South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Okja, Snowpiercer) recently received the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival this year for his film Parasite. In fact, ever since the liberal reforms of the 90s, the South Korean Film industry has been consistently producing some of the best works of world cinema. Since a good Korean film is only a hop, skip and a jump away from the mallu heart, let’s celebrate the country’s films.
Here is a list of top 10 must watch films from South Korea!
Memories of Murder (2003) by Bong Joon-ho
The film that put Bong Joon-ho on the map was 2003’s Memories of Murder. It tells the story of three small town detectives who try to catch a serial killer who brutally murders women in a rural district. Loosely based on a true story, it is a classic whodunnit with red herrings and false trails sprinkled throughout. You can see the director’s trademark skill of turning the emotional tone of a scene on its head from comedy to tragic drama on full display here. Based on Korea’s first serial murders in history, Memories of a Murder won much critical and commercial acclaim.
Spring Summer Fall Winter… and Spring (2003) by Kim ki-duk
Perhaps the most universally acclaimed film to come out of South Korea in the past two decades, “Spring Summer..” brought international recognition to prolific director Kim ki-duk. It tells a simple story of a boy who is raised by a Buddhist monk on an isolated floating temple. It follows his life through innocent childhood, brashful youth and into adulthood and old age with the periods likened to changing seasons. It captures some of the best cinematic imagery ever committed to film. Unlike many of his other controversial films “Spring, Summer..” finds the provocative director at his poetic and optimistic best.
Oldboy (2003) by Park Chan-wook
Based on a Japanese manga, Oldboy is director Park Chan-wook’s second entry, and easily the best, in his Vengeance Trilogy of films. It tells the story of a young father on his way home from work who is abducted and held captive in a hotel room for 15 years. He has no knowledge of who or why he’s been put there. When he is finally released, he has 5 days to find his captors and get his revenge. The film does not shy away from gore and there is a spectacular one shot corridor fight sequence to look out for. The film won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
I saw the Devil (2010) by Kim Jee-woon
Nobody gets vengeance the way Koreans do. And I Saw the Devil is a story about absolute vengeance . And much, much more. Directed by Kim Jee-woon, the film follows a Korean Intelligence agent, who sets out to avenge the brutal murder of his fiancée. He finds the murderer, beats him up, puts a GPS tracker on him and then lets him go. What follows is the movie. Choi min sik, who played the lead in Oldboy, plays the psychopathic murderer to horrific perfection in this twisted cat and mouse thriller.
The Host (2006) by Bong Joon-ho
If you’ve caught Okja on Netflix, then I am sure you will love this next entry. The Host is to Korean cinema what Jaws is to Hollywood. Except it’s a whole lot quirkier. Industrial water pollution in the Han river leads to the mutation of a fish. In time, it grows to become a monster the size of a bus. The film follows the plight of a dysfunctional family whose youngest member is abducted by the creature. The family has to band together and outsmart the government baddies, who are trying to cover up the incident with a virus outbreak story, and rescue the girl in time.
Burning (2018) by Lee Chang-dong
Korean cinema is always big on social commentary and Burning, a psychological mystery drama by Lee Chang-dong, is a scathing indictment of the class divide within the country. Based on a short story by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Burning follows the story of an aspiring novelist who runs into an old schoolmate and starts a relationship with her. Through her, he meets a mysterious stranger who tells him of his hobby of ‘burning greenhouses’. Intrigued, our hero begins a journey down a dangerous rabbit hole. Burning was a contender for the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2018 and was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, becoming the first Korean film to make the final shortlist.
The Man from Nowhere (2010) by Lee Jeong-beom
Before John Wick there was The Man from Nowhere, a South Korean action blockbuster. It is about a mysterious man who embarks on a bloody rampage when the only person he could connect with – his neighbour’s daughter – is kidnapped by a human trafficking ring. It is a little melodramatic in places, but totally worth the action.
The Wailing (2003) by Na Hong-jin
By now you know that the Koreans have a penchant for some dark stuff. But in the hands of director Na Hong-jin, darkness dons a shade that’s a whole lot darker. Shamanism is a big part of Korean culture and in his masterful film, The Wailing, he offers you a glimpse into that world. A mysterious sickness starts to appear in a little mountain village following the arrival of a stranger. A policeman investigating the matter is forced to investigate a string of mysterious killings and connect the dots as his daughter too falls victim to the disease. This forms the crux of The Wailing. Offering a thrilling, terrifying, and occasionally even humorous movie experience, the film is anything but predictable. The beautiful visuals and the visceral music transport you to the sleepy mountain village where faith and superstition, rituals and exorcism, good and evil all coexist. There are no jump scares or cheap horror tropes in this one.
The Chaser (2008) by Na Hong-jin
Before The Wailing, Na Hong-jin made his directorial debut with The Chaser. Another masterstroke in genre storytelling, The Chaser is an edge of the seat noir thriller that takes you on an emotional roller coaster. An ex-cop turned pimp who runs an escort service in Seoul starts to lose money as his women go missing. When they all trace back to the same client, he finds himself in a race against time to save one of his employees from a possible serial murderer. Inspired from the case of a real-life Korean serial killer, The Chaser was huge critical and commercial hit.
Mother (2009) by Bong Joon-ho
Another one from Bong Joon-ho to cap off this list (Clearly I’m in love with this director). Mother is about a middle aged woman who tries to find the real culprits behind a murder for which her mentally handicapped son has been wrongly imprisoned for. The film evades easy melodrama that a subject of this nature implies and attempts at something far deeper and more poignant.
That’s our top ten recommendations for your Korean Cinema Binge Fest.
Was it satisfying? Which of your favourites did we miss? Want more lists like these? Let us know in the comments section!