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Korea’s Hottest Directors Under 40
- Writerby Pierce Conran
New Generation of Commercial and Indie Voices Leading Korean Film into the Future
Compared to many film markets, the Korean film industry has never been shy about giving new filmmakers a chance to sit in the director’s chair. Each year a remarkable number of new directors make their debuts across the indie and commercial realms.
Some of them graduate from other production roles such as assistant director, others prove their mettle through acclaimed short films, while others still come up through Korea’s growing number of graduate feature film production programs, such as the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), where both Jo Sunghee (Space Sweepers) and Yoon Sunghyun (Time to Hunt, 2020), among many others, made their feature debuts.
As Korean screen content goes from strength to strength and continues to see its global audience expand, these new voices are essential to keeping the industry’s output varied and fresh. Yet these new creators are also necessary to capture the complicated sentiments of a new generation of South Korean citizens who came of age after some of the country’s darkest moments and have a radically different set of social and political views from earlier generations.
Below are some of the filmmakers under the age of 40 who have been attracting attention as important members of this new generation.
Coinlocker Girl (2014)
Though still only 37, Han Junhee already feels like an industry veteran. He got his start working in production roles in films such as Once a Summer (2006) and Ba:Bo (2008) and landed a screenwriting credit in 2013 on the psychic thriller The Gifted Hands. He debuted with the hard-boiled gangster drama Coinlocker Girl (2014) featuring Kim Hyesoo and Kim Goeun. The film was selected by Critic’s Week at the Cannes Film Festival and established Han as a major talent. He returned in 2018 with the vehicular action-thriller Hit-and-Run Squad, with Kong Hyojin, Ryu Junyeol and Jo Jongsuk. This year, Han received his best notices yet for his Netflix drama D.P., which struck a nerve in the country, particularly among male viewers who were made to revisit their experiences of military service. The show was recently renewed for a second season, with Han once again at the helm.
Zombie Crush in Heyri (2020)
Though he has yet to receive the same kind of international exposure as others on this list have, Jang Hyunsang has quietly been building an exemplary filmography showcasing his droll humor and catchy variations on genre and transgressive spins on traditional dramatic themes. Born in 1987, Jang released his feature debut Neverdie Butterfly in 2013 following a number of early shorts. His memorable second film Kissing Cousin, about cousins troubled by a mutual attraction during a family gathering, arrived in 2015. His wry experimentations with the genre began with 2017’s Coffee Noir: Black Brown, which imagines a speakeasy cafe holding out during a coffee prohibition during a dogmatic dystopia. Similarly, a trio of girlfriends makes an unusual-united front against a zombie hoard threatening their neighbourhood in the delightful horror-comedy Zombie Crush in Heyri (2020). Many of Jang’s films are shot in the Hyeri art community in Paju, and he has frequently collaborated with actress Bae Soeun.
Nothing Serious (2021)
Often described as a female Hong Sangsoo early in her career, Jeong Gayoung has grown as a talent throughout the six years since she debuted and is poised for a bright career ahead with both acclaimed indie and commercial films to her name, all while still being only 31 years old. Jeong made waves with her transgressive and idiosyncratic debut Bitch on the Beach, a black and white, no-frills single location comedy-drama which debuted in late 2016. It hardly made any impact internationally but was strongly received by critics in Korea. The prolific Jeong honed her talents and embarked on a series of mordant and conversational indie comedies which expressed a liberated women’s sexuality, such as Hit the Night (2017) and HEART (2019), which both debuted at the Busan International Film Festival. Jeong graduated to the commercial arena last year with the romantic comedy Nothing Serious, starring Jun Jongseo and Son Sukku.
Born in 1985, Korea National University of Arts (K’Arts) graduate Jeon Gowoon first drew attention for her short film Too Bitter to Love (2008), a prize winner from the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival, and soon found herself working on a number of feature films through KwangHwaMoon Cinema, a filmmaking collective set up by several K’Arts graduates. She worked as a producer and/or writer on a well-regarded indie feature such as Sunshine Boys (2012), The King of Jogku (2013) and The Queen of Crime (2016). She also participated in the scriptwriting for the commercial features Collective Invention (2015) and Familyhood (2016) before striking out with her debut Microhabitat (2017). One of the most acclaimed Korean films in 2017, Jeon’s debut stood out with its strong visual aesthetic, rich tone, and unique central character. Jeon next helmed one of the segments of the Netflix omnibus series Persona, starring pop sensation IU (aka Lee Jieun).
Born in 1990, Lee Chunghyun got a very early start with filmmaking, making short films in high school even before he enrolled in college. The following work at an ad agency, he returned to filmmaking and his short film Bargain (2015) marked him out as a talent to watch after picking up prizes at the Mise-en-scene Short Film Festival and the Busan International Film Festival. Bargain caught the attention of The Handmaiden (2016) production company Yong Film, which added Lee to the scriptwriting team of Jung Jiwoo’s Heart Blackened (2017), a remake of the Chinese film Silent Witness. Lee began work on his own script until another remake project caught his eye. The result was the popular Netflix thriller CALL (2020) with Park Shinhye and Jun Jongseo, based on the British-Puerto Rican film The Caller. Stylish, twisty and memorable, CALL cemented Lee’s status as one of the brightest young filmmaking talents of the industry.
Moonlit Winter (2019)
35-year-old filmmaker Lim Daehyung first drew attention through shorts such as LEMON TIME (2012) and The World of If (2014), before making a major impression with his Chaplin-esque feature debut Merry Christmas Mr. Mo, which bowed at the Busan International Film Festival in 2016. The black-and-white feature of a young filmmaker reconnecting with his father through the making of a Chaplin hommage, Merry Christmas Mr. Mo stood out among Korean indie features for its warmth and pathos. LIM was welcomed back to Busan in 2019 when his sophomore film Moonlit Winter (2019) was selected as the festival’s closing film. Calling to mind the classic Japanese romance Love Letter, Lim’s achingly beautiful and wistful drama starred Kim Heeae as a Korean woman traveling to snowy Northern Japan to reconnect with an old flame and became a significantly limited release hit.
The World of Us (2016)
Even before she become one of Korea’s most acclaimed indie feature filmmakers, Yoon Gaeun had already captured the imagination of many with her extraordinary short films, which included The Taste of Salvia (2009), the multiple award-winning Guest (2011) and her superlative breakthrough Sprout (2013), which earned the Crystal Bear for Best Short Film at the Berlin International Film Festival. All her shorts and her subsequent features explore the world through the eyes of young girls as her protagonists grapple with the society around them as well as new feelings and more complex relationships as they come of age. Sprout in particular, with its story of a young girl getting lost on the way to the market, offers a striking snapshot of contemporary Korean society. Yoon didn’t disappoint as she graduated to features when The World of Us (2016) debuted at Berlin in 2016 and became a sensation both at home and on the International festival circuit. She went on to make The House of Us, yet another acclaimed feature, in 2019.
Moving On (2019)
One of the newest faces on the scene, Yun Danbi made an enormous impression with her debut film Moving On (2019), a feature project from the Dankook University Graduate School of Cinematic Content, which debuted at the Busan International Film Festival in 2019, where it earned four awards. The story of a girl and her younger brother moving to their grandfather’s home for the summer with their divorced father, the film has been roundly praised for its redolent examination of youth and its collision with complex adult themes. The film traveled around the world, earning the Bright Future Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, among other prizes, and was also embraced on the Korean awards circuit, where the 31-year-old Yun earned several Best New Director awards. The industry eagerly awaits her next project.