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Primer: 10 Essential Films Of The Korean New Wave

by The Playlist Staff
June 26, 2014 2:44 PM
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This weekend, after what seems like roughly a decade of delays, rumors, teases, announcements, retractions and general bloviating, Bong Joon-ho’s anxiously awaited “Snowpiercer” hits screens. Of course it seems like years, but it was in fact “only” last October, after its South Korean August bow, that the film snuck out in France (from where we reviewed it), after which it rolled out in Asia, Western and Eastern Europe, and you know, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan before finally coming to the U.S., marking one of the stranger international release strategies for a genre picture starring a recognizable American action star in recent memory. Might it be the only Chris Evans film ever to open in Mongolia three months before the U.S.?

Of course, we’re being a little facetious: “Snowpiercer” may indeed feature Captain America (along with Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and John Hurt among the more familiar faces), but it’s hardly a Chris Evans vehicle. In fact, it’s probable that its surface similarity to an easy-to-market popcorn flick (Hollywood star, comic book provenance, high-concept sci-fi) proved one of the contributing factors to the confusion and prevarication around its release: as any of us who’ve seen it can attest, it is definitively not a straight-up popcorn flick, and it’s possible that the Weinsteins envisaged flaming torches and pitchforks from irate moviegoers raging that they’d been sold an arthouse experiment under the guise of a sci-fi blockbuster. Because it really is very weird — in a way that will delight cinephiles, but that may well leave more mainstream audiences scratching their heads. So it is probably about right that it’s opening limited (and thankfully — or perhaps not — uncut), that “Transformers: Bombastic Subtitle” will siphon off the majority of of the “WTF dude?” brigade and that the name above the marquee is most definitely that of its Korean director, Bong Joon-ho.

Bong already has an international profile, mainly based on the breakout arthouse success of the equally odd, genre-fusing mindfuck that was “The Host” (not to be confused with last year’s terrible Saoirse Ronan YA adaptation unless joyless timesucks are your thing). But he is also part of a generation of Korean directors (at this point almost exclusively male, at least those who have found a measure of international distribution, though 2013's Busan Film Festival did spotlight several first-time female directors so hopefully some green shoots there) who came of age just as newly democratic South Korea started to blossom culturally and artistically. Bringing both a broad appreciation of genre cinema and a uniquely Korean perspective, along with poster child Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”), Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk and Kim Ji-woon, Bong is at the forefront of the so-called Korean New Wave (which also spawned adorable neologism “Hallyuwood” with “Hallyu” roughly translating as “flow from Korea”), which was seeded in the mid-90s but really started to thrive, and to gain international recognition in the 00s. More recently, as “Snowpiercer,” Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker” Kim Ji-woon's English-language debut "The Last Stand" and last year’s “Oldboy” remake prove, Hollywood has caught the K-wave bug, so for those of you who are wondering where to begin, here’s a handy starter pack of 10 films, featuring all the aforementioned directors, and those titles of theirs we feel can give the best overview of the thriving and ever-expanding Korean New Wave. And if you're in New York, here's five movies to check out at the upcoming Asian Film Festival.

Joint Security Area” (2000)
Although living in a nation permanently on the brink of war with its neighbor underpins many of the films on this list, “Joint Security Area” is relatively rare in that it directly deals with South Korea’s border with the North, a nation feared around the world as one of the most brutal and repressive dictatorships of current times. It’s rarer still in that it does it in the guise of a gripping, very commercial thriller, and in that it preaches a compassionate anti-war message while it’s at it. The local breakthrough of Park Chan-wook (who’d made two films in the 1990s, but had been making ends meet as a film critic in the meantime), the film is an adaptation of a novel called “DMZ” by Park Sang-yeon, and as you might expect, is set in the de-militarized zone that separates the north from the south. One night, a South Korean soldier (Lee Byung-hun) unexpectedly flees back to his own side, after two North Korean soldiers are killed, an act that leaves relations between the two countries in a heightened state, with only an investigation by neutral Swiss Army Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae) standing in the way of all-out hostility. The film’s indebted somewhat to U.S. pictures like “A Few Good Men” and “The Caine Mutiny,” and is certainly less boundary-pushing on the surface than Park’s later work, with significantly less live-octopus-eating or incest, but there’s a sharp subversiveness to the way it sneaks a story of friendship across the divide into what could have been so easily a bombastic thriller: it ends up playing out like a tragedy, of good men undone by a conflict that has already destroyed so many lives. It’s also, less surprisingly, masterfully made, with Park showing an astonishing command of tension, and the immaculate, borderline Kubrickian eye for detail that would recur in his later work too. It’s not as attention-grabbing as the Vengeance trilogy, but it’s still an essential, and surprisingly little-seen work from a then-fledgling master.

Save The Green Planet” (2003)
One of the things that makes Korean cinema so exciting is the way that it’s so fearless about colliding different genres and tones into one another. In the U.S., similar attempts are either unsuccessful, or prove to sit poorly with audiences, but in the Korean New Wave it seems to be virtually the norm, and no film represents that better than the gloriously bonkers “Save The Green Planet!” The feature-length debut of director Jang Joon-hwan, it initially appears to be another revenge picture, with Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun), adorned in a strange, steampunkish helmet, kidnapping and imprisoning his boss, Man-shik (Baek Yoon-sik). But as it turns out, Byeong-gu believes the man to be an alien from Andromeda. As the police close in, it begins to appear as if there’s a more prosaic reason for Byeong-gu’s actions, but director Jang isn’t nearly through the process of messing with his audience by then. The film absolutely shouldn’t work: it mixes thriller, “Audition”-style horror complete with some truly grotesque violence, elements of broad comedy, mental illness drama, quirky romance and science-fiction, sometimes within the space of a single scene. But the relentless invention and density of ideas at play carry it through, along with the sheer level of energy that Jang brings: the filmmaker directs like he’ll never be afforded the opportunity again (he wasn’t far off: it took him ten years to follow the film up, with sophomore feature “Hwayi: A Monster Boy” hitting Korean theaters last year), shooting events with a bold, colorful palette and a punkish grindhouse style that makes the film come across like a sort of pop-art fever dream. And yet it also manages not to be style over substance: like some of its contemporaries, it’s also a genuinely human story about the acts of inhumanity that we perform on one another.

"Memories of Murder" (2003)
Anyone acquainted with the souped-up monster mash of "The Host," or the post-apocalyptic sci-fi of this week's "Snowpiercer" might think they'd know roughly what to expect from a Bong Joon-ho movie. They would be wrong, as Bong's characteristic trait, if he has one, appears to be unpredictability. It's certainly the only explanation for this restrained, downbeat but fascinating procedural, based on the true and unsolved case of Korea's first known serial killer, which therefore bears quite some resemblance to David Fincher's take on the similarly futile search for the Zodiac killer, which would arrive five years later. "Memories of Murder" is, like "Zodiac," more the story of the police than of the crime, critiquing the corruption and ineptitude of the provincial Korean police force, or perhaps just their almost innocent unpreparedness for this type of hideous crime, through the characters of two rival cops with differing approaches, both of which ultimately prove equally ineffective. Played by Kim Sang-kyung and the ubiquitous Song Kang-ho, who has a lead role in "Snowpiercer" and has worked, often multiple times with every director on this list bar Kim Ki-duk (we think), the film also works as a character study of these two men, one slobbish and unprincipled in how he gets the job done, the other more fastidious and big-city thorough, sent in from Seoul to assist. But it's the film's peculiar rhythm, its unhurried but also unconventional structure that really marks it out, especially as this was only Bong's second film. Eschewing set pieces and action sequences in favor of a kind of gradual, hopeless unraveling, it's almost subversive in its relentless thrust away from resolution, from redemption, from "closure"—away from anything but a slow slide into inevitable defeat, punctuated only by some brief flashes of the most mordant humor and Bong's incipient eye for the absurd. It's hard to take something as concrete as a crime procedural, and one based on true story at that, and make something so impressionistic and elusive from it, but Bong, just two films in, already had a totally auteurist, individual vision, which remains perhaps the only unifying element between all his generically, tonally and thematically diverse output.

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  • Gyandeep | July 10, 2014 8:20 AMReply

    Wow. Not even an honorable mention for 'New World'. That was 2013's best Korean film for me.

  • Keren | July 9, 2014 12:49 AMReply

    Cold Eyes (2013) and The Big Swindle (2004)

  • Shain Kai Lee | July 6, 2014 6:01 PMReply

    Really impressed by Breathless (dir: Yang Ik June) & The Yellow Sea (the guy who directed the Chaser's follow up). Both very violent. In the former, it's quite upsetting & tragic whereas The latter is quite convoluted & over the top but both are gripping in their own way.

  • Jamaica | July 2, 2014 9:05 AMReply

    The film that hooked me, into my love affair with Korean cinema, was Song Il-Gon's "Spider Forest." Wonderful performances by Kam Woo-Sung, and Suh Jung, provide an emotional anchor to this Lynchian tale of grief and denial. Thanks to it's twisty, fever-dream structure, I still don't know the exact particulars of what took place, but that only invites my repeated viewings. (That, and Kam Woo-Sung's sympathetic portrayal of a man who could be anyone, including us.)

  • zach | June 30, 2014 5:59 AMReply

    THESE FILMS always end up in my year-end lineups. Korean filmmakers are incredible at telling exceptional stories in a way that can't be found in films from elsewhere.

  • M | June 28, 2014 11:51 PMReply

    Korean Movies are great, I am more interested in those than other films. Some of my favourites - Memories of Murder (had some funny moments), The Chaser (damn had some really sick scenes), The Man from Nowhere, Lady Vengeance, Old Boy (first Korean Movie I watched that got me into the movies). Nameless Gangster (awesome) and I could list a few more. There are many that I need to see as well.

    I hope more Korean filmmakers might make some English Language films but also keep doing their Korean Language films. They are great.

  • Natalie | June 28, 2014 8:39 PMReply

    I actually thought Hong Sang Soo's latest effort, Our Sunhi was an even better film than Nobody's Daughter Haewon although I did like Nobody's Daughter. People who compare him to Woody Allen need to GTFO. Hong Sang Soo clearly writes as someone who cares about his female characters and has met actual females or talked and understood them.

    Anyway I looked through the list and it's solid--- Poetry is absolutely amazing. A phenomenal film with a breathtaking script and lead performance. I Saw the Devil is THE definitive revenge film with 2 mind blowing performances and amazing cinematography. Memories of Murder--- AKA David Fincher and True Detective WISHES.

    I'd also add The Man from Nowhere and Madeo/Mother, Secret Sunshine or I'm a Cyborg. Secret Sunshine just has one of the most astounding central performances in the last 10 years from Jeon Do Yeon.

    Um, I'd definitely bump up My Sassy Girl to one of the top/iconic Korean New Wave releases too, because I think it really shows how Korean cinema is able to effectively balance humor and melodrama in a way that Western cinema cannot comprehend.

    For more variety I'd also include Bedevilled--- brutal, brutal, horror/thriller/revenge, like ISTD, but even more tragic... A Dirty Carnival--- neo-noir at its best plus stunning cinematography, Tazza and/or The Thieves for heist films. Frankly those two films annihilated any other American heist film I ever saw. To me, it's like the Korean New Wave directors don't treat their audiences like idiots, and they also take genres that Hollywood made popular and turn them into really smart films and even outdo them.

    Definitely 3-Iron, too, even if there is Spring, Summer... to represent Kim Ki Duk's filmography.

    I could go on... another film that I thought was excellent is Sunny, which was the box office hit of its year in South Korea and for good reason, although the premise would definitely NOT fly in Hollywood since it's about a group of pre-teen girls growing up in the 70s, and the film is told in flashbacks and it's a wonderful coming of age film and film about a diverse group of women (since the film does also tell the stories about what happened to the girls when they grow up)

  • Brandon | June 28, 2014 4:59 PMReply

    I hate to be all 'this list that wasn't made by me should be the way I want it', but
    MY SASSY GIRL should really, unquestionably be in the top ten here. SHIRI is also essential, simply because it started the whole "Hallyu" when it made more money than James Cameron's TITANIC at the South Korean box office. I would say that, while there are a lot of filmmakers still making great films, the "Wave" has apparently crested more than a bit since the quota wars.
    I would also second THE QUIET FAMILY (It was remade, as a Japanese musical, by Takashi Miike, as HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS).

  • Adam Hartzell | June 28, 2014 1:12 PMReply

    It's important to note that in the scholarly literature, the "Korean New Wave" refers to films made in the 1980's-early 90's, significant directors being folks like Park Kwang-su (CHILSU AND MANSU, A SINGLE SPARK) and Jang Sun-woo (THE LOVERS OF WOOMUK-BAEMI, TO YOU FROM ME). The films listed and discussed here in this article are referred to as "New Korean Cinema" which started with Kang Je-gyu's SHIRI (1999). The confusion here is partly due to how those film movement terms are not distinct enough. Plus, since New Korean Cinema is the film part of the wider transnational pop culture movement dubbed "Hallyu", which can be described as a 'wave', these less than helpful film movement monikers can add to the confusion. For those curious, here are 3 books to check out - NEW KOREAN CINEMA edited by Chi-yun Shin & Julian Stringer; NEW KOREAN CINEMA: BREAKING THE WAVES by Darcy Paquet, and DIRECTORY OF WORLD CINEMA: SOUTH KOREA edited by Colette Balmain.

    That said, as the authors here note, like most national cinemas, there is a dearth of women directors. However, three women directors were important to the beginnings of New Korean Cinema: Jeong Jae-eun, whose wonderful and significant TAKE CARE OF MY CAT is a glaring omission here; Byun Young-joo, whose 'Comfort Women' Trilogy is perhaps the most important documentary series made in South Korea, and Yim Soon-rye (WAIKIKI BROTHERS, FOREVER THE MOMENT). Another one of my favorite New Korean Cinema films is Gina Kim's INVISIBLE LIGHT but I admit that it might not be to everyone's liking since it's a very patiently-paced film.

  • Taylor | June 27, 2014 11:33 PMReply

    Great list, I'm excited that more people are discovering Korean cinema, there's so much great stuff happening there right now. I'd add "Castaway on the Moon" and "The Yellow Sea" to your list.

  • K. | July 21, 2014 8:49 AM

    Ah! Finally someone who mentions Castaway on the Moon, perhaps one of the best commercial films I've seen coming out of any country, and The Yellow Sea in the same breath. The latter, in my opinion, is more thrilling than the director's previous effort, The Chaser, and certainly more expansive.
    I'd second Taylor in nominating Castaway on the Moon and The Yellow Sea for high ranks on the list above.
    Of directors already placed on the list, joon-Ho's 'Mother' deserved to be there, almost as much as Memories of Murder. It is a superior entry compared to Gwoemul.
    However, I am in complete agreement with the first name on the list, Joint Security Area. It is the most important Korean film I've seen, in part due to its political moorings.

  • Gyandeep | July 10, 2014 8:24 AM

    I loved 'The Yellow Sea'. Also, the director's previous film 'The Chaser' was (is) a mini-masterpiece.

  • TheoC | June 27, 2014 9:53 AMReply

    Typical Playlist overlooking African American directors again.

  • sagi | June 27, 2014 7:30 AMReply

    I think that you should have put 'Welcome to dongmakgol' instead of the 'Tale of two sisters' or some other film...and 'Nobody's...' Is incredibley boring film,you should replace it with 'Madeo',the best korean film IMO

  • Daniel | June 27, 2014 1:36 AMReply

    You absolutely nailed this list by including Save the Green Planet. Sublime and often overlooked film.

  • james | June 26, 2014 8:03 PMReply

    My favorite is Chul-soo Jang's Bedevilled. His new one Secretly Greatly was just released this month.

  • immature | June 26, 2014 4:03 PMReply

    Superb list. I'd also mention 3-Iron and I'm A Cyborg. I don't know if it's considered part of the new wave, but Noroi: The Curse is one of the most unnerving horror films in recent memory.

  • bangbongbing | June 26, 2014 3:52 PMReply

    Lovely list. The only Korean film not mentioned was an early effort—"The Quiet Family"—by no means a perfect film, but possesses all of the traits and sensibilities of the later new wave films and came in 1998, which predates the new wave by a few years. It is quite a fun little campy romp.

  • Enrique | June 26, 2014 3:21 PMReply

    In my opinion, Korean film industry is the worlds best at the moment. So many interesting film makers to choose from, and as you said, "this list could be about five times as long and not run out of interesting titles"

    A couple of personal favorites I would add is Park's "I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK" and Ki-Duk Kim's "3-Iron".

  • bonzob | June 26, 2014 3:18 PMReply

    I am so glad you guys included I Saw The Devil. I know it's super divisive and I can see why people hate it, but I'm a huge fan of that one. Probably my favorite Kim Jee-Woon.

    Also, props to whoever did the Memories of Murder write up. It's my favorite Korean film and you really nailed what makes it so unique and wonderful.

  • JMD | June 26, 2014 3:00 PMReply

    Memories of Murder is amazing, so is Mother, I Saw the Devil is pretty terrible in comparison...

  • Parkino | July 21, 2014 5:37 PM

    Totally agree. Memories of Murder and Mother are sublime, some of the others on the list are - what's the word? - meh

    (But there is no New Wave, there is simply put a real and innovative film industry in Korea.)

  • Jonathan | June 26, 2014 3:11 PM

    Yeah, "Mother" is a masterpiece, I think. Deserves to be on the list. Not just an "also worth checking out." I haven't seen "I Saw the Devil," but I thought it didn't have a super reputation.

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