South Korean Cinema

DVD cover of the Korean crime thriller Oldboy.

Recently, I caught a movie called Lady Vengeance on a cable network. Lady Vengeance is a Korean crime drama about a young mother coerced into doing the bidding of a serial killer, but who later seeks both atonement and retribution. After a little digging, I now believe that I’ve seen at least nine Korean films in the last three to four years. The funny thing is that there wasn’t any intent on my part to become a sort of mini-expert on Korean cinema. It just happened after watching Oldboy, a mystery thriller that I became aware of through my well-documented penchant for lists. In this case, it was from perusing Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 chart, which ranks the greatest films of all time. Oldboy (at #72 as I write this) was one of just a handful of titles on the list that I hadn’t seen. In fact, at that point, I’d never even heard of it!

Prior to Oldboy, I’d never really thought about there being a Korean film industry. By Korean film industry I mean the one in South Korea. I don't know if home-grown cinema even exists in the poor and super-secretive North. If it does, I doubt that any of its movies are being exported to other countries. The South, on the other hand, has recently developed a thriving domestic film industry – one that creates enough quality product to spur a certain amount of oversees interest.

For many, if not most Americans, Korea is a country that existed in name only prior to the Korean War (1950-1953). Unfortunately for Korea, the twentieth century was marked by frequent fighting, several periods of autocratic rule, and habitual instability. Most of Korea’s long history (dating back well over 4,000 years!), however, has boasted self-rule. Over those many years, Korea has had long periods of peace with notable scientific, cultural, and artistic advancements. In the 1800s, due to its isolationist policy, Korea (then called Joseon, for its long-ruling dynasty) was nicknamed the “Hermit Kingdom” by Western observers. For the most part, Korea kept to itself and other countries left it alone. All of that changed in the twentieth century.

From 1910 to the end of WWII, Korea was forcibly controlled as a colony of the Empire of Japan. Following the surrender of Japan, the Allies (without Korean input) did the people no favors by splitting Korea in two. A bloody war during the early 1950s between the two Korean halves – which became a battleground of ideology with the interference of competing world powers – left the Korean peninsula permanently divided. Since then, it has become the story of the haves and have nots. The capitalist, but politically unstable South has become a manufacturing giant, bringing a steady rise in the country’s standard of living. In the meantime, the communist North has suffered under dictatorial rule, which has played a key role (even more so than a spate of natural disasters during the past twenty years) in exacerbating food shortages resulting in severe malnutrition among its citizens.

The U.S. involvement in the Korean War led to a few films being made during the fifties about the conflict. Such films as The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!, Battle Circus, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Time Limit, and Pork Chop Hill come to mind. In the sixties, America’s participation in the ever-escalating Vietnam War quickly ended any residual interest in the Korea War. When the controversial movie MASH came out in 1970, though it was set during the Korea War, it was clearly defined by a Vietnam War-era sensibility. The same can be said for M*A*S*H, the TV series adaptation that ran for eleven seasons. Later attempts to portray events in the Korean War, like 1977’s MacArthur and 1981’s Inchon were critical and box office disasters. Since then, the war has rarely found its way into American movies, even marginally. It’s no wonder that military veterans refer to the Korean War as “The Forgotten War.”

Although American depictions of Korea on screen are exclusively devoted to the war, you get a far, far better sense of the country by viewing its homegrown product. South Korean movies cover a similarly wide variety of subject matter as do those of any other major film-producing nation. Their movies depict the intrinsic values of their own culture, but they also carry a degree of influence from their main allies and/or trading partners, especially China, Japan and the United States. Without question, the best of South Korean cinema currently rivals that of any other major national cinema. As such, their top titles are worth seeking out. The following list of ten films, all of which are available at the Des Moines Public Library, is a good place to start. I’ve included a brief plot setup to help entice your interest. Please note that these films are in Korean with English subtitles and, in some cases, English dubbing.

DVD cover for the movie Masquerade: The King of FacadeMasquerade: The King of Façade (2012) – Set during the Joseon Dynasty, this costume drama tells the story of a despotic ruler who seeks a look-a-like to help avoid assassination attempts. Later, after the ruler is actually poisoned, his stand-in (a peasant jester) is forced to take his place for fifteen days.

My Sassy Girl (2001) – In this dramedy romance based on a real-life story, a man meets an attractive, but very drunk woman on a train and helps get her homely safely. Subsequently, they begin dating, but he finds her abusive behavior a real impediment to a long-term relationship.

3-Iron (2004) – A loner breaks into houses while the owners are vacationing. In payment for the food and shelter, he cleans the house, makes repairs, and does laundry. His life changes drastically when he enters a presumably empty house to find a woman badly beaten by her husband.

Memories of Murder (2003) – Based on never-solved serial killings in a South Korean village during the 1980s, this crime drama is really an excuse for a metaphorical treatment of the sorry state of national politics in the decade, with no heroes to be found.

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004) – Those seeking a South Korean take on the Korean War, should watch this one. Framed with a present-day mystery, but primarily set at the start of the war in 1950, two brothers fleeing communist forces are thrust into the military, with dire consequences.

Mother (2009) – The elderly mother of a retarded adult son who is accused of murdering a young girl sets out to prove his innocence in this crime thriller that has several, convincing, plot twists.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003) – The seasons of the title represent the various stages of the life of a boy who is raised by a Buddhist monk on a temple floating on a remote lake. After his sexual awakening, the teen gives up the contemplative life, but finds that urban life has many pitfalls.

DVD cover for the movie The Man from Nowhere.Oldboy (2003) – A businessman/family man is abducted and imprisoned in a shabby looking room, but he has no idea by whom, or for what reason. After fifteen years he is suddenly released, at which point he seeks answers to his many questions, as well as revenge on his tormentor.

The Man from Nowhere (2010) – A reclusive pawnshop owner gets pulled into a drug war when the only person he cares about, a little girl from the neighborhood, is kidnapped. As events escalate, it becomes clear that this man has extraordinary survival skills that were not previously apparent.

The Chaser (2008) – A former crooked cop and present pimp starts sleuthing again when two of his prostitutes appear to have successively run out on him.  He soon finds that there is a connection to their disappearances, but one that is far more grim than first imagined.