I am a pretty dedicated movie buff. Recently, I've been seeing a few Korean movies. My question is this: why do these movies rock so hard? What is it about Korean filmmakers that has them putting out such awesome fare? I realize that anything that actually makes it to the U.S. from Korea has to be pretty decent (hence a skewed sample, perhaps), but I haven't found much of anything here that will rival these interesting movies in many capacities. Is it just that familiarity breeds contempt? What's your take?
Foreign Film Enthusiast
Dear Foreign Film Enthusiast,
The trend of good Korean movies is a really recent one, and there are a few reasons for that. First, Korea finally is rich enough to sustain a movie industry that does not look cheap (as opposed to Bollywood). Also, more Americans (although still not enough) are receptive to watching Asian films because of the success of some Asian movies (most notably Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The growing Asian American community also proabably has something to do with it.
As to actual appeal of the movies, the Korean thinks what you said are all correct. The movies that make it out of Korea are all above-average movies. Also, Korean movie makers tend to employ a different story-telling technique than American film makers, which tend to highlight different aspects of a story. (The influence of Wong Kar-wai has a lot to do with this. Among American directors, Sophia Coppola's style is the closest to Korean story-telling style.)
But make no mistake about it -- Korea produces really shitty movies as well. The worst movie that the Korean has ever seen in a theatre (and the Korean has watched Battlefield Earth in a theater, so this is saying something) was Bi-cheon-mu in Korea, an ill-fated attempt at a blockbuster martial arts movie. The highlight of the movie was Kim Hee-seon, the lead actress, sternly said, "if you kill him, I will die too." The line was not really spoken, but read, as if she had a telepromter in front of her. High comedy.
But the Korean really thinks that the attitudes of "foreign movie buffs" are somewhat unfair. If you look at the imdb.com page for Bicheonmu, you can see that a lot of idiotic people liked what was generally considered the worst Korean movie of the decade (at least worst among the ones that cost a ton of money to make.) The Korean loves foreign films, but he also thinks the achievements of Hollywood deserves to be recognized. The Korean has not yet seen any movie that matches the strength of Godfather, for example. Even recently, the Korean hard pressed to think of another movie, foreign or American, that so sensitively and humourously portrayed family love as Little Miss Sunshine. It's good that your horizons are broader than what are immediately around you, but see the movies for what they are: some movies are going to be fantastic and some movies will really suck, no matter where they are made.
Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.