Film and Television Features

South Korean Thrillers

I pity Hollywood accountants: They live in a town where nothing adds up. A steady supply of ten-pole action movies used to keep studios afloat, but lately the formula isn't yielding the same results. A success like Wonder Woman is now a rare thing, considering the number of weekend hopefuls that have crashed and burned around it. The fun factor is missing in the glut of tired sequels and goosed-up remakes, and it seems the global audience is starting to wise up. In the rush to outdo each other in CGI visuals and violence, a number of Hollywood producers have shunned the basics of storytelling: character behavior and emotion-driven plots. In other words, you won't have empathy if your characters are cyphers. Likewise, a semblance to our daily human experience is needed to put these characters in jeopardy and build suspense. These rules apply to big and small films alike. Consider, for instance, the South Korean film industry, which produces a sizable number of good movies each year. Their artistic quality is usually high due to a talented group of writers and directors. Each film is made for a fraction of the cost of the standard Hollywood release, yet they don't skimp in action and thrills.

Korean film production started in the twenties during the dark days of Japanese occupation. It made some strides in spite of strong censorship from the invaders, but came to a stop during World War II. The end of that war set the stage for more conflict. The aftermath of the Korean War saw the reemergence of film production, with movies that made a significant cultural impact in the fledging South Korean republic. It was a moment of splendor that was quashed in the early sixties by a military dictatorship. A succession of autocratic governments did nothing but preserve the policies of censorship and repression. Democracy brought forth the resurrection of the industry in the nineties with a favorable policy for production that facilitated competition in the international markets. Along with it came a new wave of filmmakers ready to take on the challenge. For instance, Oldboy, directed by Park Chan-wook, won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. The movers and shakers took notice. Suddenly, South Korean directors were being sought after by Western producers. One notable case is Bong Joon-ho, director of The Host (2007), who has become an international director with releases such as Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017).

Film distribution for South Korean films depends on mass-market factors. Cities with large Asian communities like Los Angeles have plenty of venues for S. Korean films, which is not the case in my corner of the world. However, any decent streaming service will have a number of recent Korean titles. If you're looking for riveting suspense, I strongly recommend you search for A Hard Day (2014), written and directed by Kim Seong-hun. The plot centers around Ko Gun-su, a corrupt detective who's having the worst day of his life. During his mother's funeral, he learns that his detective unit is under investigation for taking bribes. Driving to the station, he runs over a man, which doubles the jeopardy he was already in. Ko returns to the funeral parlor, where he hides the body of his victim in his mother's casket, but there's a witness to the accident, a blackmailer who stalks him. Ko seeks out the identity of the stranger while the internal affairs unit closes in on him. Unlike many Hollywood productions, there's a fully-fledged main character that isn't lost in the action. Ko's resilience is central to the plot, which combines mystery, action, and black comedy. Director Kim Seong-hun's deft handling of drama and irony is at his best in Tunnel (2016), a survival story about a man trapped in his car under tons of concrete. Kim takes some hard jabs at Korean society, examining the stages of media frenzy around the event and the greed of politicians and contractors, who are more concerned about the cost of the rescue than the worth of a man's life.

The Age of Shadows (2016) is a spy thriller set during the Japanese occupation. The plot is about a Korean police captain, Lee Jung-chool (Son Kan-ho), whose loyalty to the Japanese government is tested when he's ordered the infiltrate the Korean resistance. His intel points him to Kim Woo-jin (Gong-yoo), a resistance leader posing as an antiques trader. Both men know the identity of the other, but they are playing long-game strategies. Here's where director Kim Jee-woon starts to peels the layers of his characters. The captain's motivation is to further his career by exposing the freedom fighters who are smuggling explosives into the country, but the resistance leader has a higher card. He appeals to Lee's patriotic feelings to persuade him to switch sides. Torn between self-interest and nagging patriotism, the unscrupulous captain Lee becomes an unlikely ally, but his actions will keep us guessing which side he's actually on until the end of the film. This sweeping epic has stunning visuals and memorable set pieces, like the exhilarating chase across rooftops that opens the film.

The Mayor is a recent release that straddles the genres of political drama and suspense thriller. Its theme is the thirst for power, represented by Byeon Jong-gu (Choi Min-sik), who's running for a third term as mayor of Seoul. Mayor Byeon employs every mean at his disposal to destroy his opponent and keep his secrets hidden, crime being no object. He demands absolute loyalty from his aides, who share the spoils of his graft. Director Park In-je draws strong performances from his cast, including Kwak Do-won as a venomous campaign manager and Shim Eun-kyung as a conflicted advertisement specialist, both in too deep to remain unscathed.

These S. Korean films have morally complex characters that transcend the tropes of formula plots. However, their writers and directors are just observing the basics of plotting that have been around since the early days of film history. They work with the understanding that internal conflict is as essential to the plot as any antagonist. Horror films like Train to Busan and The Wailing, both released in 2016, have character-driven plots, so this principle is applied consistently, regardless of genre. In contrast, there's a tendency in Hollywood to hire an army of writers to work on scripts. This too-many-cooks approach results in ponderous, barely coherent movies that are quickly forgotten. Though the Hollywood system is functioning at full throttle now, the signs of stagnation are evident. Producers should take stock and change their profligate ways before the bubble bursts. They have much to learn from their Korean counterparts. If they adhere to the basics of storytelling, they'll produce better movies and stay profitable. With luck, they'll keep their swimming pools heated and their accountants will rest easier.