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- This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
There’s a lot of justifiable excitement online about the Netflix show Squid Game. It’s high concept, sure, a dash of Battle Royale (2000) with a splash of popular dark mangas like Liar Game wedded to eye-catching, immaculate Kubrick-esque visuals. It’s violent and gory but fans were surprised that it packs an emotional wallop rarely found in such fare. Unless, of course, you’re more familiar with Korean film and TV than your average Netflix subscriber.
I’m delighted that people might seek out more of the same, while also slightly weary that it’s taken this long. It’s a familiar pattern – there’s a breakout hit with Western audiences every year or so – a genre-busting movie like Oldboy (2003) or Train to Busan (2016) or the Oscar-winning Parasite (2019). But instead of opening the floodgates for Korean movies to get a wider release and TV shows picked up, it just sort of dwindles away until the next ‘surprise’ hit.
I’ve been a fan for decades. I made a series for the BBC, Asian Invasion (2006), which only really skimmed the surface, but as a result I got invited to the opening night of the London Korean Film Festival. I had assumed it was a small affair and rushed there after work with my son, both of us in jeans, dirty T-shirts and scruffy boots to discover, to our horror, that we were guests of honour and were seated next to the Korean ambassador and his wife. Thankfully, I was eventually forgiven and am now allowed back in the country.
But I’m still waiting for a wider and more lasting appreciation of what the Korean style of filmmaking has to offer, not just in terms of availability: I’m also hoping to see that tone and approach bleed into European and American filmmaking. Because in my opinion they are simply leagues ahead.
Side note: I’m talking about South Korea, obviously. There is a state-run film studio in the North but it’s unlikely we’ll get to see much of that anytime soon. I have seen one North Korean film worth mentioning – a peculiar but enjoyably campy kaiju flick called Pulgasari (1985). The story goes that Kim Jong-il was a lifelong fan of the giant monster genre, so he probably goes up in your estimation. Let’s face it, he couldn’t go down. But he kidnapped the director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee with the specific purpose of making the film, then credited himself as the co-producer. Can you imagine? If you were wondering if there was a worse human being than Harvey Weinstein in the history of cinema then I think we have a contender. Shin and Choi managed eventually to escape, giving their minders the slip while in Austria, so there’s a happy ending of sorts.
I’m generalising of course – not all of the cinematic output of Korea is amazing. But when they nail it, they are unbeatable. My favourite genre is horror, and more often than not what strikes me is the way they create genuine, powerful emotions in their films rather than relying on disgust or jump-cut shocks to stir the audience. Often there is a nuanced and challenging note of social commentary. Our protagonists are socially deprived or outcasts: unskilled workers, prostitutes, addicts. Their struggle is rarely just with whatever supernatural or super-weird element is wreaking havoc, but also against the cause of the problem: the unaccountable corporations that pump waste into rivers in The Host (2006), or the male violence towards and exploitation of women that is the real horror at the heart of Yeon Sang-ho’s animated prequel to Train to Busan, Seoul Station (2016).
Another quality the films share is intelligence, or rather the intelligence they credit the audience with. They rarely over-explain or over-show – even the wildest premise is dealt with subtly and realistically, forcing us to focus on the aftermath of the horror, the impact on the believable human beings we are watching, rather than revel in the visceral and bloody fun of the horrific acts. Again, the films are designed to work our emotions, leaving you with a more complex emotional response to what the characters have gone through rather than going for the fight-or-flight gag reflex.
Revenge is a theme that crops up often, Supernatural revenge thrillers like The Housemaid (1960), The Devil’s Stairway (1964) and The Public Cemetery Under the Moon (1967) should stand alongside the classic American and European masterpieces of the 60s. And while I’m offering you a shopping list, don’t miss supernatural crime thriller The Wailing (2016) which, par for the course, focuses more on the aftermath of the horrors that befall a small village then the acts themselves. Or I Saw the Devil (2010), a cop-versus-serial-killer thriller that contains some of the most gruesome images captured on film, yet powerfully connects with real emotion and leaves behind a lingering sadness that you might not be able to shake for years. I saw it in 2011 and, frankly, I’m still not over it.
So if you loved Squid Game and you aren’t yet a fully paid-up member of the Korean Cinema Fan Club, then you have a lot to look forward to.