Meet South Korea's Next Wave of Film Auteurs

Epiphany Films
Kim Bora’s 'House of Hummmingbird' won over 20 awards at international film festivals, including best international narrative feature at Tribeca.

'Parasite' may be getting the awards-season love, but a vibrant new generation of filmmakers is ready to emerge from the shadow of established masters like Bong Joon Ho and Park Chan-wook.

After a Palme d’Or triumph and growing Oscar buzz for Bong Joon Ho’s acclaimed thriller Parasite, South Korean cinema is having the kind of breakthrough year with the mainstream U.S. moviegoer that it hasn’t seen since Park Chan-wook’s now classic thriller Old Boy burst onto the scene in 2003. 

Parasite’s success — and the overdue official recognition from the West it has brought home to Seoul — has been doubly meaningful to the Korean industry, as 2019 also marks the 100-year anniversary of the country’s first feature film, Kim Do-san’s 1919 kino-drama The Righteous Revenge.

"No one could have planned it this way," Bong recently told THR in Seoul. "I don’t think anyone on the jury at Cannes was even aware of the anniversary," he added. "But it has taken on this new special meaning for us."

It’s likely that Parasite’s success — in addition to its critical honors, the film recently raced past the $100 million mark at the worldwide box office — will eventually come to be viewed as the culmination of the "New Korean Cinema," the renaissance of the country’s moviemaking associated with the remarkable crop of directors who came to prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Bong, Park, Lee Chang-dong, Kim Jeewoon, Hong Sang-soo and others.

But Bong insists the Korean industry already has an urgent new task at hand: To overcome his own generation’s success. "I wouldn’t call it a misconception, but directors like Lee Chang-dong, Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon already have quite a big fan base with film lovers in the U.S. I believe if you delve deeper, you will be excited to discover that there are so many more great films in Korea — especially from young talents working in our indie cinema."

He adds: "Of course, it’s [my generation’s] homework now to figure out how to expose these younger filmmakers to an international audience."

Typically, it’s the remit of international film festival programmers to do much of that work. But since South Korea’s many master filmmakers remain healthily in their prime and highly productive — Park is 56 and Bong 50 — the blue-chip European festivals have been able to rely on regular output from the established names to satisfy their unofficial quotas for new Korean filmmaking (Bong, Park and Lee are all Cannes regulars).

"It’s not that the top festivals aren’t interested in discovering new talent," says Darcy Paquet, a Seoul-based film scholar and festival programmer. "Of course, they are,” he says. "But it’s not like they’re going to pass on Parasite either — and that leaves one less spot on the big stage for a new name."

There is one post-New Wave filmmaker, however, who has broken through to present himself as a potential heir apparent: Na Hong-jin, who made his first entry into Cannes' main competition in 2016 with the critically acclaimed psychological-mystery-horror freakout The Wailing. "In my opinion, he’s the most naturally talented director to debut in the past 15 years," says Paquet. (Na also is the first name Bong mentions, referring to his filmmaking as "very exciting, very intense.") Na's first two films — The Chaser and The Yellow Sea — wowed critics with their savage energy and originality. He is now known to be deep in development on his fourth feature, which sources in Seoul tell THR will be his English-language debut.

Other breakthrough talents have found their recognition thanks to the West’s abiding appreciation for Asian genre cinema. After writing and directing several critically lauded animated features (The King of Pigs, 2011; The Fake, 2013), Yeon Sang-ho, 40, made his live-action debut in 2016 with the inventive zombie action flick Train to Busan, which landed a slot in Cannes’ midnight screening section. It earned a massive $81 million at home and later was widely seen overseas, taking $6.1 million in other markets. But Yeon’s follow-up, Psychokinesis (2018) — an original and playful take on the superhero genre — disappointed commercially, earning just $7 million. He is currently in production on a big-budget comeback: a sequel to Train to Busan, titled Peninsular.

Other Korean action thrillers have gotten a boost from top festival programmers, including Byun Sung-hyun’s The Merciless, Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess, Yoon Jong-bin’s The Spy Gone North and Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil. All landed deserved, but narrowly circumscribed, midnight screening spots at Cannes.

"An action thriller with an original twist is something Korea’s commercial industry, of course, does very well," says Paquet. "There are exciting directors working in other modes where Korea also excels [though] — sophisticated art house drama or mellow drama, but with big emotions, for example — and international distributors are showing themselves to be somewhat less adventurous in supporting these kinds of voices." 

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5 South Korean Filmmakers to Watch

Kim Bora

Kim Bora, 35, graduated from Columbia with an MFA in film directing and made her feature debut in 2018 with House of Hummingbird, which THR praised as a "warm, complex and hopeful slice of teen life." The film, which follows an isolated, lonely 14-year-old Korean girl through early 1990s Seoul, was made on a shoestring, but that didn’t prevent it from winning more than 20 awards at festivals and awards shows around the world, including best international narrative feature at Tribeca, which described the film as “an assured debut” that “cements Kim’s place as an upcoming auteur to follow.”

Lee Jong-Eon

Lee Jong-eon, 44, worked as an assistant director for Lee Chang-dong on his acclaimed art house features Secret Sunshine and Poetry. In April, she released Birthday, her first film as a director. Based on Lee’s own volunteer work, the film depicts the ongoing agony experienced by parents and families of the school-age victims of South Korea’s 2014 Sewol ferry disaster. The film made its international premiere at the pioneering Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, where it won rave reviews for its "deliberate and carefully considered drama."

Lim Sun-ae

An Old Lady, the arresting future debut from Lim Sun-ae, 41, was the most buzzed-about title at this year’s Busan International Film Festival. The film centers on an elderly woman who accuses a young male hospital worker of rape. He claims it was consensual, and the film’s troubling interrogations of ageism, sexism and unthinking assumptions start spinning from there. THR summed up the feature as "a quietly affecting feminist statement from a filmmaker to watch."

Lee Kyoung-Mi 

Lee Kyoung-mi, 45, previously worked as an assistant director for Park Chan-wook, who later produced her directorial debut, the wildly irreverent yet underappreciated feminist comedy Crush & Blush (2008). Her accomplished 2016 political thriller The Truth Beneath (this one co-written by Park) also went criminally overlooked on the international festival circuit. Such oversight of Lee’s work appears set to change thanks to a deal she recently signed with Netflix to direct the Korean drama series The School Nurse Files, based on a best-selling Korean novel.

Chung-Hyun Lee

The surprise twist in Chung-Hyun Lee’s 2015 short film Bargain won him so many admirers that South Korean studio Yong Film bankrolled the 29-year-old director to write and helm his debut feature starring Jong-seo Jun, the breakout lead actress of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018). The mystery thriller Call centers on two women living in different time periods who are mysteriously connected by a phone. Early buzz emerging from the production about Jun's performance has made it one of the most anticipated titles of early 2020 in Korean industry circles.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 7 daily issue at the American Film Market.