As South Korean films continue to grow acclaim and snag top awards at prestigious film festivals around the world, it is not a surprise that this year, there are five South Korean films competing and screening at the celebrated Cannes Film Festival, which runs May 17 through 28.
Director Bong Joon-ho, whose films are always layered with social and political commentary, does it again with the film “Okja,” which is in the running for the Palme d’Or, the main film competition of the festival. Like the director’s previous blockbuster hit “The Host,” which brought him international, especially U.S., acclaim, “Okja” follows suit on a monster theme. But this time around, unlike the insidious monster of “The Host,” this creature is a friendly and beloved pet — a “super pig,” to be exact.
Okja, raised lovingly by 10-year-old Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), is taken by a bio food corporation, run by the menacingly, charismatic Miranda (Tilda Swinton), who aims to use Okja to revolutionize the future livestock industry. Mija pairs up with an animal rights activist group and a zoologist (Jake Gyllenhaal) to save her best friend from the clutches of consumerism.
Watch the trailer for the film that received a four-minute standing ovation at the Cannes screening:
Okja will be available to stream via Netflix on June 28, 2017.
2. The Day After
Director Hong Sang-Soo, more famously known within the arthouse film community, will have double the exposure at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “The Day After,” a black-and-white, French New Wave-reminiscent film about a celebrated critic’s affair with his ex-assistant, will also compete for the Palme d’Or. True to his style, “The Day After” is about everyday human relationships, focusing on the male perspective. In this film, as The Hollywood Reporter observes, director Hong studies “male cowardice, indecisiveness and fragility.” The plot of the film gets more complicated as the protagonist Bong-won (Kwon Hae-hyo) strikes up a friendship with his new assistant, Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee).
3. Claire’s Camera
“Claire’s Camera,” a South Korean and French co-production which screened in the special screening portion, is lighter, breezier and cheekier than Hong’s usual fare. The production takes place in Cannes during a big film festival and has its star, French arthouse actress Isabelle Huppert (who previously won two best actress awards at Cannes) quote lines like, “It’s my first time in Cannes,” which drew laughter from critics who knew better than to believe her. The trailer doesn’t give away the plot much, but if you’re in the mood for a lighter, perhaps a meandering kind of flick, check out the trailer. The U.S release for the film is not yet known.
4. The Villainess
“The Villainess”, directed by Jung Byun-gil (who previously won the Best Thriller prize at the Brussels International Film Festival for “Confession of Murder”), will not be competing but premiering in a midnight screening section at the festival. “The Villainess” is “Colombiana” meets “Nikita” — a thriller about revenge and finding peace, a fairly common theme in South Korean cinema. At its center is a kickass female lead, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), who at a young age loses her father and grows up in the crime world trained to be a skilled fighter. After her fiancé is murdered on the night of her honeymoon, Sook-hee goes on a revenge slaughter spree and gets arrested, leading to the government bargaining a deal with her: If she works for the Korean Intelligence Agency for 10 years, they’ll wipe her slate clean. Pregnant and alone, she accepts, finding herself in probably the most unfamiliar situation for a lady of her stature — being courted by her too-good-to-be-true boy-next-door neighbor, and facing the return of her ex-husband.
5. The Merciless
Director Byun Sung-hyun, a relative newcomer with three films under his belt, tackles the gangster thriller genre with “The Merciless,” in a departure from his previous two films (two comedies, one romantic and one hip-hop.) In “The Merciless,” veteran actor Sol Kyung-gu plays Jae-ho, an inmate with ambitions to overthrow the top gangster upon his release and expand his empire. He befriends a young prisoner, Hyun-soo (Im Si-wan), who unbeknownst to Jae-ho is actually an undercover cop. The film so far has been praised by critics for its unpredictability and the charismatic bantering between the two leads. Im, who first started his career as a member of the South Korean boyband ZE:A, has come a long way as an actor. It’s definitely a 180-degree turn from crooning pop songs to playing leads in Korean dramas, to now convincingly playing a tough, potty-mouth gangster. And with the praise “The Merciless” is receiving, screenwriter and director Byun might have found his niche as well.
There you have it: the five South Korean films showing at Cannes. The South Korean film industry has come a long way from its days battling harsh censorship laws and finally seem to have found a voice within the international film community. “Oldboy” was a great precursor for cinephiles to get a taste of what South Korean cinema could offer. And thanks to opportunities set by Thierry Fremaux, the Cannes director who again chose two South Korean films to debut at the out-of-competition midnight screening portion of the festival, these films are able to gain incredible exposure.
Last year’s beneficiaries included Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie thriller “Train to Busan” and Na Hong-jin’s supernatural thriller “The Wailing,” both of which went on to play in select U.S. theaters and received international critical acclaim. The five films mentioned above are all different, covering different themes and genres, so go forth, watch, and enjoy!