Author: Marc Raymond (Kwangwoon University)
How to Cite: Raymond, M. (2021) “Beyond the Auteur: South Korea's Domestic Independents as National Cinema”, Film Criticism. 45(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.1024
“I went for normality in this film. And I think the nature of the film should be normal. I regret I couldn’t find a way to make things even simpler.” 1
“(Even) the most interesting and important stories seemed unappealing to me when told in a familiar way.” 2
Before its commercial rise in the 2000s, South Korean national cinema could be placed fairly generically within the global landscape. It had a small domestic industry which produced occasional box office successes, as well as a few art cinema directors who would find limited distribution at foreign festivals. It was very much a “cinema of a small nation,” and had Mette Hjort and Duncan Petrie’s 2007 edited collection of essays with that title been written a decade earlier, it would likely have warranted a chapter. 3 But the following two decades have seen a dramatic shift in which South Korean cinema has grown and then split into multiple formations. Broadly speaking, there are the popular box office hits, the international festival successes (two categories that sometimes overlap), and what I will dub the “domestic independents.” This essay will define this emerging category with reference both to the Korean New Wave of the 1990s as well as the American independent cinema of the 1980s, concluding with an analysis of an example of these domestic independents, Seonghye-ui Nara (The Land of Seonghye) (Jung Hyung-suk, 2018), in relation to the most recent film of one of South Korea’s most renowned auteurs, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018). Comparing these two films will show how the domestic independents are distinctive from even the most realistic of South Korea’s international festival directors, providing an alternative space where national issues can be addressed more specifically.
First of all, what is a “domestic independent” and when does it emerge? My definition of a domestic independent is a South Korean feature that premieres at a film festival within the country as opposed to overseas. This eliminates both the more mainstream commercial releases as well as the films from arthouse auteurs. For example, the films of popular filmmakers such as Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook usually premiere at European festivals and then open in wide release locally (often nearly simultaneously), 4 while more esoteric directors like Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk also debut in Europe and do not rely on local festivals (Hong has never had a film premiere at a domestic festival, and Kim hasn’t since Hae-an-seon (The Coast Guard) in 2002). This also distinguishes the category from the “specialty” film designation used by the Korean Film Council, although there is often overlap. I believe the “domestic independent” label is more coherent and has a more specific definition, as the “specialty” category is not well-defined and seems rather arbitrary, and also categorizes established veterans like Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, and even Lee Chang-dong alongside these much lesser-known films and filmmakers. Domestic independents are often feature debuts or filmmakers in the early stage of their careers, as directors usually move on to a bigger second feature or have difficulty continuing to make films in the independent sector, although there are a few filmmakers who commit to making films primarily for the local market, such as Busan-based Jeon Soo-il, who has made 11 features since 1997, many of them fitting into the category. More typical is director Lee Su-jin, who debuts with the acclaimed Han Gong-ju at Busan in 2013 and then directs a bigger budget follow-up, Woo-sang (Idol) (2019), which premiered at Berlin and then received a wide theatrical release domestically. Unfortunately, most common of all is making one domestic indie and then never getting to make a second feature. Like any categorization, my domestic indie label is not perfect and may exclude certain films that should have the designation, but these exceptions can be clarifying in their irregularity. For example, Yoon Ga-eun’s debut feature, Woo-ri-deul (The World of Us) (2016), opened at the Berlin festival, a rare occurrence for a low-budget first feature, which then allowed her follow-up, Woo-ri-jip (The House of Us) (2019), to debut theatrically, even though both films are otherwise very much characteristic of domestic independents.
Also, this categorization only works if limited to a specific time period, since 2014, when the South Korean film industry changes into the direction of even bigger budget films with a greater monopoly of movie screens, which in turn leads to measures that attempt to counter this emergence. 5 An analysis of the two main South Korean festivals, Busan and Jeonju, and the box office returns of their world premieres shows this dramatic shift. A list of the Top 10 grossing films that had their premiere at Busan includes no film made since 2012, 6 while the Top 10 grossing films to have debuted at Jeonju all come since 2012. 7 This shows how Busan has shifted from a festival that would occasionally be used to launch mainstream commercial films to one that now focuses almost exclusively on lower budget features, of which critical favorites emerge each year to gain modest box office numbers. 8 In the opposite direction, Jeonju has emerged from its focus on cinematic history and auteurs to a festival in which young domestic filmmakers have a greater chance to gain recognition. A shift in this direction can be seen in the changes to its signature event, the Jeonju Digital Project, which in 2015 changes its name to the Jeonju Cinema Project, indicating its switch from three short films that were combined into an omnibus screening to three individual features (which was increased to five in 2018 and four in 2019). This was motivated by a desire to see these films have a chance at a theatrical release, while also being, indirectly, a move away from the famous auteurs that were meant to be the attraction in the earlier days of the festival. 9 While the project does not abandon authorship completely, in that it usually chooses filmmakers who have made a previous movie (one that often debuted at an earlier Jeonju festival), it is not relying on recognizable names. 10 Thus, Jeonju becomes a more domestic-centered festival, and its world premieres begin to have a greater impact on the Korean cinema scene, although still to a lesser extent than Busan.
Another indication of these wider changes and the emergence of an independent Korean cinema scene is the creation in 2014 of the Wildflower Film Awards, which honor achievement in Korean independent cinema and were created to give added recognition to films that were becoming increasingly ignored by larger awards groups. 11 There are parallels here to the creation of the Independent Spirit Awards in the United States in 1985, and although there are some differences, the American indie model is useful for comparison. With the fall of the New Hollywood in the early 1980s, the independent cinema arose as an alternative space for projects often ignored by the increasingly globalized blockbusters careful not to be too nationally specific lest it alienate the international market. Richard Shaw makes this argument explicitly in his essay from 2001, but this is also implied in much of the subsequent work on the category, especially the vast sociological analysis conducted by Sherry Ortner as well as Michael Z. Newman’s description of this indie sub-culture. 12 The independent market eventually grew and became more intertwined with Hollywood, creating the “Indiewood” phenomenon, as detailed most extensively by the scholar Geoff King. 13 The emergence of the Korean “Hollywood-style” blockbusters in the early 2000s had a similar impact, fostering the need for an alternative cinema more concerned with social issues, eventually even leading to this indie cinema growing and Korean studios developing labels such as “CGV Arthouse” which were clearly built on the Indiewood model of studio specialty labels such as Fox Searchlight. While Korean mainstream films have remained much more nationalist in their concerns, reflecting their reliance on their local market, they have nevertheless tended to focus on myth-making grand narratives that deal with historical events and traumas, such as Myeong-rang (The Admiral: Roaring Currents) (Kim Han-min, 2014) and Taek-si Un-jeon-sa (A Taxi Driver) (Jang Hoon, 2018).
The independent cinema of America found as its model the New Hollywood period in which filmmakers were able to create mainstream films that were aesthetically and socially daring, films that were marginalized with the rise of the “high concept” era. 14 Symbolically, this was represented by the first Independent Spirit Awards, in which the Best Director prize was shared by New Hollywood veteran Martin Scorsese, returning to indies briefly with After Hours (1985), and Joel Coen, making his first feature Blood Simple (1984) before eventually moving into studio films. Similarly, the Korean indies draw their inspiration from the Korean New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s, a precursor to the boom of the New Korean Cinema of the 2000s in which South Korean cinema became a larger force. Although it was dubbed the “new wave” by foreign critics, as a link to the previous “new waves” of earlier periods in film history, the term “new realism” was used at the time and is in many ways a more accurate descriptor. 15 The cinema of this time, although not nearly as successful as Korean cinema would become, was driven by a desire to deal with social and political issues explicitly and to create films centered on the working class (minjung) and the lives of everyday Korean citizens. One of the key filmmakers of this era was Park Kwang-su, whose feature Chilsu and Mansu (1988) is often cited as the film that begins this movement. Park never achieved significant international recognition, perhaps because his films were so centered on Korean social and political issues, such as Geu-deul-do U-ri-cheo-reom (Black Republic) (1990), Geu Seom-e Ga-go Sip-da (To the Starry Island) (1993), and Areumdaum Cheongnyeon Jeon Tae-il (A Single Spark) (1995). But as Darcy Paquet argues, his influence on Korean cinema remained:
This influence continues, I would argue, in the films of the domestic indies much more than in the films of the mainstream genres and the other international auteurs.
(H)e also played a crucial role in the rapidly developing film industry, both as a mentor and as a statesman. He was instrumental in the launch of the Busan (formerly Pusan) International Film Festival in 1996, played a leading role in demonstrations in support of South Korea’s Screen Quota System, served as director of the Busan Film Commission from 1999 to 2010, and taught film at the Korean National University of Arts starting in 2001. 16
Of the filmmakers who emerged as part of the New Korean Cinema, the director with the strongest ties to the Korean New Wave and its greater realist aesthetic is Lee Chang-dong, a former novelist who turned to cinema in an attempt to maintain a connection to the mass audience that he felt had moved beyond the written word. 17 He begins his career as a screenwriter on Park Kwang-su’s To the Starry Island and A Single Spark before moving into directing with Cho-rok Mul-go-gi (Green Fish) in 1997. His second film, Bakha Satang (Peppermint Candy), opens the Busan (then Pusan) International Film Festival in 1999, the last of his films to premiere at a Korean festival. It is a film defined by its allegorical take on the South Korean nation since 1979, the type of text seemingly made to open an undergraduate course on Korean cinema. 18 Although featuring a striking use of a backwards chronological structure, the form is used not for psychological purposes but rather as a statement about the nation, unlike other puzzle narratives common at the time, such as Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000). Thus, Lee seemed to be continuing in the tradition of the Korean New Wave, as Darcy Paquet argues: “In many ways, the introspective, socially informed films of Lee Chang-dong …are contemporary South Korean cinema’s best embodiment of the spirit and ideals of the Korean New Wave.” 19 However, I would argue there has been a gradual movement in Lee’s cinema away from the more direct confrontation with specific social issues as he has moved into the festival circuit.
This begins with the melodrama Milyang (Secret Sunshine) (2007), which wins a Best Actress Award at Cannes for actress Jeon Do-yeon and is thematically more concerned with psychological and existential themes than his earlier work. It is also notable as the first South Korean film to enter the prestigious Criterion Collection in August 2011. 20 Poetry is the turning point in many ways, as it was Lee’s first film to perform poorly at the box office, making only 1.3 million; by comparison, his previous film Secret Sunshine grossed 8.6 million. This can be accounted for partially by Lee’s abandoning of genre for the first-time, making a work that fits more easily into art cinema conventions. And likely for these same reasons, it is the film that allowed Lee to breakthrough with the American critical community, with many glowing reviews, most notably from Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. 21 That said, the reason I want to compare and contrast Lee with the domestic independents is because, ironically, he is the closest to these films in terms of style and sensibility. Similar arguments could be made using more obvious examples, such as comparing Park Chan-wook’s Agassi (The Handmaiden) with an independent lesbian drama such as Yeon-ae-dam (Our Love Story) (Lee Hyun-ju, 2016), or, in terms of politics, an direct and immediate documentary about the national trauma of the Sewol ferry disaster, Diving Bell (The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol) (Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong, 2014) with a mainstream melodrama with a theme of national reconciliation, Saeng-il (Birthday) (Lee Jong-un, 2019), but these differences are so stark and obvious that it would be less illuminating.
I began this essay with two separate and seemingly contradictory quotes concerning approaches to filmmaking. The first seems to describe the concerns of a filmmaker trying to make a movie about an important social issue, while the second puts a greater focus on aesthetics, which is typical of auteurist discourse. What is noteworthy about the two quotes is that they are both from Lee Chang-dong, the first in a 2007 interview about Secret Sunshine and the second in a 2018 interview with Variety, in which he discusses his recent film Burning. These two contrasting viewpoints indicate a shift in Lee’s practice that has been occurring gradually over the course of his career as his films have become more distanced from the specifics of Korean society and more generalized in their aims. After the release of Poetry, Lee would go eight years without directing a film, returning in 2018 with Burning, an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, “Barn Burning,” with certain elements borrowed from a William Faulkner short story with the same title. 22 While Poetry represented a breakthrough for Lee Chang-dong as an internationally respected auteur, there were still clearly deep connections between Lee’s films and domestic independents. Indeed, the similarities between Poetry and the critically acclaimed Han Gong-ju suggest a direct influence, as the later film reworks the material and its point of view. But with Burning, Lee moves further away from his own earlier work and away from the types of films typical of the earlier Korean New Wave or the contemporary domestic independents. This difference is primarily aesthetic and is so dramatic that it overrides some of the superficial thematic similarities, such as the feeling of anger amongst Korean youth. Lee has emphasized in interviews that he was interested in this aspect: “the theme of anger – the anger and helplessness of young people today, and their sense that there is something wrong with the world that they don’t quite realize or understand.” 23 However, the treatment of this theme in Burning seems of much less interest to Lee than the aesthetic aspects, the desire to not the tell this story in a “familiar way,” and Lee succeeds in this goal: Burning won the International Critics’s Prize at Cannes and set a record-high score in Screen Daily’s critics’ poll. 24
It is telling, however, that Lee still desires to connect Burning with national concerns even as he, to quote Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, “speaks to the international address, distribution, audience, and aesthetic language of the art cinema.” 25 Lee comes out of an intensely nationalist cinema in South Korea, going back not only to the Korean New Wave but back further to a figure like Im Kwon-taek, the first Korean director to start to make inroads to festival success even as his association with national aesthetics limited that crossover appeal. 26 Lee seems to recognize, as Galt and Schoonover argue, the global nature of art cinema, “is not univocally positive; art cinema might refer to an imperialist flattening out of differences as easily as it identifies sites of resistance.” 27 His attempt to position Burning within a dialogue on national issues speaks to an anxiety Lee feels as he moves into the more transnational area of art cinema more completely. There is a kind of circularity of influence here, as domestic indies undoubtably use Lee’s earlier work as an inspiration while Lee himself is now alluding to the themes of youthful alienation that so dominate domestic indies. One can see this tension played out within the thematics of the film, especially the character of Ben, played by Steven Yeun, an actor famous primarily in America and cast to represent the threat of the elite and globalized modern Korean (the type of individual that Lee himself is now an example of, perhaps to his own discomfort). If, as Geoff King argues, “a dialectical relationship exists between the local and global dimensions of art cinema,” 28 Burning’s two lead male characters can be read as metaphorical representations of this dynamic, with the open, ambiguous ending reflecting Lee’s conflicted position. The alienated youth is represented here, but primarily as a vehicle for Lee’s aesthetic position-taking. And the aesthetic achievement of Burning is impressive, thanks to such collaborators as the cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo and composer Mowg, and quite unlike anything in Lee’s career or anything that could be accomplished on the smaller scale in which domestic indies operate. But I would argue a certain immediacy and concern with the everyday experience of Korean youth is lost in the process.
In this regard, domestic indies provide a necessary counterpoint, and over the decade there have been numerous films that have explored the lived experiences of the younger generation, including Jam Mot Deu-neun Bam (Sleepless Night) (Jang Kun-jae, 2013), Pascha (Ahn Sun-kyoung, 2015), Our Love Story, Cho-haeng (The First Lap) (Kim Dae-hwan, 2017), Ho-heup (Clean Up) (Kwon Man-ki, 2018), Mate (Jung Dae-gun, 2018), Microhabitat, and many more. Among this group, I have chosen to focus on The Land of Seonghye, the second feature of writer-director Jung Hyung-suk, a veteran of the stage who turned to cinema in 2016. The Land of Seonghye premiered at the Jeonju festival in 2018, winning the Grand Prix in the Korean Competition section, but only travelled to two other festivals and was not released domestically until January 2020 (over 20 months later), where it made only $13,000 in ticket sales (perhaps slightly lower because of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic). The film contrasts not only with Burning in dramatic ways, but also from some of the more commercially successful domestic indies. Just as the American indies featured directors looking to move towards more bigger budget studio projects (for example, Spike Lee or the Coen brothers) alongside those who are content to stay independent (such as Jim Jarmusch), Korean domestic indies also have filmmakers looking to move to bigger projects to directors who seem content to make their smaller scale dramas without the main goal of large mainstream success. Thus, in terms of style and aesthetic, The Land of Seonghye differs from indie films that had greater breakout success, like Han Gong-ju or Microhabitat. It is shot in black and white, immediately limiting its broader appeal, and is not edited in the more conventional style employed by Lee Su-jin in Han Gong-ju or Jeon Go-woon in Microhabitat: instead of an ASL of 7.3 seconds (Han Gong-ju) or 10.9 seconds (Microhabitat), in The Land of Seonghye the ASL is 19.5 seconds, well beyond the norms of commercial filmmaking. At the same time, it is lacking in the virtuoso aesthetic display that infuses so much of Burning, with a style that is deliberately flat and ordinary, with a few exceptional moments which will be discussed. This style perfectly suits the thematic material, giving the story a directness and immediacy that Burning, for all it accomplishes, never achieves.
The openings of the two films establish the style and concerns of each, despite a superficial similarity, as both try to build the quotidian nature of their respective protagonist. The Land of Seonghye opens with a number of shots showing Seonghye and the people in her neighbourhood. There is then an extended long take (110 seconds) consisting of a single close-up on her face as she listens to her doctor (1:52). After this is an extended series of cuts (30 shots in total) over 7 minutes of screen time in which Seonghye is shown at her various jobs, from convenience store clerk to newspaper delivery person, which seemingly takes up more hours than exist in a day, with her finally arriving back home and collapsing into her bed. The style is simple and meant to convey the exhaustion of a typical day in her life. Burning also takes us through the protagonist at work, but from the opening shot Lee is interested in transforming this routine into the cinematically spectacular. It is a 128 second shot, beginning with a striking composition of the back of a truck taking up the majority of the frame, with an out of focus store on the far right. Smoke gradually rises from the side of the truck, and the lead character, Jong-su, enters the frame, ending his smoke break and grabbing a package over his shoulder as the credits begin on screen. The camera then follows behind him through the busy streets of Seoul, a composition that recalls the Dardennes brothers in particular, eventually arrives at his destination, a retail outlet store into which he enters while the camera stays at the entrance with two attractive, provocatively dressed young women, who dance outside to attract customers through lottery draws and, of course, their appearance. As he re-enters the frame, one of the women, who clearly recognizes him, hands him a lottery ticket; this is Hae-mi, who will be one of the three main characters in the story. There is then a cut to black and director Lee Chang-dong’s credit appears on screen, a flourish announcing, with this first elaborate long take, his presence. While the scene does have a quotidian nature, especially to residents of Seoul, where such displays are common (it would play as more exotic to an international viewership), it is meant to show off Lee’s authorial command more than for any thematic meaning related to Korean youth.
In his interview with Dennis Lim, Lee Chang-dong discusses the scene outside Jong-su’s house where Hae-mi spontaneously starts dancing, stating that “the moment I thought of this image was when I first knew I could make this story into a film … A lot of elements from the entire movie are sort of implied and contained in this one scene.” 29 The scene is clearly important, taking place roughly halfway through the film (01:08:10) and marking Hae-mi’s last appearance, after which the plot becomes more of a mystery-thriller. But its importance is also marked by its aesthetic virtuosity, the most astounding shot in Lee’s career to this point, and only to be outdone by the stunning pair of shots that end the film, which I will discuss shortly. The scene is 251 seconds long and requires a great deal of technical skill to accomplish. It is shot at magic hour, beginning with Hae-mi getting up upon hearing the music of Miles Davis, which is in fact the score to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (Louis Malle, 1958), a key intertextual nod to the crime thriller genre the movie will shortly become. The shot follows behind Hae-mi as she takes off her top, framing her from a low angle as a shadow against the setting sky as she begins to dance, the Korean flag flapping in the wind on the top left of the frame. The shot then follows Hae-mi at a side angle right and then left, as she turns to face the camera framed naked from the stomach up, continuing her dance. 133 seconds into the shot, the music stops, replaced by diegetic sounds of the countryside, and Hae-mi suddenly becomes distressed and starts to cry before exiting frame left. The shot then continues, rather unmotivated, for another 55 seconds, as it slowly pans right across the countryside landscape, eventually stopping at a tree and slowly panning up until the landscape disappears and there is finally an edit.
As his later comments in the same interview show, Lee Chang-dong wants to see the shot as being highly “cinematic” and yet, contradictory, “invisible” at the same time:
The idea of this scene being highly cinematic and about the unique aesthetics of cinema seems accurate, but the argument that the scene does not feel directed or staged is, I would argue, false. Theoretically, it may be possible to be both highly cinematic and invisible, but this scene is far too self-conscious in its construction to have any feeling of naturalness, a point accentuated by the final minute of unmotivated emptiness in the frame, a technique common within art cinema norms and evocative here of a filmmaker such as Michelangelo Antonioni. The question becomes: why is Lee Chang-dong reluctant to admit this scene’s cinematic quality without also trying to argue for its naturalness? I believe the answer lies in Lee wanting to maintain his status as a primarily realistic director concerned with social issues when, in fact, Burning is a very different type of cinema, one far removed from the Korean New Wave in which Lee began his career. It is a sequence more indebted to the New Korean Cinema of the 2000s and Lee’s fellow international auteurs, such as Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, signalling a final departure of Lee away from the type of movies he began his career making, a type of film now seen more common amongst the domestic independents. These are the types of shots one is not going to see in Korea’s domestic indies, as they are simply too elaborate and expensive to pull off effectively. I think these types of shots are what Lee Chang-dong is most interested in with this movie, ways of telling this story in an unfamiliar way, that blends well with the overall meta-like quality of Burning as a whole, in which the viewer is to be visually compelled by these long take real-time sequences while remaining in a state of ambiguity about the reality of what they are being presented.
I thought that through this scene I could portray and combine all of these elements together in the most cinematic way possible, so that the audience can really feel the potential of cinema as a medium and the unique aesthetics of cinema. So from the beginning to the end of the scene, I didn’t want it to feel like it was directed or staged; I wanted it to feel as if we were able to capture this slice of life very coincidentally, and to capture Hae-mi’s pursuit of freedom. 30
If one is looking for a real-time sequence that is both cinematic (especially from a Bazinian perspective) and yet invisible, two much better examples can be found in The Land of Seonghye. The two scenes are easily the longest takes in the film, and represent key moments in the narrative, although not necessarily the most dramatic of events. The style in both sequences, however, is very simple and direct, showing off the power of cinematic realism and remaining naturalistic. The first shot takes place at a restaurant, as Seong-hye breaks up with her long-time boyfriend (56:55). The shot lasts exactly 5 minutes (300 seconds) and the camera remains in a long two-shot throughout, even when the boyfriend gets angry and exits the scene, eventually returning before the scene ends. The second sequence is at the convenience store where Seong-hye works (1:17:04) and lasts 203 seconds. It is another long two-shot, this time of Seong-hye and her former co-worker, who had failed to support Seong-hye when she was sexually harassed at her former corporate job. In this scene, it is Seong-hye who displays anger for the first time in the film, and thus marks a kind of cathartic moment for the audience, although once again the camera stays back and moves only slightly in its framing of the characters. The shots are reminiscent of the long take two-shots prevalent in the work of Hong Sang-soo, although they differ in being exceptions in the overall stylistic design (as opposed to the norm of such shots in Hong) as well as uninterrupted by the use of zooms that are often employed by Hong, in an effort, I would argue, to avoid any kind of simple naturalism (his cinema being highly artificial and meta in general). 31 This simplicity in The Land of Seonghye is partly of necessity, given the limited budget compared to a film such as Burning, but this directness also has its advantages in concentrating on the social milieu of the lead character (Seonghye’s land, or, as the Korean word “nara” is sometimes translated, world).
The endings of the two films more dramatically mark their differences in both theme and especially aesthetic. The final two shots of Burning represent both a narrative and stylistic climax meant to evoke the global art film in their ambition and ambiguity. The penultimate shot begins with the camera on Ben standing outside his car as Jong-su arrives in his truck and Ben approaches, at which time Jong-su stabs him in long shot. Ben then stumbles back towards the camera and we see him murdered in close-up in front of his car. Jong-su then strips naked and throws his clothes and Ben’s body in the car as he lights it on fire before eventually getting back into his truck. The whole sequence lasts over 6 minutes (365 seconds). There is then a 93-second final shot from inside Jong-su’s truck, in which we see him pass the burning car and then watch as the flames slowly recede in the distance as Jong-su drives away, the image eventually fading out. The ambitiousness of the sequence is furthered by its art cinema ambiguity, as a few sequences earlier there is a shot of Jong-su, who is a fiction writer, at his keyboard, bringing up the possibility that the entire ending is in his mind, a reading Lee Chang-dong himself has suggested, 32 and indicative of Lee’s overall strategy of incorporating his own anxiety about turning away from the national to the international into the text. The Land of Seonghye, both narratively and stylistically, ends on more of an anti-climax. The turning point of the narrative comes over 30 minutes before the conclusion, when Seonghye learns of her parents’ death, an event that marks the height of her difficult life and, in a grim irony, the chance for her to escape from society, in that the person responsible for their death provides her with a substantial cash settlement. Thus, the ending is one of serenity: Seonghye cuddles with her dog as she approaches her back fence and looks over the city, followed by slow motion shots of her riding her bicycle along the river and eventually exiting the frame and, by extension, modern Korean society. The final four shots are all long takes (each between 60-90 seconds), but with nothing approaching the elaboration offered by Lee Chang-dong. Burning is more narratively complex and cinematically astounding, and it is understandable for Lee to want to experiment as an artist and to deal thematically with his own status as an auteur. But, as a portrait of the younger Korean generation, Burning lacks the depth of The Land of Seonghye.
In conclusion, I want to bring up some of the problems facing these domestic indies moving forward. These projects continue to get support via the government and local festivals, but the lack of theatre screens means a limited number will gain any substantial audience, 33 although the even brief theatrical run many receive does make it possible for the films to find an audience beyond the festivals via streaming, although even here there is a division between the national and the international: both Burning and The Land of Seonghye are available on Netflix in Korea, but Burning is also available in other regions, while The Land of Seonghye, like many domestic indies, is limited to the Korean region and plays without subtitles. I have focused on a concrete example in this essay, but I actually think the strength of domestic indies is in their numbers, and that the whole is more than any individual text (hence my “beyond the auteur” title). Also, it is from the domestic indies that the extreme gender imbalance in Korean filmmaking is making the most progress, not only with breakout successes like Microhabitat and House of Hummingbird but in terms of pure volume. 34 Unfortunately, the lack of auteur recognition is a problem for actual working filmmakers, who have trouble forging careers after making their first films and eventually disappear, replaced by a newer group. The fact that these indie films are so authentic in dealing with quotidian social issues of Korean society is likely because these directors feel a certain affinity and are in a similarly precarious position themselves, struggling with the same inequality and generational hierarchy as others of their generation. Some, such as Jang Kun-jae, support themselves as professors at local universities (as Lee Chang-dong did in the past), teaching filmmaking to aspiring directors about to enter the same difficult marketplace. As a group, they are producing a cinema of great value, a necessary alternative to both the mainstream populists and international cineastes, even if most of these individual filmmakers are trying, out of necessity, to move beyond their status as non-auteurs.
The present research has been conducted by the Research Grant of Kwangwoon University in 2021.
Marc Raymond is a Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Kwangwoon University in Seoul, South Korea. He is the author of the book Hollywood’s New Yorker: The Making of Martin Scorsese (SUNY Press, 2013) as well as numerous articles on Scorsese, Hong Sang-soo, and Korean cinema, appearing in journals such as Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Film Criticism, Film History, New Review of Film and Television, Senses of Cinema, and Style.