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.
I hadn’t previously known much about the Korean Demilitarized Zone beyond the fact that there was one neutral area where North Korea and South Korea could meet occasionally for negotiations. The DMZ is a heavily-guarded buffer zone, a no-man’s land, that creates the boundary between North and South, and the Joint Security Area is the only spot where the two states come together. According to Wikipedia, the Joint Security Area is only 2600 feet wide, and once upon a time, the agents of both North and South were allowed to move freely within this neutral area. However, the Military Demarcation Line (the real border) was eventually enforced even within the JSA. There is an actual line on the ground where North Korea and South Korea meet, and representatives from each side are not allowed to step over the line.
Park Chan-wook’s 2000 film J.S.A. (Joint Security Area) comments on the strangeness of this arrangement and the humanitarian conundrum it presents. Soldiers in charge of guarding the area live in the border houses on each side, living, working, and sleeping within mere feet of their enemies but never able to breach the line. Day after day, they stare at each other across the concrete slab on the ground that separates the states. There isn’t even a wall or a fence, just a line that is, almost literally, drawn in the sand. When representatives of each state need to speak to each other, they sit at opposite sides of a table – one half in North Korea, the other half in the South. The only people allowed to straddle the line and move from one side of the table to the other hail from neutral Switzerland. In one of the movie’s more affecting scenes, a soldier who attempts to cross over actually trips on the line as if it is a real, physical barrier. Such is the power of symbolism.
In the beginning of the film, Swiss agents of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission are called in to investigate a shooting at the North Korean border house that left two soldiers from the North dead and another wounded. They already know who did it — a South Korean border soldier named Soo-hyeok – but they want to understand how and why the incident occurred. Both sides claim a grievance against the other: according to the survivor from the North, Kyeong-pil (played by the excellent Song Kang-ho), Soo-hyeok broke into the border house and shot the other soldiers without provocation, but according to Soo-hyeok, the Northern soldiers abducted him and he was forced to defend himself.
(SPOILERS AHEAD — scroll down to skip)
But Park doesn’t drag out the ambiguity over who is telling the truth; the middle of the film focuses on the real story, shown through an extended flashback sequence. As it turns out, two of the North Korean soldiers involved in the shooting had become friends with Soo-hyeok after they rescued him from a mine-field. The South Korean solider, along with his friend and fellow guard Sung-shik, would sneak over the border at night for some extreme male bonding time with their frenemies. The developing friendship among the four men is shown in a touching and funny montage: they drink, play cards, arm-wrestle, share photos of their girlfriends, and teach each other how to shine their shoes. The nighttime becomes a neutral zone where national loyalty is trumped by bromance. One of the soldiers wonders aloud why the conflict between the two states should separate men from their own blood. They call each other “comrade” and “brother.” During the work day, they stand toe-to-toe and pretend to glare, spitting at each other across the line in a silly contest of one-upsmanship.
As we already know, this idyllic arrangement soon comes to a bloody end. A commanding officer discovers the two South Korean soldiers in the North Korean border house and in a moment of confusion, betrayal, and panic, a shootout leaves the commanding officer and one of the friendly soldiers dead. Sung-shik escapes and manages to keep his involvement a secret from the investigation for a little while, but Soo-hyeok, who was wounded in the shooting, is captured and taken into custody by the South.
J.S.A. is the kind of movie that would be called Oscar-bait in America (and it would probably be directed by Steven Spielberg). The way it depicts soldiers overcoming their ideological and political differences to become friends, risking their jobs and possibly their lives for treasonous actions, is the kind of emotionally manipulative filmmaking that wins awards. And indeed, J.S.A. at the time was one of the most popular films in Korea and won lots and lots of awards. This is also the film that solidified Park’s credentials as a director to watch. J.S.A. doesn’t have the same kind of visual panache that he would cultivate in his later films, but the movie is still technically strong; every frame is beautifully composed and the violence, although it occurs less frequently than in his Vengeance Trilogy, is rendered with unflinching brutality.
The movie also features a couple of great actors, the very handsome Lee Byung-hun (who plays Soo-hyeok) and Song Kang-ho, who have both gone on to be big stars in other films. More recently, I’ve seen Lee in 2010’s I Saw the Devil and in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, where he stars alongside Song again. Song, one of the most successful actors in South Korean cinema, has quickly become a favorite for me. I like it when I’ve seen enough of a foreign country’s films to start recognizing familiar faces and Song’s presence is always welcome. He’s a versatile performer who excels at both comedy and drama, bringing a sliver of warmth to the cruelest characters (Antarctic Journal) and bringing dignity to the silliest buffoons (Secret Sunshine). It’s easy to see why he’s become such a staple for two of Korea’s leading directors, Park (in addition to J.S.A., Song appears in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Thirst) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, and the upcoming Snow Piercer). In J.S.A., his character appears menacing at first, a gruff bad-guy “commie bastard” North Korean, but he is slowly revealed to be cool-headed (not cold-hearted), thoughtful, affable, and steadfast.
Alas, until Stoker is released next year, I’m out of Park Chan-wook films to watch. And it will be a sad day when I’ve run out of movies starring Song. That day is approaching way too fast.
Once October ended, I briefly debated whether I should continue writing about horror but then decided that I could experiment with dedicating each month to different types of films. Right now I’m on a Korean movie kick. Korean movies seem to segue nicely away from horror, with their wicked flare for gore and busting taboos.
I don’t really know a whole lot about Korean culture, and I’m definitely not a film scholar, but I know that South Korea has had something of a cinematic golden age in the last decade or so, producing interesting and globally successful directors like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. Bong is most well-known for the popular monster movie The Host, and Park for his cult-favorite Oldboy. Park in particular has gotten a lot of attention stateside recently, with Spike Lee beginning production on an American remake of Oldboy and Park himself debuting his first Hollywood film, Stoker, which releases early next year and stars Nicole Kidman.
It’s hard to say what draws me to Korean movies. They provide a nice alternative to the American aesthetic, with new cultural mores, twisty-turny plots, and run-times that can often try your patience (the 80-minute movie doesn’t seem to have caught on over there). But like a lot of American films (especially indies), they don’t hold anything back, whether it’s an unflinching kitchen-sink character drama or an action film with all the explicit sex and violence you can stomach. At least, that’s what I’ve observed so far.
The move from writing about horror to writing about Korean films is a little daunting. Horror is a genre I’ve grown up with and I’ve watched more scary movies than I could ever count; I’m very familiar and comfortable with the genre conventions. I’ve watched a decent amount of Korean movies, too, more than the average person, but not quite enough to make any coherent, intelligent statement about what defines these films, culturally or stylistically. A month won’t make me an expert, but I hope to start seeing some patterns.
These are the movies I have seen. The next ones on my to-watch list are I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay and Joint Security Area (both films by Park) Feel free to suggest others that aren’t on the list that are worth tracking down:
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Memories of Murder
A Tale of Two Sisters
I Saw the Devil
The Good, the Bad, & the Weird