Although the history of Korean cinema is marked by censorship and a volatile political landscape, the country’s film industry has experienced a much-needed revival since the mid-1990s. Young filmmakers broke onto the scene who indulged in relevant political commentary as well as reinvigorating experiments with genre.
Their efforts helped pave the way for recent global successes for Korean films, including the unprecedented reception of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) which became the first non-English film to win the Oscar for Best Film, as well as the influx of Korean television series like Squid Game.
Bong Joon-ho, one of the pioneers of New Korean Cinema, said: “I think all creators, all artists, and even just everyone, we are always interested in class, 24/7. I think it would actually be strange if we’re not. You know, when we’re seeing people on the subway, on the streets, complete strangers, we wonder, how rich are they? Or you know, people we encounter in the airports, did they ride economy class, business class? We always wonder about this, because we live in the era of capitalism.”
He also noted, “Korea, on the surface, seems like a very rich and glamorous country now, with K-pop, high-speed internet and IT technology but the relative wealth between rich and poor is widening. The younger generation, in particular, feels a lot of despair.”
This was a notion that was extended within Squid Game, arguably this year’s largest culturally defining series. It has opened the door for countless other Korean projects. But, before you get lost in the best K-dramas around, you should go back to the first explosion of Korean filmmaking and one of the best films it has to offer: Oldboy.
The second addition to Park Chan-wook’s The Vengeance Trilogy, his 2003 masterpiece is now considered to be one of the greatest neo-noirs of all time. After being released from 15 years of captivity, a man embarks on an odyssey of unabashed vengeance. Oldboy uses violence to amplify its artistic statement about the human condition instead of letting it devolve into gratuitousness.
Park Chan-wook explained, “Just like that every other form of art, everything that comprises a piece of work has to have a reason to be there. Every element. Just like being a chef, you use ingredients to create something that wasn’t there before. And you have to carefully think about what ingredients you choose, and how you mix it into your final dish.
“How you use it as a means of expressing an idea. He might think of it as a composer trying to write a piece of music for an orchestra, and in order to effectively do that, you’re drawing on all the instruments in the orchestra, and thinking about how they’ll function in the piece of music.”
It is a truly brilliant piece of filmmaking that makes for searing entertainment.