As part of our ongoing World Cinema Club, 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 stubby thrillers – owed largely to the spike in distribution from Tartan Asia Extreme, allowing them to piggy-back off the success 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 1990s, along with the cap on foreign cinema, that South Korea saw 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 titles below are available on Amazon DVD and Amazon Instant Video.
1.’The Host’ (2006); Sci-Fi; Director Joon Ho Bong
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 man’s daughter, and the father’s 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 USA.
2. ‘A Bittersweet Life’ (2005); Crime; Director Kim Jee-woon
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, but 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 the trust of 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.
3. ‘Poetry’ (2010); Drama; Director Chang-dong Lee
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 find a better one 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 Disease, while also managing the repercussions of her reckless grandson’s 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.
4. ‘Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood Of War’ (2004); War; Director Je-gyu Kang
‘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 and 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.
5. The ‘Vengeance’ Trilogy (2002-2005); Thriller; Director Chan Wook-Park
Now I’m probably cheating with this entry, since I was asked to select 5 titles, but if it had to be a singular entry it would be ‘Old Boy’ (2003) – and I don’t mean the terrible remake released a couple of years ago by Spike Lee, but the original one. This is the one film 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, who 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 in the trilogy, 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 here, 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 simply working your way through the Thriller genre – as it’s arguably their best export, and I’d say they’re the best at it in the world.
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
So there you have it; no excuses not to get into the wonderful films South Korea has to offer now. This list was compiled by one of our World Cinema experts Mark Blakeway.