The Korean Wave

In lieu of the boom of Korean productions in the past couple of years with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite winning it all in the Academy Awards and global sensation  Squid Game swiftly taking over popular culture, Short Ends has decided to shed new light on the latest wave of Korean storytelling.

House of Hummingbird (2018) Dir. Bora Kim

Kim’s debut film is a beautiful coming-of-age drama taking place during the 1990s in Seoul. It revolves around a 14-year-old girl named Eun-hee who is seeking the meaning of life through adolescence during a historically difficult time in Korea. Neglected by her family, she is trying to make the best out of her teenage youth, finding the path to a brighter future and true love. When we think about Korean cinema, we tend to think mostly about genre cinema such as gangster or horror; this is why House of the Hummingbird feels so refreshing, it breaks ground in a not-so-familiar territory. Watching this with my mother truly made our emotions flourish. It is a touching reminder of what I missed by not having to grow up in Korea, whilst being a reflection of my parents’ upbringing, a tableau-vivant of memories. Everything feels real and genuine because I could see my history represented on screen. Hollywood coming-of-age films are equally moving but there is something missing, something I cannot relate to. In the case of House of the Hummingbird, I feel a more sincere connection to growing up in a Korean household that resonated profoundly with me.

The Man from Nowhere (2010) Dir. Lee Jeong-beom

It is difficult to pinpoint the most vicious Korean film ever, yet The Man from Nowhere is a bonafide contender for the crown. A pawnshop owner goes on a perilous journey to save a little girl who has been kidnapped by drug traffickers and nothing will stand in his way. Jeong-beom masterfully shoots action sequences with adventurous camera movement enticing us through electrifying visuals. What is at its core a compelling story about friendship and loyalty gets elevated through its energetic action. Man from Nowhere is a statement of Korean action films and their commitment to gritty extreme violence. If it hurts, it hurts. Violence is never gratuitous, Jeong-beom’s film bolsters brutal mayhem justified through the characters’ nature and context. Far from framing it as ‘popcorn extravaganza’, action and the ensuing violence play out as a last resort and not a positive characteristic. The hero is removed from the mighty pedestal it is usually put on into the humane plane where every action has its consequences.

The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion (2018) Dir. Park Hoon-jung

Have you ever wanted to see a South Korean filmmaker’s take on the X-Men franchise? Then, The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion is for you! Director Park Hoon-jung, best known for writing the screenplay of Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil, has made an intense and top-notch action thriller with the tone and atmosphere of a gritty comic book origin story. A young girl named Ja-yoon has escaped from a facility where kids have been genetically engineered to have supernatural powers by a sinister government agency. Hunted down by her creator, while also learning more about her mysterious identity, we follow an authentic anti-establishment badass as she navigates her hostile bureaucratic environment. The fact that Hoon-jung’s film does not shy away from exposing hard truths while having a superhero grounded in its national context is unconventional and commendable. 

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) Dir. Jung Bum-shik

South Korean horror is next-level, and Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum proves that fact. A group of six strangers enters the Gonjiam Psychiatric hospital, which is recognized to be one of the most haunted locations in Korea. The film takes its form following the trend of the found-footage sub-genre however Bum-shik smartly frames it within a YouTube live show. The terrifying images and locations are all orchestrated through a social engagement that brings a myriad of layers to the film. Functioning as a reflection of sensationalist  Korean spectacle culture and the creation of online personas, Gonjiam works as a satire as much as a horror flick. The film commits to its absurdity, while still being frightening. It’s bonkers! On the other hand, having seen this feature at Fantasia Film Festival really elevates the experience, making it one of the most enjoyable butt-clenching moments in recent memory. This is honestly one of my favourite quintessential Korean horror films.