In 2013, three Korean directors made their bid for world fame. Park Chan-wook fell flat with Stoker. Despite what the fanboy savants might tell you, Bong Joon-ho bit off more than he could chew (and more than Harvey Weinstein would swallow) with Snowpiercer. And the most technically adept of them all, Kim Jee-woon, made a good enough Schwarzenegger film The Last Stand (but who cares right?) that’s not exactly a masterpiece. It’s enough to make film buffs looking in from the periphery say: “Well, that’s all South Korea has to offer!”
Such a response would be cutting one of the world’s most dynamic film industries way short. Let’s have a look at four more Korean directors not as well known as Park, Kim and Bong that prove that the 15-year tsunami, the Hallyu Wave, still contains plenty of filmmaking talent in store.
As polished and mainstream as they come, director Kang burst on to the Korean box office with Scandal Makers, which sold an impressive 8.2 million tickets in a 12 week period. A savvy comedy about a self-centered celebrity DJ accused by a waifish girl of being her father and her son’s grandfather, Kang has the protagonist do his utmost to keep the possibly true/possibly untrue revelations under wraps so that his career and love life don’t disintegrate. Variety called it a film that “screams remake in any language”. Kang followed that with the delectable Sunny (7.3 million tickets; pictured below), featuring a 40-year-old woman trying to organise a school reunion of their old gang (nicknamed Sunny) before one of the members dies of cancer. During an interview, I asked Kang about how much planning was required for a bravura (and funny) sequence where the rumble two rival girl gangs scheduled coincide with a day the Korean Army tried to repress a student uprising, the director humbly said “Not much”. As humble as he is talented, Kang actually seemed embarrassed that anyone would revere his efforts. Kang is currently shooting Tazza 2, the sequel to 2006 box office smash, Tazza: the High Rollers. An adaptation of a popular manhwa series, Tazza 2 threatens to be Kang’s biggest mainstream hit yet.
This director quietly made his feature debut at the Busan International Film Festival in October last year. His film won the Citizens Reviewer prize and the CGV Movie Collage prize. In December, it was embraced by a jury that included Martin Scorsese, Marion Cotillard and Fatih Akin (plus some guy named Park Chan-wook); they gave the film the top prize at the Marrakech International Film Festival. Last month, it scored one of three Tiger Competition prizes in the Rotterdam festival’s main competition. Only three festivals screenings = three prizes. Not a bad batting average. Coolly detached as his film, Han Gong-ju (the lead character’s name; pictured below) strips back the sexual hypocrisy of Korean society. Don’t expect Lee Su-jin to become a box office sensation, but his passion to speak for Korean society’s unheard and neglected means he looks set to be the natural heir to the widely awarded Lee Chang-dong, who has won prizes at Venice and Cannes for Secret Sunshine, Oasis and Poetry.
Referred to by one Korean film critic as “perennially underappreciated”, writer/director and sometimes actor Ryu Seung-wan is probably the Korean director most likely to next cross over the Pacific to make a Hollywood debut. With 10 directing credits (including a short and a segment in the second instalment of the ongoing If You Were Me series which highlights disability), Ryu has primarily been an action director whose films have a sophisticated veneer. He’s taken himself seriously with films like the James Ellroy-esque story of political intrigue, The Unjust (pictured below), and he’s played with parody in the spy spoof Dachimawa Lee. In 2013, he made the Bourne-style international thriller, The Berlin File that, in addition to some spectacular set pieces, capitalised on South and North Korea’s unresolved civil war and the politics which tie them to the once similarly divided city of Berlin. Plot complexities had some people scratching their heads, but Ryu’s visual virtuosity left everyone with their jaws hanging open. Is Hollywood watching? You betcha.
With one or two not-so-notable exceptions, Korean animation has widely been regarded as something contracted out by the producers of The Simpsons. Then, virtually coming out of nowhere, Yeon Sang-ho burst on the scene in 2011 with The King of Pigs, a brutal expose of bullying in Korean schools. Suddenly people were re-thinking what Korean animation could be. Working extraordinarily fast, Yeon last year followed up with The Fake, the story of a phony priest who promises to assist the villagers about to be displaced due to the construction of a new dam. The hero is a violent drunk and so it's a cinch that Pixar will leave Yeon alone no matter how much Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals embrace him. In between the two features, Yeon even squeezed out the short film The Window about his emotionally confronting time completing his compulsory military service. Weirdly enough, for a man who has a bleak vision of the world, Yeon himself is amiable, smiling and appears completely untroubled – as long as people will let him draw.