Park Kwang-su (b. 1955) is the central voice, if not the progenitor, of the remarkable Korean New Wave of the late 1980s and 1990s. In major films such as To the Starry Island, A Single Spark and The Uprising, Park introduced a new political outspokenness into popular Korean cinema, an emboldened realist address of urgent, and frequently controversial, socio-cultural and historical themes. Although little known in the US, Park played a crucial role in shaping South Korea’s first authentic independent film movement by challenging the long tradition of draconian government censorship renewed with new severity in the wake of the 1980 Kwangju Massacre. Transforming quintessentially Korean themes into thought-provoking and deeply engaging narrative features, Park’s films helped introduce contemporary South Korean cinema to its first truly international audience – a cause dramatically furthered by Park’s founding of the Pusan International Film Festival in 1996.
Beginning his artistic career first as a sculptor at Seoul National University, Park’s blossoming interest in cinema led him into a Super-8 collective and, upon graduation, the Seoul Film Group, an activist film club closely tied to the vibrant student protest movement. Study at Paris’ ESEC film school introduced Park to the rich tradition of political counter-cinema which would directly inform the subject and tone of his extraordinary first feature, Chilsu and Mansu which subversively transforms the popular formula of the “buddy” comedy into an angry portrait of working class disenchantment. Park’s subsequent films continued this subtle politicization of popular film genres in order to engage a range of once-taboo themes, using, for example, the bio-pic in A Single Spark to explore the troubled history of Korean labor unions, or The Uprising’s historical epic to give new perspective on Korea’s difficult colonial legacy. United by their stylish sophistication and structure, Park’s critically acclaimed films of the late 1980s and 1990s together represent one of the highpoints in contemporary Korean cinema.
In partnership with the Korea Institute at Harvard, the Harvard Film Archive is proud to welcome Park Kwang-su. – Haden Guest
Presented in partnership with the Korea Institute of Harvard. Special thanks: Susan Laurence, Dmitry Mironenko, Korea Institute; Oh Sungji, Korean Film Archive; Yoon-hyung Jeon, KOFIC; Hong-Joon Kim, Korea National University of Arts.
Film descriptions by Haden Guest and David Pendleton
Directed by Park Kwang-su. With Hong Kyoung-In, Kim Bo-kyeong,
South Korea 1995, 35mm, color, 92 min. Korean with English subtitles
A Single Spark tells the story behind a crucial event in modern South Korean history: the self-immolation of factory worker Jeon Tae-il in 1971 to draw attention to the appalling workplace conditions faced by many Koreans. Jeon’s suicide is widely credited as key to the unionization of South Korean workers. Rather than a straightforward biopic, the film elaborates on Jeon’s life by supplying a parallel story: a young activist five years later is researching a biography of Jeon while going underground due to government harassment of him and his wife because of their own labor activism. A Single Spark renews the political fervor underpinning Park’s sophisticated filmmaking, resulting in a sweeping epic made with urgent verve and compelling narrative drive.
Directed by Park Kwang-su. With Chi Sang-hak, Choi In-seok,
South Korea 1988, 35mm, color, 109 min. Korean with English subtitles
Park’s debut film offered a startling realist intervention by focusing its story on the difficult lives of two struggling artists – billboard sign painters whose dangerous occupation clearly emblematizes the struggles of the working class in post-boom Korea. Made during a time of still heavily imposed censorship and adapted (uncredited) from a story by Taiwanese writer Huang Chunming, whose work was banned at the time in Korea, Chilsu and Mansu is an underappreciated example of political cinema. Although Chilsu and Mansu fared quite poorly at the box-office the film has since then become an undisputed classic of contemporary Korean cinema, considered by many as the first authentic expression of the Korean New Wave.
Directed by Park Kwang-su. With Shim Eun-ha, Lee Jung-Jae,
South Korea 1999, 35mm, color, 100 min. Korean with English subtitles
After two acclaimed films exploring the relationship between the recent past and the present, Park goes back to 1901 to tell the true story of a revolt against local Catholics, French missionaries and a corrupt government. When peasants balk at increased taxation by a local government that includes a number of Christian converts, the insurrection quickly becomes a religious war. Yi Chae-su is an uneducated young man who finds himself at the head of the insurrection. The film presents an ambiguous picture of a complex event. On the one hand, the uprising was a rebellion against corrupt local officials and foreign influence over them; on the other hand, it led to indiscriminate massacre. Park presents Lee as an impassioned leader but also a naïve one, one who ultimately transforms into a grim, bloodthirsty warrior.
Directed by Park Kwang-su. With Kim Min-oe, Lee Il-woo,
South Korea 1990, 35mm, color, 100 min. Korean with English subtitles
Park followed up Chilsu and Mansu with a sweeping drama about a student protester whose life takes a dramatic turn when he hides out in a remote mining town in order to hide from the police. An intensification of Chilsu and Mansu‘s working-class theme, Black Republic boldly pushed the censorship limits with its depiction of exploited labor, mine strikes and police brutality. Co-written by Park, the film subtly uses melodrama to give human dimensions to its vision of a South Korea torn asunder, following the fragile romance that blossoms between the student and a young prostitute struggling for survival in the small village.
Directed by Park Kwang-su. With Ahn Soo-young, Ahn Sung-kee,
South Korea 1993, 35mm, color, 102 min. Korean with English subtitles
Many of the most celebrated films from the beginnings of the Korean New Wave explore the toll the war of the 1950s continued to take upon the psyches of contemporary South Koreans. A prominent example, To the Starry Island opens in the present with the efforts of Moon Jae-go to carry out his father’s dying wish to be buried on the small island where he was born. Upon arriving on the island with his father’s body, Moon is shocked to learn that they will not allow the funeral to take place. Extended flashback sequences, with actors playing the parents of their present-day characters, reveal the reason for this enduring hatred. The screenplay marks one of the first screen credits for Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine, Poetry).