Asian Communication Research - Vol. 17, No. 3

[ Original Research Article ]
Asian Communication Research - Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 55-83
Abbreviation: ACR
ISSN: 1738-2084 (Print)
Print publication date 30 Dec 2020
Received 01 May 2020 Revised 02 Nov 2020 Accepted 13 Nov 2020

Transnational Koreans in Asian Pop Culture in the Pre-Korean Wave Era
Doobo Shim**
**Professor, Department of Media and Communication, Sungshin Women’s University, South Korea

Correspondence to **

Funding Information ▼


The Korean Wave, which refers to the overseas popularity of South Korean culture, is moving toward a new stage of development. Seen in conjunction with the recent performances of K-pop bands on global music platforms, Korean film Parasite's winning four prizes at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020 has led commentators to argue that the whole world is now observing the Korean Wave phenomena. However, while the global rise of Korean pop culture has been documented continuously, most of the research has been centered around either Korean production or foreign consumption. Additionally, while the transnationality of popular culture has led academia to adopt the theory of hybridity, its application to the Korean Wave was largely limited to textual studies. Against this backdrop, this research will shed light on diasporic Korean artistes who have been largely forgotten either in Korea or in their resettled and adopted cultures. In particular, this study will zero in on Korean actors and filmmakers in Shanghai in the 1930s and the Korean-Hong Kongese film collaborations in the 1960s and inquire into their cultural meanings in inter-Asian popular culture. For one, Korean director Jeong Chang-hwa handed down his action film know-how to Hong Kong cinema, which would later become a global action film hub. This relationship continued when the Hong Kong International Film Festival recognized Parasite's director Bong Joon-ho's talent on the international level first by screening his short films in 1994. As such, this research will also open up new avenues of understanding the history of East Asian popular culture.

KeywordsKorean Wave, Asian popular culture, Kim Yom, Hong Kong film, Korean film

The global emergence and spike of COVID-19 has forced the world to rapidly transition to a “new normal.” The way of life has transformed because of social distancing and lockdown, and the global economy has entered a new era of low growth due to shrinking production and consumption. The bigger problem is that we do not know when the current situation will end. Vague fear and unending anxiety suppress social activities, and people are hiding deep into their own spaces. Interestingly, however, the Korean Wave, which refers to the overseas popularity of South Korean (thereafter, Korean) culture, is moving toward a new stage of development. This development is a result in which the more people stay at home the more they spend time on over-the-top (OTT) platforms and television, and the more they do the more they watch Korean film and television series (Moon, 2020). Seen in conjunction with the recent performances of K-pop bands on global music platforms, Korean film Parasite’s winning four prizes at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020, including the Best Picture Award, has led commentators to argue that the whole world is now observing the Korean Wave phenomena.

Indeed, the Korean Wave ignited significant cultural traffic within Asia which had previously been long occupied by American pop culture for quite a long time (Iwabuchi, 2010). While there were a few cases of intra-regional cultural exchanges in Asia such as the popularity of Hong Kong films and Japanese animation, the flow of information and culture in East Asia was, for the most part, infrequent up until the 1990s. Intra-continental exchange was so infrequent to an extent that communication scholars Waterman and Rogers (1994) would call American culture as “common culture” in Asia. Only in the 2000s, scholars like Chua (2012) and Iwabuchi (2010) began to address “East Asian pop culture” as a seminal field of study. Although Chua's influential book Structure, Audience and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture (2012) is a research on the cultural reception and distribution networks in Asia, it is written from a perspective of a Singaporean Chinese focusing on Huaren communities. In a similar vein, Iwabuchi's book Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism (2002) set the tone for future research on Asian popular culture. Yet the book's focus is inevitably on transnationalization of Japanese pop culture.

While the rise of Korean pop culture in Asia has been documented continuously, most of the research has been centered around either Korean production or foreign consumption (Kim, 2013; Lee & Nornes, 2015; Yum & Shim, 2016). Additionally, while the transnationality of popular culture has led academia to adopt the theory of hybridity, its application to the Korean Wave was largely limited to textual studies (Yoon & Jin, 2019). However, it is noteworthy that the theoretical framework of hybridity also highlights the roles of border-crossers and go-betweens (Kraidy, 2002). For example, within the context of hybridity, scholars could interpret the Renaissance movement not as an Italian ‘miracle,’ but as an outcome of diverse contributions, including those made by the Jewish and Muslim border-crossers (Burke, 1998). With such theoretical developments, academic journals on diaspora have also increased since the 1990s (Shim, 2020).

Against this backdrop, this paper will shed light on diasporic Korean artistes who have been largely forgotten either in Korea or in their resettled and adopted cultures. In particular, this paper will zero in on Korean actors and filmmakers in Shanghai in the 1930s and the Korean-Hong Kongese film collaborations in the 1960s and inquire into their cultural meanings in inter-Asian popular culture. Im Kwon-taek (임권택, 林權澤), one of Korea's most renowned film directors, had once worked as an assistant director to Jeong Chang-hwa (정창화, 鄭昌和), who made films in Korea and Hong Kong. Considering this relationship, this unearthing of “disjunctural history of fragments” (Berry, 2016) is expected to deepen our understanding of transnational popular culture and Korean Wave.

Background of the Research

As noted, Asia has always been receptive to American pop culture since the early 20th century. The cultural exchange and absorption between Asian countries, however, were rather shallow. When it comes to television, “countries of the Asian region as a whole have a relatively low dependence on imported programming, and a relatively very low dependence on intra-regional program trade” (Waterman & Rogers, 1994, p. 107). In the case of the film, only twenty-eight Taiwanese, three Japanese, one Indian, and three Filipino films were screened in the Korean cinemas from 1971 to 1988 (Shim, 2005, pp. 239-240).

This standstill of intra-continental pop culture, however, was disrupted in the early 1990s when Japanese “trendy” television dramas crossed national borders, tugging at the heartstrings of young Asians (Iwabuchi, 2002). In fact, the early 1990s was an era that was filled with an air of excitement for new beginnings, since the several decade-long Cold War was finished, the free-market economy was being adopted across Asia, and the digital revolution was starting to evolve. Audiences sensed that government sanctioning of airwaves was no longer feasible, since middle-class households across Asia found easy access to satellite television channels such as Star TV (Hong Kong) and NHK BS 1, BS 2 and Wowow (Japan). Newspapers and magazines in Asia often featured stories about pop stars and celebrities from Japan and Hong Kong. Concert planners and television producers had the Asian markets in view. Communist countries including China and Vietnam expanded television program imports from neighboring countries including Japan and Korea (Chadha & Kavoori, 2000).

Scholars began to conceptualize the shape and contour of this newly unfolding situation. A pioneering study was conducted by Iwabuchi (2002). Writing for his PhD dissertation at the University of Western Sydney, he analyzed Japanese audience's reception of pop culture from Hong Kong and Taiwan, while also studying the penetration of Japanese pop culture in East and Southeast Asia. Iwabuchi's contribution not only lies in providing ethnographic information ranging from production and circulation to consumption of pop culture in Asia, but also in his insights into the modernity and cultural geography practiced in Asia. For example, while Taiwanese fans feel a sense of “cultural proximity” towards the modern life portrayed in Japanese pop culture (Iwabuchi, 2002, p. 122), Japanese audiences projected a sense of nostalgia when receiving pop culture imported from the rest of Asia (Iwabuchi, 2002, p. 159). Spurred by the popularity of Japanese drama in Asia, Iwabuchi convened arguably the first international conference on East Asian pop culture in 2001, and its outcome was published into a book Feeling Asian Modernities: Transnational Consumption of Japanese TV dramas (Iwabuchi, 2004).

Originally an urban sociologist, Chua (2012) also contributed greatly to conceptualizing East Asian pop culture. According to him, his work on East Asian pop culture “began serendipitously” when he was given the freedom to speak any topic of his choice for his keynote address at a Geography conference in 2000 (Chua, 2012, p. xi). As a Singaporean Chinese, he had an interest in tracing cultural networks of overseas Chinese communities in Asia. For this, he paid attention to the Confucian or “Asian Values” thesis which was presented as a philosophy that had been instrumental to capitalist success of Asian economies including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. In relation to this, Tu (1991) conceptualized “Confucian Greater China.” However, the 1997 economic crisis put the thesis in disarray. Then, Chua was aware that pop cultural traffic was becoming active especially around Huaren communities in Asia, bringing up an idea of “Pop Culture China” in his keynote speech at the above-noted geography conference.

When the National University of Singapore established the Asia Research Institute (ARI) in 2002, Chua was designated a research fellow there to lead a “cultural studies in Asia” cluster. With ARI at the center, Chua convened a series of workshops by inviting film and media scholars from across Asia to present their papers, and published them in academic journals or in the form of monographs. One of these workshops was organized in December 2005 to which around ten scholars from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore were invited to give research presentations, with a focus on Japanese and Korean television dramas. I was one of them. However, to everyone's surprise an overwhelming majority of presentations dealt with Korean dramas. In the end, the outcomes of this workshop resulted in the form of an edited volume entitled East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave (Chua & Iwabuchi, 2008). This was considered the first scholarly book on Korean Wave.

Since then, many scholars around the world have published single-authored books or edited volumes on Korean Wave or (East) Asian popular culture (Hong & Jin, 2020; Jung, 2011; Shim, Heryanto, & Siriyuvasak, 2010; Yoon & Jin, 2019). What is missing, however, in this academic map of emerging Asian popular culture research is the role of diasporic Koreans in mediating East Asian pop cultural network growth (Kaisii, 2017). Not only did the Korean Wave spur other national or local cultures to emulate the commercial success of Korean pop culture, but there also were hidden or less well-known cases in the pre-Korean Wave era, in which diasporic Koreans played a role in building cultural connections across Asia.

For example, when Shanghai emerged as a film hub in China in the 1930s, it was Kim Yom (김염, 金焰; pronounced Jin Yan in Mandarin), a Korean actor who played a role, though minor, in saving the Chinese film industry, by keeping Hollywood from penetrating Chinese film markets. When it was made difficult for Koreans to create films under the Japanese colonial rule, Shanghai became a haven for Koreans to continue their craft. Based on such experiences in Shanghai, these Koreans could help rebuild the Korean film industry after the liberation from Japan. When the communist regime won control over mainland China, Hong Kong accommodated refugees from Shanghai including those who belonged to the film industry. During this time, as Hong Kong emerged as a film hub in Asia, Korea became an enthusiastic partner for their collaborative projects. In particular, Korean director Jeong Chang-hwa (정창화, 鄭昌和) was pivotal in cultivating and exposing Hong Kong action cinema to the world, which again breathed new ideas and imagination to Korean audiences.

In understanding East Asian pop cultural exchanges, employing the concept of “media hub” or “media capital” is strategic to the construction of this paper. Traditionally, research on popular culture and media has been made largely focusing on text, media producers, stars and fandom (Chen & Yorgason, 2018; Devereux, 2013; Han, 2016). However, considering that media operations are closely linked to political and economic processes and that media practices are considerably influenced by historical and cultural factors, we need to pay attention to the roles played by geographic environments in which culture is created. With regard to this, Mosco (1996) argues for the need to focus on intangible elements that shape the media operations. Although not exactly addressing the media and popular culture, Harvey (1985) stresses the need to focus on space as a determining factor in social changes. Addressing the increasing multi-directional media flows in the world, Curtin (2003) emphasizes the role of media capital. By examining regional media hubs including Bombay, Cairo, and Hong Kong, he argues that “scholars might use media capital as a concept that would foster empirically grounded analysis of the temporal dynamism and spatial complexity of the global media environment” (Curtin, 2003, p. 202). In relation to this, this paper will examine the historical and cultural contexts that have influenced the growth of Shanghai and Hong Kong into media hubs.

Korean Actors and Filmmakers in Shanghai in the 1930s

Shanghai was the biggest cosmopolitan city in Asia in the period between the late 19th century and the first half of 20th century. East Asians are considered to have similar value systems and worldviews, as a result of sharing common classical literary traditions and religious practices in Buddhism for a thousand years; however, travel, cultural flow and foreign trade were largely shut off between countries for several hundred years until the 19th century. This is because Korea, China, and Japan all adopted isolationist policies around the same time for several hundred years (Eckert, Lee, Lew, Robinson, & Wagner, 1991). The Chinese Qing dynasty’s defeat to the United Kingdom in the First Opium War (1839-42), however, started to disrupt the East Asian isolationist policies.

As a result of the First Opium War, Shanghai became a treaty port for international trade (Fairbank, 1953). Taking advantage of diverse forms of unequal agreements with China, dealers and aspirants from Europe, in particular, settled in the newly emerging business hub in China. In her memoir as a Russian sojourner, Erohina (2011, p. 74) wrote her observations of Shanghai in the 1920s:

The most haughty (sic) were English nouveau riche adventurers. The French colonists who were small vendors, hardly making a living in France, became wealthy investors, members of fashionable clubs, and owners of luxurious villas in the French Concession.

Since Shanghai was not exclusively controlled by any state, yet protected by foreign powers including Britain and France, it became a “shelter” to refugees, exiles and revolutionaries. According to Erohina (2011, p. 74), “Every ship from Northern China, Korea, and Japan brought more refugees, and the number of them reached ten thousand.” Against this backdrop, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (대한민국임시정부; PGRK hereafter) was first established in Shanghai in 1919. Eventually, Shanghai grew into an international city, with around 70,000 foreigners estimated to have inhabited the city in 1932 (Tales of Old, 2000).

The modernity and urbanity Shanghai achieved by the early 20th century gave the city the nickname “Paris of the East” (Ling, 2008). Particularly, Avenue Joffre in the French Concession became the most fashionable street in Asia, with beauty salons, dress shops, photo studios, jewelry shops, perfume shops, and bakeries occupying large buildings (Erohina, 2011). As an international metropolis, the city provided fertile grounds for the development of entertainment industries (Meyer, 2009). Shanghai, an already established hub for traditional Chinese opera, served as an appropriate vantage point for the film industry to prosper, since the traditional form of musical theater passed on its stories, actors, and staff members to the newly emerging entertainment form of film. Shanghai’s position as a transportation hub helped the city evolve into a film hub. In 1896, the Lumière brothers notably chose to screen their films in Shanghai, just less than a year after they had produced the films in Paris. As of 1927, China had 181 film studios, 151 of which were located in Shanghai, establishing Shanghai as both a film hub in China and “Hollywood in Asia” (An, 2013). China's annual film production was more than 50 in the 1930s while that of Korea was around five (An, 2013, p. 27).

It is worth noting that a Korean-born actor was a prominent film star in Shanghai in the 1930s. The fact that Kim Yom was embraced as a star epitomizes the characteristic of Shanghai as an international media hub. Born in Seoul in 1910, Kim Yom was a son to Kim Pilsun (김필순, 金弼淳), a medical doctor and an activist for Korean independence movement. In 1912, his family had to move to a city in Northern China in order to escape a Japanese police arrest. However, when his father mysteriously died in 1919, Kim Yom was left alone to stay at his aunt’s home in Shanghai before moving to Jinan (齊南), Tianjin (天津) and eventually back to Shanghai (Meyer, 2009). His aunt and her husband, Kim Kyusik (김규식, 金奎植), the inaugural Minister of Foreign Affairs with the PGRK, emphasized schooling; however, without direct parental guidance, Kim Yom grew up a free spirit, eventually deciding to become an actor (Jo, 2003, p. 165).

Although Shanghai was called the Chinese film hub, it was not easy for the local film industry to survive, since, in the 1920s, the Chinese audiences preferred Hollywood films (Kwak, 2010). Even at that time, within months after their release, American films were screened at local theaters in Shanghai, some of which were affiliated with Hollywood studios. However, the return of a young generation of film directors who had studied film in France, the Unites States and Japan gradually animated the Chinese film scene. After absorbing state-of-the-art film trends there, they decided to diversify genres and upgrade film-making techniques already in place in China (Sun, 1987). Sun Yu (孫瑜) was one of the young directors who earned degrees from film schools in the US.

Lianhua Film Company (联华影业公司)'s founders Luo Mingyou (羅明佑) and Lai Man-Wai (黎民偉) shared the agenda of striking Hollywood and reviving and modernizing the local film industry with Sun Yu and his ilks. Originally founded in 1930 in Hong Kong, Lianhua transferred the entire business operations to Shanghai in 1931 to better produce quality films and eventually create a “Chinese Hollywood” (Kerlan-Stephans, 2007). To impede the American dominance of the box office in China, Lianhua intended to introduce Hollywood’s vertically integrated model ranging from production, distribution, exhibition, and personnel training (Kim, 2015). Lianhua grew, eventually replacing Dazhonghua Baihe Film Company (大中華百合影片公司)’s place as a member of the “Big Three” studios. The other two film studios were Tianyi Film Company (天一影片公司), the precursor of Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong, and Mingxing Film Company (明星影片公司) (Kwak, 2010).

Sun Yu wanted to cast young actors for his films to reflect the spirit of new times. In 1930, for his new film Wild Flowers by the Road (野草閒花, Ye Cao Xian Hua), Sun cast an unknown actor Kim Yom and an emerging actress Ruan Lingyu (阮玲玉) for the lead roles in the film.1 To everyone's surprise, it was a massive hit in China, and Kim Yom rose to overnight stardom (Jo, 2003). Their popularity led people to call them “Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai” and “Greta Garbo of Shanghai” respectively (Meyer, 2009). After starring in Sun Yu’s film, Kim became integral to the film industry, playing mostly major roles when Chinese cinema enjoyed its golden age in the 1930s. Young people started to mimic Kim's gestures and his way of speech, setting the trends of the time (Jo, 2003). In 1932 when The Sound of Cinema (電聲), a film magazine, polled for most popular actor, voters voted Kim “film emperor” (電影皇帝) (Pak, 2003). In the same magazine poll in 1934, Kim was again voted the “most popular actor,” “most handsome actor,” and “the actor whom I want to be friends with” (Meyer, 2009).

The 1930s was also an era of Japanese aggression towards Shanghai and other regions in China, eventually resulting in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). In this environment, Chinese films adopted more political themes. Being labeled as a leftist film studio, Lianhua Studio aggressively produced “National Defense Cinema” with anti-Japanese elements such as The Big Road (大路, 1934), in which Kim Yom played the starring role as a road construction worker (Pang, 2002). When Japan occupied Shanghai in 1937, it sought to appease many filmmakers and actors. On the other hand, those who refused to succumb to the enemy, including Kim, fled to Hong Kong en masse, a place safe from Japanese invasion (Pak, 2003). Hong Kong continued to attract cineastes and filmmakers from Shanghai until the early 1950s, when the communists took full control of mainland China, after they kicked the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, 國民黨) out to Taiwan in 1949. Starting in 1937, more than a million people arrived in Hong Kong from mainland China (Fu, 2001).

Kim took refuge in several regions in China before returning to Shanghai in 1945, when Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces. Under the regime of the People’s Republic of China, he held several administrative duties for film organization and no longer achieved any illustrious records as an actor (Meyer, 2009). Furthermore, Kim developed an illness, while he was filming for his role in Eagles Brave the Storm (暴风中的雄鹰) in 1958. This prevented him from living as a healthy man until his death in 1983 (Jo, 2003). During his career which spanned from 1929 to 1962, he starred in 46 films. It is also worth noting that Kim Yom's name and filmography appears first in the book Movie Stars in China (中華影星), which was published in commemoration of the 90th year of Chinese film in 1995 (Pak, 2003).

Though now remembered as a Chinese film star, Kim Yom was a member of the Korean diaspora. When Kim was a child, his family moved to China. This move was not for the purpose of immigration; his father, a fighter for Korean independence, sought to escape from the capture from the Japanese police. In fact, many Koreans moved to China in order to continue the crusade for Korean independence under the Japanese colonial rule. Kim seems to have lived in “double consciousness” (Gilroy, 1993) or in “cultural diglossia” (Burke, 2009) as both Korean and Chinese. He spoke Korean with his mother and aunt, while using Chinese on all other occasions (Lim, 2009, p. 233). He often donated to a Korean school in Shanghai and assumed the role of honorary principal (Jo, 2003).

Although it is best to understand Kim Yom’s identity as an ethnic Korean Chinese, it seems that he held onto his Korean roots. In fact, he shared the sadness of losing the country by acquainting himself with Koreans in Shanghai. When he was young, Kim met Chang Chirak (장지락, 張志樂), a.k.a., Kim San (김산, 金山), the famous Korean independence fighter and communist activist and was heavily influenced by him. Kim also intentionally associated with Choi Seung-hee (최승희, 崔承喜), a prominent Korean dancer, when she was performing in China. There were other Korean filmmakers who stayed in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is reported that Kim Yom served as a liaison between the Korean and Chinese filmmakers (Jo, 2003).

According to An (2013), when Japanese authorities in Korea severely censored Korean films in the 1920s, a group of Korean filmmakers went to Shanghai. During their exile in Shanghai, they produced films, most of which centered around nationalist and anti-Japanese themes and social criticism. For example, in 1928, Jeong Ki-tak (정기탁, 郑基铎; pronounced Zheng Jiduo in Mandarin), directed The Spirit of Patriotism (愛國魂, 애국혼) in Shanghai through the aforementioned Dazhonghua Baihe Film Company. In the film, Jeong himself played the lead role of An Jung-geun (안중근, 安重根,), a Korean independence activist known for assassinating Japanese prime minister Itō Hirobumi in 1909, while Jeon Chang-geun (전창근, 全昌根; pronounced Quan Changgen in Mandarin) wrote the film’s screenplay and Jeong Il-song (정일송, 鄭一松) played the heroine. Jeong made a name for himself by the success of this film which allowed him to direct more films in China (Giammarco, 2010).

The success of The Spirit of Patriotism encouraged more Korean filmmakers to come to Shanghai. One of which was I Gyeong-son (이경손, 李庆孙; pronounced Li Qingsun in Mandarin). Already an actor and director of Korean films in the 1920s, I Gyeong-son involved himself in filmmaking in Shanghai from 1929 to 1932 (Yi, 1995).2 Han Chang-seop (한창섭, 韓昌燮), a cinematographer, also joined them in Shanghai. Between 1928 and 1934, these Koreans made thirteen films altogether, twelve of which were produced between Dazhonghua Baihe and Lianhua - the biggest film companies (An, 2013, p. 37). Particularly, Jeong Ki-tak was involved in twelve of them as either director and/or leading actor. His 1934 film Goodbye, Shanghai (再會吧, 上海), in which the aforementioned film star Ruan Lingyu played the heroine, was so successful in theaters that it was later imported to Korea, which also resulted in a box office success. Jeong played the lead role opposite Ruan Lingyu in five other films (An, 2013, p. 37).

Considering that Zheng Junli (鄭君里) and Shen Fu (沈浮) who would become famous directors in China once worked as a screenwriter and an actor respectively for Jeong's films, Jeong is deemed to have played an influential role in Chinese film development (Zhang & Xiao, 2014). In addition, The Spirit of Patriotism provided the Chinese filmmakers with an encouragement to produce more anti-Japanese and nationalist films (An, 2013).

The time Korean filmmakers experienced in Shanghai carried into the period afterwards, being reflected in their works in film. Considering this, it is noteworthy to discuss the figure and feats of Jeon Chang-geun in greater detail, who made and acted in films in Shanghai between 1926 and 1937. After returning to Korea, he continued his work as director and actor until the late 1960s. Particularly, being closely acquainted with Kim Ku (김구, 金九; the leader of PGRK) during his time in Shanghai influenced him to write the script for, and to play a starring role as a Korean independence activist in Hooray for Freedom (자유만세, directed by Choi In-gyu, 1946). This was the first feature film in Korean history after the liberation from colonial rule in 1945. In the period between November 1945 and March 1948, Korea imported 711 films from the US, while it only made 17 in the same period. According to Jeong (2019), out of the intention to strike the crisis of the Korean film industry and also to commemorate the 1st anniversary of Korean liberation, all the prestigious Korean filmmakers and actors gathered force in making Hooray for Freedom. Becoming a box-office hit, it was screened for about a year, and in 1947 it was even exported to China after being edited for the Chinese audience (Jeong, 2019). Jeon even directed Ah! Baekbeom Kim Ku (아아 백범 김구선생, 1960), in which he played the role of Kim Ku. It was none other than Jeon Chang-geun who directed the first co-produced film between Korea and Hong Kong in 1958. The film’s title was Love with an Alien (이국정원, 異國情鴛) produced between Hankook Entertainment Company and Shaw Brothers Studio, which was pioneering the internationalization of Hong Kong films (, 2020).3

Korean-Hong Kongese Film Nexus in the 1960s-1970s

After the end of the 2nd World War, Cold War tensions obstructed the exchange of popular culture between Korea and China. Particularly, both countries focused on ideological control as they did not recognize each other as sovereign states. It was Hong Kong cinema that imaginarily connected the two cultures since Hong Kong was under British rule until June 30, 1997. When millions of Chinese mainlanders sought refuge in Hong Kong during the war and during political unrest between 1937 and 1949, actors, film directors, producers, cameramen and other staff from Shanghai also arrived in Hong Kong. Through the combination of local capital and proven talents from Shanghai, Hong Kong prepared itself to become the new “Hollywood of the East” (Fu, 2008).

Out of many film magnates in Hong Kong, Run Run Shaw (邵逸夫) stands out eminently as a film producer. Born in 1907, as the youngest of the six sons of a Shanghai textile merchant, Run Run Shaw began his film business career by doing odd jobs for Tianyi Film Company (天一影片公司) in Shanghai which his eldest brother established in 1925. In 1927, Run Run Shaw moved to Singapore to assist his third elder brother in marketing films to Southeast Asia. Then they set up the company that would soon become the Shaw Organisation, a film distribution company for Tianyi and cinema chain in Southeast Asia. First establishing a branch in Hong Kong in 1934, Tianyi moved its entire business to Hong Kong in 1937, being reorganized as Nanyang Studio. After successfully building up a cinema empire in Southeast Asia, in 1957, Run Run Shaw came to Hong Kong. He restructured Tianyi and Nanyang into Shaw Brothers Studio, which would later become the biggest film producer in Asia by the 1960s (Kandell, 2014).

Unable to access the Chinese market, the Hong Kong film industry had to rely on Huaren communities around the world, especially in Southeast Asia (Chu, 2003). However, as nationalism grew across Southeast Asia in the 1950s, which meant a greater exclusion of Chinese population in political-economic decisions and business opportunities in host societies, the Hong Kong film industry had to expand to markets in Northeast Asia. The newly-established Asia-Pacific Film Festival (APFF) became a venue for people in the film industry across Asia to meet and exchange ideas for film industry growth and collaborations. According to Lee (2011), the United States Information Service (USIS) was behind the establishment and stable growth of the APFF in order for “Free World” countries in East Asia to strengthen their ties against communist bloc.

In 1962, Run Run Shaw and Korean film director and producer Shin Sang-ok (신상옥, 申相玉) met in Seoul when Korea hosted the APFF. As a box-office director, Shin Sang-ok had recently established Shin Film, a vertically-integrated film studio. After dominating the small, unprofitable Korean market, he wanted distribution networks in Taiwan and Hong Kong to pioneer overseas export channels (Lee, 2011). Further, it was a time when the new Park Chung-hee regime emphasized export-oriented economic growth. A powerhouse for Kung Fu films, the Shaw Brothers needed a Korean partner who would not only facilitate imports but also provide locations that would resemble “old China” and those that portrayed wintry sceneries. In addition, Korea was a cheaper location alternative to Japan, which could provide similar locations. The two sides--Hong Kongese and Korean film industries--found a kindred spirit in each other, cultivating prime enthusiasm for their collaborative projects.

The Korean-Hong Kongese collaborations burgeoned into life when The Last Woman of Shang (妲己, 달기, 1964), directed by Choi In-hyeon (최인현, 崔仁賢) of Shin Film and Griffin Yueh Feng (岳枫, 악풍) of Shaw Brothers Studio, became a box-office hit in both Korea and Hong Kong. In addition, when the Park Chung-hee regime decided to include the export performance of films as a standard for granting foreign film import quotas to film companies, film internationalization became an irreversible trend for the Korean film industry (Lee, 2011). Since then, the film personnel have increasingly crossed borders. In particular, in the case of period dramas and martial arts films produced by Shaw Brothers Studio, after the set shoot was done in Hong Kong, location shots in Korea followed. Some examples include: a Hong Kong director Richard Li Han Hsiang (李翰祥, 이한상) filmed The Magnificent Concubine (楊貴妃, 양귀비, 1962) and Empress Wu Tse-Tien (武則天, 무측천, 1963); Chang Cheh (張徹, 장철), nicknamed “the Godfather of Hong Kong cinema” directed Four Riders (四騎士, 사기사, 1972); King Hu (also known as Hu Jinquan, 胡金銓, 호금전) directed Raining in the Mountain (空山靈雨, 공산영우, 1979) and Legend of the Mountain (山中傳奇, 산중전기, 1979), above all else. These directors shot mostly in Korea’s Buddhist temples, in mountainous areas, capturing snowy scenes.

On the other hand, Hong Kong was used as a crime venue for Korean spy films. Out of North-South Korean animosity, Korean film industry mass-produced spy films, in order to convey and strengthen the “bad guy” image of communists (Shim & Yecies, 2012). As both a place of “capitalist fantasy” and “anxiety” where one may meet a secret communist agent, Hong Kong provided attractive scenes for Korean filmmakers. Some examples include Day and Night (낮과 밤, directed by William Woo-yeol Jun, 전우열, 1968), The Invincible of the Far East (극동의 무법자, directed by Choi In-hyeon, 최인현, 1970), Operation Gold 70 Hong Kong (황금 70 홍콩 작전, directed by Choi In-hyeon, 최인현, 1970), The One-Eyed in Hong Kong (홍콩의 애꾸눈, directed by Im Won-jik 임원직, 1970), and The International Crime Organization (국제암살단, directed by Kang Beom-gu, 강범구, 1971).

This collaboration also had its side effects. While the The Princess Iron Fan (鐵扇公主, 철선공주, 1967) was completed by the Hong Kong side, in order for it to be better commercialized in Korea, famous Korean actors' faces were added onto Hong Kong actors' faces and replaced with Korean dubbing. In Hong Kong, the film was credited to Ho Meng-Hua (何夢華, 하몽화) and in Korea to Choi Gyeong-ok (최경옥, 崔慶玉), which was a practice agreed upon by both Shin Film and Shaw Brothers (Jeong, 2015). Despite the various impediments, the collaboration with Hong Kong served as an opportunity to promote the internationalization of Korean films.

Director Jeong Chang-hwa (정창화, 鄭昌和; also known as Walter Chung Chang-Hwa or Cheng Chang Ho in Cantonese), is particularly important when discussing the era of Korean-Hong Kongese film co-production. Born in 1928 in Jincheon, Korea, Jeong was inspired to become a director after watching the above-noted Hooray for Freedom (자유만세, 1946), which starred Jeon Chang-geun as a lead role. He began his career as an assistant in a film studio, eventually rising to a box-office director in the 1950s (An, 2013). Jeong Chang-hwa had an early experience in joint film production with Hong Kong which resulted in the creation of Watching Home Town (망향, 望鄉, 1958). In the 1960s, he traveled frequently between Korea and Hong Kong, making Special Agent X-7 A (순간은 영원히, 艷諜神龍, 1967), Always in My Heart (조용한 이별, 長相憶, 1967) and others ( 2000). When he filmed Special Agent X-7 A in Hong Kong, his personal style as a director in shootout scenes caught the attention of Run Run Shaw. Soon, he was headhunted by Shaw Brothers Studio, which felt lacking in action film know-how in modern backgrounds (Jeong, 2015).

In the five-year contract with Shaw Brothers in the period of 1968 and 1973, Jeong directed seven films, and in another five-year contract with Golden Harvest in the period of 1973 and 1977, he made five films ( 2000). His first film in Hong Kong Temptress of a Thousand Faces (千面魔女, 천면마녀, 1969) became the first Hong Kong film to export to European markets. It was also used as a pre-production crash course within Shaw Brothers Studio to teach camerawork techniques for modern action films (Song, 2011). His 1972 martial arts film King Boxer (죽음의 다섯 손가락), released as Five Fingers of Death in the US in 1973, became the first Hong Kong film to top the U.S. box office (Chu, 2003; YouTube, 2010). This ignited the Kung Fu film craze, which led to more than 30 martial arts films being screened in the US in 1973, later influencing the production of Enter the Dragon (龍爭虎鬥, 용쟁호투), starring Bruce Lee (李小龍, 이소룡) (Jeong, 2015). 4

Suffering from homesickness, and out of the desire to develop a more advanced production system at home, he returned to Korea in 1977. He established his own film company Hwapung Heungup (화풍흥업, 和豊興業) in 1979 and produced 29 films till 1996 (Jeong, 2015). However, with discouraging preliminary reviews and feeling stifled by the censorship on films, he left the film industry and immigrated to the US in 1996 (Song, 2011).

During his stint in Hong Kong, not only did Jeong Chang-hwa make important films, but he also shared his filmmaking skills with his Hong Kongese colleagues including John Woo (吳宇森, 오우삼) who would later become a maestro of Hong Kong action cinema (Jo, 2019). He also handed down his filming know-how to his assistant director Im Kwon-taek, who would later become one of Korea's most renowned film directors (Jeong, 2015). Jeong's films have inspired the creative mind around the world. For example, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series is famous for paying homage to Five Fingers of Death by citing some scenes from the latter. Tarantino once publicly indicated Five Fingers of Death as one of his eleven best films of all time (Hellerman, 2020). In 2003, the Retrospective of the Busan International Film Festival showcased his films, and the 58th Cannes Film Festival in 2005 included Five Fingers of Death in its Cannes Classics program (Festival de Cannes, 2005).


As seen in this research, the rich history of pop cultural traffic between Korea and Greater China provides us with many interesting events (Yum & Shim, 2016). For one, an ethnic Korean actor Kim Yom helped the growth of the Chinese film industry in the 1930s. Shanghai, on the other hand, provided a haven for Korean filmmakers to continue their craft in filmmaking in the 1920s and 1930s so that they can help grow the film industry in the newly independent Korea. In the 1960s, Korea and Hong Kong became reciprocal partners in film co-productions. Hong Kong action cinema entertained audiences of all ages and gender in Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, but interestingly, it was none other than Korean director Jeong Chang-hwa who helped ignite the Hong Kong Kung Fu film craze around the world. In the same vein, it was the 18th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) that first recognized Parasite's director Bong Joon-ho's talent on the international level by screening his short films in 1994. Afterwards, the 25th HKIFF held in 2001 gave the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI, short for Fédération Internationale de la PRESse CInématographique) Award to Bong Joon-ho’s debut feature-length film Barking Dogs Never Bite (플란다스의 개, 2000) (, 2020).

By linking diasporic Korean filmmakers' activities to the later cultural exchanges between Korea and China, I also attempted to open up new avenues of understanding the history of East Asian pop culture. Through this, the otherwise overlooked roles of Korean filmmakers in China have come to be identified and acknowledged. In this research, I paid attention to historical contexts that have influenced the growth of media hubs in East Asia. In fact, Shanghai's popular cultural legacy has been passed onto Hong Kong. In fact, many Hong Kong directors referred to in this research, including Chang Cheh and Griffin Yueh Feng, have their roots in Shanghai. While Hong Kong's unrivaled grandeur as a cultural hub has diminished in the 21st century, Seoul is rising as a new media hub by riding on the Korean Wave (Shim, 2012).

It is worth noting that consulting more Chinese-language sources may have expanded and deepened the insights provided in this study. In addition, dissecting more cases of transnational Koreans in popular culture in Asia would have broadened the scope of this research's discussion. I hope future scholarship would take up these limitations to broaden and deepen our understanding of transnational pop culture in Asia.

1 Ruan Lingyuʹs life has been made into a film Center Stage in 1991 by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan. Maggie Cheung (장만옥) won the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1992 for her role in the movie as Ruan Lingyu.
2 I Gyeong-son is considered one of the pioneers of the Korean film history. In 1919, the first Korean domestic film Loyal Revenge (의리적 구투, Uirijeok Gutu) was produced and shown at the film theater Danseong-sa, after being financed by the theater's owner, Bak Seong-pil (Yecies & Shim, 2011). A few years later, off-screen actor I Gyeong-son began his film career as an assistant director for Choson Kinema Productions where he met a young actor Na Woon-gyu who would direct Arirang (1926), which is considered to be Korea's first nationalist film. Though the film’s script was written by Na, the script itself was inspired by I Gyeong-son's drafts of poetry. After moving to Thailand in 1932, he did business unrelated to film, until his death in 1978 (An, 2013).
3 Its Hong Kong side director was Tu Kuang-Chi (屠光啓) ( 2020). However, this partnership did not go well because Im Hwa-su, the CEO of Hankook, was executed as a political terrorist in 1961. Before Love with an Alien was released, another collaboration between the two sides was made in 1957: The Affection of the world (천지유정, 天地有情, dir. Kim Hwa-rang, 김화랑). This movie, however, only used Hong Kong as a location with almost all main production staff and actors being Korean.
4Enter the Dragon earned an estimated US$350 million worldwide, against a budget of $850,000, which is equivalent to grossing over 400 times its budget (Desser, 2002).


This research was supported by the Sungshin Womenʹs University Faculty Research Fund.

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