London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Ghibliotheque’s Film Korea: a highly enjoyable introduction to the world of Korean cinema

Authors Jake Cunningham and Michael Leader
Jake Cunningham (left) and Michael Leader at the launch of their book

Do you remember what it was like when you first discovered Korean film in all its diversity? For me, it was in about 2000. Christmas in August, Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?, Shiri and Lies were among my first DVD orders: a bewildering array of stuff was available, and I wanted to know more, to be guided to the best directors and their work. What to watch next?

In those days there was Darcy Paquet’s Koreanfilm.org (still of course an essential resource), and his page on the top 10 movies of the 90s was a constant reference point for me, as was his site more generally – particularly the now-defunct discussion forum.

Then, in 2006, came a user-friendly introduction to Korean cinema by Anthony Leong entitled Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong: a collection of reviews of some of the hits (and indeed some of the weaker movies) of the late 90s and early noughties, together with a brief introduction to the history of Korean cinema. That book inspired you to explore further, to see whether you agreed with the scores he attached to each movie.

Cover design for Film KoreaSince then, there have been plenty of books on Korean film – academic texts, monographs on individual directors and overall surveys of the industry1 – but few have matched Leong’s self-published title for its enthusiasm and user-friendliness. Until Film Korea, which was launched at an extremely enjoyable event in the KCCUK last week. It was an evening which took you back to how it felt when you first discovered Korean film.

Authors Michael Leader and Jake Cunningham started their film journey with the Ghibliotheque podcast (2018), since when there have been books on Studio Ghibli and Japanese anime more widely. Now they are broadening their coverage, and Korea is the first country to benefit. Their approach in this book is to survey the whole of South Korea’s film history and to select 30 directors, focusing on one film per director. Each chapter has an introduction to the director and his output by Michael Leader and a review of the chosen movie by Jake Cunningham. Recommendations for further viewing give the authors an opportunity to highlight other movies by the director, thus migitating the understandable decision to focus on only one film each. The earliest movie chosen is The Widow (미망인, Park Nam-ok, 1955) and the most recent brings us up to date with Moving On (남매의 여름밤, Yoon Dan-bi, 2020).

Part of the fun with books such as this is to argue whether the authors have come up with the “right” list of 30 directors, and whether, given the choice of director, they have picked the “right” film to focus on. Personally, I’d have tried to find room for E J-yong (An Affair or Actresses) and Im Sang-soo (A Good Lawyer’s Wife or President’s Last Bang) but then I’d be faced with the question of which ones to ditch if I’m restricted to 30 directors (maybe Waikiki Brothers and Suddenly In The Dark, but it’s a really difficult choice). And for the recent trinity of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Lee Chang-dong you could debate endlessly which movie to focus in on (Leader and Cunningham choose Oldboy, Parasite and Burning but could equally well have chosen any number of others). But really you can’t complain about the list overall, which is an excellent introduction to the world of Korean cinema. You can find a list of all the movies and directors discussed in the book’s listing in LKL’s Korea Book Database.

One point to highlight in comparing Film Korea with the book by Anthony Leong. Back in 2006 there was a director that regularly featured in Tartan’s Asia Extreme catalogue and who had four films reviewed in the earlier book. That director’s career more recently, as Yonhap puts it in a brief obituary, “went into free fall after actresses accused him of sexual and physical abuse while shooting films”. The director is mentioned only in passing in Film Korea, a decision which is probably justified on the grounds of quality of output alone without any consideration of personal conduct. But in the 2022 Sight and Sound poll of the top 100 films of all time six critics voted for his Spring Summer Autumn Winter… and Spring – making it the 4th most voted-for Korean movie in the poll (though nowhere near the top 100 internationally).

In summary, the Ghibliotheque Film Korea is nicely produced, with plenty of photos and movie stills, making it a pleasurable thing to pick up and browse. It is an easy recommendation for someone coming to Korean film for the first time and is also enjoyable for the more seasoned viewer. And the authors’ presentation style at the KCC book launch was relaxed, informed and entertaining, making one want to explore their podcasts.

The Film Korea book launch was at the KCC on 12 October 2023. Update: you can find a recording of the event on the 17 October 2023 edition of the Ghibliotheque podcast

Links:

  1. LKL’s Korea Book Database currently lists 74 books that touch on Korean cinema, excluding in KOFIC titles that focus on individual directors, which we haven’t catalogued yet []

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