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The Unique Stylings of Korea’s Sci-fi Comedies

Oct 06, 2020
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
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NIGHT OF THE UNDEAD Bring Cult Genre Back to Life

This past week, Korea celebrated the Chuseok holidays. Among the most popular attractions for families during this season (though far less so in 2020 as people remained cautious about spreading COVID-19) is the cinema, which fills up with new local films looking to draw family crowds. Yet among this year’s crop of Chuseok marquee titles, one film stands out - Night of the Undead.

The film’s title may bring to mind the zombie hordes that have been popularized by recent Korean hits such as TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016), #ALIVE and the Netflix series Kingdom, but this new film from director SHIN Jung-won belongs to a different genre - the sci-fi comedy. Korea may not be known for sci-fi comedies, but the label includes some of the country’s most daring commercial films, as well as some of its most unique low-budget offerings. 

Aside from the unique creations of director BONG Joon-ho, many of which, including The Host (2006), Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017), feature elements of sci-fi and comedy, Korean filmmakers have seldom found success with sci-fi properties, but that is expected to change with the upcoming release of the country’s first big-budget space drama SPACE SWEEPERS. In fact, with a growing interest in big-budget genre content and the rise of Korea’s popular sci-fi authors, the genre may yet become a staple of Korean cinema in the coming years.

2020 has already welcomed a pair of sci-fi comedies, with There Is an Alien Here (2019), which picked up the Watcha’s Pick for Feature Film Award at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan), preceding Night of the Undead this year. This week, we’ll look at the unique and unusual sci-fi comedies that paved the way for them. 

Save the Green Planet

A commercial flop at the time of its release, JANG Joon-hwan’s madcap debut Save the Green Planet (2003) has over the years turned into one of Korea’s most beloved cult classics. A feverish blend of sci-fi and comedy, as well as horror, romance, police procedural and social satire, JANG’s film was one of the most refreshing films to appear in Korea in 2003, managing to stand out in a year that also welcomed classics such as PARK Chan-wook’s Old Boy and BONG Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder.

SHIN Ha-kyun portrays Byeong-gu, a deranged conspiracy theorist who maintains a bee farm in the Gangwon Province mountains and believes that Mr. Kang (BAEK Yoon-sik), the CEO of a major corporation, is in fact an alien monarch from the planet Andromeda. Byeong-gu kidnaps the CEO and locks him up in his basement where, with the help of his tightrope walker girlfriend, he tortures him until he fesses up to his supposed alien origins and plans of world domination.

Doomsday Book

Originally conceived in 2006, Doomsday Book (2012) is a sci-fi omnibus with segments directed by KIM Jee-woon and YIM Pil-sung that explore a range of sci-fi topics, many of them with a comedic bent. Two segments were completed in 2006 but a third, which was to be helmed by HAN Jae-rim, was abandoned when financing fell through, but the project was continued in 2010, when money came through for KIM and YIM to collaborate on a third segment to complete the picture. 

In ‘A Brave New World’, a couple eat contaminated meat at a BBQ restaurant and soon they and other dinners turn into flesh-eating zombies. ‘The Heavenly Creature’ concerns a robot that works at a Buddhist monastery and claims to have achieved enlightenment. In ‘Happy Birthday’ a family is forced underground for ten years when an asteroid in the shape of a pool ball threatens the earth. Doomsday Book (2012) received the Cheval Noir Award for the best film at the Fantasia International Film Festival in 2012.

Young Gun in the Time/Invasion of Alien Bikini

Easily the cheapest film on this list and a contender for being one of the cheapest Korean films ever made, Invasion of Alien Bikini (2011) is the uproarious feature-length debut of B-movie impresario OH Yong-doo. Shot almost exclusively in the same location, the story concerns a young man who saves a woman from unidentified assailants and brings her to his home. She turns out to be an alien that needs his sperm and proceeds to try to seduce him. However, the young man has taken a vow of chastity and won’t easily be swayed.

After earning the top prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, Director OH used his prize money to re-team with his star HONG Seo-back to make his follow-up, the gloriously campy and wildly inventive time travelling private eye action-comedy Young Gun in the Time (2012), which screened at major fantastic film events around the world, including Fantasia and Sitges. This time, HONG plays a detective who refuses a beautiful woman’s request to assassinate someone and later sees her die in a car accident. To his surprise, the same woman from three days in the future then appears before him and asks him to save her from the crash. All he needs is a time machine.

Collective Invention

Tapping into the particular vein of social satire popularized by BONG Joon-ho, Collective Invention is the ambitious debut of KWON Oh-kwang, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. The premise, which concerns a man who mutates into a fish-headed humanoid after taking part in clinical trials, takes its aim at hypocrisy in popular culture and especially how trends and celebrity can be built and torn down in swift strokes by mainstream media.

An ambitious young journalist investigates a rumor about this mutant fish-man and is shocked to discover that he truly exists when he interviews the man’s girlfriend. The mutated young man soon becomes a sensation, but while he attracts the interest of human rights lawyers concerned for his condition, others would also like to celebrate the scientists responsible for his mutation. However, the man’s adoring fans turn on him when he does something that proves he is all too human after all.

Night of the Undead

Director SHIN Jung-won has forged a reputation for himself as Korea’s horror-comedy specialist, having made To Catch a Virgin Ghost (2004), Chaw (2009) and Ghost Sweepers (2012), but for his fourth film he adjusted his formula somewhat, adding his broad comic sensibilities and taste for the absurd to the realm of sci-fi.

Joining the unique roster of Korea’s sci-fi comedies, Night of the Undead features Peninsula star LEE Jung-hyun as a woman enjoying her newlywed life until she begins to sense that something is off about her husband (KIM Sung-oh). He never seems to rest and his curious behavior compels her to hire a private investigator, who then discovers that all his past wives wound up dead. The woman teams up with people to go up against her husband, who may in fact be an alien with nefarious intentions.
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