A young man is lying alone in a basement room of a tenement house on Christmas eve. There are only two things he can do in this tiny room: feed the goldfish and watch television. Suddenly, the electricity is cut off. He persistently tries to light the room, but to no avail. In contrast to his situations, things seem quite normal in the world above ground.
This is a scene from "A Black Christmas Eve,'' a 14-minute 16 mm independent film directed by Kim Dae-hyun in 1993. The film, which reflects current Korean society by contrasting life in the basement with life above ground, was one of the 31 entries in the '96 Korean Independent Film Festival held at the Tongsung Cinematheque in Seoul March 16-22 this year. "I tried to interpret Korean society through showing the disparity between the worlds above ground and underground, between the haves and the have-nots and light and darkness,'' director Kim said. He said he also wanted to draw the psychology of a man in a confined space and time.
During a comparatively short history of around 12 years, independent films have made big development here. The Korean Independent Film Association (KIFA) estimates that there are about 1,000 independent filmmakers in Korea. Audiences have drastically increased, too. Unlike commercial movies which take billions of won to produce, independent films usually cost 5 to 10 million won. The production normally takes less than a month and most films run 20-30 minutes.
What distinguishes independent films most from commercial movies is their freedom from political power and the system as well as capital and the market. "All you need to produce a film are a camcorder and a critical eye on society,'' said Min Young-kuk, secretary-general of KIFA. Independent filmmakers are usually in their 20s or early 30s, while fans are mostly in their 20s.
There was a time when independent films were considered as tools of the democratic movement in this country. Films produced in the 1980s were mostly about the problems of the poor, human rights, the military regime and national unification. Favorite topics were conflicts between labor and management, unemployment, May 18, 1980 civilian democratic movement in Kwangju, antigovernment demonstrations by college students, disparity between the rich and the poor and political prisoners.
Since the early 1990s, however, the topics have become diverse partly because of the change in the sociopolitical situations and the changing tastes of the audience. New topics include men's inner struggle, the meaning of life, personal experiences in everyday life, religion, philosophy, arts and love. Independent films deal with everything. Easier public access to independent films is another recent feature.
In the past, independent films were shown only on college campuses or in secret venues because they had not passed government screening. Recently, some independent feature films released at public cinemas after passing censorship. Some works have also won awards at prestigious international film festivals. History of independent films in Korea
In the West, independent films came into being in the early 1960s and have developed in concert with commercial movies. In Korea, however, they were introduced by reform-minded young filmmakers as a counterpart to commercial production. Therefore, it is difficult to figure out who were the first-generation producers of independent films and which was the first independent film.
One noticeable event in the history of Korean independent films was a short film festival held at the National Theater of Korea in Seoul in 1984 where independent movies were introduced to the public for the first time. Some of the entries were "The Southern Side of the River,'' "Arirang Game'' and "The Door.'' Some of the representative independent films produced during the 1980s were "Daydreaming'' (Lee Jong-guk, 1984), "Blue Birds'' (Seoul Visual Collective, 1986), "Sanggye-dong Olympics'' (Kim Dong-won, 1988), "Laborer's News'' (Labor News Production, 1989) and "The Eve of a Strike'' (Changsangodmae, 1990).
Produced by Purn-Production, "Sanggye-dong Olympics'' was a documentary on poor grassroots' protests against the government's decision to clear slums in Sanggye-dong area in northeastern Seoul. "The Eve of a Strike,'' a 110-minute film about labor and management in a factory, was a monumental work which opened a new realm of independent feature films in Korea. About 10 professional independent film production groups, including Seoul Visual Collective, Labor News Production and Purn-Production, are now active.
"Why Bodhi Dharma Went to the East?'' and "The Murmuring: A Woman Being in Asia II'' were the most successful independent Korean films so far. "Why Bodhi Dharma...,'' directed by Bae Yong-kyun, captured the Best Film Award at the 42nd Locarno International Film Festival and "a certain regard'' prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. The 135-minute production also won the Young Critics, Christian Critics, International Journalist Association and Bakrii (second place) awards.
The protagonists in the movie are a dying old Zen Buddhist master and his two disciples, an orphan boy and a young monk, who live in ascetic isolation on top of a mountain. The documentary film "The Murmuring'' was first presented at Tongsung Art Center in central Seoul in April last year. Produced by female director Byun Young-joo, the 93-minute feature exposed the plight of the Korean comfort women who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
It won the grand prize at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan last year. Popularization of independent films Various efforts are being made to popularize independent films.
Inde Line, a distributor of independent films, has been operating the Korean Independent Film Library since early last year. In its collection are 46 quality independent films including nine foreign ones like "Mother'' (directed by Pak Dong-hun and Pak Son-uk, 1993), "Ophelia Audition'' (Song Il-gon, 1994), "The Way to Seoul'' (Kim Dae-hyun, 1990) and "Prey'' (Helen Lee, 1995). The company plans to provide these films to public cinemas and cable television companies in the near future.
Inde Line will also release a commercial video tape which contains five representative films: "Sad Tropics'' (Yuk Sang-hyo, 1994), "A Day of Poet Koo Bo'' (Yu Ha, 1990), "Prey'' (Helen Lee, 1995), "Screaming City'' (Kim Song-su, 1993) and "Changeable Lanes'' (Yang Yun-ho, 1992). Independent film shows An increasing number of regular independent film shows or festivals are being organized by young filmmakers. KIFA, an affiliate of the Korean People's Artists Federation (KPAF), has organized independent film festivals since 1990.
The show took place intermittently until last year. But beginning this year, the show is held the first Sunday of every month at the Munye Academy at the KPAF building in Chongno, central Seoul. Directors are invited to the show for discussion with the audience after the film presentation. Inde Line organized the first International Independent Film Festival at the Tongsung Arts Center Dec. 2-8 last year. Nineteen works from 14 countries participated in the festival, the first of its kind in Korea.
Boosted by the success of the festival, Inde Line has held the first annual Korean Independent Film Festival at the same venue March 16-22 this year. Inde Forum, a group of filmmakers, hosted the "Inde Forum '96 _ Filmmakers Festival'' at the Alumni Center of Yonsei University in Seoul May 21-26 this year. More than 50 filmmakers including young amateurs joined the event. Some of the notable entries were "Dowsing'' directed by Kim Yun-tae in 1995, "Org'' (Im Chang-jae, 1994), "For Rosa'' (Lee Ji-sang, 1994) and "Photo Line'' (Mun Kwang-sok, 1996).
"So far, independent film festivals had been devoted to works by professional directors. So, we organized the festival to give young amateurs a chance to present their works to the public,'' said Cho Young-kak, secretary-general of Inde Forum. Prospects One recent phenomenon in the Korean independent film industry is an increase in number of the female producers. About 20 percent of the 50 film directors who participated in the '95 Inde Forum were female. They included Kim Song-suk, Kim Si-kyong, Kim Mi-yong and Mun Un-jong.
The phenomenon is partly related to the fact that female producers still find it hard to work in the male-dominated commercial movie industry. "The relation between independent films and commercial films is like the relation between basic science and applied science,'' said Kim Dae-hyun, adding that the production of independent films should be encouraged in order to develop the local movie industry.
Kim also said the government and the broadcasting companies should support independent movies as in the United States and Japan.