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How Did the Films of Im Kwon-Taek Become a Canon?

PARK Yuhee 1

1고려대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

This paper reviews the films directed by Im Kwon-taek, who is revered as a master of art film in South Korea. Taking a different route from previous studies that focused on the internal aesthetics of his films, this study set out to investigate the identity of his films in their relationship with the state. The study started by recognizing the evaluations of his films accumulated in previous studies such as that his films revealed important aspects in the history of South Korean film and contained elements to make him deserve the nickname “Father of South Korean film.” The study then asked the question why his films became a standard to represent South Korean film. By trying to answer this question, the investigator traced the process and dynamics of his film aesthetics in its formation, examined the identity and threshold of his film aesthetics, and further reflected on the identity of art film to represent South Korea. Im's films have been discussed in two major periods around the 1970s with discussions about his auteurisme added to his films produced in the second period. The director responded to the national policy by devoting his efforts to anti-communist and enlightenment films in the 1970s and continued to make anti-communist and enlightenment films in the 1980s and 1990s in addition to art films. He never deviated from the extent allowed by the state when making ideology-related films. Making his consciousness as an author correspond with the threshold and orientation of the state, he received consistent support from the government and established his position in the middle of government rewards and expectations for overseas film festivals. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that his films based on the national policies of the 1970s and the following film policies based on the earlier framework were the base of his existence. Entering the latter part of the 1970s, however, Im incorporated relevant issues such as the division of North and South Korea, ideological conflicts and contradictions of social classes into a personal pursuit of truth, and women's suffering into his films and explored his own aesthetics that were distinguished from those of Hollywood movies. In the process, his films depicted the conservative, enlightening, and very strict realistic world and made him a Chungmuro director dealing with the issues facing South Korea in the 1980s. It was around that time when his films, which used to be in the context of National policy films in the 1970s, started to be called Realism film or Art film. Armed with these films, the director attempted to enter overseas film festivals, which then took more and more interest in East Asian movies and awarded a prize to films that put locality in the forefront according to the post-Cold War trend. Im's films are presented as Art films to represent South Korea. As a result, Realism films and government-funded Art films, which could contradict each other, joined together through the Practicalism he challenged of himself based on his double-sidedness in the middle of the ambivalence of national ideology between internal oppression and resistance against foreign power. His Practicalism as a kind of hardheaded realism, which started to endure, made achievements as realism films, but it was open to endless changes and directions for another round of survival. Entering the 1990s, his films were more honed to win an award at European film festivals under the banner of Korean-style art film. His films were, at the same time, oriented toward the beautification of an attitude to comply with the patriarchal ideology and the ordeal of history with his inquiry into realism put aside through the emotions unique to Korean people. Since the Liberation of Korea, South Korean art films have been required to meet several conditions including artistry comparable to literature, recognition at Western film festivals, image aesthetics close to Neo-realism and Nouvelle Vague films, local colors of Korea, and religious and artistic anguish with some distance from real contemporary issues. Many of Im's auteurisme films in the 1980s meet those requirements and also deal with real contemporary issues. If he had pushed his intensity till Taebaeksanmaek (The Taebaek Mountains), the threshold of South Korean film might have been extended further. He did not, however, make the choice or the choice might have been impossible from the beginning since the deep realism that one could not go against the state and realism to survive was flowing throughout his films. It is also a reason why his films were able to survive and became a canon. It is the identity and limitation of his films, and at the same time, the limitation and tragedy of half-nationalistic film to represent a divided Korea.

Citation status

* References for papers published after 2022 are currently being built.

This paper was written with support from the National Research Foundation of Korea.