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South Korean directors have an international reputation for producing some of the most haunting and visually stunning films in modern cinema. The landscape, culture, and traditions of South Korea have proved fertile ground for the following influential filmmakers.
Originally a novelist, Lee Chang-dong has combined his unique explorations and literary craftsmanship, transferring them to the film industry. Now a screenwriter and director, he made his directorial debut in 1997 with Green Fish, in which he critically engaged with Korean society. His most recent film, Poetry (2010), won the Award for Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. The film delves into the transitional capabilities of poetry as an art form, and questions its lifespan and place in modern society. Lee Chang-dong subsequently draws parallels between poetry and film, posing the question: “What does it mean to be making films at times when films are dying away?” He was appointed Minister of Culture and Tourism before founding his production company Pinehouse Film. Alongside this, he currently teaches film directing and screenwriting at the Korean National University of Arts.
Bong Joon-Ho’s nickname “Bong Tae-il”, which translates as “detail”, highlights his careful approach to crafting films. Visually unforgettable, the quality of these films is as considered and impressive as the dark and often haunting content. Bong Joon-Ho addresses film genres, and questions their definitions by experimenting with their constructed parameters. This results in an unpredictable cinematic experience, unexpectedly pulling on different emotions throughout. Bong Joon-Ho is well known for The Host (2006), which revolves around a deadly monster lurking in Seoul’s Han River.
Born in South Korea, So Yong Kim grew up in Los Angeles, California from the age of 11. She is an award-winning independent filmmaker whose three feature films – In Between Days, Treeless Mountain and For Ellen – have gained critical acclaim, the former receiving the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Her films document harsh and gritty realities involving isolation, misdirected love, abuse and abandonment. So Yong Kim uses her own life experiences to inform the thematic directions of her films. In Between Days, for example, is built upon her own experiences as an immigrant teenager and the frustrations born from her fear of expression.
Kim Jee-woon is a director and screenwriter who has gained commercial success due to the visual stylization of his films and his experimentation with genre. He is extremely meticulous about specific filmic elements, ensuring his movies are packaged with lengthy documentary materials and commentary. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) is based on an original Korean folktale and became a success when it won Most Popular Film at the Fantasia International Film Festival. A horror film, it focuses on the psychiatric workings of two sisters.
Writer-director Im Sang-soo has an extensive portfolio of films that have sparked controversy. His films often portray extensive sexual content and dialogue with an underlying satirical edge, causing polarized reactions from critics and the public. His provocative style and uniquely dark interpretations have earned him a cult following. Im Sang-soo’s black comedy The President’s Last Bang (2005) caused a stir due to its depiction of the fictitious murder of Korean President Park Chung-hee. The former President’s family was so outraged they filed a suit against Im Sang-soo, resulting in certain countries releasing the censored version instead. His other noted films include A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003).
Kim Ki-duk’s movies, aimed at niche audiences, lean toward dark and aggressive portrayals of life and often pursue violent and sexist themes. This subject matter is largely heightened by his characters, who are intentionally quiet, hardly speaking throughout the films. This lack of verbal information allows the eyes to process visual details, a technique that enhances the movie’s emotional impact. Kim Ki-duk has undergone criticism for his inclusion of animal cruelty in his films. “I’ve done a lot of cruelty on animals in my films,” he has admitted. “And I will have a guilty conscience for the rest of my life’. He has won festival awards at Berlin (2004), Venice (2004/12), and Cannes (2011).
Im Kwon-taek is one of South Korea’s most esteemed directors, with a career spanning five decades. His contribution to Korean cinema has been paramount, given that he has influenced a younger generation of Korean directors who are emerging today. The BFI and ICA in London have shown retrospectives of his work. Im Kwon-taek places Korea as the protagonist in many of his films since it enables him to engage with Korea’s identity, past and present. His noted films include Mandala and Drunk on Women and Poetry, with which he became the first Korean filmmaker to win the Cannes Best Director prize. Chunhyang (2000) demonstrated his interest in experimenting with narrative and sound.
Originally a philosophy student, Park Chan-wook was a film critic before he began writing, directing, and producing movies. He demonstrated his propensity for mesmerizing violence in his ‘Vengeance’ trilogy: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005).
One of South Korea’s most respected directors, Hong Sang-soo possesses an unlimited creativity that he projects into his art-house films. Leaving artistic components up to chance and spontaneous happenings, his films capture touching and relatable moments that have organically materialized. He often provides the actors with scripts on the morning of the shoot, thus ensuring their natural rhythm is caught on film. Of In Another Country, he has said, “The scene when Anne looses her umbrella came to be because there was suddenly a lot of rain during the shooting”.
Writer-director Na Hong-jin released his directorial debut The Chaser in 2008 and followed it with The Yellow Sea in 2010. The Chaser won him prizes for Best Director and Best Film at South Korea’s Grand Bell Awards. The film was inspired by the case of Yoo Young-chui, a South Korean serial killer and cannibal who was given the death sentence in 2005 (but is still alive). The film was a huge success and topped the box office for three consecutive weeks.