With the win of Parasite (2019) at the 2020 Academy Awards I thought I would go through and put together a bit of a guide to people confused as to where to start with Korean cinema and who haven’t had the experience of watching it since the early 2000s when it first started taking off at least in the festival circuit internationally.
These are all movies I have seen and would recommend based on your level of knowledge of Korean cinema. I am not really big on the horror genre so there might be some omissions due to me personally not having seen some of the more popular ones in that area.
If you have no knowledge at all of Korean cinema it is worth finding a couple of movies to start off easier so you don’t get confused.
Volcano High (2001)
This one is fun and easy to get into. I first saw it at MIFF one year and ended up going back to see it again before the end of the festival, something which I almost never do (also having a festival passport had something to do with it.) One of my first DVD purchases of a Korean DVD from a time where you could buy legit copies in the CBD. There is a dubbed version and also one done by MTV rappers but yeah nah.
Joint Security Area (2000)
I first saw this at the Forum Theatre upstairs for MIFF and then again in November the same year. The first time I came across Song Kang Ho in a movie and his performance is the best thing about it.
Also started my addiction to Choco Pies but they must have better ones in Korea as all the ones I have had are stale. I grabbed a copy of this from the same DVD store I got Volcano High from to get Park Chan-Wook to sign it at MIFF when he came to do a Q&A for Old Boy.
Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005)
A lovely family friendly story about opposing sides coming together in the midst of a war to work together to save a village. It is funny and sad and does remind me of a Myazaki movie at points.
The Host (2006)
Although people say to see Memories of Murder first or Mother, those two rely on you knowing a bit more about Korea to get something out of them. This has the hook of the environmental angle and military crackdown. It is also a movie about a family having to work together to achieve something and not trusting the government. Some scenes feel like you should not be laughing at them such as the fight the family has at the memorial service but you still do.
Song Kang Ho is so funny and silly here and has great pathos. In one scene he can’t even run away from people chasing him as he is so sad and pathetically covers up a body with a piece of cardboard.
The King and the Clown (2005)
With costumed dramas being so popular in South Korea this is as good a representative of any for those for a wider audience. I don’t think it matters the main couple is LGBTIQ at all, stop being such a big tough guy and just kiss him you fool!
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)
With a large ensemble cast that includes the famous Choi Min-sik this story of two brothers separated by war is one of the biggest Korean war movies ever in terms of box office and they always tend to do well. This isn’t M*A*S*H buddy! Stuff goes down and it is a serious and long movie. I remember seeing it with an intermission at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne along with Joint Security Area (they are doing a Bong Joon Ho retrospective coming up.)
Train to Busan (2016)
If you are only going to watch one Korean zombie movie make it this one. Takes an overdone concept and accelerates it by having the action take place in an enclosed space that could have another story within it from just the high school baseball team trapped in the other carriage. There is a prequel Seoul Station (2016) but it is not really necessary to watch unless you want more background to the initial outbreak. The little girl is the real star of this movie as it is about her journey.
If you have seen a few films from Korea and want to go further into it. I know people think some of these should be the first people should see, but there are reasons not to.
This was the darling of the festival circuit on its’ release. I even bought the Korean version and the soundtrack but its’ impact has dulled somewhat with the likes of the Raid movies and the Night Comes for Us upping the depiction of violence on screen. The fairly average remake did not help matters nor did the Bollywood version Zinda which totally missed the point of it. If you were going to get it these days I would get one of the deluxe releases with all three movies from the trilogy. Park Chan Wook said Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is his favourite even though not as many people like it.
Yellow Sea (2010)
Nice movie, but could use more stabbing. Saw this back to back with the Unjust at MIFF one year and that is a bit too much considering how high the stakes are in that movie to come out and go straight into this one. I actually ended up buying this one as I wanted to see it again.
Memories of Murder (2003)
This one was recommended to me back when people still talked about movies on film forums and not just podcast or podcast discussion groups. Due to the historical setting and cultural differences it does take a bit more to get into but it is worth it. Sang Kang Ho plays a yokel country cop whose methods get results but are not by the book. His city counterpart is all about the correct procedure and trusts in science. I had the Korean special edition at one point which actually shows you who the killer is if you sit through an hour long documentary with no subtitles (may just be the hand model though.)
The Quiet Family (1998)
A fun comedy of errors later remade as Happiness of the Katikuris to much more success. This one is great though and has a lot of recognisable actors hamming it up here.
The Chaser (2008)
A detective story, race against time thriller and serial killer film all in one. The stakes are very high in this one to the point of the main protagonist is ready to take out people who are meant to be helping him to try and find the killer (the scene where he crashes the police van). The little girl is a star there is a hard scene to watch at one point.
Of course you may watch these movies in whatever order you want, but I have warned you and you would not get as much out of them unless you have at least some knowledge of Korean culture beforehand. Notice that I did not say language as I still do not know Korean at all even after 20 years of watching films from South Korea.
So deliciously wicked and I can’t believe that I saw this back to back with the Chaser at MIFF one year. Park Chan Wook directs and Song Kang Ho stars as a vampire priest trying to control his base urges but he is led astray by lust. The lady vampire enjoys her new power it even more and does get her time to shine, which could have been a whole other movie by itself.
A much more personal film from Bong Joon Ho about a mother in a small town who will go to any lengths to prove the innocence of her son after a murder of a local teenager. I do mean any lengths and you will be surprised how far she takes it. This movie and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance also comment on the lack of health care in South Korea.
The live action version of French graphic novel Le Transperceneige has divided audience over its weirdness and hard sci fi setting but I like it. This is also in light of the Bong Joon Ho getting one over Harvey Weinstein who wanted to cut it even more “it was a fucking lie. My father was not a fisherman”. Tilda Swinton has an uncredited cameo in the film and Song Kang Ho features as a drug addicted engineer. Chris Evans is the lead but it is a multinational effort this one. I am interested in seeing how they go with the TV series.
Midnight Ballad for the Ghost Theatre (2006) / The Fox Family (2006)
Finding these was a complete surprise for me as I had never heard of them and there was no English writing on the DVD boxes at all. I had to rely on the staff at the store to even find out if there was subtitles. Some things to require a leap of faith and it was worthwhile for these.
Midnight Ballard for the Ghost Theatre is a Korean take on Rocky Horror Picture show will all new songs and a young girl as the main character. Lots of singing and dancing and a positive outcome.
The Fox Family assumes you know the legend of the foxes who have to eat a human liver to stay in human form. Very strange and out there in parts but well worth it if you can find it.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Park Chan Wook’s version of the novel Fingersmith is transferred to pre-World War II Korea but is quite a trip. I felt like a perv watching it in a cinema and no wonder it sold out both screenings at MIFF plus a bonus session. Not really as accessible as some of his other work but then again this director does not like to repeat himself. I have still not seen his Hollywood effort.
The Wailing (2016)
A supernatural thriller and detective story that actively punishes you for thinking that you “get it”. I did not expect to have any laughs in this at all but there you are. Some of the scenes are quite disturbing and I could not work out my feelings towards it at the time so I never did a proper review.
Very Japanese in the way the Legendary pictures movies are not. People may claim that Godzilla is hardly in those other movies but this movie is mainly meetings. The director’s experience on Neon Genesis Evangelion comes through as the monster is dealt with as if it is a natural disaster and then a military threat with combined arms tactics used.
I didn’t really see enough to do a “worst” part of the list. A lot of these are ones I saw at MIFF but the Raid movies and the Night Comes for Us are from other times and Netflix.
The Raid: Redemption (2011) / The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)
Truly epoch-making action cinema. Even if you do not watch Asian action cinema at all you would have watched something that has been influenced by these two movies. I keep seeing other stunts and fight choreography that has been borrowed from this film. Cecep Arif Rahman in John Wick 3 not being defeated on screen was due to the amount of respect Keanu Reeves had for the actor.
“When they are shooting it is like two dogs fighting over a bone, but as soon as the camera stops it is all smiles and backslaps.” – the director on whether the stars of the movie had a “knock down” clause like the Rock and Jason Statham.
Takes the action of the Raid films and kicks it up one notch further adding more gore and painful to watch violence. The Operator could do her own film easily. Also, when in doubt pop that collar!
The Act of Killing (2012) / The Look of Silence (2014)
When Errol Morris and Werner Herzog decide to jump on board as producers, you know it is something important and it was. At the Q&A for the first documentary I took 19 pages of notes, people asked question in Indonesian.
The second film was actually meant to be made first but was shut down by the army so they went to interview the perpetrators of the violence instead.
The Lost Arcade
The Big Mouth
The Love Witch
Heart of a Dog
Talking Pictures – Jerry Lewis: The King of Comedy
Train to Busan
Based on my first read through of the program without having any limtations for screening times or fitting on an E-Mini Pass added.
Might actually reschedule some of these to see at Cinema Nova after the festival after the festival as a lot of them are screening there.
The Neon Demon
Heart of a Dog
Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World
How Heavy This Hammer
Right Now, Wrong Then
Which Way to the Front?
The Big Mouth
Jerry Lewis: The King of Comedy
The Lovers and the Despot
The Eagle Huntress
The Lost Arcade
Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie
Don’t Bloml: Robert Frank
Notes on Blindness
The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe
Miss Sharon Jones!
The American Epic Sessions
Kubo and the Two Strings
Long Way North
Our Huff and Puff Journey
The Red Turtle
The Love Witch
Train to Busan
When a movie starts with a nuclear explosion you know it not screwing around. Starting in 1946 in the Hiroshima prefecture, men fight each other like dogs for whatever scraps they can find and become the top dog.
There is no real “good guy” in this movie but Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) is the least bad and ends up involved with the Yakuza after standing up for a friend and ending up in prison. There he meets a Yakuza who he becomes friends with who explains it is more a matter of circumstance people end up in crime.
Upon his release he ends up joining the one crime family with his friends and things take off from there. It is kind of pointless to try and talk about all the characters and plot developments as there are so many of them. The box set of the five movies actually came with a chart so you could track where people were in the various families.
The movie also helpfully tells you when a main character dies, which is quite a lot as it turns out. A lot of the time it is for the stupidest reason or so one boss can gain a momentary advantage. This movie does not glamourize Yakuza life as much as try and show you how it really would be. One example would be the finger chopping scene. Nobody knows how to do it and when they present the finger the other boss says “you didn’t need to go to all that trouble!”
A lot of the characters do not act in ways you would expect from this sort of film, such as the crying Yakuza boss or the ex-friend Shozo’s who cries like a little girl when he finds out he is going to be killed. Shozo is pretty much sick of the whole thing by the end and could go either way.
I watched this on the big screen in a festival environment and could not understand why people were laughing at some scenes. I enjoyed it and did not need to laugh at it and it explains a lot of things I have seen in other movies about the Yakuza and even western crime movies.
Even though the other movies in the series are hard to get I would like to try and see them now and see how the rest of the story plays out. Also there is a sequel to the series set years later.
Director: Andrew Leavold
Producers: Daniel Palisa, Andrew Leavold
It says seven years in the making but I know Andrew has been working on it for much longer than that. I remember going to a screening of a double bill of For Yur Height Only and the Impossible Kid (live dub as it was only in French) and I was one of the only people there.
There’s also the whole saga of what happened with Machete Maidens in 2008, but that is for another time.
Weng Weng (Ernesto De La Cruz) appeared in 14 movies and only seven are known to exist at this time. Andrew has six of them and has seen seven. There was a musical that Weng Weng appeared in but they could not get the rights to use it in the documentary, but hopefully they will get to screen it at MIFF in the future.
Andrew has been to the Philippines many times in making the documentary and Daniel Palisa now lives there.
The narrative of the documentary is a detective story where Andrew starts off not even knowing Weng Weng’s real name and through leg work and in some cases good fortune ends up meeting many of the people who worked with Weng Weng including the man who edited all his movies. They could not get to interview the film’s director as one had died and the other is no longer talking to them. You can’t say they did not try, but it reflects badly on that person as the other people interviewed do not have anything good to say about her as Weng Weng was exploited and was still living in the same shack when he died that he was before he even starred in movies.
The sequences with Imdela Marcos were very strange and got a strong reaction in the Phillipines. She seems to be somewhere off in her own world and has no self awareness of how much people hate her. Ferdinand Marcos is still lying in state waiting for a state funeral, it shows an unusual amount of restraint people didn’t just throw him on the garbage dump and set him on fire.
I did like hearing from all the old stuntmen and film makers from around that era as they all have fond memories of working with Weng Weng and are sad that he was treated badly. Werner Herzog even got a mention as one person being interviewed said they showed “Even Dwarves Started Small” to the director of the Weng Weng movies.
While one interviewee said that the Philippines was “cut off” from Asia, I believe the traditional spiritual and cultural beliefs combined with the Roman Catholic religion from Spanish settlement and the USA’s involvement from World War II onwards is what makes the Philippines unique as many of the things in the documentary would not have developed otherwise.
Santo Niño was mentioned in the film and Weng Weng was dressed as him during religious celebrations. During a screening of the documentary right outside Weng Weng’s house one of his neighbours said that Weng Weng cured him as he believed he was the reincarnation of Santo Niño.
The version shown at MIFF was the “festival” cut and there are still special features being completed. The final version will be screened as the Monster Festival in November and will be a three disc set including a soundtrack.
I did like the footage from James Batman and talked to Daniel Palisa after the screening who said they have subtitled the film and hope to screen it. It is still under copyright so they cannot release it. There were a lot of superhero knock offs in Philippines.
Director: Mark Hartley
Featuring: A. Martin Zweiback, Adolfo Quinones, Al Ruban, Alain Jakubowicz, Alan Roderick-Jones, Albert Pyun, Alex Winter, Allen DeBevoise, Andrew Stevens, Avi Lerner, Barbet Schroeder, Bo Derek, Boaz Davidson, Cassandra Peterson, Catherine Mary Stewart, Charles Matthau, Christopher C. Dewey, Christopher Pearce, Cynthia Hargrave, Daniel Loewenthal, Danny Dimbort, David Del Valle, David Engelbach, David Paulsen, David Womark, Diane Franklin, Dolph Lundgren, Edward R. Pressman, Elliott Gould, Franco Nero, Franco Zeffirelli, Frank Yablans, Gary Goddard, Gary Nelson, Gideon Porath, Greydon Clark, Harrison Ellenshaw, James Bruner, Jan Gan Boyd, Jerry Schatzberg, Jim Shooter, John A. Amicarella, John G. Avildsen, John Grover, John Platt, John Thompson, Just Jaeckin, Lance Hool, Laurene Landon, Lucinda Dickey, Luigi Cozzi, Malcolm J. Christopher, Marina Sirtis, Mark Goldblatt, Mark Helfrich, Mark Rosenthal, Martine Beswick, Melody Anderson, Michael Armstrong, Michael Chambers, Michael Dudikoff, Michael Hartman, Mimi Rogers, Molly Ringwald, Oliver Tobias, Olivia d’Abo, Pete Walker, Pieter Jan Brugge, Quentin Falk, Richard Chamberlain, Richard Edlund, Richard Kraft, Rick Nathanson, Robert Forster, Robert Gosnell, Robin Sherwood, Ron Purdie, Roni Ya’ackov, Roy Langsdon, Rusty Lemorande, Sam Firstenberg, Sharon Kahn, Sheldon Lettich, Sheldon Renan, Stephen Tolkin, Sybil Danning, Ted Newsom, Tobe Hooper, Todd Roberts, Tom Luddy, Vernon Messenger, William Sachs, William Stout, Wings Hauser, Yftach Katzur
Tagline: “Would you fuck that monkey?”
Covering the rise and fall of film outsiders Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus from their beginnings making films in Israel through to the bitter end when financial problems saw the end of their studio and the termination of their partnership, this documentary is a wild ride through many highlights and lowlights of their films and the people who worked on them.
It is not a secret that the company released a lot of films that were not regarded as high quality at the time, but the thing is that looking at them today they are still very entertaining and I cheered seeing some of them on the big screen.
Films as product may be the normal thing today, but back then it was seen as tacky to treat films this way and the subject of the films themselves where not treated as seriously back then. There are people these days who watch nothing but cult and action films non ironically and talk seriously about them (shout out to Cult of Muscle podcast), so many of these films now are getting bluray releases or being made available on video on demand for a new audience.
Many of the people who worked on the films did not have that good of a time, I felt sorry for the women who were exploited in particular. This is acknowledged and dealt with in a serious manner and it is good to see their viewpoint on the matter that is not sugar coated or looked back on with rose coloured glasses.
While many of the people interviewed are not huge stars these days, there are lots of fans of the cult movie genre who would appreciate hearing what they have to say and hearing new things about the production of these movies.
Mark Hartley said before the film that is was a tribute to his researcher Rosemary Long that they managed to find one interview subject still alive who everyone thought had died. They had to take a photo and show people so they would believe them. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were approached to be interviewed for the documentary, but instead made their own documentary “The Go Go Boys” which beat this film to release by three months.
This documentary already has a lot of interest from other film fans and is sure to do well touring the festival circuit. I am looking forward to a DVD release and also revisiting some of the films featured in the documentary.
I had to skip out on the question and answer session after the film, but during the introduction Mark Hartley said this would be his last documentary due to now concentrating on making films himself.
Films featured in the documentary (more added as I remember):
Eskimo Limon (1979) [Lemon Popsicle]
Death Wish II (1982)
Death Wish 3 (1985)
Missing in Action (1984)
Invasion U.S.A. (1985)
Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985)
Delta Force, The (1986)
Over the Top (1987)
American Ninja (1985)
Enter the Ninja (1981)
Ninja III: The Domination (1984)
Revenge of the Ninja (1983)
Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1987)
America 3000 (1986)
Exterminator 2 (1984)
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1989)
King Solomon’s Mines (1985)
Apple, The (1980)
Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)
Forbidden Dance, The (1990)
Going Bananas (1987)
Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, The (1980)
Last American Virgin, The (1982)
Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1984)
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Invaders from Mars (1986)
Masters of the Universe (1987)
King Lear (1987)
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981)
Wicked Lady, The (1983)
Mata Hari (1985)
Runaway Train (1985)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The (1986)