Korean movies surf K-culture wave at Cannes film festival

Director Park Chan-wook vies for festival's top prize, the Palme d’Or, with twisted Victorian-period thriller The Handmaiden

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 May, 2016, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 2016, 5:00pm

With K-pop and K-drama television series riding high across Asia and beyond, a trio of South Korean films with top billing at this year’s Cannes film festival also shows the country’s growing cinematic clout.

Leading the pack is director Park Chan-wook, whose period drama The Handmaiden – adapted from the British writer Sarah Waters’ erotic crime novel Fingersmith – premiered Saturday, one of 21 films competing for the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or.

It is Park’s third entry in the main competition at Cannes, and his record so far has been impressive.

His best-known film, the dark revenge thriller Oldboy, came away with the Grand Prix award in 2004, while his blood-and-gore vampire romance Thirst took the Jury Prize in 2009.

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At a press screening for his new film, Park said he was surprised at being selected for the competition.

“I’m not sure if it’s suitable for Cannes. It’s a very straightforward film with a happy ending and no ambiguity,” Park said.

“Those film festivals usually like films that make you feel uncomfortable.”

Na Hong-jin’s supernatural police drama The Wailing is showing in the official out-of-competition section, while the highly rated zombie-virus thriller by Yeon Sang-ho Train to Busan has been selected for the Midnight Screenings programme.

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South Korea’s most successful cultural exports to date have been the K-pop songs and K-drama soap operas of the so-called “Hallyu”, or “Korean Wave”, which have swept the rest of Asia and beyond in the past 15 years.

Korean films have had to work harder for mainstream foreign audiences, although they have passionate genre fan bases, especially for their highly stylised – and often hyper-violent – crime and horror offerings.

Contemporary Korean cinema came of age with its own “New Wave” of directors who were involved in the tumultuous pro-democracy movements of the 1980s and ’90s against military rule.

Their neo-realist offerings were socially conscious and rooted in domestic culture and politics, especially the notion of a repressed and exploited underclass.

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The movies of Park Chan-wook, who was born in 1963, post-date the movement, but the director was heavily influenced by the upheavals he witnessed as a young man.

“I saw a lot of my friends taken away by the authorities and many were tortured,” Park said in a recent interview with Variety Magazine.

“I saw them fight actively against the dictatorship and they suffered as a consequence. I didn’t take an active part and I felt guilty about this. I channelled this sense of guilt into my films.”

Park and his contemporaries such as Kim Jee-woon and Bong Joon-ho welded a love of Hollywood B movies to the aesthetic of the New Wave directors to produce a blend of art house and blockbuster cinema.

“Hollywood has certainly noticed Korean cinema’s accomplishments, so there is interest in seeing what Korean directors can do in the United States,” Seoul-based film critic Darcy Paquet said.

Despite the language obstacles, Park and Kim were both hired to helm English-language movies that came out in 2013.

Park directed the psychological thriller Stoker with Nicole Kidman, while Kim was in charge of the Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle, The Last Stand.

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Bong, meanwhile, was in the director’s chair for the science fiction action film Snowpiercer – a big-budget, English-language Korean production whose cast included Tilda Swinton and John Hurt.

“They are proven directors,” South Korean film critic Jeon Chan-il said. “For Hollywood, their past

works prove their unique style and creativity.”

The other two Korean filmmakers in Cannes this year, Na and Yeon, belong to a younger set of directors looking to lay down their own markers.

“The generation of filmmakers that dominate the South Korean film industry all made their debuts in the 1990s,” Paquet said.

“The next generation has had a more difficult time establishing themselves, mostly because of the way the film industry is structured, so that has generated concern among many critics.”