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Korean cinematic rise years in the making, says Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae

Meanwhile, this June, Netflix confirmed the second season of Squid Game was in the works.

Korean cinematic rise years in the making, says Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae
Lee Jung-jae/Twitter
  • Team OTTplay

Last Updated: 01.59 AM, Sep 19, 2022


Although blockbusters like Squid Game and Parasite may make it seem simple, Emmy winner Lee Jung-jae claims South Korean cinema spent years learning how to attract previously unheard-of worldwide audiences by telling tales about the violence and competition of contemporary life.

After becoming the first performer from a foreign language to win the Emmy for outstanding actor in a drama with Squid Game, the most-watched Netflix programme ever, Lee spoke to AFP only a few days later. “As a piece of work that is not in English that we're able to bring to the global audience, we're very happy about that.”

In an interview at the Toronto film festival, he remarked, “Even from Korea, everyone was very delighted, and they were giving me congratulatory messages. When I go back there's a lot of interviews and things waiting for me!”

The brutal social satire about misfits and criminals competing for cash in twisted versions of schoolyard games followed in the footsteps of South Korea's Parasite, which two years earlier became the first foreign-language movie to win the best picture at the Oscars.

“For a long time, Korean cinema has been trying to figure out how to connect better with global audiences. Now, as a result of these years-long efforts, we see a lot of high-quality content that has resonated around the world and won critical acclaim.”

A second season of Squid Game, directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is being highly anticipated. Lee has hinted that his character Seong Gi-hun “will be radically different” this time around.

But before then comes Hunt, Lee's directorial movie debut, which earned a prestigious 'gala presentation' premiere this week at the Toronto International Film Festival; relatively rare for an Asian-language film. The twisty Cold-War era spy thriller in which Lee also stars is loosely based on real 1980s political events, including an attempted assassination of South Korea's president and the defection of a North Korean pilot.

Lee said the film shares some themes with Squid Game, including its unflinching depiction of violence, as rival South Korean spies turn against and even torture one another. For instance, it too looks at how an “overly competitive society could lead to people hurting each other.”

Following its initial screening at the Cannes film festival in May, some critics complained the plot was difficult to follow for Western audiences not familiar with Korean politics, so Lee re-cut it to simplify some elements, and revised the subtitles.

But, he emphasised, that the film is less about Korean history and more about “how this violence is happening all around the world globally,” hurting ordinary people.

“This movie is about these two protagonists and whether their principles are righteous. What's most important is, because it's an espionage action-drama, that I just want you to enjoy the film,” he said.

Parasite filmmaker Bong Joon-ho commented about the significance of overcoming “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” when he shocked Hollywood by winning best picture at the Oscars in 2020.

Despite agreeing that South Korea's culture ‘has become widely understood globally’ as the world grows more interconnected; thanks to technology like social media and global streaming, Lee claimed he had not discussed South Korea's newfound global clout with Bong. "It's extremely natural for us since in Korea we watch a lot of content from other nations and all over the world.”

He added, “The world is a lot closer now. Korea's distinctive story is not difficult for foreign audiences to understand. With everyone growing closer to each other, it's not difficult to understand the emotions; whether it's pain or grief; of others, because we live in a world where feelings are shared instantly.”