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I recently lived in South Korea for two and a half years. When I left I had developed a love for two things: K-Pop and Korean cinema. The love of K-Pop waned somewhat (not entirely, Big Bang are still my jam) but the love of the cinema remained.
My enjoyment of Korean cinema is based upon the fact that the Korean movies I have watched and enjoyed have shared two main characteristics, confidence and unpredictability. I feel like Korean directors are more willing to test their audience and zig when we expect a zag, making for a movie experience that keeps you on your toes and the edge of your seat.
My love of cinema, Korean or otherwise, is based upon a love of talking about films and sharing experiences. With that in mind, I present my choice of five excellent Korean movies to get you started on your own little Korean movie obsession (and probably an obsession with the actor Song Kang-ho who stars in five of the eight movies discussed below.)
The Host (Dir: Bong Joon-ho)
The Host is a monster movie done right. The plot follows a loser shop owner played by Song Kang-ho who, along with his dysfunctional family, is searching for his daughter who has been taken by a creature that emerged from the Han River.
The lovable losers at the center of the plot are well-drawn and likable even when they’re bickering or being completely useless in the face of danger. Bong Joon-ho manages to avoid the usual monster movie tropes and is able to make a plot which should be cookie-cutter predictable, still have some truly shocking moments.
If you only choose to watch one film on this list I would wholeheartedly advise this one. It is easily accessible, enjoyable, and a nice starter to whet your appetite for more.
Thirst (Dir: Park Chan-wook)
Song Kang-ho plays a devout Catholic priest who, after contracting a disease, makes a full recovery following a blood transfusion. It is only later that he realizes he has been saved with the blood of a vampire, and that if he does not consume the blood of others his disease will return.
At times scary, gory, funny, sexy, and horrifying, Thirst is unlike any vampire movie I’ve seen. Park Chan-wook manages to merge gore and comedy seamlessly, resulting in scenes like Song’s priest lying on the floor beneath a hospital bed with an IV pipe in his mouth, noisily sucking the blood from a coma patient like a child drinking a very thick milkshake.
Thirst is not for the faint of heart with its graphic sex and violence, but it is also not going to be like any other movie in the contemporary Western/Hollywood vampire obsession.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay (Dir: Park Chan-wook)
I was fooled by the DVD art for this one. The box has a picture of the female lead flying and looking dreamily into the eyes of the male lead, played by super pop star Rain. I dismissed this from the start as a cheesy romantic comedy in the same way I would if it was a Western film and the cover showed Zooey Deschanel flying into the arms of Justin Timberlake.
But I was wrong. So very, very wrong.
Yes, it’s a romantic comedy, but it’s a rom-com about mental illness that steers into some of the darker elements of the subject matter instead of avoiding them entirely. The movie was very enjoyable and refreshing because it takes broad comedy and mixes it with very dark themes. This mix of comedy and serious drama is something Korean films do very well. The closest analogue I can think of, in terms of Western film, would be Life is Beautiful, in that even though there are dark elements to this film, at its heart it is a sweet romantic comedy. Park Chan-wook also directed the Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) and Thirst. It would be like David Fincher directing Seven and Fight Club before directing 500 Days of Summer.
Secret Reunion (Dir: Jang Hun)
Secret Reunion is the movie that I don’t think has as much of an international reputation or release as the other films on this list, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was living in Korea when it was released, I think it would have passed me by entirely.
This is an odd couple movie about a North Korean spy, Kang Dong-won, and a South Korean spy, Song Kang-ho. In an effort to win back favor with their superiors after both being dismissed by their agencies, they find themselves living and working together while spying on each other, each one sure that the other does not know their true identity.
There are some obvious plot beats in this film but it also throws out some nice curve-balls and keeps you guessing right to the end. This is another example of a Korean filmmaker taking a serious topic (in this case the plight of people with families trapped in North Korea) and being able to present it in an approachable, humorous way, while still respecting the subject matter.
The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (Dir: Kim Jee-woon)
My favorite film is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, so when this film was released while I lived in Korea it was like the skies opened, light beamed down, and all I could hear was that ‘aaaahhhhhhh’ sound that accompanies miracles. In all honesty, the remake is not a patch on the original, but it is still a fun movie with some very well executed set pieces.
The Weird, played by Song Kang-ho, steals the show (à la Eli Wallach) from the handsomely bland Good (Jung Woo-sung) and the moustache twirling Bad (Lee Byung-hun), and also provides the lion’s share of the movie’s comedic moments.
The movie’s action is frenetic and cartoonish, and two of the sequences – The Good swinging around a market on a rope shooting people and the final chase, in which The Weird is chased by The Good, The Bad, a group of Manchurian gangsters and the Japanese army – are that awesome combination of breathtaking and laugh out loud funny.
If you want an easier gateway into Korean films, there are Korean filmmakers who are making films in America, giving you Korean sensibilities and recognizable actors.
Snowpiercer (Dir: Bong Joon-ho) is a fantastic piece of surreal sci-fi. There are moments in this film (the sushi scene, the school scene, the tunnel/axe attack) that I doubt the average Western filmmaker would be brave or creative enough to put into their movie, for fear of alienating their viewers. The movie also stars Song Kang-ho, which for me makes it a must-watch.
Stoker (Dir: Park Chan-wook) is a very strange film populated with creepy, cold characters, murder, sexually charged piano duets, and pencil stabbings. It is a hard to recommend as I haven’t quite worked out how to fit it into a genre or explain the plot, but maybe that’s recommendation enough.
The Last Stand (Dir: Kim Jee-Woon) is an entertaining post-governor Arnie piece of popcorn action. It is a refreshingly R-rated action movie with some funny parts and cool scenes that shows that Kim Jee-woon has a good eye for a bit of cartoon craziness. This is the least essential film on this list unless you’ve just ordered a pizza, found four beers in the fridge, and want something to watch while you stuff your face and get a buzz on.