Korean cinema faced a turning point in the late 90's. In fact, there were already signals of change. Kim Ki-duk signaled this change in Korean cinema with his debut feature "Crocodile" in 1996. But, not until 2000's had these new kinds of Korean cinema been fully recognized. The new directors were more interested in a variety of genre films and became successful in domestic market. Ryoo Seung-wan (in action genre, films: "City of Violence", "The Berlin File"), Bong Joon-ho (thriller & comedy, films: "Memories of Murder", "The Host") and Kim Jee-woon (horror, noir and thriller, films: "I Saw the Devil", "A Bittersweet Life", "A Tale of Two Sisters") proved their abilities to play with styles from various genre and made up the core of the industry. But it was none other than Park Chan-wook ("Oldboy") who led them to the front-line.
Before Park became known internationally, he was also a film critic who showed his passion with written words. When he embraced styles of Hollywood B movies, he received attentions from the world with his films. Fueled by cinephile experiences on films, the film-makers could form a new cinematic discourse and become industry leaders with their active devotion to film genres. Although they were not after genre films directly, genres obviously offered a lot of form to these trends. Throughout the history of films, we can easily notice film genres have been closely connected with the ups and downs of a country's film culture.
Film genres offered the biggest opportunities to ambitious young talents of Korean cinema who could not avoid balancing auteurist achievement with commercial capability. Newcomers to the industry have actively used genre structures, but in twisted, creative way of their own to bring familiar yet unexpected, transgressive pleasures to audience. At first, Bong Joon-ho surprised people by bringing styles of thriller or sci-fi that had barely been attempted in Korean cinema, in the past decades.
With its tagline "rural thriller", "Memories of Murder", Bong's second film based on true events of serial killings in Hwaseong (a twon on the outskirt of Seoul), traces reminiscent of 80's Korea and wrapped around its thriller structure. With "The Host", he also proved that he can achieve the feel of sci-fi genre without expensive visual effects. What matters is the director's true appreciation of the genre, not resources available to him. He showed it is important to infuse genre techniques into local stories, not a mere copy of Hollywood structure. In other words, it is genre merely served as groundwork that allowed him to realize his own artistic vision.
Bong says, "Genre is, simply, one of the codes for attracting audience. It is not satisfying to ride in the bus running strictly on a designated route. Instead, deviating from the path often gives new spectacles and surprising moments of pleasure." Attention to genre films in Korean movie culture was also prompted by various subcultures. New generation of films opened different discussions of Korean films and offered self reflexive perspective on Korean cinema as a whole. "Memories of Murder", "Mother" and "Oldboy" don't rely on concrete recreation of genre conventions. With energy released from tension between them and cultural landscapes, these films deconstruct and reconstruct themselves.
There was also an effort to open a possibility of genre rarely tied in Korean cinema such as Hong-jin's "The Chaser" (2008) and Kim's "I Saw The Devil" (2010), serial killer thrillers that molds unique genre structure with the director's flair for portraying violence. Fueled by the film's success, more thrillers like "Marine Boy", "The Scam" and "Handphone" were released in 2009 and 2010. These thrillers attempt to bring forth the issues of drug or stock market not frequently seen in Korean films and succeeded in getting attention. However, these titles leave a lot to be desired since they count on peculiarity of subject matters too much so that they failed to bring the gist of pleasure from the genre itself.
After more than a decade, Korean genre films still deconstruct themselves to find more breakthroughs. Helmers like Bong or Kim Jee-Woon or Park are still working hard on their projects (Hollywood debuts with "Snowpiercer", "The Last Stand", "Stoker") and feverishly welcomed in international markets. From both artistic and industrial imperatives, Korean cinema says this: there is always a desire for change and for brand new experiences.
Bong Joon--ho Interview
South Korean Cinema : New Wave