The Establishment of a National Cinema Under Colonialism:
The History of Early Korean Cinema
by Lee Young-Il
In order to understand the history of early Korean Cinema, the first task perhaps would be to consider the influence of imported films, which would be the same case for other Asian Cinemas. The first imported films, which were called "moving pictures" at the time, can be traced to two historical accounts describing the first public screenings in Korea: an 1897 screening at Bonchungjwa, located at the now called Chungmuro 4-ga, and an 1878 screening at the Chunggukin Ch'angko (Chinese Warehouse) located in Namdaemun.
However, according to a newspaper ad of the time, the first public screening of an imported film was on June 23rd, 1903 at Hansong Chonki Hoesa Kigyechang (Hansung Electric Company Machine Warehouse) in Dongdaemun, Seoul. During the same year, there was another screening at Wangakasa in Shinmunro. The first imported film was a live documentary called Cinematograph from the French company Pathe, followed by Vitascope, a collection of short films from the U.S. This was eight years after the invention of Lumiere's Cinematograph in 1895, and five to six years behind Japan and China.
Historically, the reason for such delay can be attributed to the fact that the national seclusion policy of the late 19th century, suppressing Korea's modernization, spilled over to the 20th century. But the real reason lies in the overall debilitation of Korean politics, economy, diplomacy and culture under Japanese colonialism.
In any event, the public opening of these "moving pictures" after 1903 was received with great enthusiasm. The popularity of moving pictures, which were initially used to advertise streetcars and cigarettes, enabled it to evolve into Korea's first promotional industry. The most interesting phenomenon is that from 1905 the electric company machine warehouses in Dongdaemun changed into private performance theaters such as the Hwaldongsajin Kwalamso (The Moving Picture Screening House), and Kwangmudae started to appear. In addition, three Hwaldong Sajinso (Moving Picture Photo Shops) were built near the Sodaemun intersection, and slowly gained popularity. Among these shops, a brick photo shop called Majon Photo Shop brought in Western films via Japanese merchants or films from Tienjin, Shanghai. They even imported directly from the U.S. and France.
After this early period of nameless photo shops, full-scale theaters started to appear in Seoul and regional areas such as Pusan, Inchon and Pyongyang between 1909 and 1920. Seoul theaters built after 1909 include Kodung Yonyegwan, Changansa, Yeonhungsa, and Dansongsa. And following this, ten more theaters such as Osonghwa, Kaesonghwa, Hwangkumhwa, Daejonghwa, Hwangkum Yonyegwan, which changed its name later to Umikgwan and then Daejonggwan were constructed after 1910.
These theaters were mostly Japanese owned. Among them, only Umikgwan and Dangsongsa exclusively showed foreign films and were therefore quite popular.
Perhaps the most notable one is Dangsongsa owned by Park Sung-pil. Park Sung-pil started out as the proprietor of Kwangmudae and later co-managed Dangsongsa. He made a major contribution to the Korean film industry as not only the first film promoter in Korea but also the first Korean producer of early Korean films. He was also the only Korean whose business generated genuine national promotion capital among the Japanese theater monopoly.
The audience preference at the time was divided into the Korean audience who went to see the foreign films shown at Dangsongsa located north of Ch'ongkyech'on, and the Japanese audience who went to the Japanese theaters located south of Ch'ongkyech'on. The Korean audience's preference for Western films was partly due to their antagonism towards Japan, but it was mainly because the artistic and entertainment quality of Western films was superior, and moreover they provided new knowledge and liberal views.
At any rate, the increase in film imports and promotion created two important conditions for the birth of Koran Cinema. First, the media's recognition of the cinema, and second, the establishment of a promotion and production capital. This developed over a period of sixteen years beginning in 1903. It meant that during these sixteen years, the audience didn't just exist as foreign film viewers. Instead, this first generation of film pioneers were slowly developing their dreams as actors, directors and technicians.
In 1919, Park Sung-pil, the owner of Dangsongsa, produced a series of mixed-media theater productions called Uirijok. The director, Kim Do-san, performed along with the members of his troupe, Shinjokjwa against the backdrop of the first Korean film. The performance was a Kaehwagi Shinp'a Hwalkuk which depicted the story of Ilrang overthrowing his stepmother to inherit the family's property. Performed at Dangsongsa, this piece turned out to be a big hit.
At the same time, Park Sung-pil produced three others which were successful as well. Encouraged by Park's accomplishments, Im Song-ku of the Hyokshindang Theater made Haksaeng Chului and Lee Gi-se, in charge of an art group, made Chiki and Changhanmong. The mixed-media theater boom lasted from 1919 to 1912. Unfortunately, criticism from intellectuals attacking the serial theaters as half theater, half film crippled its popularity.
On the other hand, the success of his debut film, Chiki convinced the first Korean cinematographer, Lee Pil-u that it was time to make full-scale feature films. Lee Pil-u (1897-1978) became a projection technician as a young boy in Umikgwan and later polished his skills under a British technician at Japan's Ch'olhwalsop'an Studio in 1915. With Chiki he became the father of Korean film technology. He later acquired editing and developing skills and trained many film technicians.
At last the first feature film was made in 1923. In the same year, Yun Baek-nam of the Minjong Kukdan (People's Theater) wrote and directed Ulha ui Mengse ("Wulha's Vow": 35mm, three parts) which was released in April, the same year. This was an educational film produced by Chunch'ukjangryob, the new sponsor of the post office of the Choson Government General. Meanwhile, it was made on January 13, right before the former film Kukgyong ("National Border") was made but blocked from public release. There is some dispute over whether Ulha ui Mense is the first Korean feature, however, given that Japan's Songjuk owned the rights for production, distribution and promotion. According to Lee Pil-u, in 1922 Songjuk's Japanese technician Narigiyo, came to Korea and shot a film about bandits. This film eventually ended up going to waste at Narigiyo's home in Chungu Jungdong as the Choson Government General refused to permit its public screening. This testimony is based on the conversation between Lee Pil-u and Narigiyo during one of their meetings. It is possible that Narigiyo may have been in charge of production for Kukgyong.
Film production in Korea became more active after the release of Ulha ui Mengse. In December of 1923, Hayagawa, who was the owner of Choson Theater, founded the Dong Ah Munhwa Hyophoe (Donga Cultural Society) and released Ch'unghwangjon. Park Sung-pil at Dangsongsa, which was in competition with Choson Theater, established a cinematography division and made Changhwa Hongnyonjon ("The Tale of Changhwa and Hongnyon") in 1924.
As film production took full force, within two or three years seven film companies emerged. Choson Kinema, Inc. made a number of films that Japanese merchants invested in, including Tragedy of the Sea (1924) and The Tale of Wonyong (1925). The Tale of Wonyong was written and directed by Yun Baek-nam who quit the company along with his cast and established the Yun Baek-nam Productions in order to make "pure Choson made films." The production of "pure Choson" films such as The Tale of Shimchong(1925), based on a classic Korean story, and a national education film Kaechokja ("Pioneer," 1925) provided a solid foundation for Korean Cinema. The director of both films was Lee Kyong-son.
Around the same time, Koryo Film Workshop, Bando Kinema, and Kerim Film Society were also making films.
Meanwhile, the film company Choson Kinema Production established by a Japanese hat merchant by the name of Yodo Orajo, made Nongjungjo (1926). This film was followed by Arirang (1926), which is considered the definitive masterpiece of Korean Cinema. A youthful 25 year old at the time, director Na Un-gyu wrote, directed and even played the main character of the film.
The film tells the story of Yong-jin who becomes mentally ill after being arrested and tortured by the Japanese police for leading protesters during the March 1st protest. He returns home only to be arrested again after killing the servant of an exploitative landlord who bullies him.
In short, Arirang was a film of resistance to Japanese colonialists but its artistic quality was not less than its political quality.
Na Un-gyu (1902-1937) was one of the leaders of the March 1st protest when he was merely a junior high school student. He was an independence fighter who joined the independence army and was arrested and jailed for two years. Arirang was an enormous hit but moreover, the title song of the same name became somewhat of a national anthem for Koreans during colonialism, and to this day it is one of the most loved songs among Koreans.
In early Korean Cinema history, American action entertainment Japanese shinpa (melodrama) adaptations ([Korean characters]) or sad tales of Korean kisaeng (equivalent of Japanese geishas) were the main subject matter. However, with Na Un-gyu's Arirang and its national popularity, the concept of a national cinema was finally established. Accordingly, although in the beginning Japanese investors dominated the Korean Theaters for the sole purpose of commercial profits, it was after Arirang that Koreans were able to find their sovereignty in Korean Cinema. Contesting Japanese colonialism and creating a real national cinema was the right direction for the true establishment of Korean Cinema.
The release of Arirang initiated a realism based on resistance which molded the history of Korean Cinema. After Arirang, Na Un-gyu joined forces with Park Sung-pil and founded Na Un-gyu Productions. This company released many masterpieces that were made by and for Koreans.
After 1926, more than forty film productions emerged, setting the first golden period of Korean Cinema.
Na Un-gyu,Na Woon-gyu made famous film "Arirang"