I worried a little about admitting that the most influential Korean film I ever encountered is Chan-wook Park’s 2003 film, Oldboy. This isn’t to suggest that I didn’t like the film - I was alternately thrilled and appalled at the lengths the director took to manipulate his audience through so many levels of visceral discomfort - more that this unbearably cruel film about vengeance is a point of introduction for Korean cinema for many Western audience members.
Shouldn’t I be able to cite a more culturally worthy film like Sopyonje (1993) from Kwon-Taek Im, which subtly charted the dreadful mid-twentieth century angst of the entire Korean peninsula? Or perhaps I could be trendy and say that a blockbuster such as Je-Kyu Kang’s 1999 spy thriller, Shiri or Joon-Ho Bong’s 2006 genre-bending monster flick, Gwoemul. Even Chan-wook Park’s Joint Security Area (2000) - a gripping film about tensions along the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea (and a blockbuster in its own right) - might set me apart from the average punter bragging about their first exposure to Korean cinema.
All 4 of The Host, Sopyonje, Shiri and JSA will screen
in this year's Cinema on the Park program.
in this year's Cinema on the Park program.
And Oldboy wasn’t even my first Korean film - I have fond memories of seeing the beautiful Chang-dong Lee film, Oasis at the Brisbane Film Festival in 2003, and as a volunteer at the festival, being handed a boxed set of his films by his producer, Gye-nam Myeong. But I won’t shy away from the fact that as a committed cinephile, Oldboy changed my life and solidified a passion for Korean cinema that encouraged me to seek out the work of all of the directors I mentioned above, and more.
I reserve a special section in my library for all of the Korean films I’ve sourced online, through friends, in a strange little Seoul bookshop that held what seemed to be the last remaining DVDs in a country obsessed with downloading films, and in one lunatic spree through the impressively stocked Asian section of the Kowloon HMV.
With its transgressive themes of vengeance and taboo topics like incest, Oldboy ignited a new fascination for Asian cinema that was already dominated by the highly stylised choreographed transgression of Japanese directors like Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano, or the political transgression of fifth and sixth-generation Chinese filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhangke. Much of the work of Korean directors including Chan-wook Park, Lee Chang-dong, and Kim Ki-duk asks us to consider the depths of emotional and moral transgression to which people will sink in order to exact revenge.
Certainly, in a country relatively free of handguns, Korean cinema tends to portray its violence even more shockingly with axes and vicious-looking knives - the most recent example of the shock value of sharp instruments in Korean cinema would have to be Hong-Jin Na’s exhilarating and terrifying The Yellow Sea. But Korean cinema is so much more than physical violence and blood letting.
The Yellow Sea will premiere in Sydney on March 22nd at Cinema on the Park
For me, the first thing I think of when asked about Korean cinema will always be the crazed face of Choi Min-sik as the anguished Oh Dae-su, released from an illegal motel-like prison after fifteen years of madness, only to discover the plans of his tormentor have only just begun. After leaving a trail of bloodied corpses in his wake, the poor man discovers that all of his woes sprang from a relatively minor youthful indiscretion - but what an ultimate price to pay for gossip!
While I haven’t read Old Boy, the original Japanese manga written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi, from what I can gather the Korean adaptation pushed way past the limits of decency plumbed by the source material. When I read a few years ago that Steven Spielberg and Will Smith had optioned the rights to a Hollywood remake, I was nonplussed - how could they even consider such a perverse story in such a puritan country?
A possible sign of things to come?
But the recent news that the remake of Oldboy has been assigned to the more indie director, Spike Lee raises some interesting possibilities. Whether screenwriter, Mark Protosevich - who also wrote the interesting film, The Cell, and the quite disappointing remake, I am Legend - aligns himself with the manga or the Korean interpretation remains to be seen; the positive sign is that Hollywood and the rest of the world are paying close attention to the innovation of Korean cinema. With Korean directors stretching their legs into English language films - I’m thinking here of Joon-ho Bong’s Snow Piercer, and Jee-woon Kim’s Arnold Schwarzenegger-vehicle, Last Stand - the best is yet to come for Korean cinema at home and abroad.