Desert Island Films: South Korean Cinema

Although it has been a long time coming, this year seems to be the first where it is impossible to ignore the influx of Korean filmmakers in Hollywood. Chan-wook Park made his English-language debut with Stoker, while the second film in his revenge trilogy (Oldboy) is also being remade with Spike Lee at the helm, with a release set for later this year. Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good, the Bad, the Weird) also made his American debut with The Last Stand, which was also Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to film. Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) makes his American debut with the star-studded science-fiction film, Snowpiercer. Anyone who has paid attention to international cinema in the last decade would have been able to predict this wave of new arrivals from South Korea. Hollywood has been pillaging the talented directors from thriving foreign markets since the early days of cinema.

Korea had a slow start in joining the world in the participation of the film production, with the first feature film produced in the early 1920s. For many years the condition of the nation’s cinema was a proper reflection of the country itself, which was often quite tumultuous. During the silent era of cinema Koreans suffered Japanese Occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. Though the films were strictly censored, the Koreans found a way to circumnavigate this problem through the use of the byeonsa. A byeonsa was somewhat like a live narrator, there to translate the intertitles for the audience. They were also free to interject their own comments of satire and criticism when Japanese authorities were not present.


            Sound brought unique issues to filmmaking all around the world, but the censorship in Korea made it especially tricky. Film was universal without words, but the addition of dialogue only meant further censorship for Koreans. In 1938, the Japanese government encouraged the use of the Japanese language while simultaneously banning the use of the Korean dialogue. Fortunately, the end of the Pacific War in 1945 resulted in Korea’s liberation.


            In the years following, the north and south split apart, with Soviet military troops advancing and taking the northern portion of the peninsula. The United States placed troops in the southern region and the Korean War made film production nearly impossible until the ceasefire in 1953. With assistance from the United States, the South Korean government then reorganized the film industry, resulting in a brief flourish of success.


This was short-lived, however, as the most oppressive time in Korean cinema history arrived with the military coup of 1961. During the 1970s, Korean cinema was crippled by censorship. The success of television matched with no freedom of expression resulted in a depression in theaters and many production companies. The Korean CIA had spies within the media, as well as schools and churches, so as to unearth any dissenting individuals. Censorship did not merely mean that the films would not be seen, but often resulted in imprisonment, torture, forced confessions and even executions.


It wasn’t until the assassination of President Park in the 1980s that South Korean cinema finally had a chance to begin. From 1988 to 1995, the censorship laws were slowly revoked, allowing for a completely fresh generation of filmmakers to create their own national cinema from the ground up. Even more remarkable than the speed with which South Korean became internationally praised and appreciated since moving to civilian government in 1993 is the fact that it has also become one of the few places in the world where homegrown films outsell the Hollywood imports.


I can appreciate that foreign films can often be difficult to recommend, not simply because of the subtitles but because of varying styles and pacing preferences. For those wanting to ease their way into international cinema, South Korean cinema finds a great deal of influence in Hollywood films. There is also preference to violence, especially with the removal of censorship and the freedom to delve deep into the content that was, until recently, forbidden. There is no better substitute for fans of a Hollywood blockbuster than a South Korean blockbuster. In some cases, I prefer the latter.


5. The Man From Nowhere (2010)


            The Man From Nowhere follows in the tradition of popular thrillers in South Korean’s recent past, most notably Oldboy. There is heart at the center of a film filled with graphic and fascinating action, which somehow always remains more than moderately believable and entertaining. The Man From Nowhere had the highest box office numbers of the year in Korea, and it is easy to see why. Although it may not be entirely original or unpredictable, The Man From Nowhere is endlessly enjoyable.


             The film begins with a little girl and an ex-special agent. Cha Tae-shik (Won Bin) lives next door to an impoverished child named So-mi (Kim Sae-Ron) who often escapes into his pawn shop in order to avoid her addict mother. When So-mi’s mother uses the pawn shop in order to hide a large amount of drugs, he is pulled into a larger plot. In order to rescue his next-door neighbor and friend, Tae-shik comes out of hiding in order to carry out swift justice.


            There are some spectacular fight sequences, which are both brutal and fast, leading up to a few final sequences worth watching the whole film for. Much of the film is filled with drama that is so effective that there is more power in the violence. Hollywood action films could take a lesson from South Korean cinema, as few are able to blend believable characters and melodrama out of implausible action scenarios the way they do. This was the second feature from director Jeong-beom Lee, who also wrote the screenplay.


4. My Sassy Girl (2001)


            Based on a series of true stories posted by Ho-sik Kimon the internet describing his somewhat dysfunctional romantic relationship, My Sassy Girl is an implausible film. There are so many ways that this movie should not have worked, and in fact, when it was remade in America, it absolutely did not work. And this is despite the fact that the remake was directed by Yann Samuell, a French filmmaker who directed one of my Desert Island French films. But that’s another list. This is not easy material to convey with sincerity. There is some sappiness, some predictability, and the film ends with what can either be construed as science fiction or fate. All of this in a film which is part drama, part comedy and has a running time of over two hours. All of this comes together, despite every reason it should not, because of a great cast and filmmaker, Jae-young Kwak.


            Director Kwak also adapted the stories by Kimon for his screenplay, which follows the misadventures of hapless college student Gyeon-woo (Tae-Hyun Cha), who inadvertently becomes involved with a young nameless girl (Ji-hyun Jun) when she is drunk on the subway and strangers assume that the two are together. With no other choice but to take care of a stranger, Gyeon-woo finds himself entangled. Their relationship is mostly one-sided, with the girl behaving erratically, stringing Gyeon-woo along just enough so that he continues to amuse her. These games are both amusing and sad, because there is a reason the girl keeps Gyeon-woo at a distance.


            This film hasn’t been released in the United States, despite having been poorly remade by Hollywood. The only way to see this film is by import DVD. I myself have only seen it once, and this is one of the few films that I love which is not in my massive collection. It is also a film which I can recall the feelings of watching it more than the film itself, perhaps because I was shocked by how emotionally connected I became with the characters over two hours time. A film with such a lasting impression and emotional resonance is extremely rare, making this one of my favorite romance films as well. Find a copy of this any way you can, get a box of tissues for the unavoidable tears and enjoy the only film in my South Korean list without bloody carnage.    



3. The Host (2006)


[Review from film’s theatrical release in the United States]


It has been a really long time since there was a really good creature film. They are simple and don’t need a lot of explanation. The creature just exists and must be destroyed for order to be restored. The Host is a creature film at times, but there is focus spent elsewhere often during the film. The film follows a family as they try and find their youngest family member, who is struggling to survive in the creature’s nest deep in a sewer. There are many things going on besides the creature, but the essence of the film could at any minute switch back to creature should it randomly appear. Like many horror films, The Host is a survival film. It is also a family-in-peril horror film on top of being a survival creature film. And, like any good horror film, it knows when to make fun of itself also.


Just as Jaws made the beach seem frightening and suspect, The Host turns the Han River, a dull and unexciting river running through much of Korea, into a horrifying co-creator and home for a monster that emerges one day to wreak havoc on the city. The creature is created when an American scientist tells a lowly Korean assistant to pour dozens of bottles of chemicals into the sink. This begins a theme against authority running through the film. It isn’t just American authority, although they don’t look that great at any one point, but all authority, including Korean officials and police officers. Even seeming to make a point that it isn’t the individual as much as the whole, an American soldier off duty in Korea helps to battle the creature alongside one of our Korean protagonists, almost as if he were on duty he might have been part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.


The authority figures are of no help when a young girl is taken with her family left grieving, but even more shocking is their refusal to help when the family receives a phone call from the girl letting them know she is still alive and being held in the creature’s lair within the sewer. With the authorities claiming the phone call to be just a bad dream or grief, the family decides to break free from quarantine and escape to rescue her themselves. Her father, a near narcoleptic bum, her grandfather, the owner of a small snack shop by the river, her aunt, a world famous archer, and her uncle, a college graduate who can’t find a job, all equip themselves as best they can and set out to kill the creature and save their youngest family member.


It is a sad fact that American horror films are anything but original these days, and yet there is so much going on outside of Hollywood, and along with the Descent and 28 Days Later, The Host belongs in a category with films that are groundbreaking and will play a large part in the direction horror goes in next. Far better than I could have expected in terms of scale and emotional attachment to characters within a horror film, The Host is not only one of the best horror films in years, but simply one of the best films in years and certainly the best monster film in decades.



2. The City of Violence (2006)


Korea’s particular burst in cinema this last decade makes it an interesting country for examination right now, especially concerning the subject of revenge. Many Korean films in the recent past have dealt with revenge, most notably Park Chanwook’s Oldboy, the second in his vengeance trilogy. Until the 1980s Korean cinema was highly oppressed for many years, but from 1988 to 1995 the censorship laws were slowly revoked, allowing for a completely fresh generation of filmmakers to create a New Korean cinema. These films have proved to be highly violent and often dealing with vengeance and revenge as a common theme and although much of this is associated with Korean filmmakers suddenly being freed from censorship, able finally to make more violent film, in fact violence, revenge and torture have long been engrained in Korean stories. The City of Violence continues this tradition along with some new tricks to keep it cutting edge.


Part detective story and part buddy action, The City of Violence begins with a single act of violence which spawns the film’s events. Detective Taesoo (played by director, Ryoo Seung-Wan) doesn’t appear to be a very motivated or hardworking hero when we join him sleeping at a desk along with three shirtless thugs. His demeanor is calm and collected, even stoic as he receives a phone call from back home telling him that his friend Wangjae has died. He returns home to find that his friend’s death was no accident and decides to stay and try and figure out what really happened. Eventually he joins forces with another high school friend, Sukhwan, who has been investigating on his own. What is interesting is watching the two friends work together each piece of the puzzle on his own until they join forces to find the person responsible and get revenge. City of Violence continues this theme in Korean cinema along with many other expected areas of focus.

For instance, Korean cinema also tends to place a great deal of focus on the time period of being young and in school, both as a bonding period and as a period and setting where horrific events can happen. This is primarily because of the intense amount of time a child spends in the Korean school system by the end of high school. In The City of Violence the high school segments come as they do in many films; through flashbacks, but director Ryoo Seung-Wan adds in his own postmodern style to the traditional storyline. Before the first flashback a split screen is showing us the person on the other end of a phone conversation but it suddenly switches another shot which is taking place a few moments in the future. This jarring bit of editing plays with the audience’s concept of time immediately before throwing them into a flashback, a whirlwind of changes that is quite interestingly disorientating.


As much attention is given to the smaller details in the film, the focus is bound to be on the action, which is a perfect balance of realism and entertainment. The streets in the film are overrun by gangs which seem to echo The Warriors and when all of these gangs corner our hero in the street the result is the perfect answer to the horribly digitalized fight scene in The Matrix Reloaded in which Neo fights hundreds of men. (One could answer that this was already done with the climactic battle of Kill Bill Volume One, and there certainly seem to be some valid points to that argument and I wouldn’t doubt that Tarantino would love this film and nearly all of New Korean cinema.) This scene takes all of the elements which worked in all of this films, and maybe a little of Oldboy’s hallway battle, and makes them work in a natural and unique way. Instead of ripping off other action films or attempting something so original that it doesn’t even seem to echo in reality, Seung-Wan has simply improved upon many previous concepts and made them work to his advantage. And this is within the first thirty minutes of the film and only the second large fight with plenty left to come.


Even as the fighting takes on a life of its own, there are many moments within the film which seem to be inserting a pastiche from several American films with cult status. It seems a perfect counter-response to Tarantino’s Kill Bill which takes much from Samurai films. These brief references are done with the respect of the new wave of postmodern filmmakers Tarantino seems to helm so appropriately, especially after the Grindhouse experience.



1. Oldboy (2003)


            I have often heard it said that there are no more original ideas for films anymore. It is believed that all that could be thought of has already been done, and now we can only expect copies. While Chan-wook Park’s new film, Oldboy borrows the mood and feeling from many great films of the past, the premise is one that seems shockingly unique.


            After the film opens with a confusing scene in which it seems as though Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is holding a man from his tie over the edge of a building, it immediately jumps into a hilarious scene where a much more clean-cut Dae-su Oh, a seemingly ordinary man, albeit extremely intoxicated on his daughter’s birthday, goes through a whole spectrum of emotions waiting to be released in a police station. After being picked up by a friend, Dae-su Oh calls his daughter and wife, and then is kidnapped off the street. He is placed in a room with decent living conditions including a television, and is kept there for fifteen years.


            As the fifteen years pass within the cell, the mystery builds as to why Dae-su Oh is held captive, and it seems as though the film can go nowhere from this point, but when he is released on a grass filled rooftop the film just gets better. Dae-su Oh receives a phone call telling him that he has five days to figure out why he was held captive, and with the help of a young woman he meets in a sushi bar, he sets out to solve the mystery. Little more can be said of the plot without spoiling the surprise, which met every expectation I had from the film as it had impressed me so far. The mystery is built until the very end in which all of the film comes crashing into a wrenching, disturbing, and Shakespearian climax on par with films like Seven and Titus.


            Although Oldboy is not necessarily an action film there are a few fight sequences which are choreographed and shot in a way which will make you wish more of the film had action. One scene shot in a hallway is done in all one continuous shot, reminiscent of the famous scene in samurai film Sword of Doom. The brutality of the scene is only matched by the humor, which is just enough so that the violence is slightly more bearable.


            The characters are so well developed in Oldboy that when they begin to go through the extremely graphic situations it is much more difficult to watch. Min-sik Choi plays Dae-su Oh with such precision, despite an extended amount of the film spent in isolation. The last fifteen minutes of the film were so stressful to watch that it actually gave me a headache. And it was worth it. This is perhaps one of the best films in its genre in years. There is simply no other way to stress the fact that despite the limited distribution, this film should be well known and talked about. I am certain that every audience member which sees this film will not walk out and forget it.


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