My Korean Cinema Story

By Guest Contributor refresh_daemon, cross-posted from Init_Scenes

Korean cinema changed my life. That’s a pretty bold claim to make, but my encounter with Korean cinema in 1999, during a trip to see my father in Seoul, fused together with my growing interest in film and television studies and drove me into a place of personal and cultural discovery. But before all that, let’s rewind a little.

Immigrants, Identity, and Movies

My parents were Korean immigrants to the United States, so it was a given that I’d be exposed to Korean media growing up, although it was primarily via rented Korean dramas and variety shows from the local Korean video rental store. And in my youngest, most naive years, I ate it all up, like I ate up 3-2-1 Contact and Sesame Street. I loved it all.

“Jealousy”: a popular 1992 Korean drama, although by then I’d “grown out” of Korean culture.

But once I became of school age, as an Asian American youth in a predominantly white city of a predominantly white US state, and in the heavily conformist culture of public school, there were enormous pressures to assimilate. People who were different got picked on or were never completely accepted and I was different enough by the way I looked and who my parents were, so I largely ignored my cultural upbringing in favor of the things I’d have in common with my friends at school.

Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) of Sixteen Candles was the embodiment of how I feared everyone perceived me.

As it turns out, I fell in with a group of kids who had a fascination for storytelling and the cinematic medium–many of whom, like me, work in the industry today. But back then, my interest was largely relegated towards the mainstream popular movies that my peers were into.

A Trip to Korea

Now, 1999 was not my first trip to Korea, nor was it the first time I’d ever seen a Korean film, as I’d watched copious amounts of Korean television in my youth while spending summers bored in the Korean countryside. I’d largely dismissed Korean film at the time because, in terms of production values, they paled in comparison to their Hollywood counterparts that I had access to at home.

But 1999 was my first time in Korea as an adult and my first time in Korea since my cinematic awakening. During my downtime in that trip, I watched a lot of Korean television, encountering the growing K-pop machine and still cheesy Korean dramas, but I also encountered Korean film. I distinctly remember watching, and dismissing Kim Sangjin‘s Two Cops 3, but I also found myself captivated by a Korean film as well.

It was about a street tough youth who goes to jail for a crime involving his friend, a young girl who he treats as a younger sister. When he gets out, the girl, now a woman, has developed a strong infatuation for him, but he refuses to involve himself in a relationship with her. Instead he finds his capacity as a fighter drawing him into a life of crime and watches as his friend ends up dating and becoming engaged (or married?) to another man, although she seems to still only have eyes for him. Eventually, his life of crime catches up with him, and the woman he loves and there’s some kind of tragic ending.

Sure enough, it wasn’t a remarkable movie, and it’s not a story you haven’t seen in crime films from the West, but there was some underlying emotion to the film that I connected with on a subconscious level that caused the otherwise unspectacular movie to linger in a way that Goodfellas never did. But that alone would not have caught my interest. No, spurred by what I saw on television, I got my father to take me to the movies and we went to see Nowhere to Hideand that was a cinematic revelation. Flawed as it was, Lee Myungse showed me via that film that Koreans are just as capable of going beyond the ordinary.

I had not seen anything like this before.

Dipping into the Han

Eventually, my interest in cinema became strong enough to make me make career suicide and major in film at college. Separately, my interest in Korean cinema was growing since that summer, and I found an English-speaking community of Korean film fans at and started to have my parents send me Korean films on DVD from Korea.

The Foul King was one of my early treasured Korean DVDs.

And by luck, my junior year in college, a visiting Korean professor offered a class in Korean cinema. I was exposed to a breadth of significant Korean film, from social commentary cinema like Chilsu and Mansu to the flowering of the Korean New Wave in Christmas in August, concurrently learning about the history and societal forces that helped shape the films I found coming out of Korea as well as more ambiguous concepts like “han.” This helped add a context to all these movies that I was rapidly consuming and think more critically about who was making these films.

Filling in the Gaps of Omission

But Korean cinema’s impact on me wasn’t merely intellectual but deeply personal. As an assimilated Korean American, I had willfully distanced myself from all ethnic elements of my identity almost up until college, including my very ethnically Korean parents. Yet, that conscious and forced denial of how I grew up and how I was raised left a rather bitter gap in my identity, unable to resolve the parts of me that would always differentiate me from the white majority of the world I live in: my Korean first tongue, my fond memories of Korean food, music, and even my parents and extended family.

What Korean cinema offered me, beyond simply good and sometimes innovative filmmaking and storytelling, was a way to connect the film-loving me of today with the more Korean me of yesteryear, tying me back into all those parts of myself that I left behind so that I could be seen as the same by my peers. It also offered me a picture of a world where I saw people that looked like me, that spoke the language of my parents, that I shared a connection to on a cultural level, to relate to. It was in part because of cinema that I realized that there was a part of me that was repressed.

Furthermore, it showed me what I was lacking in mainstream Hollywood cinema. I wasn’t represented. Even though Asian Americans make up more than five percent of the US population, we hardly made five percent of any significant credits, be it in cast or crew. And as “universal” as people think the mainstream Hollywood stories projected onto screens around the country might be, for Asian Americans, they aren’t universal. Sure, there are common elements as Americans–nay, as human beings–we can all touch upon, but, just like in my life, when watching films where people who look like us and have similar cultural backgrounds are lacking, a gap is left in our psyches, elements of who we are that might not be explicitly rejected in what it means to be American (or German, British–whatever your national cinema might be), as defined in the screen, but rejected by omission all the same. Just as I had rejected my Koreanness and Asianness by omission.

For me, Korean cinema fills in those gaps, reminding me that my stories, rooted in the ethnic and cultural elements of my identity, are valid, too, tying me back into the history of my family and their stories back in Korea and even sometimes here in the United States.

A New, Modern Korean Cinematic Me

There is no doubt in my mind that Korea is home to world-class filmmaking. The country manages to create remarkably quality-looking productions that easily rival their American peers at a fraction of the cost and boast visionaries of modern cinema in their cast and crew. These are examples of why many outside of those of Korean heritage might be drawn to Korean cinema.

Korean cinema ignited my imagination in many ways, since the industry is unconstrained by the same pressures that the Hollywood machine is–free to tell crazy stories that can’t be categorized by simple genre labels, especially in the flowering of the New Wave. And many of those trailblazing talents have been granted the latitude to continue working their magic into today, despite the rapid growth and development of Chungmuro into more of a machine.

They just can’t make them like this in Hollywood.

But for ethnic Koreans living and born away from land of their ancestors like myself, Korean cinema can offer even more: filling in the gaps in identity omitted by the local cinema, the local media, and the local culture to varying degrees, helping to salve the pains of absence of living in societies where complete representations of ourselves are lacking.

I continue to follow Korean cinema for multiple reasons. It appeals to me as a writer for the medium, keeping my brain flexible and willing to look at story-writing and film narrative from a perspective outside of the norms of the industry that I work in. It appeals to me as an intellectual, giving me perspective and understanding of the society that my father lives in and that my parents came from, giving me a means to understand and analyze it. And it appeals to me as a person of Korean ethnic heritage, helping to fill in the lack of representation and identity in the white-dominant society that I live in.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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  • Mellowyel

    “…some underlying emotion to the film that I connected with on a subconscious level…”

    this is what keeps me watching Korean films and dramas. I still find it surprising that even in the most mainstream of products, be it film, music, or television, you can find something meaningful hidden under the surface gloss. Being Nigerian, I can’t really relate culturally to what I watch/listen to (though both cultures share some values, as well as a love of spicy food) but the emotion always gets me.

  • Malik

    I’m always excited when people come into contact with South Korean cinema. The country has been producing some of the best films in the world in the last 2 decades or so. I’d recommend everything by Lee Chang-dong (Oasis) and Hong Sang-soo (Woman is the Future of Man). The movies in the parenthesis being my favorites from each.

    • refresh daemon

      My favorites by those two would be POETRY and THE DAY HE ARRIVES respectively, although some of that might simply be because I saw those most recently and remember them the most clearly.