The small sphere of cinema fans plugged into the World Cinema know something of the new and surprisingly good works coming out of up and coming nations like South Korea every year. As one of the burgeoning powers in world wide pop culture, South Korea became not only a major force in the online gaming sphere in the past few years, but have grown in the animation fields and in countries like China and Japan, their music industry is exploding rapidly. The films aren’t all pop and circumstance though (though, they manage to pump out their fair share of goofy romantic comedies) as a small circle of directors has begun to affect not only those of us attuned to film from afar, but winning the top prizes at Cannes and more. For those of you still wholly unfamiliar to Korean cinema, I’m compiled for you a list of some of the best films to come from our Far Eastern neighbors in the 21st century. These are all films released in the last 7 years that display where and how Korean Cinema is going and why you should pay attention.
My Sassy Girl – The first film of Jae-Young Kwak, My Sassy Girl is the quintessential romantic comedy out of Korea. It’s important to remember that in South Korea all young men are expected to serve a short term in the military. For a country on the border of a communist country under the leadership of a psychopath, conscription is necessary. So, there’s been a long tradition of a 20-something cinema that makes light of the young men and their situation and their futures that are always abruptly cut out from them for a couple of years in their twenties. This film takes that anxiety and crafts a brilliant comedy, in which our nimble, anxious young man can’t quite keep up with his energetic, straightforward girlfriend. The love story is powerful and shortly after this film was released, a few hundred more copycats were made, none of them nearly as good, but all of them pocketing cash in handfuls. As one of the first true crossover college age hits to America, there’s currently an American remake in the works (which I beg you all to boycott).
Attack the Gas Station (and Kick the Moon) – Two films here. Both from Sang Jin Kim, and both amazing. I group them because they kind of take on the same ideas. And Attack the Gas Station was released in 1999, so it’s pushing the requirement. Anyways, it’s the tale of youthful indiscretion and anger in young men, once again the youth culture of Korea out of control and striking out. Four young men in need of money attempt to rob a gas station for the fifth time and run into a few troubles. They get stuck in a hostage situation and hilarity ensues. The key to Korean comedy is that it’s never fully about the comedy. They don’t forget the reality of the characters’ situations or what will happen to them after things are over. It’s very dry in that regard, but at the same time that much easier to feel a part of. One of the defining films of the generation, and its follow up Kick the Moon, which is about returning to youth after this period and confronting for the second time those youthful urges, is a better film if not quite as funny.
3-Iron – This film is one of the newer films from Kim Ki-Duk, who at this point is probably my favorite Korean filmmaker. His mastery of the subtle, washed out tones of contemporary life is genius. This film in particular is about a young man who travels from house to house of families on vacation and breaks in to use their home, himself homeless. That is until he accidentally makes a mistake and breaks into a home that isn’t empty. The sparse detachment of this film is what makes it so effective. One of the growing trends in Korean film is the ability to step back and just show, to have an outside force affect your life without you knowing its there. Once again, I attribute this to repressed awareness of the neighbors to the north and the imminent danger they represent, but must be ignored for the sake of a routine daily existence. The main character here becomes just that. Something of a shadow, capable of being in a room with four walls and no furniture and not allowing anyone to see him.
Oldboy – Going in a completely different direction is Oldboy, part two of Chan-Wook Park’s revenge trilogy, consisting of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. This was the best received of the three, winning the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes and wooing American splatter king Quentin Tarantino to its cause. It’s the quintessential revenge flick, a genre in and of itself in Korea nowadays, in which the Dae-su Oh is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years and then released and given 5 days to discover who did it. The shear animal rage that Park manages to capture in his characters, such raw emotion makes this one of the greatest films to come out of Korea period. Unfortunately his other two piece to the trilogy, while carefully crafted and amazingly filmed, fall short in terms of strength and power of story.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring – Another of Kim Ki-Duk’s films, this tale of a young Buddhist monk raised on an island in a lake finding sexual awakening in the arrival of a sick young woman in need of healing, follows his fall from grace and return to the lake to heal his own spirit. It’s a powerful film, beautifully shot, like any of Kim Ki-Duk’s films, and also like those films is sparse in dialogue or action. But the subtlety that he masters in each and ever scene makes his films that much more powerful. Some might find them boring, but the key to his films is not listening or watching, but really becoming part of it and observing to the point of living along with the characters. And his characters force that reaction. The feeling that you’re somehow entwined with their fate.
A Bittersweet Life – From Ji-woon Kim, A Bittersweet Life is yet another masterful revenge epic, this time from a Korean horror director. This film takes from the style and direction of Park, and ups the anti to look at the characteristics of a life much more established and attached to others, a rich man of sorts taken down to the ground for no apparent reason other than crime lord politics. The results are a bloody terrifying good time, and another reason why this sort of film should never be made in America, except by Tarantino of course.
Save the Green Planet – As one of the oddest movies of the list, Save the Green Planet tells the story of a young man who believes the world is about to be invaded by aliens and subsequently does a lot of horrible things to try and prevent it. It’s a cross between sci-fi, torture horror, and Korean comedy (i.e. very dry), but it still manages to be upbeat and funny most of the film. You find yourself liking the poor Byeong-gu despite what he does in the name of protecting the earth, and in the end the film maker surprises three fold with half incredible, half incredulous ending. A must see for all Korean film newcomers.
Memories of Murder – Based on a true story of a Rapist/Serial killer in the 80s in South Korea, this film tells the story of two cops whose methods become more and more extreme as they attempt to unravel the crime. The fear of violence, the impatience to stop it and Joon-ho Bong’s masterful direction make this film one of the best to come out of Korea from that year. It managed moderate crossover success and you might even be able to find it in your local video store. If not though, try and find it elsewhere, because this is a film well worth your time and interest. And keep an eye on this director.
Joint Security Area – The JSA, part of the DMZ in Korea is a border post where North and South Korean soldiers share and guard the border. The two sides might meet and become friends as they are essentially neighbors. When two soldiers turn up dead from North Korea, a South Korean is blamed. The Swedish delegates are brought in to oversee the case and when the pieces don’t add up the entire case starts to get a little weird, revealing a much more complicated tragic answer. It’s a good movie that takes a solid look at DMZ politics as well as presenting a thriller worth the time involved.