Favorite Korean Filmmakers of the 2000s

by Ygal Kaufman on June 6, 2013

Guest post by Ygal Kaufman of In The Can: a podcast about movies

What is it about a constant existential tension with your direct neighbor to the north that makes great filmmaking? A relatively new group of South Korean filmmakers working today, and just starting to work here in the US, is taking over the world. Chan-wook Park, Kim-jee Woon and Joon-ho Bong represent a new guard in writing and filmmaking.  All 3 have made or are making their American debuts this year. Here’s a primer on what you’ve been missing if you haven’t been watching their films:

Kim-jee Woon just made his first of hopefully many English language films with the underwhelming The Last Stand (2013). Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action flick was unfortunately forgettable. His 2010 horror thriller I Saw the Devil, will stick with you a little longer…  like roughly every time you close your eyes for the rest of your life.  The dark and nihilistic revenge story pairs 2 of South Korea’s best actors, Min-sik Choi and Byung-hun Lee and gets uncomfortably deep in the mind of a serial killer.  His 2008 western comedy The Good, The Bad, The Weird will help you get to sleep without nightmares and makes a great double feature with Devil. Both are available for instant gratification on Netflix.

Essential Filmography: The Foul King (2000) A Bittersweet Life (2005) The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), I Saw the Devil (2010)

Joon-ho Bong will be making his American debut later this year with the highly anticipated Snowpiercer. An awesome looking science fiction thriller with an international cast of stars. Until then, get to know this eclectic genius with his odd, darkly comic and brilliantly written mystery Memories of Murder (2003).  Following a pair of mismatched detectives over several years as they attempt to solve a string of murders of young women, it’s an almost flawless piece of filmmaking. At times haunting and at others, hilarious, every time I see this movie I find something new to like.

Essential Filmography: Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009)

Chan-wook Park is quite simply the best director currently working. Anywhere.  His 2000 thriller J.S.A. has been called one of the 20 best films of the last 20 years by no less than Quentin Tarantino.  His 2009 drama Thirst was a true rarity: an actually inventive and clever vampire movie.  But his crowning achievement is 2003’s Oldboy. Calling it a mystery or a thriller doesn’t do it justice.  Calling it horror doesn’t feel right.  You would have to come up with a new genre to describe the idiosyncratic and brilliant masterpiece.  Spike Lee is releasing a remake of it later this year with Josh Brolin, but do yourself a favor and watch the original.  Fair warning: there’s literally no way your mind isn’t gonna be blown.  Thank me later.  Oldboy is the second installment in the “vengeance trilogy,” in between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005).  All three films deserve to be remembered as masterpieces.  His American debut Stoker, with Nicole Kidman, has been getting strong reviews and is in limited release now.

Essential Filmography: Joint Security Area (2000) Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) Oldboy (2003) Lady Vengeance (2005) Thirst (2009)

Also deserving of mention, but not directed by these 3 luminaries, are 2012’s Nameless Gangster, a brilliant, often funny, always compelling drama about the life and crimes of a South Korean mobster.  Set against South Korean politics from the 80’s through today, it was one of my favorite movies of last year. And The Chaser (2008), which is available on Netflix Instant.  It’s a brutal, dark and inspired thriller about a disgraced former cop-turned-pimp trying to rescue one of his employees from the hands of a sadistic killer. This movie stayed with me for days after watching it.

Congratulations.  You just graduated South Korean film appreciation 101.  I leave you with one question:  Would we make movies this good in the US if there was a demilitarized zone separating us from Canada?


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