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[Herald Interview] Christoph Terhechte says Korean cinema ‘still has surprises’

BUSAN -- Christoph Terhechte, the recipient of this year’s Korean Cinema Award, says he’s become “addicted” to the films of auteur Hong Sang-soo.

“It seems like he’s making the same film over and over again, but with beautiful variations, enlarging the picture with every film he makes. You want to see more of his universe,” he tells The Korea Herald in an interview Saturday at the Busan Cinema Center.

Terhechte, who since 2001 has been head of programming for the Berlin International Film Festival’s Forum section, which screens avant-garde, experimental films, is the recipient of this year’s Korean Cinema Award. He is being recognized for introducing numerous Korean features to international audiences through the Berlin fest -- works such as Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and Kim Jee-woon’s “A Tale of Two Sisters.”

The German national who attends BIFF almost every year is an ardent fan of Korean cinema, embracing all its darkness, tragedy and melodrama. 

Christophe Terhechte speaks to The Korea Herald on Saturday at the Busan Cinema Center. (Park Ju-young/The Korea Herald)
Christophe Terhechte speaks to The Korea Herald on Saturday at the Busan Cinema Center. (Park Ju-young/The Korea Herald)

“I enjoy commercial Korean films just as much as the artistic ones. ‘Train to Busan,’ for example,” he says, referring to Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 zombie blockbuster. He also raved over how Jang Hoon’s “Taxi Driver” this year managed to combine the serious historical subject of the Gwangju Democratic Movement with comedy.

“Even the melodrama -- sometimes it can be bordering on the ridiculous to foreigners and it can be hard to take seriously -- but it’s done with a wink, in a way that still moves me.”

Often, South Korean films seem to share a common thread with North Korean films, Terhechte says. “Of course, (North Korean) films are about the sacrifice for society and the communist cause, but the idea behind it that tragedy and good are somehow related seems to be a national trait that transcends borders.”

Despite internal criticism that Korean cinema is losing some of its diversity, Terhechte points out that it has managed to maintain an interesting list of genres and films. “Japanese cinema, for example, used to be just as rich, but it becomes more and more dull. They’re forced to make films that compromise and cater too much to mainstream tastes. But in Korean cinema, you still have surprises.”

BIFF's opening film
BIFF's opening film "Glass Garden" by Shin Su-won (BIFF)

Terhechte recalls discovering Korean cinema for the first time many years ago. “(Korean films) struck me and my colleagues ... as raw, almost aggressive in some way in their means of expression. ... (They were) powerful films not as contained as other Asian cinema.”

Though he says it is too early to talk about prospective invitees to the Forum next year, Terhechte did comment on BIFF’s opening film, Shin Su-won’s “Glass Garden” about a woman studying blood in a secluded forest laboratory. “Films like that, they’re incredibly original.”

Terhechte is excited about the next generation of Korean filmmakers, but also hopes more funding will become available for them.

“The new generation has produced some remarkable results. What’s really missing is a government-led funding system. You get really excited about a director’s debut film, and the next one never comes due to lack of funds.”

By Rumy Doo (