I saw a tweet yesterday from Henry Holt with hilarious definitions of words for writers. Most of them are really funny so you should check it out. Two of them are related to Netflix. (What does research mean to writers? Answer: Netflix.) I had been debating writing a column about Korean cinema anyway and figured this might be a good lead in.
Lately, when I’ve been searching for movies to watch, I tend to favor the South Korean cinema. Although I can’t vouch that the overall best movies are now being filmed in that country, the selection I’ve come across has proven to contain many enjoyable films in many different categories. Certainly not all Korean movies are for everyone. They can be very bloody and violent, sometimes undecipherable, and at other times plain weird. Doing some research about the cinema on the Internet, I found one review that postulated Korean movies are not hits in Hollywood because they often are genre mashups. This may be one reason why they are interesting and less predictable than Hollywood shoot ’em ups.
Today, while watching Musa (The Warrior), the most expensive Korean movie made up until that time (2001), I tried to analyze some of the reasons I find them engrossing. This particular movie was set in the 1300s and had many similarities to other war movies from the Asian past. The overthrow of bad emperors or conquest by other peoples seem to be a popular subject. During this rendition, while watching the adorable JuneWoo-sung and Ju Jin-mu, the older Ahn Sung-ki, plus Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, I was taken by all the long black hair on these handsome actors. The scenery in various epics ranges from interesting to breath-taking.
The acting may be another reason I find even mundane film offerings more interesting than the standard American movie. I’ve thought for years that the acting standard in Hollywood could be called “the Pepsodent method.” Just smile. Just show your brilliantly white teeth. Asian faces, or at least the way they are filmed, seem to show more nuance and usually rely less on a smile to convey every emotion. Part of my thought that Asian actors are somewhat superior to Hollywood actors may be an artifact of subtitles. Yes, there are times when the voices seem to be shouting, but since I don’t know the language, it’s easy to ignore and think it is due to the language and not overacting.
Most genres of movies are represented in the Korean oeuvre. There are martial arts films such as Pyongyang Castle, which this short review claims is similar to a Korean Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Plenty historical dramas, including The King and the Clown, are worth a watch. As film, often considered one of the best, was based on a play, it does have a bit of a stagey feel, reminding me of Japanese kabuki. The love triangle at its heart also places it on gay-themed lists.
Werewolf Boy is a fantasy/romance that some have likened to the Twilight saga but then explained why it is superior. To me it seemed like a fairytale for all ages. It did have some of that Korean weirdness in one or two cartoonish characters ,but the main storyline was enjoyable and touching.
Probably my overall favorite Korean movie is Castaway on the Moon. There seem to be few, if any, reviews of this movie in the press and only a very few reviews by viewers on the Internet. This reviewer called it kooky and sweet, which certainly would be some of the adjectives I’d use, too. I don’t, really, remember the gross parts the reviewer mentions, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they exist. What is worrisome is a comment that says it is being remade in Hollywood as it is unlikely an American movie company will be able to do a good job. Other movies such as Old Boy and The Host have been remade for American audiences but have not gotten good reviews. Although I started to watch Old Boy, it seemed to be pointlessly violet so I gave up.
Quiz Show Scandal is another favorite, although you do have to get over a bit of extreme violence at the start. This movie is often included on lists of best Korean movies. Snowpiercer is an international effort with a Korean director may currently be at your local theater. It stars Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans. It’s mostly in English so if you hate subtitles, no worries. It might be a good place to start if you’re interested in exploring this country’s cinema. I like to call Snowpiercer Max Mad on a Train, and although I fall asleep during 95% of chase scenes, this movie was fun and a bit unpredictable, just like most of the movies I’ve seen directed by Koreans.