The passion around Squid Game, the craze for K-pop, the phenomenon Gangnam Style… For more than a decade, and today more than ever, South Korean cultural productions have been on the rise. Cinema included. And not just a little. Evidenced by the dithyrambic reception given by the press to Burning, a twilight jewel landed in our French theaters in 2018, and produced by one of the most imposing signatures of South Korean cinema, Lee Chang-dong.
With this 6th feature film – the most mysterious, abstract, uncluttered of his filmography – this ex-Minister of Culture had offered an audience often glued, and sometimes hypnotized, a passionate gem whose success is part of a cinematographic tradition. century old. A tradition born under the seal of propaganda, having belatedly given birth to several works honored by the most prestigious awards, and towards which Hollywood is eyeing a little more every day.
Riddle in the land of Korea
Inspired by Murakami’s novel The Burnt Barns, Burning takes us alongside Jongsu, a silent delivery boy aspiring only to become a writer, about whom Lee Chang-dong has confided on several occasions that he recognizes himself. By chance, this character a bit entangled crosses an old comrade. His name is Haemi. A girl all in sensuality, and candor.
Both will love each other. Then the intriguing young woman leaves the country for Africa, the affair of a few weeks. On her return, here she is accompanied by Ben, a sort of Korean Gatsby. Then begins a period of uncertainty where the trio rub shoulders, without Jongsu knowing what relationship his beloved has with this high roller.
Suddenly, Haemi disappears. The film then switches from the romantic register to that of a thriller. Worried, Jongsu leads the investigation. He visits his studio, questions colleagues, questions relatives. White cabbage. In the roadstead, Jongsu turns to Ben. After all, the guy still prides himself on setting greenhouses on fire to kill time. It’s fishy, of course.
At the end of a spinning, Jongsu discovers in his apartment several clues (a watch that belonged to his dear and tender, in particular) which persuade him that the latter could well have played a role in the evaporation of Haemi. Drunk with rage, consumed with worry and devastated by the absence of his lover, Jongsu stabs his rival in a final scene that casts doubt on Ben’s true nature.
Burning is nothing less than the first Korean film to have been short listed for the Oscar for Best Picture, and many attendees at the Cannes Film Festival were already seeing the nugget of Lee Chang-dong (for the third time in the running for this competition) ) win the Palme d’Or. It is finally A family matter, by the Japanese Hirokazu Kore-eda who won the distinction, after consultation with the jury chaired by Cate Blanchett that year.
Another South Korean film, also belonging to the thriller register, will win this Grail the following year: Parasite, by Bong Joon-ho. It must be said that, for several decades, it is in this genre that the majority of the counterparts of the director of Memories of Murder have distinguished themselves on the international scene.
Among the essentials, it is impossible not to mention Old boy of Chan-Wook Park (yes, yes, the famous butchery scene in the corridor, in side tracking …), I met the Devil directed by Kim Jee-Woon or The Chaser, Na Hong-jin’s first feature film.
The emergence of a propaganda cinema
These successes have enabled Korean cinema to find a place in the sun, towards which all eyes are fixed during the annual competitions. But they must not make people forget that they are the heirs of a cinematographic tradition that was born in pain.
In the 1930s, the first Korean talking feature films were systematically developed under the strict control of the Japanese colonial authorities. And not surprisingly, most of it is propaganda in favor of the Japanese army.
Already restricted, film production fell to almost zero between the start of World War II in 1945 and the end of the Korean War in 1953. After decades of colonial repression that had left it bloodless, the industry cinematographic finds a new lease of life thanks to Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea. By exempting the sector from taxation, the statesman is paving the way for a golden age.
The irresistible rise
Genre films appeared, and in 1960 appeared on the big screen what is still considered today as one of the greatest South Korean classics, The Housemaid – a thriller, of course! The 1961 military coup put an abrupt halt to this prosperous period by introducing a quota system. The film industry is falling to its knees. It was not until the 1980s that regulations were relaxed, and Korean films made their way – finally – onto the international scene.
So much so that at the turn of the 2000s, several of them shine in competition. In 2004 Old boy wins the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes, then it’s the turn of Thirst to receive this honor 5 years later. As for Pieta, he won the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. In short, South Korean cinema is reborn from its ashes, and nothing seems to be able to stop its rise. Hollywood has understood that.
For several years, American studios have not hesitated to ride this wave of enthusiasm by buying the rights to its triumphs. Thereby Old boy (still him) was entitled to a US remake in 2013 where the inescapable Josh Brolin played the title role. And unsurprisingly, an American version of the Last Train to Busan is in the boxes.
As for the most awaited novelties made in Corea, Bong Joon-ho concocts a series derived from Parasite on HBO, and has already completed the script for another movie. Prepare the popcorn, South Korea still has something to make us dream of.
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Burning, and South Korean cinema (again) sparked