By Paige Lim
Over the last few years, South Korea has been a hotbed of dissent and revolt, thanks to an ignominious presidential scandal, growing tensions over a controversial anti-missile system and the lingering tragedy of a ferry disaster. But if anything is to be said, it is that the country’s national cinema continues to flourish amid its increasingly volatile landscape. Hard-hitting established genres ranging from action, crime, noir and thriller remain at the forefront of South Korean cinema, which has also been recently dominated by a slew of politically and socially-driven films.
But at this year’s Far East Film festival, at least three South Korean films out of the 14 selected hope to challenge the genre conventions of their time. For director Na Hyun’s jailhouse action drama The Prison, the film revolves around an ex-cop sent undercover to expose an inmate who controls both the jail and a powerful crime syndicate.
Speaking at a South Korean panel discussion earlier this week, Na—who is making his directorial debut—asserts how there is still room for subverting cinematic tropes even when working with well-established genres, something he aims to achieve with his new release.
“I wanted to get over certain conventions and biases that one always has about this kind of prison film. The prison is usually known to be the ending place for the crime. But I wondered, ‘What if the crime begins in the prison? What if the prisoners run the world, carry out the crimes and then come back?’”, said Na, a veteran scriptwriter in the industry.
Delving into the human psyche in her new film Bluebeard is familiar territory for director Lee Soo-yeon, whose 2003 psychological horror debut The Uninvited is regarded as a contemporary South Korean cinema classic. Like Na, Lee said she hopes to give a new take on the thriller genre with her second feature after 14 years. Bluebeard is a psychological drama about a doctor who gets entangled in an unsolved murder case after his patient reveals a secret under sedation.
“Most mainstream Korean thrillers are about detective stories and it’s a genre that we are used to. But I wanted to focus more on the unconsciousness, rather than whodunnit. I wanted to go beyond the so-called conventional box—we as humans often look for truth, though very often the discovery of truth is connected to the notion of relativity.”
The limited size of the domestic market makes it difficult to broaden genre diversity, unless one plans for distribution in other markets, said Lee. She can speak from experience, having spent seven years prior to Bluebeard developing a “brutal, erotic fantasy thriller” about mermaids, though the project never materialised.
“It required a big budget, and in Korea it’s not easy to make a fantasy film. Every creator has this agony—should I fit in the trend, or should I lead, or should I wait for the trend to change? That is the thought I always have,” said Lee.
According to panel moderator Darcy Paquet, who is a Seoul-based film critic, film investors in South Korea are becoming increasingly conservative.
“Younger directors cannot simply make any kind of film they want to make these days. The best way to get your film financed is to point to previous examples of successful films and if they are kind of similar, it will probably do well. If you come up with something crazy, it probably won’t be financed,” he said.
Choosing to take this leap of faith is up-and-coming director Uhm Tae-Hwa, whose second feature is the visually stunning fantasy drama Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned. The film follows a young girl Soo-rin, whose group of friends mysteriously disappear after a trip to the mountains and find themselves trapped in a time-suspended world.
For Uhm, who debuted with the low-budget INGto-ogi: The Battle of Internet Trolls in 2013, tackling the relatively unexplored fantasy genre for his first commercial feature is ambitious. As Vanishing Time’s premise is inspired by the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, Uhm said the fantasy genre allowed him to express his sensitivities towards the incident metaphorically.
Uhm said: “There have been stories on time before, but I wanted to tell the story in a different way. Actor Kang Dong-Won is big in Korea and was willing to do this new kind of genre film, so thanks to him this film was possible.”
While he acknowledges the attention given to time-tested popular film genres in the industry, Lee remains positive that there will be more directors following in his footsteps in the future.
“Among audiences, I think there is a longing for difference and the broadening of genre concepts. For example, people in Korea say that if you make actress-centred films, you cannot make money,” said Uhm.
“But I don’t believe that—I feel that there will be more films focusing on female characters soon. I myself always want to take one or two steps forward by exploring new genres, rather than following the existing trend.”