As promised last time, here’s a small(ish) introduction to Korean cinema. I’ll try to avoid turning this into a ten-page dissertation or collection of movie reviews, but it’ll be hard…
Korean cinema has a long history, dating back to screenings of French kino films in the early 1900s. The first Korean films were documentaries, show in 1919, and feature films followed in 1921. The history of film in the country would experience a series of highs and lows closely tied in with the history of Korea itself, from censorship under Japanese occupation to a near halt in production during the Korean War and its aftermath to the heavy restrictions of totalitarian rule spanning to the 1980s. Through it all, moviemaking persisted, growing now into one of the most prolific and acclaimed national film industries in the world.
These days, popular Korean films look much like popular films elsewhere. Recent years have given us big, dumb special effects extravaganzas (Dragon Wars: D-War, R2B: Return to Base), celebrity-stuffed heist flicks (The Thieves, Oceans 11 more or less), spy thrillers (The Berlin File, in the vein of the Bourne flicks), broad romantic comedies (most successfully My Sassy Girl, which is went the opposite direction and got remade by Hollywood), sports movies, fright flicks that look much like Japanese horror, stylized serial killer/murderer thrillers (many, many of these, and one genre Korea can claim a unique mastery over) war movies (usually Korean War-focuses, like Tae Guk Gi) and historical dramas (the favorite time period being the height of Korean royal rule- the Joseun Dynasty, with most films equating to European costume dramas).
Don’t think that Korean cinema is any more unoriginal than Hollywood or any other mass-market cinema, though. Actually, Korea seems to support their arthouse directors better than most places, and the last couple of decades have seen an explosion of directorial talent here that is gaining as much acclaim abroad as at home. Here are some names you should know, if you don’t already:
Kim Ki-young: The director of the first Korean film to achieve worldwide critical acclaim and exposure: The Housemaid (1960). I need to hunt this one down.
Yu Hyun-mok: Directed the film considered by Korean critics at least to be the best produced in Korea- Obaltan (Stray Bullet) (1966).
Im Kwan-taek: The first big Korean auteur, with a career spanning from the 1960s until today. He’s been a big favorite of the Cannes Film Festival, winning Best Director there for Chi-hwa-seon (a biopic of a Korean artist which I haven’t caught yet) after cementing his international reputation in 2000 with Chunhyang (a popular Korean historical tale that may have also been the subject of Korea’s very first feature film, and also the first Korean film I ever saw, in college. I though the Joseun-set tale of love and pansori- a traditional musical art- was pretty boring then, but I should probably give it another try).
Kim Ki-duk: This is the Korean director with the most festival hardware on his mantle, long a Cannes favorite and just last year having Pieta win Venice’s Golden Lion prize over The Master. He’s also got a bit of a reputation for his brutal subject matter. I’ve only seen Bad Guy from him, and its prostitute/pimp codependence plot was far from cheery stuff. His true masterpiece might be the polar opposite, though- the poetic tale of a Buddhist monk, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.
Hong Sang-soo: Here’s a Korean auteur with a schtick- low stakes, conversation-driven dramas about the same general subjects- love, filmmaking, mortality. He’s also well-respected by critics, although the latest reviews I’ve read of his stuff sound like they’re waiting for him to try something new. I’ve only seen Hahaha from, him, whose biggest point of interest was that it was shot in Tongyeong, where I live. Outside of that it wasn’t anything too impressive. I’ll give his latest, In Another Country, starring French actress Isabelle Huppert, a shot before too long, though.
Im Sang-soo: He also has a very specific oeuvre, focusing on psychosexual dramas with class overtones. His remake of The Housemaid was a favorite at Cannes, and he also competed to much less success last year with The Taste of Money. Again, the former is on my list of flicks to check out before too long (even if my girlfriend went and spoiled the ending for me), while I have little interest in the latter.
Kim Ji-woon: Here’s a name you may recognize, or at least one whose work you might have caught recently, as he directed the Ahnold actioner The Last Stand in his English-language debut. That one wasn’t the best display of his talent, though, and I’d recommend you check out The Good, the Bad, The Weird, A Bittersweet Life, or I Saw the Devil, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, if you want to see a unique directorial voice applied to some crowd-pleasing flicks. A Tale of Two Sisters is a horror flick also tabbed for a Hollywood remake, although I haven’t seen that one yet.
Bong Joon-ho: If you’ve seen only one Korean flick ever, there’s a good chance it’s The Host, the monster flick that is still the highest grossing domestic Korean movie. I liked it well enough, even if I don’t think it quite delivered on the promise of its awesome first act. Memories of Murder is another serial killer thriller with a good reputation, and Mother is a thriller that got some Cannes attention as well. Snowpiercer, his first English language film, an adaptation of a French post-apocalyptic graphic novel starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris among others, comes out this year.
Park Chan-wook: Here is the Korean director with the greatest international of all, to a large extent due to Oldboy, his screwed-up thriller that many critics hold to be one of the best films of the last ten years, and possibly ever. I won’t say any more than to recommend you check it out (if you can handle graphic films, that is), especially since the Spike Lee-directed, Josh Brolin-starring remake comes out this year. I still haven’t seen the flick that made him a box office guarantee in Korea, Joint Security Area, but I have seen Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst, and his English language debut from earlier this year, Stoker. He has style to spare and one of the most unique voices working in film today, although he’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, evidenced by the mixed reviews Stoker got. I love him, though, and can’t recommend him highly enough, especially if you’re a film aficionado.