In fact, South Korea has a thriving contemporary film industry that, due to the roughness of history, has no past. War destroyed every one of 240 feature films made in Korea before the mid-1940s and most of those made during the 1950s as well. Young South Korean directors like edgy stories of violence and sex. Im is of a more mature school, preferring graceful period pieces, produced with Akira Kurosawa-style attention to costume and scenery and marked by a peculiarly Korean form of sadness called han. Shaped by countless foreign invasions and Korea's ensuing sense of rage and helplessness, han permeates Im's movies. The protagonist in Chihwaseon is a painter who realizes he can only create masterpieces when he is drunk. Even then, he is too emotionally deadened to enjoy the beauty of what he creates.
Im worries that han and other cornerstones of the modern Korean ethos are slipping away as the nation speeds into the Internet age and replaces wooden temples with concrete office blocks. Mindful of old traditions, he uses ancient Chinese characters in his movie titles instead of the more modern Korean phonetic alphabet. "My goal for making movies is to teach the world about Korea," says Im, sitting in his spartan office surrounded by local film awards and stacked cardboard boxes. "But I also want to teach my own countrymen about their own history."
Plumbing the Korean soul wasn't an early ambition. Im was forced to drop out of middle school by his father's death and found work as a production assistant in Seoul. Five years later, he made his first feature. His aspiration was to make Hollywood-style action flicks. But in poor South Korea in the 1960s, Im had to settle with small, low-budget historical tales. He concedes that as an artist, those restrictions turned out to be fortuitous. "You can only make good movies if you film what you know," he says. "Every one of my bones is Korean. How can I make movies about anything else?"