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A quick guide to contemporary Korean cinema

BY Kathleen Bondar

8th Nov 2022 Film & TV

A quick guide to contemporary Korean cinema

With Korean cinema finding audiences worldwide, we explore the essential modern Korean films that are showing at this month's London Korean Film Festival

When Bong Joon Ho’s comedy thriller Parasite swept up the Palme d’Or (Cannes 2019) and became the first non-English-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (2020), South Korean films were cemented as must-see movies.

Suddenly, contemporary Korean cinema became a match for K-pop's popularity, with Parasite as familiar around the world as rapper PSY’s "Gangnam Style" (2012).

This month the London Korean Film Festival (November 3-17, 2022, across London cinemas and two regional venues, HOME Manchester and Glasgow Film Theatre) is keeping up the momentum by showcasing the latest box offices hits, K-horror, acclaimed films by women directors, plus some Korean film classics to boot.

Korean action, epics and heists

Still from The Admiral: Roaring Currents - man in traditional Korean army dress fights in skirmish on shipCourtesy of CJ ENM. The Admiral: Roaring Currents drew more viewers to Korean cinemas than Avatar

Choi Dong-hoon’s Alienoid launches this year’s event at the ICA. Known as the director of the comedy heist, The Thieves (2012), Dong-hoon’s latest is a nod to Hollywood science fiction. Packed with action, aliens, chi masters and explosions, it already has a sequel in production.

Closing night offers Hansan: Rising Dragon, directed by Kim Han-min. Described as a “David-vs-Goliath struggle out in the open sea”, this seafaring epic is a prequel to Han-min’s 2014 blockbuster The Admiral: Roaring Currents.

Park Hae-il plays a young Admiral Yi taking on the Japanese armada in 1592 during the Battle of Hansan Island.

"Park Hae-il plays a young Admiral Yi taking on the Japanese armada in 1592"

And for convenience, The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014) is also being screened. This is a chance to see the most successful Korean film of all time on the big screen (it earned over 17 million viewers in Korea, more than Avatar).

Be prepared for another intensive, historical battle against Japanese fleets, this time at Myeongnyang. It’s gruesome, with plenty of sabre slashing and thrashing seas.

Staying with the classics, there’s a special screening of Choi Dong-hoon’s crime caper, The Thieves in collaboration with the V&A exhibition, Hallyu! The Korean Wave (Victoria & Albert Museum until June 25, 2023).

With names like Popeye, Pepsi and Chewingum for the thieves, there’s a fun, kitsch feel to this Hong Kong collaboration (which happened before the protests). A medley of criminals band together to steal a diamond worth $20m from a Macao casino. Thing is, they’re not all in league.

Korean horror (K-horror)

Still from Thirst - a man gazes lovingly up at a woman who is ruffling his hair but has bruising on her thighCourtesy of CJ ENM. In Thirst, a Catholic priest turned vampire struggles to repress his bloodlust

Korean horror, or K-horror, has something of a track record since Kim Ki-young’s influential classic The Housemaid (1960) and the “Hallyu”, or Korean Wave, when military censorship in South Korea was relaxed.

The Whispering Corridors (1998-2021) series about haunted schools and Park Chan-wook’s vampire flick, Thirst (2009) are some of the best K-horror films to date.

Unsurprisingly, this year’s film festival has its own K-horror strand.

"Broker throws light on the Korean 'baby box', where unwanted infants are left at an orphanage"

Included is Kang Dong-hun’s haunted house saga Contorted (2022), Sim Deok-Geun's Guimoon: The Lightless Door (2021) about a cursed community centre, and Park Kang’s Seire (2021) about a father who ignores his wife and mother-in-law’s superstitions surrounding postpartum care.

Having just won Best Actor (Cannes 2022) for his part in Broker, Song Kang Ho (Parasite) is someone to watch out for in this moving drama which throws light on the Korean “baby box”, where unwanted infants are left at an orphanage.

Song Kang Ho plays a debt-ridden family man who tries to sell a baby but becomes entangled with the young mother while under surveyance by two keen detectives out to catch him.

Korean dramas and documentaries

The inequalities and traumas women face in Korean society is taken up in Jeong Ji-yeon’s gripping psychological thriller, The Anchor.

Starring Chun Woo-hee as senior TV news presenter, Jung Se-ra, The Anchor is as much about a woman’s place in Korean society as it is a thriller.

There’s the usual dose of intimidation by an unidentified pursuer as Jung Se-ra investigates a story, however, all this is underlined by her struggles with an overbearing mother and the shame of a broken marriage.

Return to Seoul, directed by Davy Chou and starring Park Ji-min as Freddie Benoît, is a buoyant and thought-provoking drama about a young woman adopted by French parents who flies to Seoul to uncover her birth parents.

Nominated for many awards, not least Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2022, Return to Seoul sheds light on issues of identity and the nuances of cultures. The refrain “she doesn’t look French” is resounding.

"The 2nd Repatriation focuses on the political prisoners longing to return to their beloved North Korea"

Kim Jung-eun’s Gyeong-ah’s Daughter is included in the festival's Women’s Voices strand. It centres on a mother and daughter and the fall out when an ex-boyfriend posts a sex video compromising the daughter on social media.

In the same strand, Byun Gyu-ri’s documentary Coming To You follows two mothers who join the “Queer Children’s Parents Club”. The women begin to come to terms with having gay children in this open-hearted documentary shot through a supportive gaze.

Another documentary to catch is The 2nd Repatriation. In 2003 Dongwon made Repatriation, a documentary about "unconverted" political prisoners who were eventually repatriated to North Korea in 2000.

As a follow-up, The 2nd Repatriation focuses on the political prisoners longing to return to their beloved North Korea, which is certainly something of an eye-opener to Western audiences.

Banner image credit: Courtesy of CJ ENM. Still from Parasite

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