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The World's Best Cinema, Made in Korea

The World's Best Cinema, Made in Korea

By Jan Küveler

Scene from the film Memories of Murder


Sick of Hollywood fare that always pulls its punches? Here is the antidote.

By Jan Küveler

At first I didn’t buy it. But each Korean film that I saw had the same power — determination, doubt, grit, love. Korea’s current cinema is void of vanity, its style uncomplicated, its expression without digression, with the agile elegance of French New Wave and the brutal directness of American thrillers from the ‘70s. Add to that a perfection of images and cuts reminiscent of the likes of David Fincher or Martin Scorsese. I wanted to come here to see it with my own eyes. The Busan International Film Festival, the most important on the Asian continent, takes place every October. If Korean cinema is a puzzle, perhaps it could be solved in its own territory.

We’ve raced too quickly into modernity. All of its traditions are exaggerated

Director Park Chan-wook

I make my way to Busan in the southeast of the country in a high-speed train, whizzing past rice fields and atomic power plants at 217 mph. I just want to watch a few movies. Ones like Oldboy, Park Chan-wook’s gloomy 2003 masterpiece. This film is the very reason why I find myself here in the first place. In it, a man is abducted from the street and kept prisoner in a hotel room for fifteen years, without ever knowing why. Later, he chews a quivering octopus. His eyes are as dead as the animal is alive. In its death struggle, the octopus’s tentacles try to get a hold on the man’s cheeks. Soon after, he will sleep with his daughter. 

Or, Memories of Murder (2003) by Bong Joon-ho, in which two policemen keep missing a killer who murders beautiful women when it rains and a sad song plays on the radio. And Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron (2004), in which a boy breaks into an apartment in order to spend the night. A man lies dead in his apartment; the boy has nothing to do with it, and yet must go to jail, where he learns to make himself invisible. “When I make a film,” Kim Ki-duk will later explain during a festival Q&A, “I always let myself be inspired by how warm or cold the society is in which we live.” I wonder if the boy and girl in 3-Iron ever exchange a single word. I don’t think so. An unfathomable chasm: you throw your question in and no matter how much you strain to listen, you never hear it reach the bottom.

Busan Cinema Center

Busan Cinema Center in South Korea.

Theaters surround the Busan Cinema Center, a futuristic tsunami conceived by the architecture firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, which recently built the new European Central Bank in Frankfurt. The first film I see there is Wild Flowers, the debut from the young director Park Suk-young. Three young girls race through Seoul, soot on their faces, wearing tattered winter coats. Things get out of hand with a pimp; they run away, dreaming of a happiness that is as shaky as the camera. The film is a triumph, enormous in its very unassumingness. Outside, the director stands with the saddest of the girls. She still doesn’t look happy. Park speaks a few snatches of English, the girl nods fervently.

In one of the 20 movie theatres in the world’s largest shopping complex, I see The Pirates, a Korean blockbuster about an imperial seal that is swallowed by a whale on its way from China to Joseon, a city in what is now Korea. It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean, just with more historical consciousness. The other Korean blockbuster of the year, Roaring Currents, features Oldboy actor Choi Min-sik, who exudes gravitas like Marlon Brando in his later years. This hyper-realistic spectacle tells one of the country’s historical myths: Thanks to his technical genius, in the late sixteenth century Admiral Yi sunk almost forty enemy ships without any losses. The images are superior, the patriotism bombastic. Seventeen million Koreans made it the first domestic production to gross over 100 million dollars at home.

Later that afternoon I meet the great director Park Chan-wook on the 31st floor of the Park Hyatt. “We’ve raced too quickly into modernity,” says Park, and looks at the floor. “All of its traditions are exaggerated.” As it happens, from this high up Busan does look like a concrete dream. The snack bars, the fish market where widowed women diligently dissect eel whose parts continue to quiver, are hidden in the shadow of a hundred high-rises. “Capitalism is fundamental to people in the West,” says Park. “They created it, whereas it was pushed onto the Asian being. This is why we are torn apart on the inside, not only just on the outside as it is with Europeans. Our films show this.”


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