These 9 Korean Movies Will Help You Overcome That One Inch Barrier

Olivia Ovenden
·4-min read
Photo credit: -
Photo credit: -

From Esquire

The notion that South Korean cinema is having a 'moment' is not quite right. It's more that the rest of the world is finally catching up with the exceptional films coming out of the country, and rewarding them as such.

Last year Bong Joon Ho's Parasite took the top prize at Cannes film festival and later swept the Oscars, the director's speech at the Golden Globes telling viewers: "Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films."

Whether or not Lee Isaac Chung's Minari achieves the same feat at the Oscars next month, Korean cinema is finally getting its due, and there's never been a better time than now to get to know the best of the genre.

The Housemaid (1960)

Far superior to the 2010 remake, this classic from director Kim Ki-young tells the story of a piano composer who hires a housemaid to help his pregnant wife, and ends up inviting in something much darker. The femme fatale story of obsession and lust is an erotic black and white thriller in which the walls of the house seem to close in.

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Oldboy (2003)

The highlight of Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy is a surreal, blood-splattered neo-noir masterpiece which won the top prize at Cannes. Based on the Japanese manga of the same name, the story follows Oh Dae-su, a man imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years without knowing who is holding him there. When he is released he remains trapped in the same darkness and seeks revenge.

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Burning (2018)

A breakout role for Steven Yeun, who has just made history as the first Asian-American actor nominated for best actor at the Oscars, this 2018 movie is adapted from a short story by the masterful Haruki Murakami and directed by Lee Chang-dong. The story is concerned with a dark figure who crosses the path of two friends and raises suspicions, in a tale riddled with unease and male rage bubbling under the surface

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Memories of Murder (2003)

Bong Joon Ho's 2003 film transports you to a small rural province of South Korea and two detectives attempting to understand who is behind the string of women who are being raped and murdered there. Based on the real Hwaseong serial murders of the late Eighties, Joon Ho brings the twists of the case to life in this exacting drama.

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The Handmaiden (2016)

Another gem from Oldboy director Chan-wook Park, The Handmaiden is, without exaggeration, one of the finest films ever made. The plot involves a con man who looks to the advice of a skilled pickpocket in order to cheat and seduce a Japanese woman out of her inheritance. Utterly gripping and beautifully made, you won't be able to get it out of your head.

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Parasite (2020)

The first foreign-language film to win the best picture Oscar, Parasite is a darkly comic story which weaves in ever-weirder directions as its tale of Seoul's haves and have-nots unfurls. If you somehow haven't seen it yet, it's better to go in without knowing anything, but the upstairs-downstairs story of how a rich family and their beautiful house is infiltrated by a poor family scamming them is a hilarious and biting social commentary about greed, wealth inequality, and all the horrors already around us.

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Minari (2021)

Coming from an Asian-American director, produced by A24 and featuring a family living in America, Minari just makes it onto this list because we couldn't stand to leave it out. In it a Korean-American family move to a farm in rural Arkansas from California in the hope that a better life will bloom for them there. Butting up against the clichés of the immigrant experience, director Lee Isaac Chung has the children say their grandma "smells like Korea" and her in turn ridicule them for being dumb Americans. A nuanced and truly moving story about a family chasing and rejecting the American dream all at once.

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Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)

A story told twice, this drama of romance and intrigue from Hong Sang-soo shows two very different outcomes to a fateful encounter between a filmmaker and a painter, with them exploring together Lost in Translation style. While the story feels a little slow at first, by the end it has captured something moving about the randomness of how our lives turn out.

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Okja

Okja is a story about the crisis of overpopulation, the ethics of raising animals for slaughter, the villainous greed of corporations and the ability of childhood innocence to speak truth to power. For the most part, however, it is just the story of a girl's love for her giant pig-hippo friend. Made by Bong Joon Ho for Netflix, and told in a mixture of English and Korean, Okja is a feel-good film that will make you feel very bad too.

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