In recent years Korea has become a cinema powerhouse, churning out a huge selection of quality films which has been something of a bonus for the established fans of Asian cinema, but can prove slightly bewildering to newcomers as to where to start.
So with today being the last day of “The Korean Cinema Blogathon”, a week long celebration of "Korean Cinema" currently being hosted by both “New Korean Cinema” and “cineAWSOME”, so here is my own introduction to Korean cinema aswell as possibly some of the most exciting cinema currently being produced today.
Set in 1950 on the eve of the Korean war were two brothers are drafted to the frontlines, leading Jin-tae (Dong-gun Jang) on a desperate bid to win a medal of honor so that his younger brother Jin-seok (Bin Won) can be released from service, as the two brothers learn the true horrors of the war which has enveloped their country.
Frequently referred to as the Korean “Saving Private Ryan”, I actually preferred this over Spielberg’s war epic, especially as this tale of two brothers in the Korean war is none the less powerful, especially with it’s blood and snot finale which truly captures just how bloody a war it really was, while certainly not being afraid to run the audience through an emotional wringer. Needless to say director Je-kyu Kang is certainly one of the key directors of New Korean cinema, especially when he continue to craft Hollywood standard blockbusters like this and this film proves just why he is a director to watch.
Young-Goon (Su-Jeong Lim) believes she is cyborg, but after plugging herself into the mains, in a failed attempt to recharge her batteries, she finds herself committed to an Asylum, were she soon attracts the attentions of her fellow inmate Il-Sun (Rain) who believes that he can steal other people’s souls / attributes and with whom she soon forms an unusual bond.
Director Park Chan-wook supposedly made this for his eleven year old daughter and marked for the director a radical change in direction for this is the same director who brought us his dark and gripping “Vengeance Trilogy”, while proving here that he was capable of working in more than one genre as he would also prove with his follow up “Thirst” which also brought an interesting take to the overworked vampire genre. Still the idea of a watching a romantic and frequently surreal film set in a mental institution, let alone one without the prospect of anyone being beaten with a hammer, or eating live squid might prove to some not the most appealing of prospects, especially to the established fans and true while this offering from no doubt one of the most exciting and interesting directors currently working in modern Korean cinema, might not contain any of the shocking imagery of his earlier films which made them so memorable, there is still a lot to enjoy here even if this film is lighter in tone, he still allows for his darker side to seep into this film, I mean after all what other romantic comedy can you think of, which opens with the leading lady, wiring herself up to the mains?
Save the Green Planet!
Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-Kyun), a man who believes that aliens are about to attack Earth and that more importantly that he is the only one who can prevent them, teams up with his childlike circus-performer girlfriend (Jeong-min Hwang) to kidnaps a powerful executive (Yun-shik Baek) whom he believes to be a top ranking extraterrestrial who can contact the prince of these aliens during the upcoming eclipse.
A masterpiece of genre bending antics from director Jang Jun-hwan as Comedy, Sci-fi, Thriller and Horror meet in a head on collision of styles, to create a truly unique viewing experience which constantly keeps the viewer guessing as to what is going to happen next, as the frequent switches between the genres makes it anything but predictable, while also featuring a punk rock version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the soundtrack, which is never a bad thing.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird
Set in the desert wilderness of 1930s Manchuria were The Bad (Lee Byung-hun) - a bandit and hitman - is hired to acquire a treasure map from a Japanese official traveling by train. Before he can get it however, The Weird (Song Kang-ho) - a thief - steals the map while invertibly being caught up in The Bad's derailment of the train. Meanwhile the Good (Jung Woo-sung) an eagle-eyed bounty hunter appears to claim the bounty on The Bad, while The Weird escapes hoping to uncover the map's secrets and recover what he believes is gold and riches buried by the Qing Dynasty.
Personally I’ve never been a fan of Westerns, but for some strange reason I can’t get enough of Asian Westerns and having adored Takashi Miike’s “Sukiyaki Western Django” this film captures the same fun energy, as it takes traditional western themes and ideas and gives them an Eastern twist, with thrilling shoot out’s and several spectacular set pieces including the finale which see’s the Japanese army, Manchurian bandits, The Good, The Bad and his gang all chasing The Weird while heavily artillery shells decimate the surrounding area. This is one western which constantly seems to be playing a game of one-upmanship with itself, creating one hell of a fun ride in the process, which is anything but boring.
Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy
Park Chan-wook’s highly memorable trilogy of films comprised of “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance”, the insanely popular “Oldboy” and the severely underrated “Lady Vengeance”. Three films linked by shared themes and ideas, rather than characters and plots, much like Miike Takashi’s “Triad Society Trilogy” whose trilogy also followed these same rules. As a result all three films can be watched on their own and in any order, but together form a devastating and beautifully shocking trilogy of movies, which not only helped mark out Chan-wook as a director to watch, but with "Oldboy" also helped launched the Korean movie invasion into the public conscious, while showing to established fans of Asian cinema that Korea was producing films just as exciting as those being produced by Japan and China who had dominated the Asian market at that point.
While all containing moments of shocking violence, it’s also safe to say that vengeance has never looked as good as Chan-Wook how chooses to portray it with surprising moments of tenderness scattered throughout the three films, to balance out the more shocking ones.
A group of top students are chosen to study over their vacation in order to take a test and impress a sister school. With the best students in the school chosen, it is soon to be an unfortunate fate, as a sadistic killer traps them in the school and starts kidnapping them one by one. Each kidnapped student is then threatened with a torturous death unless the rest of the students can solve the questions being given to them by the killer.
A recent discovery for myself this simple horror plays out in a similar style to “Saw”, a concept now firmly run into the ground, but with the refreshing lack of extreme gore and more of a focus on the mystery, makes it still a fun watch while also containing more than a few surreal shocks along the way to help it stand out from the numerous “Saw” clones which have flooded the market recently, especially as it has enough originality on show here to help it stand on it’s own.
Shin Hyun (Jo Seung-woo) a serial killer who preyed on pregnant women has been behind bars for 10 months when a copycat killer becomes active. Detectives Kim (Yeom Jeong-ah) and Kang (Ji Jin-hee) meet with the imprisoned killer and search for clues in an effort to head off the copy cat killer before he finishes.
Largely over looked since it’s release due to mixed opinion, it is still dark “Se7en” esq style thriller, which is still a good mystery with plenty of style while perhaps making several large leaps in plausibility, but certainly none as preposterous as M. Night Shyamalan has made with any of his recent films, though best not watched expecting high art to avoid any disappointment.
An evil king (Yong-Hok Pak) aware of the peasant rebellion being planned, steals all the iron in the country, to make weapons for his own personal army. After discovering bandits in the local village he imprisons them along with their leaders grandfather (Gwon Ri), who staves himself to death, while creating a tiny figurine of the mythical creature Pulgasari, which comes to life when combined with the blood of his daughter. Growing bigger with the more Iron it consumes the creature helps the peasants to fight back against their corrupt king.
Pulgasari is a film most commonly known for the tales behind it’s making, rather than the film itself, seeing how its creation was the result of the former North Korean dictator and film fanatic Kim Jong-il Kim, who being a fan of South Korean director Sang-ok Shin and apparently not being content with perhaps an autograph, instead had Shin kidnapped, forcing him to direct seven films for him, which Kim Jong-il also acted as executive producer for. Shin eventually managed to escape back to the South, but out of those film, this is one is the most well known, no doubt a result of its ties to the Kaiju genre, which is no doubt the reason it hasn't been forgotten entirely.
While these films might just be scratching the surface, they will hopefully provide some of you with a starting fan, while maybe helping the more established fans amongst you find something new to watch and why not post your own recommendations in the comments section below.