Welcome to Kollywood, there will be blood
South Korea’s finest might be suffering from the compromise that awaits international filmmakers in Hollywood
For as long as there has been a film business, there has been debate about its purpose. Should art be political or populist? Is a film useless if it’s disposable, or is it pointless if it doesn’t entertain? Making a film that diverts or enlightens is an achievement in itself, but South Korea has at least three major directors who manage to make mainstream hits that are intelligent and uncompromising.
To put a local perspective on it, it would be as if What Richard Did made more money in Ireland than Avengers Assemble . In fact, many of South Korea’s most popular films are among their most controversial and socially aware: the line between arthouse and mainstream seems beautifully blurred.
Memories of Murder is a good example of how this is done. It’s a thriller with generous dollops of Coen Brothers-style humour and slapstick, but it also discusses a notorious real-life serial killer. The film criticises inefficient, brutal investigation techniques as it follows two policemen, one of whom becomes more sympathetic as another becomes more hardened by the case. Memories of Murder was likely an influence on David Fincher’s Zodiac , but a key difference is writer/director Joon-ho Bong’s playfulness. It manages to be a character study, an indictment of the South Korean justice system in the 1980s and an accessible, quirky and witty thriller. Memories of Murder was the biggest film of 2003 in its home country.
Even when Bong dips into much more conventional territory, he smuggles in some hot topics. At first glance, The Host is just another popcorn monster movie, whose forebears include Godzilla or Jaws . But like Godzilla, The Host is a criticism of irresponsible scientists. The difference is that the catalyst for the monster’s creation in The Host is an illegal toxic dump, not nuclear power. The opening scene for The Host – in which an American scientist bullies a Korean employee to personally empty bottles of waste into the river Han – is based on a real incident.
Politics rears its head later in the film when it emerges that one of the main characters (like Bong himself) was once a student protestor. The Host was seen by more than one in four South Koreans, making it the biggest hit in the country’s history at the time. Come for the squid monster; stay for the political commentary.
Joon-ho Bong is just one of three South Korean filmmakers making their Hollywood debuts this year. Bong’s effort, Snowpiercer , is a sci-fi thriller starring Chris Evans ( Captain America ), John Hurt and Tilda Swinton. The film will be set mostly on a train during a futuristic ice age. Its setting should be a good showcase for Bong’s abundant skills as a stylist and entertainer, but whether he’ll use the film to discuss real issues remains to be seen.
Another Korean’s Hollywood debut went almost unnoticed this year: Jee-woon Kim is known worldwide for his stylish gangster film A Bittersweet Life , the flamboyant western (eastern?) The Good, The Bad, The Weird , and for his dark and morally complex I Saw the Devil . His first Hollywood film, The Last Stand , was also Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback film. It staggered in the US box office despite generally positive reviews.
Possibly South Korean cinema’s best-known export is Chan-wook Park. He’s faring better than The Last Stand with his first Tinseltown film. Park is still most famous for Oldboy , but also gave the world Thirst, Lady Vengeance and his only rom-com, the asylum-set I’m a Cyborg But that’s Okay . His American film Stoker stars Mia Wasikowska (Tim Burton’s Alice), Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman and was produced by Tony and Ridley Scott.A psychological thriller about a prodigal uncle and his disaffected teenaged niece, Stoker couldn’t be accused of being gentle or sweet, but it is definitely more palatable and conventional than Park’s other works. The critical reception so far has been fairly positive.
South Korea’s finest might be suffering from the inevitable compromise that awaits international filmmakers in Hollywood. For every Paul Verhoeven, who manages to make hit movies and maintain his identity, there are countless others whose American films can’t compare to their home-grown fare, such as Wim Wenders, Wolfgang Peterson and John Woo.
But even if you don’t watch Snowpeircer, Stoker or The Last Stand , you’ll be seeing the Korean influence in other corners of mainstream cinema. Actress Bae Doona can currently be seen in Cloud Atlas , stealing the show from more established stars such as Tom Hanks and Halle Berry; South Korean movie star and heart-throb Lee Byung-hun will be reprising his role in the next GI Joe film and will also appear in Red 2 opposite Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren; and a Spike Lee-directed remake of Oldb oy starring Josh Brolin is on the way. The story of South Korea’s Hollywood invasion is far from over.
Stoker is on general release now. Snowpiercer will be released later this year