TICKET (1986)

Randwick Ritz, Sydney:

Saturday May 18

Rating: Unclassified 15+
Duration: 108       minutes
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean (English Subtitles)
Cast: Ji-mee Kim, Ahn So-young, Hui Myeong, Lee Hye-young, Se-young
Director: Im Kwon-taek


The underside of a coffee house tradition long central to Korean society, Ticket Dabangs were rife with casual prostitution, but one of the few employment options for working class women in small regional farm- and fishing towns. A key achievement of Im’s mid 1980s cycle of ‘women’s’ melodramas, it’s a confronting yet moving analysis of the class condition of South Korean women during its 1980s economic miracle, made in close collaboration with the auteur-producer and ‘Elizabeth Taylor of Korean cinema’, Kim Ji-mee. Presented with the support of the Australia-Korea Foundation. Co-presented with the Korean Film Archive (KOFA).

Ticket is preserved and was digitally restored in 2K by the Korean Film Archive KOFA.

“… the film’s skilful blend of social realism, metaphor and heightened drama seems in many ways central to his style…[I]n the vein of Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame… [i]t’s easy to see why Korean audiences found it shocking in 1986, but [Ticket] works now as an intimate and poignant portrait of a group of women.” - Tony Rayns, San Francisco Film Festival.

Screens as a part of Cinema Reborn’s Korean Showcase: The Films of Im Kwon-Taek program. 


Korean director Im Kwon-taek (b. 1936) made over 100 features in a career made resonant with local box office hits, yet he still broke through local censorship taboos, gained break-out international film festival invitations and received western critical attention for Korean cinema, inspiring South Korea’s current generation of international arthouse film making superstars. 

Our 2024 festival screenings of Sopyonje (1993)  in Sydney and Melbourne begin a short, follow-up season (in Sydney only) showcasing some of Im’s other key films, Jagko Mismatched Nose (1980), Ticket (1986) and Festival (1996), as well as the dynamic cinema restoration program of the Korean national film archive KOFA (see Webinar below).   


Friday 3 May from 2:00 PM AET

Join with the Korean Cultural Centre Sydney for a webinar exploring Im Kwon-taek’s career and the Korean Film Archive (KOFA)’s acclaimed program to restore and give global access to Korean filmmaking heritage. Join us online via IM KWON-TAEK AND KOREAN FILM RESTORATION: WEBINAR WITH CINEMA REBORN FESTIVAL – Korean Cultural Centre AU , with guests including film critic, academic and Korean cinema expert Russell Edwards, critic and Parasite subtitler Darcy Parquet, Korean Film Archive head Kim Hong-joon, and academic and screenwriter Kyung Hyun Kim.

Webinar free, but bookings required. 

Webinar presented by the Korean Cultural Centre Sydney. 

Season presented with the support of the Australia-Korea Foundation. Co-presented with the Korean Film Archive (KOFA). Supported by the Korean Cultural Centre Sydney.

Im Kwon-Taek
By David E. James
Born on May 2, 1936, in Changsŏng, Chŏllanam-do, Im Kwon-taek is the most important and celebrated filmmaker in South Korea. Amid the poverty and chaos of the aftermath of the Korean War, he moved first to Busan and then to Seoul, where he found work as a production assistant in the embryonic film industry. Having directed his first feature, Farewell to the Duman River (Tuman’ganga Charitkŏra), in 1962 and his most recent, Revivre (Hwajang), in 2014, his career spans more than half a century. During this time he has produced an astonishing oeuvre of more than one hundred films that have made him popularly known as the ‘father of South Korean cinema.’ Many of these films, especially the earlier ones, were formulaic genre quickies for small, usually short-lived, studios that were dependent on immediate market returns. He had already made fifty popular entertainment features of this kind when, in 1973, a crisis of conscience that he has described in several interviews set him on the path to the art film. ‘One day I suddenly felt as though I’d been lying to the people for the past 12 years. I decided to compensate for my wrongdoings by making more honest films.’ Generally funded by the continuing popularity of his action films, these ‘more honest’ art films brought him international acclaim, earning him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. Of them, a dozen concern nativist, premodern Korean culture.

Though various in their narrative strategies, The Genealogy (Chokpo, 1978), Mandala (Mandara, 1981), Surrogate Mother (Ssibaji, 1986), Adada (1987), Come Come Come Upward (Aje Aje Para Aje, 1989), Sopyonje (Sŏp’yŏnje, 1993), Festival (Ch’ukche, 1996), Ch’unhyang (Ch’unhyangdyŏn, 2000), Chihwaseon (Ch’wihwasŏn, 2002), Beyond the Years (Ch’ŏnnyŏnhak, 2007), and Hanji (Talbin kirŏolligi, 2011), all dramatise with ethnographic detail and accuracy ancient customs or art forms, and several also explore their precarious survival into the present. Mandala, for example, very beautifully dramatises the traditional customs and art of Korean Sŏn (Ch’an or Zen) Buddhism as it narrates the stories of two monks who differently attempt to reconcile their religious faith and insight with their desire to live in the modern world. These films sometimes include quasi-documentary interludes that interrupt the diegesis [the fictional world] and pedagogically elaborate the elements of the nativist culture in question, but more frequently they dramatise such material in popularly accessible and often spectacular narrative forms that exploit the conventions of film melodrama that Im had mastered during his earlier work as a journeyman director.

Their resistance to global capitalist culture’s homogenising erasure of the past and cultural difference in its promotion of a totalised corporate postmodernism marks the overall importance of these historical retrievals. But, beyond this, their specifically Korean significance can hardly be overemphasised, given the devastation inflicted on the nation and nativist culture in the twentieth century: the Japanese annexation that lasted until the end of World War II; the brief “day of freedom” before the division of the country between the subsequent U.S. neocolonial occupation of the South and the communist dictatorship in the North; the civil war; and then in the South the series of U.S.-maintained military dictatorships that endured until the free election of a civilian president in 1992. This history of trauma and chaos jeopardised the continuity of much of Korea’s unique cultural heritage as it had coalesced during the half millennium of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1897), when, instead of being divided and ravaged by foreign intruders, Korea was unified, largely in isolation from the outside world. The rituals and customs of this period, its forms of civic organisation and judicial administration, and its architecture, pottery, music, painting, and dress matured into distinctive, integrated forms, a unique cultural economy. Preeminent within it was Han’gungmal, the singular Korean language that many linguists believe has no genetic relationship to any other, and Han’gŭl, the writing system designed exclusively for it – a unique visual language.

In respect to the renewal and reassertion of specifically Korean culture, Im’s ethnographically oriented features had three main functions. First, their dramatisation of neglected and endangered cultural traditions pedagogically displayed their aesthetic value and affirmed their social function, reeducating a population on whom, for a century, the presumptive superiority of Japanese and then US capitalist culture had been imposed. Second, the domestic box office success of some of them (especially Sopyonje, whose acclaim ignited an extraordinary revival of popular interest in the traditional folk opera, p’ansori). The recognition they achieved in festivals abroad fostered the growth and international prestige of Korean cinema generally, opening the way for the younger filmmakers of the New Korean Cinema and for a revival of interest in neglected older ones. Third and most important, the narrative focus on art and artists provided the basis for Im’s allegorical exploration of the present state of Korean culture and especially of his own filmmaking. The representation of a specific traditional artist, art form, or cultural practice in any given film generated reflexive patterns of similarity and difference between it and Im’s film about it, providing him with a vocabulary through which the possibilities of his own art could be explored. (1) The possibilities and limitations of the artists he depicted, their artwork, and its social existence provided a model in respect to which Im himself, his films, and their social function could be imagined. He made them into allegories of cinema.

Such a reflexive allegorical use of the past to investigate the possibilities of contemporary Korean culture was not without contradictions. While their aural and visual exoticism made the spectacular elements in Chosŏn culture well suited for cinematic reproduction, other aspects complicated allegorical use of it. Whether aristocratic or folk, Chosŏn’s almost entirely artisanal mode of cultural activity differed fundamentally from the industrial mode of production of capitalist cinema and the specific forms of alienation intrinsic to its consumption. Other difficulties appeared in two recurrent motifs by which Im elaborated the cultural past: images of women and images of the natural landscape, most often brilliantly photographed by Im’s virtuoso cinematographer, Chŏng Il-sŏng. (2) Many of them, Adada, Sopyonje, and Ch’unhyang most notably, were thematically and visually pivoted on images of the violation and exploitation of beautiful women, often set in the context of the Korean Peninsula’s mountains, valleys, and shores, variously enhanced by sunshine, mist, or snow. As figures for the nation, the women and their tragedies were offered as a vocabulary by which the suffering and the spirit – the han – of the distant past could frame, if not diagnose, the traumas of the present, while the beauty of the natural landscape conversely proposed an ideal to which the nation might be restored. Im has typically justified the cruelty inflicted on his heroines by pointing out that, in Confucian society, women were sequentially subjected to fathers, husbands, and sons, and so did indeed bear a disproportionate share of hardship and suffering. But in a period when feminists radically retheorised gendered visual codes, such representations, it was argued, also reproduced the conditions that allowed for the continued subjection of women. Similarly Im’s celebration of Korea’s uninhabited, unworked spaces mobilised an essentially touristic nostalgia that could hardly provide a generative metaphor for social renewal amid the rapid industrialisation of the late twentieth century and the state-enforced vicious exploitation of the working class. Severely hierarchical and without a middle class, the rural agricultural Chosŏn era could only vaguely parallel modern urbanised Korea, and the forms of resistance available to feudal peasantry bore little relation to the democratic mobilisations of the Minjung movement [Ed: the “common people’s movement” for democratisation and inclusion]. Intrinsic to the disparities between Im’s present and the received Confucian cultural heritage, such aporia in his project could never be fully resolved. But his great achievement was to work with and through them, setting them in different contexts and manipulating them in different permutations to make them the narrative, thematic, symbolic, and especially affective materials of his cinema.


[1] The possibility of Im’s critical cinema only emerged with the end of the military dictatorship. His nativist films began with The Genealogy, released the year before the assassination of Park Chung-hee and the end of the Yusin period. Mandala, the first film in which his new direction was widely recognised, and Surrogate Motherfollowed, separated by half a decade. The frequency of the new nativist films increased during the first years of the Sixth Republic, culminating in Sopyonje in 1993, the year after the election of the first civilian president. At the same time, the relaxation of censorship made possible the emergence of the Korean New Wave, including for the first time a radically contestatory political cinema, most importantly the work of Park Kwang-su; in the late 1980s and early 1990s his films’ releases virtually alternated year by year with Im’s: Chilsu and Mansu (Ch’ilsuwa Mansu, 1988), The Black Republic (Kŭdŭlto Urich’ŏrŏm, 1990), To the Starry Island (Kŭ Sŏme Kago Shipta, 1993), and A Single Spark (Arŭmdaun ch‘ŏngnyŏn Chŏn T‘ae-il, 1995). But in this period, Im maintained his distance from the new political radicalism: in Come Come Come Upward (1989), for example, one of the main protagonists, a Buddhist nun struggling to find redemptive meaning in her life, explicitly rejects association with the student activists of the Democracy Movement and with ‘poor farmers and city laborers.’ And, even though his own parents had joined the partisans after the liberation, Im’s lack of any discernable endorsement of the leftist guerillas of this period in The Taebaek Mountains (T’aebaeksanmaek, 1994) contrasted markedly with Park’s sympathy for them in the previous year’s To The Starry Island.

[3] Beginning to work with Im on Tears of the Idol (Usangŭi Nunmul) in 1981, Chŏng Il-sŏng shot Mandala, Adada, Fly High, Run Far: Kaebyok, Sopyonje,Ch’unhyang, Beyond the Years, and many others of his greatest films of the 1980s and 1990s, including the blockbusters The General’s Son I, II, and III (Changgunŭi Adŭl). Together with Im himself and his long-time producer at Taehung Pictures, Chŏng formed what was known as the ‘Troika of Korean Film’; see Chŏng Sŏng-il, Im Kwon-taek (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2006), p. 44.

Editor’s note: this article uses the long-standing McCune-Reischer system for romanising original Korean characters into English. Since 2002 the South Korean government has officially adopted a new, Revised Romanisation system, but it is still not consistently used when translating from Korean (or used at all); other sources may use different spellings for the film titles referred to.

This article is an extract from David E. James, Power Misses II: Cinema, Asian and Modern. Indiana University Press, 2020. It is republished with permission and thanks to Prof. James.
The Film
By Darcy Paquet
The middle-aged Ji-sook, owner of the Johyang Cafe, visits a licensed job agency, looking for new recruits. The room is filled with young women who are smoking and playing cards, but they fall silent when she walks in. Looking through the group, she chooses three pretty faces, and drives them back to the cafe, where they will prepare for their first day of work.

They are located in a seaside town filled with fishermen. Throughout the day and night, men call the cafe and order coffee, which the women deliver and serve to them in person. But they are selling more than just coffee. Prostitution is a booming part of the local economy, and very much above ground.   

Ticket is a portrait of five women who make their living in a difficult profession. Several of them are struggling with debt, and have to fend off creditors who come to the cafe looking to get paid. Se-young, the youngest (who is given the nickname ‘Rookie’), supports her disabled brother and father back home, while trying to find time on the side to see her boyfriend. The women are also vulnerable to being cheated, though Ji-sook keeps a tight rein on them, and looks after them with a stern maternal eye.

Although shot in the middle of South Korea's 1980s heyday for softcore erotic films, Ticket mostly avoids sensationalising its subject, and devotes much of its screen time to more mundane aspects of the women's lives. One of the strengths of director Im Kwon-taek, who at this time was being hailed as the ‘national director,’ is a persistent humanism that runs through all of his work. Here he draws sympathetic, three-dimensional portraits of each of his characters, particularly the figure of Ji-sook, brought to life by veteran actress Kim Ji-mi.

In many ways Ticketcan be seen as a collaboration between director Im and the legendary Kim Ji-mi, who had just launched her own production company. The two had worked together in the 1970s on the now-lost film Weeds, but had re-connected in the mid-1980s to shoot Bhiksuni (which remained unfinished due to pushback by the Buddhist community) and Gilsotteum (1985), a poignant allegory of national division.

Kim explains that she had been on a location scouting trip with director Im and cinematographer Jung Sung-il near the city of Sokcho, when a woman who delivered them coffee began telling them stories of her life and the lives of the other women she worked with. Kim says (quoted on the Korean Film Archive’s online database), ‘There may have been some particular aspects to that fishing village, but I was shocked to see for the first time the lives of such underprivileged women. I thought to myself, “This just shouldn't be,” and I felt a kind of mission to expose the absurdity of this situation through film, and to restore the humanity of these women. I made the film because I wanted to present scenes where a person's human rights are sold for the price of a ticket.’

With Kim as executive producer and taking the leading role, Im Kwon-taek directing and the renowned Song Kil-han writing the screenplay, the project moved forward quickly. But to make a film on this subject matter proved to be complicated. Under the authoritarian president Chun Doo-hwan, South Korea’s film industry was still in the grip of fierce censorship, even for a director as celebrated and respected as Im Kwon-taek. Ticket’s sexual content was less of an issue, but the filmmakers ultimately had to contend with the censorship board’s objections over the originally conceived ending, which was seen as too pessimistic, and numerous lines of dialogue. Arguing that the film depicted South Korean society in too negative a light (and referencing the all-encompassing ideological battle that continued to play out on the Korean peninsula), the head of the censorship board reportedly exclaimed, ‘They would love this movie up in North Korea!’ Ultimately the filmmakers were not able to place as much overt social criticism in Ticket as they might have wished, but the finished product does nonetheless present a bracing depiction of economic hardship and exploitation.

Ticket occupies a distinctive place in Im Kwon-taek’s filmography. At this stage in his career he was primarily focused on films that wrestled with the tragic outcomes of Korean history, as well as the ideological and artistic roots of Korean culture, so at first glance Ticket might seem to be an outlier.  Like many of Im’s works, it plays off the Korean film industry’s tradition of melodramatic storytelling, while at the same time refusing to smooth out the story’s emotional arcs. Naturally attracted to the rough edges of lived experience, Im includes many details that pull viewers’ emotions in unexpected directions. In this way it is a sometimes awkward, but often unconventional approach to a social issue film. It also succeeds in telling a story that resonates far beyond its particular setting and characters, thanks in part to the performances of the cast.

In South Korea Ticket was critically acclaimed, winning four awards including Best Director and Best Screenplay at the 25th Grand Bell Awards. It also received a Best Actress award for Kim Ji-mi from the 23rd Baeksang Film Art Awards, and a Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress Award from the Association of Korean Film Critics. Internationally, it failed to secure a prestigious festival premiere like many of Im’s other films of that era, but was nonetheless picked up by distributors in West Germany, Japan and India. 

Looking back on Ticket today, the specific community it presents may have long since vanished, but the struggles and frustrations of its protagonists remain easy to recognise. More than anything, it is the filmmakers’ efforts to tell a truthful and honest story that has made this work continue to feel relevant. 

The Restoration
Ticket is preserved and was digitally restored by the Korean Film Archive KOFA.

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