The South Korean New Wave began in 1998 when, for the first time, nine home-grown films made it into the top 20 at the South Korean box office. The release of Shiri in 1999 put the South Korean New Wave on the map by becoming the biggest box-office success in South Korean film history with total admissions of over six million.
Prior to Shiri’s release, South Korean films made up just 15% of the domestic box-office whereas in 2001 that number jumped to a staggering 49%. Admissions quickly followed with sales soaring from 54 million in 1999 to 88 million in 2001. In 2004, the market share for home-grown films passed 50% for the first time ever. In addition, South Korean films enjoyed international sales across Asia, Europe and North America for the first time.
It is widely acknowledged that the South Korean New Wave is a fresh cinema with a young, vibrant voice; a generation of eastern filmmakers fluent in the tradition of Korean oral storytelling (pansori) and educated in western film genres producing ‘well made’ films featuring high production values, interesting and, at times, disturbing narratives being made on minimal budgets.
It is a cinema that challenges audiences through its use of genre bending. A cinema that does not rely on merely telling a story, instead it dares to show the story by asserting the importance of the image within a filmic and cultural context.
This is a list of the twenty five definitive South Korean New Wave Films.
1. The Quiet Family (Kim Jee-woon, 1998)
In Kim Jee-woon’s feature-length directorial debut we are introduced to the Kang Family who have moved to a remote mountain village to run a lodge for hikers. The only problem is, their first guest kills himself and so, to avoid bad publicity, they decide to hide the body. And so it goes for the Kang family and their highly unusual guests.
Starring a pre-fame Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy) and Song Kang-ho (The Host) the film is an exploration of the South Korean psyche in reverse. The application of genre-bending throughout leads to scenes of shock and hilarity housed in a hotel that symbolises the fractured nature of this quiet family.
Re-made in 2002 by Takashi Miike as The Happiness of the Katakuris, The Quiet Family quietly kick-started the South Korean New Wave in 1998 with its unique brand of dark comedy, inspired by traditional Korean horror films (minus the girl ghost) but skewed in its approach and delivery to reflect this bourgeoning auteur’s profound understanding of western genres.
2. Shiri (Kang Je-kyu, 1999)
Known as Swiri in South Korea but released as Shiri everywhere else this film, written and directed by Kang Je-gyu, is often cited as the very first South Korean New Wave film. Dealing, for the first time in a direct manner, with the issue of reunification, Shiri is an action packed homage to the films of Michael Bay and John Woo.
Shiri might not have accomplished what it set out to do; open up dialogue about reunification between North and South, but what it did do was inspire a new generation of filmmakers. Shiri also breathed life back into what was, at the time, a fledgling film industry. Generating tons of revenue, Shiri proved for the first time ever, that a South Korean national cinema could stand up to the competition flooding South Korean multiplexes from abroad.
In as far as action movies go, this is a tremendous effort. The film combines the traditional values of Korean storytelling with the nuances of the contemporary action genres, including all the spectacle you’d expect to find in Hong Kong and Hollywood action blockbusters of the time but on a fraction of the budget.
3. Attack the Gas Station! (Kin Sang-jin, 1999)
Attack the Gas Station, directed by King Sang-jin in 1999 tells the story of a group of bored teenagers who have nothing better to do than rob the local gas station… Twice. Fortunately for them the gas station is run by the most inept people on the planet (a little social commentary about big business) and things, as they tend to do in cinema, go tits up.
The movie explodes off the screen. It is visceral, fresh, stylish, packed with laughs and outstanding action sequences but more importantly, it has a lot to say about the emerging generation gap in South Korea and the folly of youth in the face of tradition and ancestry.
The movie proved so popular that it spawned a sequel in 2004. As a result of its hyper-critical commentary on South Korean society, Attack the Gas Station helped set the blueprint for South Korean filmmaking in the new millennium and soon the critical edge became a focal point of most New Wave output.
4. Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 1999)
Peppermint Candy is a profound film which explores the violent history of South Korean society and notions of masculinity in the face of 50 years of oppression. It is not a movie about one man, it is a movie about an entire generation of men.
Telling its story in reverse from 1999 to 1979, Peppermint Candy deals with topics including the Kwangju massacre of 1980, which left hundreds of students dead, and the historical violence that marred the country for over five decades. The power of the film is that our engagement with our protagonist, Yong-ho, stems entirely from knowing how he meets his end.
Directed by Lee Chang-dong, who would go on to be South Korean Minister of Culture in 2003, Peppermint Candy is one of the films that spearheaded the South Korean New Wave by refusing to cater to audience expectations and by challenging our understanding of identity, gender and history on-screen. Like the life of Yong-ho in the film, there is not one single incident to blame for the turbulent events that have transpired in South Korea over the past 50 years. Instead there is a lifetime of unresolved issues, unrecognised brutality and painful struggle.
5. Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000)
Directed by Park Chan-wook, who would later become the patron saint of the New Wave to international audiences with his Vengeance Trilogy, JSA is a film that explores the deep-seeded issues surrounding the physical divide between North and South Korea. Locating the action in the DMZ (de-militarized zone) and amidst a murder investigation the film sits comfortably in the murder mystery genre.
Park borrows from the conventions of the murder mystery genre to draw in a commercial audience and to aid with the building of tension. This tension is then diffused through the careful application of humour via genre-bending. One of the trademarks of the South Korean New Wave, which primarily serves to humanise the sometimes grotesque themes presented in the film. In particular, the themes of violence as a cry for redemption, violence as an act of sin or inherent institutional violence. These are not intended to be stylish or entertaining but rather to challenge an audience who has a half century of violence in their past.
Compared to Park’s other films, JSA makes the most straightforward political statement but it is the friendship that grows between the Northern and Southern soldiers that is the most important theme in the film. By defining their differences and, more importantly, their similarities Park is able to demonstrate a humanity that transcends borders; everyone loves a chocolate pie.
6. The Foul King (Kim Jee-woon, 2000)
Kim Jee-woon, who will pop up several times on this list, strikes again with an, at times, irreverent comedy about wrestling. Telling the story of Im Dae-ho, played by the incomparable Song Kang-ho, an inept bank clerk who is perpetually late and fed up with his mundane existence and the daily abuse suffered at the hands of his boss. So, he does what any one of us would do – he seeks out the help of a former pro wrestler to toughen him up.
Part schmaltzy drama, part knee-slapping comedy with some great wrestling sequences thrown in, The Foul King explores the definition of masculinity in contemporary South Korean society. The role also paved the way for Song Kang-ho to become one of the biggest stars of the South Korean film industry.
7. My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-yong, 2001)
Based on the blog entries of Kim Ho-sik, My Sassy Girl tells the story of Gyeon-woo, who after a random encounter with a drunken girl on the metro finds his life changed forever.
A rom-com at heart, My Sassy Girl features all the tropes one might expect from the staid genre including over the top romantic gesture and a scene where they run into each other’s arms, but what it does even better is focus on the moments in between making the film less about ‘boy meets girl’ and more about the context of growing up, falling in love, loss and pain.
Full of symbolism and featuring incredible fantasy sequences that toy with traditional gender roles (the samurai fantasy is just genius) it is easy to see why, upon its initial release, My Sassy Girl became the most successful South Korean film ever made. Its international success only cemented its position in the pantheon of South Korean classics drawing comparisons to films like Titanic along the way.
Thirteen years later it remains the second highest grossing South Korean comedy of all-time. Several attempts to remake the film in Japan and America failed, as neither was able to capture the same level of intensity and quirkiness that makes this film a giant of its genre. Endearing and powerful, My Sassy Girl, like its titular character, is full of spirit, a little bit crazy and beautiful.