Renee Graham's Guide To South Korean Cinema

Dec 16, 2013
Originally published on December 17, 2013 10:35 am

Spike Lee’s remake of the Park Chan-wook movie “Oldboy” has brought more attention to the South Korean film maker.

Here & Now pop culture critic Renee Graham tells host Robin Young that it’s about time — there is a lot of exciting work coming out of South Korea.

“They’re incredibly original — a lot of these directors, they write their own work and they just take chances,” Graham says. “They cross genres, there’s a lot of dark humor, there’s action, there’s incredible sort of emotional violence in these films. I mean, people keep saying they’re violent, but it’s much more an emotional level. I just think they’re fantastic.”

Graham shares a 10 of her favorite Korean films and says Americans will get another look at a Korean filmmaker’s work, when Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” opens next year. She also mentions the 2001 romantic comedy “My Sassy Girl,” directed by Kwak Jae-yong.

Renee Graham’s 10 Favorite Korean Films

  1. Oldboy” directed by Park Chan-wook (2003)
  2. J.S.A.: Joint Security Area” directed by Park Chan-wook (2000)
  3. Memories of Murder” directed by Bong Joon-ho (2003)
  4. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” directed by Park Chan-wook (2005)
  5. A Bittersweet Life” directed by Kim Jee-woon (2005)
  6. Save the Green Planet” directed by Jang Joon-hwan (2003)
  7. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” directed by Park Chan-wook (2002)
  8. The President’s Last Bang” directed by Im Sang-soo (2005)
  9. Oasis” directed by Lee Chang-dong (2002)
  10. The Chaser” directed by Hong-Jin-na (2008)


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit



And we did not know how much of American cinema is shaped by Korean filmmakers. Take Spike Lee's new film "Oldboy." Josh Brolin playing Joe, an alcoholic ad executive. After being kidnapped and locked up for 20 years without any explanation, Joe is looking for vengeance, and not overly trusting of anyone, including a drug clinic worker, Marie, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who's been trying to find out more about him.


JOSH BROLIN: (as Joe Doucett) What if I thought you knew too much, huh? Reading my letters. What if I felt like I needed to kill you right now?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: (as Marie Sebastian) Then I suppose I'd be dead. Joe, please take your hands off me.

YOUNG: Spike Lee's film is actually a remake of Park Chan-wook's 2003 movie, a favorite of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and HERE AND NOW pop culture critic Renee Graham. In fact, Renee is a big fan of a number of Korean filmmakers, and she joins us in the studio with more. Welcome.


YOUNG: So you've been wanting to talk about Korean filmmakers for quite some time, and here comes Spike Lee and gives you the opportunity. What do you like so much about Korean films?

GRAHAM: There's just the most extraordinary energy in these films. You know, you can see influences of Hitchcock or of Scorsese, but they're incredibly original. A lot of these directors, they write their own work and they just take chances. There's all sorts of cross genres. There's a lot of dark humor. There's action. There's incredible sort of emotional violence in these films. I mean, people keep saying they're violent, but it's much more on an emotional level. I just think they're fantastic.

YOUNG: Well, and we mentioned Park Chan-wook. And by the way, let's just dispense with this. In Korean, the surname comes first, so we will be introducing our directors that way, Park Chan-wook. But in English, he's often referred to as Chan-wook Park. But talk about his original "Oldboy."

GRAHAM: Original "Oldboy" came out in 2003, and it was based on a series of Japanese graphic novels. The interesting thing is "Oldboy" is the middle portion of what's called "The Vengeance Trilogy" by Park Chan-wook. The films aren't necessarily connected except by the theme of vengeance, except - unlike American films where vengeance is just about, you know, going out and killing everyone you see, these films are much more about the futility of revenge.

You know, there is violence, but it's much more about the idea that when you go after someone, not just about what you do to them, but what happens to you in the process.

YOUNG: Yeah. OK. Well, I just have to ask you because we're thinking Korea, OK. Korean War, a divided peninsula, North and South - there's a million different film genres in the U.S. with all of our history, but is there something in Korean film that you see that takes us back to their history, that is some working-out of history?

GRAHAM: There's a lot of war films in - that are made in South Korea, and primarily because, you know, people always forget, there's a cease-fire. The war, in a funny way, is still going on. The war was never really ended. So there's always this sense of unease and people being unsettled on the peninsula. And there's lots of films in Korea that deal with, again, the psychological impacts of being part of a country that, first, was occupied by the Japanese for almost 50 years, and then split in half.

YOUNG: Yeah, because I'm thinking of someone locked up for 20 years and they don't know why. Well, that could be a North Korean wandering out after 20 years. Yeah.

GRAHAM: Well, you can draw all sorts of conclusions with these films. And, you know, there's - you can never quite get away from that idea of, you know, having, you know, the DMZ, in this demilitarized zone, and the fact that there's always tension between these two countries, but always the sense that they should also be joined together. And I think that comes up a lot in Korean films.

YOUNG: Well, Americans may have heard of another one from Park Chan-wook, and that's his 2013 English language film, "Stoker," the psychological thriller. It starred Mia Wasikowska as this well-to-do young woman, Matthew Goode as her mysterious uncle who shows up after her father dies in a car accident. Let's just listen to a scene of the two, the niece and the uncle at the dining table.


MIA WASIKOWSKA: (as India Stoker) What do you want from me?

MATTHEW GOODE: (as Charlie Stoker) To be friends.

WASIKOWSKA: (as India Stoker) We don't need to be friends. We're family.


YOUNG: Mull over that one...

GRAHAM: And ain't that the truth, right?

YOUNG: But what does this film say about his filmmaking style?

GRAHAM: You know, it was his first American film, first English language film. I didn't really care for it. It felt very stilted. But then again, he didn't write the film. So I always had the sense that he was kind of a director for hire. He wanted to, you know, kind of get his feet wet in the American film industry. But I think there are far better English-language films that Park Chan-wook is going to make.

YOUNG: So there is a Korean filmmaker making an American or English-language film. We're having the American remake of his Korean film. And there are other films coming.

GRAHAM: Right. And it was just, you know, it was just a matter of time. Hollywood was certainly paying attention to what was being called the Korean Wave, the new wave of Korean films that started in the late '90s to early 2000s. So you're getting these filmmakers, like Park Chan-wook, but also Bong Joon-ho, who is a fantastic filmmaker, who has a film coming up called "Snowpiercer," which is getting lots of great advance buzz.

It should be opening in the U.S. sometime next year. It said a lot to me that when I saw the trailer, what excited me most was seeing Song Kang-ho, who is a Korean film actor, who is the best actor you have never heard of. This guy is fantastic. And he's in a lot of my favorite films.

YOUNG: Well, tell us more. What are some of the films that you'd want to point us to?

GRAHAM: Well, while we're talking about Bong Joon-ho, we should talk about the film that really put him on the map in Korea, a film called "Memories of Murder." And it's sort of loosely based on a series of unsolved murders that happened in South Korea in the 1980s. It's not a serial killer film, though. People are killed, but it's not a serial killer film in a traditional sense. It's much more about why these murders were allowed to persist.

YOUNG: How about the actor you mentioned?

GRAHAM: Song Kang-ho, he's one of the stars in "Memories of Murder." And he plays this sort of small town police detective who is in really over his head with these murders. But again, it's about the murders, but it's about so much more about the politics of South Korea. And that's something I really like about the films. The politics, the ways that people interact with their government are a big part of these films because for years, the films were censored. You couldn't have sympathetic North Korean characters. You couldn't have films that were critical of the government.

You certainly couldn't have films with a lot of sexual content. And so when the filmmakers finally got a chance to do that, it was like they were unleashed. It's kind of like what happened when the Hays Code was lifted in 1960s in America, and suddenly you had all these really provocative films like "Bonnie and Clyde," and all the films that came to 1970s because suddenly, you didn't have to adhere to this ridiculous code. And that's what happened to South Korea. So that's how you started getting these films that could be quite critical of the government now, but also just historically.

YOUNG: Give us some other films. If someone wants to just, you know, on a weekend, make it Korean film-palooza, what should they get?

GRAHAM: Well, you know, we've talked about "Oldboy," we've talked about "Memories of Murder," I would also recommend another Park Chan-wook film called "JSA," which stands for Joint Security Area, which refers to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. It's a military murder mystery, but in that sort of typical Korean way, it's about a lot more than that.

YOUNG: Are there comedies?

GRAHAM: The comedies can be really slapstick and really wacky. There's a film called "My Sassy Girl," you know, which has a lot of physical humor, you know, a lot of that kind of thing. There's also this wonderful film called "Save the Green Planet!", which is about this sort of mentally deranged man who thinks that the world is about to be taken over by aliens.

And again, you think it's one thing and you think it's a comedy, but it's, you know, a lot of Korean comedies, though, are very, very dark. I mean, this is, you know, this is a country that made a film called "The President's Last Bang," you know, a hilarious film about the assassination of Park Chung-hee, who is actually the father of the current Korean president. But it's a satire, it's political satire about the assassination of a real person.

And what's one about it is this is a film that couldn't possibly have been made in South Korean 20 years ago. The filmmaker would've gone to jail for trying to make a film like this. And now you can have that film. Originally, it was cut. It's since been restored to the director's cut. But it's really, really funny. And you don't even need to know a lot about history to appreciate the film.

YOUNG: And who's the director?

GRAHAM: The director is Im Sang-soo.

YOUNG: OK. We'll have his name and the other filmmakers and their films at But can you find them?

GRAHAM: They're a lot easier to find now. When I first started to get into these films 10 years ago, I had to troll on eBay, and I was going through all kinds of foreign film sites trying to find them. You don't have to do that anymore. Now, you can easily find them through streaming and for rental. And that says a lot about how these films have grown popular, that people really wanted to be able to see these films easily. And so they're out there and just - all you do is go and find them.

YOUNG: Have your own Korean film festival at home. Renee Graham, thanks so much.

GRAHAM: You're welcome, Robin.


YOUNG: And Jeremy, this music is from Renee's favorite Korean film, Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy," we've discussed. If she left one out and you have a suggestion, tweet her reneeygraham, R-E-N-E-E-Y-GRAHAM. OK? From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm @hereandnowrobin.


And I'm @jeremyhobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.