It’s hardly surprising that South Korean movies are becoming more popular across the globe. They are lively and intense character driven narratives that can offer the discerning viewer a refreshing change from the formulaic scripts of Hollywood films. South Korean cinema has something for every movie taste – romance, horror, suspense, comedy, fantasy – and in some cases, all of them at the same time. If you’ve never watched a South Korean film, here is my list of movies that I consider “must see” that should give you a better appreciation of the edgy and exciting storytelling of South Korean filmmaking:
In the psychological thriller OldBoy we find the main protagonist, Oh Dae-Su, has been imprisoned for 15 years in a hotel room by someone he doesn’t know, for something he can’t remember and going slowly mad until he is suddenly and inexplicably released, given a suit and some money and sent to begin his quest for the truth and revenge. The movie is based on a Japanese manga but director Park Chan-Wook took it in a totally new direction and succeeds at being at once thrilling and unexpected as well as supremely entertaining. Actor Choi Min-Sik brings an unusual intensity to his role of Dae-su as he uncovers a seemingly endless and often shocking number of twists and turns. One of South Korea’s best films!
Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War
Western movie goers rarely get to see the Korean War depicted from the Korean side of things, although M*A*S*H gave us a brief, oddly humorous, glimpse at the war during its long run but from an American viewpoint. Tae Guk Gi follows the lives of two brothers forced into the conflict for the South. The older wiser brother, Lee Jin-Tae, attempts to earn the freedom of his younger sibling, Lee-Jeon, with acts of bravery, but all he manages to do is fuel the boy’s anger and jealousy towards his older brother. This intensely moving drama doesn’t attempt to decide which side is right or wrong, but rather shows the horrible consequences of war on the ordinary people and families who must live through it. Director Kang Je-Gyu really drives his message home with this one – war is hell, for everyone.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird
Full of despicably wicked characters and wild tales of secret treasures, Manchuria in the 1930’s is a fantastic substitute for the American wild west. In this reimagined version of Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, enter three men in pursuit of a map that, naturally, leads to buried treasure. In the action-adventure tale, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, bounty hunter Park do-Won (the Good) played by Woo-Sung Jung, bandit Park Chang-Yi (The Bad) played by Lee Byun-Hun, and thief Yoon Tae-Goo (The Weird) played by Song Kang-Ho track each other and the treasure unrelentingly across the scorched landscape while they themselves are pursued by Japanese soldiers, other thieves, and anyone else who happens to like being in a good chase film. The action and the stunts are intense – Lee broke his leg and Jung his arm, falling off horses during filming – there’s something to be said for stuntmen. Director Kin Je-Woon refers to the movie as a “kimchi western” but we’ll stick to calling it one hell of a wild ride!
The Host is the best creature movie since Jaws hails from South Korea. After an American military pathologist stationed in Korea dumps over 100 bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, a mutated, twenty-foot amphibian-like creature rises from the polluted Han River in Seoul and eats a bunch of people before snatching a young girl and disappearing to its lair. The rest of the film is concerned with the family of the girl attempting to gather weapons to fight the abomination and rescue her. The movie by Bong Joon-ho manages to deftly balance jokes, scares, and more than a few obvious jabs at the influence of the American government on South Korea, The Host is a satisfying, mish-mash of monster flick, family dramedy, and political satire and is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films – need I say more?
I Saw the Devil
Calling I Saw The Devil “brutal and gory” is an understatement as this one manages to put most of the violent movies of the past decade to shame. A psychopathic serial killer slaughters the fiancé of a secret agent and to avenge her brutal death, the fiancé doesn’t just hunt him down, torture and then kill him; he lets him live so he can hunt him down and torture him over and over again. The sheer power of the film lies in its violence and the actor’s powerful performances – Min-sik Choi is absolutely brilliant as the psychologically deranged killer whose torturous murders makes you despise him and Byung-hun Lee as the protagonist secret agent whose violent pursuit for revenge ends up blurring the line between good and evil. I must warn you, there are a lot of violent scenes where that can be uncomfortable to watch but at the same time you don’t want miss – this is by far the most disturbing movie on the list.
The action-packed film Shiri follows two South Korean government agents, Ryu and Lee, as they hunt down a female super-assassin from (where else?) North Korea. Meanwhile, an elite squad of paramilitary goons from the North has stolen a shipment of CTX, an undetectable liquid explosive of enormous power, and planted it all over the city of Seoul. As their attempts to investigate are foiled one after another, Ryu and Lee begin to suspect that there is a double-agent within their agency and that it could even be one of them. At once stylish and realistic the movie and its action never let up and prove to be a successful marriage of Asian and American-style action movies. Throw in some striking emotional counterpoints to rail against all of the blistering and pulse-pounding action and is it any wonder that this movie beat out Titanic as Korea’s top grossing movie of all time?