Why I Fell in Love with Korean New Wave Cinema

The year is 2005.

For any younger readers; this was a time before online streaming services, VOD or entire free-to-air channels devoted to movies (at least the five channels I had access to). For me, catching a movie meant staying up to the small hours, something I used to do most nights, or more rarely, spending my limited pocket money on a DVD.

For a while, my knowledge of world cinema extended from kung fu movies to the Emmanuelle films (and other assorted Euro smut), but no further. Thanks to dumb luck, and a fair amount of determination on my part, I started to introduce myself to more leftfield choices than the family movie collection, which consisted of mainly Disney animations and blockbuster films; i.e. Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, and the like.

Looking back, it’s hard to describe that feeling of discovery to someone (especially with IMDB and Google at your fingertips), the kinship of finding a film that speaks to you, that felt made for you. Stumbling across The Warriors at 1am on BBC1 and, despite never having been anywhere near New York or a street gang, feeling as if I belonged. Or chancing upon The Fifth Element, again, late at night, knowing nothing about it beyond the title and finding a space opera that spoke to me far more than Star Wars ever had. Picking out films at a DVD shop based on nothing more than the cover and blurb, finding True Romance and falling in love with its off-kilter love story.

My recollection of Park-Chan Wook’s Oldboy is distinct.

I remember walking through the local Virgin Megastore (an entertainment outlet) and eyeing the case of a DVD a few times, the siren's call faintly ringing in my ears, before I went ahead and bought it. It featured a crazed South-East Asian man with wild hair, dressed in black and raising a hammer with the word “Oldboy” printed at the bottom. The description on the back, when I picked it up on the second or third time of seeing it, sounded like the books I enjoyed reading – noir-ish crime stories full of death and betrayal. I promptly took it home to watch.

This was the first film, though definitely not the last, which utterly absorbed my very being into it as I watched, completely losing myself for its entire runtime. I started the film sitting at the head of my bed, with the TV at the foot, and ended it lying on my stomach a foot from the screen with no memory of having ever moved.

In the subsequent hours I was still buzzing, unable to sit still for the surge of excitement and energy that was coursing through me. This was my connection to the film, the likes of which I’d never experienced before, and have only occasionally experienced since, and henceforth affected the fundamental way in which I thought about cinema.

For the uninitiated, Oldboy is the story of a Korean average joe, Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik), whom we first meet in police custody. Wearing cheap angel wings (a birthday present for his daughter) and drunkenly ranting at the police; he cuts a pathetic figure. Bailed out by his long-suffering friend, Dae-Su disappears from the empty street to awaken in a strange room and is imprisoned for 15 years with no human contact. He has only a TV set as connection to the outside world and on this he watches the march of time. Mysteriously and anonymously freed, he begins a quest to find his captors and find out why he was locked away, being informed by his mysterious emancipator that he has only five days to do so.

A taut, visceral revenge thriller that expertly unfolds its intricate and ingenious plot, leading to a gut-punch of a final twist (arguably, one of the best in film history) it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. With visually stunning, and yet painfully real, scrappy action combined with a central relationship (which retrospectively may be problematic) ranging from emotively moving to broadly comical to tragic, sometimes within the same scene, it was as far from formulaic Hollywood movies as I had ever been. Choi Min-Sik’s performance is both animalistic and deeply human, raw, naked and full of pathos, feels as if you are watching one man’s descent into madness. Concerned with the cyclical nature of violence, the passage of time (how the past is ever present) and the all-consuming nature of revenge, this is no typical revenge story.

Like film noir, Korean cinema’s main characters are allowed to be unlikeable; the narrative trusts us to side with them regardless of their flaws, and this is certainly true of the central figure of Oh Dae-Su. From eating a (real) live octopus to a pivotal bathroom scene; he is no bland or safe hero but instead presented as a real person with characteristic pitfalls. That he ultimately retains our sympathy is a sign of how well both the character and story are written, and how Min-Sik portrays him. Another trait of Korean Cinema, and this film specifically, is the existence of lawlessness, reminding me of noir and films with the backdrop of the Wild West. The only figures of authority we see are at the beginning of the film, in the form of policemen, while the remainder plays out in neon-lit backstreets and rooms - a mile away from the cosy confines of the starting point of a police station. In other Korean films, you see more of this, with the police often forming a virtual posse to try to counter criminals cartels owning the streets as if authority is non-existent.

Now, I’m not saying Oldboy is a perfect work but it was the film that opened my eyes as to what film could achieve; that halfway across the world, from a culture so radically different from mine, a filmmaker reached out and connected with me and changed the way I viewed film. Subsequently, I started to devour all the South Korean cinema I could get my hands on. Around the same era, more titles started being released here on the Tartan label and suchlike. With that in mind, here are some recommendations to open your mind to Korean cinema as Oldboy did for me.

Mike's Top 3 films for the Korean cinema novice

The Chaser (2008) Na Hong-Jin – A former police detective turned pimp attempts to track down his missing stable of prostitutes, an act which brings him into contact with a dangerous “client”. A kinetic, absorbing and relentless thriller/police procedural with a twist. This film grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the end. Unlike many Hollywood action films/thrillers, the chases feel real and you get a sense of location which helps to draw you into the unfolding events. Bleak and unforgiving, it is not an easy watch, but for those with the stomach for it, an ultimately rewarding experience.  
3-Iron (2004) Kim Ki-Duk – A transient young man breaks into empty homes while the owner’s vacation, performing household chores to show his gratitude. One night, he finds himself being observed by a beautiful, beaten woman and an unusual romance blossoms between them. A near dialogue-free experience, this slowly paced film exists in a strange, magic-realism world of its own making that utterly cast a spell on me. Reminiscent of fairy tales yet utterly modern, with a dreamlike atmosphere occasionally shot through with shocking violence, it’s a love story unlike any other.  

A Bittersweet Life (2005) Kim Jee-Woon – A high-ranking fixer (gangster) starts a violent feud and torches his former existence when he refuses to kill his boss’s cheating girlfriend. A slickly shot, expertly choreographed action/revenge thriller. This film also stands as a character drama, with as much focus going to the inner turmoil of the lead as to the stunning fight scenes. Lee Byung-Hun conveys a brilliantly silent struggle of going against (what could be considered) his family, in search of a love that will forever be unrequited. A film that challenges the notional ‘happy-ending’ that we have been fed since our formative years.


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Mike Ross

Avid film, literature and comics fan. In other words, I don't go outside much.

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