Why Korean Movies?: A Brief Introduction to the Korean New Wave
A few of my friends have approached me about this month’s topic — South Korean movies — somewhat befuddled. Why Korean films? they want to know. Is this “a thing?” The short answer is, yes, this is a thing. All of the movies I’ve watched this month were made within the last fifteen years, the result of a movement called the Korean New Wave.
In the article “New Wave of Pop Culture Redefines Korea,” writer Andrew Salmon outlines the factors involved in creating this new wave. At the end of the 80s, South Korea started the process of democratization, and within a few years the strict censorship laws started to loosen up. Not only did the free flow of information across borders allow South Korea to absorb more Western culture, it also became easier for Korean film, music, and television shows to get distribution in other countries – including the U.S (Salmon).
By the time the late 90s rolled around, many of the filmmakers who would be crucial to the New Wave had come into their own, feeling liberated to take greater artistic risks that would have been prohibited in the earlier, more authoritarian era. The first big hit that ushered in the wave was 1999’s Swiri (or Shiri, as it’s also called), an action movie that became an international success and allowed for bigger budgets and a global market.
Salmon’s article claims that the New Wave more or less ended around 2005 when Korean films became mainstream enough that they were no longer novel, but simply part of the international cinematic landscape. An article from Yahoo! Voices, “The Rise (and Wane) of Korean New Wave Cinema,” partially attributes the bust to changing screen quota laws. The screen quota law was another crucial factor that had encouraged the wave: the law required that Korean films be shown in theaters for 146 days of the year, giving more exposure to burgeoning local talent. But in 2006, the quota was reduced to 73 days, meaning that all the other days of the year, theaters were free to show Hollywood and other countries’ movies (“Rise”). Even in South Korea, the demand for native filmmakers had declined.
Through watching these movies, I’ve come to know many of the big name directors associated with the wave. The two most prominent figures are Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. Park made a splash in his home country with the release of J.S.A. (which I covered here earlier in the month), a film that deals movingly with the forbidden friendship between North and South Korean soldiers at the border. But he gained international recognition when Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. His style is flashy and often violent, brightly colored and full of dark humor. It’s easy to put his films in the same class as Quentin Tarantino’s arty/ultraviolent ouvre (and Tarantino himself has championed Park’s films), except Park doesn’t make distracting or self-conscious references to other movies like old Q does. Basically, he makes movies that are endlessly entertaining and badass in ways that a 15-year-old boy would love – but creative, unpredictable, and sentimental enough to elevate them beyond the sometimes gruesome material.
Bong Joon-ho’s films are a little harder to describe. Often darkly comic, his stories tend to focus on covert actions that ripple out to affect an entire community and then dissect the relationships within that community. He made a breakthrough with his 2003 film Memories of Murder, a true crime drama about a rural serial killer in the 1980s. I saw it a year or two ago, so my impressions are hazy, but it was impressive and chilling, an interesting character study on the local police and detectives who were investigating the case. Very reminiscent, in some ways, of Fincher’s Zodiac. American audiences would know Bong best as the director of 2006’s The Host, a big budget genre-hopping monster movie with elements of horror, slapstick, and political satire. This was the first Korean movie I ever saw, and it left me curious to see more. His best film, however, is probably 2009’s Mother, about a murder that may or may not have been committed by a developmentally disabled teenager and his mother’s attempts to cover up the crime.
Other notable Korean directors include:
Kim Ki-duk (Samaritan Girl; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring; and The Isle, which I’m writing up soon)
Kim Jee-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters; The Good, the Bad, the Weird; and I Saw the Devil)
Im Sang-soo (The Housemaid, and The President’s Last Bang)
Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine and Poetry)
Kang Je-kyu (Swiri and Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War – which I plan to watch this weekend).
So, again the question: Why Korean movies? The average American moviegoer often feels alienated by foreign films, especially ones from Asian countries. We feel that we lack the cultural literacy to understand the customs, character motivation, the sense of humor, and sometimes the difference in culture even changes the way we recognize emotional expression. It doesn’t help that much of what finds success through the festival circuits lean toward the “arthouse” side. I think Korean movies are interesting because, based on what I’ve seen, they’re generally more palatable to Western audiences’ tastes. There’s a lot of quirkiness, humor, action, and schlubby, underdog characters who are easy to identify with. The films show that the country probably has a ways to go as far as sexism is concerned, but otherwise they defy the Western stereotype of the coldly aloof, conservative overachiever. It’s hard to say how much of the filmmaking style and characterization in modern Korean cinema is the result of Hollywood’s influence and how much of it reflects the true local culture. At this point, it’s probably a chicken-egg question.
The way the films meld Eastern and Western attitudes and aesthetics makes them feel fresh, even if you’re watching what might ordinarily be a garden-variety crime thriller or revenge fantasy. Many of the tropes (cops, murderers, prostitutes, ghosts, mental institutions) are familiar, but we’re seeing them through a new set of eyes with a different set of cultural circumstances. The way Hollywood clashes with Seoul, Communism with Capitalism, and Buddhism with Christianity all makes for a viewing experience that’s one part thrilling and one part comforting. Not all of the movies I’ve been watching fall under the New Wave umbrella — as many of them were released post-2005 — but they’re clearly carrying on the legacy as they broaden their appeal and assert their right to compete in the global market. For better or for worse, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are making their Hollywood debuts in 2013 with Stoker and Snow Piercer, respectively. And the cult popularity of Oldboy has prompted an American remake headed up by Spike Lee, a development that has been very controversial among fans of the original.
Recommended Places to Start
I’d advise checking out something by either Bong or Park, since they’re the most popular — and with good reason; both make films that are sleek and accessible. For Park, I recommend either Oldboy or Joint Security Area (avoid starting with Thirst. It’s great, but kind of messy and inscrutable). For Bong, watch The Host. If you like that, proceed to Mother and Memories of Murder. If you like horror movies, check out A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s a little on the confusing side, but eerie and beautiful. The American remake, The Uninvited, was apparently terrible.
Until next time, annyonghi-kjeseyo.