While the latter may have served as a gateway for international audiences to the wonderfully varied catalogue of South Korean films, Korean cinema has been around for years, having produced countless critically-acclaimed films that range from revenge thrillers to poignant dramas.
With Korean filmmakers having been stifled by years of censorship under colonisers and dictatorships, it was only following the Gwangju Uprising in the 1980s that the industry was truly allowed to flourish into the powerhouse that it is today. The Motion Picture Law that had previously limited the number of films permitted to be produced in the region was revised, allowing independent films to be created and making way for a new generation of filmmakers.
It wasn't long until the renaissance drew recognition from abroad, with Kang Soo-yeon winning Best Actress at the 1987 Venice Film festival for The Surrogate Mother. But it was during the Korea’s boom period - the Korean New Wave - of the 2000s that directors like Lee Chang-dong and Park Chan-wook began winning major Western awards, with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) taking the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. In 2012, Kim Ki-duk became the first Korean to win the Venice Film Festival for Pietà, while 2018 saw Lee Chang-dong’s Burning win at the Cannes Film Festival.
Then came comedy thriller Parasite in 2019, when Korean cinema received critical acclaim on an international scale never seen before. Prompting the Western world to wake up to what the Korean film industry has to offer, the movie introduced audiences to film beyond the limits of Hollywood. Director Joon-ho made history with the film, winning prizes first at the Cannes Film Festival and Golden Globes before receiving awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. The movie was the first non-English language film to ever win the award for Best Picture at the Oscars, with these successes marking a major shift in the representation of foreign language films at Western awards shows.
In 2021, Korean-American film Minari (2020) has already won awards at the Sundance Film Festival, Golden Globes and BAFTAs, plus its amassed six Oscar nominations ahead of this year’s ceremony, suggesting that the shift of Western awards shows finally beginning to showcase more international works and in turn Korean movies receiving their due recognition on a global stage is set to stay.
As Bong Joon-ho said at the 2020 Golden Globes, ‘Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.’
With that in mind, read ELLE's take on some of the best Korean movies.
When it comes to Korean movies, Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is an essential watch, being deemed a modern classic by many. Based on a Japanese manga of the same title, Oldboy follows the story of a man who is kidnapped and imprisoned in a windowless hotel room for fifteen years. After years of confinement he is abruptly released, with his captor offering no explanation for his imprisonment, nor his subsequent freedom.
The neo-noir action thriller follows main character Oh Dae-su on his revenge mission as he attempts to uncover his detainer's identity, faced with the looming threat that his new love interest will be killed if he does not successfully find his captor within five days. Featuring now-famous action sequences, a controversial octopi scene and plot twists that will inevitably mess with your head, Oldboy is a quintessential Korean movie.
Having won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Oldboy was praised by Quentin Tarantino. The movie gained particular traction in the US where it was remade ten years later in a tamer version.
Runtime: 1h 56m
Based on Lee Isaac Chung's own childhood, Minari follows the story of a Korean-American family who moves to an Arkansas farm in an attempt to pursue the evasive American dream. Things take a turn with the arrival of their, at times vulgar, Grandmother Soon-ja, but can she help the Yi family find their feet in the world?
The film expertly crafts a narrative that transcends your average feel good film, presenting the struggles of assimilation into an unfamiliar culture and underscoring its key themes with a healthy dose of realism that gives the film a certain level of grit. Minari thoughtfully and delicately delves into the importance of resilience, heritage and family bonds.
Runtime: 2h 28m
A prize winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Burning is Lee Chang-dong's bewitching thriller mystery that depicts how unspoken economic emasculation can breed a burning within us. Based loosely on Haruki Murakami's short story 'Barn Burning', the film sees a young delivery driver Jong-soo cross paths with childhood friend, Jae-mi who asks him to watch her cat while she's away. Upon her return, she introduces him to Ben, a mysterious, wealthy and unsettling acquaintance she made on her trip. Ben proceeds to divulge his peculiar hobby to Jong-soo and a tangled triangle ensues between the characters.
A withering critique of the ingrained economic divisions that define Korean society, the film's themes are not dissimilar to that of Parasite. Laden with powerful symbolism and metaphors, Burning is the type of movie that requires a second watch in order to fully grasp its complexities.
Runtime: 2h 12m
Making for a solid introduction into Korean movies, Parasite is a prime example of Korean New Wave films which often feature an overlap of genres (in this case thriller and black comedy). The movie follows the impoverished Kim family as they slowly but surely infiltrate the affluent Park household by posing as independent experts in their fields of tutoring, housekeeping and chauffeuring.
In addition to its unrivalled balance of suspense and dark humour, what makes this film so internationally loved is the commonality of its key motifs. Though Parasite is set in Seoul, it grapples with the universal societal issues of class division and income inequality.
The Handmaiden, 2016
Runtime: 2h 48m
The Handmaiden is an erotic revenge thriller that tells the story of pickpocket Sookee and a crook who devises an extensive plot to beguile Japanese heiress Hideko into eloping with him, with the intention of stealing her inheritance before locking her away in an asylum.
Sookee is hired as a handmaiden to assist the heiress, with her true role being to sway Hideko into falling victim to her con artist accomplice, who poses as a Japanese Count. While the scheme seems to progress as intended, Sookee and Hideko develop some unplanned emotions for one another along the way, uprooting the original plan.
Rife with black humour and overwrought erotic tension this film, from the director of Oldboy, is another instant classic with no shortage of twists and turns, layers of secrecy and intrigue.
Memories of Murder, 2003
Runtime: 2h 12m
If after Parasite, you're craving more films by Bong Joon-ho, why not revisit his 2003 crime thriller Memories of Murder? The director's second feature film was based in part on the true story of Korea's first serial murders (the Hwaesong serial murders) which at the time of the film's release remained unsolved.
Set in a small Korean province in 1986, Detective Park (played by Parasite's Song Kang-ho) and Detective Seo attempt to trace the rapist and murderer of multiple women by an unknown culprit. Gripping, frustrating and at points satirical, this film sees the blending of the crime genre with desperation and dark comedy. A clear critique of the negligence of officials that allows such crimes to remain unresolved, the film's final scene is particularly haunting.
Runtime: 2h 19m
Korean grandmother Mija suffers through the early stages of Alzheimer's while she searches for a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. Struggling to get to grips with the aftermath of a brutal family crime, Mija finds strength after joining a poetry class. However, her mind's tendency to wander at vital moments often leads to unfortunate situations. Deeply evocative and tender, director Lee Chang-dong expertly renders emotions in Poetry with a wonderfully powerful yet subtle manner.
Exploring tropes of family and mortality, this poignant film gracefully and eloquently depicts feelings that seem inexpressible. A contemplative and heartbreaking watch, Poetry is one for those who enjoy reading between the lines.
A Taxi Driver, 2017
Runtime: 2h 17m
Familiar face Song Kang-ho (Parasite, Memories of Murder) stars in this critically-acclaimed film that follows the story of a cab driver from Seoul who inadvertently becomes entangled in the Gwangju Uprising. A democratic movement that took place in South Korea in 1980, the event was a major historical event for the region and marked a significant political and cultural shift. The film portrays ordinary men stepping up to become heroes under extraordinary circumstances.
Based on the true story of German journalist Jürgen Hinzpeter's interactions with driver Kim Sa-bok, the film also adopts fictional events to fuse entertainment value with powerful significance and sobering honesty.
Runtime: 2h 9m
Another hit film from director Joon-ho, Mother tells the story of a mother and her 28-year-old son, Do-joon, who lead a humble existence in a small town. After a girl is found brutally murdered, Do-joon, who is disabled, is framed and charged with the killing. Now, it's down to his mother to find the true killer.
Heartbreaking, unpredictable and sprinkled with carefully considered comic relief, Mother is a mystery thriller that you need to watch. Revitalising a genre by undermining typical murder mystery stereotypes, the film offers a fresh take on a well-worn plot line.
Right Now, Wrong Then, 2016
Run time: 2h 1m
If you're looking for a less intense, non-thriller Korean movie to watch, then Right Now, Wrong Then is an excellent pick. The thoughtful movie sees a film director cross paths with a young artist and the pair spend the day together talking over sushi and far too much soju. While this first encounter ends on a sour note, the film repeats from the beginning to cut out the first half. In a one-time Groundhog Day scenario, we see every scene played over but from a more optimistic and wishful point of view.
A charming examination of how seemingly small events can trigger very different results, you'll be left feeling blissfully contemplative after watching this.
I Saw The Devil, 2010
Runtime: 2h 23m
This 2010 South Korean action thriller follows a secret agent who pursues revenge after the brutal murder of his fiancée by a psychopathic serial killer. Definitely not one for the faint-hearted, the film follows the two men as they confront each other both psychologically and physically, with tragedy inevitably building through the course of the film.
I Saw The Devil is worth a watch if only for its fiercely bloody, yet insanely innovative cab scene. Mercilessly sadistic, enthralling and haunting, this is one you need to emotionally prepare for.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring, 2003
Run time: 1h 45m
In an isolated floating temple in the Korean wilderness, a young boy is mentored by a Buddhist master. Following the boy as he travels through the seasons of his life from childhood to old age, the young apprentice gets lost along the way, uncovering sexual lust and entering a modern world which he is not adequately prepared for.
After the realisation that he is not able to adapt to this foreign world, things come to a head and he returns to the Buddhist in search of redemption and moral renewal. Solemn yet stirring, this film is a refreshing depiction of humanity, providing tragedy and serenity in equal parts.
Train to Busan, 2016
Run time: 2h 1m
In this Korean thriller, cynical businessman Sok-woo is boarding a train with his daughter Soo-ahn to travel from Seoul to Busan. However, unbeknownst to other passengers, as their train is departing a woman runs inside and chaos ensues. Trapped on a speeding train in the midst of a zombie outbreak, passengers are pitted against one another in a struggle to survive.
Don't be put off by the word 'zombie', as this film offers a new take on the typical, making it an entertaining movie whether you're traditionally a fan of zombie films or not.
An intense watch, while this Korean film is predominantly a thriller it doubles as a commentary on the government's inability to effectively deal with widespread issues.
The Housemaid, 1960
Run time: 1h 51m
Not to be mistaken with its 2010 remake, The Housemaid is a black-and-white South Korean noir thriller. The film was met with great success in Korea upon its release, telling the story of a piano teacher who hires a maid to help his pregnant wife around the house. However, the arrangement soon proves to be much more trouble than they had expected.
From South Korean master Kim Ki-young, the film has themes of class ambition at its core, common in Korean movies. But, The Housemaid weaves theses motifs in as part of a much broader venomous thriller, proving a suffocating and relentless melodrama.
WATCH ON CRITERIONThe Call, 2020
Runtime: 1h 52m
Two women find themselves inexplicably connected by a phone in the same house, 20 years apart. In the chilling mystery thriller, a serial killer risks another woman's life in an effort to change her own fate.
Based on the 2011 British and Puerto Rican film The Caller, this movie is filled to the brim with all the suspense and gore you'd expect. Lee Chung-hyun expertly crafts a morbid tension that carries through the film, concluding with jarring finish.
Hotel By The River, 2018
Runtime: 1h, 36m
Set against a wintry backdrop and filmed in black-and-white, Hotel By The River is a thoughtful exploration by Hong Sang-soo of mortality and love. Convinced he's on the brink of death, a struggling poet invites his sons to visit him at a hotel for a reunion where a newly single woman is also staying with a friend. Feeling ambivalent, the poet finds himself drawn to the women and is compelled to pursue them.
An examination of how people's lives intersect, join and detach, the film captures emotional streams and intimate interactions, allowing these moments to play out, free from overcomplicated and overproduced analysis.
The Wailing, 2016
Runtime: 2h 36m
A Korean horror film that will not disappoint, The Wailing sees a mysterious infection break out following the arrival of a foreigner in Gokseong, a small village in the South Korean mountains. As a serious of unusual illnesses and killings unfold, a policeman finds himself investigating the mystery in a desperate attempt to save his daughter from a similar fate.
Unsettling and enjoyable in equal measure, the film's original blend of horror, black comedy and gore more than justify its 156 minute runtime.
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