How to Kickstart Your Own Cinephilia — On “Relentless Invention: New Korean Cinema, 1996 – 2003”
I was born in 1990, but I wasn’t really into cinema until 2006. Throughout that year and well into 2007 I had decided to both dedicate my free time (which was most of my time, as I was finishing high school) to watching films, and to study filmmaking in college. I’m not going to say I regret those choices, since most of what I am right now is thanks to them, but I’m always casting doubts on who I was at that moment. And nowadays, I think about how useful I am to society at this point, how much of my writing has any sort of impact, and if I’ll ever get to finish my feature debut.
Anyway, this isn’t about my current lamentations, but about a nostalgic trip to a simpler time for me when I was just getting into film. My gateway into different genres, styles, and the canon was Asian cinema, and what attracted me the most was the new wave of Korean cinema. That singular era is showcased at Lincoln Center in a wide-ranging retrospective that covers filmmakers as dissimilar as Hong Sang-soo and Park Chan-wook.
One of the first essential texts that helped me navigate the world of cinephilia was the somewhat controversial 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. In 2005, I constantly borrowed it from a public library and marveled at the pictures inside. That’s how my interest got fueled, helped by my best friend at that time, Sebastián, who was already into movies. In that first edition, one of the few films from South Korea was Attack the Gas Station (1999, Kim Sang-jin), and even 20 years later, it still is a fun romp.
The film opens without losing much time, showcasing its four main delinquents ravaging a gas station in the middle of the night. They’re not interested in hurting any of the people working there, instead taking pleasure in the absolute joy of destruction. Their attitude explicitly violent, they carry bats and other blunt objects with which they deter any retaliation from the gas station workers, but when they could hit any of them, they just move them aside to smash the soda dispenser, an electric sign, or the windows. That violent raid is repeated a week later as a demonstration of the tedium that devastates the Korean youth, as we see in flashbacks how many of them have been repressed by the system, their families, or their own social inabilities. Eventually, the film turns into an anarchic demonstration of violence, a giant gang war with one of the most cathartic finales — a rare one in which we’re glad that “these punks” get away with it.
But the centerpiece of my fascination with film in those early years was Oldboy (2003, Park Chan-wook). Based on a Japanese manga, this tale of extreme revenge and delayed payoffs was like having my eyes opened for the first time. There was something about that long-take fight sequence, the squid scene, the twist and turns that the plot makes. That was simply the shiny surface that enticed me to go on though, for there was a particular moment that made me want to study filmmaking. When Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) goes back to his school, piecing together the past to understand his miserable present. There was something lyrical about his past self, peering through a broken window, then cutting to his eye through the window shards in the present. It moved me immensely.
If anything, Oldboy opened up the rest of his filmography and those of other filmmakers that delved into similar styles and plots, as well as the use of performers that could bring the same kind of energy, tension, and violence to their projects. Furthermore, this retrospective gives you a chance to observe the first steps of now familiar faces. For example, The Quiet Family (1998), the first feature by director Kim Jee-woon (who would later give us the masterpiece I Saw the Devil , as well as the essential horror text A Tale of Two Sisters , among others), which is not only an auspicious and ambitious debut, but also congregates many future stars like Choi Min-sik and Song Kang-ho.
The Quiet Family tells the tale of a family-led hostel that’s somehow cursed (an early scene shows an old woman spouting nonsense and pointing at the building) so that everyone who stays the night ends up dead. It features enormous amounts of blood, corpses, illegal burials, and murders, but each of the deaths is different from the next, making it incredibly creative. The way the entire family bands together to get rid of the bodies to maintain some sort of good image as a possible shelter reminded me of The Comedy of Terrors (1963, Jacques Tourneur), both in its slapstick moments and in the way that it calibrates the humor with the gruesome.
The Quiet Family served as a basis for one of Takashi Miike’s wildest films, the sadly superior genre-bending The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), which was another film that attracted me at the time. The Quiet Family was always featured on a site where one could watch Asian films illegally, along with two in the series: My Sassy Girl (2001, Kwak Jae-yong) and Save the Green Planet! (2003, Jang Joon-hwan). Who was I to deny the recommendations of hundreds of fans that had put their time and effort in uploading these films?
Revisiting these two more than ten years after my first watch might feel a bit like whiplash. My Sassy Girl is still one of the best romantic “comedies,” never shying away from building an extremely unlikable character, the unnamed girl, through the sociopathic acts she does and how Gyeon-woo falls for her, which in more ways than one predates relationships present in films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002). On the other hand, Save the Green Planet! might be the definition of a film that’s too much — a science-fiction, horror, political commentary, anarcho-ecologist terrorist manifesto of sorts that ends up being extremely cruel at moments, while also giving us enough confidence into the insights that its crazy protagonist puts forward.
I don’t think I can replicate how I felt when watching these unique and life-changing films; the closest I can think of is that they felt like extraterrestrials being beamed down from outer space. Luckily, we can still be amazed by their impeccable craft and how prescient they were regarding romantic relationships, families, and the world. Those years of Korean cinema were on a league of their own, and they made me the cinephile I am today, and for that I’m grateful.
“Restless Invention: New Korean Cinema, 1996 – 2003” is at Lincoln Center between November 22 and December 12.