July 20, 2012
by Mai Nguyen
Nestled on over 300 acres of quiet land on the outskirts of Seoul, the KOFIC Namyangju Studios (남양주종합찰영소) is the center of South Korean film production today. Like many of the other sites we have visited in South Korea, the Namyangju Studios is a proud testimony to both the rich history and bright future of the South Korean film industry. While its museum and set exhibits attest to the great achievements of the South Korean film industry so far, the sound of painting and hammering on new film sets is a reminder of the many great productions that are yet to come.
Unlike other places we have visited in Seoul where guides have had to share with us stories and history to help us realize the significance of each site, the Namyangju Studios spoke for itself. As we toured the outdoor sets of the JSA, a traditional small Korean village, and the Choson Dynasty’s royal living quarters, then later the indoor special effects filming room, Film Culture Museum Center, and Props and Costume Room, we were able to see and experience for ourselves the significant role of the Studio in the rapidly growing Korean film industry. Of the exhibits we visited, the JSA set and the Culture Museum were perhaps most notable.
The Namyangju Studios complex is home to the famous set used in the 2000 film J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (JSA). Scaled to 80% of the original site, the JSA set is almost an identical replica of the real DMZ’s (De-Militarized Zone) Joint Security Area in Panmunjeom (판문점). Although cardboard cut-outs of soldiers posing in the middle of the JSA create a comical scene, it is still eerie to stand on the steps of the recreated North Korean Panmon Hall and overlook the JSA from the “forbidden” side. While the soldiers and threat of danger are absent from Namyangju’s JSA set, there is still a solemnity and tension that lingers in the atmosphere here. After watching JSA (2000) and visiting the real Joint Security Area in Panmunjeom, we are also able to better appreciate the freedom of walking on both sides of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that divides North and South Korea. Although the set is considered a front region because it is a tourist attraction, understanding the history of the JSA let us experience the tour of the set with a feeling of authenticity that is not usually common for front regions.
At Namyangju we also walked through the Film Culture Museum. Here, the exhibit was dedicated to four key figures in Korean film history: Jimi Kim (김 지미), Jeong Soon Hwang (황 정순), Sang Ok Sheen (신 상옥), and Hyun Mok Yu (유 현목)—“The Gorgeous Actress,” “The Great Actress,” “The Great Cineaste,” and The Great Film Director,” respectively. The museum traced the courses of their lives, sharing stories of their struggles, triumphs, and achievements. However, unlike the enshrined objects from the film April Snow (2005) at places like Bae Yong Joon’s (배 용준) Palace Hotel, the objects on display at the Film Museum give a more personal glimpse into the lives of those being honored. At Namyangju, newspaper clippings about Sang Ok Sheen’s kidnapping and escape from North Korea hang on the museum walls; Jimi Kim’s everyday dresses and shoes are preserved in the display cases; and display posters explain the political and social impact each person had on Korean history. The exhibit is dedicated to the legacy of their lives, not to the characters they famously created or portrayed. While a fan may experience temporary excitement after touching the slippers Bae Yong Joon wore at Palace Hotel, a visitor to the Film Culture Museum leaves with a deeper understanding of the progress made in Korean film history and specific people involved in its growth.
On a day where the outdoor sets are open to tourists and a Beatles soundtrack plays from the speakers nestled in the trees lining the complex, the Namyangju Studios may seem like a front region of tourism where the country and tour guides are trying to present the studio as one comparable to those of Hollywood, in both ability and prestige. And while that may be true, after walking around the JSA set and watching workers construct sets for next year’s new releases, Namyangju seems very much like a back region to the films that the studio produces—the glamour is stripped away from hit films and we are able to see the nitty gritty work that must be done to create masterpieces like JSA.
Nonetheless, whether we experience the Korean films through the big screen or through its raw sets, it is clear that South Korea has great potential in the film industry. Whether it chooses to reveal to us the front region or the debatable back region, South Korea achieves what it sets out to do. It proves that it has made significant progress in the film industry and still has much more to contribute in the future. As its film industry grows, so does its prestige in the global arena.