The phenomenon of hallyu (Korean Wave) has made itself felt across television, music, fashion and technology – celebrated with vim in the 2022-2023 exhibition at the V&A in London – and, an essential dimension to the country’s cultural explosion, in the world of film.
A scholarly book on the subject, Discovering Korean Cinema, remains an important reference on the subject while “Film Korea” is a handy introduction that should whet readers’ appetites for non-Hollywood movies.
The authors have selected 30 feature films from different directors and they range from well-established classics like “Oldboy” (a scene from the film was on a continuous loop at the V&A exhibition) to more recent hits like “Parasite” (the basement kitchen set that opens that film was recreated for the same exhibition) and lesser-known gems like “A girl at my door”.
This last film, directed by July Jung in 2014, is about a policewoman transferred from Seoul to a backwater seaside town to take up the job there of police chief. The reason for her transfer is gradually revealed in the course of what happens after her encounter with a young local girl, the victim of domestic abuse, whom she welcomes into her house.
The abuser, the girl’s adopted father, has undue influence in the town and is able to make life difficult for the police chief. It is a compelling film about conflicting loyalties, duty, and generosity of the heart, small-town mindsets and the courage to do what is morally right.
Another film that is justly singled out is “A train to Busan”, directed by Yeon Sang-ho in 2016, a movie about a journey by train from Seoul to Busan that goes wildly out of control when zombies start taking control.
Potential viewers who might be put off by the horror genre, too often a hopeless mash of trash, should make an exception because “A train to Busan”, is as much a story about social class as it is about resurrected corpses with deadly urges to recruit innocent passengers on a train. The impact on film of the cultural renaissance that is hallyu is still being assessed and it astonishes that as recently as the late 1990s Korean films struggled to win audiences in their own country, let alone abroad.
A year before “Shiri’ was released, James Cameron’s “Titanic” brought nearly two million people into cinemas in Seoul, a time when 80% of the top ten grossing films were from the dream factory on America’s west coast.
“Shiri”, also one of the 30 films covered in this book, broke new ground in Korea with its story about a North Korean squad who independently try to set off a second Korean War with a terrorist attack in Seoul. It touched a nerve and surpassed “Titantic”, being seen by over six million people in the country. “Film Korea: The ghibliotheque guide to the world of Korean cinema”, by Michael Leader and Jake Cunningham, is published by Welbeck.