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Ko - production in Busan
  • A Decade in Korean Film
  • by Pierce Conran /  Dec 24, 2019
  • 10 Landmark Korean Works from the 2010s

    With just a few days left in the year, it’s time to look back over what has been a landmark decade for Korean cinema. Though some yearn for the halcyon years of the early 2000s, when the industry was coming into its own and taking bold risks on the innovative new ranks of talent that were coming up in droves, there’s no denying the position that the industry now holds as a global heavyweight. 

    Though the decade began at a time when the industry was in a slump it didn’t take long to recover and retool itself as a sleek purveyor of polished commercial fare and increasingly audacious blockbusters. Starting in 2011, local films reclaimed a major share of the annual box office as the industry grew larger than it ever had before as it entered the era of 200 million yearly admissions. 

    That said, while the commercial side of the business as only gotten bigger, the 2010s have also been a remarkable time for independent Korean cinema. With cheaper access to equipment and with many would-be filmmakers shunning the blockbuster-driven commercial sector, indie film production exploded and each year has yielded dozens of quality arthouse films, many of them traveling far and wide on the festival circuit.

    The decade has also been marked by unparalleled global recognition for Korean films, with several works scoring massive box office returns in foreign territories and the two biggest prizes ever won by Korean films, a Golden Lion from the Venice International Film Festival and a Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival.

    This week at KoBiz we’re looking at ten landmark Korean works for each year of the past decade. This is neither a best-of list or a most successful countdown, but rather a cherry-picked look at some the highlights of Korean film across the commercial and indie sectors during the industry’s most spectacular decade.

    2010 - Poetry

    The decade may not have started well from a commercial perspective, but the industry yielded a stellar selection of critically-acclaimed works, including KIM Jee-woon’s I Saw the DevilNA Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea and JANG Cheol-soo’s Bedevilled. Yet the film that towered over every other that year, from a critical perspective, was LEE Chang-dong’s masterful Poetry, which competed at the Cannes Film Festival, where it earned LEE the Best Screenplay Award. LEE was able to get 1960s and 70s screen siren YOON Jeong-hee out of retirement to play the lead role, for which she won raves across the globe as an elderly who joins a poetry-writing class as she reels from a shocking event involving her grandson.

    2011 - Sunny

    Things began to improve at the Korean box office in 2011, when local films finally reclaimed a majority of the market and one of the films that did it was KANG Hyoung-chul’s vibrant youth drama Sunny. The film, which features a large ensemble cast, focuses on a group of friends from high school in the 1980s who meet up again in present day, and kicked off a wave a nostalgia-related films in the Korean market. Released outside of the traditional local box office seasons, Sunny started slow but steadily became a word-of-mouth sensation, ultimately reaching 7.34 million viewers, who fell in love with its infectious style.

    2012 - Pieta

    Korean cinema’s enfant terrible KIM Ki-duk has been a fixture on the world film festival circuit since 1999, when Birdcage Inn (2002) screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, but he scored his greatest triumph in 2012, when his film Pieta earned the Golden Lion from the Venice International Film Festival. KIM’s 18th work, Pieta combines many of the director’s favored and often controversial themes which once again made for fevered debate among critics and viewers. However, in the years since Pieta’s release, KIM’s works have begun to draw less praise and his legacy was greatly tarnished in early 2018, when he became one of the most high profile Korean celebrities to fall under a #MeToo probe.

    2013 - Snowpiercer

    2013 was a massive year for the local industry with a steady flow of homegrown hits, but it may be most remembered as a year during which three of the country’s biggest name directors made their international debuts. PARK Chan-wook teamed up with Fox Searchlight for Stoker and KIM Jee-woon directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in his comeback film The Last Stand, but it was BONG Joon-ho who made the biggest impact with his sci-fi opus Snowpiercer, a Korean-financed work featuring global stars such as Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, John Hurt and Jamie Bell, as well as Korean stars SONG Kang-ho and KO Asung. BONG’s adaptation of the French graphic novel of the same name was famously bought by The Weinsten Company for the North American market, but BONG struggled with Harvey Weinstein over final cut and was ultimately successful in keeping his intended vision, though the film not granted a promised wide release. A Snowpiercer TV series will air starting next spring on TNT in the US and Netflix globally, with a second season already in production.

    2014 - Roaring Currents

    Following on from one of the biggest years of all time for Korean film, 2014 yielded another crop of stellar box office successes, the brightest of which was the spectacular success of KIM Han-min’s Roaring Currents, which soared past The Host (2006)’s eight-year record to become the most successful Korean film of all time with 17.62 million viewers, equivalent to just over one in three citizens, a record that still stands today. While the film didn’t feature prominently on year-end lists, CHOI Min-shik’s turn as the legendary Admiral YI Sun-shin and the effects that brought to life his daring naval offensive against a mighty Japanese fleet turned the film into a sensational moviegoing event, which, for better or for worse, led to a surge in production for big-budget titles.

    2015 - Right Now, Wrong Then

    Hong Sangsoo released 14 films during the decade, many of them masterpieces, but the one that stands out has to be Right Now, Wrong Then, which earned both the Golden Leopard and Silver Leopard for Best Actor (JUNG Jae-young) at the Locarno International Film Festival. But more important than that, it marked a new chapter in the director’s career as the first of six collaborations to date with his current muse KIM Min-hee. On the surface, Hong’s 17th film follows a similar trajectory to many of his other works as a film director travels to Suwon for a screening of his film, where he gets involved with a young local artist as they visit local sites and eateries, yet armed with some of the best performances he’s ever coaxed out of his casts and engaging sense of levity, Right Now, Wrong Then may well be one of the director’s most accessible works.

    2016 - TRAIN TO BUSAN

    2016 offered an embarrassment of riches for Korean films fans, with sensational new films by PARK Chan-wook (The Handmaiden), NA Hong-jin (The Wailing) and KIM Jee-woon (The Age of Shadows), but the film that was truly heard around the world was YEON Sang-ho’s zombie thrill ride TRAIN TO BUSAN, which debuted as a midnight screening at the Cannes Film Festival and became both the most successful film at the Korean box office in 2016 and the most successful Korean film of all time around the world. Featuring a cotery of characters riding an express train from Seoul to Busan just as a zombie outbreak hits the peninsula, the film combined social themes with exciting genre elements to immensely successful effect.

    2017 - 1987: When the Day Comes

    Korean cinema had another major international boost in 2017, first with the launch of BONG Joon-ho’s Netflix-backed OKJA and then with the debut of the megahit fantasy franchise Along with the Gods, but perhaps its most memorable achievement was 1987: When the Day Comes, a powerful political drama from Save the Green Planet (2003) director JANG Joon-hwan. The star-studded drama (featuring KIM Yun-seokHA Jung-wooSUL Kyung-guKIM Tae-riYU Hae-jin,m GANG Dong-won and many others) wasn’t the first Korean film to tackle one of the country’s darkest hours, when the CHUN Doo-hwan administration was violently suppressing activism through the Agency for National Security Planning, but none before it had done so so effectively. 1987: When the Day Comes became one of the best-reviewed films of all time locally and proved immensely moving for many of its 7.23 million local viewers.

    2018 - BURNING

    After an eight-year wait, director LEE Chang-dong returned with another widely acclaimed masterpiece when BURNING, based on a the Haruki MURAKAMI short story ‘Barn Burning’, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in get spring of 2018. It became one of the best reviewed films around the world that year and was the first Korean film to be shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the Academy Awards, though it didn’t wind up among the final nominees. YOO Ah-in and The Walking Dead star Steven YEUN star alongside newcomer JUN Jong-seo in a gripping and mysterious tale of dark desires and aimless youth.

    2019 - PARASITE

    Finally this brings us to the current year and there’s no doubt that far and away the most important film of the year is BONG Joon-ho’s latest work PARASITE, After becoming the first Korean film to pick up the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and then scoring over ten million viewers at the box office in Korea, the wickedly comic and darkly satirical thriller has gone on to the kind of success that was previously unheard of for a Korean film overseas. It has been a box office sensation in places such as France (USD 12 million) and the United States (USD 21 million and counting) and is now in the enviable position of being a frontrunner in the races for Best Film and Best Director at the Academy Awards, not to mention Best International Film, even though the awards body has so far never nominated a Korean film in any category.
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