As Bong Joon-ho's Parasite wins Palme d'Or at Cannes 2019, here are ten essential films of New Korean Cinema
He became the first South Korean filmmaker to win the top honour at the prestigious festival. Moreover, his triumph arrived as the proverbial cherry on the cake of a tremendous two decades for the country’s film industry: twenty plus years of burgeoning homegrown filmmaking talent, increasing ticket sales at the box office and honing a unique style of storytelling that’s transformed genre and garnered enormous international recognition.
The New Korean Cinema and globalisation went hand in hand. The local box office had long been dominated by foreign language films. Shiri’s (1998) success made the first dent in that landscape. It opened the gates for a handful of filmmakers—from masters of genre to arthouse giants—to devise a form of storytelling that borrowed generously from folk traditions and the west. They spearheaded a transformation in genres like the police procedural, comedy, mystery, thriller and horror, to the degree that film enthusiasts began looking towards Korea to provide fare that cut through the clutter spawned by the slightly regimented Hollywood style of storytelling. It resulted in windfall gains at the box office and a few directors like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Jee Woon-kim, Lee Chang-dong et al becoming international superstars.
Curating a list of the ten essential films from this golden period of Korean creativity is an incredible task. I am mindful of a few deserving films and filmmakers that I had to leave out owing to space constraints. Therefore, I’ve tried to keep a diverse palette, hoping that someone uninitiated to Korean films might proceed from this list to a deeper engagement with the riches their cinema has to offer. Those who’ve followed and admired their cinema will definitely find a bone or two to pick with the exclusion of certain films. The films are arranged in chronological order.
Peppermint Candy (1999)
No less than two more films by Lee Chang-dong could have made this list — Poetry and Secret Sunshine. But Peppermint Candy seems like the right choice to start off a list that attempts to condense a historically fecund period for Korean cinema. For in telling the story of the life of a thoroughly unlikable man, Lee paints a sobering picture of the country’s history by gnawing relentlessly at the moral and economic corruption of its society.
That he does it in reverse, a strategy later made popular by Christopher Nolan, adds to the appeal of a film that exhorts viewers to reckon with the past while looking inward. Peppermint Candy released a year before the new millennium began. It came as a reminder that new beginnings can be made only once we’ve faced the ghosts of the past. That ever so often, in our end is our beginning.
Joint Security Area (2000)
Maybe it’s fitting that the most important Korean film from the first year of the new millennium draws its drama from the demilitarised border between South Korea and its belligerent neighbour in the north. It belongs to the period before director Park Chan-wook discovered his signature grotesque style that shot him to worldwide fame. JSA is among the director’s more moving films, a story that upholds the frail human voice that often gets drowned underneath the ballistic rancour of war.
It is the account of an investigation into the death of two North Korean soldiers at the heavily guarded border. The neutral party appointed to solve the riddle can only begin to scratch at the surface of a truth born from human connections that often escapes the jaws of reason. It is a timeless tale that couldn’t have been released at a more opportune time.
Old Boy (2003)
One would have to be living under a rock if they haven’t watched, or at least heard about Park Chan-wook’s international smash hit. Old Boy wowed audiences and filmmakers alike, influenced even more spawned countless imitations, lit up the box office and turned Park into a superstar. It single-handedly put New Korean Cinema on the global filmmaking map and changed the way audiences looked at the revenge film. Outrageous, orgiastic and grotesque, Park’s symphony of balletic violence made the world sit up and take notice of the mountain of talent coming their way from this tiny country.
Rarely has a hammer been put to better use in a film. A man is thrown into a private prison for seemingly no reason. After years of incarceration and isolation, he’s just as randomly set free. The man, played by an excellent Choi Min-sik, is desperate for revenge. He begins a harrowing journey through the purgatory of the modern world, stumbling upon secret after secret that will transform him and make the audience question what they casually accept to be the truth.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Jee Woon-kim has the most diverse filmography amongst all the celebrated Korean filmmakers. He gives the impression that, at his best, he is capable of doing anything. His rollicking take on Sergio Leone’s classic film, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, cheekily called The Good, The Bad and the Weird, is a case in point. He takes a classic, and seemingly unmindful of its historical baggage, turns it into a truly Korean story that is a triumph of the picaresque.
But it is his take on the horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, that truly represents his vision. Not only is it among the most beautifully mounted horror films, but despite its deliberate pace and derision towards crude scares, it fashions an atmosphere that horrifies and excites in equal measure. A pair of sisters comes to an old house and realises that there is more to their stepmother than seems at first sight. But the simplicity of the story slowly unravels to reveal the bitter secrets that turn their world upside down. It’s a film that rewards multiple viewings and gives you plenty of time to pore over its mysteries.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Arguably Bong Joon-ho’s greatest work, Memories of Murder caps off a blistering year for Korean cinema. Buoyed by a masterful performance by the incomparable Song Kang-ho, Bong’s extended interrogation of the serial killer film and Korean society is menacing, dark, unflinching and imbued with profound despair. It brings the director’s storytelling gifts to the fore, by ever so often using rip-roaring comedy to skewer the corruption underlying Korean institutions.
Based on a real life unsolved case, MOM witnesses the slow but gradual unravelling of two detectives over the course of an investigation into the serial murder of women in a small town. Bong’s command of pacing and judicious use of comedy in telling the story of two wildly different people who find themselves on a Mobius strip helps him go further than most films of the genre in creating a profound critique of society. It balances the social commentary with the personal trials endured by the detectives and all the others involved in the case, pushed to the edge of sanity and towards despair.
Castaway on the Moon (2009)
This is how you do romance.
Leave it to the Korean imagination to produce one of the most mind-bogglingly strange and beautiful romance dramas of our time. Lee Hae-jun isn’t as celebrated a director as most of the others on this list. But with Castaway on the Moon he created a love story the like of which I have never seen.
It starts off being the story of a heartbroken man who finds himself trapped on a small patch of land under a bridge in the middle of the city with no one to rescue him. From there, Lee shoots for the moon with a screenplay that rockets through the genre’s stratosphere. I’d shut my trap at this point. For you must see it to believe it.
The Korean way of handling genre is to create spaces in between the intricate warp and weft of the narrative, allowing the film to breathe within its confines. Imagine a man stuck inside a big container slowly getting filled with water. While he searches for the key at the bottom, he breaks to the surface now and then to breathe. The more the container gets filled, the more he tires and the less frequently he comes up. The water begins at the feet and slowly reaches his neck. Depending on the genre, the director will let this man find the key at the right moment. Sometimes the man would drown.
In COTM he doesn’t. But the ride is ecstatic and resoundingly soaring nonetheless.
The Man From Nowhere (2010)
And this is how you do action.
No nonsense, ballistic and fast crash and burn etched on steel, The Man From Nowhere still manages to pack an emotional punch at the end. We’ve grown used to the John Wicks and Atomic Blondes today. But the gut punch that is TMFN has not lost any of its impact. Bones break and blood spills to the orchestra of groans and grimaces throughout this wild ride.
The story is simple. A young man takes a little girl under his wing and vows to protect her from a bunch of extremely dangerous people. The execution of this premise yields spectacular, memorable results. Action set pieces zip by, creating a diorama of physical pain and suffering. The narrative piggybacks on the near flawless nature of the action sequences and a superb, restrained central performance by a young Won Bin.
Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)
Hong Sang-soo is a laudably prolific director. One look at his films and his distinct style leaps at you immediately. He takes male-female relationships for his subject. It runs like a thread throughout his oeuvre. There is an artisanal quality to his work. He can trick you into feeling that his films have all come out of a tiny workshop tucked away on the side of a quiet beach. Playful, deliberately paced and comfortable with their time, Hong’s films seem like exercises that take the most fundamental human interaction for their subject matter.
Right Now, Wrong Then is the story of a filmmaker and a painter who meet, are attracted to each other and part. And then they do it again. It seems like a playful experiment that seeks to reach the heart of human interaction. When it finds itself unable to do so, it gives it another go.
Train To Busan (2016)
Time and again, there comes a film that revitalises its genre with awe-inspiring swagger. Train to Busan takes the zombie film, pours a gallon of gasoline down its throat and lights the match. Every zombie movie needs a virus. Only here, it infects people on a train and owing to the situation in the world outside, must fight to survive as it hurtles towards its destination.
It is a throughly enjoyable film that never ceases to amaze with its succession of action set-pieces. Meanwhile, it makes room for the requisite ounce of social commentary and human drama arising out of its protagonist’s complex character. Director Yeon Sang-ho turns the wild train into a blood stained laboratory for class conflicts, clawing out a scabbed portrait of contemporary Korean social relations. Once Train to Busan hits the gas pedal, it never lets go. It delivers a thrilling, exciting, kinetic ride through the heart of Korea.
Gokseong aka The Wailing (2016)
Na Hong-jin’s masterpiece, Gokseong is one of the most complex and intricately mounted horror films of the century. In this day and age, when it seems impossible to imagine a horror project that runs beyond two and a half hours, Na’s supremely rewarding film weaves a tapestry incorporating various elements from society and genre. The rich, layered narrative is founded on the simple premise of a Japanese man taking residence near a tiny Korean village, following which a mysterious illness begins to take over the residents of the town. A typical Korean film protagonist, a bundling, simple-minded cop, is tasked with determining the cause of this malaise. He soon realises that the more he gazes into the darkness, the more the darkness looks into him.
Despite its runtime, Gokseong remains a furiously entertaining and deeply absorbing film with a shattering climax. Na picks up the age old trope of the battle between good and evil, runs it through a labyrinth chock full of horror sub-genres, nodding admiringly at all of them, ratchets up suspense by the minute and peers deep into the darkness of the human soul. An inspired critique of the film would likely require a book. Suffice to say that it is everything you’ve seen before and yet unlike anything that you’ll ever watch. And that is perhaps the simplest way of describing the New Korean cinema tradition it belongs to.
Updated Date: Jun 02, 2019 10:13:40 IST