Cinema: South Korea

South Korea is not without a colorful film history, one that has survived countless hands from oppression by the Japanese, who sought to make propaganda through film, and to the censoring of content by the Korean government in later years.

seoul_cinema_billboards_1950sSouth Korea is relatively a newcomer to cinema, as political turmoil from the occupation of Japan prohibited filmmakers from making nationalist Korean films, and instead films that were a rally of propaganda for Japan. During this occupation, Korean-language films were outright banned from being developed. The Japenese occupation was to the point where Korean values were forced into Japanese values, even to the changing of family names in Japanese ones. These sentiments do not erase South Korea’s earliest films, however, most of these films were destroyed by the Japanese. This period of oppression ended with the end of the second world war in 1945.

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It could be argued that South Korea did not really have a film heritage until the 1960s, when film auteurs really started appearing, and these filmmakers were not conservative. They liked to push their own creative and political edge into their films to thwart the censorship that had oppressed the nation. Titles like A Flower in Hell (1958) by Shin Sang-ok showed an on-screen kiss, which was taboo. Even in My Sassy Girl (2001), a romantic comedy that ran for two and a half hours wouldn’t show a kiss. While South Korea’s cinema was starting to boom, North Korea, in a famous case kidnapped Shin Sang-ok and his wife in a means to boost their own industry. North Korea’s films resulted in propaganda films, while South Korea suffered a significant loss by missing one of their prolific film auteurs.

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South Korea is one of the few nations which has successfully upheld a national film industry, one that can compete with Hollywood, and the surrounding Japan and China within the South Korean box-office. In places like Australia, there are very few successful films, and these successes are such by making back the budget and then profiting a little more.  The Australian film industry cannot compete with Hollywood films, when “the good,” Australian films are made for a select audience, and “the bad,” try to appeal to everyone. South Korea has had it very different. Firstly South Korea was censored by the Japanese occupation, and then by a new military regime with the thought that media can be used as a weapon of influence unless strictly censored. So when Ghost (1989), the first foreign film was being distributed in South Korea, the filmmakers strongly went against what they thought was going to be another form of oppression. These protestors did everything they could to trouble the release of the film by splashing paint on the cinema screens showing the film to releasing live snakes. This push was somewhat successful and probably the key to keeping their national film success in the form of a quota system. This quota system until 2006 required 146 days of screenings a year devoted to local South Korean films. In 2006 the quota would be reduced to 72 days as it was clear that international markets would not destroy their industry that was stronger than ever by the New Wave.

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The New Wave of South Korean films began around the mid 1990s, in fact it included music, television, and games too. This era was the start of high quality and stylistic films such as My Sassy Girl (2001), Oldboy (2003), and The Host (2006). There are certainly many more, but these are some I particularly like. The New Wave focused on being stylistic and understanding/creating diverse pop culture as South Korea was also modernising. This wave has redefined the future of the South Korean film industry, and the box office has shown twenty-seven of the top fifty grossing films there were made between 2009 and 2014. From a western approach, just look at Oldboy. It came into the appeal of international audiences with favorable reviews as Roger Ebert (2005) wrote on the value of the film, “We are so accustomed to “thrillers” that exist only as machines for creating diversion that it’s a shock to find a movie in which the action, however violent, makes a statement and has a purpose”. Ebert’s statement highlights the significance of everything working for the story’s sake, and not just for the benefit of an audience draw. This puts Hollywood films into a certain perspective where they fall into troupes as a device, whereas South Korea’s long-standing history of censorship has allowed filmmakers to be more respectful of the boundaries they are stepping over and approach violent material for a reason. The same can be said about My Sassy Girl, where some traditions are still upheld by filmmakers when it comes to the lack of an on-screen kiss, which did not trouble the film in any shape, but instead was used to create a quirky romantic comedy that feels fresh because of it. The new wave showed us that South Korea is a flourishing film industry that is unique and is a positive influence of cinema across the world.

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The history of South Korean cinema has been filled with disregard by controlling forces in the early years, taking away artistic integrity in place of pro-Japanese values, and only positivity was allowed in later years before creative freedom was permitted in films by the mid 80s. The New Wave of filmmakers such as Jae-young Kwak, Chan-wook Park, and Joon-ho Bong, are just a few iconic film directors that transitioned South Korea from a certain dictatorship, and into a place that can make creative works distinctive of South Korea. Today South Korea is thriving and expanding more than ever before with box office films at the highest they’ve ever been, and deals that are putting the country into working relationships internationally, while also being amongst them in the competitive marketplace.

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The best film of the year, in my opinion, is the South Korean film Parasite, so be sure to check it out and explore the vast library of films from South Korea.

Robert Ring

Parasite

The Host (2006) is one of my favorite films. On the outside, it’s a monster film, but it’s actually about family. The Host is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and then it will leave you holding your breath as fear replaces the laughter. Now, I haven’t seen Joon-ho Boon’s other films, but Parasite is without a doubt the successor to The Host. The DNA is found throughout the film, except Parasite has no literal monsters. Parasite on the outside looks like a film about family, but it mutates into something monstrous.

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Parasite is about a family of four that are out of work, and now out of luck. They live in a district that is reserved for the lower class. When it rains the water floods down into this place like a basin from above in the flourishing upper class. They are so poor they huddle together in the bathroom to get wi-fi reception from the nearby cafe. After being given a gift that is said to bring luck into the household the family begins to earn money through their son, Ki-woo. Ki-woo fills in as a math tutor for a wealthy household’s daughter. He has no qualifications so he forges some documents together to pass the interview. After tutoring the daughter for a few sessions, and gains the confidence of the family he finds that the son of the family is thought to be an art prodigy by the mum. Ki-woo sees the child’s art is nothing more than childish scribbles and recommends his sister to replace the tutor they had for their son with his sister, Ki-jung. Ki-woo doesn’t say Ki-jung is his sister, and instead reveals her to be someone he’s heard of being great in that field. Then as Ki-jung gains the mother’s confidence she brings her father, Ki-taek into the household to replace the driver, and then Ki-taek brings his wife in to replace the housekeeper. The way each member of the family bring the next in is ingenious, but what started off as small lies has now become a web of deceit. The film only just gets started at this point as the twists and turns become more outrageous, more shocking, and more deadly than the last.

The first half of the film is more light-hearted and you have a sense of where everything is going. Then a shocking discovery happens in the last hour that changes the mood and all expectations out the window. The ending will shock you and I don’t say that lightly. Any movie can have a shocking ending, yet this one has you so invested into the story it leaves you speechless one thing after another. People could write essays on the symbolism found throughout this film. Anyone can watch it on a basic level and enjoy it. On the other hand, it’s a very high brow film. It’s a film where you will find things you didn’t see before and connect it to other things within it. There is also a lot of social commentary on North Korea. I think it would be interesting if you watched The Host before this and you would see all the parallels that would have you enjoying it even more. My review of The Host HERE

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I feel quite confident in calling Parasite my favorite film of the year. But, I should just face it, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may beat it. Even still, Parasite is certain to be the best film of the year.

I want to watch it again already!

Robert Ring

The Host (2006)

Monster movies don’t usually work for me because they are missing the human element, that’s not the case for this one.

The Host surrounds a dysfunctional family that love and care for one another, and while it is a monster movie, the monster creates suspense and plays an important part as the antagonist to the plot. The prelude shows a United States scientist ordering his assistant to empty a mass of toxic chemicals into the Han River and this mutates into a (fish?) monster. Next, the family is introduced, with the laughable Park Gang-Doo, played by Kang-ho Song, as the key protagonist. His first encounter with the monster results in the kidnapping of his daughter and the hunt to find her is what brings his family together. The government holds the family in containment to avoid spreading a said, “virus” that they have from being in close proximity to the monster. The director, Joon-ho Bong is not afraid to kill key characters to create tension, as half of the family we follow become prey to the monster. This monster movie has a bit of a political agenda when it comes to the prelude, which I could see as a complaint against the United States. It could be seen as such by the one American character that will take the easier route that essentially makes mistakes, and in this case destruction in the form of a monster, he accidentally creates. This may just be them throwing the long-standing joke of western monster films showing creatures birthed in Asia.

The film works best as a comedy and hits every note perfectly while also transitioning to jump-scares with ease. The Host did a lot of what Oldboy did commercially. It is not a better film, however, it is still of high quality and with that in mind, it proves that South Korea can make multiple hits that reach international success too. To date, The Host is one of the highest grossing South Korean films. It was at the attention of Hollywood very quickly after it was released, as it had not only become the highest grossing film of its time but also reinstating that South Korea has been diverse and creative with their films. It was also a popcorn type hit for international viewers and was immediately acquired for Hollywood rights soon after release, however, there is still no news on a remake. There was a sequel in the works for a while and there was even some test footage available online, yet sadly I think we won’t be getting it although I do hold out hope for a Hollywood version one day.

I really love this film and I think the CGI still holds up remarkably well. Check it out if you like comedy-horror.

Robert Ring

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