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An Ode to Independent Films
Kim Hyunsoo  |  95elf@korea.ac.kr
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승인 2015.06.04  14:51:57
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▲ A scene in the movie, My Love, Don’t Cross That River (2014). Provided by i.ytimg.com.
   
▲ A scene in the movie Han Gong-ju (2013). Provided by i.huffpost.com.
The sticky, blazing heat of summer is quickly permeating the air, and people find their sanctuary in the cool, shaded auditoriums of movie theaters. From dusk till dawn, theaters are filled with audiences buzzing with excitement, as they are amply provided with refreshments and flashy, action-packed films. Yet people are so blinded by the bombardment of Hollywood blockbusters that they fail to notice the ominous reality lurking behind. The uncomfortable reality is this—amidst the encroachment of commercial movies, the Korean movie market is suffocating independent films and their artistic sensitivity.
 
Independent films are movies that give priority to the producers’ intentions and their artistic perspectives, and are clearly distinguished from commercial movies that consider financial profits as their priority. The fact that independent films are lenient in handling problems of attracting audiences or gaining economic benefits has thus enabled the directors to create their own individualistic world, where the freedom of expression is guaranteed without being concerned about public reception.
 
Unlike commercial movies that usually depend on provocative plots and visual effects to attract the audience, independent films illuminate the message the director wants to deliver. Therefore, in many cases, independent films tend to shed light on personal and compassionate stories that never had the chance to be introduced to the public, such as the affectionate lives of an old couple, expressing the gentle moments of their lives through the director’s own unique style. Here, from scenarios to camera techniques, the director becomes an architect, designing a world with distinctive themes that transcend commercialized values.
 
   
▲ The official movie poster of The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol (2014). Provided by images.mediatoday.co.kr.
Not only do the films illustrate the directors’ artistic delicacy, but they have also paved the way to disclose social injustice, as the independent characteristics of the movies have made these severe criticisms possible. Ever since the 1970s, Korean independent films have endeavored to enlighten people from social ignorance and to provide a wider perspective toward the world. The movie O Dreamland (1989) is one of the earliest works— despite the threats from the autocratic government—that tried to reveal the truth of the Gwangju Democratization Movement with a satirical illustration. The social movement still continues through movies such as the premier of The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol (2014).
 
Crisis in the Freedom of Expression
 
Independent films work as a novel, innovative dimension of art and as an autonomous prosecutor of social issues. Unfortunately, these artistic social values are losing their grounds in today’s society. On February 16, there was a severe controversy between independent film distributing agencies and the Korean Film Council. The council had launched a support program for independent films, which was to appoint a designated occupancy rate of the theater seats. Nevertheless, the party from independent art theaters had claimed that the designation system run by the council itself would ultimately lead to its censorship toward the movies. Furthermore, movies that would not be included in the system would be deprived of the chances to be released in public theaters, ending in a complete stalemate in acquiring freedom of expression.
 
   
▲ A scene in the movie, Goodbye Homerun (2013). Provided by cfile27.uf.tistory.com
Not only the proposal, but the conservativeness of the Korea Media Rating Board (KMRB) is prohibiting the development of independent films. The board’s perplex standard of defining art is explicitly shown in the case of rating the movie Shortbus (2006). KMRB had promptly banned the movie in Korean theaters, while nations such as Japan or England have given the rating NC-18 (No Children under 18). “Although the degree of KMRB’s conventionality alters with the shift of the government, it still needs fundamental changes to understand the progressive style of independent films as art,” said Lee Jung-ho, the director of the movie Goodbye Homerun (2013).
 
Furthermore, Lee commented that not only the lack of independent theaters, but also the problem aroused due to the deficiency of financial aid have not been properly solved. Unlike the commercial movies that are richly supported by investors and distributing agencies, independent films are mostly produced with personal funds. This leads to a situation where the directors suffer from maintaining the means of living.
 
Nourishing the Roots of Our Culture
 
   
▲ The official movie poster of Old Partner (2008). Provided by img.sbs.co.kr.
There has indeed been a series of support efforts to boost the growth of independent films and to protect their freedom of expression, such as the establishment of independent cinemas nationwide and the provision of financial aid from various film organizations. However, it has been discovered that these solutions are not presenting a proper, substantial aid to independent film directors. According to Lee, the number of independent theaters that defend movies from censorship is strictly limited, and even in those cinemas, Korean independent films are losing their share of audience to renowned European art films.
 
   
▲ The official movie poster of Old Partner (2008). Provided by img.sbs.co.kr.
These dismal realities are due to a Korean movie market that prefers commercial films guaranteeing profitability. Independent films which are assessed as unremunerative are deprived of chances to be distributed, and even if they make it to the cinemas, in most cases, only two weeks are given for them to be screened in front of the audience. This lopsided phenomenon directly contrasts with that of the United States (U.S.), where even independent films receive enormous donation from the government and film companies, allowing diverse films to thrive.
 
   
▲ The official movie poster of Planet of Snail (2012). Provided by kornu.ac.kr.
Art and culture flourish only when they are thoroughly communicated with the people, and Lee claims it is time the Korean government takes the lead in cultivating independent films for the diversification of art. “Korea is now a capitalist country where movies are regarded as merchandises,” said Lee. He added, “The government has a responsibility to interfere and channel its resources for the expansion of independent theaters and film festivals, so that they might maximize promotion effects and accessibility toward the aesthetic values of various films.”
 
   
▲ A scene in the movie 2 Doors (2011). Provided by cphoto.asiae.co.kr
John F. Kennedy is quoted to have once said, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” For the society to experience and nourish an elevated and harmonious culture amongst the box-office movies pouring down in every multiplex, an effort to embrace the liberal, individualistic essence of independent films and a promotion for them to mingle with the commercial movies seems desperately urgent.
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