As part of the ongoing World Cinema Club over at Jumpcut, I was asked to compile a brief list of my South Korean favourites as if it were being pitched to someone who didn’t know where to begin. More widely known for their violent and stabby thrillers, owed largely to the spike in distribution from Tartan Asia Extreme allowing them to piggy-back off the successes of Japanese horrors, South Korean cinema has much more depth to it than first meets the eye.
South Korean cinema experienced a turbulent history, marred by political conflict and censorship, but it was in the late 1990’s along with the cap on foreign cinema that led to a rise in homegrown talent. As a result, the festival plaudits began to fall into place for a wide variety of films, ticket sales were through the roof, budgets got bigger and despite much opposition from overseas, home audiences were finally able to experience the untapped potential of South Korean cinema.
The films below are not supposed to be a definitive list, but these represent a variety of films divided by genre that I have personally enjoyed the most while continuing to dig deep into the back-catalogue of South Korean cinema.
All of the main titles below are available on Amazon DVD and Amazon Instant video.
At the time of its release, this film was the highest grossing South Korean film of all time and swept up at the prestigious Blue Dragon and Asian film awards. The movie centres around a regular sized Godzilla like sea monster that kidnaps a mans daughter, and his multiple attempts to find where she is and bring her home. It is the perfect blend of horror, thriller and sci-fi, while at the same time maintaining the expected South Korean satirical edge that makes their films so enjoyable taking on anyone from the government, to protesters and even a subtle dig at the US.
Lee Byung-hun is one of the most critically acclaimed actors from South Korea, and I rank A Bittersweet Life as his best work (you might recognise him from GI Joe and Red 2… don’t let that be a reflection of his talent). This film perfectly encapsulates everything I love about South Korean cinema and their representation of gangsters. Stylish, violent, backed with a compelling script and rooted just enough within the realms of plausibility for it to keep you on edge. The story is a simple one; what will a gangster do when the boss he has worked so hard to gain his trust for, asks him to do something that finally poses a moral challenge? Disobey and risk everything, or carry out the act and live with the guilt.
Not all South Korean films have to be about stabbing, monsters and gangsters, and if you want to start with a genuine heartfelt drama, you would be hard-pressed to think of one better than Poetry. Winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2010, this tells the story of a grandmother struggling to come to terms with early Alzheimer’s, while also managing the repercussions of her reckless grandsons actions. Despite the subject matter, it never feels overly sad or intentionally seeking cheap sympathy – it is natural, with fantastic performances, but by no means easy viewing.
“Brotherhood: Taegukgi” shows the horrendous events that took place on the front line during the Korean War. Within this, we are told the story of two brothers from South Korea, Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Gun) and Jin-Seok (Won Bin), both nabbed in the aggressive conscription imposed on them from their government, and sent off to fight a war they wanted nothing to do with. Two incredible performances from the leads, a captivating storyline with action sequences that leave you speechless, this big budget epic by Kang Je-gyu requires no comparisons to others in the War genre. It is ridiculously good, and could stand up against any other war film out there.
Now I’m probably cheating with this entry, since I was asked to select 5, but if it had to be a singular entry it would be Old Boy. Not the terrible remake released a couple of years ago by Spike Lee, but the original one. The one that turned me onto South Korean cinema, about a man played by Min Sik-Choi, trapped in a room for 15 years only to be released and told he must find his captor. This film has so much going for it, it does not give you a moment to rest, culminating with an ending that completely redefined what I thought a film could be, it pulls the rug from under you in such a way that you never really fully recover. The performances, the music, the cinematography, the story… there is not one bad feature about this film for me.
What some may not know (and I say some, because fans of it will) is that it is part of a trilogy by Chan Wook-Park. The stories do not link together, but the theme of revenge runs rampant throughout each tale. Before Old Boy, you had Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a tale of desperation and revenge as a man struggles to find the money to fund a kidney transplant for his sister. Our main character is a deaf-mute, who has lost his job, and with no options left looks to the black market and other darker channels to get the kidney. It is an intense, unpredictable thriller that much like Old Boy, will leave you reeling.
Finally, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The stylish, violent third film in the trilogy, as a woman who believes she was wrongly imprisoned takes revenge on those that put her there, with the help of those she met. Much like the other films, this just oozes class. It is this definitive style that has infected cinephiles and turned the South Korean cinema industry into an attractive international powerhouse. The ability to push the boundaries in such a way that it does not cheapen the overall film itself is a hard thing to execute, and yet more often than not, it is achieved in South Korean cinema. As I’ve hopefully alluded to, there is much more to it than these types of films, but when they are this good, there is no shame in spending your time working your way through their Thriller genre – as it’s arguably their best, and I’d say they’re the best at it.
If you’ve seen this, and want more Thrillers, check out these; The Man From Nowhere, The Yellow Sea, I Saw The Devil, Hide & Seek, Mother, Memories of Murder, The Chaser, The Berlin File, Tale of Two Sisters