While the movie world keeps its eyes peeled on the rise of China, one country has quietly found its way to the forefront of world cinema.
South Korean movies have taken the world by storm in recent years, but with a relatively small population and a shorter movie-making history, why is it that the Land of the Morning Calm is such a major player on the big screen nowadays?
A New Phenomenon?
Looking back through the history of cinema, South Korea is hardly a pioneering nation. Dominated by Japanese imperialism in the early days of cinema, dogged by war in the mid-20th century and suffering under an authoritarian regime until the last decade of the century, it was never the ideal breeding ground for cinematic innovation.
The country went through a small ‘golden age’ of cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with a boom in film production as censorship was relaxed, giving birth to a number of classics like The Housemaid, Obaltan and The Coachman.
But the spectre of government censorship returned with a vengeance from the mid-1960s until the 1980s, leaving South Korean cinema in the wilderness as American movies began to encroach on the domestic market.
It was only in the late 1990s that we saw the real birth of South Korean cinema as we know it. Government-imposed quotas limiting the amount of international films screened in Korea helped domestic productions gain popularity with audiences, and greater investment in film schools gave rise to a new wave of modern filmmakers.
Talent tends to come in waves, with innovative filmmakers pushing the boundaries and influencing one another to change the entire landscape of cinema. Think of France’s New Wave in the 1960s, or the period of Italian Neo-Realism in the 1950s-60s. From the 1990s onward, South Korea had its own New Wave.
Led by internationally acclaimed directors Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, the Korean New Wave began to make its mark on the world stage, with the release of now-beloved classics like Joint Security Area, 3-Iron, Memories Of Murder, The Host and most of all Oldboy.
So, while South Korea’s cinematic history certainly dates back further than the last twenty years, its international success is absolutely a new phenomenon, only coming to the forefront of world cinema in the 2000s.
The Korean New Wave continued through the 2000s, and with the exception of a few quieter years in the early 2010s, came to be as strong as ever at the end of the last decade.
But one of the distinguishing features of South Korean cinema – and perhaps the key to its unique success – is its modern, broad appeal all over the world.
From a Western and particularly Anglospheric perspective, international cinema is still somewhat of a niche. The most acclaimed and successful films from beyond the Anglosphere tend not to be big blockbusters aimed at general audiences, but more contained within film circles.
The most successful South Korean films, on the other hand, go far beyond genres that limit their appeal to stuffy film circles. Think of the devastating thrills of Oldboy, the charming romance and humour of My Sassy Girl, the zombie extravaganza Train To Busan, and the action-packed hilarity of Extreme Job.
These are all films that play well both in domestic and international markets, with an enormous appeal for general audiences all over the world. Compare the most successful films at the South Korean box office with those of its neighbours Japan and China, and you’ll find far fewer films aimed purely at domestic audiences.
The popularity of generally accessible films in South Korea itself means that the country’s industry will only continue to make more, and while China and Japan continue to focus on their own markets, South Korean films are the ones making waves on the global stage.
The meteoric rise of so-called ‘Korean Cool’, or the worldwide popularity of South Korean pop culture, is undoubtedly part of the reason that South Korean cinema has come to the front of the international stage through the last decade.
As K-pop and K-dramas entertain audiences from East to West, general interest in what the country has to offer only grows, meaning more willingness of film distributors to give South Korean movies a chance on the big screen outside the country’s borders.
The London Korean Film Festival was established back in 2006, and has grown to become one of the biggest film events on the city’s calendar. Likewise, the enormous box office success of director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in the USA – becoming the highest-grossing foreign-language film in the country – shows that fever for Korea is only continuing to grow.
The incredible rise of South Korean cinema on the world stage has gone hand in hand with the birth of Korean Cool, and looks set to be capped by what could be an award-winning run by Parasite.
Already a smash hit with general audiences, Parasite will be the first South Korean film ever to receive an Oscar nomination, and is the current favourite to win Best Picture as well.
Its broad appeal has made it a box office winner, and its immense talent, with New Wave director Bong Joon-ho at the helm and international favourite Song Kang-ho in a leading role, has made it one of the very best films of the last decade.
A Modern Movie Powerhouse?
South Korea is hardly going to take the crown from Hollywood when it comes to dominating film worldwide. However, for a country with a relatively small population – just 50 million – and a fairly short history in film, its success in the modern day is remarkable.
Far more popular in international markets than Chinese and Japanese films, the breadth and ingenuity in South Korean cinema today is incredible, making waves in both film circles and with general audiences.
Now over 20 years after the beginning of its historic New Wave, South Korean cinema is stronger than ever, and in tandem with the growth of Korea fever all over the world, it doesn’t look like weakening any time soon.
In short, modern South Korean cinema breaks all the stereotypes when it comes to world cinema. The West and particularly the Anglosphere can be very reluctant to accept big foreign hits, but the immense appeal of South Korean films in the modern context has made it a prominent exception to the rule.
And if you want to get a taste of the best of South Korean cinema, here are my recommendations.
Parasite (2019) – dir. Bong Joon-ho
Oldboy (2003) – dir. Park Chan-wook
The Handmaiden (2016) – dir. Park Chan-wook
Train To Busan (2016) – dir. Yeon Sang-ho
Sunny (2011) – dir. Kang Hyeong-cheol
The Beauty Inside (2015) – dir. Baek Jong-yeol
Joint Security Area (2000) – dir. Park Chan-wook