To cast one’s eyes over the Korean film industry these days is a bit like surveying wreckage after a storm. It will surely take some time before the mainstream industry is back to normal, but how did Korean independent cinema weather the pandemic? At first glance, one might conclude that it held up better than expected. Major local festivals such as Busan and Jeonju have continued to premiere full slates of new features. Theatrical releases have largely kept pace; in the year to August, 15 Korean independent films and documentaries grossed at least 10,000 admissions. 10,000 tickets may not sound like such a large number, but even before the pandemic it was a reasonable measure of success for the average independent film.
Nonetheless, something crucial has been missing. Compared to mainstream films, independent cinema relies on a much more active form of engagement with its audience. Festival premieres are crucial launching pads which create the initial buzz that spreads on the internet and leads to greater public awareness. While critics’ reviews are seen as having little influence on the performance of big-budget films, they matter much more in the independent sector. More than anything, distribution of independent features is heavily reliant on live Q&A screenings, which consistently attract the largest crowds. All of these paths to a potential audience have been severely impacted by the pandemic. Although many new independent films have received a Korean festival premiere and/or theatrical release, they have not filtered through the ecosystem in the way that they are supposed to in normal times. After all, the primary motivation for most independent filmmakers is not the dream of turning a profit, but rather the opportunity to meet and engage with the audience in a deeper, meaningful way.
In this sense, we felt it particularly important and appropriate to bring back the independent cinema strand for 2021’s programme, newly renamed Indie Talent. The four features presented here represent a cross-section of the diverse films now being produced in Korea’s independent film sector. All of them deserve more exposure than they have received to date. Limecrime, an artfully-told drama about two middle school boys obsessed with hip-hop, won the KBS Independent Film Award at its premiere in the 2020 Busan International Film Festival. Made on the Rooftop, a crowd-pleasing romance about commitment and heartbreak, screened as the closing film at the Seoul International Pride Film Festival. Rolling, a drama which expertly captures the rhythms and emotions of everyday life; and Awoke, a searing indictment of the bureaucracy behind government support for disabled citizens, both premiered at this year’s Jeonju International Film Festival. All these works were unveiled in the midst of the pandemic, and are success stories of a sort, and yet one might say that all of them are still waiting to be fully discovered.
In programming these films, we tried to highlight what it is that independent cinema brings to the Korean film industry as a whole. The characters at the center of these stories are not typical movie heroes; they offer new perspectives and different worldviews. These films feature social insight and critique that is more incisive and honest than what we might find in mainstream cinema. More than anything, they feature a different kind of storytelling, departing from the standard formulas and patterns to give the audience an experience that is sometimes dynamic, sometimes quietly moving, but always memorable.