In my last column, I briefly mentioned some of the films being made in Korea during the past few years. Korean filmmakers have been producing some of the best films in the world in the last decade, capturing the attention of film festivals and cinephiles worldwide. For those wishing to explore Korean cinema, here is a broad overview of some of the country’s best films and directors.

The Korean director best known in the U.S. is Park Chan-wook, director of The Vengeance Trilogy — “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance.” “Oldboy,” probably the most widely seen Korean film in this country, is a good place to start in one’s exploration into Korean cinema.

The film tells the story of a man who is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years without being told why, and upon release, he’s given five days to find his captor. Apart from being a great film in its own right, the movie is also emblematic of what has come to be recognized as the Korean style — genre filmmaking, graphic violence, the juxtaposition of dark humor and intense pathos and an intricate, stylized visual sense. While “Oldboy” is heavier on the violence and shock factor than most Korean films, it serves as a barometer for further exploration of the country’s cinema.

Other notable films by Park include “J.S.A.: Joint Security Area,” which is about guards on each side of the Korean border, and “Thirst,” his take on the vampire myth. Though “J.S.A.” is clunky in parts (there’s more than a little awkward exposition and halting, nearly incomprehensible English), it’s one of Park’s funniest and most touching films, telling a crushing story of brotherhood and guilt. “Thirst” is perhaps Park’s most mature work to date, and certainly his most beautifully shot film.

Bong Joon-ho’s work shares many similarities with Park Chan-wook’s. His film “The Host,” which also has gained wide recognition in the U.S., is the highest-grossing Korean film of all time. It tells the story of a giant mutant fish who terrorizes Seoul, and a father’s quest to save his daughter from the monster’s clutches. “The Host” is a great monster movie and an adroit political satire. It’s also a nice introduction into Bong Joon-ho’s body of work.

Bong’s films tend to be less violent than Park’s, often using montage to suggest violence as opposed to the unflinching brutality of Park’s films. But Bong is unflinching in other ways. While both directors use dark humor frequently and effectively, Bong’s humor is much drier — there’s something about the passivity of his camera, the long, often static takes, that imbues it with a sort of ironic, detached personality. Bong has the capability to wring comedic moments out of the heaviest dramatic material.

His film “Memories of Murder” is the best example of this. Based on the true story of the first serial murders in Korea, it centers on two bumbling local cops and a big-city detective on the murderer’s trail. It’s a film bursting with life — simultaneously funny, gripping and tragic.

The last director I’d like to mention is Kim Ki-duk, whose films are as beautiful as they are different from Bong’s and Park’s. In contrast to those directors’ elaborate genre pieces, Kim’s films are low-budget, simple but enigmatic affairs. They are thoughtful, deliberate films told entirely visually — there is almost no dialogue in any of his movies.

In “3-Iron,” possibly Kim’s best movie, a young man breaks into houses when the residents are on vacation, doing house chores for them in exchange for their unintentional hospitality. At one house, he meets a woman who is abused by her husband, and a romance develops between them — but they never say a word to each other. Kim has a quiet, inimitable style in which every gesture and look speaks volumes. His movies are simple on the surface, but they are peerless in their thematic and visual depth. His “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring,” a film of mesmerizing beauty, is a great example of this.

For viewers looking to branch out further into the oeuvres of these directors, there’s Park’s “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK,” which is as strange as it sounds, a quirky love story much tamer than any of the director’s other movies. Bong’s first film, “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” also worth seeing, is a funny, well-made film, but one with hints of a director still trying to find his voice. Kim’s earlier works, like “Bad Guy” or “Real Fiction,” have the director’s signature style but are much grittier and less accessible than his later material.

Despite their differences, what all these films share is an attention to minute details, an emphasis on the power of the image and limitless imagination and originality. To see the best movies being made today, look to these great Korean directors.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.