The Debates around Realism
in the Korean Cinema
The Colonial Period: The Dialectic of Proletarianism and Realism
Whether addressing overall history or individual films, realism characterizes Korean film historiography. The critics first introduced realism during the colonial period. Terms such as “proletarian realism,” ”materialist dialectical creation,” and “socialist realism” were all current then, and they were intended to advance the proletarian cause under the slogan of Bolshevism, as well as enlighten and mobilize the general public. Therefore, the critics pointed out anti-proletarian ideas and the lack of socialist ideology in the films of colonized Korea. Realism was absolutely necessary to understand reality. But that did not mean portraying reality as it appeared was sufficient. Rather, the key to proletarian realism was both the vision of a socialist future and an educational effect. As film professionals used the concept of realism to mean the representation of “reality,” realism was of course only defined in terms of themes. This kind of realism that centered on the representation of “social reality” had a broad effect on Korean cinema.
Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1946)
The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica,
An Aimless Bullet (Yu Hyun-mok,
The 1950s: New Korean Realism and Humanism
In the 1950s’ cinematic discourse, the realism based on representation that dominated the colonial and post-liberation eras continued. But, at the same time, the earlier proletarian realism was deployed more selectively. The “new” realist discourse emerged to provide a new ideology in the mid and late 1950s after the peninsula was divided and the Korean film community was rebuilt. The Younghwa Segye magazine ran a feature story titled “A Comparison of Korean and Italian Realism” in its February 1957 issue, stimulating debate about “Korean realism.” The authors wrote that an excess of period films and melodramas constituted a...
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