In time to come, the success of “Parasite” (2019) may be seen as the game changer that cemented South Korea’s eminence in world cinema. Yet sixteen years earlier, “Oldboy” helped make familiar the term New Korean Cinema to cineasts whose interests stretched beyond Western films.
What has been missing is a good book introducing Korea’s canonical films and cinematic treasures. “Rediscovering Korean cinema” is that book and it makes essential reading for what will be new territory for anyone brought up on a diet of Hollywood and European art house movies.
And with the increasing scope for accessing relatively obscure films through streaming platforms and bit torrent clients, many of the films it discusses are available for viewing.
A chapter is devoted to each of 34 specific films, starting with three from the 1930s and 1940s before forging ahead into the post-war era – post- Korean War (1950-54) that is – of a country haunted by the legacy of Japanese colonialism and the trauma of partition.
What followed was an intrusive US military presence and the waging of the Cold War that on the cultural front saw the CIA funding film production as part of an ideological campaign to import American culture into Korea.
The first two decades of this century brought an explosion of cinematic talent and the book picks out brilliant movies like Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret sunshine” (2007).
A woman, devastated by the killing of her son, turns to the comfort of religion only to be scandalised by learning that God has already forgiven and absolved the murderer.
The film’s final frame narrows down to a small patch of earth – not the heavens above – filled with debris and human hair.
The scene is lit by natural light, words of a putative God are redundant, and the woman is left to her own redemption.
Yun Che-gyun’s “Ode to my father” (2014) is as melodramatic, emotionally manipulative and affective as any good Hollywood production but its subject matter imbues it with singularity. It shows how the Korean War impacted on families divided by the partition of their country and it seems a little churlish, even if it is right, for the author to criticize its espousal of the Confucian mantra of filial piety.
Each film is discussed by a different writer but the standard of writing is uniformly high even when the discussion of “My sassy girl” (2001) fails to note that this is a very dopey film.
The book’s last chapter looks at Yŏn Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” (2016), a memorable film that mixes genres and tones far more successfully than Bong Jonn-ho’s “The Host” a decade earlier.
“Train to Busan”, ‘a family-rescue-drama-cum-zoombie-survivalist-contamination-anti-neoliberal tale’, fuses elements from different subgenres in unlikely, entertaining and thoughtful ways. It is emblematic of what makes South Korean cinema so fascinating. Like Boon Joon-ho’s “Parasite” and his earlier “Snowpiercer” (which also has its own chapter), the class conflict unleashed by South Korea’s embrace of neoliberalism is at the heart of “Train to Busan”.
“Rediscovering Korean cinema”, edited by Sangjoon Lee, is pu
blished by University of Michigan Press