South Korean society has been marked by a period of public dissent as its presidential scandal winds on, tension grows over a newly installed American anti-missile system and the tragedy of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster continues to play out.
In this volatile landscape, perhaps in spite of it, the country’s cinema continues to flourish. Hard-hitting genres ranging from action to crime to film noir and thrillers remain at the forefront of South Korean cinema, but they have been joined by a slew of films touching on political and social matters.
Of the 14 Korean films showing at this year’s Far East Film Festival, at least three challenge genre conventions.
Director Na Hyun’s action-drama The Prison revolves around a former policeman sent undercover to expose an inmate who controls both the prison and a powerful crime syndicate. This is Na’s first time directing and the veteran scriptwriter says Korean cinema provides room for the subversion of cinematic tropes.
“I wanted to get over certain conventions and biases that one always has about this kind of prison film,” he says.
“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?”
The human psyche is familiar territory for director Lee Soo-yeon and she delves into it with her new film, Bluebeard.
Bluebeard is a psychological drama about a doctor who gets entangled in an unsolved murder case after a patient under sedation reveals a secret.
Lee’s 2003 horror debut, The Uninvited, is regarded as a modern classic. Like Na, Lee hopes to deliver a new take on the thriller genre with just her second feature film in 14 years.
“Most mainstream Korean thrillers are about detective stories and it’s a genre that we are used to,” says Lee.
“I wanted to focus more on the unconsciousness, rather than a whodunit. I wanted to go beyond the so-called conventional box. We, as humans, often look for truth, although very often the discovery of truth is connected to the notion of relativity.”
The limited scale of the domestic market in South Korea restricts experimentation in new genres, unless there are plans for distribution in other markets, Lee says. She can speak from experience, having spent seven years before making Bluebeard developing a “brutal, erotic fantasy thriller” about mermaids. The project never materialized.
“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,” Lee says.
Seoul-based film critic Darcy Paquet says investors in films are increasingly conservative. “Younger directors simply cannot make any kind of film they want to make these days,” Paquet says.
“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.”
Another choosing to make this leap of faith is up-and-coming director Uhm Tae-hwa, whose second film 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 world where time has been suspended.
For Uhm, who debuted with the low-budget INGtoogi: The Battle of Internet Trolls in 2013, tackling the relatively unexplored fantasy genre for his first commercial feature film is ambitious. The premise of the film is derived from the 2014 ferry disaster.
Uhm says the fantasy genre allows him to express his sensitivities about the calamity metaphorically.
“There have been stories on time before, but I wanted to tell the story in a different way,” he says. “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.”
Uhm, while acknowledging the attention given to time-tested popular film genres in the industry, is positive that more directors will follow in his footsteps.
“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-centered films, you cannot make money,” Uhm says.
“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.”