Korean poster of 3-Iron.
Here’s a must-see list of the Korean New Wave since 2000, all available on DVD.
1. The Host (2006). The most popular film in Korean cinematic history is a monster movie with killer SFX that’s as hilarious, poignant, and politically engaging as it is scary. A trio of grown-up misfit siblings — an alcoholic ex-activist, a perennially silver-medaled professional archer, and a mildly retarded food-stand owner — attempt to rescue the food-stand owner’s daughter from a sea monster that lives in Seoul’s Han River. Think Godzilla meets Little Miss Sunshine.
2. Oldboy (2003). The second installment of Park Chan-wook’s so-called “revenge trilogy” starts with the Kafkaesque imprisonment of a middle-aged man in a 1-bed apartment for ten years. Just as inexplicably as he was imprisoned, he is suddenly released, then taunted by the man who imprisoned him to find and take revenge on him. Violent, absurd, and melodramatic, it’s Tarantino with a heart.
3. 3-Iron (2004). 3-Iron, or “Empty Houses” per the Korean title, is a nearly wordless 1.5-hour vignette by director Kim Ki-Duk, the most talented auteur working in South Korea today. A drifter who wanders through strangers’ empty homes chances upon a battered housewife in her ultra-chic, ultra-alienating mansion. She leaves with the drifter to play (silent) house with him in others’ empty homes, but her husband won’t stop searching for her to drag her back to their (his) house.
4. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003). Another Kim Ki-Duk masterpiece, Spring takes place on a hut-on-a-raft Buddhist monastery that floats in the center of a lake deep in the forest. A boy-monk, a man-monk, and their pet chicken live in this monastery, their lives governed by the sacred prohibitions against sex, speech, and contact with the outside world (a kind of Buddhism virtually unknown in America). When a girl comes to live with them for a year or so, the now-teenage-monk goes crazy (of course), and it’s bye-bye-Buddhism time (for a while).
5. Peppermint Candy (2000). Possibly the most “Korean” of all the movies on this list, Candy‘s first scenes feature a not-young, not-old man on the verge of suicide. The rest of the movie reveals in reverse chronology the series of moral compromises, emasculating humiliations, and occasional personal triumphs he has suffered. Many of these relate to the militarization of Korean society in the 1980s (one deploring scene shows the protagonist as a rookie officer peer-pressured into unlawfully torturing a suspect) and the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s (the protagonist loses his job, and his wife divorces him in response). If Forrest Gump exemplifies American optimism and naivete, Candy stands as a testament to the force of social and institutional fatalism.