My Experience with Korean Cinema

In my first year at university, I remember borrowing a book from the library called Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong by Anthony Leong. It was a great crash course on Korean cinema and offered a great amount of information about the recent boom in Korean filmmaking that is spearheaded by directors such as Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho (these three names just so happen to be my personal favourite directors working in South Korea at the moment). It was an interesting read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with any interest in Korean cinema or contemporary cinema in general but it wasn’t the information that sold me on Korean cinema – it was the fact that South Korea’s film industry was being compared to that of Hong Kong’s which seemed like a very fair comparison to make given just how popular most of Korea’s films are nowadays and how much they feel similar to Hong Kong’s approach to filmmaking and distribution. In fact, it almost seems like as though Korea has borrowed techniques and strategies of filmmaking from all of their nearest neighbours and created an amalgamation that one could refer to as being a uniquely “Korean aesthetic”. Two films, which I feel, greatly exemplify this idea of the “Korean aesthetic” are The Good, The Bad, The Weird and The Host.

In what way, you ask? Well, from my perspective, both films have a somewhat surreal approach in tone which seems common in a handful of Japanese films – particularly those of Takashi Miike or Sion Sono – yet at the same time, are able to balance this imaginatively inventive landscape by being able to maintain a level of suspension and adrenaline all throughout (comparative to that of contemporary Hong Kong action cinema). And just to add a bit of charm and personality to these films, a nice dark layer of black comedy to each film is added into the mix – a recurring element found in a lot of the Korean films that I have watched. Yeah, I think that sounds about right.

I’ve always been an Asian film enthusiast but before discovering the cinema of Korea and other regions of East Asia, I had mostly restricted myself to films that came from Hong Kong, China and Japan. This wasn’t because I didn’t have interest in any of the films emanating from these other regions, it was just because the films coming out from Japan, Hong Kong and China just so happened to be the most popular and the most accessible. In fact, it never even occurred to me that Korea would even have films that would attract my attention to be quite honest.

So how did I even catch wind of the Korean cinematic movement in the first place? Well, I’d like to think that it had something to do with the fact that a lot of my friends were, at the time, getting caught up in the hallyu wave and listening to an excess amount of K-Pop (for which I am guilty of as well!) and I’m probably not too far off from that guess. But to tell you the truth, I really don’t quite remember how I was introduced to Korean cinema in the first place. While A Tale of Two Sisters may have been my first Korean film, I’m almost certain that my actual gateway into Korean cinema came from Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (I assume this to be the case with most people).

Since discovering the trilogy in Year 12 (which by now seems like such a long time ago…), Oldboy has gone on to become one of my favourite films of all time (easily in my top five!) and is also the very reason for my passion in cinema. In a lot of ways, Park’s films have helped me find a greater appreciation in all of aspects of cinema and if it were not for him, I would not be taking the time to write this. In fact, I would even say that Park Chan-wook and Oldboy are the reasons why I am also currently pursuing a degree in cinema studies at university in the first place! So for that very reason, I feel like I am indebted to Mr Park and to the cinema of Korea for continually being producing such fine films for audiences to latch onto.

I’ve only scratched the surface of Korean cinema and I still have years ahead of me to get even more acquainted with Korean film history. I look forward to the day that I watch an older film like Obaltan or to be able to catch up with Korea’s arthouse scene that is currently being led by directors like Lee Chang-dong and Kim Ki-duk. Now, with Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ji-woon all setting up projects in the United States with some big name Hollywood actors, I feel like now is the best time to be invested in Korean cinema and be a fan.

This article was originally posted on the KOFFIA blog and ran as part of the 2012 Korean Cinema Blogathon.