For many, the discovery of South Korean cinema was made with Parasite (2019), by Bong Joon-ho, a virtuoso social satire straddling thriller, comedy and horror film. It must be said that his Cannes Palme d’or then his historic Oscar for best film (first feature film in a foreign language in history to win the supreme statuette) and the volley of prizes that accompanied it acted as a tremendous blow spotlight on a cinema that is still too little known.
Today, the Cinémathèque suisse intends to set the record straight by offering a cycle devoted to this extraordinary cinema, as baroque as it is contemplative or sensual, with 23 feature films highlighting the major authors of what we now call hui “the Korean New Wave”. “The idea was to retrace the steps that led to the success of Parasitewhich represents the perfect example of the success of this cinema, but focusing on films released in the 2000s”, explains Loïc Valceschini, responsible for this tribute.
Mix of genres
Note that the history of South Korean cinema is actually quite young. If the first feature film dates from 1919, the development of its industry was strongly affected by the Japanese occupation until 1945, then by the Korean war and finally by two decades of dictatorship. In 1987, with the arrival of democracy, the country experienced strong economic growth and the cinema really took off in the early 1990s, but with unparalleled strength and liveliness, as if suddenly freed from the shackles of censorship. and trauma related to post-war sacrifices. An extremely creative cinema, both very playful – for its ability to mix genres – and very committed. But who especially takes the guts. Who is not afraid to shed blood and tears.
Next to Parasite – presented in its black-white version, “more realistic and sharp”, according to Bong Joon-ho –, two other films by the director are in the spotlight. First of all Snowpiercer (2013), adaptation of a French SF comic strip which takes up a theme dear to the filmmaker, already at the heart of his Oscar-winning film: the class struggle. But also Memories of Murder (2003), thriller mixing horror and burlesque with disconcerting ease, where two cops from the deep countryside have to corner a serial killer.
We will find there the formidable Song Kang-ho, also on the bill of four other films of the cycle. In particular those of his favorite director, Park Chan-wook (whose bewitching Decision to Leave). First of all JSA (2000), an antimilitarist pamphlet tinged with humor against a background of police investigation in the heart of the famous demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. But especially the terrifying Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2002), thriller of incredible darkness and harshness.
Because in this cinema, if one element stands out, it is indeed its exacerbated violence, both physical and psychological. And in the genre, the hard-hitting The Chaser (2008), by Na Hong-jin, a thriller of absolutely mad mastery, drives the point home. Fortunately, the cycle will also offer some healthy breathing moments. Lee Chang-dong deals with Alzheimer’s disease with infinite delicacy in poetry (2010) and proposes with Oasis (2002) a poignant love story between a young delinquent and a mentally handicapped woman.
A director to discover
Behind the pictorial beauty of Spring, summer, fall, winter… and spring (2003), Kim Ki-duk offers a contemplative look at the human condition. As for the romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (2001), by Kwak Jae-yong, it should surprise with its gently subversive side and caustic rhythm. The Cinémathèque has also selected two of the best films by Stakhanovist Hong Sang-soo (30 feature films in a twenty-five-year career), a past master in the art of depicting feelings of love: Women are men’s future (2004) and A day with, a day without (2015, Golden Leopard at Locarno).
We can, however, reproach one thing to South Korean cinema: fairly rare leading female characters, and mostly portrayed by male filmmakers. This is why we will pay special attention to the two films by July Jung, A Girl at My Door (2014) and especially Next Sohee (2022), which the director will present in person on January 22, before a theatrical release scheduled for next spring. A film that radically denounces the harshness of the Korean working world, featuring a teenage girl working in a call center. To note that Next Sohee is also part of the selection of the Black Movie festival, in Geneva, where the director will also present it on January 21 and 23.
Contemporary South Korean cinema, Cinémathèque suisse, Lausanne, from January 3 to February 28