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The Genealogy of Korean Youth Films

Jun 12, 2018
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
  • View2212
The Evolving Passions and Fears of Korea’s Youth Reflected in Film

With the commercial success of YIM Soon-rye’s Little Forest and the critical acclaim of JEON Go-woon’s Microhabitat this year, the Korean youth film has been making a quiet but emphatic comeback. Finding new ways to appeal to viewers who may feel suffocated by the alacritous pace of Korea’s urban spaces in the modern age, these films and others are tapping into the ever-shifting concerns of those who have just entered the adult world.

More than any other genre, the youth film is prone to drastic changes as the makeup and interests of youth generations constantly change. Nowhere is this truer than in Korea, a country that has experienced starker changes than most in its modern era. Over the course of just over 50 years, the youth film has remained a staple of Korean cinema though one that has been in perpetual flux.

Classic Youth Films

The youth film got its start in the mid-1960s through seminal works such as KIM Kee-duk’s The Barefooted Young (1964) and JUNG Jin-woo’s Early Rain (1966). A tale of star-crossed lovers featuring some of the biggest stars of the day, The Barefooted Young has remained a staple of classic Korean cinema and was also adapted as a popular TV series in 1997. Meanwhile, Early Rain is injected with the youthful vitality of its director, who was only 26 when the film was released.

As the political situation worsened over the coming years the youth film began to encompass works beyond the standard romantic mould, which included HA Gil-jong’s classic The March of Fools (1975) which explores the disenfranchised youth of the day, with its young characters running away in the streets of Central Seoul as the police try to catch them to cut their long hair. Echoing an uncertain future, the film ends with one of the young men sharing a bittersweet kiss with his girlfriend through the window of the train that will bring him to his military service. The other has already set off for the East Sea, in search of his own annihilation.

By the time of the late 1990s, the youth films of a newly democratized Korea revealed in style and the country’s burgeoning consumer interests, in line with the generation’s increasing disposable income. Most famous among the films of this period is KIM Sung-soo’s youth crime drama Beat (1997), which established JUNG Woo-sung (Steel Rain, 2017), playing a brooding fighter torn between his girl and a life of crime, as one of the biggest stars of his generation.

Commercial Colors of Millennial Youth Films

With the rise of Korean cinema as a whole around the turn of the millennium, youth films also saw an uptick in production, populated by the many popular new faces of the day. Many of these were romantic comedies, but several over films exploring the angst and malaise of Korea’s youth also cropped up during this period.

Volcano High

One of the most energetic films to emerge from the recently revitalized Korean film industry, Volcano High (2001) was a departure for director KIM Tae-kyun after a pair of romantic dramas. Introducing a slew of future Korean stars, including JANG Hyuk (Flu, 2013), SHIN Min-a (A Bittersweet Life, 2005), KONG Hyo-jin (Crush and Blush, 2008) and KWON Sang-woo (who returns to screens this week in The Accidental Detective 2: In Action), the overtly stylized film takes place in a special high school for those gifted in martial arts or special psychic powers. 

My Tutor Friend

One of the most successful among the many romantic comedies of the early 2000s, My Tutor Friend (2003) brought together two new young stars, KIM Ha-neul (Blind, 2011) and KWON Sang-woo, as a pair of 21-year-olds from different walks in life. The film was the debut of KIM Kyung-hyung, who went on to make Liar (2004) and Woojoo's Christmas (2016).

Spirit of Jeet Keun Do - Once Upon a Time in High School

Between his steamy affair drama Marriage Is a Crazy Thing (2002) and his gangster classic A Dirty Carnival (2006), direct YOO Ha helmed the high school drama Spirit Of Jeet Keun Do - Once Upon A Time In High School (2004), which provided another hit role for KWON Sang-woo. This time he plays a rebellious student in the 1970s who tries to get by in his school’s hierarchy through the power of his fists. YOO’s film uses its period setting to evoke nostalgia while also referencing the harsh realities of growing up in Korea under the heavy thumb of higher powers.

Romance of Their Own

For his fourth film, Volcano High director KIM Tae-kyun brought together LEE Chung-ah (My Tutor Friend 2, 2007), JO Han-sun (A Better Tomorrow, 2010) and, in his breakthrough role, GANG Dong-won in a brooding love triangle. Also known by the title ‘Temptation of Wolves’, the effective romantic drama was an enormously popular adaptation of an internet novel, just like the classic modern romcom My Sassy Girl (2001).


After his 2008 hit Scandal Makers, director KANG Hyoung-chul struck gold again with the biggest surprise hit of 2011, the 1980s-set high school drama Sunny (2011). With a sensational SHIM Eun-kyoung (Miss Granny, 2014) in the lead, the film was one of the first films in a series of nostalgia-driven hits, colorfully brought to life with an energetic young cast and a memorable soundtrack. Several films attempted to follow in its wake, with mixed success, such as Hot Young Bloods (2014), another 1980s narrative, this time starring PARK Bo-young (A Werewolf Boy, 2012) and LEE Jong-suk (V.I.P., 2017) playing country students with heavy dialects.


On the heels of his indie debut Cheer Up Mr. Lee (2013), LEE Byoung-heon graduated to the commercial arena with his star-driven youth dramedy Twenty (2015). Featuring KIM Woo-bin (The Con Artists, 2014), KANG Ha-neul (Midnight Runner, 2017) and LEE Jun-ho (Cold Eyes, 2013), the coming-of-age drama focuses on three recent high school graduates, each struggling to adapt to adult life. The film was a smash hit early in 2014, drawing over three million viewers.

The Independent Woman of the Youth Films of Today

Even compared to just a few years ago, today’s youth films seem to be taking a different approach in order to capture the imagination of young viewers. Addressing a lack of relatable young female protagonists, this year’s Little Forest and Microhabitat both put young women front and center. In addition to that, rather than focus on their romantic lives, these films look at their characters’ desire to be free of the strict social structures that surround them.

Little Forest

From Forever the Moment (2008) director YIM Soon-rye, Little Forest features The Handmaiden’s (2016) breakout star KIM Tae-ri in an adaptation of a popular Japanese manga that was previously adapted into a two-part Japanese film. KIM plays a young woman who returns to the countryside to escape the frustrations she experiences in Seoul, where she was studying to be a teacher. Alone in her mother’s home, she lives off the land and cooks herself wholesome food while also enjoying time with her childhood friends, played by RYU Jun-yeol (Believer) and JIN Ki-joo. MOON So-ri (Oasis, 2002) also features in several flashback sequences as the main character’s single mother.


From debut director JEON Go-woon, Microhabitat is the latest film from the KwangHwaMoon Cinema collective, that has previously been responsible for works such as Sunshine Boys (2012), The King of Jokgu (2013) and The Queen of Crime (2016). Debuting at the Busan International Film Festival in 2017, Microhabitat features E Som (Scarlet Innocence, 2014) as a young housekeeper who keeps to a strict daily budget. However, the price of cigarettes suddenly goes up and as she is unwilling to give up her vices, she opts to move out of her home and becomes a couch surfer, visiting the homes of her old college bandmates.
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