies are far more provocative than the photos that revealed the “violence of justice” carried out at Guantanamo Bay.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the director of “Kandahar,” and Abbas Kiarostami, the director of “Where Is the Friend’s Home?” are anthropologists and political scientists as well as filmmakers. In that sense, a film is not mere entertainment. Movies often represent the historic wounds of a people, village, race and country, and convey the hidden aspects of fate through cinematic narration. A film is not just about show business. Variety shows are enough to entertain viewers, but they do not leave lasting impressions. Emotional memories stay in our hearts and keep us company when we are lonely, and light our way when we are depressed.
While there is no need to become too serious, I would like to remind citizens that we should ruminate upon the meanings and messages of cinematic images, rather than looking curiously at the movie stars currently staging one-man demonstrations. In Chungmuro, the movie Mecca of Korea, we can no longer feel passion and spirit for the cinematic art. We cannot find a single memory of Kim Seung-ho, the star of “Mabu” or “The Stableman,” which represented the poverty-ridden 1960s. I wonder if Koreans realize that the vicissitudes of the Korean movie industry cannot be contained in the small board a protesting movie star is holding. Since “The Public Cemetery of Wol-ha” was screened as part of a double feature, the industry has gone through dramatic growth and now movies like “Welcome to Dongmakgol” and “King and the Clown” have attracted more than 10 million viewers.
Just as the so-called 386 generation spent the revolutionary 80s seeking to change the social paradigm of Korea, the general public has no idea what kind of adventures the filmmakers had outside of Chungmuro to achieve the Copernican paradigm shift of cinematic culture. They worked relentlessly until the theme of “Oldboy” played at the Cannes International Film Festival and the rebels of international cinema participated at film festivals in Busan and Bucheon. The acclaim of filmmakers like Hong Sang-su and Kim Ki-duk was not earned for nothing. During the period between Im Kwon-taek and Park Chan-ok, there were desperate fights and considerable losses against the Hollywood blockbusters. In the crude trenches, filmmakers wrote original texts and invented cinematic styles, and enthusiastic young actors created the so-called Korean Wave that rolled over all Asia. The basic foundation has barely been laid yet. But what will happen if a movie starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and a movie starring Choi Min-sik and Jeon Do-yeon are released at the same time in an unregulated market? While Korean actors are worthy matches for Hollywood stars, the movie’s fate will be determined by the appetite of the capital dominating the distribution channels.
I do not intend to advocate cultural nationalism. Rather, I want to point out the danger of handling a matter of culture, which makes up the emotion and identity of the people, in terms of a theory of commerce and trade. It is the role of films, and filmmakers, to reflect the inner nature of Koreans on screen and inspire the public in the course of entering the era of globalization. The cultural diversity treaty warns of the growing shadow of globalization that could devastate the storeroom of the mind. Prosperity will be meaningless if people feel empty. Three years ago, the majority of the Korean movie industry supported the Roh administration because they felt sympathy and trust in sharing their spirit. No matter how urgent a free trade agreement with the United States may be, the frivolous decision of the government to offer the film market as tribute is completely unexpected. Doesn’t it have any option for a gradual lessening of the screen quota, like the 10-year grace period given to the rice market? The domestic film industry is likely to dwindle drastically at the onslaught of foreign blockbusters; and production companies, which receive only about 15 percent of box office earnings, may not be able to render an existential portrait of Koreans in cinematic art.
Reduction of the screen quota forewarns of yet another position warfare in the film industry.
* The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Song Ho-keun