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The Mainstream Modernism of Korean filmmaker Yoo Ha

May 24, 2021
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
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The Themes and Lyricism of Korea’s Most Classical Cinematic Architect


Director Yoo Ha


Korean filmmakers typically go through two routes to reach the director’s chair. Some go to film school and get noticed as a result of their graduation short of feature film. Others move their way up the ranks by working as an assistant director or a ‘scripter’ (continuity supervisor), closely shadowing a working filmmaker, and absorbing their process on set. But occasionally, directors will make a lateral move from other careers, often involving different artistic pursuits. 


For Park Chanwook, who was first a film critic, and Lee Changdong, initially a novelist, the jump seems a minor one. Then you have director Yoo Ha, purveyor a testosterone-fuelled fare such as the gangster epics A Dirty Carnival (2006) and Gangnam Blues (2016). Yoo’s move, and particularly the kind of films he ended up making, came as a bit more of a surprise - he was, and remains, a respected poet.


Yoo, who returns following a six-year absence with his eighth film Pipeline this month, has always had a knack for putting his finger on the right vein and catching the pulse of contemporary Korean society. He is a keen observer standing on the beach and looking out toward the sea of time, witnessing its ebbs and flows and recognizing the ripples that will foment into full-blown waves.


Though his films can often be lyrical and always flitting from one social observation to the next, they are also resolutely commercial works operating within clear genre domains. Unlike the Korean filmmakers, who are known for mixing and matching or even breaking and rebuilding genre tropes, Yoo sticks to conventional genre templates, using their familiar structures to anchor stories that explore his cherished concerns - including modern masculinity and real estate.


Save for his two aforementioned gangster sagas, Yoo has jumped from genre to genre, notching up an affair drama, a steamy period romance, a procedural thriller, a youth drama, a high school film, and now a heist film throughout his career.


We Must Go to Apgujung-dong on Windy Days


Following several well-received tomes of poetry, Yoo debuted as a filmmaker in 1993, with the youth film, We Must Go to Apgujung-dong on Windy Days. The film stars Choi Minsoo as Younghoon, a young poet dreaming of becoming a filmmaker. Younghoon documents the fashionable youths traipsing through Apgujeong, the epicenter of Korean chic (then and now), and ends up falling for Hyejin, a girl riding a striking red convertible who is played by a young Uhm Jeonghwa.


Much like the volume of verse of the same name it was based on, We Must Go to Apgujung-dong on Windy Days explored the rise of consumerism in the early days of capitalist Korea, particularly by focusing on the country’s youth, the first generation to come of age in a democratized South Korea. Unlike his book of poetry, however, the film did not catch on, and it took him nine years to find his way back to the director’s chair.


Marriage Is a Crazy Thing



That return would be Marriage Is a Crazy Thing (2002), for which he once again partnered with Uhm Jeonghwa. Yoo’s second film explores the knife-edge between personal desire and societal expectation through the story of two 30-somethings who meet on a blind date and engage in an affair that turns into a lengthy side relationship, even as the woman continues to go on these dates and eventually marries a doctor to secure a comfortable life.


A torrid affair drama with explicit scenes of lovemaking for its day, the film was a bold move for Yoo, but especially for Uhm, playing a character who has no scruples about having it both ways. Her lover is played by Gam Woosung, a brooding literature professor who also draws the sexual attention of one of his students.


Once Upon a Time in High School



For his first two films, Yoo worked with male stars in their early 30s, but for the rest of his career, Howling (2012) aside, he has favored younger leading men, each encapsulating a certain kind of masculinity. The first of those was Kwon Sangwoo, a muscular screen presence who became a heartthrob despite or perhaps because of a speech impediment that allowed him to play diffident romantic leads.


The most memorable of these may by Hyunsoo, a new transfer student in a Gangnam high school in the late 1970s who idolizes Bruce Lee. Spirit of Jeet Keun Do - Once Upon a Time in High School (2004) explores the brutal corporal punishment that shaped young men in the 70s, with brawls spilling out of classrooms and corridors throughout the story. Hyunsoo himself refrains from these fistfight until he’s finally pushed over the edge and calls the school’s alpha to the roof. What follows is a brutal, troubling, and yet cathartic display of pugilism as the angsty teenager lays waste to his opponents in one of Korean cinema’s most iconic scenes.


A Dirty Carnival



The images of male bonding and the explosion of pent-up violence return in Yoo’s next film A Dirty Carnival (2006), one of the signature works in the Korean gangster canon. Jo Insung plays the beleaguered Byungdoo, a low-rank gang captain trying to look out for his ‘family’. In his extreme situation, he crosses a dangerous line by eliminating a district attorney for his boss’ boss. Riches soon follow, but his comeuppance isn’t far behind, especially after he confides in a friend preparing to be a film director.


The riches for Byungdoo come in the form of a shady redevelopment scheme, neither the first or last time that real estate would figure prominently in Yoo’s work. Hyunsoo’s mother in Spirit of Jeet Keun Do - Once Upon a Time in High School is a savvy early Gangnam speculator, and the later Gangnam Blues (2015) is all about the birth of that neighborhood, but all throughout his films location and its ability to reshape culture and economy has been a central concern. This extends to his poetry, with the 1995 collection ‘Love of the Sewoon Shopping Mall's Kid’, a snapshot of architecture in flux in Central Seoul, being one of his most famous.


Yoo’s films are classically constructed but while they lack the pizzazz of some of his peers, he sometimes overshadows them through his emotional clarity and tight pacing. The most well-used filmmaking tool in his works tends to be editing, and A Dirty Carnival is a masterclass of the artform. A standout sequence features Byungdoo escaping from a mini-van and taking down an opponent in a room salon before calmly laying some contracts on his boss’ desk.


A Frozen Flower



Yoo teamed up again with Jo, as well as Joo Jinmo, for his next film, the steamy period drama A Frozen Flower (2008). Set during the Goryeo Dynasty, Jo plays Hongrim, the head of the king’s palace guard and also the secret lover of the king, played by Joo. The king compels Hongrim to conceive with the queen, but as a relationship develops between them, the king’s jealousy begins to flare.


A sumptuous period yarn and campy costume affair drama rolled into one, with a surprising queer storyline for a Korean commercial hit, A Frozen Flower revisits and seeks to top the eroticism of Marriage Is a Crazy Thing. Shorn of the contemporary socio-historical observations of his other films, it is his most purely and seductively melodramatic film.





After a series of hits, Yoo returned with what is widely considered to be his first major misstep when he made the procedural thriller Howling (2012), starring Song Kangho and Lee Nayoung and based on the Japanese thriller ‘The Hunter’ by Nonami Asa. 


Song is the grizzled detective saddled with Lee’s new recruit, and they land an unusual case of what appears to be death by self-immolation in a car until the body is discovered to be bearing the marks of a wolf’s bite. More straightforward and less emotionally resonant than his other work, Howling remains an entertaining and well-structured potboiler with plenty of twists and turns.


Gangnam Blues



Yoo returned to gang lore and the property market with his opus Gangnam Blues, which dovetails the themes explored in both Spirit of Jeet Keun Do - Once Upon a Time in High School and A Dirty Carnival, this time pairing with superstar Lee Minho in what remains his only big-screen outing as a leading man. 


Lee and Kim Raewon are street urchins in 1970s Seoul who get separated after doing some enforcement work for a local gang. They meet later after rising the ranks in rival gangs amidst the swell of dirty land buys and development schemes in what would become modern-day Gangnam, the glitziest and most valuable district in Korea.


The slickest film in Yoo’s body of work, Gangnam Blues explores Gangnam as the future nexus of Seoul and the root of many of its modern inequities. Like Byungdoo, Lee’s Jongdae is only looking to help his family, and like Hyunsoo’s mother, he has the foresight to foresee the real estate explosion that will occur south of the Han River. This puts him at odds with Kim’s Yongki, who is more interested in the here and now, instant gratification through power and money.


Like all of Yoo’s best works, the film both admires and criticizes the shrewdness and self-centeredness necessary to get ahead in modern Korean society. We all need a roof over our heads, but what will you do to get yours? And does it make it any better if you’re doing it for your ‘family’?


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