Tom Jolliffe looks ahead to three absolutely must watch Korean films about to hit Cannes…
South Korean film and TV has boomed in worldwide appeal in recent years. The Oscars success of Parasite was followed by the all consuming power of Squid Game, which was THE water cooler series of 2021. The nation appears to be delivering thought provoking and challenging cinema (and TV) that isn’t in vogue among the larger American studios who favour comic book escapism. There’s an argument in fact, that right now, Korea is winning the (squid) game.
Throughout the 21st century, there have been a succession of great Korean films emerging from a number of prolific directors. Among these great visionaries you have Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Kim Jee-woon (I Saw The Devil), Lee Chang-dong (Burning), Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) and Hong Sang-soo (The Woman Who Ran). There are more, and of these visionaries there seems to be a common factor; For the most part they are consistently delivering engaging cinema. In many cases too, genre redefining, enthralling and exceptional cinema. In an era where masterpieces seem to be sparse, particularly in Western cinema, Korea has delivered a nice ratio of truly great works worthy of the tag. In addition, they’ve also delivered a huge number of films that tap into the wider appeal of blockbuster tastes with pictures like Train to Busan. They can do escapism, and still deliver social commentary (on TV, see Squid Game). There’s a commonality among many Korean film-makers in fact, even based on my knowledge limited to the works which do traverse the globe from East to West. Filmmakers, even at their most mainstream, are telling stories with deeper meaning hidden beneath. Social commentary, class commentary and an existential gaze often permeate the works of Korean filmmakers. In a more progressive South Korean society than 30 years ago, with more freedom, these auteurs are using their art to make statements.
The first Korean director to really hit close to mainstream appeal in the West, Park Chan-wook is back with Decision To Leave. Chan-wook brings with him, a CV full of edgy, violent cinema. He pushes boundaries and defies censors the world over. What he never lacks though, is true artistry. His most famous work, Oldboy still packs as much emotional punch as it unsettles the stomach. Likewise, the gruesomely gripping I Saw The Devil. His previous film, a festival darling which courted plenty of buzz (if not controversy) for its steamy sex scenes, The Handmaiden, was a sensational, Rashomon-esque tale of intrigue, deception and love. In terms of an approach to violence, it was tame in comparison to other iconic Chan-wook films, but rather managed to make viewers hot under the collar. I recommended the film to a friend without stating it was fairly risque. She watched with her sister. Warning, do not watch with family members. Still, it’s a scintillating, gorgeously crafted work of genius (with a wonderful score).
Decision to Leave will play in competition at Cannes and undoubtedly come with a big weight of expectation. One of the modern masters of cinema is back and in the familiar setting of mystery thriller. A six year hiatus after The Handmaiden has certainly got people waiting with baited breath and indeed, another film set back in a more contemporary setting appeals to fans who prefer Chan-wook’s earlier works over his more recent historical epic. Whether he can live up to his reputation and high bar remains to be seen but it goes without saying that this film should be high up in the watch-lists of cineastes. The trailer does certainly back that up as well. Chan-wook likes to delve into a darker underbelly, telling tales of deep routed, frustrated violent fantasy. This will surely have those moments and occasionally push audiences to their limits, as the detective thriller/murder mystery central thread plays out.
On the tamer end of the spectrum, Hong Sang-soo actually has two films due for Western release. Last year’s In Front of Your Face, an atypically stripped back humanist drama about an aging actress, played Cannes in 2021 but has just hit limited release in the US. Now though, we have The Novelist’s Film about to play at this years Cannes. Sang-soo teams with the mesmeric and stunning Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden), an actress who is increasingly becoming a muse for the auteur. The black and white film, which has the direct, on the fly feel of some of his other recent works, evokes a bygone era of Korean cinema, perhaps crossed with the works of Japanese humanist extraordinaire, Ozu (A Tokyo Story, Good Morning). Sang-soo puts his casts in a simple concept, resting on tales of relatable, genuine human emotion. Escapism these are not, but at his best he creates mesmerising, simple but effective works which leave an emotional mark. Fans of The Woman Who Ran or On The Beach At Night Alone will probably know what to expect, but with Min-hee and a stellar cast, The Novelist’s Film (another film about film) is likely to deliver what his fans want. For those wanting simple, touching and exquisitely observed drama (particularly after the success of Japan’s, Drive My Car), this will also be unmissable.
Speaking of subtle human drama, one master of Japanese cinema in the modern age is Hirokazu Kore-eda. Films that look deep into the human soul like Maborosi offered a sensitive account of grief and depression, whilst his CV is also top heavy with films that deal with class structure and the family unit. Shoplifters, one of the best films in recent years was a stunning film that managed to perfectly balance comedy, drama, commentary and tug at the heart strings. It had moral complexity but most of all, Kore-eda raised that question about what constitutes family. Now he’s taking his auteurs gaze into Korea to make his Korean language debut with Broker.
There’s no shortage of talent joining Kore-eda too, with legends like the eternally affable Song Kang-ho (Parasite, Memories of Murder) and the wonderful Doona Bae (The Stranger, The Silent Sea, A Girl At my Door). Bae in fact has already worked with Kore-eda when she headed to Japan to play a sex doll come to life in Air Doll (an odd, but engaging comedy). This one will also appear at Cannes, a festival that looks to be well bolstered with (potentially) brilliant East Asian cinema. The trailer for Broker suggests something in line with Shoplifters, a beautiful balance of uplifting moments and heart tugging emotional depth, with a keen observational eye on Korean society. This one in fact, casts an eye on the basket baby issue (with babies left in baskets to be taken into care by parents unable to cope) that is still in the hundreds a year in South Korea. Kore-eda can certainly bring with him an interesting outsider gaze, whilst also being well attuned to the commonalities between Japan and South Korea. He’ll not (I hope) lose any of his dramatic edge by moving out of home turf. Like Decision to Leave and The Novelist’s Film, Broker is going to be must see cinema. It’s not out of the realms of possibility that Korea could produce three of the best films of the year.
Elsewhere too and worthy of note is Hunt, the directorial debut of Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae which looks very promising. This is premiering out of competition at Cannes, but will certainly build some hype off the back of Jung-jae’s West breaking turn in Squid Game, adding to his already mega standing in Korea.
SEE ALSO: Ten Essential Korean Cinema Gems
Which Korean film are you looking forward to most this year? Any other films premiering at Cannes which catch your eye? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.