Readers Write In #376: What’s special about South Korean cinema?

Posted on July 2, 2021


(by Sudharsanan Sampath)

South Korean cinema is clearly superior, with its creativity, consistency and film-making style, when compared to other film industries of the world, at least in my opinion. Malayalam cinema is attempting to come dangerously close, but still some way to go. South Korean filmmakers somehow managed to capture the elusive art of producing innovative and seemingly original films within the limits of commercial confinement.

I’m not saying that all South Korean films are great. There are always exceptions. But the industry manages to produce at least a handful of remarkable films per year. There are several aspects (technical and otherwise) that make those films remarkable. Today we will discuss a less discussed aspect that I’ve noticed in several South Korean films that elevate those films to another level.

I find that many great South Korean films have subtle, and almost invisible political statements hidden underneath a well-made, entertaining film. Oftentimes, there wouldn’t even be a statement as much as an observation, a secondary narrative if you will.

Disclaimer: There are going to be major and minor spoilers for all the movies that I am going to discuss.

Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “Man, by nature is a political animal”. This very nature runs at the heart of all our societies. The freedom to express our thoughts and personality through the means of art must be then political.

Memories of Murder (2003) is one of my favorite South Korean films; probably in my top 10 favorite films of all time. It is written and directed by, now celebrated Bong Joon-Ho. It talks about a serial killing spree in a small town in the province of Gyunggi and the struggles of the local detectives to crack the case.

It is often compared to David Fincher’s Zodiac in its treatment and especially for that ending. In Memories of Murder, the detectives never manage to find the killer or the reason behind the murders. The crime is unresolved much like Zodiac. The movie ends with one of the detectives visiting the crime scene, after several years. He is now a salesman.

He learns from a local girl that someone else just visited the same spot indicating that the killer might have visited his own crime scene. It was a very chilling and twisted end to an incredible story, and the reveal blew me away when I first watched the film.

After many obsessive re-watches I discovered that there was another story that was being told along with the main narrative. The main narrative is about the serial killer and the investigation, while the secondary narrative is about the changing political landscape in South Korea.

In traditional South Korean culture, much like most of the Asian cultures, family and societal bonds and duties are valued much more than anything else. Individualism, and consequently isolation and loneliness were perceived as unique to the western society where family values are diminishing and the individuals are isolated.

A sense of purposelessness creeps into those societies. Yet, in South Korea, in a small town no less, a serial killer shows up, first of his kind. Serial killing by its very nature points to a sense of purposelessness, an act driven by isolation, mostly.

The film is based upon real life serial killings that took place between 1986 and 1991. It was the first known case of serial murders and it took place in a changing political scene. It was around 1987 that South Korea’s military regime held its free elections. The Seoul Olympics took place in 1988 and other major changes took place in the country that paved the way for the modernization of South Korean society.

The movie never addresses or acknowledges these political changes but still, the implications were prevalent throughout the film. Towards the end of the film, the detective, when talking to his kid over the phone, asks him whether he stayed up all night playing video games, an indication of a changed and modernized society.

Similar statement is made in a South Korean zombie thriller Train to Busan, written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon. It is an entertaining commercial zombie film. It is a violent and thrilling ride. Zombies invade a moving train. A paper-thin Hollywood plot, right?

But it doesn’t stop the filmmaker from etching out three-dimensional characters, nail biting screenplay, stunning visuals and an underlying political statement about class divide, the invisible line that separates the wealthy and the normal and a hint about media manipulation by the corporate overlords.

The very conflict of the film stems from an event that was a result of corporate carelessness and its effort to bury the secret by manipulating the media. It is very similar to an incident in South Korea in 2014, when 300 people, mostly teenagers, died in a ferry accident because of a similar selfish business decision.

The primary narrative in this film is a Zombie thriller but the underlying political statement is about class divide, corporate control of a society and its consequences. All of this was buried under a fun summer blockbuster.

Even when Bong Joon-Ho made his way to Hollywood, he made Snowpiercer, a post-apocalyptic thriller that’s set in a moving train. Much like Train to Busan, the filmmaker talked about class divide, with much less subtlety and much more complexity.

 There are several films like Mother, The Yellow Sea, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Lady Vengeance, that have an underlying political tone. Even the fun ones like 2015’s Veteran and 2016’s Violent Prosecutor had their thinly veiled political observations. And this, I think, makes South Korean cinema stand miles apart from its counterparts. It doesn’t mean that it is absolutely necessary for great art to be political, but I find that great art is often multi-layered. Those subtle layers make you revisit the art, time and time again, and come away with new experiences every single time.

PS: I wrote this piece many years ago. That’s why there was no mention of Parasite, yet another multi-layered, political film by Bong Joon-Ho. I liked Parasite, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Memories of Murder. Maybe I have a thing for serial killers. I don’t know.

PPS. Some years ago, I had the privilege of  watching The Wailing (2016) in the big screen in Toronto, on a stormy winter’s night. After the film, my friend and I couldn’t contain our excitement, for we had just watched the movie of the decade. It still has a spot in my Top 5 favorite films of all time. We walked for six kilometers, discussing the film, and it’s meaning, not minding the –30 degree weather. It is one of my treasured memories.

PPPS. Many of my favorite South Korean films exude this delightful nihilism that I haven’t seen in many films from  around the world. Maybe that’s also a reason for my obsession.

Signing off.