The Park Chan-wook film Oldboy is enjoying something of a resurgence of late. The gruesome thriller screened this weekend at the Music Box, and starting Wednesday the remake directed by Spike Lee (yes, Spike Lee) hits theaters nationwide. The original work, a likeable if lightweight piece of neo-noir pulp, is a hallmark film of the Korean New Wave, a period that still exists in some form today but enjoyed its most prolific stretch from roughly 1998 to 2007. Films in the Korean New Wave are often extreme—take the ultraviolent exploitation films of Kim Ki-duk and Kim Jee-woon, for example—but others are much more nuanced, noted for their irreverent approach to genre, characterization, and political commentary. The diverse nature of the movement occasionally makes for tough sledding theory-wise, but the stylistic autonomy shown by each director—autonomy from convention, from authority (e.g., the neighbor to the north), and even from one another—binds even the most disparate of Korean New Wave films. You can catch my five favorite after the jump.
5. The Host (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2006) Surreal, exhilarating, and disarmingly serious, Bong’s monster movie is a love letter to genre cinema and a calculated look at imperialism and environmental neglect. The layers of meaning in the film make for a highly eclectic experience, a testament to Bong’s ability to blend various moods and sentiments within a single work without sacrificing a focused vision.
4. Peppermint Candy (dir. Lee Chang-dong, 2000) Whenever someone asks me if I’ve seen Memento, my automatic response is “Yes, have you seen Peppermint Candy?” Not only is it a good way to avoid talking about a Christopher Nolan film, but it gives me an opportunity to talk about Lee Chang-dong, a less prolific but no less important contributor to Korean New Wave. Memento and Peppermint Candy have a similar structure, but the latter’s formal inventiveness and genre alchemy eclipses the Nolan film and helped kick-start an entire movement.
3. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (dir. Kim Ki-duk, 2003) Over the years, Kim has gained something of a sour reputation among film lovers thanks to the extreme and unforgiving nature of his films, which are often overtly violent, sexually aggressive, and brazenly confrontational. (The veritable dog pile that took place at Cinema Scope is the stuff of legend.) I’m no Kim apologist, but I do genuinely love this film. It’s the subtlest thing he’s ever made, a (seemingly) heartfelt drama that demonstrates the symbiotic aspects of spirituality and humanism.
2. Woman is the Future of Man (dir. Hong Sang-soo, 2004) Released in the same year as Oldboy, Hong’s graceful and melancholic film was overshadowed at all the major festivals in favor of Park’s fervent revenge saga, effectively cementing the erroneous assumption that all new Korean films were ultraviolent genre extravaganzas. Still, the reflective, more introverted nature of Hong’s work sets him apart from many of his peers; few directors working today are making films as insightful, truthful, and emotional.
1. Memories of a Murder (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2003) Something of a police procedural, Bong’s incisive drama is perhaps his most formally polished work. It’s easily his most serious film, a dour account of the ways one’s past pervades one’s present. Of course, genre deconstruction abounds (it wouldn’t be a Bong film otherwise), but the story, appropriately and intriguingly ambiguous, has an unadorned quality. Bong’s meticulous construction reflects the meticulousness of his characters, giving the film an exacting tone that never feels stifling or overly designed—a sense of spontaneity, crucial to Bong’s work and Korean New Wave as a whole, exists throughout.