The explicit films of South Korean director Im Sang-soo
5 must-watch (and sex-heavy) movies starring your fave actors from 'Minari', 'Parasite', 'Squid Game', 'The Handmaiden' and 'Oldboy'.
Image from A Good Lawyer's Wife courtesy of London Korean Film Festival 2021
Korean filmmaking continues to inspire minds across the globe, with Squid Game the latest sensation to capture the zeitgeist following Parasite, Minari and Oldboy. But for every Netflix hit or Oscars darling, there’s a bad boy operating in the ranks -- and as the three Im Sang-soo features that close the 16th London Korean Film Festival this week make evident, South Korea’s most provocative director is one who continues to demand attention.
Since delivering his directorial debut in 1998, shortly before making an appearance in Bong Joon-ho’s debut film Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000, Im has repeatedly straddled major film festivals and the heights of the South Korean box office, with works starring the country’s most recognisable acting talents. They’ve courted controversy every step of the way, with erotic dramas that utilise explicit sex scenes to express the corrupting influence of money attracting notoriety and top prize nominations at Venice and Cannes. The provocative nature of his work has landed him in court on at least one occasion -- following the release of the satirical historical drama The President’s Last Bang in 2005.
In 2021, he’s reportedly developing his Hollywood debut -- an adaption of the Richard Vine novel Soho Sins, which focuses on a crime that takes place in the seedy underbelly of the art world (rumours have it that Brad Pitt or Hugh Jackman are being eyed for the lead role). But this week, Im’s in London to present two defining works (2003’s A Good Lawyer’s Wife and 2010 Palme d’Or nominee The Housemaid), plus the premiere of his newest film Heaven: To the Land of Happiness. To mark the occasion, here’s a primer on five essential works by the South Korean controversy magnet -- just don’t watch them with your parents.
A Good Lawyer's Wife, 2003
Available in the US via Google Play and YouTube.
Pink, green, purple and blue colour filters ensure that A Good Lawyer’s Wife is visually striking from the outset, but it’s likely the film’s suggestive advertising that got South Korean audiences to flock to the cinemas. The poster depicts the titular “good lawyer’s wife” Moon So-ri (later of Park Chan-wook’s BAFTA-winning film The Handmaiden) sat naked and open-legged on a stool, with only a black, square graphic concealing her modesty. Accordingly, the film became a rousing box office success -- reaching number one in South Korea and competing for the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, too.
Those who flocked to the theatres were exposed to rampant sex, masturbation, and even child murder in this tale concerning a dysfunctional South Korean family who are unable to satisfy one another. It all ends with a climactic fuck in a gym hall between a married woman and a teenage boy -- a shocking spectacle worth seeing on the big screen.
The President's Last Bang, 2005
Available on physical media in the UK and US.
“President Park Chung-hee has ruled Korea for 18 years since his military coup in 1961,” reads the opening exposition of Im’s darkly comic historical satire The President’s Last Bang. “Then, out of the blue, Park Chung-hee is shot dead.”
This event, which took place in 1979, is entirely true. But Im’s depiction of the President as a tyrannical leader with a penchant for boozy banquets, brothels and college students (one of the first images in the film depicts topless young women at a pool party) did not sit well with Seoul Central Court.
Nearly four minutes of footage was excised from the film following a lawsuit from the former ruler’s son — most of which was, in fact, documentary footage depicting protests and demonstrations against the former President. Im’s response was to replace the censored passages with a blank screen in protest — and while the opening credits state that the film is a work of fiction, Im told koreanfilm.org in 2005 that “that is the point of view of my producer, because, as far as I am concerned, this is the truth”.
The film screened in the Directors' Fortnight section at Cannes that year. And while the same events were depicted 15 years later in 2020’s serious-toned The Man Standing Next (starring Squid Game antagonist Lee Byung-hun, in what was South Korea’s official submission to the Academy Awards in 2020), The President’s Last Bang remains the superior take.
The Housemaid, 2010
Available in the UK via the BFI Player, Amazon Prime and Apple TV+, and in the US via Amazon Prime, Google Play and YouTube.
The Housemaid opens in dramatic fashion, with the suicide of a woman in the middle of a busy city intersection. But the plot becomes juicier when affluent, wine-sipping homeowner Hoon (played by Squid Game lead Lee Jung-jae, in a total role reversal) wanders into a bathroom being scrubbed by the servant’s replacement, Eun-yi.
The encounter, which takes place while Hoon’s pregnant wife sits in the room next door, sets the course of events to come — as an affair between young employee and rich, powerful employer leads to dire consequences for Eun-yi. The journey is sordid — with blowjobs on satin sheets and explicit commands amidst pounding flesh marking an unforgiving study of the power dynamics between rich and poor.
The parallels with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite are extensive: both concern a less-privileged person consumed by the lives of the rich — a lavish manor is a dominant central setting — and themes of money and class overwhelm each narrative, in two biting statements on the bourgeoisie. As it happens, The Housemaid is a remake of a classic 1960 Korean film of the same name by Kim Ki-young — whom Bong Joon-ho described as his “mentor” in a 2019 interview with The Playlist.
But while Parasite might be better known today, The Housemaid is no small fry. With a stellar main cast also comprising 2021 Academy Award winner Youn Yuh-jung (Minari) and Jeon Do-yeon (who became the first Korean actress to win the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2007), The Housemaid would compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010 — foreshadowing Parasite’s win in the same competition nine years later.
The Taste of Money, 2012
Available in the US via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+ and Google Play.
Im’s spiritual sequel to The Housemaid was even more salacious — and was his second to be nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or, in 2012. In The Taste of Money, an ultra-wealthy family embroiled in romantic affairs and dodgy business deals are observed languishing about their magnificent home. They sample fine wines in smart suits, enjoy banquets and sex parties, and conspire against each other as adultery and fraud threatens to implode their empire — but it is the less-privileged “help” that ultimately pay the highest price. It’s all captured via a dizzying, voyeuristic camera that makes their decadent lives, frankly, nauseating.
One of the major headlines is that the film features a vivid sex scene involving a 64-year-old Youn Yuh-jung (Minari) — one of Im’s most regular collaborators. The scene leaves little to the imagination — with legs in the air, red satin sheets and cries of “deeper, harder”.
“Sometimes old women want to do it, too,” her character concludes. The Korea Times were much less blasé about the film’s content, describing this cynical work as “nearly pornographic” in 2012.
Heaven: To The Land of Happiness, 2021
Screening on Friday 19 Nov, 19:00 at Picturehouse Central via London Korean Film Festival, with a live Q&A following the film.
The London Korean Film Festival’s Closing Gala is the UK premiere of Im’s latest film. And while Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung returns once again, for her sixth collaboration with the director (this time, she’s scene-stealing as a bedridden crime boss), it’s South Korean powerhouse Choi Min-sik who drives this work.
The iconic Oldboy lead — also known for his intense performance as a depraved serial killer in I Saw The Devil, and as the villainous Mr Jang, opposite Scarlett Johansson, in Lucy — plays a terminally ill escaped convict determined to live what little remains of his life to the full. In tow is a hospital porter played by Park Hae-il (of the Bong Joon-ho films The Host and Memories of Murder) — as the two embark on hedonistic adventure in a stolen hearse.
The film, due to appear at Cannes 2020 before the event was cancelled, has been described as a change of pace for the director; a laid back odd couple drama full of humour and resplendent countryside cinematography. Im will be in London to present the film, and answer audience questions, this Friday, at Picturehouse Central.