The Essentials: 10 Films Of The Korean New Wave [Primer]

This weekend, after what seems like roughly a decade of delays, rumors, teases, announcements, retractions and general bloviating, Bong Joon-ho’s anxiously awaited “Snowpiercer” hits screens. Of course it seems like years, but it was in fact “only” last October, after its South Korean August bow, that the film snuck out in France (from where we reviewed it), after which it rolled out in Asia, Western and Eastern Europe, and you know, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan before finally coming to the U.S., marking one of the stranger international release strategies for a genre picture starring a recognizable American action star in recent memory. Might it be the only Chris Evans film ever to open in Mongolia three months before the U.S.?

Of course, we’re being a little facetious: “Snowpiercer” may indeed feature Captain America (along with Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and John Hurt among the more familiar faces), but it’s hardly a Chris Evans vehicle. In fact, it’s probable that its surface similarity to an easy-to-market popcorn flick (Hollywood star, comic book provenance, high-concept sci-fi) proved one of the contributing factors to the confusion and prevarication around its release: as any of us who’ve seen it can attest, it is definitively not a straight-up popcorn flick, and it’s possible that the Weinsteins envisaged flaming torches and pitchforks from irate moviegoers raging that they’d been sold an arthouse experiment under the guise of a sci-fi blockbuster. Because it really is very weird — in a way that will delight cinephiles, but that may well leave more mainstream audiences scratching their heads. So it is probably about right that it’s opening limited (and thankfully — or perhaps not — uncut), that “Transformers: Bombastic Subtitle” will siphon off the majority of of the “WTF dude?” brigade and that the name above the marquee is most definitely that of its Korean director, Bong Joon-ho.

Bong already has an international profile, mainly based on the breakout arthouse success of the equally odd, genre-fusing mindfuck that was “The Host” (not to be confused with last year’s terrible Saoirse Ronan YA adaptation unless joyless timesucks are your thing). But he is also part of a generation of Korean directors (at this point almost exclusively male, at least those who have found a measure of international distribution, though 2013’s Busan Film Festival did spotlight several first-time female directors so hopefully some green shoots there) who came of age just as newly democratic South Korea started to blossom culturally and artistically. Bringing both a broad appreciation of genre cinema and a uniquely Korean perspective, along with poster child Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”), Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk and Kim Ji-woon, Bong is at the forefront of the so-called Korean New Wave (which also spawned adorable neologism “Hallyuwood” with “Hallyu” roughly translating as “flow from Korea”), which was seeded in the mid-90s but really started to thrive, and to gain international recognition in the 00s. More recently, as “Snowpiercer,” Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker” Kim Ji-woon’s English-language debut “The Last Stand” and last year’s “Oldboy” remake prove, Hollywood has caught the K-wave bug, so for those of you who are wondering where to begin, here’s a handy starter pack of 10 films, featuring all the aforementioned directors, and those titles of theirs we feel can give the best overview of the thriving and ever-expanding Korean New Wave. And if you’re in New York, here’s five movies to check out at the upcoming Asian Film Festival.


Joint Security Area” (2000)
Although living in a nation permanently on the brink of war with its neighbor underpins many of the films on this list, “Joint Security Area” is relatively rare in that it directly deals with South Korea’s border with the North, a nation feared around the world as one of the most brutal and repressive dictatorships of current times. It’s rarer still in that it does it in the guise of a gripping, very commercial thriller, and in that it preaches a compassionate anti-war message while it’s at it. The local breakthrough of Park Chan-wook (who’d made two films in the 1990s, but had been making ends meet as a film critic in the meantime), the film is an adaptation of a novel called “DMZ” by Park Sang-yeon, and as you might expect, is set in the de-militarized zone that separates the north from the south. One night, a South Korean soldier (Lee Byung-hun) unexpectedly flees back to his own side, after two North Korean soldiers are killed, an act that leaves relations between the two countries in a heightened state, with only an investigation by neutral Swiss Army Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae) standing in the way of all-out hostility. The film’s indebted somewhat to U.S. pictures like “A Few Good Men” and “The Caine Mutiny,” and is certainly less boundary-pushing on the surface than Park’s later work, with significantly less live-octopus-eating or incest, but there’s a sharp subversiveness to the way it sneaks a story of friendship across the divide into what could have been so easily a bombastic thriller: it ends up playing out like a tragedy, of good men undone by a conflict that has already destroyed so many lives. It’s also, less surprisingly, masterfully made, with Park showing an astonishing command of tension, and the immaculate, borderline Kubrickian eye for detail that would recur in his later work too. It’s not as attention-grabbing as the Vengeance trilogy, but it’s still an essential, and surprisingly little-seen work from a then-fledgling master.

Save The Green Planet
Save The Green Planet” (2003)
One of the things that makes Korean cinema so exciting is the way that it’s so fearless about colliding different genres and tones into one another. In the U.S., similar attempts are either unsuccessful, or prove to sit poorly with audiences, but in the Korean New Wave it seems to be virtually the norm, and no film represents that better than the gloriously bonkers “Save The Green Planet!” The feature-length debut of director Jang Joon-hwan, it initially appears to be another revenge picture, with Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun), adorned in a strange, steampunkish helmet, kidnapping and imprisoning his boss, Man-shik (Baek Yoon-sik). But as it turns out, Byeong-gu believes the man to be an alien from Andromeda. As the police close in, it begins to appear as if there’s a more prosaic reason for Byeong-gu’s actions, but director Jang isn’t nearly through the process of messing with his audience by then. The film absolutely shouldn’t work: it mixes thriller, “Audition”-style horror complete with some truly grotesque violence, elements of broad comedy, mental illness drama, quirky romance and science-fiction, sometimes within the space of a single scene. But the relentless invention and density of ideas at play carry it through, along with the sheer level of energy that Jang brings: the filmmaker directs like he’ll never be afforded the opportunity again (he wasn’t far off: it took him ten years to follow the film up, with sophomore feature “Hwayi: A Monster Boy” hitting Korean theaters last year), shooting events with a bold, colorful palette and a punkish grindhouse style that makes the film come across like a sort of pop-art fever dream. And yet it also manages not to be style over substance: like some of its contemporaries, it’s also a genuinely human story about the acts of inhumanity that we perform on one another.