This list is meant to showcase some of today’s finest filmmakers from South Korea. While there are directors responsible for the classics in the history of South Korean cinema, this list is meant to showcase and highlight the filmmakers who are shaping the identity of South Korean cinema.
With each filmmaker we’ve included a pair of highlights from their filmography. If you’re familiar with those films then you’re probably going to recognize a lot of these people. There are many modern directors that should be on this list, and if we’ve missed them, definitely comment below. And again, don’t worry about the director’s responsible for the country’s older classics, that’s a list for next time.
1. Bong Joon-ho
Bong Joon-ho is probably the best filmmaker to come out of South Korea. His films are not only financial successes, but usually highly adored by cinephiles and fans from around the world. Non-Korean filmmakers and actors who have seen his film are eager to collaborate with him, as detailed in the casting of “Snowpiercer.”
His debut film “Barking Dogs Never Bite” is an unusual comedy, something more fitting of someone like Hong Sang-soo. However, every film he’s made after his debut are widely considered good to absolutely amazing. After receiving his degree in sociology, Bong enrolled into the Korea Academy of Film Arts in the mid-to-late 90’s.
Even if all his films look and feel different, they all do address the issue of class. Bong is an incredibly meticulous shooter, pushing each take until he receives absolute perfection, but at the same time being quite reasonable in his requests. He was the first filmmaker to really destroy the South Korean box-office with “The Host,” and that film held that title for almost a decade.
Of the three filmmakers to make an English-language debut, Bong’s “Snowpiercer” proved most successful, a worldwide hit ensuring Bong any project he wants — at least in South Korea. He’s currently in talks between projects, mostly co-writing and producing films for longtime collaborators (most recently, “Haemoo”). When he does work on his next project, just know that South Korea won’t stay quiet about it.
The Host (2006)
It’s hard to believe that Bong wanted to make this exact monster movie for 18 years, constantly reworking the idea since he first thought of it in high school. The main goal was to make it serious like the original Toho “Godzilla,” but do it in a more modern, Korean fashion. Also, Bong chooses to focus on the dysfunctional family that lives by the river over the usual doctor, scientist, or other field expert.
Taking a page from “Jaws,” Bong wanted the threat to feel real to the audience, and he focused on a working-class family to have them be a bit more relatable, especially when considering their youngest was taken by the monster. As a result, “The Host” functions as both a monster movie and family “dramedy,” combining both stories flawlessly. And like “Jaws,” it’s incredibly satisfying blockbuster experience.
Bong was not only able to capture the magic and intensity of Spielberg’s blockbuster, but also it’s success as well, being a powerhouse at the box-office. The CGI monster looks good for the most part, but there are moments when it’s lacking. Still, it’s audacious for Bong to set the film’s first huge action piece — CGI monster attack and all — during the day, when most films would use the dark of night to obscure the effects work.
Memories of Murder (2003)
This is one of the best police procedural’s ever made. The cops (Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang-kyun) are mismatched partners in a small, rice paddy village, but they’re in over their heads when confronted with serial killings unlike ever before. The premise sounds like a typical crime thriller — and it does play out like one — but “Memories of Murder” is more about the psychological and emotional toll from encountering a case that neither men can handle.
Bong steered away from the typical route of thriller as he was doing research on the actual case it was based on. He found the whole affair to not only be infuriating on himself, but also sympathized with the police handling the investigation at the time, especially when technologically behind for their investigation.
His original goal further shifted after reading Alan Moore’s “From Hell,” taking the period setting from that film, and convincing himself that the 1980s period setting for “Memories of Murder” is an absolute must, almost a character in itself.
To go on about how great this film is would be to spoil the ending, even though it’s based on true events. Just know it’s a powerful film with great acting, direction, and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. Tarantino and many other filmmakers have chosen this in conjunction with “Zodiac” for best cop procedurals in recent years. They aren’t wrong.
2. Park Chan-wook
Responsible for the most popular South Korean film of all-time, Park Chan-wook’s name gets most cinephiles riled up. Responsible for the beloved “Vengeance Trilogy,” Park has a distinct style when it comes to his films that border on the obscene, but usually handled with incredibly intellect and purpose.
One might disagree, but Park’s films are usually a treat for the eyes and ears, using classical music and art to paint his frames suitable to his taste. Prior to filmmaking, Park was actually in school for philosophy before switching gears into filmmaking.
After seeing “Vertigo,” he became obsessed with Hitchcock, before becoming obsessed with films altogether. He’s been jokingly referred to as South Korea’s equivalent to Quentin Tarantino, mainly in terms of the amount and type of media he consumes. Both men are friends, and Park’s entry into 70s exploitation mainly came from Tarantino.
The director’s first few films are still relatively hard to find (“The Moon is What the Sun Dreams of” and “Threesome”), and his short “The Trial” (a.k.a. “Judgement”) can be seen online, but after the breakout success of “J.S.A.: Joint Security Area,” the rest is history. He might not have spotless track record, but most of Park’s films are engaging, if not visually stunning. He’s one of South Korea’s best and worldwide favorite for good reason.
J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (2000)
“J.S.A.: Joint Security Area” is about an investigation by a Swiss Army official (Lee Yeong-ae) on the death’s of a few soldiers from both sides of Korea’s DMZ. While it’s essentially a procedural, the film is an indictment on the absurdity that is the DMZ / 38th Parallel.
Park himself wanted to confront certain cold war ideologies in this films, one that was also beneficially taboo. But to prevent it from coming off as educational, Park used the crime procedural to keep audiences engaged in the story, therefore the subject matter.
As he uses the character of Sophie to guide audiences through the main plot, Park uses flashbacks tell a more sympathetic story about the soldiers and victims surrounding the investigation, getting at the heart of the story.
Although the ending might not be the most uplifting, it’s actually a hopeful film with an all-star cast led by the ever reliable Song Kang-ho. “J.S.A.: Joint Security Area” is a well-crafted procedural that moves you to the last shot. And it’s an amazing shot.
Park’s revenge masterpiece about Oh Dae-su’s (Choi Min-sik) abrupt release after wrongful, 15-year imprisonment. This is the film that not only put Park Chan-wook on the map, but starting bringing in international attention to the unusual, yet distinctive world of South Korean filmmaking.
When it played at Cannes in 2004, Quentin Tarantino pushed for the film to receive the Palme d’Or (“Golden Palm”), but instead took second to Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
While the story is based off a popular manga, Park used the manga only as a blueprint, being more interested in making a modern Greek tragedy. Pushing that tragedy to the forefront is Choi Min-sik’s audacious performance as the lead character. Choi does some things that most actor’s couldn’t handle (e.g. octopus), and that’s far before the gut-wrenching resolution to his story.
Spike Lee remade the film with Josh Brolin in 2013, but that film was utterly pointless, with the exception of Brolin, who did a fantastic job with what little material. Skip that one, and watch the original. “Oldboy” fits right in between “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Lady Vengeance,” his other two revenge films I highly recommend.
3. Kim Jee-woon
If any South Korean filmmaker plays with genre conventions in interesting ways, than it’s Kim Jee-woon. Almost all his films are a unique spin on a genre film, rather than keeping one distinct style to operate within other genres (e.g. Ryoo Seung-won, Ha Yoo).
Starting in theater, Kim got his start in directing in the late-90s with films such as “The Quiet Family” and “The Foul King.” It wasn’t until his 2003 horror film “A Tale of Two Sisters” that Kim started getting some international recognition. As a result, he became one of the first Korean filmmakers to have his film remade into English with “The Uninvited.”
He’s usually a big presence at both arthouse festivals and genre specific events. His films are not only stylish, but his direction always keeps his films moving at a mostly desirable pace, fitting for the genre he’s working. He’s found international acclaim with hits such as “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” “A Bittersweet Life,” and “I Saw the Devil.”
He’s worked not only with South Korea’s top talent, but also worked with the one and only Arnold Schwarzenneger for his underrated English-language debut “The Last Stand.” Despite the bomb that was “The Last Stand,” Kim is scheduled to make both another Korean and English feature in the next two years, so the man is still in the game. All his films are quite enjoyable, regardless of the genre.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
A spin on the supernatural J-horror craze started by “Ringu” and “Ju-On,” this film follows a pair of sisters (played by Moon Geun-young and Lim Su-jeong) as they encounter ghostly hauntings during a retreat to help deal with their psychiatric problems.
This movie definitely has the slow burn scares like the films mentioned above, but also adds its own haunting touch. Whereas those films are cold in their look, Kim’s film is beautiful, using fall, earthly hues that make something both beautiful and unsettling.
During a one-on-one interview with South Korean filmmaker Im Pil-sung, Kim expressed certain trepidation going into the project, worrying that the overt horror element of the film was going to set a certain expectation in audiences.
Therefore, Kim studied the ways his contemporaries were using horror in their serious dramas (e.g. “Peppermint Candy” and “Sorum”) and approached the story similarly, while using horror conventions for stylistic reasons. The end result is not only one of the best horror films in recent memory, but a great drama about two sisters. It’s both creepy and heartwarming, something completely lost on the U.S. remake “The Uninvited.”
A Bittersweet Life (2005)
His follow-up to “A Tale of Two Sisters” is his entry into the gangster genre with “A Bittersweet Life.” Focusing on a crime boss’s bodyguard (Lee Byung-hyun), this film chronicles the character as he faces the consequences for failing to complete a simple task for his boss.
Whereas most gangster films might chronicle the rise and fall of a character, usually on either end of that spectrum, “A Bittersweet Life” focuses primarily on the soul-sucking role of someone almost near the top, someone who has authority, but will most-likely never advance.
Sticking barely to the conventions of other Korean gangsters, Kim channeled the crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville (“Le Samourai” and “Le Cercle Rouge”), even with his lead Lee doing his best Alain Delon impression at times.
It’s here that Kim gets quite ambitious with the set-pieces unlike his earlier films, also channeling the “Heroic bloodshed” films of John Woo, resulting in a shootout that seems oddly placed for a standard South Korean gangster, mostly reserved for sashimi knives and bats. But the shootout feels just right for “A Bittersweet Life,” and that’s all due to Kim.