'K-Cannes': South Korean entries entice at French film festival

It rides on the global popularity of 'Squid Game' and 'Parasite'

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South Korean movies are making a strong showing at the Cannes Film Festival, riding on a wave of enthusiasm for series such as Squid Game and movies like Parasite, and catering to a taste for sophisticated intrigue and polished action.

“It feels like a golden age for South Korean productions,” said Lee Jung-jae, the actor in Netflix's Squid Game, whose debut as a director, Hunt, has screened out of competition at Cannes.

“And that's just the beginning,” he said.

The Hollywood Reporter called Hunt, which tells the story of two South Korean secret agents who compete with each other to unmask a North Korean mole, a “twisty espionage thriller”, while The Wrap noted an abundance of “double agents, buried secrets and lots of broken arms”.

South Korean actor and director Lee Jung-Jae arrives for the screening of the film 'Decision to Leave' (Heojil Kyolshim) during the 75th Cannes Film Festival. AFP

In the running for the Palme d'Or, meanwhile, is Decision to Leave by director Park Chan-wook, who told AFP his country's turbulent postwar history had shaped the collective personality of South Koreans, and made for interesting film production.

“We went through extreme situations and that has changed our character,” he said. “That goes for both the film-going public and film-makers. We don't have a tranquil or Zen character, we're temperamental and that's reflected in our films and series.”

'Is there a law?'

Decision To Leave tells the story of a detective who, investigating a man's fatal fall from a mountain, comes under the spell of the victim's wife whom he suspects of having caused her husband's death.

Park said the film drew inspiration from the methodical police work contained in the Swedish Martin Beck crime thriller books. “That's what I wanted to represent in a movie,” he said.

The detective story increasingly meshes with the mutual attraction between the main characters, and the resulting tension that is heightened by the constant proximity of death.

“I'm not a romantic, but I'm very interested in the expression of emotions,” Park said.

The film's mesmerising soundtrack includes the Adagio in Mahler's 5th Symphony which was made famous as a soundtrack in the 1971 movie Death In Venice by Luchino Visconti.

“I tried to find other classical pieces that could work, but this piece by Mahler was just ideal,” Park said. “And I thought, is there a law that says only Visconti gets to use this piece? No there isn't, so I went ahead.

“But I knew before coming to Cannes that I'd get asked about it here,” he said, laughing.

'Vengeance justified?'

Park's Cannes entry comes nearly two decades after his Oldboy that won the festival's second-highest prize in 2004 and helped catapult South Korean cinema onto the global stage — years before Parasite, which won both the Palme d'Or and Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

Parasite didn't come out of nowhere, and Oldboy in many ways set things in motion for what came later,” Jason Bechervaise, a professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University, said.

“Is vengeance justified? Is it effective?” he said.

Min-sik Choi in Oldboy. Courtesy Tartan Films

Park has also dabbled in television with the BBC's English-language mini-series The Little Drummer Girl, based on a 1983 spy novel by John le Carre.

South Korea is also the setting for another Palme d'Or entry this year, Broker, directed by Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Broker looks at so-called baby boxes where mothers can anonymously abandon their newborns to avoid the stigma and hardship of being a single mother in a patriarchal society.

The film features a South Korean all-star cast, including actors Song Kang-ho (Parasite), Gang Dong-won (Peninsula) and K-pop megastar Lee Ji-eun.

Kore-eda has defied long-standing tensions between Japan and South Korea to build strong relationships with leading South Korean talent and visiting its Busan International Film Festival in 2019 during a trade war.

His film is one of 21 vying for the Palme d'Or, with the winner to be announced on Saturday.

Scroll through the gallery below to see the best photos from Cannes Film Festival's opening day:

Updated: May 24, 2022, 5:33 AM