A scene from Park Chan-wook's 'Thirst' (2009)
As “Hallyu” or the K-wave cultural phenomenon spreads across the world, gathering with it armies of fans who lap up K-pop music acts and K-drama on TV, audiences are also helping to push Korean cinema to a new peak.
The Korean Film Council reported that South Korean cinema registered an all-time high for the first half of 2013, with more than 55 million moviegoers in the country alone watching homegrown films. And four of the five highest-grossing films there were domestic ones, with ‘Iron Man 3’ the only foreign film in the chart.
Outside of home, South Korean cinema may be popularly known for its crime and spy thrillers, but it has no lack of arthouse films, some of which have stormed into film festival circuit favourites Venice and Cannes.
In 2012, Kim Ki-duk’s brutal and controversial film ‘Pieta’ took the Golden Lion at Venice, while Moon Byoung-gon’s ‘Safe’ won top prize for short films at Cannes this year.
Hollywood is certainly hitting on its hottest filmmakers: Park Chan-wook (‘Joint Security Area’) directed Nicole Kidman in ‘Stoker’ and Kim Ji-woon (‘I Saw the Devil’) helmed ‘The Last Stand’ that stars Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Other notable filmmakers, international acclaim notwithstanding, continue to shape the South Korean cinema scene, such as Bong Joon-ho (‘Memories of Murder’), Hong Sang-soo (‘In Another Country’), Kang Je-kyu (‘Shiri’, ‘Tae Guk Gi’), Kang Woo-suk (‘Slimdo’), Kwak Jae-young (‘My Sassy Girl’), Na Hong-jin (‘Chaser’), Ha Yoo (‘A Frozen Flower’) and Im Sang-soo (‘Housemaid’).
So before you can call yourself a bonafide fan of Korean pop culture, acquaint yourself with this shortlist of four of the leading film directors from South Korea, whose award-winning films have amassed a strong cult following internationally.
The Revenger: Park Chan-wook
South Korean films are well-known for their dark, edgy and violent thrillers, with political and social commentary on the North-South conflict or society at large.
Park Chan-wook is the name most identifiable with such dark themes and genres, starting with the megabox office hit ‘Joint Security Area’ (2000), followed by his “revenge trilogy”, ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ (2002), ‘Oldboy’ (2003) and ‘Lady Vengeance’ (2005).
‘Oldboy’ is his most successful film to date, about a man (played by Choi Min-sik) who is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years. The film’s visceral violence and unexpected ending shocked audiences everywhere, and movie fans have universally named it one of the best Korean movies ever made.
A long overdue Hollywood remake is already in the works, directed by Spike Lee.
Read also: Interview with Park Chan-wook
Many of the top leading men have their breakthrough roles in movies directed by Park, including Lee Byung-hun (‘Joint Security Area’), Choi Min Sik (‘Oldboy’) and the pop star Rain (‘I’m a Cyborg but that’s OK’).
Park’s favourite actor collaborator seems to be Song Kang-ho, who has worked with him on three films: ‘Joint Security Area’, ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’, and more recently ‘Thirst’ (2009). ‘Thirst’ offers a completely new revisionist take on vampire movies, making Song’s vampire figure seemingly human with a conscience, while still maintaining a very high body-and-blood count, Park Chan-wook style.
in 2013, Park also made his English language directorial debut with ‘Stoker’ (read review here), starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, successfully transporting his distinct style of dark poetic violence to Hollywood screens.
'The Handmaiden' trailer
This year, Park turned up the heat with his lurid sexual thriller 'The Handmaiden' which was the talk of the town at the recent Cannes Festival. Based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel 'Fingersmith', Park’s latest relocates the book from Victorian England to colonial Korea to tell the sexually charged story of a servant girl (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) who is hired by a conman to help win the trust of a wealthy heiress, only to watch helplessly as the two women enter into a passionate affair.
Read also: Interview with Mia Wasikowska
The Bad Boy: Kim Ki-duk
With a fine arts background, Kim Ki-duk made his feature film debut with ‘Crocodile’ (1996), and went on to direct well-received indie films such as ‘Wild Animals’ (1997), ‘Birdcage Inn’ (1999), ‘The Isle’ (2000), ‘Bad Guy’ (2001) and ‘The Coast Guard’ (2002).
He established a bad-boy reputation for showcasing expression-less leading characters and staging cruel and violent scenes, which usually juxtapose reality with surreal and fantastical elements.
His breakthrough film came with the zen-like ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring’ (2003), where he himself played the pivotal role of a young monk. This was followed by the Berlin Silver Bear (Best Director) winner ‘Samaritan Girl’ (2004) that elevated his cult status further.
In 2007, he collaborated with Taiwanese actor Chang Chen to make ‘Breath’, which was nominated for the Palme D’or (Best Picture) at Cannes.
While shooting his film ‘Dream’ (2008), lead actress Lee Na-yeong almost died from a hanging scene, and Kim took a three-year hiatus from filmmaking to reflect on his life, and these reflections later manifested in the self-directed, self-acted documentary ‘Arirang’ (2011).
In 2012, he shocked audiences again with the award-winning but blood-curdling ‘Pieta’, in which a hardnosed debt collector breaks bones figuratively while carrying out his job. The Golden Lion award at Venice Film Festival marked his highest film honour among his 17 feature films.
The Politician: Lee Chang-dong
It’s hard to overstate how towering a figure Lee Chang-dong is in Korean cinema.
An acclaimed novelist and a former minister of culture in Roh Moo-hyun’s government, Lee’s films have consistently maintained a high standard of artistic integrity and a strong voice in critiquing modern Korean society.
After a late debut with ‘Green Fish’ (1997), Lee went on to win multiple international film awards with ‘Peppermint Candy’ (1999) and ‘Oasis’ (2002).
With ‘Secret Sunshine’ (2007), Jeon Do-yeon became the first South Korean to win Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival.
For the 2010 film ‘Poetry’, Lee used the narrative of an old woman (amazingly portrayed by Yun Jeong-hie) suffering from early-stage Alzheimer to make a social commentary and reflect on the current state of South Korean cinema.
The Father of New Korean Cinema: Im Kwon-teak
Veteran filmmaker Im Kwon-teak, now 77, has directed 101 films in a career spanning over 50 years since 1962.
Before 1980, he was making primarily commercial films, directing up to eight movies a year.
His breakthrough film in 1981 was ‘Mandala’, touching on the subject matter of Buddhism and monks in South Korea.
The film cemented his international reputation as master filmmaker and it is still widely regarded as one of his best films.
Im continued to achieve commercial success with films such as ‘Sopyonje’ (1993), which broke box office records at home to become the first domestic film with one million admissions in Seoul alone.
He was also the first South Korean director to win the prestigious Best Director award in Cannes for his film ‘Chihwaseon’ (2002), about an influential 19th-century painter who changed the direction of the country’s art scene.
In 2005, Im was also awarded the honorary Golden Bear award at Berlin Film Festival.
While his output has slowed down in the past decade, with an average of one film every three to four years, his latest work ‘Hanji’ was released as recently as 2011.
A film buff, David Lee lives and breathes cinema. The former TV producer and writer is the vice-chairman of the Singapore Film Society.