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Primer: 10 Essential Films Of The Korean New Wave

Primer: 10 Essential Films Of The Korean New Wave

This weekend, after what seems like roughly a decade of delays, rumors, teases, announcements, retractions and general bloviating, Bong Joon-ho’s anxiously awaited “Snowpiercer” hits screens. Of course it seems like years, but it was in fact “only” last October, after its South Korean August bow, that the film snuck out in France (from where we reviewed it), after which it rolled out in Asia, Western and Eastern Europe, and you know, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan before finally coming to the U.S., marking one of the stranger international release strategies for a genre picture starring a recognizable American action star in recent memory. Might it be the only Chris Evans film ever to open in Mongolia three months before the U.S.?

Of course, we’re being a little facetious: “Snowpiercer” may indeed feature Captain America (along with Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and John Hurt among the more familiar faces), but it’s hardly a Chris Evans vehicle. In fact, it’s probable that its surface similarity to an easy-to-market popcorn flick (Hollywood star, comic book provenance, high-concept sci-fi) proved one of the contributing factors to the confusion and prevarication around its release: as any of us who’ve seen it can attest, it is definitively not a straight-up popcorn flick, and it’s possible that the Weinsteins envisaged flaming torches and pitchforks from irate moviegoers raging that they’d been sold an arthouse experiment under the guise of a sci-fi blockbuster. Because it really is very weird — in a way that will delight cinephiles, but that may well leave more mainstream audiences scratching their heads. So it is probably about right that it’s opening limited (and thankfully — or perhaps not — uncut), that “Transformers: Bombastic Subtitle” will siphon off the majority of of the “WTF dude?” brigade and that the name above the marquee is most definitely that of its Korean director, Bong Joon-ho.

Bong already has an international profile, mainly based on the breakout arthouse success of the equally odd, genre-fusing mindfuck that was “The Host” (not to be confused with last year’s terrible Saoirse Ronan YA adaptation unless joyless timesucks are your thing). But he is also part of a generation of Korean directors (at this point almost exclusively male, at least those who have found a measure of international distribution, though 2013’s Busan Film Festival did spotlight several first-time female directors so hopefully some green shoots there) who came of age just as newly democratic South Korea started to blossom culturally and artistically. Bringing both a broad appreciation of genre cinema and a uniquely Korean perspective, along with poster child Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”), Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk and Kim Ji-woon, Bong is at the forefront of the so-called Korean New Wave (which also spawned adorable neologism “Hallyuwood” with “Hallyu” roughly translating as “flow from Korea”), which was seeded in the mid-90s but really started to thrive, and to gain international recognition in the 00s. More recently, as “Snowpiercer,” Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker” Kim Ji-woon’s English-language debut “The Last Stand” and last year’s “Oldboy” remake prove, Hollywood has caught the K-wave bug, so for those of you who are wondering where to begin, here’s a handy starter pack of 10 films, featuring all the aforementioned directors, and those titles of theirs we feel can give the best overview of the thriving and ever-expanding Korean New Wave. And if you’re in New York, here’s five movies to check out at the upcoming Asian Film Festival.

Joint Security Area” (2000)
Although living in a nation permanently on the brink of war with its neighbor underpins many of the films on this list, “Joint Security Area” is relatively rare in that it directly deals with South Korea’s border with the North, a nation feared around the world as one of the most brutal and repressive dictatorships of current times. It’s rarer still in that it does it in the guise of a gripping, very commercial thriller, and in that it preaches a compassionate anti-war message while it’s at it. The local breakthrough of Park Chan-wook (who’d made two films in the 1990s, but had been making ends meet as a film critic in the meantime), the film is an adaptation of a novel called “DMZ” by Park Sang-yeon, and as you might expect, is set in the de-militarized zone that separates the north from the south. One night, a South Korean soldier (Lee Byung-hun) unexpectedly flees back to his own side, after two North Korean soldiers are killed, an act that leaves relations between the two countries in a heightened state, with only an investigation by neutral Swiss Army Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae) standing in the way of all-out hostility. The film’s indebted somewhat to U.S. pictures like “A Few Good Men” and “The Caine Mutiny,” and is certainly less boundary-pushing on the surface than Park’s later work, with significantly less live-octopus-eating or incest, but there’s a sharp subversiveness to the way it sneaks a story of friendship across the divide into what could have been so easily a bombastic thriller: it ends up playing out like a tragedy, of good men undone by a conflict that has already destroyed so many lives. It’s also, less surprisingly, masterfully made, with Park showing an astonishing command of tension, and the immaculate, borderline Kubrickian eye for detail that would recur in his later work too. It’s not as attention-grabbing as the Vengeance trilogy, but it’s still an essential, and surprisingly little-seen work from a then-fledgling master.

Save The Green Planet” (2003)

One of the things that makes Korean cinema so exciting is the way that it’s so fearless about colliding different genres and tones into one another. In the U.S., similar attempts are either unsuccessful, or prove to sit poorly with audiences, but in the Korean New Wave it seems to be virtually the norm, and no film represents that better than the gloriously bonkers “Save The Green Planet!” The feature-length debut of director Jang Joon-hwan, it initially appears to be another revenge picture, with Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun), adorned in a strange, steampunkish helmet, kidnapping and imprisoning his boss, Man-shik (Baek Yoon-sik). But as it turns out, Byeong-gu believes the man to be an alien from Andromeda. As the police close in, it begins to appear as if there’s a more prosaic reason for Byeong-gu’s actions, but director Jang isn’t nearly through the process of messing with his audience by then. The film absolutely shouldn’t work: it mixes thriller, “Audition”-style horror complete with some truly grotesque violence, elements of broad comedy, mental illness drama, quirky romance and science-fiction, sometimes within the space of a single scene. But the relentless invention and density of ideas at play carry it through, along with the sheer level of energy that Jang brings: the filmmaker directs like he’ll never be afforded the opportunity again (he wasn’t far off: it took him ten years to follow the film up, with sophomore feature “Hwayi: A Monster Boy” hitting Korean theaters last year), shooting events with a bold, colorful palette and a punkish grindhouse style that makes the film come across like a sort of pop-art fever dream. And yet it also manages not to be style over substance: like some of its contemporaries, it’s also a genuinely human story about the acts of inhumanity that we perform on one another.

Memories of Murder” (2003)

Anyone acquainted with the souped-up monster mash of “The Host,” or the post-apocalyptic sci-fi of this week’s “Snowpiercer” might think they’d know roughly what to expect from a Bong Joon-ho movie.
They would be wrong, as Bong’s characteristic trait, if he has one,
appears to be unpredictability. It’s certainly the only explanation for
this restrained, downbeat but fascinating procedural, based on the true
and unsolved case of Korea’s first known serial killer, which therefore
bears quite some resemblance to David Fincher‘s take on the similarly futile search for the Zodiac killer, which would arrive five years later. “Memories of Murder” is, like “Zodiac,”
more the story of the police than of the crime, critiquing the
corruption and ineptitude of the provincial Korean police force, or
perhaps just their almost innocent unpreparedness for this type of
hideous crime, through the characters of two rival cops with differing
approaches, both of which ultimately prove equally ineffective. Played
by Kim Sang-kyung and the ubiquitous Song Kang-ho, who has a lead role in “Snowpiercer” and has worked, often multiple times with every director on this list bar Kim Ki-duk
(we think), the film also works as a character study of these two men,
one slobbish and unprincipled in how he gets the job done, the other
more fastidious and big-city thorough, sent in from Seoul to assist. But
it’s the film’s peculiar rhythm, its unhurried but also unconventional
structure that really marks it out, especially as this was only Bong’s
second film. Eschewing set pieces and action sequences in favor of a
kind of gradual, hopeless unraveling, it’s almost subversive in its
relentless thrust away from resolution, from redemption, from
“closure”—away from anything but a slow slide into inevitable defeat,
punctuated only by some brief flashes of the most mordant humor and
Bong’s incipient eye for the absurd. It’s hard to take something as
concrete as a crime procedural, and one based on true story at that, and
make something so impressionistic and elusive from it, but Bong, just
two films in, already had a totally auteurist, individual vision, which
remains perhaps the only unifying element between all his generically,
tonally and thematically diverse output.

A Tale Of Two Sisters” (2003)
With a more immediately commercial sensibility than some of his contemporaries, it made sense that Kim Ji-Woon would be the first of the Korean New Wave filmmakers to head to Hollywood, with last year’s underrated Arnie-starring actioner “The Last Stand.” As fun as that film was, it wasn’t unfiltered Kim, and while some would have picked out “A Bittersweet Life” or “The Good, The Bad & The Weird,” we’d favor “A Tale Of Two Sisters,” probably the definitive contemporary Korean horror movie, as one of his most complete and satisfying works to date. Riffing on a famous, much-filmed folk story called “Rose Flower and Red Lotus,” and initially seeming to be taking some visual cues from the run of J-horror like “The Ring” and “The Grudge” that had been so popular a few years before, Kim’s film seemingly centers on a pair of sisters, Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) who find reason to be suspicious of their new stepmother (Yeom Jeong-ah), their late mother’s former nurse after Su-mi begins suffering from terrifying visions. But as ever, things are more complicated: this isn’t a simple murder mystery or ghost tale (though it’s effective as both), but a first-rate Kubrick-remakes-”Haesu” mindfuck that lingers not so much over what you can see (though there are some horrifying sights there), but on what’s happening just on the other side of frame. The film isn’t well suited for the more ADD horror-fan: it’s slowly and deliberately paced (running close to two hours), and admittedly can be tough to follow first time around during its time-jumping third act as it explains what’s going on. But it’s otherwise an artful, rich and legitimately unnerving picture, especially when held up against the tepid 2009 U.S. remake “The Uninvited,” which features Elizabeth Banks and David Strathairn, and dumbs down to the point that the whole thing feels entirely generic.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring” (2003)

The cuckoo in the nest of director Kim Ki-duk’s otherwise often extremely violent, disturbing and/or sexist catalogue, ‘Spring’ is also by far our favorite of his contributions to the New Wave, being a slow, achingly beautifully shot, contemplative parable inspired by Buddhist teachings. Look a little closer, though (and it’s almost impossible not to with photography this immersive and evocative) and you’ll see some of the enfant terrible’s trademarks come through. There are scenes of animal cruelty (specifically toward fish, snakes and frogs, and, depending on how you feel about using a live cat’s tail as a paintbrush, possibly cats), which have hampered his films’ U.S. distribution on occasion, and while there’s certainly less evidence here of the misogyny he’s frequently accused of, we could wish the quickly-sketched-in women in the film weren’t quite so peripheral and slight. But it’s simply not his focus here: his concern is with the loss of innocence, and eventual gaining of wisdom of a young apprentice monk (Kim Young-Min, and then Kim Ki-Duk himself in later years) who lives with his teacher and “master” (Oh Young-su) in a tiny one-room temple that floats on a raft in the middle of a tranquil lake surrounded by the sights and sounds of harmonious nature. A young woman (Ha Yeo-jin) comes to the temple to heal from an unspecified illness, and the apprentice ends up running away with her, only to return many years later having, as his impossibly wise teacher foresaw, had his love turn to possessiveness, and his possessiveness to murder. Later again, following the death of the master and his release from prison, he returns to take up the mantle in the temple himself, even gaining his own apprentice as the cycle of pain, cruelty, grace and acceptance begins over again. Considering its pessimism (we are doomed to repeat our mistakes) and the tragic bent of the storytelling, the film’s tone of utterly absorbing, and oddly inspirational serenity is quite remarkable, and if nothing else shows that Kim has talent to burn in other registers than the “watch-it-if-you-dare” violence and perversity of his Venice-winning “Pieta” or 2013’s “Moebius.” Or, by the sounds of its rape-and-murder storyline, his newest, “One by One” which is due to open the Venice Days sidebar at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

Park Chan-Wook‘s “Vengeance Trilogy” (2002, 2003 & 2005)

It would be pretty sacrilegious to compile a list of Korean New Wave cinema and not include its most iconic and influential film to date “Oldboy,” and yet last year’s ill-conceived remake, plus the fact it’s a frequent touchpoint for revenge movies in general, and contains one of our favorite extended take sequences ever, has seen us writing about it a great deal lately. And so we’re cheating with this spot and giving it to three films, Park Chan-wook’s so-called “Vengeance Trilogy” of which “Oldboy” is the middle entry. The definition of a thematic trilogy, (characters and setting all change, but the stories share ideas, motifs and arcs) it starts off with 2002’s “Sympathy for Mister Vengeance” which stars Song Kang-ho as the rich father of a girl who drowns during a botched kidnapping. Already here the stylish violence and inventively twisty morals are in evidence as your sympathy, appropriately enough, teeters between the grieving father and the kidnappers who had their own moral justifications for their crime. It’s maybe the more complete film but it has been largely eclipsed by its slicker, blacker, more keep’em guessing follow-up (‘Sympathy’ only got a small retrospective international release after the success of “Oldboy”). And then, two years after “Oldboy” (these were consecutive features from Park) came “Lady Vengeance” which did get an international theatrical release, and while it never got quite the same kudos as its predecessor, arguably holds up just as well (if not better) to repeat viewings. It’s also refreshing, if maybe not hugely progressive, to have the protagonist be a woman, especially as women are so often, rather worrisomely, the victims of violent crime in New Wave Korean genre filmmaking. And with its deliberate pacing, set pieces that are perhaps less graphic than the previous entries, but often more psychologically vicious, surprising dark humor and constant switchbacks that build to a trademark twist climax, it may be the most muted of the trilogy, but it is also arguably the most complex and layered.

The Host” (2006)
Having had a huge local hit and come to international attention with “Memories Of Murder,”
all eyes were on Bong Joon-Ho’s next move, and the director didn’t
remotely disappoint when “The Host” premiered three years later:
becoming the biggest box office hit in the nation’s history, the film
also quickly gained a reputation internationally as maybe the best
monster movie since “Jaws,” and confirmed Bong as one of the most exciting filmmakers around. Very loosely based on a real-life incident where a mortician working for the
U.S. disposed of a large quantity of formaldehyde into the water
system, it’s a very local take on the genre, focusing on a single family
in Seoul who are caught up in an attack by a strange tentacled monster,
seemingly created by U.S-aided pollution in the river. Not wildly
innovative on paper, there’s as much Ken Loach as Spielberg
in Bong’s approach, keeping the focus tight on this raucous blue-collar
family as they search for their missing youngest member, despite the
incompetencies and bureaucracies of the people supposedly in charge
(rewatching the film recently, it’s sadly reminiscent of the response
and aftermath of the recent ferry disaster in the country that killed
300 people, mostly children), and that sharp political edge is part of
what elevates the film. The other part is that it’s a terrific,
terrifying, hugely entertaining monster movie: Bong showed that he could
deliver CGI-aided thrills that could compete with Hollywood’s best (the
daylight sequence that first reveals the monster is a goddamn
masterclass), and the borderline sorcery of the way that he can switch
between tones, finding genuinely hilarious moments among the realistic
devastation, building up a group of truly loveable, if deeply flawed
heroes. Bong’s subsequent work (2009’s Hitchcockian thriller “Mother,”
and the imminent “Snowpiercer”) have been incredibly thrilling too, but
between them, “Memories Of Murder” and “The Host” are twin peaks that
any filmmaker would be hard pushed to match again.

I Saw The Devil” (2010)
While we hope we’ve listed a few alternatives to the fetishized violence
of the Korean take on the revenge movie, there is a reason it’s
probably become the most recognisable and iconic territory that
Hallyuwood films have claimed, at least in the international
consciousness. And that’s because it’s a genre that not just Park Chan-wook is fascinated by, but that many of the others have worked in too, most notably Kim Ji-woon, whose horror entry “A Tale of Two Sisters
is also on this list. Genre polyglot Kim’s take on the vengeance
thriller is fully as sick, slick and inventively disturbing in its
violence as “Oldboy” and the comparison is doubly apt as it also stars “Oldboy” icon Choi Min-sik.
But here Choi plays not the perpetrator of revenge, but its object, a
deranged, utterly conscienceless serial rapist and murderer who becomes
the prey of the boyfriend of one of his victims (Lee Byung-hun).
It’s astoundingly gory stuff, and the graphic portrayal of the killer’s
crimes against women makes for some queasy, deeply discomfiting viewing.
And yet, there’s the oddest throughline of almost meditative sadness
that runs through the bloodletting and the misogyny like a current, and
which, coupled with Kim’s eye for astonishing composition and coloring,
saves this lurid, salacious story from all-out exploitation. Though it’s
that too. Tracing the boyfriend’s descent to a level of madness that
rivals the killer’s in his frantic, empty and ultimately
counterproductive pursuit of revenge, the film’s splashy, gross-out
credentials are impeccable, but it’s the overarching, incisive portrayal
of the futility of revenge, and the unconquerable power of evil over
good that is its most chilling and lasting impression.

“Poetry” (2010)
As measured, socially aware and vehemently humanist as some of his compatriots are slick, style-minded and genre-oriented, Lee Chang-dong is probably the introvert of the bunch (we’re talking cinematically, never having met the guy). But after pioneering an early entry in to the New Wave canon with “Peppermint Candy” a film about a suicidal man told in reverse chronology years before “Memento” or “Irreversible” attempted the same trick, Lee has earned his spot at the table, and is one of those gratifying cases where we can see him growing in maturity and sensitivity as a filmmaker from one film to the next. Fittingly, then, it is his most recent film, 2010’s “Poetry” that we want to showcase here: while 2002’s “Oasis” won him the most acclaim with its unflinching portrayal of the relationship between a mentally and socially unbalanced young man and a woman suffering from cerebral palsy, and 2007’s “Secret Sunshine” if anything went even further in terms of the forensic examination of emotional devastation, it was “Poetry” that simply ripped us open. An underseen near-masterpiece of understated, aching empathy, the film centers on Grandmother Mija (the beautiful Yun Jeong-hie) whose teenage grandson is somehow involved in the suicide of a local girl. The aging Mija’s life starts to unravel and she struggles to retain her moral compass just as she finds she’s starting to forget things–even words, which she needs in order to complete an assignment for her poetry class. It’s a film of tender, minutely observed truthfulness from the slow beginning to the impossibly affecting climax which occurs partly at what has to be the most heartbreaking game of badminton ever committed to film. And the central performance is a small wonder all its own; Mija is of an age and a social class that make her an unlikely centerpiece for a film, but Yun embodies her unforgettably as a woman fighting against the encroaching invisibility and irrelevance of old age, even as she feels herself begin to fade away. Sometimes K-wave films find their nearest equivalents in other Asian filmic traditions: it is the highest compliment we can pay that “Poetry” most of all reminds us of Ozu.

“Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” (2013)
Once you’ve seen one of Hong Sang-soo’s films, you’ve seen them all. That would be a very glib and inaccurate way of talking about the director, but it’s easy to take a certain amount of sympathy with that viewpoint: his films (which aren’t widely distributed in the U.S., but are favorites of the festival crowd), often feel like variations on a theme, often tackling similar issues of disconnection, self-absorption and alienation, with a structural playfulness that belies their surface wispiness, and certain recurring elements in each, like a character who is a film director. But it adds up to an increasingly remarkable and beguiling body of work, and last year’s “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” is as good an entry point to his filmmaking as any other, at once accessible and a little off-putting. The titular Haewon (Jung Eun-chae) is being left alone in Seoul: her father (who appears to not be Korean) is never seen, and her mother moves to Canada at the opening of the film after one final dinner together. She recently broke up with her film studies professor (Lee Sun-kyun), who’s also a movie director, and the ripples of that break-up continue to play out as the film unspools. Those who demand a certain emphasis on plot are never going to adore Hong (despite his narrative playfulness), but there simply isn’t anyone else, in Korea, or in the rest of world cinema, quite like him, this film, like so many of his others, attaining a unique rhythm — in particular, “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon” ends up feeling like that state between dreaming and waking, the state in which Haewon spends much of the film. And it also rewards multiple viewings, initially seeming slight but unpacking itself into a rich and complex take on mortality, history repeating itself and the nature of home. It’s another entry in what’s becoming one of the most beguiling filmographies in contemporary cinema.

Also Worth Checking Out: Rounding out the leading pack of the Korean New Wave is one director we haven’t covered above: Im Sang-soo whose 2010 film “The Housemaid,” a loose remake of the recently rediscovered 1960 film from veteran director Kim Ki-young played In Competition in Cannes and was widely distributed on the arthouse and festival circuit. An interesting inversion of the social dynamic of the original, in which a conniving unbalanced female servant seduces, blackmails and ultimately destroys a family man, Im’s film switches that around to become a pointed indictment of bourgeois family values in which the housemaid is the innocent and the family her tormentors. Notorious also for its explicit sex scenes and undercurrents of sado-masochism, the lurid and at times overwrought melodrama does reveal Im’s ongoing preoccupation with class and Korean society, which he explored to lesser effect in 2012’s “The Taste of Money” and which got him into hot water back in 2005 when his film “The President’s Last Bang” was the subject of a lawsuit due to its scathing serio-comic portrayal of the real-life 1979 assassination of President Park Chung-hee by his Korean CIA chief.

As we mentioned this is all just a taster of a movement that is growing expanding and travelling further with each year, even spawning its own subgenres and imitators. And there are some major titles we didn’t cover here which are good suggestions for further viewing if this has given you a taste. Other names to look out for include Kang Je-kyu, especially his 2004 brothers-divided-by-war epic “The Brotherhood of War,” Na Hong-jin‘s slick, nasty cop thriller “The Chaser” from 2008, frenetic 1999 action thriller “Nowhere to Hide” from Lee Myung-se, 2001 romance “Failan” from Song Hae-sung, which shows a softer, subtler side to Korean superstar Choi Min-sik (“Oldboy” himself), and Korea’s own biggest homegrown blockbuster 2001’s “My Sassy Girl” from Kwak Jae-wong which has already spawned the ultimate Hollywood compliment in the form of an awful remake starring Elisha Cuthbert.

And of the directors we have covered, there will no doubt be those aghast that we didn’t include Kim Ji-woon’s entertainingly gonzo but wildly uneven “The Good The Bad & The Weird” or 2005’s terrific mob crime film “A Bittersweet Life,” (a U.S. remake of which is currently in the works from Allen Hughes), Hong Sang-soo’s “In Another Country,” “The Woman on the Beach” or “Turning Gate,” and Park Chan-wook’s vampire priest yarn “Thirst,” while Lee Chang-dong’s “Peppermint Candy” (mentioned above) and Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother” and “Barking Dogs Never Bite” are both strong early entries to the canon, the latter starring Bong regular and “Cloud Atlas” standout Bae Doona.

But seriously, this list could be about five times as long and not run out of interesting titles, so let us know if which Korean New Wave films have made the deepest impression on you, and which you’d recommend most as entry-level movies for the neophyte, in the comments section below. –Jessica Kiang & Oli Lyttelton

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