Readers Write In #153: Why Korean cinema is closer to the 20th century Hollywood than today’s Hollywood

Posted on April 5, 2020


(by Alex John)

It was my naive day dream that Indian cinema will set the globe on fire, and my close-to-reality expectation that Japanese cinema would, particularly after the global hits like ‘Your name’. But now, as we all know, it is Korean* cinema that is all set to do this. The surge in popularity of Korean films over the last decade was so amazing that it toppled an almost a century old tradition of not giving the best picture Oscar to a non-English language movie. The fame of Korean cinema has traveled to such an extent that it has become quite a big thing even in the small towns of India. Now,what I am going to write about is this. Korean cinema reminds me how gratifying the 20th century American films was to me as it was to any average youngster of that time. About how passionate and heartfelt those films were. How does it do that?Let me do a bullet point analysis on why I think present-day Korean cinema is in vicinity to the 20th century Hollywood,both artistically and aesthetically.

● Korean cinema, so far, has refrained from the CGI overkill.

Yes, CGI still rules the roost when it comes to box office returns, but a lot of us are still interested in the ‘human’ element in movies;about what people do and what is done to them. And such audience members in the west are apparently taking themselves more into movies than they did in the recent past. This is evident in the rise of live action movies in the last year and in the way those films made us feel their presence despite locking horns with CGI biggies like Avengers:End game. Korean Cinema, by choice or not, churn out a large number of live action dramas/thrillers those remind us of the 80s’ and 90s’ Hollywood action flicks that had humans as leading characters, not fillers between action scenes. Film-goers who are exhausted by the technological bombardment seemingly have found solace in these Korean films along with the mild but hopeful resurgence of live-action cinema in the west. Movie lovers from around the world who have considered American cinema as an indispensable source of entertainment might find an easy substitute in Korean/Asian films,in fact a growing trend already.

● Korean films can be hearty and grisly at the same time.

This is something Hollywood struggles to achieve these days. The line between the comfy family friendly region and the offbeat grittiness grows thicker over the course of time. In fact, Hollywood has lost the guts and glory of it’s counterculture days. Could any of its mainstream films nowadays match the terrifying realism of Bonnie and Clyde?Could any of those films now afford the emotional ambiguity of the rape scene in Straw dogs?Agreed, pleasing mass market sensibilities is vital to any film industry, but American cinema has gone so far with this that its films hardly cater to adults anymore. Here’s when Korean films come into picture. Of course, they have their own brand of pulp(see films like The great battle,7 days etc.), but most Korean films have a clad of steel around their mushy core that excites anybody who takes the art of cinema seriously. Films like I saw the devil,Memories of murder, The wailing,No mercy etc.(and a lot more) are in fact emotional marshlands, and wading through them could be tough as hell. In this sense Korean cinema reminds me of the 1970s’ Hollywood-the one that some of us miss nowadays

● Korean cinema is the new home to film-noir.

Lavishly celebrated in the 1940s and 50s and rigorously revolutionized in the 1970s, film-noir has been fading away ever since and is more or less forgotten in the blockbuster era of Hollywood. But Koreans found it and groomed it into being a most integral part of their mainstream cinema. Films like The chaser, I saw the devil, Old boy and Memories of murder(and umpteen other films) are the prime examples of modern film-noir, whose characters efficiently sidestep the tedious stereotypes. I would say Korean noir is closer to those black and white sizzlers of Hollywood in making good use of popular actors and great directors, and closer to the reformist thrillers of the 70s in exploiting the liberal aspects of the times they are made in. Most of the Korean films are dark, gritty, uncompromising and unflinching, and anybody who is in love with movies should find them uplifting from an artistic standpoint. I mean, that’s what film-noir is supposed to do isn’t it? It is meant to remind us that cinema is not all about one-dimensional entertainment, and Koreans undoubtedly are bearing the torch of gutsy,realistic cinema these days.

● Korean cinema hasn’t forsaken romance like Hollywood has now.

Try and see how many memorable romantic flicks you can think off the top of your head from the last decade alone, and you’ll realize what a barren wasteland American cinema has become of romantic cinema. Of course, the Titanic days are long behind, but poignant love stories are so few are far between even in these days that you’ll wonder if the filmmakers of Hollywood has forgotten that such a genre exists. And whatever happened to the money-minting, fizzier version of romance, the beloved rom-com? See, I am not particularly inclined towards romantic films, but aren’t they one of the cutest reasons why we keep coming back to movies?Well, like film-noir, the romantic genre too has been seemingly picked up by Korean cinema from where it was left off by Hollywood. K-romance started getting my attention from the chirpy My sassy girl, and there started a terrific journey through its various sub-genres only to find me amazed at the routes romantic films can be taken through(Koreans have a real knack of blending romance with horror and comedy). Films like My sassy girl, A moment to remember, Thirst and 3-Iron are some of the unmissable Korean romantic flicks of the 21st century. These films prove my point that Korean romantic films score where Hollywood scruples, at least for now.

● Korean cinema still has stars around.

Again something that Hollywood has gotten rid of, like the old school romance. This is something I miss the most in today’s American movies (you could argue Hollywood still has stars,but does somebody actually care about them?) I know that the supremacy of film stars is as incapacitating to any film industry as the domineering studios that rule Hollywood now, but movie stars lend a human touch to the extravaganzas they act in. They are often a comforting presence that we…okay, I’ll stop waffling about. I am just that old fashioned guy you know who love movie stars more than studio flicks and computer effects, and Korean cinema have plenty of those stars. Of course,the Indian style deification of stars or Hollywood’s fame and reach are somethings they are miles away from, but Korean movie stars can pack a solid punch in the leading roles they are cast in. Here, Korean cinema faces an enviable challenge;the stardom of its stars is often overshadowed by the quality of its films, at least from an international viewpoint. Yet, the stars like Ma Dong-seok(whom I am a big fan of),Kim Yoon-seok, Lee Jong-suk and Gong-Yoo enjoy popularity in Korea as any star did in the old,starlit Hollywood.

Let me wrap this up by saying this;Hollywood is still entertaining us, and will keep doing so, but I feel that the effortless passion that kept me hooked on to its films once is gradually withering away. I can’t really say Korean movies are filling in for it, but are definitely supplementing the lack of, I would say, the piquancy that Hollywood or any other international cinema suffers from lately. With all its grit and zeal,yes, Korean cinema makes me miss the vintage Hollywood, sometimes badly. And I believe it could be the new haven for the lovers of profound and realistic movies. Like I wrote before, something that the old-fashioned Hollywood would be proud of.

*Most obvious, but ‘Korean’ is used as the mononym for South Korean.