A little more than 10 years ago, I wrote an article for this paper reporting on the first Korean-language films playing in the area (“Popcorn and Kimchee,” Aug. 5, 2009). What a long way we’ve come, you might have thought as you watched Parasite become the first-ever film in a language other than English to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Of course, when I say “we,” I mean as an audience, because if you’ve been lucky enough to see the Korean films at AMC Grapevine Mills or (like me) tenacious enough to drive up there on many weekends or even just been reading this space regularly, you know that the country has been cranking out great films on a regular basis for much of this century. On the other hand, if Parasite is your introduction to Korean cinema, you may want to take this article as a handy gateway.
(If you want to point out that Roma should have won 2018’s Best Picture and broken this barrier for Mexico, I won’t argue with you.)
For much of its history, the Korean peninsula has struggled for its own identity among the larger, more powerful countries around it. The language is what is known as a “language isolate,” bearing no relation to any other language, living or dead, but it was plagued by invasions during its years as “the Hermit Kingdom.” In 1905, Korea became a protectorate of Japan following the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Coincidentally, this was at the dawn of filmmaking technology. While the Japanese conquerors developed a strong film culture during the next few decades, the conquered territory had few resources to do the same. Japanese rule included many atrocities committed against the civilian population and suppression of the Korean language up until the end of World War II, which quickly gave way to the Korean War, with the Communist North and the Western-backed South fighting for control. The brief post-armistice period produced classics such as Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Yu Hyun-mok’s Obaltan. The U.S.-backed military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee banned the importation of films, spurring domestic filmmakers to raise their output to meet demand. Unfortunately, Park’s government censorship of films’ content led to a decline in quality in the 1970s, with movies needing to parrot a party line much like their counterparts in North Korea.
The end of the dictatorship and the coming of democracy in the late 1980s was a major factor leading to the current Korean film renaissance, as censorship laws were relaxed and filmmakers were allowed to take on controversial subjects. One of the first hits was Shiri, an action-thriller that depicted a terrorist plot to bomb a North Korea-South Korea soccer game. Arriving in theaters just before South Korea was set to host the 2002 World Cup tournament, the film was an enormous success that made stars out of Han Suk-kyu, Choi Min-sik, Song Kang-ho (from Parasite), and Kim Yun-jin (from TV’s Lost). A tight circle of friends was formed by Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Ji-woon, who met during the student protests that removed the dictatorship, found domestic success around the same time, and decided collectively to pitch projects in America, much the way Mexican colleagues Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu had done earlier.
Describing Korean film today is tough, but most of it is pitched squarely at mainstream audiences, a holdover from the old days when directors were assigned to projects and expected to bring them in quickly and under budget. Im Kwon-taek directed many such commercial projects but later established a reputation with more lyrical films that preserved Korea’s ancient history and culture, such as Chunhyang and Chi-hwa-seon: Painted Fire. Kim Ki-duk has been known for intellectual films with a Buddhist religious bent and gory violence such as 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, but his career was derailed in 2017 by accusations of sexual assault from his actresses. Hong Sang-soo has had his own taste of scandal after leaving his wife of 35 years for an actress under 35, but the damage to his career was limited because most of his following is not in South Korea but France, where moviegoers and critics appreciate his austere, heavily improvised tales of domestic life, such as The Day He Arrives and Right Now, Wrong Then.
Most American moviegoers associate Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook with Korean film. For Bong, Parasite is something of an outlier, as most of his other films have a fantasy or science-fiction element, like his English-language Snowpiercer or his monster movie The Host. Park has also dabbled in fantasy in his Catholic vampire movie Thirst, but he’s better known for his so-called “vengeance trilogy” of movies that feature extreme levels of violence and his groundbreaking lesbian romance The Handmaiden, which showcases Park’s visual sense at its sharpest. While these filmmakers have crossed into America (Park’s English-language Stoker plays oddly like a lesser version of Parasite), actors have crossed in the other direction, as Steven Yeun gave memorable performances in Bong’s Okja and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning.
It’s great to have award winners, but genre fare is the lifeblood of any country’s cinema, and South Korean movies deliver on that score. While some Korean comedies’ humor does not translate for a Western audience, successful ones often incorporate action, such as last year’s Extreme Job and 1999’s Attack the Gas Station!, with its bonkers climactic four-way brawl between local gangsters, mafiosi, police, and an army of crazed restaurant delivery boys. The straight-up action thrillers often feature set pieces that Hollywood movies rarely reach — The Man From Nowhere boasts a dazzling climactic knife fight between the protagonist and an intriguing Thai villain, while The Villainess contains a swordfight on motorcycles that was stolen by John Wick: Chapter 3. There have also been a few memorable horror films like Kim Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters.
There have not been any notable animated features from South Korea, nor have there been any musicals. Even so, with a much smaller population than China, Japan, or India, South Korea has managed to build for itself the most vibrant film scene in Asia. In fact, if you look at the last 20 years, it produces more good films and more types of good films than most European countries except Britain and possibly France. In this light, Parasite’s unprecedented haul of Oscars seems less like an upset and more like an inevitability, a considerably overdue recognition of the country’s filmmaking excellence.