Tom Jolliffe takes a look at three must-see Korean movies set to hit Cannes…
South Korean cinema and television have exploded worldwide in recent years. The Oscar success of Parasite was followed by the devouring power of squid game, which was THE water cooler series of 2021. The nation seems to be delivering thought-provoking, thought-provoking film (and TV) that isn’t in vogue among major American studios that favor comic book escapism. There is an argument in fact, that right now Korea is winning the (squid) game.
Throughout the 21st century, there has been a succession of great Korean films from a number of prolific directors. Among these great visionaries you have Park Chan-wook (Old boy), Kim Jee Woon (I saw the devil), Lee Chang-dong (Burning), Bong Joon Ho (Parasite) and Hong Sang-soo (The running woman). There are more, and among these visionaries there seems to be a common factor; For the most part, they consistently deliver engaging cinema. In many cases too, a redefinition of the genre, fascinating and exceptional cinema. At a time when masterpieces seem rare, especially in western cinema, Korea has delivered a fine ratio of truly great works worthy of the name. Additionally, they have also delivered a slew of films that tap into the wider appeal of blockbuster tastes with images like Train to Busan. They can get away while broadcasting social commentary (on television, see squid game). There is actually a commonality between many Korean filmmakers, even based on my limited knowledge of works that cross the globe from East to West. Filmmakers, even in their most common form, tell stories with a deeper meaning hidden beneath. Social commentary, class commentary and an existential gaze often permeate the works of Korean filmmakers. In a more progressive South Korean society than 30 years ago, with more freedom, these authors are using their art to make statements.
The first Korean director to have really won over the general Western public, Park Chan-wook is back with Decision to leave. Chan-wook brings with him a resume full of edgy and violent cinema. It pushes boundaries and challenges censors around the world. What he never lacks is true artistry. His most famous work, Old boy still packs so much emotional punch that it unsettles the stomach. Likewise, the horrible prehension I saw the devil. Her previous film, a festival darling that garnered a lot of buzz (if not controversy) for its steamy sex scenes, The servant, was sensational, Rashomon– tale of intrigue, deception and love. In terms of its approach to violence, it was tame compared to other iconic Chan-wook films, but instead managed to make viewers hot under the collar. I recommended the movie to a friend without saying it was pretty daring. She watched with her sister. Please note, do not watch with family members. Still, it’s a scintillating, beautifully crafted work of genius (with a marvelous score).
Decision to leave will play in competition at Cannes and will undoubtedly come with a heavy load of expectation. One of the masters of modern cinema is back and in the familiar setting of the detective thriller. A six-year break after The servant certainly has people looking forward to it and indeed, another film set in a more contemporary setting appeals to fans who prefer Chan-wook’s earlier works to his more recent historical epic. Whether it can live up to its reputation and high bar remains to be seen, but it goes without saying that this film should be high on filmmakers’ watch lists. The trailer certainly confirms this as well. Chan-wook enjoys delving into a darker underbelly, telling tales of deeply bewildered and frustrated violent fantasies. It’s sure to have those moments and sometimes push the audience to their limits, as the central thread of the crime thriller/murder mystery unfolds.
At the more tame end of the spectrum, Hong Sang-soo actually has two movies due for release in the West. Last years In front of your face, an atypically stripped down humanist drama about an aging actress, played at Cannes in 2021 but has just been released in a limited edition in the United States. Now however, we have The novelist‘s film set to perform at Cannes this year. Sang-soo teams up with the mesmerizing and breathtaking Kim Min-hee (The servant), an actress who is increasingly becoming the muse of the author. The black-and-white film, which has the direct, on-the-fly feel of some of his other recent works, evokes a bygone era of Korean cinema, perhaps intersecting with the works of Japanese humanist extraordinaire Ozu (A Tokyo Story, good morning). Sang-soo places his casts in a simple concept, based on stories of authentic and relatable human emotions. It’s not escapism, but at its best, it creates compelling, simple yet effective works that leave an emotional imprint. fans of The running woman or Alone on the beach at night will probably know what to expect, but with Min-hee and a stellar cast, The novelist’s film (another film about cinema) is likely to deliver what its fans want. For those who want straightforward, touching, finely observed drama (especially after the success of Japan’s, drive my car), this will also be unavoidable.
Speaking of subtle human drama, a master of Japanese cinema in the modern era is Hirokazu Kore-eda. Movies that look deep into the human soul like Maborosi offered a sensitive tale of grief and depression, while his resume is also laden with films dealing with class structure and family unity. Shoplifters, one of the best films of recent years was a stunning film that managed to perfectly balance comedy, drama, commentary and heart-pounding. It had a moral complexity but most importantly, Kore-eda raised this question about what constitutes family. Now he’s taking his author’s eye to Korea to make his Korean language debut with Broker.
There’s no shortage of talent to join Kore-eda either, with legends like the eternally affable Song Kang-ho (Parasite, memories of murder) and the wonderful Doona Bae (the stranger, The silent sea, A girl at my doorstep). Bae actually worked with Kore-eda before when she traveled to Japan to play a sex doll that comes to life in Aerial doll (an odd but engaging comedy). This one will also appear at Cannes, a festival that seems well supported by some (potentially) brilliant East Asian cinema. The trailer for Broker suggests something in line with Shoplifters, a nice balance of uplifting moments and heartbreaking emotional depth, with a keen eye on Korean society. This one, indeed, takes a look at the baby basket problem (with babies left in baskets to be cared for by parents unable to cope) which still numbers in the hundreds a year in South Korea. Kore-eda can certainly bring with him an interesting outside perspective, while being well aware of the commonalities between Japan and South Korea. He will (I hope) lose nothing of his dramatic side by leaving his territory. To like Decision to leave and The novelist’s film, Broker going to be must see cinema. It is not impossible that Korea could produce three of the best films of the year.
Elsewhere also and worthy of mention is huntthe first movie of squid game Lee Jung-jae who looks very promising. This premieres out of competition at Cannes, but is sure to create some hype at the back of Jung-jae’s West Bend squid gameadding to its already mega reputation in Korea.
SEE ALSO: Ten essential gems of Korean cinema
Which Korean movie are you most looking forward to this year? Are there any other films premiering at Cannes that catch your attention? Let us know on our social media @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. He has a number of films released on DVD/VOD worldwide and several releases scheduled for 2022, including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) , Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more information on the best personal site you will ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/