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Korea’s Unrivalled Visual Stylists

Oct 20, 2020
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
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5 Unique Korean Cinematographers

For close to two decades, Korean cinema has been praised for its beautiful, striking and dynamic cinematography, but while much of this credit ends up going to country’s superlative ‘stylist’ directors, such as PARK Chan-wook, KIM Jee-woon and BONG Joon-ho, their visions would all be for naught, were it not for an army of exceptionally talented craftspeople running the show behind the scenes.

In a collaborative field such as filmmaking, it’s often difficult to distinguish exactly who is responsible for what. For some contributions, such as actors or composers, their work can be more clearly visible as individual contributions, but with other roles, such as cinematographers or editors, it becomes harder to identify who contributed what - the technician, or the director?

Once you start looking a director of photography’s body of work through their collaborations with a range of filmmakers, you can start to see what their personal style is (if they have one). In a crowded field of talented technicians, the following five cinematographers have each made a deep impression on the Korean film industry with distinct styles that carry across the different filmmakers and genres they’ve worked with.

While the following is a list of Korea’s top cinematographers, I have chosen to omit both the masters CHUNG Chung-hoon and KIM Wu-hyeong. CHUNG, who is known for his collaborations with PARK Chan-wook (up until 2016’s The Handmaiden) is largely working overseas these days. While KIM, known for his work with IM Sang-soo and a range of other filmmakers, seldom shoots Korean films these days - his last was 2017’s 1987: When the Day Comes., though he did shoot PARK Chan-wook’s BBC series The Little Drummer Girl in 2018.

HONG Kyeong-pyo

In 1994, HONG Kyeong-pyo received his first credit as DP on a feature-length film and in the 26 years since, his style has developed in leaps and bounds, much like the industry he works in has. His colorful, kinetic and asymmetric photographic style was well-suited to earlier off-the-wall efforts like KIM Jee-woon’s The Foul King (2000), JANG Joon-hwan’s Save the Green Planet (2003) and LEE Myung-se’s M (2007), but in 2009, when he first collaborated with BONG Joon-ho on Mother (2009), his style began to change. In the years since, he has increasingly gravitated toward location shooting and natural lighting in films like NA Hong-jin’s THE WAILING (2016), LEE Chang-dong’s BURNING (2018) and this summer’s stylish action-thriller DELIVER US FROM EVIL, shot in Japan, Thailand and Korea. Yet while HONG frequently captures beautiful frames, often outdoors and sometimes during the golden hour, his camera is seldom fixed to the same spot. It investigates characters and seeks out drama they create. He remains most well-known for his collaborations with BONG, which extended to Snowpiercer (2013) and the international sensation PARASITE (2019), for which his work earned global acclaim.

KIM Jee-yong

The master of sharp angles, dynamic motion and lush widescreen photography, KIM Jee-yong kicked off his career as a cinematographer with a bang in 2005, when he shot KIM Jee-woon’s neo-noir classic A Bittersweet Life. He has continued to work with director KIM since then (alternating with LEE Mo-gae, who you can read about below), elevating the genre maestro’s films with explosive photography that employs a range of dynamic motion, often with complex crane movements, as can be seen in their Hollywood outing The Last Stand (2013) with Arnold SCHWARZENEGGER, while also playing strongly with light and shadow in mature works like The Age of Shadows (2016). Yet KIM and his sharp cinematic style have also marked the work of other filmmakers, principally HWANG Dong-hyuk, whose films Silenced (2011), Miss Granny (2014) and The Fortress (2017) he lensed. The Fortress (2017), with its location shoot, wintry natural lighting and exquisite compositions, has been a highpoint for KIM, earning him the coveted Golden Frog Award at the Camerimage International Film Festival and Best Cinematography at the Asian Film Awards. In 2018, he brought the full spectrum of his stylistic prowess to bear on the Korean War tap-dance musical drama Swing Kids.

LEE Mo-gae

The other cinematographer favored by KIM Jee-woonLEE Mo-gae employs a grittier, earthier aesthetic that probes deeper into characters and their surroundings, which has made him a go-to for action-heavy projects with close-combat choreography. For KIM, he’s shot the so-called ‘kimchi western’ The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), the grisly revenge drama I Saw the Devil (2010) and the SF action anime adaptation ILAANG : THE WOLF BRIGADE (2018). His close-up style is particularly effective in the gruesome catch-and-release interplay of I Saw the Devil (2010), keeping the tension between the formidable central opponents bristling throughout the narrative. His intense, brooding style has also been put to use in PARK Hoon-jung’s The Tiger (2015), KIM Sung-su’s Asura: The City of Madness (2016) and RYOO Seung-wan’s The Battleship Island (2017). However, LEE is hardly a one-trick pony as his punchy close-up aesthetic has also proven to be potent in more dramatic works, such as the Sewol drama Birthday (2019) and the period bromance Forbidden Dream (2019).

UM Hye-jung

Cinematography is a field that has traditionally been male-dominated, and the excuse of the physicality of the work has long made it hard for women to be taken seriously. In Korea, the few women who were able to either pursue majors in cinematography in film school or getting onto film camera crews were already limited, but opportunities to advance up to department head were essentially nil. Thankfully, this is slowly starting to change and some female cinematographers have emerged on major projects. Chief among them is UM Hye-jung, who worked on camera crews for years, making her name on short and independent films, before finally getting a chance to shoot a commercial film at the age of 43. That film was LEE Soo-yeon’s striking sophomore feature Bluebeard (2017). More recently, she shot the Netflix series Extracurricular, which was a breakout success this summer. Both Bluebeard (2017) and Extracurricular showcase UM’s strong flair for lighting and color, which help give those thrillers their unique flavor. 

KANG Kuk-hyun

Though he has been active as a cinematographer as far back as 2003, when he shot the early LEE Kyoung-mi short Audition, KANG Kuk-hyun possesses a naturalistic style that has perhaps placed him at odds with the aggressive stylings of commercial Korean fare and he has largely worked in the independent field, notably shooting the films of KIM Kyung-mook, such as Stateless Things (2011) and the radiant Futureless Things (2014). The industry eventually caught up with his calm and lyrical shooting style, in which characters are often at one with the backgrounds they find themselves against. He shot the romantic thriller The Shameless, invited to Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2015, in which his camera quietly stalks the characters through low-lit, natural exteriors, giving the viewer the sensation of constantly peeking in on something forbidden. The undulating mobility of camerawork, coupled with the softness of its gaze, most famously resulted in KIM Bora’s indie sensation House of Hummingbird (2018), which earned dozens of accolades around the world, including Best Cinematography at the Tribeca Film Festival.
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