Hybridity is the New Norm: Korean Cinema in a Global Age

The Thieves (2012), a good example of a hybrid Korean film, is a vibrant and complex heist movie with one of the most high-profile casts ever assembled. It was very much influenced by Hollywood's Ocean's Eleven (2001).

Memo #248

By Dal Yong Jin – yongjin23 [at] gmail.com

After a period of recession, the Korean film industry has experienced a revival in recent years with the market success of several hybrid films, successes that have served to boost the overall market share of domestic films in Korea. Prior to this, the domestic Korean film industry had entered some hard times, due primarily to changes in the country’s screen quota system resulting from the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Up until 2006, movie screens in Korea were required to show domestic films 146 days a year. As part of the U.S.-Korea FTA, Korea was forced to halve this to 73 days. Although it is premature to claim that the Korean film industry has fully recovered, it is certain that Korean cinema is regaining its momentum, with domestic film gaining 60 percent of the Korean market share in 2012, up from 42.1 percent in 2008.

Though there are several aspects critical to any understanding of contemporary Korean cinema—such as the role of capital, directorship, and script—of particular importance is the Korean film industry’s creation of films through hybridization, that is, the blending and combining of two different cultural customs or norms. Several Korean movie corporations have adopted hybrid strategies, resulting in the creation of films such as Shiri (1999), Joint Security Area (2000), D-War (2007), and The Thieves (2012). They utilized a style that fused indigenous cultural elements with more mainstream Hollywood influences. By combining Hollywood-style action, humour, and sci-fi genres with Korean melodramas, Korea created a very unique new film style that has met with critical acclaim at global film festivals.

However, not all Korean film producers create works of such diversity, because the local film industry is still largely commercially-driven, producing Hollywood genres such as comedy-action and thriller films. As a result, many recent Korean movies have not reflected those traditional themes displayed in other hybrid domestic films, such as the ideological conflict between North and South Korea, the traditional values of everyday life, and specific socio-cultural issues.

Hybridity is much more than the simple mixing and hybridizing of different cinematic elements. It is really about the creation of a new type of cultural space, known as a “third space”; the creation of a unique cultural sphere reflecting local values and identities through the process of fusion.  Through hybridization Korea’s domestic film industry must develop a balance between commercial success and national cultural values.

Dal Yong Jin is an Associate Professor in the School of Communications and Director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) at Simon Fraser University. His major research interests include globalization and media, Korean cinema,  and the political economy of media and culture. He is the author of three books, most recently De-Convergence of Global Media Industries (Routledge, 2013). Look for his article “The Power of the Nation-state amid Neoliberal Reform: Shifting Cultural Politics in the New Korean Wave” in the March 2014 issue of Pacific Affairs.

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The Thieves (2012), a good example of a hybrid Korean film, is a vibrant and complex heist movie with one of the most high-profile casts ever assembled. It was very much influenced by Hollywood’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001).

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