"Anyeong ha seyo," I greeted my handler as I arrived at Incheon International Airport. "Ooh, ooh," she gasped, before catching her breath, "you speak Korean!" "Well, no," I corrected her, "I just watched Winter Sonata."
An answer that no doubt a fair amount of people across Asia can give. That, and 'Full House', 'Love Story at Harvard', and many others that might jump to your mind. They are all Korean dramas, part of the Hallyu wave that swept across Asia during the late years of the last millennium. Initially referred to TV serials that became ultra popular, it came to encompass pretty much everything that came out of Korea. I say swept, but in truth, the wave is still sweeping, judging by the reaction given to popular Korean singer Rain when he dropped by here recently.
Not getting left behind are their movies, and that particular wave is not just limited to Asia. It's more like a typhoon, a freak of mother nature that rampages in cinemas worldwide. Rare is the international film festival that passes without the inclusion of some Korean films.
It helps, of course, that national law favours the films heavily. The Screen Quota system ensures that there is a number of screening days per year that is reserved for local films (it currently stands at around the 70 day mark, reduced from over 140 days due to the Free Trade Agreement with the United States earlier this year). It helps to the Korean films to remain visible. In the United States, films would be lucky to survive half that long at the box office. This ruling has helped to make Korean cinema more popular and profitable that it might have been otherwise (though the long term effects of the reduced quota remains to be seen).
Having said that, it helps that Korean society as a whole remains rather inclusive to themselves. Generally speaking, people outside of Seoul are not as exposed to the outside world, and a large number still cannot speak or understand English well. There's a shift in this way of thought, with the newer generations improving on this apparent disadvantage. A disadvantage is it not for Korean cinema as a whole, as that particular characteristic, by default, renders Korean films to be more popular in contrast to Hollywood films. It's almost as if the movies are shown on their terms, without even English subtitles to help this foreigner along. Even the cartoons have a Korean version of their own, voiced by Korean personalities. I realised this to my own disadvantage after the first five minutes of Disney's 'Cars' ("That red car didn't sound like Owen Wilson...").
Since the beginning of the new millennium, Korean films have regularly outsold its foreign counterparts. And a fair amount of their films also do relatively well overseas, getting lots of praise, if not necessarily money. The hallyu wave, remember?
These are the main reasons why the Korean film industry is the overbearing monster that it is. It is its own mother nature, an industry that is capable of being self sufficient and indepenednet enough to do its own thing. This goes towards the independent approach to filmmaking.