Edited by Hwang Hong Sun
Translated by Kim Hoyeun
Many directors, now called masters, all have their debut films, which is somewhat embarrassing to see nowadays. Taking a first step into the difficult production system and experiencing the burden of making movies for the first time, debut films tend to have flaws. Still, there are some directors whose debut films present high quality, making a big success in the box office and hitting the headlines. For a close example, director Kim Bo Ra received rave reviews as the ‘independent film of the year’ last year with her debut film House of Hummingbird, while director Lee Sang Keun’s debut film EXIT gained huge popularity, attracting 9 million viewers. As such, this article will cover Korean film directors who made a masterpiece in their debut films or those who are still producing good works.
Lee Jung Hyang – Art Museum By The Zoo, 1998
This is the debut film of director Lee Jung Hyang, a graduate from the Korean Film Academy. It depicts the story of Chun Hee, a wedding video photographer, and Chul Soo, who came to spend the last vacation with his lover, end up living together under unavoidable circumstances. With an adorable and lovely acting of actor Shim Eun Ha, different from her previous works, and easy-to-see love story, the movie is still greatly loved even after 20 years. The film’s soundtrack “Synopsis” gained fame after getting inserted as the background music on TV show Love House. Director Lee Jung Hyang also made a hit with The Way Home in 2002, but no news of her next work has been reported since Reason to Live in 2011.
Huh Jin Ho – Christmas In August, 1998
It is the debut film of director Huh Jin Ho, now known as a master of melodrama. Christmas in August depicts the story of Jung Won, who is living a time-limited life, as he meets Da Rim, a parking control officer, while he sorts things out before his death. The film gives a strong impression by capturing the typical melodrama story in forthright manners. Han Suk Kyu’s acting as he calmly organizes his life evokes a mournful feeling, and Shin Eun Ha, who couldn’t find a role that suits her well on a big screen, made a leap forward as an actor through Christmas in August. Heo Jin Ho later displayed outstanding directing prowess in melodrama films, including One Fine Spring Day, A Good Rain Knows, April Snow, and Happiness. More recently, he even received positive reviews in historical works such as The Last Princess and Forbidden Dream.
Yoon Sung Hyun – Bleak Night, 2010
As soon as the film was released in March 2011, it was praised by critics as “discovery of the year, most impressive debut film.” It depicts the man, who questions his son’s sudden suicide, gradually learning the truth after meeting his son’s friends. The film was well-received for its delicate portrayal of the process of three friends being pulled apart from each other by petty bickering and invisible power. Also, actors Lee Je Hoon and Park Jung Min drew much attention for their realistic performances of high school students. Director Yoon Sung Hyun, who showed excellent directing skills in Bleak Night, directed his new film Time To Hunt in about ten years, but its release through Netflix has been put on hold due to overseas distribution dispute.
Lee Soo Jin – Han Gong-ju, 2013
It is the first feature film directed by Lee Soo Jin, who showed keen directing skills in several short films. Based on the true story of the gang rape of a middle school girl by high school students, the story revolves around Gong Ju, who had experienced a terrible incident, returns to her daily life, and overcomes her wound. Chun Woo Hee, who played Han Gong Ju, won the Blue Dragon Film Award for her outstanding performance, which was an unprecedented event where independent film won such award. Even before its official release, news of the film getting invite to overseas film festivals and winning major awards continued. This independent film attracted 220,000 viewers. Director Lee Soo Jin once again worked with actor Chun Woo Hee in her next film Idol, but only received disappointing reviews.
Yoon Ga Eun – The World Of Us, 2015
It is the first feature film directed by Yoon Ga Eun, who swept various film festivals with her short film Sprout. The story takes place as Sun, a loner, meets a transfer student Ji Ah, and becomes friends. The story of people and their relationships are portrayed calmly in the eyes of two children. Child actors Choi Soo In, Seol Hye In, and Kang Min Joon’s unprocessed pure acting makes the audience smile throughout the movie. Some even joked that the movie is the elementary school version of Bleak Night, as it expressed delicate emotions skillfully from the children’s perspective. Director Yoon Ga Eun received favorable reviews once again for presenting realistic yet warm family stories with children as main characters in her next film, The House of Us.
Yang Woo Suk – The Attorney, 2013
Webtoon writer Yang Woo Suk made his debut as a director with The Attorney, the film based on the real story of the lawyer days of Roo Moo Hyun, a former president of South Korea, and “Burim case” of 1981. The film is well-received for pointing out the errors in modern Korean history, which left scars of tragedy and presenting a realistic courtroom scene. Actor Song Kang Ho’s acting in the courtroom scene, where he committed himself body and soul, stands out the most. He delivered passionate performances with heated messages as he lashes out at Kwak Do Won. The Attorney attracted 11.37 million viewers, making director Yang Woo Suk to be the only director who drew more than 10 million viewers for the debut film. Director Yang Woo Suk then directed Steel Rain, starring Jung Woo Sung and Kwak Do Won, based on his webtoon of the same name. He is scheduled to release his new film Summit: Steel Rain with the two actors once again.
Jang Jun Hwan – Save The Green Planet!, 2003
When people think of a masterpiece that faced the bad luck among the Korean films, they will think of Save The Green Plan! directed by Jang Jun Hwan first. Byeong Gu, who believes that the earth is in danger, kidnaps Kang Man Sik, the head of a vicious enterprise, thinking that he is an alien. Unfortunately, it was shunned by the audience for its promotional strategy that did not match the film at the time of the release, but it is now considered a representative film among Korean SF cult films, after it got belatedly reevaluated. In 2013, director Jang Joon Hwan later released his next movie Hwayi: A Monster Boy, and received positive responses. Then in 2017, he released 1987:When the Day Comes.