Cleaning up Korea's film history

Classic films restored as mastering facilities upgraded

SEOUL -- When the World Cinema Foundation offered 80,000 Euros (US$111,456) to the Korean Film Archive to restore Kim Ki-young's 1960s classic “The Housemaid,” one condition was attached: they wanted to remove all the hand-written English subtitles filling one-third of the frame.

The film, a revenge thriller about a housemaid who has an affair with the owner, had two missing reels out of 10 when it reached the government-supported archive in 1982, which were replaced with subtitled prints for international release. The problem was that no one at the archive knew how to erase them. The subtitled parts, appearing in about 20 minutes of the film, were eventually handed over to a special team of VFX experts, who developed an
advanced software used in digital signal processing to remove the text. The work took about a year to complete, and the restored film premiered at Cannes in 2008.

“These prints were hand-written on top of the negative, and were dancing in all directions on the frame when it arrived,” recalls Lee Seon-mi from AZ Works, a VFX firm that collaborated with the archive to restore the film. “We even had no case of erasing laser subtitling, and here we were trying to figure out how to erase hand-written subtitles that had all different shapes
of the same font written in a single cut. It was a tricky case.”

“Housemaid” wasn”t the first film to be restored in Korea. In 2007, the archive took on a major task to collect early Korean films that were scattered overseas. The same year, the team found Shin Sang-ok's "Bound by Chastity Rule” (1962), one of the director”s earlier films, at the Taiwan Film Archive. After months of negotiation, the film's copy was successfully reproduced, but a test screening showed that the film had deteriorated so badly that one couldn't pick up the dialogue. That was the turning point for the Korean film historians.

In the last three years, the archive restored 10 Korean films, which were invited to major festivals around the world including Cannes. Two of those
films -- Shin Sang-ok”s “Dream” (1955) and Lee Hyung-pyo”s “Under the Sky of
Seoul” (1961) -- will be featured in this year”s Pusan International Film Festival in the section “Archaeology of Korean Cinema.”

“When we first screened 'Bound by Chastity Rule' at the Cannes” classic section, people were surprised that Korea even had the ability to restore classic films,” says Jang Gwang-heon, the head of Preservation Technology Center at the archive. “By the time we sent 'Housemaid' to Cannes, I think most were genuinely pleased with the quality. At least we weren't embarrassed after we sent the film.”

“Archaeology of Korean Cinema” is a continuing series in Pusan to introduce early Korean films that had been restored. In 2006, Pusan screened seven Korean films from the colonial period on loan from the Chinese Film Archive.

“Dream,” the oldest Korean film available that was shot on 16 millimeter, was donated from a private collector last year. The film is a story of an erotic dream between a young woman from a wealthy family and a Buddhist monk. “Under the Sky of Seoul” is a black comedy describing the political tension in a modern Korean society.

Including those two films, only 16 out of 110 Korean films that were produced between 1946 and 1955 are currently in stock at the archive.

Production companies often discarded the negatives once the film was out of theaters, and those that survived tough conditions were kept in storage spaces without proper maintenance.

Fifty years ago, no one in Korea saw a market for DVD and re-releases for digitally restored films.

With increasing need to view films as historical artifacts, the archive decided to take stricter measures. Since 1996, the institute makes it mandatory for all domestic film producers to submit a copy of their films.

“The experience of film restoration in Korea is nothing compared to Western countries,” says Kim Ki-ho at the Preservation Technology Center, who worked on restoring a number of Korean classic films including “Housemaid.” “If you compare it to a patient, it”s like someone who had third-degree burns all over her body and has no normal flesh for grafts.”

Restoring the scratches and hissing noise from the rust on the iron frames are common fixes. Other cases involve color correction, dust busting and audio restoration.

Recently, in Im Kwon-taek”s debut film “Good Bye Tumen River” (1962) was restored by the archive for his retrospective. In some of the scenes, 18 out of 24 frames were decayed, making it almost impossible for the engineers in some scenes to retrieve reference from the previous frame and compare the results of the filtering.

Still, the general rule of thumb for film restoration at the archive is to stay as close to the original as possible. For Im's film, the archive managed to leave the irretrievable parts of the frame as they were instead of cutting them out altogether.

“The important thing is the philosophy of restoration” Kim says. “The decision whether to transform the original into a clean picture or to maintain the essence of the original despite some visual distraction is always a source of tension and compromise between archivists, audiences and the industry.”

To directors' eyes, the idea of film restoration is a work of art in itself.

“I”ve recently seen the film for the first time in 50 years after my film was restored, and the experience in itself was eye-opening,” says Im, a veteran director of films including “Mandala”
(1981), which was also restored before his retrospective. “And given the condition of the original print, which was badly damaged by the distributors, I was quite impressed with the quality of the outcome and what the technicians were able to do.”

For people in the industry inducing demands and creating a new market for classic films are a main task. Unlike the U.S. or Europe where Hollywood studios invest in major projects to restore classic films, the government-supported archive is the only source of funding to restore
classic Korean films in Korea at the moment. Given Korea”s notorious ancillary market, which has significantly shrunk in the last decade due to illegal downloading and pirated DVDs, the demand from major distributors to invest in such projects is slight.

There have been a few exceptions. In June, Miro Vision, who also distributed the director Im Sang-soo's remake of the same title, re-released the restored film of Kim in five theaters. It was the first Korean classic to be re-released by a major distributor, and the film attracted 3,600 viewers.

“I would say the restoration technology in Korea is at its pinnacle,” says Kim of AZ Works. “But I”m disappointed with the general reaction to the classic films. There's no market for it. I wonder how many Koreans actually knew about Kim Ki-young's Housemaid' before the remake or still do.”