• Ko-pick


Ko-pick: Korean Auteurs’ Debut Projects

May 03, 2024
  • Writer by KoBiz
  • View318

In April, the first episodes of Park Chan-wook’s HBO series The Sympathizer dropped on streaming platforms around the globe. Based on the novel of the same name by Viet Thanh Nguyen, it follows a Captain (Hoa Xuande) in the South Vietnam army who flees to the US towards the end of the Vietnam war and continues to send intel back to the Viet Cong.  It’s Park’s second series after he directed the BBC’s six-part espionage series The Little Drummer Girl (2018).


Also in April, Hong Sangsoo’s thirty-first feature A Traveler’s Needs starring Isabelle Huppert, Lee Hye-young and Kwon Hae-hyo was released in Korea. The film won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February marking the fourth time the director has won a Silver Bear Prize at the festival following wins for The Woman who Ran (Silver Bear for Best Director in 2020), Introduction (Silver Bear for Best Screenplay in 2021) and The Novelist’s Film (Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize in 2022). His film On the Beach at Night Alone also won Silver Bear for Best Actress for the film’s lead, Kim Min-hee in 2017.


Action maestro Ryoo Seung-wan is also very active with his Veteran sequel I, the Executioner premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May and there is much anticipation for Bong Joon Ho’s Hollywood project Mickey 17 that will premiere in Korea in January 2025. Na Hong-jin also wrapped filming for his next film Hope last summer. It was also reported by the U.S. press that Kim Jee-woon is working on a new English and Korean-language project The Hole, an adaptation of the Korean novel by Pyun Hye-young.


These directors - together with Lee Chang-dong - have been a driving force for Korea’s film industry on the world stage continuing to secure prestigious festival invitations, win awards and lure audiences into theaters in cities across the world.


They were also important in connecting with local audiences in the 1990s and early 2000s (with the exception of Na Hong-jin who made his debut later in 2008) as the industry underwent significant transformation with directors experimenting with genre and styles as Korean cinema entered a new era. Without such directors, it is doubtful Korean film would have witnessed the renaissance it did. This week, we look at the feature debuts of Korea’s revered auteurs.

Na Hong-jin (The Chaser)


Younger than the 386 generation (those born in the 1960s), Na stands out for making his debut in the late 2000s. In fact, he remains the only Korean director to have all his films (The Chaser (2008), The Yellow Sea (2010), The Wailing (2016) screening at the Cannes Film Festival further underlining his status as a leading Korean auteur.


The Chaser both directed and written by Na attracted notice for its intense and relentless pacing, a characteristic that would remain prevalent in all his three features. Starring Kim Yoon-suk as a former detective and now pimp who tracks down a serial killer played by Ha Jung-woo who is targeting his prostitutes, it screened in the Cannes Midnight Screening section – now a popular slot for Korean genre films (Train to Busan (2016), The Merciless (2017), The Spy Gone North (2018)).


Emblematic of the work that has made Korean cinema such a formidable presence globally it turns conventions upside down with the serial killer apprehended early in the narrative as opposed to the end and is able to continue his sadistic killing spree. Stylistically with the now iconic chase scenes shot on the narrow streets of Seoul’s Mapo district, it reflects the audacious visuals that has come to characterize Korea’s action and thriller genres.




Ryoo Seung-wan (Die Bad)

Released in 2000, Ryoo Seung-wan’s independent and gritty film Die Bad is split into four chapters as is follows a young man’s descent into a life of crime and that of his friends. One of the protagonists is played by Ryoo himself while his younger brother (Ryoo Seung-bum) plays his character’s younger sibling who would also play a leading role in several of Ryoo’s films (No Blood No Tears (2002), Arahan (2004), Crying Fist (2005), The Berlin File (2013)). The film features a number of actors who would frequently appear in Korea cinema over the years (Gi Ju-bong, Im Won-hee and Jung Jae-young) while it also includes prominent roles by director Jang Kun-jae (A Midsummer’s Fantasia (2014), cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (Oldboy) and a cameo from director Lee Jang-ho (A Fine Windy Day (1980)).


With each chapter exhibiting its own style, it would not only exhibit some of stylistic and thematic traits that would be evident in independent cinema many years later (young working-class protagonists, the gloomy and raw aesthetic) but also how Korean directors would refuse to work within the constraints of a particular genre. The film’s visuals attracted significant critical praise given the film’s miniscule budget of 65 million won with Ryoo turning a limitation into a strength capitalizing on the film’s budgetary restraints.


It also demonstrates Ryoo’s daring choreography taking action cinema to and beyond its limits that would be true of much of his work through to his more recent features (Escape from Mogadishu (2021), Smugglers (2023)). 


The film would secure numerous festival invitations screening at festivals including Fantasia International Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam that has discovered and showcased a number of Korean film directors over the past twenty-five years.



Bong Joon Ho (Barking Dogs Never Bite)


Also hitting screens in 2000 was Bong Joon Ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite that proved to be difficult sell for audiences and critics. It bombed at the box office and even critics were surprised by the film’s satirical tone that has now become synonymous with his work.


The film’s protagonist (Lee Sung-jae) is an academic seeking a full-time position as a professor but with the incessant sounds of barking dogs in his apartment complex reminding him of his unemployed status while his wife is the only one bringing in a salary, it sends him over the edge, and he kidnaps the dogs. Bae Doona plays a bookkeeper in the apartment complex who is searching for the missing pets.


The film’s basement scene that sees the security guard (Byun Hee-bong) serving up a dead dog as he talks about the story behind “Boiler Kim” is characteristic of Bong’s later films – the enclosed spaces (basements, tunnels), the mixing of genres (comedy, horror, thriller) and the social satire (there is a reference to shoddy construction in the 1980s). The film also features a scene where the academic, as he takes out the recycling, complains to the security guard that no-one follows the rules having dogs in their apartments. The rule-breaking echoes Bong’s approach to cinema – and that of his contemporaries - who have continued to break the rules upending conventions, making people laugh when it feels uncomfortable, lacking narrative closure and ultimately unafraid to challenge audiences.



Kim Jee-woon (The Quiet Family) 


Unlike many of his peers, Kim Jee-woon didn’t work his way up to be director by being an assistant director, or graduate from a film school. His feature debut The Quiet Family was his first experience on set after he submitted the film’s script to a screenplay competition at Cine 21 in the mid-1990s.


The film is largely set in and around a mountain lodge owned by a family seeking to make an income but when guests begin arriving, they end up dying in bizarre ways.  It stars Choi Min-sik and Song Kang-ho before they became leading faces of Korean cinema, while it also features Park In-hwan, Na Moon-hee and Jung Jae-young.


Kim’s firm grasp on style is palpably felt in the film’s opening, which takes viewers inside the lodge with the camera moving down and back up the stairs. Well-versed in world cinema, a characteristic shared by many of this generation, the scene’s mise-en-scene is elaborate and eye-catching – the use of colors, patterns, and props. This is repeated throughout the film and also his other work that has spanned a range of genres – the opening, for instance, to the noir film A Bittersweet Life (2005) or the house in the horror feature A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) that feels like a central character, or the train sequence in the espionage drama-thriller The Age of Shadows (2016).




Lee Chang-dong (Green Fish) 


Formerly a writer and schoolteacher, Lee Chang-dong is a director who entered the film industry in the 1990s as not only older than many of his younger peers but also someone who was then embarking on a different career. He met director Park Kwang-su at the premiere of Chilsu and Mansu in 1988 and then worked with him as assistant director and co-writer on To the Starry Island (1993) and then co-wrote A Single Spark (1995).


Park’s style as a realist filmmaker would have an impact on Lee as he approached his subjects in his films beginning with Green Fish (1997), his feature debut. Set in the satellite city of Ilsan (located Northwest of Seoul), it follows a man (Han Suk-kyu) who has finished his military service to discover that he can’t recognize his hometown that has been transformed amidst much development. He falls through the cracks and enters a gang, which begins a deadly spiral that he unable to escape from. It also stars Shim Hye-jin as the mistress of the gangster (Moon Sung-keun) who the young protagonist develops feelings for.  


Lee brings in elements of social realism of the 1980s New Wave with his long takes and a strong focus on working class characters, but he does so through the genre of the gangster film that grew in prominence in the 1990s with features such as No.3 released in the same year – also starring Han Suk-kyu. Lee, however, doesn’t seek to entertain his viewers through genre thrills but rather challenges them to reflect on what is happening in the film’s narrative that is evident in all his films through to his most recent Burning (2018).




Hong Sangsoo (The Day a Pig Fell into the Well) 


Like Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sangsoo is considered more of an arthouse auteur compared to the directors of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon Ho and Kim Jee-woon who are more commercial – at least in Korea.


Hong is unique for his ability to self-finance his films that has enabled him to be the most prolific making to date thirty-one features. His budgets are relatively small and the money his films generate in cinemas in Korea is then reinvested into his subsequent features. He is also now involved in all aspects of production; from writing, producing to cinematography and music.


His debut in 1996, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well is typical of much of his filmography though more somber in tone than his more recent films following a writer (Kim Eui-sung) who has an affair with a married woman (Lee Eun-kyung). The intertwining nature of the narrative that also includes the woman’s jealous husband (Park Jin-sung) and a ticket seller at a cinema (Cho Eun-suk) is repeated during much of his career as he plays with repetition and variation.


Hong’s films don’t tend to focus on social issues and ideology; instead, they delve into the complexity of relationships and interactions often using minimalist techniques with his long takes and are usually shot on location in restaurants, bars and the surrounding streets and alleyways.