Book & Film Reviews 
Spring 2001

The Early History of Korean Cinema
Na Unkyu's Arirang: Establishing a National Cinema under Colonialism 

By Sarah Sun Kim 

Historically, Korean cinema has been virtually unknown by the rest of the world, and, to some extent, to its own people. Only fragments remain of Korea’s early film history. The vast majority of Korea’s early film footage was destroyed in the 1950s during the Korean War, and not a single feature produced before 1945 survives in complete form today. Nonetheless, historical records paint a picture of a lively and creative industry that flourished from the mid-1920s until Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. 

The first public screening of a film in Korea was in 1903. From 1909 to 1920, a series of theaters were built in Seoul and in regional cities including Pusan and P’yongyang. Japanese entrepreneurs owned most of these theaters, but a few Korean theater owners raised a significant amount of capital screening European and American imports. This capital would eventually be used to finance the first domestic productions. Korea’s first film, a kinodrama in which live actors performed against the backdrop of a projected feature, debuted at Seoul’s Dangsongsa Theater in 1919. The public loved the show, but the long-term success of kinodramas was hampered by intellectuals who criticized the mixed-media form as an insult to both theater and film. 

Korea’s first silent feature was produced in 1923, and over the next few years seven Korean film companies would be formed. The masterpiece of this era, which has also been dubbed as the “first nationalistic film” is Na Unkyu’s debut film Arirang (1926). Na, only 25 years old at the time, produced, directed and starred in this film about a man who is arrested and tortured by Japanese police. Arirang was a film of resistance to Japanese colonialists. Prior to making this film, Na had been jailed for two years for his radicalism and involvement in Korea’s March 1st Independence Movement when he was a junior high school student. The title of the film is taken from a popular folk song, and it would become an anthem of sorts for the Korean independence movement. Through Arirang, he found a way to clandestinely criticize Japanese oppression by having his protagonist, a student named Yong-jin, kill a rural landowner for attempting to rape his sister. Na was saved from having the film censored by the Japanese authorities by portraying his young “hero” as an individual suffering from mental illness and by making the brutal, exploitative and oppressive landlord Korean. 

In early Korean cinema history, American action entertainment, Japanese shinpa (melodrama) adaptations or sad tales of Korean kisaeng were the main subject matter. However, with Na Unkyu’s Arirang and its national popularity, the concept of a national cinema in Korea was established. In the beginning Japanese investors dominated the Korean theaters for the sole purpose of commercial profits. It was only after Arirang that Koreans were able to establish their own place in Korean cinema. Na Unkyu’s Arirang pointed the establishment of true Korean cinema in the right direction by contesting Japanese colonialism and creating a real national cinema. 

The film, admired for its aesthetic quality as well as for its political message, became the model for silent features shaped around principles of realism and resistance to Japanese power. The film was very influential on other Korean filmmakers and has since been remade a number of times. After Arirang, Na joined forces with Park Sungpil and founded Na Unkyu Productions. Na became the driving force behind silent features and his production company released a huge wave of films that were made by and for Koreans. After 1926, more than forty film productions emerged, producing the first golden period of Korean cinema. 




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