Beyond Thirst: The Korean New Wave

Slide 1: Introduction

The release of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst is as good a reason as any to delve into the burgeoning Korean cinema scene. Since the release of JSA in 2000, Park has been a significant player in global film, but his rise has been symbolic of a general renaissance in his home country. In the mid-90s, Korean cinema was almost completely ignored, not only internationally but also by Koreans. The democratization of the country that had occurred in the previous decade had an impact on the country’s film lovers just as it had on the rest of Korea. The direct result of this was the emergence of a new generation of directors who wished to bring change to national cinema just as it had been brought to national politics, and had a strong sense of identity and a confidence in their own voice. Korean filmmakers also began making smart, stylish films that adopted or subverted the tropes of Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema, the two biggest movie importers in Korea. By the end of the 1990s, the country’s commercial fare was becoming competitive at the box office, while the works of its auteurs were being increasingly celebrated at film festivals around the world. Korean cinema has now become so popular, in fact, that Hollywood has taken to frequently buying Korean hits and remaking them for U.S. audiences.

In the following article, we put the spotlight on 12 prominent Korean film directors who have all been part of the country’s incredible cinematic swell.

Slide 2: Kim Ki-duk
Not to be confused with the Korean director of the same name whose heyday was in the 1960s, Kim Ki-duk is one of the most influential directors in contemporary Korean cinema. Kim’s style is more arthouse-inflected than the majority of his peers, which is in part due to the European influences he gained while studying fine arts in Paris. He made his directorial debut in 1996 with Crocodile, a controversial drama about a man who saves a woman from drowning in the Han River in Seoul, but then rapes and sexually abuses her. Despite – or maybe because of – the film’s edgy portrayal of sexuality, Crocodile was a big hit domestically, and Kim later returned to depicting sexual degradation in The Isle (2000), about a woman who prostitutes herself to fisherman. Kim, who was in the Korean marines before studying art, has a broad stylistic range, and has made everything from understated, visually stunning films like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2004) to Samaritan Girl (2004), a grueling film about two schoolgirls who become prostitutes. Often relying little on dialogue, Kim’s films – such as 3-Iron (2004), Time (2006) and Breath (2007) – typically tap into the director’s fascination with the interaction between violence and sex, but also concentrate on the theme of redemption. Kim, who calls his movies “sort of a snapshot of my inner self,” says that he (and his films) have become less angry of late: “Now I’m more interested in understanding people and their reason for acting the way they do, and forgive them.”
Slide 3: Bong Joon-ho
A director who has enjoyed major commercial success internationally as well as in his home country, Bong Joon-ho discovered his love of cinema while a sociology student at university. At that time, he was a fan of such Asian arthouse heroes as Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Shohei Imamura. He made his directing debut with the offbeat Barking Dogs Never Bite, a dark social satire about an unemployed academic who kidnaps and kills the noisy neighborhood dogs that disturb him. He had his breakthrough in 2003 with Memories of Murder, a dark, stylish police procedural with brooding psychological undertones. Tackling the subject of Korea’s first serial killings, the film launched Bong as a global talent. With his big budget follow-up feature, The Host (2006), Bong lightened the tone somewhat with a satirical creature feature about a mutant monster accidentally created out of military pollution that rises out of the Han River to terrorize the citizens of Seoul. “Egregiously subverting its own genre while still delivering shocks at a pure genre level, and marbled with straight-faced character humor that constantly throws the viewer off balance, [this] is a bold gamble that looks headed to instant cult status,” raved Derek Elley in Variety, accurately predicting the film’s enormous international success. (The film grossed a staggering $49 million in South Korea alone, plus $2.2 million in the U.S.) Bong contributed an unusually downplayed segment, “Shaking Tokyo,” to the portmanteau film Tokyo in 2008, and his latest film, Mother (2009) – about a woman’s attempts to find out who framed her son for murder – came out in his home country in May.
Slide 4: Kim Ji-woon
A dropout from the Seoul Institute of the Arts, Kim made his way through the ranks in the Korean theatre scene, first as an actor and then a director. He announced himself as a filmmaking force in 1998 with the unusual and compelling The Quiet Family, a blackly comic tale of a family who run a remote hiking lodge where guests seem to all turn up dead. The film got a lot of attention on the festival circuit and was subsequently remade as a musical by Japanese cult director Miike Takashi as The Happiness of the Katakuris in 2001. Kim’s international breakthrough came in 2003 with the chilling horror movie The Tale of Two Sisters,the creepy reworking of an old Korean folk tale about a pair ofsiblings plagued by both ghosts and their evil stepmother. (It was subsequently remade in 2009 as The Uninvited.) A Bittersweet Life, a smart neo-noir mob thriller, further demonstrated Kim’s stylistic range, and in 2008 he made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival with his unhinged riff on Sergio Leone movies, The Good, The Bad and the Weird, a moviewhich brought the Western genre to 1930s Manchuria.
Slide 5: Chang Yoon-hyun
As a graduate of electrical engineering, it’s not very surprising that Chang Yoon-hyun’s films show a preoccupation with technology. In his first film, The Contact – the biggest grossing Korean film of 1997 – he constructed a romantic narrative in which the internet (plus the music of the Velvet Underground) was what brought the two characters together. And in the cop thriller Some (2004), the theft of an MP3 player is a major plot point in this fast-paced tale of 24 hours in the life of a renegade detective and a traffic reporter try to solve a case. Chang’s biggest hit, however, came with the graphic serial killer movie Tell Me Something, a dark and bloody Seven­-esque thriller set on the rain-drenched streets of Seoul. It was, in many ways, a modern take on the classic noir format, the story of a femme fatale whose ex-lovers are being picked one by one, and the cop on the case who finds himself falling for her. In the Village Voice, Michael Atkinson wrote that “Chang's elaborate post-noir has brooding star power … and a discomfiting, beyond-Hitchcock way with garbage bags packed with limbs and plasma,” deeming it “the match of any American film in its quasi-genre.” Most recently, Chang directed the lavish costume melodrama Hwang Jin-Yi (2007), about the titular legendary Korean courtesan.
Slide 6: Jang Jun-hwan
Jang Jun-hwan, a graduate of Sungkyunkwan University and the Korean Academy of Film Arts, is the most wildly original of the current crop of Korean film directors. He made his first foray into filmmaking by co-scripting with Bong Joon-ho Phantom: The Submarine (1999), a thriller about a mutiny aboard Korea’s first nuclear submarine. In 2001, Jang picked up the megaphone for the first time to helm the short film Imagine, which centered on a character who believed he was John Lennon, and two yearslater unleashed his feature debut, Save the Green Planet. The latter movie essentially was a collision of every genre under the sun, and was declared by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir to be “the best film in the alien attack, conspiracy theory, Silence of the Lambs rip-off, disgraced-cop drama, deranged circus wirewalker, anti-capitalist parable genre I've seen this year.” O’Hehir added, “Then there are the angelic intervention scenes, the egregiously fake kung fu, the poorly animated dinosaurs, and the businessman who is crucified and has to pull his hands all the way off the nails to escape.” The film became a critical hit for its insane, audacious ambition and because, despite all its genre-bending antics, it remained an ultimately very human movie. Jang is currently waiting to release his second feature Tazza: Revenger (2008), a sequel to the 2006 hit Tazza: The High Rollers which – in perfect Jang logic – bears absolutely no resemblance to the original in terms of characters or plot.
Slide 7: Lee Jeong-hyang
Lee Jeong-hyang, the most prominent woman director working in Korean cinema at the moment, comes from a culturally diverse background: Lee has a degree in French Language and Literature, but cites watching Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno as her cinematic inspiration. Fittingly, the collision of differing artistic and aesthetic preferences was the subject of Lee’s first film, Art Museum by the Zoo (1998), which portrayed the stuttering romance between a soldier on leave and the woman subletting his ex-girlfriend’s apartment who ropes him into helping her finish a screenplay. The title refers to the pair’s polarity: when at the park, he wants to visit the zoo (busy with people and vibrant with life) while she favors the quiet, still art museum. While Lee was singled out as an emerging talent for her debut film, her career skyrocketed with the release of her sophomore effort, The Way Home (2002). The movie depicted the love that develops between a spoiled seven year-old city boy and his compassionate mute grandmother who looks after him while his mother leaves to go in search of a job. Lee coaxed excellent performances from her two non-actor leads to create a highly moving drama that was not only a big hit in Korea but resonated with audiences around the world.
Slide 8: Lee Myung-se
Master stylist Lee Myung-se kicked off his cinematic career working as an assistant director for helmer Bae Chang-ho. His debut film, Gagman (1989), made an impact in his native country, but it wasn’t until a decade and five films later that he came to international attention with the intense thriller Nowhere to Hide (1999). A tale of an obsessive cop on the rainy streets of Seoul, the film’s relatively familiar plot was overshadowed by Lee’s virtuosic visual artistry. Enthused Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times, “Nowhere to Hide has so much visual stylization and so many high-velocity lifts – from film noir, Hong Kong action films, Expressionist painting, music video and, as far as I can tell, reflections on puddles – that it's out to create a new genre: a film that wants only to excite itself. The bonus is that audiences are likely to be overwhelmed by it as well.” Since that success, he has been relatively selective with the projects he has taken on, seemingly intent on not repeating himself. In 2005, he released Duelist, an inspired fusion of the period martial arts movie with the detective genre that told the story of an investigation into counterfeiting during the Chosun dynasty. His follow-up, M (2007), used jarringly kitschy images to portray the descent into madness of an author being obsessively pursued by a lovestruck young woman.
Slide 9: Lee Chang-dong
Lee Chang-dong is something of a renaissance man, as before becoming a film director he was a novelist, theatre director and actor. After co-writing two of Park Kwang-su’s movies, To the Starry Island (1993) and A Single Spark (1996), with the influential director, Lee himself graduated to directing with Green Fish (1997), a critical appraisal of Korean society seen from the perspective of a young crook. His follow-up, the far-from-sweet Peppermint Candy (2000), won praise on the festival circuit for its tough portrayal of the indignities suffered by one man caused by different aspects of Korean society. In Oasis (2002), Lee’s next film, he used the same two leads from Peppermint Candy, Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri, in an unconventional romance about a young woman with cerebral palsy who falls for a man who has learning difficulties. Much softer than his previous movies, Oasis was also very successful, winning four prizes at the Venice Film Festival. Lee’s most recent film, Secret Sunshine – a drama about a woman who suffers multiple tragedies in her family, thus prompting her to lose faith in God – won Best Actress for lead Do-yeon Jeon at Cannes in 2007, and in indieWIRE’s Critics Poll of 2007 was voted the best undistributed film of the year.
Slide 10: Hong Sang-soo
While Hong Sang-soo’s films have never achieved the international commercial success of Korean peers such as Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho or even Kim Ki-Duk, he nevertheless has a considerable and devoted fanbase around the world who seek out his films on DVD. (Hong’s international success may be rooted in his worldliness: he studied film at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, the California College of Arts and Crafts, the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.) He made his debut with The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996), the portrait of four people in Seoul who are trying to better their lives after the economic difficulties. This film, as well as Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) and Turning Gate (2002), made him a major figure in world cinema and a star of the film festival circuit, while Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) was the first of his films to get U.S. distribution. Hong’s films are characterized by a looseness and the aspiration for complete realism (Turning Gate, for example, never had a finished script and the actors either learned their lines just before shooting, or had to improvise), though they are structurally complex and carefully planned. "People tell me that I make films about reality,” has said. “They're wrong. I make films based on structures that I have thought up." Hong’s Woman on the Beach (2006) topped the indieWIRE Critics’ Poll in 2006 for Best Undistributed Film, before being released in the U.S. to great praise in 2008. His most recent film, Like You Know It All (2009), premiered at Cannes earlier this year.
Slide 11: Kang Je-gyu
Though much lesser known abroad, Kang Je-gyu is one of the most successful Korean directors in his home country. After cutting his teeth as a screenwriter, he made his directorial debut in 1996 with Gingko Bed, a special-effects-laden fantasy about, yes, an antique gingko bed that unleashes the vengeful ghost of an old Korean warrior. Kang’s next movie, the high-octane thriller Shiri (1999), was the first film to ever record 2 million admissions in Seoul alone, with audiences responding enthusiastically to Kang’s adoption of a big budget, Hollywood-style of genre filmmaking. The film, whose title tacitly alludes to the reunification of North and South Korea, was the first to ably compete with the American imports that previously dominated movie theaters in Korea. Kang’s follow-up, Taegukgi (2004), a movie about two brothers who are soldiers in the Korean War in 1950, eclipsed Shiri’s success to become the highest grossing film in Korean history. Kang is reportedly planning to next make a science fiction film that will address an as-yet-unspecified “global problem.”
Slide 12: Leesong Hee-il
When Leesong Hee-il released No Regrets in 2006, the unconventional romance about a rich boy whose efforts to win the affections of an orphaned art student, it was deemed the first true gay film to come out of Korea. Leesong, who was born in 1971, had been building up to making the movie since 2000, when he had made Sugar Hill, the first of a series of gay-themed short films which had titles such as Four Letter Words (2002) and Say That You Want To Fuck With Me (2003). In 2005, he contributed the segment “La Traviata” – about a woman coming to terms with her late husband’s homosexuality – to the portmanteau gay movie Camellia Project: Three Queer Stories at Bogil Island. Though No Regret was an independent movie made for a measly $100,000, it nevertheless became the biggest Korean indie movie of the year, being seen by an impressive 40,000 people, and got a U.S. release in 2008. Leesong’s latest film, Break Away, about three soldiers who go AWOL – will be released in Korea later this year.
Slide 13: Lee Je-yong
One of the things that makes Je-yong Lee so interesting as a director is trying to work out what makes him tick. The different aspects of his work and background are so disparate that attempting to understand how everything ties together becomes quite an involving task. Born in Seoul in 1966, he studied Turkish at university and then won film festival prizes with his first short, Homo Videocus (1991), which he co-wrote and co-directed with Hyuk Byun, about a boy who opts to live through his TV rather than real life. Lee then directed a documentary in 1993, but returned to fiction in 1998 for his feature debut, An Affair, about a woman whose perfect married existence is threatened by her attraction to her sister’s fiancé. His follow-up, Asako in Ruby Red Shoes (2000) was a contemporary tale centered on a group of lonely, alienated unhappy people, while Lee’s highly acclaimed Untold Scandal (2003), traveled back in time, essentially transposing the plot of Dangerous Liaisons to the time of the Chosun dynasty. While film saw him finding his feet as a visual stylist, he pushed the boat out considerably further with Dasepo Naughty Girls (2006), a musical adaptation of the loopy web comic series of the same name about a high school in a fantastical parallel universe where the sexually active pupils are both being kidnapped to dirty dance for the “Erotic Goddess” and being hypnotized and given an “Instant Virgin Chip.” The shape-shifting auteur is currently working on two very different projects, Actress – an intimate fusion of fact and fiction which will feature actresses playing versions of themselves – and Homecoming, about an old man who looks back on his life after returning to the village of his childhood.
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