Cinematic Seoul

World film - Forget Crouching Tiger and Spirited Away - Asia's best new movies are South Korean

After years of trailing its Far Eastern rivals, South Korean cinema stormed to international recognition in 2004 and 2005. Park Chan-wook's Oldboy took the Cannes Grand Prix in 2004, while Kim Ki-duk - a Korean film-maker better known overseas - won best director accolades at both Berlin (Samaritan Girl) and Venice (3-Iron) in the same year. Korea's home-grown celebration of cinema, the Pusan International Film Festival, is now the largest in Asia, eclipsing its rivals in Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Even Hollywood studios are buying remake rights to recent Korean hits. Universal is working on its own version of Oldboy, while DreamWorks is developing the 2003 chiller A Tale of Two Sisters, originally directed by Kim Ji-woon. Miramax and Warner Bros are also creating remakes of Korean box-office hits. However, such new versions are "unlikely to stimulate much interest in Korea or Korean cinema," says Darcy Paquet, the Korea correspondent for Variety. "It's probably more meaningful to have a Kor-ean film gross $1m in the US than to have a remake gross $100m."

London audiences should therefore be grateful to the Institute of Contemporary Arts for the "Brilliant Korea" season - a chance to see some of that country's most successful films of the past few years, in their original form. The ICA is screening nine films, from 1999's Tell Me Something, considered the "breakthrough" movie of contemporary Korean cinema, to a preview of Lady Vengeance, the third and final instalment in Park Chan-wook's trilogy of revenge dramas that began with Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and continued with Oldboy.

Like a well-plotted thriller, South Kor-ean cinema has been a slow builder. Its present success could not have been predicted as recently as a decade ago. The Japanese occupation, from 1910 to 1945, stifled the fledgling industry, making it barely possible to get it off the ground. The Korean war followed (1950-53), during which period the peninsula tore itself apart. Under successive military rulers, the film industry that grew up in the postwar decades was subject to censorship and what Paquet describes as "a stranglehold in both a creative and industrial sense".

With the early 1990s and liberalisation of the South Korean government and society, cinema blossomed. A film-maker (Lee Chang-dong, a Venice award-winner in 2002 for Oasis) served as minister of culture and tourism until recently, and the industry enjoys generous state backing. A quota system obliges cinemas to show at least 40 per cent domestic output, while the government foots a quarter of the bill for the annual Pusan festival.

But South Korean cinema-goers aren't seeing home-grown films because they have to - unlike their northern counterparts, who sit through unvarying hours of programming glorifying the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.

South Korea's box-office grossings for 2005 show three Korean movies in top place, with Hollywood offerings trailing in at fourth and fifth. Sixth place went to Lady Vengeance - which beat the Tom Cruise blockbuster War of the Worlds into seventh position. "In polls, young Koreans say they prefer movies to rock concerts," says Paquet. "There's a tremendous degree of popular interest in film, and so the industry naturally attracts a lot of talent. You could say cinema is the national art form of Korea."

Films that appeal to this hip, young audience - such as the Vengeance trilogy, which outdoes Quentin Tarantino's similarly themed Kill Bill movies for sheer cinematic verve - have been dubbed "extreme cinema". The "Brilliant Korea" season focuses on this genre: also in the line-up are Phone (Ahn Byeong-ki's variant on the Ring movies) and the gory noirish thriller A Bittersweet Life.

Violence, of a gut-wrenchingly blood-spattering kind, is certainly a hallmark of this new film-making. Yet it differs from its Hollywood counterpart, perhaps due to the Korean peninsula's own dearly bought experience of conflict and up-heaval. "Some Koreans argue that the violence in Hollywood films doesn't 'hurt', and thus it's much easier to justify," says Paquet. "The violence in Korean films tends to be personal, and it hurts, which makes you stop and think about it."

Certainly it doesn't come much more personal than the Vengeance films, whose protagonists are consumed by their des- ire for revenge. However, the "Brilliant Korea" festival also contains unsettling mood pieces - a Vietnam wartime ghost story, R-Point, and a gritty reimagining of Korea's first real-life serial killing investigation, Memories of Murder.

Yet "Brilliant Korea" is, as its organiser, David Cox, says, a partial view of all that's best in contemporary Korean cinema. South Korea produced 85 films last year, and only a fraction of those could be described as "extreme". Not even individual auteurs are easy to categorise: Kim Ki-duk startled fans in 2003 when he produced Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring, a dreamy work which unfolds like a lily in the beautiful setting of a lakeside temple.

"Korean cinema lacks a defined image in the minds of most viewers," says Paquet, which is why some reach for labels such as "extreme". However, "such terms really say nothing about the huge diversity of films being made".

On the evidence of the upcoming season at the ICA, "brilliant" is as appropriate a term as any.

"Brilliant Korea" runs from 20-31 January at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London SW1. For further information, see or call 020 7930 3647

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, We were wrong about Sharon