Fun Facts About
Korean Cinema

Are there Western movies made in Korea, too? detail graph
Are there Western movies made in Korea, too?
Answer : Yes.

We did have a time when an action genre that could have been considered a Korean-style Western became very popular. There was a phase that ran from mid 1960’s to early 1970’s when action films were very popular in the Korean movie industry. This is when a wide variety of action movies were produced.

In the early ‘60s, war/military movies and thriller movies that reflected a noir influence set in the back alleys were in vogue. Toward the mid ‘60s, action films become a more structure genre of their own. These movies were most likely influenced heavily by foreign movies that were introduced into Korea at the time. Three major films were introduced in 1965 and 1966, all of which were big box office hits. In 1965, the ‘007 Series’ began showing. < From Russia with Love> and < Dr. No> both released in 1965 rank 1st and 2nd in the box office, bringing in 880,000 audiences in the country. In 1966, a martial arts film from Hong Kong, < Come Drink with Me>, and a macaroni Western movie, < A Fistful of Dollars>, were screened. As a result, the ‘007 Series’ created a demand for spy action movies just as < Come Drink with Me> did so for swordfighter movies.
Among these films, < A Fistful of Dollars >, a hybrid style movie which showed indiscriminant violence, impressed the Korean movie industry so much that a completely new genre was created in its suit. This is the so-called Korean Western, a subdivision of genres called the ‘Manchuria Western.’ Manchuria Westerns transcended national boundaries by shooting overseas and setting their stories in the vast fields of Manchuria, which satisfied domestic audiences with a refreshing douse of foreign spectacles. It also gave birth to a lawless male character, always desolate and full of nihilism, who reflects the political and social mood of the ‘70s when government repression rendered its people helpless.
< Horizon (Jipyeongseon) > (1961, Jeong Chang-hwa), < Tell Me, Earth! (Daeji-yeo, Malhaedao) > (1962, Jeong Chang-hwa), < Great Plain (Dae Pyeongwon) > (1963, Jeong Chang-hwa), < Farewell Duman River (Dumangang-a Jal Itgeora) > (1962, Im Gwon-taek), and < The Border Between Russia and Manchuria (Somangukgyeong)> (1964, Kang Beom-ku) are examples of movies that were set in Manchuria before the ‘60s but they were a bit different from the movies produced after mid-‘60s, which were more stateless and hybrid. Nevertheless, it may be said that the first Western movies created by Director Jeong Chang-hwa, dealing with independence movements in Korea, heavily influenced the Westerns created in the mid-‘60s. In particular, Director Im Gwon-taek, maker of < Eagle of the Wilderness (Hwangya-ui Doksuri)> (1969), and Director Kim Si-hyeon, maker of < Harbin at Sunset (Seogyang-ui Harbin)> (1970), < Oh, Great Plain (Daepyeongwon-a)> (1973), < A Wandering Hero (Banglang-ui yeongung)> (1974), both worked for Director Jeong Chang-hwa as assistance producers, while Director Kang Beom-ku also worked under Director Jeong Chang-hwa for quite a while as a camera director. That says a lot about Director Jeong Chang-hwa’s influence in this genre.

Manchuria Westerns are mostly set in Manchuria during the Japanese rule of Korea where patriotic protagonists fight against the Japanese army and bandits. To mention a few in further detail, < Yeong (Yeong)> (Im Won-sik, 1968) and < The Homeless Wanderer (Musukja)> (Shin Sang-ok, 1968) are replications of the Western < Shane>, where a weary gunfighter saves a town from a conflict before going his way again. There are also movies that take after < The Magnificent Seven>, which is a film about an oppressed Mexican peasant assembles seven gunfighters to help defend their homes (< Six Terminators (Yugin-ui nanpogja)> (Gweon Yeong-sun, 1970), < The Border Between Russia and Manchuria>, < The Wild Tiger (Gwangya-ui horangi)> (Kim Muk, 1965), < The Burning Continent (Bulbutnen Daeryuk)> (Lee Yong-ho, 1965)). Other major films that may be classified as Korean Westerns are: < Break the Chain (Soeisaseul-eul kkeuneora)> (Lee Man-hee, 1971), < The Villains of River Songhwa (Songhwagang-ui samakdang)> (Kim Mun, 1965), < The Heroes of the Continent (Daeryuk-ui yeongung-deul)> (Lee Yong-ho, 1965), < The Invisible Borderline (Gukgyeong anin gukgyeongseon)> (Jeong Jin-wu, 1964), and a comic parody of Korean Westerns starring Gu Bong-seo, < Outlaw on a Donkey (Dangnagui mubeobja) > (Ahn Il-nam, 1970). These action movies starred favorite strong male characters such as Jang Dong-hwi, Nam Gung-won, Park No-sik, Dokgo Seong, Shin Yeong-kyun, Heo Jang-gang and Hwang Hae. Among these actors, Heo Jang-gang, Hwang Hae, and Jang Dong-hwi set up their own producing company and went on to make their own action films, including Manchuria Westerns.
These films were set in the vast fields of Manchuria, providing spectacular scenes, and transcended national boundaries, going beyond Korea and into various Asian countries, giving the movies a shade of statelessness and hybridism. The fun of watching Manchuria Westerns is to see how the films take on a typical genre; yet cross over to other genres, and pull together odd bits and ends from different times and places. This may be seen as remnants of the hybridism and kitsche aspects of macaroni Westerns. In other words, this mixture may have occurred while macaroni Westerns were ‘translated’ into Korean Westerns, when the trans-Asian mise en scnes were hybridized with depictions of settings. Anachronistic props appear frequently in Manchuria Westerns. For instance, horses, motorcycles, and automobiles will enter the scene at once, guns with knives, and ponchos with military uniforms and traditional Chinese dresses. Jang Geol (Shin Yeong-kyun), the protagonist of < The Homeless Wanderer(Musukja)> >, is a typical lone hero in Westerns who is unable to live with his beloved woman but must choose to turn around alone. Yet, in , motorcycles, automobiles, and skis all appear in an anachronistic jumble. In < Outlaw on a Donkey(Dangnagui mubeobja) >, donkeys appear in place of horses, smoking pipes instead of cigars, and rice wine in the place of whiskey, to appeal to domestic audiences. But in the poster of this movie starring the greatest comedian at the time, Gu Bong-seo wears a typical cowboy outfit used in Westerns, with boots, hat, and poncho. Of course, Manchuria Westerns never received critical acclaim. Several movies reaped box office successes thanks to the support of male audiences, and actors who starred as the lonely, masculine characters became popular action stars, but in general, the genre was ill-reputed for excessive violence and considered low-class entertainment. Toward the late ‘70s, foreign spectacles cease to impress audiences and people grow tired of the repetition of similar plots and structures. Slowly, Manchuria Westerns begin to disappear from the movie industry.