Kim Ki-duk is one of a select few of Korean film directors who has seen domestic fame and international success–and has kept Korean artistic and big screen film on the map. Above, a cinematic shot of from his film 2003 film SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER…AND SPRING (Photo courtesy of cinefilmind.tumblr.com).
Korean film is still on its upswing, and from a film or movie-going experience, from Seoul to Cannes, it is not merely a string of hits. Three Korean movie directors are at the forefront of the movement. What makes Korean film punch above its weight internationally?
If it is not his actual films, then it is Park Chan-wook’s style. If it is not the Korean horror film genre or its unique version of messed up and quirky, then it is Kim Ji-woon’s intensity which influences. And, just to make sure Seoul doesn’t sell out to Hollywood, there is Kim Ki-duk lurking in the background and popping up in film festivals across Europe and Asia, winning quite often. These Korean directors are what is keeping the Korean movie style keep coming, but also has fresh art house and wide audience productions they are directly and indirectly involved in.
Anything by Park Chan-wook is a must see. Thirst 박쥐, winner of the 2009 Cannes “Jury Prize”. Park Chan-wook’s (Old Boy 올드보이—2004 Cannes Grand Prize Winner) vampire film stars Song Kang-ho as a priest-turned-vampire who seduces his friend’s wife, played by rising starlet Kim Ok-bin. His English/Hollywood production Stoker, starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, is love-it or hate-it film and broke even at the box office. Any Korean would know Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨), which are bookends to Old Boy in the Vengeance Trilogy.
Park also made a quirky romance comedy called I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아). His next film will be a Korean adaptation based on the novel Fingersmith, about an heiress who falls in love with a thief. The film stars Ha Jung-woo and the very popular Kim Min-hee.
Also, if you have the stomach for it, try I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다, 2010), by Kim Ji-woon (김지운), who followed the Hollywood interest set by those before him when he directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand. Rolling Stone magazine considered I Saw the Devil a “new grindhouse classic” and made it number 24 on its list of the “25 Best Modern Exploitation Movies”. Kim also saw box office success, and received good reviews at Cannes, with The Good, The Bad, The Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈), which, unlike the other two films, he also wrote.
But for more intense work, his 2003 film, A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련), was the highest-grossing Korean horror film at the time. The film, remade in the US in 2009 as The Uninvited, is about twin sisters who experience more and more strange events involving them and their stepmother after returning from a psychiatric ward. The story line sounds trite today. But the movie is based on a tradition Joseon (조선) Dynasty Korean folktale called The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon (장화홍련전). The tale has had several adaptions but none have reached this kind of success or level of creepy (clicker beware).
The Independent Film Channel listed it number four on their list of the “The 10 Best Split Personality Performances in Movies.” It was one of the first films, and the first horror film to put Korean filmmaking on the map–although you could say the 1960 cult classic The Housemaid (하녀), remade in 2010, did that, a film favorite of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. But it was director like Kim Ji-woon, Park Chan-wook and Na Hong-jin who started the new interest in Hollywood for what is going on in Korean theaters, keeping the interest and funding alive for what is a thriving industry from art house to major features.
Saving the best for last, Kim Ki-duk (김기덕) is the most decorated of these Korean directors. He continually dominates the top three international film festivals–Cannes, Venice, Berlin. He won Best Director at Berlin and Venice in 2004 with two different films. He won in the tough Un Certain Regard category in Cannes in 2011 with a documentary, and followed it up in 2012 with the coveted and elusive Golden Lion, the top film award, at Venice. That film, Pieta (피에타), became the first Korean film to win a top film award at on the top 3 festivals. The film, named after the Italian word for “piety”, still runs along the typical Korean course of a debt, a debtor, and a strong female presence who gives a moral and purposeful drive for the protagonist.
Kim Ki-duk started in 1995 with his first (submitted) screenplay, Crocodile (악어), a standard odd Korean film dealing with suicide and sexual abuse. The violent sexual themes continued with Samaritan (사마리아), which brought him success at Berlin in 2004. That same year, in his Venice success, Ki-duk’s film 3-Iron or Empty House (빈집), showed Ki-duk was one of Korea’s most important directors.
However, it was his Cannes film, Arirang (아리랑), which showed how Ki-duk’s films took a real turn and a serious mental toll. The documentary deals with a near hanging of one of his lead actress and the young death of two of his close colleagues, including one who worked as assistant director on his previous films.
His newest film came out this summer, Stop (스톱), takes a different yet still somewhat horrific turn. Yet the film, about a young married couple who are exposed to radiation at the Fukushima nuclear reactor after the 2011 meltdown, shows Kim Ki-duk is still at the top of his game.