Monday, July 7, 2014

A Brief and Incomplete Guide to Korean New Wave Cinema

I’m a great admirer of the modern cinema spawned from South Korea. I love its beauty, candor, and unflinching approach to violence. But here’s the thing, although many Korean New Wave films contain gruesome physical and/or sexual acts, there is a compelling morality to them that cannot be ignored. Revenge is a common theme in films of this kind, and when executed properly, the best Korean revenge thrillers force us to ask what we would do if put in a similar situation. How far is too far? And, having gone too far, how do we come back?

Other Korean New Wave films ask us to simply observe. Observe the splendor, the horrific pain, the ultimate dread. Most of the films below are ones I find utterly fascinating, yet few of them make for easy viewing. And do please take the title of this post literally. Many people are far more knowledgeable on Korean New Wave Cinema than I, but as Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer currently thrills audiences, I thought it’d be fun to share my favorite films of this most unique cinematic movement.

Park Chan-wook
Notable films: Joint Security Area (2000), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), Thirst (2009)
English-speaking crossover: Stoker (2013)

Park Chan-wook is, arguably, the most popular filmmaker of the Korean New Wave movement. His films are visceral, violent, and always rooted in a compelling story. Joint Security Area put him on the map, Thirst brilliantly redefined the vampire film, and the psychosexual domestic thriller, Stoker, proved to be an excellent stateside debut. But Chan-wook will always be known for his wildly successful Vengeance Trilogy. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, to mention just one of the three, is as fine a revenge thriller as I’ve seen – by far my favorite film mentioned in this entire post.  

Lee Chang-dong
Notable films: Peppermint Candy (2000), Oasis (2002), Secret Sunshine (2007), Poetry (2010)
English-speaking crossover: None

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lee Chang-dong doesn’t use brutal violence to tell his stories. Instead, his films are poignant and somewhat restrained examinations of love and humanity. Peppermint Candy is a rewarding experiment that spans 20 years (in reverse chronological order) in the life of one man, while Secret Sunshine and Poetry are fluid explorations of inspired, confused and occasionally helpless women. His third film, Oasis, a complex love story about a mentally ill man and a woman with cerebral palsy, remains his best work.

Kim Jee-woon
Notable films: The Quiet Family (1998), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), A Bittersweet Life (2005), The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008), I Saw the Devil (2010)
English-speaking crossover: The Last Stand (2013)

Kim Jee-woon knows no bounds. He’s made comedies, popcorn action flicks, silly westerns, violent-as-all-hell revenge stories, and superb horror films. There’s simply no genre the man won’t try. The supremely creepy A Tale of Two Sisters is my favorite, but for fans of fucked up Korean cinema, the shocking revenge tale, I Saw the Devil, could very well be the most fucked up movie in this essay. It’s good, if you can stomach it.

Jee-woon’s latest film was The Last Stand, an action romp starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Johnny Knoxville. Many found the movie to be a random inclusion to Jee-woon’s filmography, but if you watch The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, you’ll see that The Last Stand is really nothing new for him.

Bong Joon-ho
Notable films: Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009)
English-speaking crossover: Snowpiercer (2013)

The Host rivals Oldboy as the most entertaining film mentioned in this post. It’s filled with amazing set pieces and never fails to deliver thrills. Additionally, Joon-ho’s Memories of a Murder is a fascinating portrayal of Korea’s first serial killers, while Mother is an unnerving portrait of a disturbed older woman. His English-speaking debut, Snowpiercer, has been getting rave reviews; easily one of my most highly anticipated films of the year. (Fun fact: both Memories of Murder and The Host appeared on Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 list of the Top 20 Films Released Since 1992. As did Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area, for the matter.)

Kim Ki-duk
Notable films: The Isle (2000), Real Fiction (2000), Bad Guy (2001), Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003), Samaritan Girl (2004), 3-Iron (2004), Breath (2007), Arirang (2011), Pietà (2012), Moebius (2013)
English-speaking crossover: None

Kim Ki-duk is my favorite Korean filmmaker. He makes deeply unsettling films, all with revolving themes of isolation, emotional and physical mutilation, sexual abuse, and societal discomfort. I’ve seen most of his work, and have yet to find a remotely comfortable film in his oeuvre. The self-inflected pain of The Isle (my favorite film of his), the sexual horror of Bad Guy, the discomforting Oedipus complex of Pietà, and on and on.

So, obviously, Kim ki-duk does not make easy films. Hell, even his tame and transcendental Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring tests our patience. But there is a beauty to his work that is uncommon and profound. In some oddly poetic way, all of Ki-duk’s films are worth it. His latest, Moebius, doesn’t come out in the U.S. until next month, but has already kicked up a fair amount of controversy abroad. Go figure.

Others Filmmakers to Note
From Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country starring Isabelle Huppert
Additional Korean New Wave filmmakers to keep your eye on. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten around to many of their films yet. There’s always more to watch, isn’t there?

Hong Sang-soo
Tale of Cinema (2005), Night and Day (2008), In Another Country (2012)

Im Sang-soo
A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003), The Housemaid (2010), The Taste of Money (2012)

Ryoo Seung-wan
Arahan (2004), Crying Fist (2005), The Unjust (2010), The Berlin File (2013)


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32 comments:

  1. Very cool list sir. When I first started getting into world cinema, the Koreans were the first ones I was drawn to. I'm a big fan of all of these guys and think they all have each made masterpieces in their own right (with Park Chan-Wook probably being my favorite of the ones listed here). I think Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance are among the best films released in the last decade. Also, I know it's not a popular opinion but I really dig I'm A Cyborg, But That's Ok.

    I think Chang-Dong is probably the most underrated of the five here and is someone whose work is much more emotional and personal than his contemporaries. Oasis is such a beautiful film and Moon So-ri's performance in that film is one of my favorite female performances of all time (and in what I think was her very first performance). She just killed it but I really dig everything he's done. I heard he has a new project in the works that was supposed to be a return to the sort of gangster style he started out with in Green Fish but I haven't heard anything about it for a while now. I hope he still plans on doing it.

    I really like Kim but I'll admit to being one of those who felt like The Last Stand was a let down compared to everything he's given us before it. It's a decent enough action movie, but personally, I felt like it lacked some of his trademark style. Bittersweet Life all the way for my favorite.

    Bong is great and I love the diversity he's worked with. I can say with certainty that I think Snowpiecer is really good. It's a smart sci-fi action movie and if it had been promoted as heavily as Transformers, it probably would make a lot of money as well. But my favorite from him is Memories of Murder - like Zodiac but funnier and in Korean.

    I am shocked that you connect with Kim Ki-Duk the most out of all them honestly. I love most of his work, and having seen everything he's done so far, he is someone I greatly admire not only for his skill at tackling such dark and brutal subject matter but also for the speed at which he produces his material. I really disliked Moebius but loved Pieta (my favorite of his is still 3-Iron - such a beautiful and moving film). What did you think of Moebius, I never asked you?

    The other filmmakers you mentioned here I'm also somewhat familiar with as well. I'm just starting to get used to Hong Sang-soo's style after first seeing a few of his works and not really getting what he was going for I feel like I'm finally starting to get it lol. I've only seen Sang-soo's The Taste of Money so far and I thought it was pretty impressive if a bit dull imo but I do look forward to seeing more of his stuff. Seung-wan is also pretty solid as a filmmaker as well even though I wasn't the biggest fan of Crying Fist, I really dug The Unjust. Some other guys who I dig are Jeon Soo-il (who's work is pretty hard to come across but is actually really quite the talented arthouse filmmaker - With Girl of Black Soil probably being the easiest of his to find and it's a really touching piece of work), Jang Jun-hwan (Save The Green Planet! - funny, weird, stupid, dark, creepy and awesome all at once. I have yet to see his follow-up Hwayi yet though, even though I've heard it isn't a worthy follow-up), Lee Song Hee-il (One Night and Two Days is the only one of his I've seen so far but is really well done. He's the voice of the new "queer Korean cinema" wave I hear and if that film is certainly all the proof I need) and Lee Sang-Woo (I've only seen Barbie so far but was really impressed with his work there. A very dark family drama imo definitely worth checking out. Also really dug Cafe Noir by Sung-il Jung.

    But anyways, great list good sir! I always love reading about someone else's perspective on this wave of cinema.

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    1. Love this comment. I had no idea you were so well versed in Korean cinema. Far more than myself, I must say. And that’s awesome. I love that you’re an admirer of Oasis – Chang-Dong’s films really deserve a wider audience.

      The Last Stand was definitely a letdown, but I didn’t think it was necessarily random, you know? Just kind of silly and unimportant.

      I really enjoyed Snowpiercer as well (review up tomorrow-ish), and desperately need to give MoM a rewatch.

      I don’t know what it is about Ki-Duk that I like so much. The silences in his work, I suppose. When I first got into Korean film, nearly all of his movies were on Netflix Streaming. So I sat down one long weekend and watched them all in order. The Isle was the first one I saw, and it is still the most impactful Ki-Duk film I’ve seen. I mean… holy hell, that movie. Bad Guy too. Jesus. 3-Iron is superb as well, and I haven’t seen Moebius yet… don’t think it’s been released stateside. Were you telling me about that one a while ago?

      I’ll have to look into some of the other films you listed as well. I’m on a huge Korean wave kick right now, so I’ll take all that I can get!

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  2. Nice post! I've only seen a combined 3 films (Oldboy, Stoker and Poetry) from these filmmakers, and I need to explore more of this kind of cinema. This will make a great resource!

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    1. Thanks buddy! You've seen three relatively tame ones, so just... be ready if you dare discover more. This is some, dark, dark stuff. Like... whoa.

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  3. Great post again, Alex. Love the fact that South Korean cinema has been rising so rapidly over the last few years, bringing a breath of fresh air in a suffocating universe of painfully formulaic western films. I couldn't be more excited for this renaissance of the cinema that Koreans produce, since they paved the way for more edgy filmmaking, daring storytelling and subversive, energetic, relentlessly fascinating narrative. Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook are my favorites from this fantastic post and I'm so glad that the latter turned to an English-language debut like Stoker. Man, that film was pure brilliance. As for Snowpiercer, it was an innovatice sci-fi masterpiece. It's such a shame the way The Weinstein Company treated Bong Joon-ho's bold and astonishing vision.

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    1. Thanks man! Of course you like the same Korean films that I do. Love it. Stoker was a film that I thought was just okay when I first saw it, but now that some time has passed, I like it so much more. That one really grew on me. I loved Snowpiercer as well. I had no idea what it was about, so I was pleased to find that it had such a linear, concise narration. A real blast.

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  4. I've seen a few of these and they've all made a pretty big impression. Most recently and notably Snowpiercer of course, but Bad Guy, Oldboy, I Saw the Devil, and A Tale of Two Sisters are all pretty memorable movies that will stick with you regardless of how much you enjoy the movie itself.

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    1. Yep, I agree. Whether or not you like these films, it's nearly impossible to forget them. The shit I saw in The Isle, for example, is stuff I'll never forget. It sears in your brain.

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  5. Based on this list, I've seen everything of Chan-wook Park from your list (along with a segment in a horror film called Three.... Extremes where that one was my favorite) as I enjoy what I've seen from him so far while in Bong Joon-Ho, I had just saw Snowpiercer this past Saturday as that, The Host, and his "Shaking Tokyo" segment from Tokyo! are the ones I've seen so far as I have Memories of Murder in my DVR queue. I've also seen Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine which I loved as well as Kim Ki-Duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.... and Spring and 3-Iron as I liked those. I haven't seen anything from Kim Jee-Woo as he's one of those blind-spot filmmakers while another film I want to mention is Treeless Mountain by So Yong Kim which is brilliant though she is really a Korean-American filmmaker.

    I'm glad there's a new movement in Korean cinema as I hope to see more as Joon-Ho is currently in my shortlist of possible filmmakers to profile in the Auteurs series for next year.

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    1. Nice man, glad you're a fan of the movement. I'd love to hear your thoughts on more films from Ki-duk. That man is really on a whole different level of fucked up. But I do look forward to your Joon-ho piece.

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  6. Thank you for this list! I am always looking for more great Asian films.

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    1. My pleasure! Hope this list helps, and thanks so much for the tweet!

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  7. Bong Joon-ho is my favorite Korean director and one of my favorite working directors, period. Memories of Murder and Mother are flat-out masterpieces, with their odd mix of satire and suspense and honest human emotion. He's incredibly empathetic toward his characters, even the monstrous ones, and I love that. The ending of Mother floors me every time I watch it (ditto Memories). Barking Dogs Never Bike, his funniest--almost slapstick at times--film, is also well worth a viewing if you haven't already.

    I'm a bit conflicted about Snowpiercer: I really enjoyed the off kilter characters (Tilda!) and the tour through different sections of the train, but it kind of fell apart in the final act/engine room. And given how much more money Bong had to work with compared to his other films, some of the special effects were awful. All of those CG shots from outside the train were distracting--I'd have sooner he used old-fashioned process shots. Yikes.

    A few other thoughts:
    -- Stoker really deserved a lot more attention than it got last year. I think it was just too weird and paradoxically old-fashioned for domestic audiences. I hope he's able to launch another English-language film but, if not, at least Park's well known enough that there's no danger of him disappearing from the Korean film industry.
    -- I have a hard time getting into Kim Jee-woon. I dug Two Sisters, but his other films are too unfocused and inconsistent in their tone. The opening sequence of I Saw the Devil was amazing, but the rest of the film was a slog. That said, The Last Stand wasn't bad for what it was.
    -- Lee Chang-dong is probably my second favorite, even though I've only seen his recent films. Secret Sunshine, in particular, struck me on a very deep, emotional level. Do you know if there's an inexpensive way to see his first two films? They don't seem to be available anywhere.
    -- Spring, Summer... is one of my favorite films and I really enjoyed Pieta (and particularly Jo Min-soo's performance). Otherwise, Kim Ki-duk is a relative blind spot. I'll have to rectify that soon.
    -- Na Hong-jin isn't as prolific as any of those you mentioned, but Chaser from a few years back was one nasty little fast-paced thriller that Hollywood should take notes from. His follow up, The Yellow Sea, is also worth a look although the plot is bogged down with social commentary that doesn't quite translate (at least not for me).

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    1. Great comment here buddy. I've seen every film I mentioned above, but I don't remember Barking Dogs Never Bite as well as I should. Going to have to revisit that one.

      I could've written your paragraph on Snowpiercer, because I couldn't agree more. Kind of a bummer that it got so monologue heavy in the end there, even though I really appreciated Evans' speech.

      You seem like a great fan of this movement, so I would be very curious to hear your thoughts on Ki-duk. He really goes for it with each film... fucking crazy.

      Thanks again for such a great comment!

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  8. I'm by no means an expert, but I've seen a movie or two of most of the directors you've listed. Chan-wook Park is my favorite of the bunch. Oldboy is a masterpiece, What you wrote about Thirst is spot-on, it's a downright brilliant vampire flick. I love Lady Vengeance, but I'm a little cold on Mr. Vengeance. I'll be rewatching the entire trilogy soon, so maybe that will change. His segment in 3 Extremes is wonderfully twisted. Finally, Stoker is all sorts of underrated. I find it a bit watered down for him, but still disturbing.

    Stoker brings me to Kim Jee-Woon. Specifically, The Last Stand. While I find Stoker a bit watered down, it is still extremely recognizable as a Park film. The Last Stand fits perfectly into Arnie's filmography, but doesn't really seem to have anything in it unique to the director. It just feels generic. On the other hand, A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil were both outstanding. The latter is one of the most brutal movies I've ever watched, but the violence works as part of the larger narrative, it's not just there for shock value.

    I've seen The Host and Mother from Bong Joon-ho. I liked, but didn't love the former. Mother is outstanding. I'm looking forward to Snowpiercer.

    From Lee Chang-dong, I've only seen Poetry, but I love every bit of that movie. Lastly, Kim Ki-duk is one I've not seen anything from. I've heard of a number of the movies you listed for him, but I just haven't gotten around to seeing any of them.

    Thanks for providing a great list for me to reference and check off as I go.

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    1. I'm a little cold on Mr. Vengeance as well. Lady Vengeance has always spoken to me the strongest out of the three. I thought the elaborate deception in that film was ingenious.

      I remember reading an interview with Jee-woon and he mentioned that, initially, he was a little bummed when Schwarzenegger became attached to The Last Stand, because he knew then that the film would be a Schwarzenegger film, not a Jee-woon film. But, he said he had a blast making it and secured enough money to make many more "Jee-woon" films, which is good. So, a generic film, sure, but a fair trade indeed.

      Definitely check out some Ki-duk when you get a chance. Just... don't watch them if you're feeling remotely queasy.

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  9. I'm surprised to say that I've actually seen quite a few of these! Great post, making the rest of us aware of some incredible filmmakers we may be ignoring!

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    1. Nice man! Thanks so much for reading, glad you dig the post!

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  10. Great post! I've only seen 5 films on this list, but now I have plenty of other recs to look for.

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    1. Thanks! Hope this leads you to some new and exciting films.

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  11. This is awesome, man. I've loved pretty much everything I have seen from this movement, but there's still so much I haven't gotten to yet. I'll have to add Lee Chang-dong and Kim Ki-duk to my shortlist of directors to check out.

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    1. Nice! Really glad you dig the movement. I definitely recommend checking out some Ki-duk films if you get a chance. Tough viewing, but so worth it.

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  12. This is fantastic Alex, thanks. I've seen a small handful of these and enjoyed all of them bar Pieta, so I'll have to use this as a cheat sheet of sorts.

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    1. Thank YOU for reading, my friend! Really happy to hear that this will be a useful resource for you. Pieta... yeah, can't argue with your distaste on that one. I recently saw Moebius. Skip it. Really.

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  13. Cool post, Alex. The only film here I've seen is "Oldboy", but "The Host" and "Peppermint Candy" as well as several others are high on my watch list. Which version of "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" did you see? The standard version or the "Fade to Black and White" version?

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    1. Thanks buddy. I've seen both versions of Lady Vengeance, but I started with the full color one. The fading version is a worthy exercise, but ultimately a superfluous one. The movie begins with many vibrant colors and slowly, organically (through costume and production design) the visual palette becomes much more muted. When you watch the fading version, all that valuable production design is lost, because you can't tell that the colors within the film are changing. Made for a not-as-interesting experience, for me, anyway.

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  14. You can list from the best to the worst film you listed in your post.

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    1. Shit man, that's a lot of movies to rank. I honestly don't remember some of them too well. But of the ones that remain firmly in my memory:

      22. Moebius (2013)
      21. The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008)
      20. Pietà (2012)
      19. The Last Stand (2013)
      18. Samaritan Girl (2004)
      17. Secret Sunshine (2007)
      16. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
      15. Joint Security Area (2000)
      14. Snowpiercer (2013)
      13. I Saw the Devil (2010)
      12. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
      11. Stoker (2013)
      10. Mother (2009)
      9. Thirst (2009)
      8. Memories of Murder (2003)
      7. 3-Iron (2004)
      6. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)
      5. Bad Guy (2001)
      4. Oldboy (2003)
      3. The Host (2006)
      2. The Isle (2000)
      1. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

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  15. Are you thinking about doing A Brief and Incomplete Guide to Mexican New Wave Cinema?

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    1. That's a solid idea. Though most of those directors now make English-speaking movies, you know?

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  16. Hi do watch Indian Cinema?? I would recommend Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee. Cheers

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    1. I need to see more of it certainly. Thanks for those recommendations!

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