The Villainess stars Kim Ok-vin as a martial arts killer.
The Villainess stars Kim Ok-vin as a martial arts killer.

Beyond the gleaming towers of modern hi-tech Seoul, it is the dark past of South Korea’s years of dictatorship, violence and upheaval that have inspired the country’s staggering rise as a cinematic powerhouse.

No fewer than five South Korean movies are showing in the elite selection at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

And Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix creature feature Okja is one of the early favorites for its top prize, the Palme d’Or.

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja stars Tilda Swinton (left) and Ahn Seo-hyun.

But two of the other Korean films in competition are crime and action thrillers typical of the booming “Korean noir” genre.

Films about bloody crimes, gangsters and corruption, often with a political edge, have swept box offices and film awards, winning praise for their gritty renderings of society’s underbelly.

The Villainess follows a female assassin trained to kill from a young age by a crime ring.

She seeks a new life by working for the South Korean government with a license to kill.

The Merciless has two former prison buddies trying to climb the ladder of the gangster world, where lying, cheating, backstabbing and violence are the currency.

“South Korea has such a turbulent modern history riven with violence and political and social upheaval … that may be why we are good at making thrillers like this,” said Jung Byung-gil, director of The Villainess.

“With the military dictatorship that ruled for decades and widespread corruption … reality is a fertile ground for so many interesting stories,” he told AFP.

The Merciless stars Yim Si-wan (left) and Seol Gyeong-gu.

The South has gone through a stunning transformation in recent decades, going from an impoverished backwater after the 1950-53 Korean war to Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Its political history is similarly tumultuous. Before the democratization of the 1990s, military rule from the 1960s to the 1980s saw tens of thousands killed or tortured – all against a backdrop of perennial tension with North Korea.

At the same time, its vibrant entertainment industry has flourished, with its television dramas, movies, pop music and celebrities enjoying loyal followings across the region and beyond.

Raw and real

Jung, 36, made his name with a series of action and thriller films, including Confession of Murder, loosely based on a series of killings of young women in rural Hwaseong in the 1980s.

The serial killer was never found, and his crimes also inspired Bong’s 2003 award winner Memories of Murder, which highlighted the repressive social atmosphere under the army rule of the time.

The Villainess is packed with dramatic fight scenes – Jung studied at a martial arts acting school – involving knives, swords, axes, rifles and handguns.

Anything can be a weapon in The Villainess.

Despite South Korea’s rising stature in world cinema, its directors have limited resources, forcing them to be “more creative and more spontaneous,” Jung told AFP.

“We don’t have huge investment or world-class technology like Hollywood. So we try to create scenes that feel more real, raw and alive than CGI-ridden US blockbusters,” he said.

The style gained global traction with Oldboy, an emblematic mystery thriller by Park Chan-wook – a Cannes judge this year – which won the Cannes Grand Prix in 2004.

Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) stars Choi Min-sik.

The movie, about a man seeking revenge after being imprisoned by a captor for 15 years, won rave reviews for its cut-throat, unrelenting scenes of violence and somber, bleak cinematography.

Many other moviemakers followed suit with their own bloody thrillers.

Life imitating art?

Recent examples of the genre include 2015’s critically acclaimed Inside Man, which detailed cosy and corrupt ties between the elites of Seoul’s business, political, media and criminal worlds.

The King – a recent swashbuckling political drama about corrupt, power-hungry prosecutors – features shamanistic rituals in which powerful political figures pray for the defeat of a presidential candidate.

After it was shot, the real-life corruption scandal that eventually brought down president Park Geun-hye emerged, centered on her secret confidante Choi Soon-sil – the daughter of her shady former mentor, a seven-times-married former shaman himself.

Park was removed from power in March and is now in custody, due to go on trial for corruption as well as abuse of power for ordering a secret blacklist of thousands of artists who voiced criticism of her or her policies.

“One day, someone may be able to make a movie about all the turbulent, painful dramas we went through these past years,” said Bong, one of those on the blacklist.

“Many say South Korean movies are so intense, dynamic and brimming with explosive energy,” he added. “It may be because art mirrors reality.”

Agence France-Presse