Korean cinema's school spirit

Film academy has produced a generation of helmers

The names of alumni on the Korean Academy of Film Arts' Web site easily could be mistaken for the biographical dictionary of contemporary Korean cinema.

Despite the school's high-profile associates -- including Bong Joon-ho ("The Host"), Choi Dong-hoon ("The High Rollers"), Hur Jin-ho ("Christmas in August") and E J-yong ("Untold Scandal") -- the school's name doesn't command the same respect or conjure the same glamour as the American Film Institute or La Femis, the French national film school.

Lim Sang-soo, an academy graduate and the director of 2005's "The President's Last Bang," told Korean film weekly Cine 21 that the academy was "a place too sketchy to be called a school." Its strength was rooted in the militant spirit of the local industry and in the students' passion for filmmaking, he said.

Many of its graduates have gone on to make films critical of modern Korean history at the height of the country's military regime. More are noted for their insight and cinematic realism, which are helping to shape the foundation of a new era in Korean cinema.

The tradition remains apparent in much of the students' work, including the two films invited to this year's Berlin International Film Festival: "Members of the Funeral" from Baek Seung-bin and Lee Suk-hyung's "The Day After."

"The Day After" is an autobiographical look at the desolate life of a single mother after divorce; "Members of the Funeral" is the story of a dysfunctional family coping with a boy's death.

CJ Entertainment funded both films in a rare collaboration between a major distributor and an educational institution.

"We thought it was a meaningful project to diversify our lineup and a way to nurture young debuting directors in Korea," says Mike Suh, the senior vp of international film financing and distribution at CJ.

The academy, run by the Korean Film Council -- a main government-supported body on film industry affairs -- opened in 1984, when Korean cinema was heavily controlled by the state. The school became the first institute to focus exclusively on hands-on training.

"A few film schools in Korea question their students about what they want to say through their film (instead of) how to make a film technically," says Park Gi-yong, president of the academy and a film director. "Even if that means a student is going to shoot pornography, we'll let him shoot it as long as it conveys his (vision)."