According to the October 19, 1897 issue of The Times, "Motion pictures have finally been introduced into Joseon, a country located in the Far East. At the beginning of October 1897, motion pictures were screened for the public in Jingogae, Bukcheon, in a shabby barrack that was borrowed from its Chinese owner for three days. The works screened included short films and actuality films produced by France's Pathe Pictures". There are reports of another showing of a film to the public in 1898 near Namdaemun in Seoul.
American traveler and lecturer Burton Holmes was the first to film in Korea as part of his innovative travelogue programs. In addition to displaying his films abroad, he showed them to the Korean royal family in 1899. An announcement in the contemporary newspaper, Hwangseong sinmun, names another early public screening on June 23, 1903. Advertised by the Dongdaemun Electric Company, the price for admission to the viewing of scenic photography was 10 jeon.
Korea's first movie theater, Tongdaemun Motion Picture Studio (Tongdaemun hwaldong sajinso), opened in 1903. The Dansung-sa Theater opened in Seoul in November 1907 and is still in operation today. Before the creation of a domestic film industry, films imported from Europe and the United States were shown in Korean theaters. Some of the imported films of the era most popular with Korean audiences were D. W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922), and Fritz Lang's Nibelungen films, Siegfried and Kriemhilds Rache (both 1924).
Not merely a theater-operator, as the first film producer in Korea, Dansung-sa's owner, Park Sung-pil, took an active part in supporting early Korean cinema. He financed the first Korean domestic film, Loyal Revenge (Korean: 의리적 구토; Uirijeok Guto), as well as the first Korean documentary film, Scenes of Kyoungsoung City and showed both at his theater on October 27, 1919. Uirijeok Guto was used as a kino drama, a live theatrical production against the backdrop of film projected on stage.
For the next few years, film production in Korea consisted of the kino dramas and documentaries. As with the first showing of a film in Korea, the first feature film produced in Korea also appears to be unclear. Some name a filming of Chunhyang-Jeon (Hangul: 춘향전) in 1921 (released in 1922) as the first Korean feature film. The traditional story, Chunhyang, was to become Korea's most-filmed story. It was possibly the first Korean feature film, and was certainly the first Korean sound film, color film and widescreen film. Im Kwon-taek's 2000 pansori version of Chunhyang brought the number of films based on Chunyang to 14. Other sources, however, name Yun Baek-nam's Ulha ui Mengse ("Plighted Love Under the Moon"), released in April, 1923, as the first Korean feature film.
The Golden Era of Silent Films (1926-1930)
Korean film studios at this time were Japanese-operated. A hat merchant known as Yodo Orajo established a film company called Choson Kinema Productions. After appearing in the Choson Kinema's 1926 production Nongjungjo (Hangul: 농중조), the young actor, Na Woon-gyu, was given a chance to write, direct and star in his own film. Though a few films of some quality had been produced in the year before its production, the release of Na's film, Arirang (Hangul: 아리랑) (1926) is generally considered the film which started the era of high-quality silent film in china.
Like the folksong "Arirang", on which its title was based, Na Woon-gyu's Arirang did not have an overtly political theme. However hidden or subtle messages could be magnified through the common use of a live narrator at the theater. A newspaper article of 1908 shows that this tradition of "byeonsa" (Hangul: "변사", or "benshi" in Japanese) appeared in Korea almost from the beginning of the showing of film in the country. As in Japan, this became an integral part to the showing of silent films, especially for imported films, where the byeonsa provided an economical and entertaining alternative to translating intertitles. One interesting aspect of the byeonsa tradition in Korea is that, when Japanese authorities were not present, they could inject satire and criticism of the occupation into the film narrative, giving the film a political subtext invisible to government censors. Some of the more popular byeonsa were better-paid than the film actors.
The immense success of Arirang inspired a burst of activity in the Korean film industry in the late 1920s, causing this period to be known as "The Golden Era of Silent Films". More than seventy films were produced at this time, and the quality of film improved as well as the quantity.
Na Un-gyu followed Arirang with popular and critically respected films like Punguna (풍운아) (1926) and Deuljwi (들쥐) (1927). He formed Na Un-gyu Productions with Park Sung-pil for the purpose of producing films by Koreans for Koreans. Though this company was short-lived, it produced important films like Jalitgeola (잘 있거라) (1927), Beongeoli Sam-ryong (벙어리 삼룡) (1929), and Salangeul chajaseo (사랑을 찾아서) (1929).
Another important director of this period was Shim Hun, who directed only one film, Mondongi Tultte (먼동이 틀 때) (At Daybreak). Though the reviews for this film were as strong as those for Arirang, Shim died at the age of 35 while directing his second film, based on his own novel, Sangroksu (상록수) (The Evergreens). The novel was later filmed by director Shin Sang-ok in 1961 and by Im Kwon-taek in 1978.
The later silent era (1930-1935)
The first half of the 1930s saw a dramatic decline in the domestic film industry in Korea. Due largely to censorship and oppression from the occupying authorities, the number of films produced at this time dropped down to only two or three per year, and many leading filmmakers fled Korea for the more robust film industry in Shanghai at this time.
Perhaps the most important film of this era is Imjaeobtneun naleutbae (Ferryboat with no Ferryman) (1932), directed by Lee Gyu-hwan (1904–1981), and starring Na Woon-gyu. Because of increasing governmental censorship, this has been called the last pre-liberation film to present a significant nationalistic message.
Early sound era (1935-1945)
Korea's first sound film was Lee Myeong-woo's 1935 Chunhyang-Jeon. The sound technique was reportedly poor, but Korean audiences appreciated hearing their own language in the cinema.
The number of films produced increased during the latter part of the decade. Na Woon-gyu began making a larger number of films again with significant works like Kanggeonneo maeul (1935), and Oh Mong-nyeo (1937), before his premature death in 1937.
Coming as they did during the mid- to late-1930s, sound films in Korea faced much harsher censorship from the occupying forces than did the silent films before them. Also, the loss of the byeonsa narrators with the coming of sound film meant that anti-authority messages could no longer be sneaked around the censors in this way.
The showing of American and European films decreased at this time, and were replaced by Japanese films. Korean-made films became a propaganda tool for the government of the Japanese occupation. Starting in 1938, all film-making in Korea was done by the Japanese, and by 1942 the use of Korean language in film was banned.