The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Long before ‘Squid Game,’ South Korea filmmakers elevated the underdog

Director Hwang Dong-hyuk, center, with actor Lee Jung-jae, right, during a scene of South Korea’s “Squid Game.” (Netflix/AFP)

TOKYO — To fully understand South Korea’s megahit “Squid Game,” a good place to start is summer 1987.

In the aftermath of mass pro-democracy protests, a group of fledgling filmmakers in Seoul published a manifesto denouncing censorship under 26 years of military-directed rule that had muzzled their creativity.

“Making movies in this country is like walking naked through a thorn bush,” they wrote in 1987. “We can no longer tolerate social contempt, economic poverty and political alienation. We must not wait for anyone to speak on our behalf.”

The sentiment still informs the work of many South Korean filmmakers who find rich veins in the internal tensions of democracy, the limbo of the perennial underdog and the struggles of those left behind in a nation made rich by global commerce and giant corporations.

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Those protests in the late 1980s paved the way for a generation of directors emerging during South Korea’s liberalization through the 1990s. The themes they explored then are reflected in some recent global hits: Academy-Award winning “Parasite,” about class warfare between the poor and the privileged; “Train to Busan,” in which characters fight for survival during a zombie apocalypse caused by a dishonest biochemical company; and “Kingdom,” a series about the corruption of the rulers of a fictional realm facing a plague that turns people into zombies.

“They were the harbingers of today’s Korean cinema,” said Dal Yong Jin, South Korean film expert at Simon Fraser University in Canada, referring to the influential generation of directors that rose to fame in the 1990s. “Back then, they focused on people’s struggles. … Now, [shows like] ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Squid Game’ portray similar issues.”

The trend has given confidence to emerging Korean filmmakers that there is global interest in the themes of inequality and abuse of power that have deep roots in their industry.

Store names and character names hold truth and deeper meaning in Netflix's “Squid Game.” (Video: Allie Caren, Michelle Lee/The Washington Post)

“The success of ‘Squid Game’ made me realize once again that there are plenty of interesting and meaningful inspirations in our realities,” said Chan Song, an 18-year-old incoming filmmaking student at Korea National University of Arts in Seoul, “and that the problems and concerns we are grappling with daily in South Korea could resonate around the world.”

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‘Hidden truths’

Under sweeping censorship laws imposed by the South Korean military decades ago, filmmakers were limited to just a handful of topics, such as anti-communist propaganda, and positive representations of family life and collective national identity.

In the 1980s, students, civic groups and labor unions pressured the government into full democratization, staging demonstrations and enduring amid harsh crackdowns in which some protesters were killed. The nationwide rallies in summer 1987, sparked by the authoritarian leader Chun Doo-hwan’s handpicking of his successor, were a turning point.

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The decade that followed brought rapid change and a burst of unshackled creativity after censorship laws were lifted in the mid-1990s. These trailblazers included Bong Joon-ho, the director of “Parasite” and “Okja,” a 2017 film about corporate greed that follows the story of a girl who tries to rescue her pig from the U.S. meat industry.

They explored topics that had been banned under military rule, including the labor movement, separation of the two Koreas, gender issues and class divisions. When the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, they tackled economic inequality, bankruptcy and poverty.

“What was formerly forbidden were now fair game,” said Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, a Korea and East Asia film expert at the University of Hong Kong.

South Korean cinema had always had an activist bent, but these directors pushed the boundaries of their newfound artistic freedom, Magnan-Park said.

“South Korean filmmakers always remained committed to being the moral conscious of their society,” he said. “They chose to draw attention to those who abused their positions of power … and make visible those who society wanted to relegate into the invisible.”

Park Kwang-soo’s “A Beautiful Youth Jeon Tae-il” in 1995 portrayed the labor movement through the real-life story of Jeon Tae-il, a sewing worker who set himself on fire in 1970 to protest poor working conditions under the military regime.

In Lee Chang-dong’s “Peppermint Candy” in 2000, the protagonist died by suicide after suffering being traumatized by the violence of the pro-democracy protests in the 1980s and losing his job in the 1997 financial crisis.

“An individual cannot be freed from history or social reality. … In some cases, he becomes a victim of history, and when that happens, his life is not all that beautiful,” Lee said in a 2002 interview. “Through my movie, I hope the younger generation can gain a new perspective on society’s ‘hidden truths.’”

Movies that portrayed North and South Korean relations in nuanced ways that were impossible under military rule became widely popular. They include Kang Je-kyu’s “Shiri” in 1999, which contrasted South Korean material excess and North Korean poverty, and Park Chan-wook’s “Joint Security Area” in 2000, which featured a friendship formed between South Korean and North Korean soldiers across the demilitarized zone.

‘Netflix-esque enough?’

With soaring production costs and dwindling sources of private funding to produce ambitious projects, more creators began turning to the government for financial support in the 2000s, said Jin, of Simon Fraser University.

But the South Korean government under two conservative presidents from 2008 to 2017 began cracking down on filmmakers who were deemed critical or progressive. During the 2017 impeachment trial of President Park Geun-hye, investigators found that her aides blacklisted thousands of directors and others who were critical of her leadership.

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Such restrictions meant that Netflix became an increasingly attractive option for South Korean directors, who found a well-financed home on the platform, Jin said. When “Okja” made it big on Netflix, creators began flocking there.

“‘Squid Game’ is the outcome” of the trend that began with “Okja,” Jin said.

The shift to Netflix and other streaming sites comes at an opportune time for South Korean filmmakers, because the issues of inequality and economic anxieties are becoming increasingly global, making their work more relatable than ever.

“They’re asking questions about who we are as a nation, as a people,” said Chung Min Lee, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has studied the evolution of South Korean soft power. “This is South Korea’s storytelling journey, and as it happens, they have triggered a global audience.”

But the dependence on Netflix has created pressure on some aspiring filmmakers, who worry that “Squid Game” has set a new bar on how profitable and provocative their films should be.

Lim Si-yeon, a third-year student at Korea National University of Arts, draws inspiration from the work of Lee Chang-dong, one of the auteurs from the late 1990s. She recently debuted an independent film, “The Killing of a Hamster,” about a girl who grows up in the shadow of her twin sister. Her favorite movie is Lee’s 2007 “Milyang,” about social pressures placed on a divorced single mother. It portrayed nuanced social commentary about marginalized women in Korea, she said, adding that she isn’t sure the work would necessarily be popular in the Netflix era.

“Something we are struggling with now is, ‘Is my movie Netflix-esque enough?’” Lim, 22, said. “I want to be a director who whispers my message to my viewers, like the way ‘Milyang’ made an impact on me, by drawing out the deeply buried pains of the audience and helping them heal in a profound way.”

Grace Moon in Seoul contributed to this report.

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