2019 provided us with Parasite, the whirlwind success that won a unanimous Palme d’Or at Cannes, swept through awards season like wildfire in a wheat field, and then came to the Oscars where it won four awards including making history with a Best Picture victory. (Among its other statistics, the first film to feature absolutely no white people to win this prize…damn that Peter O’Toole in The Last Emperor!) In doing so, the Oscars finally caught up with a film industry whose works had been thrilling audiences for decades, including mainstream popularity outside of South Korea since the period known as New Korean Cinema in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
International cinema requiring subtitles has never been huge box office in North America, or around the world really, where it is said that English-language films comprise 70% of the marketplace. The Academy Awards occasionally throw a nomination to a non-English film when it pierces through that barrier. Until this year, however, they had yet to go that far afield with the top prize: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for instance, was the highest critically rated film of its year but voters gave it the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar while its Best Picture nomination was beaten by more standard homegrown fare, Gladiator.
If there was ever going to be a non-English Best Picture winner, surely it would be something from France or Italy, countries whose films had long been recognized by the Academy in major categories since the ’40s. If it was going to come from Asia, the country with the longest relationship with voters is Japan. South Korea’s film industry, on the other hand, had never received a single nomination pre-Parasite, despite the fact that the country’s films have risen greatly in popularity over the last two decades with the daring of directors making films at the turn of the millennium.
Noted for plots that are rarely easy to predict and a style that crosses more than one genre, the films of this era were celebrated not just for their originality but for their strength, the best of them managing to rewrite familiar formulas without being messy or rambling, using unconventional narratives to better represent the unconventionality of human emotion and experience. It’s not just genres that are being challenged by these films: a number of the films in the Criterion Channel’s New Korean Cinema collection give motivation and backstory to more than just one character within the same story, challenging our usual experience of having our sympathy manipulated by a favoured perspective, which in cases like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Crying Fist is even more daring than the overt violence or imagination that these films employ.
The New Korean Cinema collection skips some of the most popular choices (notably Oldboy, and the films of Lee Chang-dong and Hong Sang-soo), but it covers a range of familiar and, outside of Korea, relatively unknown titles:
Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
Bong goes in the complete opposite direction from the grandeur of The Host with this deeply disturbing psychological mystery. Hye-ja Kim is superb as a poor vendor whose intellectually disabled son is arrested for murdering a schoolgirl. (Her body found the morning after he goes out on a drunken spree.) The mother goes in search of the truth to free him, but we’ve seen how obsessively close and protective she is of him and wonder if she’ll be willing to face the truth if the answer isn’t what she’s hoping for. What she uncovers takes her not further into the truth about the crime, but it forces her to face her past and her fears about her complicity in the world she has created. What plays like a murder mystery turns out to be a probing character study of love, insecurity and madness. While Parasite might be Bong at his grandest, this one shows him at his most delicate, complex and incisive.
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
Everyone has a price to pay in this scintillating tale of love and revenge. Having already made the country’s biggest blockbuster, Joint Security Area, Park was free to go into more daring artistic territory after the conventional his satisfying 2000 hit. Sympathy begins his “Vengeance” trilogy with an emotionally affecting lesson in an eye for an eye making the whole world blind. Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) loves his sister and can no longer wait for her to get a transplant to save her life, but his trying to buy her one through the black market backfires and he loses his savings (and a bit more) to crooked organ brokers. He kidnaps his boss’s daughter to get the money for the operation but when that goes awry, his journey towards getting his bad guys ends up being parallel to the boss (Kang-ho Song) trying to find him. Park tells a tale with no heroes or villains. There is only the tragedy of love and pain being felt to such strong degrees that everyone involved makes bad decisions motivated by both.
The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
Bong achieved his first international hit with this original and vibrant creature feature. His frequent collaborator Kang-ho Song plays a snack food kiosk vendor who is underwhelmed by life but is lovingly devoted to his clever daughter. Unfortunately, he also works by the Han River, from which a giant fish-like monster has emerged a few years after an American scientist insisted that his lab employee dump all their old formaldehyde into the water supply. The city is overtaken with fear due to a virus that the monster is spreading, and Song and his family members are taken in for quarantine after his daughter is captured by the creature; knowing that she is still alive but trapped in the city’s sewers, Song and his archery champion sister (Doona Bae), alcoholic brother and patient father do their best to cross the city and find her. The visuals of the creature’s first appearance in the city are stupendous, but the film delivers so much more than just a standard horror film; as always, Bong’s main concern is with human beings, their connections are as precious as their failures are catastrophic.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (Bong Joon-ho, 2000)
Bong possesses the rare quality of being able to create plots that unfold in small narrative arcs. Despite shifting between vastly different tones and genres, they manage to feel like streamlined journeys into the heart of a story instead of the unholy messes that they’d be in another filmmaker’s hands. His feature debut is an excellent early example of his mastery, at first an absurdist comedy about a graduate student driven crazy by a dog’s incessant yapping in his apartment complex who decides to do something about it. (Anyone sensitive to depictions of cruelty to our furry little friends might want to proceed with caution.) Instead of solving his problem, he only manages to make things so much worse, shifting to touches of a horror film and a poignant drama while maintaining its dark humor throughout. It weakens by the end, for a film with many parallels to Parasite, including basement dwellers as representations of class, it shows that he hadn’t yet achieved his full powers. However, anyone who loves the director’s bent sense of kinky imagery and spontaneous narrative irony should check it out.
The Foul King (Kim Jee-Woon, 2000)
Underdog crowdpleasers are a dime a dozen, but always welcome when they’re done right, especially when they provide as many laughs as you get to enjoy here. Somewhere between The Wrestler and Shall We Dance is the tale of a failing bank clerk whose father’s disapproval and boss’s abuse inspire him to follow his passion into professional wrestling. An ex-athlete now working as a grumpy trainer needs a patsy to throw a fight with an up and coming wrestling star and hires Kang-ho Song (in the role that made him a star) to do the job, but the training goes so well that our hero ends up being far more than just someone’s fall guy. Delightful.
Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000)
This film broke box office records in South Korea, the most successful film released in the country up until that time, and put Park Chan-wook on the map before he would go on to make the more widely seen Oldboy and Thirst. A potentially explosive event at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is at the heart of a mystery that has a Korean-born Swiss general show up to investigate the death of two Northern soldiers. The survivors of a shoot-out in a bunker have different stories that she must examine in order to find the truth, guided by her instincts for reading the physical evidence at the scene. What she discovers is that you can split land easily between one side and another, but people are much more complicated. Park would get more daring with his fractured narratives, but this film still makes you do some work to get caught up (particularly if you’re not too familiar with the political context). It provides an exciting military thriller manages to never feel unnecessarily glamorous.
Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005)
The third in Park’s “Vengeance” trilogy abandons the deep emotional resonance of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the grim darkness of Oldboy for something more visually expressive but still vicious and relentless. It’s primary selling point is Yeong-ae Lee’s performance as a woman wrongfully sent to prison for the kidnapping and murder of a little boy. While incarcerated, she’s a model inmate. Once out, she puts on her dark eyeshadow and goes after the man responsible for her life’s sorrows. If Mr. Vengeance was Park giving us revenge in the style of Balzac, where all actions cost whether you have been wronged or not, the Lady chapter takes a page out of Shirley Jackson in its elaborate and, very possibly, overdone climax. It satisfies and its aesthetics are exceptionally executed, but it doesn’t hit as deep as its predecessors.
IF YOU’RE SO INCLINED
Save the Green Planet (Jang Joon-Hwan, 2003)
A young man obsessed with UFOs who believes that aliens are invading the Earth kidnaps a chemical tycoon, locking him in his basement and putting him through unbelievable torture. While the kidnap victim tries to acclimate himself to the madness holding him hostage, a young police recruit looks to an unconventional ex-detective mentor to try and figure out who committed the kidnapping. What at first seems like a mere allegory for class division reveals itself a creative, harsh, and daring journey into the mind of a monster made that way by cruel human hands. It’s a film at turns disgusting, terrifying, and deeply moving. It hits many of its points perfectly and then goes a few steps further, for a film that stresses you out this much it sticks around about 15 minutes too long and indulges in a lot of overwrought extra beats in many of its most intense scenes. However, its heart is always in the right place and it doesn’t overplay the sympathy factor enough to ruin its Silence of the Lambs-style thrills.
Crying Fist (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2005)
Sentimental clichés are indulged all around in this heartfelt tale of two boxers. One is an aging former champion whose finances are in the dumps, his wife has left him and his creditors have come a-calling, forcing him to take to the streets and accept money for being beaten up by strangers as a gimmick in a public square. The other is a young street punk who is sent to prison for a heinous crime and takes boxing on as his redemption, and like his counterpart, they both see an upcoming Super Lightweight Competition as an opportunity to prove themselves. The actors give such skilled and three-dimensional performances that the painful familiarity of every step of the plot is no problem. The daring double-pronged narrative challenges the audience by not allowing them to pick sides when it comes down to the final round.
Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1999)
Don’t ask for more than the surface and you won’t be disappointed by this silly, stylish police thriller, whose bare thread of a plot mainly involves two cops going after a killer. One violent sequence follows another in almost paint-by-numbers order: close calls and rough interviews with witnesses, etc. The emphasis is not on narrative ingenuity but on expressive visuals: freeze frames, animations, images that recall both film noir and Marx brothers comedies abound. While its style is about as unoriginal as its story, there is a good-natured spirit to the way it is executed and a number of action scenes are terrific fun.
A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon, 2003)
Two young girls come home after an unspecified illness to live once again with their father and his new wife. The tension between stepmother and children are palpable from the minute they step foot in the house. Before long, bad dreams bother both girls, injuries start showing up on the shyer sister’s body and her bolder sibling confronts the interloper taking their mother’s place about the abuse she is inflicting on her, while the father seems oblivious to it all. As things progress, facets of reality begin to get shaky and it starts to seem possible that the house is haunted. Well acted and cleverly shot, this murky psychodrama suffers from an indecision about just how easily it wants you to understand what is going on, offering practical explanations behind some of its excesses but not all. A great deal of its scares feel like they’re just there for the sake of selling it as a genre piece. However, at least its psychological examination of a disturbed and unhappy mind is genuinely caring and thoughtful.
The Quiet Family (Kim Jee-woon, 1998)
A family of six has purchased an inn in the countryside that isn’t getting any business. Fortune then laughs at their prayers when a guest checks in, commits suicide, an amorous couple checks in and does the same, necessitating cover-ups and burials. Thwarting a sexual assault by the next guest on their one daughter turns the place into a murder hotel whose body county spins out of control. It’s wry and well-acted but also tiresome, too smug in its irony, and it makes some preposterous leaps in logic before its cheeky ending.