5 Hidden Crime Gems From The New Wave Of Korean Cinema You Need To See
Are you a fan of crime movies? Do you ever find yourself bemoaning the lack of decent, grown up releases that satisfy that itch these days? Like, you sometimes find yourself wondering: where the hell is mid-90’s/early-2000’s Michael Mann? You can only watch Heat so many times (okay that’s obviously not true, Heat can never be watched out). And what even was Blackhat? Seems awfully frustrating at times, doesn’t it? Occasionally you’ll have a little moan about it, won’t you? ‘Why aren’t there more decent grown up crime movies I can watch?’ you’ll say while gazing wistfully at an artfully crimson sky at dusk, revolver in hand and tattered suit blowing in the shoreside breeze.
Well shut up for a second, turn around, and look to the East, because I got news for you — the South Koreans have got that shit covered.
Grown up, morally complex, visually glorious, twisty-but-not-in-a-cheap-way, and filled with spectacular performances, the Korean New Wave is — like most mini-eras in movies — relatively fluidly defined when it comes to timeframes and the main players, but one thing about it is pretty concrete: these motherfuckers don’t play around. Doubtless you’re familiar with some of their work; after all the beachhead established by Oldboy in the early 2000’s lead to a mini influx of quality Korean imports. That movie’s director, Park Chan-wook, also delivered Thirst; and you watched — and loved — the rest of his Vengeance trilogy too; noted auteur Bong Joon-ho offered up The Host and Mother before switching to English for the mind-blowing, gonzo, Gilliam-esque joyride that was Snowpiercer. And while not all of what made it across could be said to belong to the ‘crime’ genre per se, it was still a pretty rich harvest for those of us looking for a certain fix. But I’m here to tell you there’s so much more out there. Nuggets of slick greatness that may have escaped your attention and which I — crime movie porcine truffle sniffer and your humble servant that I am — have unearthed for you. Lookie here:
A Bittersweet Life (Dalkomhan insaeng), 2005 — dir. Kim Jee-woon
An impossibly cool, Alain Delon-channelling, Lee Byung-hun (I mean just look at the motherfucker up there) plays a high ranking mob enforcer who is charged with killing a cheating mistress and her paramour, but who — on the brink of fulfilling his mission — finds his emotions leading him to disobey an order for the first time. A simple act of mercy and an attempted cover-up reveal divided loyalties and suddenly the loyal soldier finds himself a target of his former boss. Swiftly coming to the conclusion that the best defence is a good offence, he goes on a hell-bent and messy journey of revenge. A neon-drenched neo-noir packed with visceral violence and balletic action scenes, A Bittersweet Life should be watched during a late evening thunderstorm. Let it wreath you in its cool.
The Chaser (Chugyeogja), 2008 — dir. Na Hong-jin
Before anything else you should know that The Chaser is a movie that more than lives up to its name: within it you will find some of the best goddamn foot chases you will ever see on film. The climactic pursuit especially is a thing to behold. Street-level, twisty, and exhausting, it’s a tour de force of spatially aware camera work and pure physical acting.
Lest it sounds like The Chaser is a movie that rests purely on its action set pieces, however, rest assured that director Na Hong-jin has crafted a wholly satisfying and accomplished piece of work. Our ‘hero’ — though not very deserving of that title — is an ex-cop, now pimp, played with a weary and fatalistic aura by Kim Yoon-seok, who comes to suspect that there might be a link between several of his girls having recently gone missing. A chance encounter with a man who he instinctively distrusts leads him down a trail that involves a brutal serial killer, local politics, and frustrating dead ends. Grisly and grim-as-fuck, The Chaser is formally brilliant, with the ticking-clock tension being ratcheted up at times in such a way so as to rival Hitchcock, which — considering the fact that it is the director’s debut — is a little bit batshit insane impressive.
The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae), 2010 — dir. Na Hong-jin
Na Hong-jin’s follow-up to The Chaser is, in a way, another chase flick; but the scale, scope, and flavour of it is worlds apart from his debut. An impoverished ethnic Korean man named Gu-nam, played by Ha Jung-woo, works as a taxi driver in the northeastern Chinese city of Yanji. Crippled by debt he is also haunted by nightmares of his wife — who had left for South Korea some time ago to work and promised to send back money but from whom he has heard nothing since — cheating on him. Seeing an opportunity, a local gangster promises Gu-nam a hefty reward, and opportunity to find his wife, if he takes the relatively short train-and-boat journey to South Korea to kill a businessman for him.
Gu-nam, desperate, obliges. Arriving in South Korea he sets about his lethal task while simultaneously searching for his wife. Before long he begins to see that not everything is as it seems and soon the local police, the South Korean mafia, and the ethnic Korean Chinese mob are all after him.
A relentless and ruthless movie, The Yellow Sea packs every frame with detail and geographical specificity, making you feel like you’re alongside Gu-nam for every step of his doomed mission. Its sense of place is unmatched. The depths to which this movie will take you can sometimes feel like almost too much — and you will need a warm shower afterwards — but it is more than worth it to experience such a taut, ambitious narrative.
New World (Sinsegye), 2013 — dir. Park Hong-jung
Did somebody mention Heat? And did you say you wouldn’t mind seeing another super-slick urban crime opera featuring shifting allegiances and overtones of classical tragedy? Boom. Done. Get yourself a copy of New World, open up a good whisky, and put your feet up and enjoy. Glossy-as-fuck, Park Hong-jung’s movie — shot by frequent Park Chan-wook collaborator Chung Chung-hoon — has everything for fans of the genre. There’s a deep undercover cop, terrified for his life and anxious about his disappearing former identity; a morally dubious, chain-smoking police chief (played by Choi Min-sik!); a violent and ambitious rising mob player; imploding chains of criminal hierarchy; violent reprisals; artfully choreographed brutality; moments of tension thick enough to cut with a knife; and swells of mournful orchestral themes combined with a pulsating kinetic score. There might be a few cracks in its armour due to instances of over-reach, but they are nothing experience-killing. You want a satisfying, ultra-refined crime opera? This is it. Watch it.
Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok), 2003 — dir. Bong Joon-ho
Here’s the thing about Memories of Murder: it’s almost too good. I had to put it at the end of this otherwise chronological list because if I had gushed as much as I’m about to gush over it at the start, you wouldn’t still be reading right now, you’d be finding the nearest towel to wipe all of my raw gush off you.
Sorry about that by the way.
Actually, no I’m not. Memories of Murder is a fucking masterpiece. The name Bong Joon-ho here should be a clue. Quentin Tarantino named it one of his Top 20 favourite movies since 1992, and that’s underselling it. Set in a small town in a South Korea still under military dictatorship in the late 80’s, it concerns the country’s very first serial killer case, and the efforts of the rough-and-ready small-town detectives in trying to solve it with the un-asked for and unwanted help of a much more nuanced detective from Seoul. Primitive technology and even more primitive attitudes to the rights of presumed suspects collide with the big city policeman’s more enlightened approach. Sparks, predictably fly, but Memories of Murder — being a Bong Joon-ho movie and working within very culturally and historically specific lines — manages to extract original material out of a tired premise.
Ensemble and medium shots abound, running on long enough to let us really get to know the characters in the frame, as well as their very real, evolving relationships to each other, as the case at the heart of the story drags on. And drag on it does. It remains, to this day, unsolved. Joon-ho uses this fact, and a beautiful narrative wraparound that I won’t detail here, to imbue the movie with a palpable melancholy that will stay with you long after the credits roll. The miracle of it all — although a believable one to those who are familiar with his work — is how he manages to juggle so many other emotions alongside that. There are several laugh out loud moments in this otherwise bleak and tense movie (one repeated, character-revealing visual gag in particular is never not hilarious); there are stretches of pure fear; and spikes of anger. He evokes all these wildly disparate emotions with perfectly timed and delivered dialogue; with slapstick; with sublimely framed and lit scenes; and with a stunning cast led by his regular collaborator — a never-better Song Kang-ho. I have seen Memories of Murder four or five times now, and I’m still discovering new reasons for loving it. It really is a gem of a movie.
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