4. Lee Chang-dong
Lee Chang-dong has had pretty interesting career for someone who makes these incredibly intimate, humanistic films. Early in his career he worked in theater, as a high-school teacher, and even a novelist. Lee eventually got into filmmaking by writing scripts during his early 40s.
His debut “Green Fish” in 1997 brought Lee to the spotlight for taking the gangster narrative and have it represent a uniquely Korean psyche. Since then, Lee’s films have all been about understanding how cultural shifts affect South Korean people in ways unexpected to them.
He’s not only racked up countless awards for his features, Lee has also been working at South Korea’s Minister of Culture since 2003, supportive of the new, liberal direction of the country’s main government.
Despite his films lacking the usual flash and gloss of other dramas, Lee and his films are important, some of the best films as recognized by the nation. Emotional, deep, and operating on a completely contemplative level beyond many other filmmakers, Lee’s films usually leave audiences breathless.
Peppermint Candy (2000)
“Peppermint Candy” might follow the pre-suicidal moments that led to a failed businessman (Sol Kyung-gu) as he hit rock-bottom, but the character’s story is much more than his own. Lee is using his film to tell the collective experiences of a certain generation of adults who grew up during Korea’s militaristic age in the 80s, then directly pushed into the nation’s global era in the 90s.
Much has been written about this, analyzing Lee’s character and narrative in relation to the nation’s recent history — most notably the emasculation of South Korean society. Probably one of the most discussed and dissected films. When I took a class on South Korean cinema during at film school, two of my textbooks used a shot for this film as the cover.
The most interesting comparison I’ve read regarding “Peppermint Candy” is that it’s the South Korean version of “Forrest Gump,” but in reverse. Unlike “Forrest Gump,” South Korea in the last 50-60 years didn’t make the cultural strides as depicted in Robert Zemeckis’s film, so the tale isn’t as uplifting. Still, it’s both an important film in Lee’s filmography as it is culturally significant. But above all, it’s just a fantastic film.
Lee’s most recent film is also one his best. A film about a 60-year old woman (Yoon Jeong-hee) suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s going to poetry lessons is really far from my usual taste, but Lee’s movie manages to tell a gut-wrenching tale that’s earns it’s sentimentality through grounded direction and impeccable acting. Bringing her out of retirement, Yoon Jeong-hee kills the performance, and you really feel for this old lady and her situation.
Lee, always staying relevant in some way, made this film as a direct reaction to the news of a young girl committing suicide following a gang-rape in a small town. The incident shook him, reminding him of his troubled youth. He didn’t want to make a simple thriller, but couldn’t help find his script heading that direction. It wasn’t until he saw a nature program in Japan that calmed him immensely, eventually becoming this film.
The film could venture into thriller territory, but Lee steers clear from it, providing a quiet yet moving finale. Personally, I’m not to big into poetry, but this film made me understand how important poetry or any lyrical form of writing can mean to someone, especially if it resonates with others. It’s really cheap to say poetry is this woman’s cure, but you’d have to see the film to believe it.
5. Hong Sang-soo
No other filmmaker is more arthouse and independent in South Korea than Hong Sang-soo. For almost two decades, Hong has only made incredibly personal films that are niche and academic, many times focusing and criticizing South Korea’s independent art scene.
He repeats many elements in his filmmaking as much as he does with story. Hong will repeatedly make films about writers or directors, tell it non-chronologically, use multiple perspectives, or reimagine certain scenarios for dramatic effect. His production style is different too, writing day-to-day scenes or treatments, giving it to his actors on the day of shooting. His films are rarely that popular with mainstream audiences, barely breaking even most of the time.
Universally, however, Hong is adored, even earning financing after “Hahaha” won Cannes in 2010. Despite not being that financially bankable, Hong still manages to find a way to continue making films his way. He’s released one every year, so it’s probably no surprise to see another Hong film come out in 2015.
On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002)
Following the vacation of a struggling actor (Kim Sang-kyung), “Turning Gate” is a two-part story that deals with the actor’s tumultuous relationship with two strange women. Each part is dedicated to each woman, and what Hong does in the first half is get the audience to think a certain way, to follow the character with a particular mindset.
However, when it comes to the second-half, our expectations are not only tested, but the protagonist’s journey starts to feel more and more relatable and grounded in depiction. I’m not going to spoil what happens, but let’s just say what the actor does for the first woman doesn’t work on the second.
Don’t let the title fool you, it makes sense by the end (sort of). Hong’s first few films are all pretty great (minus “The Power of Kangwon Province”), but it’s tough to read about it outside of Korean specialty prints and textbooks. He’s so independent that some of his early films don’t even show up on the yearly national film catalog. Regardless, to get a sense of Hong as an auteur, this is a good place to start.
This film is Hong firing on all cylinders. It’s equal parts idiosyncratic, but also highly mainstream. It also helps greatly that “Hahaha” is a romantic comedy that still satisfies on those terms while retaining the aesthetic style that makes Hong quite distinctive.
Combining B&W photography with colored scenes, Hong tells the hilarious tale of two friends (played by Kim Sang-kung and Yoo Joon-sang) as they recount their separate vacations in a town called Tongyeong while sharing some rice wine in the afternoon. Even though this a film about men, Hong has stated that he wanted to finally provide equal attention to the women in the story.
With “Hahaha” Hong has probably created the finest female characters in his entire library, at least in terms of strength and independence. This film not only won at Cannes (“Un Certain Regard”), but was able to provide financing for his following film, “Oki’s Movie.”
6. Kim Ki-duk
Kim Ki-duk’s path towards filmmaking is quite different from his contemporaries. For starters, the man dropped out of school at 15 and worked hard labor until he was old enough to join the military.
He started art in France for a few years, before finally making his debut film in 1996 entitled “Crocodile.” Since then, Kim has made 20 films and earned a reputation for being a somewhat vulgar filmmaker. It’s not surprising, since Kim’s films feature really undesirable people such as pimps, prostitutes, thugs, rapists, etc.
Despite being made well in many cases, his films tend to by quite difficult to watch, rarely providing a happy ending. In the early-2000s, Kim surprised everyone by shifting his tone into something more spiritual, therefore winning audiences local and worldwide with “3-Iron” and “Sping, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring.”
Lately, it seems like Kim is trying to get back into the groove of his older films, but the results have been simply mixed. However, “Pieta” was a great reminder that the formally brilliant Kim is still there. Audiences just might have to wait in-between some lesser films.
The silent couple of “3-Iron” operate and live in contemporary Seoul, but they themselves don’t feel like the average citizen. The mute Tae-shik (Lee Hyun-koon) and abused housewife Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon) are far from the average protagonist, mainly since their thing is to break into and stay in empty homes while the owners are away. But Kim poignantly make them the most identifiable couple in this somewhat grounded universe.
It’s fascinating, much like Kim’s other films, but where it trumps his other films is through his restraint. “3-Iron” is the point when Kim was starting to being referred to as an auteur by the South Korean industry, a desire that the filmmaker has had despite his earlier objections to the industry’s practices. It not only did well overseas in several major festivals, but it gave Kim the Best Director prize during the 61st Venice International Film Festival.
After Kim left his harsher dramas for something like the pick above, he returned to his earlier, meaner style when directing this revenge film about a brutish loan shark (Lee Jung-jin) who gets an unexpected visit from a woman claiming to be his mother (Jo Min-soo).
Unlike his earlier films, “Pieta” demonstrates the same restraint as he does in his later films, even during some of the more violent moments. “Pieta” is not only one of Kim’s recent and best films, it’s important for boosting the arthouse/ancillary market of South Korean cinema. 2012 at the time was South Korea’s highest grossing year for cinema in all markets.
Usually, it’s mainstream tickets, but “Pieta’s” Golden Lion win at Venice brought international attention to both “Pieta” and other smaller, similar art titles. South Korea loves it’s revenge films, and “Pieta” fits that bill, but it’s different, thanks to Kim. If “Pieta” is too much for you, then I strongly urge you take caution before seeing his other films.
7. Ha Yoo
Ha Yoo’s first obtained his degree in English Literature as Se-jong University before studying filmmaking at Dongguk University. He started as an award-winning poet, going on to direct his first feature in 1993 that’s actually based on a collection of his work. His later films get more and more mainstream, but they do retain some poetic elements in the script, albeit really lightly.
Ha directs dramas that happen to operate with certain genre conventions, unlike Kim Jee-woon. Locally, Ha is popular, but hasn’t made anything that spectacular until the recent gangster epic “Gangnam Blues.” Before that film became a recent hit, he was internationally known for his first gangster epic with “A Dirty Carnival.” As a film, it doesn’t reinvent the genre that significantly, but rather gracefully embracing the conventions to make it work best with his story.
Ha is a special case in which his films get discussed more than he does as a filmmaker. They have the mainstream appeal, and at the very least, Ha’s films are quite interesting.
Once Upon a Time in High School (2004)
A couple interesting things are happening with this film. One one hand, Ha is telling a conventional yet personal coming-of-age tale that centers around an all male High School in the 1970s. On the other, he’s making on comment on the authoritarianism of South Korea through the different class hierarchy operating the school.
Using Bruce Lee’s legacy as the glue, Ha combines both elements into one of the most violent and distressing High School films in recent years. It’s not a horror story, but it’s far from the colorful John Hughes films from the 80s. The third act does feel oddly misplaced, contrasting with the tone that was set up earlier in the film.
Still, it’s only a complaint if you don’t like you’re finale being an homage to “The Chinese Connection.” Still, this is one of the few High School films from South Korea that focuses on both the school and students with reverence and affection. Many critics and audiences members who experienced that type of schooling praise the film for being exactly what they experienced. It sounds horrifying, but Ha makes the experience truly cinematic.
A Dirty Carnival (2006)
“A Dirty Carnival” is one of the best, purest gangster narratives ever made in South Korea. Whereas more modern releases in that genre might play with conventions, there’s a familiarity to a “A Dirty Carnival” for anyone familiar with films such as “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas.”
The rise and fall of the protagonist Byeong-doo (Jo In-Seong) doesn’t simply come off as a cautionary tale. That’s there, but Ha’s direction makes the character’s journey feel incredibly personal, but also somewhat commenting the dangerous allure that gangster films themselves can have.
On top of all that, it’s a gorgeously made film with some stellar action sequences. While many gangster films are guilty of simply glorifying the life of crime, “A Dirty Carnival” makes it clear that the risks greatly overshadow the little benefits. It’s realistic, but also quite poetic in the end result, making it clear why this film resonated with so many.