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2005.11.22 - Birth of a (Cinematic) Nation: South Korean Cinema 1999-2005

If you love movies and have a taste for new things, then you certainly have tried some delicious Korean fares in the past yew years. No? Seemingly out of nowhere, South Korea (SK) has emerged in the past 5 years as a film powerhouse in the world, with very edgy movies that rival any Hollywood creation in production value. You didn't know? You are not alone. Many people who love movies have never heard of this. So let me put it this way. If you lived in the late 50's and early 60's and loved films, France was where it was at. The French New Wave reinvigorated the movie world and created a distinct je-ne-sais-quoi to what is called over there the Seventh Art. In the 70's, directors like Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas or Coppola to name just a few transformed American Cinema and established its dominance for the next 30 years. In the 90's Hong Kong was very hot. Today, it's SK Cinema. Although certainly not as philosophically loaded as the French New Wave (only the French can do that!), or financially important as American cinema in the 70's (only Americans can do that!), SK consistently produces some incredible movies that will blow your socks off. The subject matters being approached are earth-shaking, especially in the world of PG-13 horror movies Hollywood produces these days.

How come? Well, that's a difficult question to answer. Why was French Cinema in the late 50's and early 60's so influential? The easy answer is that there were enough good people at the right place, at the right time, to make it happen. Something was in the air. Additionally, what they did appealed widely to others which allowed their work to spread. The same can be said about SK Cinema, but we can nevertheless look at common threads: for a film industry to emerge, you need talent, funding, and stories.

South Korea has had a rather difficult history. It's been pretty much under colonial rule for the first half of the century, at the hands of Japan. After World War II, tensions rapidly mounted between the North and the South culminating into the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Since then, the country has been split rather intensely between North Korea and South Korea. Ideological Civil wars are probably the worst of wars because they pit brothers against brothers. The impact can be felt all the way to today. Stories of broken families, brothers killing one another, children and parents split on political issues abound. Even after the war officially ended, it still continued with regular incidents between the two sides. One can say that the global effects of the cold war were concentrated in the backyards of every Korean, especially with a 3-year long military service mandatory for all men. The net result is that the country has been at war with itself non strop for the past 50 years. It may sound somewhat cold to say this, but socially, politically, culturally, Korea has been going through a lot for the past 100 years, and this has been fertile ground for incredible stories, dramas, that when expressed in films have a depth and realism that is hard to ignore. A parallel can be drawn with American Cinema in the 70's and the general political and social unrest at that time too (and let's not forget about Vietnam and the Cold War). Once you start unleashing the creative energy of a people in those turbulent times, you are bound to have a great reservoir of diverse and poignant stories. It's been said that happiness is rather uniform, whereas suffering is unique to each individual. Koreans appear as a rather extreme people, with deep wounds, but also an incredible joy for life when the right circumstances arise. If anything, Koreans can be described as quite an extreme people, and it shows in their films. You will find stories that will twist you the wrong way, and comedies and romance stories that will enchant you.

Another important aspect of the Korean culture is without any doubt the strong US military presence there since the end of the Korean War. Even if Korea has definitely managed to keep its cultural identity, it has nevertheless been very influenced by American culture in all its aspects. More so than in any other Asian country, young Koreans have had access to American entertainment, and the English language, for the past 50 years. This has had undoubtly the effect of fashioning this new generation of Korean film makers we see today. In and of itself, this is not a new phenomenon. There are countless stories about how directors in the French New Wave revered American Cinema and many of its stars. Whether you like it or not, American Cinema has simply been the driving force behind this medium for most of the 20th century and at the source of many Film movements around the world. So today, you have a generation of Koreans who grew up with American movies. Many of them speak English and many were Educated in the US.

This last aspect was crucial. When a country experiences a rebirth of sorts, politically and economically, the arts always come back in force. And this is also exactly what happened to South Korea. With the strong culture, rich source of stories, and struggling talent, all you needed now was the business side of it. With many MBA-educated individuals returning to their country, a financial model started to appear with several large production companies being created with the help of government funded creative Funds. After a few dabbling in the early to mid 90's, the Korean film industry experienced its first mega-blockbuster in 1999 with Shiri (1999) (featuring three of the top male stars in Korean cinema, and a woman familiar to those who watch the TV Series Lost). A North Vs South spy thriller about a terrorist attack during the Soccer World Cup in Seoul, it resonnated with audiences, and opened the way to a continued focus and larger and larger budgets allocated to films. Cinema was again a place where people could make a living, and immediately, a new generation of new actors, young and not so young, emerged. It also signaled the Korean film industry as a viable place to invest. The Korean industry saw a major wave of investments in 1999 and 2000, much of which was Government sponsored. It tapered down somewhat over the following years, but is back with an estimated 62B Won this year (1,000 Won, the Korean currency, is worth slightly over US$1). The financial model is today also much more independent from the Government. Two major production companies have emerged: CJ Entertainment (started by a Food conglomerate which was also an early investor in Dreamworks) and Showbox (pronounced Shoebox in trailers for some reason).

In parallel, on TV, Korean TV dramas have become another source of pride with shows that have been very successful across Asia, and provided another source of income for the industry. Many stars go back and forth between films and TV series and both benefit from a fluid relationship, something that has only started to happen here in the US over the past few years and has yet to happen convincingly in Europe.

With a renewed creative force in Korea, the funding to make it happen, and the right people at the right place at the right time, South Korean Cinema has emerged in the last 5 years as a force to be reckoned with. For further reading, check out The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Duke University Press, 2004) by Kim Kyung-hyun, Korean Cinema: History, Resistance, and Democratic Imagination (Praeger Publishers, 2003) by Eungjoon Min, Hanjoo Kwak, and Jinsook Joo, and Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong (2002) written by Anthony Leong.

So, how about actual movies and stars? If you want to start discovering SK Cinema, then continue reading. Romantic Comedies, Action and Period pieces have a strong presence in SK Cinema, and Horror films (a staple of Asian cinema these days) are popular too. Although often formulaic in their general outcome, there is enough of a cultural shift in how the story is told, and how the characters behave, that they often provide some great entertainment value. Those films are very well done, written and performed.

My Sassy Girl (2001) remains to this day the one SK romantic comedy to beat in terms of pure enjoyment and quirky and attaching characters. Chunhyang (2000) is a lush and culturally immersive period piece that recounts a classic Korean story about a woman in the 18th century who stood up by the man she loved. My Wife Is A Gangster (2001) is a great action comedy with goofy gags, laugh-out-loud situations, genuinely emotional moments, and some great action sequences. Volcano High School (2001) is a pure adrenaline-filled Matrix (1999)-esque fantasy martial art romp with arresting visuals and choreographies. On the Horror side, Tale Of Two Sisters, A (2003)'s very strong visual flair, fantastic art direction, great performances and creepy mood has already made it a classic in the genre for many.

There are two specific genres however where SK excels particularly well at: the gritty thrillers and adult dramas. This is where you can observe the power of Korean story telling, and get a peak into a culture that is both complex and troubled. Some of those more serious films do not shy away for one instant from the darker sides, fears and obsessions of the SK people. Part of the attraction for International films is the cultural experience as much as the entertainment. Why see an American film that just happened to be made in another country? Most of those darker films function almost as a sort of collective therapy to exorcise this people's demons and explore its (very) extreme tendencies. In fact, the early SK blockbusters have all happened because they were able to connect deeply with the SK spyche.

If you have a strong stomach (some of those films are very graphic and violent) and are not shy about exploring the more complex and darker side of human emotions, then 7 films will most likely floor you. Failan (2001) is the first SK movie i saw that really stirred up a lot of things inside me. The performances are powerful, flawless, and the story is guaranteed to smack you upside down, in spite of the film's obvious tendency for the melodramatic. Address Unknown (2001) tells of desperation, social exclusion, colonialism and a very destructive son/mother relationship. OldBoy (2003) is a tale of vengeance based on a Japanese Manga. It's one hell of a movie, with an incredible story, amazing performances, carefully composed visuals and an amazing soundtrack. It is a joy ride in all its glory. Good Lawyer's Wife, A (2003) is a powerful drama about the disintegration of an affluent middle-class family. Scarlet Letter, The (2004) is a gritty, macabre thriller about uncontrolled passion, deception, that ends up in tragedy that is sure to twist your bowels. Oasis (2002) is an amazing portrait of a bitter-sweet relationship between a retarded man and a paraplegic woman . Finally, Koreans do not seem to shy away from portraying Sex frankly, almost in a French way. With Lies (1999), we see how an older man develops a passion and obsession for a much younger girl and how they slowly evolve into a destructive S&M relationship.

Finally, a national Cinema would not be complete without a Star system, and SK Cinema has a pretty fair share of them. A quick side-note: in Korea, as is the case for most Asian countries, names are written with the last name first (generally with all uppercase letters), and then the first name. In Korea also, first names are often double hyphened names.

Arguably, two of the greatest Directors living today are from SK. KIM, Ki-Duk is a director with a great technical mastery of the art, and who is not afraid of addressing controversial and difficult themes. He is an intense man who seems to be very much in tune with the Korean psyche. Who can forget Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring (2003), a gorgeous Buddhist fable; Address Unknown (2001), a fucked-up (pardon my French) tale of racism, colonialism, and the deeply Freudian relationship between a son and his mother; 3-Iron (2004), a tale of solitude in the mist of a large city like Seoul and finding, if not salvation at least consolation, in the company of others; Isle, The (2000), a haunting and visually stunning tale of carnal obsession on a remote lake. Ki-Duk KIM is prolific, with 8 movies in 5 years between 2000 and 2004. His movies are complicated, richly layered, deeply aware of the Korean people and their troubles, and require a focused attention. But it's so rewarding.

The other wunderkind of SK cinema is of course PARK, Chan-Wook. He is completely different from KIM. He is flashy, brash, gutsy, flamboyant, and over the top. Technically, he reminds me a lot of directors such as David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky. His masterpiece so far, OldBoy (2003), the second chapter on a trilogy about Vengeance (yes, with a capital V), is in many respect very similar visually and technically to Fight Club (1999) or Requiem For a Dream (2000). Like Fincher, PARK also has a knack for stranger stories full of twists and turns. His first film, Joint Security Area (2000), or JSA for short, is a War Thriller looking at the unlikely friendship of South and North Korean border guards and how it all goes unexpectedly bad. The last minute of the film serves as a powerful conclusion that puts the movie in context so well. This film is one of the first mega-blockbusters in SK and connected strongly with its audience. In his first Vengeance film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), PARK gives us an intense look at an otherwise good man who will stop at nothing to kill the people who kidnapped and eventually killed his young daughter. The strength of the movie is how it all ends up so ambiguously when "an eye for an eye" is taken to extremes. PARK is an amazing filmmaker, with brilliant technical skills, and an eye for strong unusual stories. He is fast, and over the top, and rather violent too. His latest film, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005) just came out in SK a few months ago. Can't wait to get our hands on a copy here.

On the acting side, you can also find some truly amazing talents. For Actors, CHOI, Min-Sik would probably be at the top. He is intense, completely dedicated to his roles, and was so convincing as a low-life in Failan (2001), a crazy North Korean spy in Shiri (1999), a has-been boxer champion in Crying Fist (2005), or a raving almost super-human lunatic consumed by revenge in OldBoy (2003). In some ways, he feels like Gary Oldman. CHOI is without a doubt one of the top actors working today. Another great face in SK Cinema is SONG, Kang-Ho. He has an unforgettable face, and great talent. He was intense as a vengeful father in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), and an obsessed leader in a doomed expedition in Antarctic Journal (2005). He was an enigmatic and imposing North Korean border guard in Joint Security Area (2000), and a country-side detective faced with Korea's first serial killer in Memories Of Murder (2003). And of course, his signature role was that of a bored business man turned Wrestling fighter in Foul King (2000), one of the early SK mega-successes. Finally, SAN, Suk-kyu is another mega-star. He was a man with terminal cancer enjoying his last few months of life in Christmas In August (1998), and a detective driven by passion and desire in Scarlet Letter, The (2004).

On the Actress front, South Korean women are gorgeous, and most SK actresses are particularly beautiful. The reigning queen of Romantic Comedies has got to be JUN, Ji-Hyun from My Sassy Girl (2001), one of the best romantic comedy released in the world in the past 5 years, or Il Mare, a sweet time travel love story. Another actress at the top of the SK charts is HA, Ji-Won, with hits like the rather good horror film Phone (2002), or the hilarious rowdy college comedy Sex Is Zero (2002). They are both beautiful, talented, spunky, and remind me somewhat of Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan early in their careers. The most impressive actress as far as can tell though must be MOON, So-Ri. She completely moved and impressed me in such films as Oasis (2002), or Good Lawyer's Wife, A (2003). Another noticeable actress is YUM, Jung-ah with a variety of roles showing off her talents. In Lovely Rivals (2004), she played a spunky middle school teacher. In H (2002), she was a detective at the pursuite of a gritty serial killer. And then, there is the chilly step mother in Tale Of Two Sisters, A (2003). Finally, we should have a special mention for LEE, Eun-Ju who had a descent career until her breakthrough and ravaging role in Scarlet Letter, The (2004), only to commit suicide a few months after the movie was released. She was beautiful, talented, and she will be missed.

South Korea has a lot to offer with first class films. World-class directors and actors have created unique films in the past 5 years and much more will come. Give some of those films a try. All of them are available on DVD at well-stocked Asian DVD stores, although a few may require you to have a DVD player that can play Region-3 DVDs (all have English subtitles though). Most of those films are also available as US (Region-1) DVDs, generally of better quality too. Many of those films have even been released in US theaters, albeit in limited distribution, and several of them are being remade for the US over the next few years, but make sure to check out the originals, because it's pretty certain that the remakes won't be nearly as good (aren't they always?). We will continue covering South Korean Cinema with regular reviews here at RatingMovies.Com.


3-Iron, LEE Seung-YeonMy Sassy Girl, left to right, CHA Tae-hyeon and JEON Ji-hyeonMy Wife Is A Gangster, SIN Eun-kyeongOldBoy, left to right, CHOI Min-sik and YOO Ji-taeScarlet Letter, EOM Ji-won, HAN Suk-Kyu, LEE Eun-joo, SEONG Hyeon-ah (left-right)Shiri, KIM Yoon-jinSympathy For Lady Vengeance, LEE Young-ae (center)Tale Of Two Sisters, YUM Jung-ah


KIM Ki-dukPARK Chan-wook


CHOI Min-sikHA Ji-wonHAN Suk-KyuJEON Ji-hyeonLEE Eun-jooMOON So-riSONG Kang-hoYUM Jung-ah

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