Skip to content

Korea Blog: Rediscovering Korean Cinema, An Academic Look at the Zombies, Mutants, Criminals, and Prostitutes of South Korea’s Silver Screen

I live in Korea now in large part because I discovered Korean cinema in college — or rather, because I discovered Korean cinema right after graduating college. Though an avid film-viewer since I was a teenager, I somehow passed all four years at my university without partaking of the DVD selection at its library. Whatever I was looking for when I first went to have a look at it, I found something else, something life-changing: a wide selection of Korean movies, dating from the early 1960s to the mid-2000s, all distributed by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC). (One of the university’s librarians, I later heard, was a fan of Korean media, and made sure to receive all of KOFIC’s releases.) I checked out a few of its movies on DVD and, over the following years I stuck around town after graduation, proceeded to watch nearly all of them, intent on understanding this expansive film culture then entirely unknown to me.

Or rather, almost entirely unknown to me: when asked to name my first Korean film, I remembered having seen Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (공동경비구역) as part of my sole film-studies class. Released in 2000, that thriller got traction in the West by dealing with the intrigue at the border between South and North Korea, the latter being the only Korea that interested most of the world at the time. More than a few other enthusiasts may remember Joint Security Area as their gateway into Korean cinema, but nowhere near as many as came in through Park’s 2003 film Oldboy (올드보이). Though based on a Japanese comic book, that tale of incest, abduction, revenge, and more incest did much to define Korean cinema — and to place it, not quite rightfully, under the heading of “extreme Asia” — in the 2000s. I actually screened it myself, at one of my frequent movie nights; as I recall, my friends’ reactions varied.

Bong Joon-ho’s politically charged mutant-monster movie The Host (괴물) fared better, as I recall, when it played on campus not long thereafter. Back then few American moviegoers knew Bong’s name; thanks to the performance of his class-warfare satire Parasite (기생충) at this year’s Academy Awards, unprecedented for a non-English-language film, that has changed. Korean cinema just last year marked its official centenary, but the pre-Parasite and post-Parasite divide has the potential to become its new B.C. and A.D., and this new era will see a great many Western viewers looking to get a handle on it. When I was watching through all those KOFIC DVDs, I could find almost nothing in the way of related reading material in English apart from poorly translated monographs on individual directors. But a number of such books have been published since then, including the brief introduction I still recommend most often, Darcy Paquet’s New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.