“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” — Bong Joon-ho
Although the history of Korean cinema is marked by censorship and a volatile political landscape, the country’s film industry has experienced a much-needed revival since the mid-1990s. Young filmmakers broke onto the scene who indulged in relevant political commentary as well as reinvigorating experiments with genre. Their efforts helped pave the way for recent global successes for Korean films, including the unprecedented reception of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) which became the first non-English film to win the Oscar for Best Film.
Bong Joon-ho, one of the pioneers of New Korean Cinema, said: “I think all creators, all artists, and even just everyone, we are always interested in class, 24/7. I think it would actually be strange if we’re not. You know, when we’re seeing people on the subway, on the streets, complete strangers, we wonder, how rich are they? Or you know, people we encounter in the airports, did they ride economy class, business class? We always wonder about this, because we live in the era of capitalism.”
He also noted, “Korea, on the surface, seems like a very rich and glamorous country now, with K-pop, high-speed internet and IT technology but the relative wealth between rich and poor is widening. The younger generation, in particular, feels a lot of despair.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we revisit 10 essential films from the South Korean New Wave in order to take a better look at one of the most popular international film movements in recent history.
The 10 best films from the South Korean New Wave:
A Single Spark (Park Kwang-su – 1995)
One of the earliest examples of the New Wave in South Korea, A Single Spark is a brilliant collaboration between the political filmmaker Park Kwang-su and the scriptwriter who would go on to become a leading figure of Korean cinema himself: Lee Chang-dong. The film indulges in political commentary by telling the story of a worker who set himself on fire as an act of protest.
The director recalled, “Around the time I was making A Single Spark, there was no director who actively raised social and political issues in films so obviously I felt the need to do that, but as I said earlier, nowadays the platform is much wider and a lot of people are tackling those issues. As such, there is no longer an urgent need for me to tackle any of that and, as entertainment value is now much more important to me, that’s probably the direction I’m going to take.”
Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie (Jang Sun-woo – 1997)
A true cult-classic, Jang Sun-woo’s 1997 semi-documentary is an insightful look at the Korean youth of its time. It is a compilation of various accounts by the young delinquents in Seoul who often find themselves trapped in a life of crime. The film won the Asian Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Jang Sun-woo said, “When I ask questions in my films regarding traditionally oriented ways of thinking, some people can appreciate them, some others can criticise them; either way the important thing is to provoke discussion and even controversy.”
Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong – 1999)
Although Lee Chang-dong’s recent film Burning (2018) was the one that got him international popularity, he broke onto the scene with this brilliant 1999 drama Peppermint Candy. It presents the life of a man in reverse, starting from his suicide and recalling the events in his life that pushed him to the brink.
Lee Chang-dog clarified, “There’s no question that…Peppermint Candy draw[s] on the political and economic problems of Korea. But they weren’t my main focus. My main interest has always been human beings. I believe film is the best medium to show something about human beings.”
On the Occassion of Remembering the Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo – 2002)
The fourth film by one of the most talented directors in the world right now, this 2002 drama explores the universal through the intimate like most Hong Sang-soo works. The film investigates the romantic choices of an actor but in doing so, it becomes an examination of art and experience.
The director revealed, “Until I was 27, when I saw Diary of a Country Priest, I never thought I would make a feature-length narrative film. I always thought I was going to make experimental films, very short films, strange ones.
“That was the vague plan. It was all I had. And then I saw Diary of a Country Priest and thought it was so beautiful. That film was something, really. It gave me hope: If a film can do this then I can learn how to make a narrative film.”
Oldboy (Park Chan-wook – 2003)
The second addition to Park Chan-wook’s The Vengeance Trilogy, his 2003 masterpiece is now considered to be one of the greatest neo-noirs of all time. After being released from 15 years of captivity, a man embarks on an odyssey of unabashed vengeance. Oldboy uses violence to amplify its artistic statement about the human condition instead of letting it devolve into gratuitousness.
Park Chan-wook explained, “Just like that every other form of art, everything that comprises a piece of work has to have a reason to be there. Every element. Just like being a chef, you use ingredients to create something that wasn’t there before. And you have to carefully think about what ingredients you choose, and how you mix it into your final dish.
“How you use it as a means of expressing an idea. He might think of it as a composer trying to write a piece of music for an orchestra, and in order to effectively do that, you’re drawing on all the instruments in the orchestra, and thinking about how they’ll function in the piece of music.”
Save the Green Planet! (Jang Joon-hwan – 2003)
A cult sci-fi comedy, Save the Green Planet! presents the crazy case of a disturbed young man who abducts top-level executives because he is convinced that aliens from Andromeda are about to launch an attack on Earth. Jang Joon-hwan said that he was inspired by Rob Reiner’s Misery and a conspiracy website which claimed that Leonardo DiCaprio was an alien.
The director commented, “For me, fundamentally, if it’s a story about a human being, I want it. If it’s a good story about human beings, I would definitely want to try my hand at it. And even for me, I think that’s a question that I’m also interested in, as well: I don’t really know for sure what kind of genre will come next. I sometimes wonder what my next film will be, as well, myself.”
Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho – 2003)
Based on real events, Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 crime drama is set in 1986 and it features the collaboration between a small town cop and a high-profile detective. They put their heads together to make sense of an unprecedented amount of violence and death.
Bong Joon-ho said, “It was the first real case of serial murder in Korea, and I remember it being a sensation at the time. There were ten murders in all, spread over a period of six years, in and around a country town not far from Seoul. There was no financial or revenge motive; these were clear-cut rape-murders of women.
Once I decided to make the film I started to do a huge amount of research. I became obsessed with the facts of the case. I went through all the newspaper reports and then began making interviews with people who’d been involved: journalists, detectives, townspeople who had lived there at the time.”
Crying Fist (Ryoo Seung-wan – 2005)
A classic account of a fall from grace, Crying Fist tells the story of a former Olympic boxer who is unemployed and in debt. Finding himself in the pits of despair, he is forced to make money by street hustling. The film won several awards and nominations, earning the privilege of being screened at Cannes as well.
The filmmaker explained, “I’m not particularly conscious of infusing my work with anything that I would consider uniquely ‘Korean,’ which is not to say that it doesn’t contain anything like that. I don’t make movies for a specific audience, but rather to connect with the individual who is watching.”
The King and the Clown (Lee Joon-ik – 2005)
One of the highest grossing South Korean films of all time, The King and the Clown is a historical drama set in the late 15th century. It revolves around two clowns who are arrested for satirising their king. The film is now notable for its influence on queer cinema and its mainstream success.
“I have the complete conviction that it is possible and that people do learn a lot of history through film,” Lee Joon-ik said. “To elaborate more, I feel like there are two ways of learning history. One way is through textbooks, and the other way is through film.
“But in the case of textbooks, I feel that both of them have facts and they’re trying to get to the truth but in the case of film, you have the facts and based on the facts, you work through a fictional platform in order to get through the truth that you want.”
I Saw The Devil (Kim Jee-woon – 2010)
Kim Jee-woon’s visceral 2010 crime thriller follows a secret agent who is determined to catch and kill the psychopathic killer of his fiancée. It ends up documenting the depths of human depravity, never hesitating to insist that such magnitudes of hatred exist in this world.
The director said, “This is about one man’s pain, and returning that in an exact way or maybe more powerfully to the cause of that pain. The audience also goes on a similar path, they identify with Soo-hyeon, that wish to see that revenge through by the course of the film.”
He added, “I think what really shocked audience members is not simply actions and the emotions of the violence that they see, but to see the deep down emotions that drove those actions, and to realise that the horrific degree of what is possible as a person.”