2013 will see several new domestic theatrical releases directed by prominent South Korean directors. For the last decade, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and Bong Joon-ho have become some of the most prominent filmmakers in their country, and in the American tradition, have been invited to bring their talents to the States. Inviting successful foreign directors is nothing new to Hollywood; it is a practice that has gone back to the late-1920s.
South Korea has worked for nearly a decade and a half to become a major media producer. With “Gangnam Style” becoming an international mega hit in 2012 and with the South Korean directors making their US debuts is proof that South Korea’s entertainment industry has become large enough and popular enough to make an impact on the US. This Korean Wave is a cultural transformation that started internally in the early 1990s, and has expanded across the world.
The three filmmakers mentioned above have directed some of the most significant South Korean films (in terms of American interest) including Oldboy, The Host, and I Saw the Devil. These South Korean films that have gained international acclaim have been unconventional thrillers and horror films that tie themselves to the country’s inherent anxieties. The films directed by these filmmakers slated for 2013 release appear to merge these sensibilities with American cinema traditions. With these directors receiving and partaking in the invitations to direct films in America is a solid acknowledgment that South Korea’s entire entertainment industry has reached a crest that has yet to fall.
By looking at South Korean social, economic, and political histories, we can see how these three talent filmmakers are a part of a grand plan to make South Korea a major, international entertainment producer.
South Korea and Compressed Modernity
Economics and politics influence art. A good friend of mine, Kyle Maddux-Lawrence, wrote a paper for a class that synthesized the economic explanation of South Korea’s two-decade long modernity period and how Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) expressed this economic and cultural change in South Korea’s national identity. Korea’s democratic rise in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave way to a cultural revolution and economic expansion to reach an economic and cultural equilibrium with other nations such as the United States. In other words, what took nations considered to be economic and political super powers over the course of many decades to accomplish, it took South Korea roughly fifteen years.
This period of rapid economic growth is epitomized in Oldboy, where the main character, Oh Dae-su is kidnapped in 1988, the same year of the first democratically elected president. During his incarceration, there is a montage of important moments in South Korean history in the past fifteen years, and is the perfect visual example of compressed modernity. These important moments have been captured and placed in a compressed format to relay these influential images to Oh Dae-su and the audience. Fifteen years after Oh Dae-su is captured, he is released on to the roof where he sees the urban landscape which has undergone extreme transformation during his incarceration. This rooftop scene is the embodiment of this compressed modernity; the South Korean people were dropped into an expansive nation that transformed over a couple of decades.
South Korea has reached a milestone in 2012 with Psy, a rapper whose song “Gangnam Style” has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Just a few years earlier, South Korea’s Rain was one of the largest stars in the world, at least big enough for Stephen Colbert to launch a tongue-in-cheek rivalry between the two, settled only in a dance off. Psy, Rain, as well as South Korea’s entire entertainment industry are a part of a deliberate national plan to insert South Korean culture into international culture.
South Korean’s deliberate plan to become an international entertainment powerhouse. This economic plan to increase world-wide consumption of South Korean entertainment has been explained perfectly in a episode of NPR’s Planet Money. Although this Planet Money episode explains how South Korea developed its music boom by creating a similar same factory system that made the American entertainment system so dominating. K-Pop, as it is called, is now a viable cultural phenomenon that is accepted by international markets.
Where radio, and a for a period MTV, was America’s best way to deliver new music to the populous, South Korea’s music executives found that debuting new musical acts on television was the de-facto way to develop new acts and guarantee hits. In the early 1990s, executives built a factory system and used television to exhibit this new creative output. That is why the “Gangnam Style” music video did so well on YouTube. It is visually engaging as it invites its audience to dance as if one was riding a horse, and its clever hook becomes looped in one’s head even the song is not playing.
The South Korean film industry also had a specific way to increase its film output. The quota system, which had been employed since 1967, is designed to ensure that foreign markets do not envelop South Korea’s screens. Under the current system, a South Korean film must screen for a minimum of 73 days. This system allows for national productions to circumvent competing directly with imports (such as American films), and helps promote South Korean films to its own population.
Nikki J. Y. Lee’s article in Cinema Journal, “Localized Globalization and a Monster National: The Host and the South Korean Film Industry”, examines how The Host, (Bong Joon-ho, 2006) epitomizes South Korean film production and its depiction of localized anxieties, as well as how the production and thematic concepts are packaged for global export. Both The Host and Oldboy, two films that are central to South Korean cinema, exhibit political anxieties, express them through unconventional methods, and were produced under this renewed production economic and artistic spirit.
Thanks to compressed modernity and the screen quota, increased capital has helped producers obtain the confidence to invest in more South Korean film production. Prior to 1992, nearly all South Korean films were government-financed ventures. Private capital and an enforced quota system helped double film spectatorship in the country between 2000 and 2006.
South Korean Cinema Styles
Successful national cinemas feature their own styles and movements. Like German Expressionist cinema, there is a specific style in New South Korean cinema that allows this national style to stand out. Many of the most successful films both domestically and internationally have been incredibly unconventional revenge horror and/or thrillers. Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy and I Saw the Devil are perfect examples on how unconventional South Korean filmmakers continuously push themselves.
If we look back to the time period of Oh Dae-su’s incarceration, several South Korean presidents were indicted for crimes committed during officenwhich increased social anger. Thus, revenge was a social narrative, and Oh Dae-su is the embodiment of that anger, pent up for fifteen years, ready to lunge at anything that is remotely the cause. In I Saw the Devil, the main character gives the antagonist a reprieve in hopes they would reform.
The Host, which is currently the highest grossing South Korean film, can be seen as an analogy to South Korean – US Military relations, but shows an inept South Korean government as well. The film is about a mutated monster that exists in the Han River and certainly has some resemblance to Godzilla. Even Chan-wook’s Thirst is an incredibly unconventional vampire horror film, especially when compared with the extensive vampire trend currently in American film and television.
The unconventional nature of these films is not so unusual to South Koreans because they are representative of their societal conflicts and anxieties. They represent the codes and narratives that South Koreans experience day in and day out. For Americans, Oldboy, I Saw the Devil, and The Host are drastically original and unique. Because many of the popular South Korean films feature horror and gore, they export well to the United States, where unconventional horror films are welcomed by the target 18-34 male demographic and ripe to become cult hits.
Hollywood’s Past Invitations
The post-WWI German Weimar Republic film industry produced innovative films with reduced resources. The anxieties of a heavily mechanized war and a threadbare economy provoked German artists, and even filmmakers, to utilize distorted sets, mechanical human movement, and innovative techniques to tell modern stories. German filmmakers utilized these techniques, and filmmakers such as Ernst Lubitsch and F.W. Murnau were invited to bring their sensibilities to Hollywood, where there was more creative freedom and larger paychecks.
Yet, it was not just using new cinematic devices and innovations, Germany had a re-invigorated economy, and UFA, the dominant German film studio at the time, wanted to desperately become the greatest film producer. Although Expressionism was meant to provide a meaningful way to express post-war anxieties with minimal resources, when Germany began to enjoy the same economic boom that American enjoyed during the Jazz Age, German films became larger and riskier. Even Metropolis was deliberately produced to be one the greatest films ever (a nearly $300 million budget when adjusted for inflation). The German film industry’s success at producing bombastic films expressing local anxieties while still providing international markets with an unconventional product, matches the economic success of the entertainment industry in South Korea during the Oughts.
Germany is one of many instances, but is indicative of a national cinema undergoing its most prosperous eras in filmmaking before the American invitation. Since South Korea has seen such a broad surge in national film spectatorship, especially the amount of DVD and Blu-ray exports, the US film industry was ready, and in 2013, three South Korean film directors will see their English-language, American debuts.
The South Korean Invasion
Thanks to an economic, political, and cultural revolution beginning in 1988, South Korea entered into the world stage as a viable democratic-capitalist nation, with the resources to compete and collaborate with similar nations. With unsuppressed censorship and increased private capital, South Korea enjoyed a large boom in entertainment production, leading to increased international music and film industry acceptance.
In conclusion, this invasion is, of course, more of an invitation. Yet, “invasion” sounds more urgent, and the significance of three of South Korea’s most prolific and acclaimed directors to release their English-language debuts in 2013 is not a casual invitation. It is also not a fluke, but the zenith of a deliberate, successful plan to make South Korea a major international player with goods, services, and entertainment. New South Korean Cinema will have a lasting presence on the international stage, mostly because its unconventional narratives and violence is more accessible than other national cinemas.
Below are brief summaries of each of the three director’s careers as well as the film they have directed slated for 2013 release.
Although Oldboy is his most wide-acclaimed success, Park Chan-wook’s career has included critical hits such as Thirst, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, and especially the Vengeance Trilogy. Chan-wook’s English-language debut Stoker features Ridley and the late-Tony Scott as producers and is a psychological horror film in the vein of Thirst, and is slated for a March 1st 2013 theatrical release.
Stoker will feature Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman, and is about a family struggling to recover after their patriarch as has passed, and the daughter (Wasikowski) has become rather violent.
Stoker is an Indiewood production by Indian Paintbrush and Scott Free Productions to be distributed by Fox Searchlight. Music by Clint Mansell.
Chan-wook will also be producing Snow Piercer, directed by his contemporary Bong Joon-ho. Joon-ho’s The Host remains as South Korea’s highest grossing film. Along with The Host, Joon-ho is responsible for a slew of critically acclaimed films including Mother, Memories of Murder, and Barking Dogs Never Bite.
Snowpiercer is an upcoming sci-fi thriller based on a French graphic novel about a post-apocalyptic train with an internal class-system.
Although not technically an American production, the film is primarily in the English language and has a US distribution deal with The Weinstein Company.
Kim Jee-woon made waves with The Good, the Bad, and the Weird and I Saw the Devil. The Last Stand, to be released on January 18th, 2013, is about an aged sheriff (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who takes part in one last major stand-off against a drug-lord. The film will feature Johnny Knoxville, Forest Whitaker, and Luis Guzman.