East Asian Cinema: Shiri, Thirst


Cinema art is highly influenced by political, economic, historical, and cultural processes of the country. Regulating rules may promote a film or send it to oblivion. Financial state of the country determines budgets of the movies. Cultural trends may proclaim a film a hit or a failure. Movies can be regarded as a reflection of ideas, interests, and moods of the society. Shiri, written and directed by Kang Je-gyu is a film that shows the trends of the movie policy in the South Korea in 1990s and is a breakthrough in the Korean cinematography.

Until 1996, the Korea’s film area was regulated with the Motion Picture Law. Its main function was restricting rather than promoting the movie making of the country. Strict censorship, limited import, and uniting film studios into large companies were its main features. There were harsh conditions for obtaining a license that would let starting a shooting process. Such control oppressed the cinema industry (Paquet 2009, p. 34). Thereby, when it was replaced by a Film Promotion Law, the cinema industry began to flourish. The new law replaced a complex license system with a simple registration, introduced an independent producer’s system, and divided production and import companies into independent institutions (Paquet 2009, p. 35). A civilian board started to act instead of Public Performance Ethics Committee, thus a direct censorship was replaced by a rating system (Paquet 2009, p. 45). These measures enabled small studios to create movies. That meant that young producers with fresh ideas were given a chance to enter the industry.

Another significant factor that helped the indigenous cinematography to develop was the participation of big conglomerates, for instance Daewoo and Samsung, in the filmmaking. Big companies funded in shooting, thus providing a potentially successful movie, so that the money given will turn back with an abundant box-office. On the one hand, the cinema industry had an additional financial source, but on the other hand, only mainstream films that were presumably appealing to the wide public were funded (Paquet 2009, p. 36-39).

Ubiquitous presence of Hollywood gave another push to the Korean cinema development. In 1985, a Korea-US Film Agreement was signed. Thus, import laws were removed, and external films began to occupy Korean cinemas. In addition, Hollywood studios opened their branch offices within Korea. Naturally, they had more experience and better financial basis for creating successful movies compared with local studios. This put local studios in a grave danger (Paquet 2009, p. 35-36). They had to find ways to compete and win the interest of auditory.

Surely, historical and ideological background was influencing the cinema industry greatly. Perhaps, the main issue that characterizes this country now and then is the division to Communist North and Democratic South. Differences in life conditions and economic state and reunification ideas were often depicted. Therefore, films were sternly censored when their content was considered as extremely political.

In order to explore the above -mentioned factors more vividly, the movie Shiri, a blockbuster and a hit of 1999, may serve as a visual example. First of all, it was funded by Samsung conglomerate (Paquet 2009, p. 43). The budget of 3 million dollars may seem rather modest and limited if to compare it with amounts of money spent on Hollywood hits (Shin and Stringer 2005, p. 64). However, it is a good financial basis in the Korean scale. This fund enabled the director to create a two-hour movie filled with visual effects, chases, and mass firefights that can compete with similar scenes in American movies.

Secondly, it is made in the traditions of American blockbusters. There are key points of such film –a serious conflict between two countries, highly qualified secret agents, coldblooded assassins, innovative equipment and modern weapons, cars and bombs exploding and “good guys” winning during the last seconds. At the same time, the film is designed to overdo its Hollywood counterparts. The weapon and devices have no analogues in the world, agents are not only professional but also humane, the chases and skirmishes are very tense and long, and villains are chillingly coldblooded. Besides, a quite common and predictable scenery is refreshed by a touching love story, thus creating a merger of genres. The film seems to absorb, depict, and develop every possible detail of American blockbusters and melodramas. For example, there is a comic character of a young agent willing to do something important but he always has to be satisfied with a minor role. However, in the end of a movie he gets a promotion. The family issue is present as well – the viewers are surely to feel sympathetic for the sister of the main heroine Hee. More tragedy is added as it turns out that Hee genuinely loved Ryu and was pregnant.

Of course, this film shows the conflict between North and South Korea. The situation is represented in a very acute manner. The movie may be considered to demonstrate the reunification mood. On the other hand, the warriors of the 8th Division seem to be fighting not for piece, but for war. The political message of the film is rather delicate due to censorship and grading of the film. However, as regulations became less strict, there is enough extreme violence (for example cutting heads) and sometimes rivers of blood (in the scenes of firefights).

To sum up, Shiri is a brilliant example of Korean cinema that combines both authentic and international traits. It reflects the trends and tendencies of the movie industry in 1990s. Meanwhile, it proves that Korean cinema has a great potential.


Nowadays, it is challenging to be an artist as all possible topics may seem to be described, painted, screened, and even remade several times. Still each year talented people manage to present a number of new ideas and visions to themes that are supposed to be depleted. This develops art and gives viewers and critics a possibility to evaluate and compare. Moreover, it is a source of income, both for an author and his sponsor. If to consider cinema, an auteurist approach seems to be more and more valid. When a gifted person directs and produces a movie with an innovative personal vision, the film must be outstanding.

Park Chan-wook is a South Korean film director who is often added a title “who won the award in Cannes”. His movie Oldboy was awarded a grand Jury Prize and highly endorsed by Quentin Tarantino, a recognized auteur artist (Hunt and Wing-Fai 2008, p. 204). Such appreciation makes Park Chan-wook a model for young directors and a valuable artist for sponsors. He manages to combine two criteria of a brilliant film, making it both a commercial success and expression of individual vision (Hunt and Wing-Fai 2008, p. 208). His Oldboy is not the only example. A horror movie Thirst, released in 2009, confirms that auteurist style determines the development of Korean cinematography.

Legends about vampires have been for long flurrying interest of many artists. There is a big amount of films, varying from horrifying to romantic and, depicting troubles and pleasures of forever young and hungry vampires’ life. They were depicted as warriors, villains, protectors, and glittering fellows. What else can be added? Chan-wook creates a new vision on vampires with mature characters and personal troubles.

The main hero is a priest Sang-hyun, willing to serve for a common good. Thus, he decides to participate in research of medicals for those who suffer a horrible Emmanuel Virus. Being   infected with a disease he, somehow, manages to survive. As the only survivor, he is believed to be a chosen and blessed by God. He finds out that he can heal people. Chan-wook leaves several questions at this initial stage. Firstly, how did a priest become a vampire – was it an infected blood that turned him or a random mutation, or maybe heaven intervention. Secondly, why a priest with such strong faith accepts the idea of drinking blood?

The main points of vampirism stay the same - Sang-hyun feels that his muscles become stronger, the speed and reaction increases and all senses sharpen. Naturally, he cannot bear the sunrays. On the other hand, several new details emerge. Sang-hyun still suffers the deadly virus and has to drink blood not only as food, but as a remedy. Considering this, his ability to regenerate seems to be a bit bewildering – if his deepest cuts recover, then his whole organism is supposed to be in a perfect condition. In most versions of vampire life, they become very healthy and do not suffer any illnesses. Another vivid difference in his physical appearance is the absence of fangs. Presumably, he is immortal, although it is never said directly. The other curious changes are happening in his psychic. He must not only accept his new status but to fight new intense emotions and desires. He is becoming hyper-human rather than a supernatural person. Obviously, he cannot stand the temptations forever as he meets his true love – Tae-ju, a girl he used to know when they were children, and now she has to bear a miserable life with a childish husband and his excessively attentive mother. Sang-hyun has to solve the dilemma “to drink or not to drink”, and whether to succumb to his new intensive emotions and desires. This aesthetic problem and psychological issues are a part of Chan-wook’s vision of vampires. Moreover, he suffers dreadful hallucinations after he kills Tae-ju’s husband.

The presence of religion in the film adds new colors and tones to its theme. An earnest priest has to face a grim curse. He does not chases people like a predator, still he steals blood from comatose patients and helps people to commit a suicide by drinking their blood. Life depriving is the hardest sin possible. Still, Sang-hyun is against violent murder but not against the murder itself. His mentor, one of the movie characters, is willing to become a vampire because of his strong wish to regain sight. He is ready to accept the destiny of a vampire for his own interest. Besides, the movie contains an allusion to the Biblical scene where Thomas touches the Christ’s wounds – the mentor investigates the gaping cut near Sang-hyun’s heart. Later, the former priest becomes more unpredictable – he kills his teacher, murders Tae-ju’s husband, strangles Tae-ju, but then transforms her, and finally is trying to rape a young girl. A true saint becomes a villain and then chooses a death under the sun because he feels that such life leads to nowhere.

The movie combines horror genre with a romantic story, and sometimes even a comedy moments are added. The film is extremely violent with severe scenes of murders, splashing blood and horrible sore. What is more, the sexual scenes are very frank and explicit. The director of the film depicts a wide range of moral and social troubles and touches many issues of personal and public character. It is no wonder that the film was appreciated in Cannes and had a commercial success.

This proves that auteurist approach to the movie making is a valid strategy. While Korean directors will provide films that differ from what viewers and critics used to see, the cinematography will flourish, and will be able to compete with Hollywood.

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