At the Cannes International Film Festival in 2011, three Korean films were invited to the Un Certain Regard section: Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives, Kim Ki-duk‘s Arirang and Na Hong-jin‘s Yellow Sea. Bong Joon-ho, director of The Host and Mother, was selected as the head of the jury for the Camera d’Or, an award for the best first-time filmmaker. A few months prior, Park Chan-wook’s Night Fishing and Yang Hyo-joo’s Broken Night won the Golden Silver Bears for Short Film at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival. A signal had been sent to the world: South Korean cinema had arrived.
While Korea cinema has been in existence since the birth of the medium, when we speak of modern Korean films, it comes from a fractured heritage, one that needed to find its identity again as the result of a divided nation at the end of the Korean War 1955. While there were undoubtedly some masterpieces in this period, including Kim Ki-young‘s The Housemaid (recently remade by Im Sang–soo as a Palme d’Or competing drama), a period of intense political censorship and governmental restrictions in the 1970s resulted in a stagnated South Korean film industry in the subsequent decades. However, by the late 1990s, much of South Korea’s output began capable of competing with Hollywood on the local market, with films Shiri and Park Chan-wook’s JSA (Joint Security Area) not only playing to the North-South tensions, but striking local box-office gold as well.
With the revival of Korea cinema came a corresponding surge in what is now known as the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, the rapid spread of Korean culture through China and around the world. Pop music, cinema and literature converged to spark interest in Korean culture in foreign markets, and the world began to be exposed to the wonders of South Korea cinema. Around this time, critical success came to match the commercial wins the films of South Korea were having on regional markets. Lee Chang-dong‘s third feature film, Oasis – about a romance between an ex-con with a mild mental disability and a woman with cerebral palsy – won the Special Director’s Prize and the International Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival. The now iconic Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy won the Grand Prix of the Jury at the 57th Cannes Film Festival, while in 2004, Kim Ki-Duk took out Best Director at the 54th Berlin International Film Festival for Samaritan Girl. On the popular front, My Sassy Girl became the most popular, and one of the most exported, films in Korean history.
Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, in which case the world has begun to shower Korea with praise. Harry Potter helmer Chris Columbus has signed on to direct Kim Young-tak‘s Hello Ghost, while Mean Girls director Mark Waters is set to remake Lee Hae-jun‘s off-beat comedy Castaway on the Moon, about a man who attempts to commit suicide but winds up stranded on an island in the Han River instead. Back in 2006, Lee Hyun-seung‘s Il Mare was remade with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves as The Lake House and met with mixed critical reviews, not to mention the dubious honour of the Teen Choice Award for “Choice Liplock”. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in an increasingly crowded world movies market, replicating Korea’s cinematic achievements in another language is not necessarily the best showcase for their homegrown products. Yet the Korea film industry is increasing its output every year. Blockbusters such as Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Unjust and Lee Joeng-Beom’s The Man From Nowhere, as well as more thoughtful pieces such as Hong Sang-soo’s Oki’s Movie, have not only found a home in the major Australian and international film festivals this year, but within localised ambassadors such as the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA). It is safe to say that Korean cinema is being taken seriously in its own right. The only surprises in modern Korean cinema are what they will come up with next.
The Host- Bong Joon-ho, 2006
Both Japanese and Korean cinema have become known for their terrific horror and monster movies, and are endlessly remade. Bong Joon-ho’s film emphasises character over cheap scares, but there are plenty of thrills to be had in this intelligent monster revival.
Welcome to Dongmakgol- Park Kwang-hyun, 2005
The Korean War is still fresh in the minds of many, and in many ways this serves as a satirical microcosm of the situation that still exists. Equal parts beautiful, quirky, tear-inducing and action-packed – sometimes all in the same scene!
Old Boy- Park Chan-wook, 2003
The middle part of Park’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, framed by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, this is a brutal, beautiful spiral into the darkness of revenge. See it before it is remade by Spike Lee in the not too distant future.
Castaway on the Moon- Lee Hae-jun, 2009
Although it begins with an attempted suicide, Castaway on the Moon is ultimately a celebration of life. Concerning the unlikely relationship between a man stuck on an island in the middle of the Han River and an agoraphobic woman in an apartment overlooking the island, it is more Michel Gondry than Tom Hanks.
A Tale of Two Sisters- Kim Jee-woon, 2003
Americans may know, or perhaps want to forget, the 2009 remake The Uninvited, this film was the first and highest grossing Korean horror film to be released in US cinemas. Don’t let that put you off: this is an intense psychological thriller that is equal parts dark and absurd, with a terrible secret in its gooey centre.
KOFFIA 2011 runs from 24th – 29th August at Dendy Cinemas in Circular Quay, Sydney. It will then continue on 10th – 13th September at ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Federation Square, Melbourne. Full details of the program can be found on the KOFFIA website.