It’s no longer a little-known fact that South Korea is, and has been, churning out some of the most inventive films over the past couple decades. With the international acclaim of names like Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Bong Joon-ho (most recently of the box office-crushing Parasite, which no one can stop talking about), Korean new wave cinema has made a name for itself within a certain macabre genre that beautifully blends arthouse and the mainstream while making sharp socio-political commentary.
Surprisingly, South Korea has still never been honored, let alone nominated, by The Academy, even within the Foreign Film category. Parasite is on track to change that come the Oscars next year (it already made history this past May by being the first Korean film to take home Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or), but the country’s innovative work in film is nothing new. From November 22 to December 4, Film at Lincoln Center is honoring the early years of Korea’s cinematic reinvention with highlights from the years 1996–2003. Below are seven to add to your watchlist.
The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996)
South Korea’s answer to French director Éric Rohmer comes in the form of Hong Sang-soo, the talky, elliptical filmmaker who, for the past few years, has had a prolific streak of multiple releases a year. Critics will call Hong too repetitive while his fans (yours truly included) will argue that he’s improving on the themes that plague his mind: of love, regret, do-overs, infidelity, and such. His 1996 debut, about the everyday lives of people in rocky relationships, may feel un-Hong-like for those more used to his recent, deceptively light-hearted filmography, but the writer-director’s concerns, especially those of modern romance, are present here, as are scenes of drinking too much and dream-like (nightmarish) sequences that throw off narrative convention. Fun fact: this was the debut film for Parasite star Song Kang-ho.
Art Museum By the Zoo (1998)
Lee Jeong-hyang’s film is a pretty classic will-they-or-won’t-they rom-com that will bring up 90s nostalgia. The couple in question starts off on the wrong foot, and the modern viewer will definitely flag how invasive the man is. Returning from the army, Chul-su (Lee Sung-jae) arrives at his girlfriend’s apartment only to find that she’s left and the space is being subleted by wedding videographer Chun-hi (Shim Eun-ha), who records romantic events for rent but spends her free time working on her romance script. On the basis that Chul-su used to stay at this apartment, he takes over the woman’s bed with little consent (oof). But once the story gets going, the bickering between the two — as they begin to collaborate on the script — becomes irresistibly cute.
Christmas in August (1998)
Also released in 1998, this Hur Jin-ho romance film shares the lead actress, Shim Eun-ha, as Art Museum by the Zoo. (This is like how Julia Roberts was in both Notting Hill and Runaway Bride in 1999, you know?) This tear-jerker of a melodrama is basically the Korean version of Love Story, our The Notebook. Shim’s Da-rim falls for a photo shop owner, Jung-won, played by Han Suk-kyu (practically Korea’s Hugh Grant!) — not only are photos developed, but feelings too. But when Jung-won finds out his illness is terminal, he ghosts to make their goodbye less painful and observes from a distance to make sure she’s living her life happily. It is, obviously, devastating to watch. Make sure to have tissues on hand.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Before Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho took inspiration from true crime for his detective drama that marked his breakout. Like Parasite, peaches play a role here, too, though in a much more harrowing manner. His Parasite lead Song Kang-ho stars as a country bumpkin detective who works on a case way out of his league — based on Korea’s first serial murders — and clashes with a sophisticated Seoulite investigator who steps in to help them. As the murderer seems to taunt them, the stubborn, frustrated officers race against time, and the next possible kill, to track down the local rapist-murderer. It wasn’t until Korean authorities found the real man responsible for the crimes.
My Sassy Girl (2001)
Forget the Elisha Cuthbert and Jesse Bradford-starring American remake from 2008. The Korean version is the OG, and was the nation’s highest-grossing comedy ever at the time. Those who know the original title, or how the film goes, will recognize that “sassy” is quite the euphemism. Jun Ji-hyun (one of Korea’s biggest celebrities and long-time It Girl) stars as a manic pixie nightmare girl type, who spends the entire film humiliating him. The film is based on a series of blog posts a man made about his girlfriend, later adapted into a novel.
Joint Security Area (2000)
Perhaps the most straightforward film by Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, but no less thrilling, this DMZ mystery (also starring Song Kang-ho) is about soldiers on warring sides of Korea, dead bodies with unaccounted-for bullets, and a neutral Swiss-Korean major (Lee Yeong-ae, star of Park’s Lady Vengeance) trying to get to the bottom of the mess. Through flashbacks, the film reveals unexpected friendships and betrayals, rendering the film even more heartbreaking and complicated than it initially seems.
Rainbow Trout (1999)
So many movies have tackled the possibilities of camping in the woods gone wrong. Jong-won Park’s not-quite-horror but deeply tense Rainbow Trout still manages to surprise. Five Seoulites (two couples and one of the women’s younger sister) go on a rural retreat together, and their short stay turns nightmarish when infidelity scandals are revealed, lustful desires are acted upon, and the local hunters start harassing the group. Things become especially tricky when a local roughneck takes interest in the younger sister.