Outpouring of 'left-leaning films' under Moon government
By Kwak Yeon-soo
In South Korea, cinema and politics are inseparable.
During the rule of the conservative governments, a flurry of films featuring South Korea's dramatic rise from the ashes of the Korean War to become one of Asia's most vibrant economies and productions dealing with the idea of nationalism were released.
"Roaring Currents" (2014), "Ode to My Father" (2014) and "Operation Chromite" (2016) are three of the biggest box office hits that were released when conservative President Park Geun-hye was in power.
These patriotism-oriented films were replaced with a flurry of retro flicks dignifying democracy fighters in the 1980s after Park was ousted from the presidency and human rights lawyer-turned-President Moon Jae-in took power in 2017.
These so-called "leftist films" demonize the previous conservative governments ― particularly the military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Human rights abuses, the massacre in the southern city of Gwangju in 1980 shortly after President Chun Doo-hwan rose to power through a coup and the victimization of democracy fighters are recaptured in films such as "A Taxi Driver" (2017) and "1987: When the Day Comes" (2017).
In "Gwangju Video: The Missing" (2020), the latest film on the Gwangju Uprising, filmmaker Lee Jo-hoon puts the blame for the tragedy on Chun's military dictatorship and raises suspicions that conservative governments deliberately hid video footage of soldiers' mass shooting of unarmed Gwangju citizens.
He then shows contrasting scenes of conservative supporters holding rallies after Park's 2017 downfall and liberal supporters holding candlelit rallies in support of Cho Kuk.
Cho was Moon's former senior civil affairs secretary before he was appointed justice minister in August 2019. Cho strove to push for the reform of the prosecution, but he resigned shortly after over corruption allegations.
When asked what his intentions were with such scenes, Lee said, "I understand that rally scenes can be interpreted through political lenses, but I wanted to show that pro-democracy protesters in the 1980s are still voicing their political opinions."
Earlier this month, Netflix came under fire for translating the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 as "riots" in the Japanese introduction of "A Taxi Driver," a South Korean film about a taxi driver who helped a German reporter cover the pro-democracy movement. The streamer revised the term a day after receiving the complaint.
The outpouring of movies featuring North Korea and inter-Korean relations is another striking trend in the film industry that began after Moon took power.
There has also been a shift in the way North Korea is described in films.
Instead of seeing North Korea as South Korea's "main enemy" and describing the North as a military threat to South Korea, recent films try to remind the audience of the millennia-old history and culture that transcends the division of Korea.
"Ashfall" (2019), a big-budget disaster film that surpassed eight million ticket sales, faced a backlash for portraying a North Korean soldier as the hero saving his lackluster South Korean counterpart.
In "Steel Rain 2: Summit" (2020), like its prequel "Steel Rain" (2017), North Korean officers and South Korean officials are featured as partners, not enemies.
Filmmaker Yang Woo-suk, who produced "The Attorney" and "Steel Rain," said he thinks cinema is a passive form of journalism in that they reflect the times we live in and have a social effect on the public.
"I think all movies are political to a certain degree. Even horror and comedy movies," Yang said. "I understand that people can have various thoughts on films based on their political orientation, but education and national security issues shouldn't be affected by it."
He voiced worries about alleged political influence on movies, saying South Korea may fall behind China if it continues.
"The reason we outperform China in culture is because South Korea is censorship-free. However, if the political divide affects the cultural and creative industry, our competitiveness will be weakened. Look what's happened to the comedy scene. Political satire has disappeared," he said.
The origin of politics' cozy relationship with films that curry favor with sitting leaders and their political orientations goes back to the 1980s when President Chun took power through a military coup after the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in October 1979.
The so-called "Three S policy" ― sports, screen and sex ― swept the country in the 1980s as then President Chun attempted to turn the public's attention away from his troubled rise to power. The military government was accused of flexing its muscles behind the surge of erotic movies. The 1980s were a dark decade for South Korean cinema.
Cinema-politics relations took a turn after the 1990s. The role of government behind cinema production became implicit. The portrayal of North Korea has changed with Kang Je-gyu's "Shiri" (1999), which follows the story of a North Korean spy in Seoul, followed by "TaeGukGi: Brotherhood of War" (2003). Before then, North Koreans were depicted as "red devils" with horns and fangs as in the animated feature "Gancheopjamneun Ttorijanggun" in 1979.
Movies aligned with sitting presidents are released.
"The Attorney" (2013), a film inspired by the life of late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, and "Masquerade" (2012), a historical drama about a commoner recruited to impersonate a tyrannical king, caught the attention of then-President Park Geun-hye, who put left-leaning actors and filmmakers on a blacklist from government funding.
After Moon came into power, films that depicted anti-Japan sentiment also became much-talked-about topics in films.
"The Battleship Island" (2017) "I Can Speak" (2017), "A Resistance" (2019) "My Name is Kim Bok-dong" (2019) and "The Battle: Roar to Victory" (2019) touch upon wartime issues such as comfort women and wartime forced laborers. Another documentary "East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front" is poised to hit theaters in August.
Films such as "Confidential Assignment" (2017), "Spy Gone North" (2018), "Steel Rain" and "Ashfall" somehow portray a partnership between a North Korean agent/officer and their South Korean counterpart.
Choi Gong-jae, a conservative filmmaker, said South Korean cinema needs diversity to stay attractive to the increasingly diverse and sophisticated audience.
"I think cinemas have to offer diverse content, regardless of its underlying left-wing or right-wing identity, and then the audience can decide what to watch," Choi said. "Cinemas shouldn't impose political ideas on moviegoers and limit their movie selections."
He added, "The public should watch films carefully and think deeply about them. Don't just believe everything they say. Try to interpret the film's underlying message and the director's intentions. Otherwise, you could be politically assimilated by South Korea's cultural propaganda."