A Landmark Year for Korean Genre Cinema

by Pierce Conran

News category: Blog

Image: Yourself and Yours - Dir. Hong Sang-soo

A few more pages remain before we replace our calendars, but it’s already clear that 2016 will go down as a great year for Korean films, particularly its genre cinema. Fan favourites such as Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon and Na Hong-jin have returned with some of their best work and a host of other filmmakers have also put themselves on the map.

When the lineup of the Cannes Film Festival was announced in April, it was already clear that it was going to be a very special year for Korean cinema. Landing in competition for the third time, following Oldboy and Thirst, Park Chan-wook introduced The Handmaiden, a sumptuously mounted Colonial Era adaptation of Sarah Waters’ erotically charged thriller Fingersmith. He was joined on the Croisette by Na Hong-jin, returning with the thunderous The Wailing, and former indie animator Yeon Sang-ho, presenting his live action commercial debut Train to Busan.

An instant fan favourite, The Wailing plunged spectators into a terrifying crime mystery through the eyes a helpless uniformed cop. With its escalating canvas of frigid landscapes and the swirling interplay of its malicious supernatural powers, Na’s film was a bristling cinematic nightmare. Far more straightforward but no less engaging was Train to Busan, a precise and effective zombie chiller that bolstered its linear, train-set premise with timely social commentary for a post-Sewol Korea.

All three films were huge draws at the local box office, as well as critical darlings, but summer had plenty more in store. Ranking second to Train to Busan at the summer box office was another disaster film with a clear social agenda, the rescue drama Tunnel. Director Kim Seong-hun proved that A Hard Day wasn’t a fluke with an intimate yet ambitious, if at times overreaching story. The season also boasted two more hits, the Korean War drama Operation Chromite and Colonial Era drama The Last Princess. With easy scapegoats, North Korea for the former and Japan for the latter, each capitalised on conservative themes to draw in older viewers. Notably, Liam Neeson played General MacArthur in Operation Chromite, though it’s hardly a role he’ll be remembered for.

Another film that didn’t find a large audience, but has steadily earned a cult following was The Truth Beneath, the latest work from Crush and Blush director Lee Kyoung-mi. Among other women directors, LEE Hyun-ju debuted in fine form with her lesbian drama Our Love Story, a soft examination on queer identity in Korean society from the Korean Academy of Film Arts.

Looking outside the mainstream, indie cinema once again provided a number of surprising and diverse works, including E J-yong’s geriatric prostitute drama The Bacchus Lady and YOON Ga-eun’s sensitive and heart-breaking children’s drama The World of Us, both presented in Berlin. One of the year’s more surprising films was the quirky and charming chamber drama-thriller Karaoke Crazies, which debuted at the SXSW Film Festival in Texas. LEE Joon-ik made a successful transition to the low-budget realm with the critically acclaimed black and white biopic Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, set during (when else?) the Colonial Era and both HONG Sang-soo and KIM Ki-duk will debut their latest works on the fall festival circuit, with Yourself and Yours and The Net. The latter marking something of a return to form for the enfant terrible, following a pair of much-maligned outings.

A few more big titles, including the Toronto-invited thriller Asura: The City of Madness, are waiting in the wings, and surely a least a handful of small treasures will be revealed when the Busan International Film Festival opens in October, but even if the curtain were to come down now, few could deny that 2016 has been one of the best years for Korean films in recent memory.