“South Korea has had the most lively movie industry in the world for the past decade,” remarked French filmmaker Luc Besson during this year’s Busan International Film Festival that closed last week.
Although it may appear as though Korean cinema’s meteoric rise to prominence occurred just over a decade ago or even more recently, its foundation runs deeper. For many, 2003 stands out as a pivotal year when Korean cinema made its mark on the global stage, with films from directors who went on to global renown rolling out one film after another.
“‘Oldboy’ shows off new tricks,” reads the headline of The Korea Herald’s review of director Park Chan-wook’s 2003 magnum opus, which described it as an “eye-popping, blood-soaked and wickedly inventive mystery thriller that revels in the sheer sport of filmmaking.”
Starring Choi Min-sik -- often referred to as “Al Pacino of South Korean cinema” -- the film notched the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival next year.
It was also in 2003 when director Bong Joon-ho released his critically acclaimed “Memories of Murder,” starring another acting genius, Song Kang-ho, in a mystery thriller based on one of Korea's most infamous cold cases.
The Song-Bong duo would later join forces several times, including for 2019’s “Parasite,” the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the first non-English-language film to win the Academy Award for best picture.
Bong and Park were joined by their fellow auteurs, who seemed determined to make 2003 a year to remember for Korean moviegoers.
However, the industry wasn’t always like that.
For decades, Korean films languished in the shadows of foreign works and relied on government protection to survive.
A fragile industry
Up until the late 1990s, Korean movies were considered second-tier compared to their foreign counterparts, which completely dominated the local box office.
A 1995 government study by what is now the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute shows that the country produced just 65 movies in 1994, while importing 382 films made in other countries -- 199 of which were from the US. It went on to show that only 15.9 percent of screens were allocated to local films.
For decades, the screen quota system kept the South Korean film scene alive. First introduced in 1967, the clause in the Promotion of the Motion Pictures and Video Products Act mandates that local theaters screen at least one Korean film for a certain number of days per year.
The mandated dates for showcasing domestically produced films in local cinemas varied over time. In 1985, the system was revised to 146 days, ensuring at least a 40 percent share of local movies.
This persisted until 2006, when it was reduced to the current 73 days.
Any talk of revising down the local film quota would meet fierce opposition from filmmakers, actors and others in the industry who insisted that the system was the least the country could do to help local films compete against big-budget Hollywood productions.
But around the turn of the century, things were starting to change.