A 21-Film Salute to New Korean Cinema

On Film / The Daily — Nov 21, 2019
Song Kang-ho in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003)

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the first film from South Korea to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes, scored another top prize last night in Australia, the Asia Pacific Screen Award for best feature. A box-office smash at home and this year’s top-grossing non-English-language film in the U.S., Parasite is well-positioned to take a victory lap through the weeks of nominations, awards, and list-making ahead. Bong is one of the directors featured a series of twenty-one films spotlighting a remarkably fertile period in Korean cinema that opens at Film at Lincoln Center in New York tomorrow and runs through December 4.

In several interviews, Bong has remarked that he’s especially happy to see the international success of Parasite in a year that officially marks the one hundredth anniversary of Korean cinema. Following a brief “golden age” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, creativity was severely stifled by strict censorship laws that only began to loosen in the early 1980s. It took a while for recovery to turn into a genuine flourishing, but the string of critical and financial hits made from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s were so distinctive that critics began referring to a New Korean Cinema.

In a recent conversation with FLC programmer Dennis Lim, Bong talks about growing up watching films by John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Sam Peckinpah, and Alfred Hitchcock on Friday nights when they were broadcast on the American Forces Korean Network. While studying sociology at Yonsei University in Seoul, he managed the cinema club’s collection of hundreds of illegal VHS copies of classic movies and later began trading DVDs with fellow New Korean Cinema directors Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook. “It wasn’t as if we had this manifesto [or] that we are part of this group like Dogme 95,” says Bong, “and we never considered this a movement per se.” Lim suggests that, while these directors may differ stylistically, “there is something about your generation that is interested in . . . taking a more satirical, a more ironic, a more critical look at the society in which you live.” Bong grants that “you can definitely say that we all flow with our times, but directors like me and Park Chan-wook, we have a lot of affection and obsession for genres. And directors like Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong, they are quite distant from genres.”


FLC will present Bong’s debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), the film that its star, Bae Doona, has said “made me decide to become an actress—a good actress.” The program also features a new 4K restoration of Memories of Murder (2003), Bong’s first collaboration with Song Kang-ho, who plays one of two detectives chasing after—and never finding—South Korea’s first serial killer. The identity of the real-life killer wasn’t discovered until September of this year. “If the tremendous wave of Korean cinema from the past twenty-five years has a face, it’s that of Song Kang-ho,” writes E. Alex Jung at the top of a profile for Vulture. “Starting with a bit part in Hong Sang-soo’s The Day a Pig Fell Into a Well in 1996, Song became one of the preeminent actors of our time, first with a string of box-office hits”—such as Kim Jee-woon’s The Foul King (2000)—“and a range of work that brimmed with the thrill of Korean filmmaking coming into its own, from the everyday lyricism of Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) to the high operatic violence of Park Chan-wook.”

Three of Park’s films are featured in the series: Joint Security Area (2000), a thriller about a fatal shooting in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea that broke all domestic box office records; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), which the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw suggests “comes close to the spirit of Jacobean revenge tragedy, with its extravagant violence, its sentimental sibling relationship, brooding malcontentism, and flair for piercing images of horror”; and Oldboy (2003), another story of revenge that became an international sensation when it won the Grand Prix in Cannes, was championed by Quentin Tarantino, and was remade by Spike Lee in 2013.


In a primer on twenty-first century Korean films for the BFI, John Berra writes that while “a perceived emphasis on the theme of revenge has frequently led South Korean cinema to be labeled ‘dark’ or ‘extreme,’ it actually has an abundance of tones.” Kwak Jae-yong’s gentle romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (2001), for example, was a massive hit all across East Asia and spawned an international multimedia franchise. Take Care of My Cat (2001), the debut feature of Jeong Jae-eun, whom FLC notes is “one of the few female directors to gain a foothold in the male-dominated Korean film industry,” stars Bae Doona as one of five women coming of age together in the port city of Incheon. “As rich in incidental detail as it is narratively diffuse,” wrote Ed Park in his 2002 review of this “sensitive” film for the Village Voice. For more on this richly varied showcase, turn to the conversation between Grady Hendrix of Subway Cinema and FLC programmer Tyler Wilson on a recent FLC podcast.

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