The growing tidal wave of South Korean cinema

South Korea is a powerhouse of creative cinema, and as Sean explains, their films frequently display an emotional core as well as action…

While American cinema is currently filled with comic book films, remakes and sequels, things are not the same elsewhere around the world. As worldwide cinema is becoming less dominated by a constant saturation of American movies, I’ve noticed one country in particular making its mark in the world of film.

South Korea has seen a rise in its cinema over the past decade, producing movies that are both experimental and entertaining at the same time. It’s not just pure movie fans that are recognising it, but Hollywood as well, as it’s been trying to produce remakes for some of the most well known of the current generation of South Korean films.

South Korea, in case you didn’t know, is the country that’s on the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula. Japan lies to the east of it, China to the west, the Pacific to the south, North Korea, unsurprisingly, to its north. A democratic country, South Korea hosts advanced technology and freedoms that its neighbour to the north does not share.

Whether it’s The Host, Oldboy, Tidal Wave, or The Good, The Bad, The Weird, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in the wave of films coming out of South Korea. While The Host and most of the above mentioned play more towards the action and sci-fi crowd, films like 3-Iron will definitely appeal to anyone seeking a good drama.

Ad – content continues below

What I find interesting about these films is not just their new stories, but the common theme I keep finding among most of them: the family dynamic.

The Host, a film about an amphibious monster that terrorises the Han River, is full of great special effects and has spectacular scenes of action and peril. The film won numerous awards, and while a sequel and an American version are being worked on, I can’t help but be amazed by how much it’s not like a regular monster movie.

When a dysfunctional family’s daughter is kidnapped by the monster, everyone must work out their differences and come together to save her. While it’s fun to watch the monster fight off troops, you care more about the family story and if they’re going to save the daughter.

The same kind of dynamic works with Tidal Wave. The film plays with the idea of a mega tsunami hitting the coast of Busan, a major city in South Korea that also features a luxurious vacation beach spot. While the tsunami destruction is impressive and vast, the actual event doesn’t even happen till the last half hour of the film, as opposed to a disaster film like 2012, where the action starts out after the first half hour.

Ad – content continues below

The story leading up to climatic tidal wave is about a dysfunctional family coming together and fighting back and forth. You end up hoping the best for them, because you get invested in the characters. The family story actually makes the tidal wave part seem like a subplot, because it’s so richly told.

Whether this is normal for a South Korean disaster film, I can’t say, but coming from America, where our disaster films are more about explosions and special effects and story comes either second or third, I’m impressed.

Disaster and sci-fi films aren’t the only ones to feel this strange family dynamic when it comes to South Korean movies. Action and war movies like Typhoon and Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood Of War not only bring the suspense and action of the pieces they represent, but also considerable emotional depth.

Typhoon is about a Korean smuggler who, when his family is denied asylum by the South and consequently slaughtered by the North, wages a personal war against the whole Korean peninsula. In revenge, he plans on using weather balloons to spread nuclear waste all over the whole peninsula, while a South Korean naval agent is desperately trying to stop him.

While this film may sound like something Michael Bay would do, the film is unique in that it has action sequences, but also depicts the bond of soldiers at war. The South Korean agent wants to stop this terrorist, but he also sees the man’s reasons for his actions, and considers that, in another life, the two would probably be best friends. Deep, theoretical thinking in an action film? Yes, it can happen.

Ad – content continues below

Tae Guk Gi, as the name implies, shows brotherhood of war by focusing on two brothers who are forced to fight in the Korean War. While America did have a role in the conflict, it’s refreshing to see a perspective on this from the countrymen it actually impacted, the families who were forced to flee their homes and fight against their neighbours.

Again, while it is a war film, Tae Guk Gi also shows the impact of two brothers who are forced to fight in said war, and depicts the cuts and bruises war can inflict on a brotherhood. It’s also a good film to watch if you’re not very familiar with the Korean War and want to get a sense of what it was like from a Korean’s point of view.

Family dynamics aren’t usually played out in such depth in American films, mostly because we’re so distracted by other things in our lives. With the emergence of Facebook, texting, tweeting, and everything else, we usually don’t put much value on the family as other societies do. It’s not that we don’t care about our loved ones, but that we’re filled with so many other distractions that our lives are moving at a million miles an hour due to the all information we process.

The same goes for American movies, where, instead of a family rallying around to save a loved one from a monster, our solution would be to either assemble an elite group of warriors or just one badass soldier and send them/him/her in and get the job done, usually by shooting and blowing everything up. Rambo, The Rock, Con Air, and many others are good examples of this. It’s just what we do best, I suppose.

While most think of Spielberg, Lucas, or even Michael Bay when they think of American directors, there is only one director I can think of that is synonymous with South Korea’s recent rise in its films.

Park Chan-wook, the director of hits such as Oldboy, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and the more recent Thirst, not only brings original stories to life, but also brings a new way to present them that hasn’t been seen before.

Ad – content continues below

Oldboy, the most famous of his works, is a tale of revenge with a bizarre and unique surprise ending. As part of his vengeance trilogy, Oldboy delves into the concept of holding a grudge for a lifetime and then exacting revenge in such a way that no family can ever be the same again.

Chan-wook’s most recent film, Thirst, is a vampire film, but nothing like recent such films we’ve seen, like Twilight. Thirst centres on a priest who’s exposed to vampire blood and becomes a walker of the night.

As he’s torn between his faith to God and his new carnal instincts, he soon finds love with a lonely shop girl. Once she has become transformed, the two try to live out their lives as vampires, but the priest’s values conflict with the girl’s obsession for blood, and the two find themselves hurtling towards a tragic end.

While Thirst is certainly a superb film and features great special effects, it also takes a twist with the family dynamic as it tries to put it in terms of a vampire couple. When people hear ‘vampire couple’, they immediately think of Twilight, but this is different.

There’s nothing subtle about the way they end up killing people, as blood is spilled everywhere throughout the couple’s apartment. Since becoming a vampire, both the priest and the girl now have superhuman abilities, and there’s really no head of the house as the girl is just as powerful as the priest is.

Ad – content continues below

I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg with this article. With other hits such as Memories Of Murder, South Korea is proving to be a powerhouse of film, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise, in terms of other countries having emerging blockbuster cinemas other than America.

Neighbouring China has always been putting out various films, as have other countries, but it’s truly trying to compete with American audiences by putting out a $100 million budgeted Empires Of The Deep.

The special effect-laden underwater fantasy epic, also featuring Olga Kurylenko and Monica Belluci, is said to be China’s answer to Avatar, proof that America is no longer the only country putting out big budgeted movies.

The key I see to the success of South Korean cinema? As usual, it’s about the story. Not just creating a good one, but one that an audience can relate to. Make it about dysfunctional or non-traditional family life (is there still a traditional family in today’s society?) and how we each deal with it, and then add the explosions, tidal waves, monsters, or whatever secondary plot you’d like to throw into chaos.

While I haven’t lived in South Korea, I can only speculate that growing up in a country that has had a turbulent history with the country to its north, and varied political systems present in the countries around it, is one reason why the family dynamic is a common theme in South Korean cinema. My belief is that the same family dynamic we see in South Korean film reflects the greater culture.

Coming from America, I only see closeness and a humble family life when I see South Korean films. A family that is willing to fight off dangerous monsters or raging tidal waves to save one of its own.

Ad – content continues below