Despite the best efforts of Psy, K-pop seems destined to remain a niche market in the western world. The South Korean film industry, on the other hand, has had a strong international reputation for several years now. As with most global cinema, interest in South Korean films has been skewed towards directors rather than actors, and some have become true doyens of the international film festival circuit. Forget Gangnam Style, says Martin Zatko, here are six true greats from South Korea to keep an eye on.
Superstar “enfant terrible” Kim has some serious form, having won prizes at the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals for dark, brooding and often controversial works such as Samaritan Girl and 3-Iron (both 2004). Those interested in visiting South Korea will get a taste for the country’s wonderful countryside in the relatively light Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003), a mesmerizingly beautiful film set in and around a floating Buddhist monastery.
Another big-hitter on the international scene, Park directed stylish, highly violent Oldboy (2003), a mystery thriller generally regarded as the most iconic work of contemporary South Korean cinema. An American remake, directed by Spike Lee, is set to hit the screens later this year. Oldboy formed the central chunk of Park’s acclaimed “Vengeance Trilogy”, which also included Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). With all this violence and revenge in the air, it’s no surprise that Quentin Tarantino is a big Park Chan-wook fan.
Hong’s acerbic, art-house films come thick and fast – it’s little wonder that some dub him the Korean Woody Allen. While other major South Korean directors have headed to Hollywood to solidify their international reputations, Hong chose a different form of cinematic fusion, bringing French actress Isabelle Huppert to Korea for In Another Country (2012), a delightful slice of rural life punctuated with cigarette smoke and uncomfortable conversations. Woody Allen again, then.
No relation to Hong Sang-soo, Im Sang-soo is a master at courting controversy – perhaps to an even greater degree than Kim Ki-duk. His best-known work is The President’s Last Bang (2005), a black comedy about the last days of Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s dictatorial president of the 1960s and 1970s. The film resulted in lawsuits from Park’s family – including his daughter, current Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye. However, Im’s films (and his infamy) are usually more sexual than political, and a fine example is the hilarious A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003), which revolves around a woman and her relationship with a teenage boy.
Lee has only directed a handful of films since his 1997 debut Green Fish, but his sober, slow-burning works have all been well received; the most recent is Poetry (2010), which tells the story of an Alzheimer’s sufferer who develops an interest in penning prose. However, Lee’s most esteemed piece is Peppermint Candy (1999), which begins with the apparent suicide of the protagonist, and then uses reverse chronology to unfold the years of unfortunate events which led to his despair. These include military conscription and the 1980s student uprisings, and as such the film makes a decent primer in recent South Korean history – not to mention a rather damning indictment of contemporary South Korea’s “loss of innocence”.
Bong’s films tend to be dark, meaningful, finely crafted pieces. As such, it may come as a surprise to hear that he’s best known for a monster film, The Host (2006), which shattered domestic box-office records on release. Though essentially about a giant lizard which emerges from the Han River and starts chowing down on Seoulites, this is more than a mere “Kollywood” blockbuster – its political subtext is obvious from the beginning, which sees a US Army-sanctioned dumping of formaldehyde into Seoul’s main river.