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.
I have gone more towards South Korea this decade even though I don’t often get the opportunity to see movies from that country outside of film festivals or special screenings. There is a stated goal from South Korea’s government for them to make quality cinema and spread their culture overseas they want to win all the awards. This is not in any sort of order other than by year.
It only just came out but is pretty much ruling all at this point. If it wins the Academy Award for Best Picture Song Kang-Ho can run around with his underpants on his head and still get roles.
Still don’t know how they are going to follow this up? I would like to see a parallel story following the high school baseball team from the other carriage. You can watch the prequel Seoul Station but it is not really necessary (I saw it on a double bill with this movie.)
More of a disappointment they could not decide if this wants to be an action movie or a historical drama. Everything stops dead when it switches styles. By all accounts Kingdom is everything this movie is not.
OK, this a cheat since it is an Australian director in director but gets special mention due to the director not telling the people from Stop CSG Sydney that she was making a communist propaganda movie. Doubly so since her and the tour guide director criticized at the Q&A the director of the Red Chapel for deceiving their North Korean hosts.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)
If you are a fan of Donnie Yen and martial arts movies I would still recommend this movie, otherwise you might want to wait for “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” that looks a lot better (and it was). http://hkmovies.timchuma.com/returnofchenzhen.htm
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011)
While not essential viewing compared to some of Tsui Hark’s earlier work, it is still a lot better than the super serious historical Chinese epics or all the “Happy Birthday China” movies that seem to be coming out at the moment. http://hkmovies.timchuma.com/flyingswordsdragongate.htm
The Mermaid (2016)
Supposedly the biggest box office of the year in the world, why do I not care about any of the characters or story at all?
Bleeding Steel (2017)
Some of these actors should have just asked if they needed the money this much. I am ashamed to watch it.
L Storm (2018)
Not bad, just adequate, but movies have to do a lot more than just be OK these days. Louis Koo’s hair is indestructible as it even survives getting electrocuted and his suit is always immaculate. https://blog.timchuma.com/2018/08/l-storm-2018/
I did go to it for 11 years in a row until circumstances intervened and I could no longer make it (In 2017 I was not living in Melbourne and in 2018 I had just started a job a week before.) Not too sure about 2019 either as I am going over to the USA during October and will no doubt be broke on my return.
25th – 27th November 2005
Sarah Blasko, That 1 Guy, Sophie Koh, Dave Graney & Clare Moore, Mia Dyson, Tony Joe White, Tides of Welcome Choir
Blues Train – Shannon Bourne & Grant Cummerford / Dave Hogan’s Meltdown, Blackeyed Susans, The Hoodangers, Wagons, Clare Bowditch and the Feeding Set, Sally Ford & The Pachuco Playboys, The Saints, Melbourne Singers of Gospel, The Junes, Joe Dolce, Not Drowning Waving, Jeff Lang
24th – 26th November 2006
Dallas Frasca, Rebecca Barnard, Portentia, Mick Thomas & The Sure Thing, Unconscious Brothers, Anne McCue,
Chris Wilson, Yann Tiersen, Blaze, Jimi Hocking, Little Green Houses, Rose Bygrave, Charcoal Club, Royal Chord, Detonators, Shannon Bourne, Bay of Pigs, Don Walker, Barb Waters & Cyndi Boste, Collard Greens & Gravy, The Models, Neapolitan Croxton Showcase (Sarah Carroll, Dan Warner & Marcel Borrack), Betty Harris, Weddings Parties Anything, Ska Vendors, Sophie Brous Ensemble, Tides of Welcome Community Choir, Kerri Simpson, Andy Baylor, TnT, Suzannah Espie & The Last Word, The Exotics
23rd – 25th November 2007
Chris Wilson & Shane O’Mara, The Basics, AlMacandJack, Antagonize, Girl Vs Ghost, Lil’ Fi, Mia Dyson, Nick Charles, Gotye, Unconscious Brothers, Ross Hannaford, Sweethearts, The Junes, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, Rich Family Band, Lisa Miller, The Leisuremasters, The Rustys, Sambrose Automobile, The Periscopes, Sarah Carroll, Nigel Wearne, Laura Baxter, Sweet Dolores, Steve McEwen and the Yes Men, Sime Nugent, Hank’s Jalopy Demons, Paul Kelly, Bob Log III, Vardos, Mrs Wainright, Tides of Welcome Choir, Bless this House, Bec Willis, Dan Kelly, The Breadmakers
November 28th – 30th 2008
Harry Angus, Unconscious Brothers Spectacular with Rebecca Barnard, Josh Owen, Geoff Achison & Guy Pearce, Vulgargrad with Zulya, Kate Miller-Heidke, Sweet Dolores, The Wilson Pickers, Geoff Achison, Tides of Welcome Choir, Diamond Jim and the Tuff Tones, Fireside Bellows, Sarah Carroll and Andy Baylor, Kerri Simpson, ROOT!, Oh Laura, Tripod, Jeremy Jay, Kaya, Marshall and the Fro, The Bawdies, The Town Bikes, Elana Stone, The Bedroom Philosopher, Jackson Jackson
November 27th – 29th
Tinpan Orange, The Megahorns, Pigram Brothers, Gun Street Girls, Aluka, Alica Merrit, Steve Jones, Charles Jenkins & The Zhivagos, The Junes, Djan Djan, Mal Webb, Stephen McEwan & The Yes Men, The McClymonts, Dan Musil, Organ Boy, Black Market Rhythm Co., Even, Dan Sultan, Tides of Welcome, Grace Barbe, Bertie Blackman, Howl, Peter Combe, Tim Finn
November 26th – 28th
Frank Yamma, Katie Noonan & The Captains, Izzy, Mr Percival, Ashleigh Mannix, The Black Sorrows, Stephen McEwan, Chloe & Anika, Dave Steel & Tiffany Eckhardt, Beau (The Rustys) & Brittney McNeil, Catherine Sanzarro, Victoriana Gaye, Tides of Welcome Choir, Sweet Delores, Sweethearts, The Nymphs, Mary Gauthier, Kate Vigo & the Underground Orchestra, Ray Beadle Band, Quarry Mountain Dead Rats, Blue Shaddy, Gareth Liddiard, Dan Kelly’s Dream Band, The Mercurials, Catherine Britt, Sally Seltmann, The Rustys, The Meanies, Mick Thomas & The Sure Thing
November 25th – 27th 2011
Leah Flanagan, The Widowbirds, President Roots, Puta Madre Brothers, Pseudo Echo, The Herd, The Delta Riggs, Pete Denahy, The Sweethearts, Tides of Welcome choir with Dave Steel, Dead River Deeps, Wagons, The Cruel Sea, Brothers Grimm, Laine Lane, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, Woody Pitney, The Plains, BOOM! BAP! POW!, Kimbra, WHATEM 2 CD Launch with Sarah Carroll, Chris Wilson, Hausfrau, Sophia Katos, Lash78, Dadhouse, Frente, Gypsy & the Cat, Bondi Cigars
23rd – 25th November 2012
Loon Lake, The DC3, Tom Richardson Project, Howlin’ Steam Train, TZU, Baby Animals, Jackson Firebird, DJ Emma Peel, Kira Puru and the Bruise, Bee Gees Tribute Showcase, Cat Sanzaro, Izzy Losi, Lily & King, Sweethearts, The Tiny Giants, Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes, King Cannons, You Am I, Ruby Boots, Tides of Welcome Choir with Tiffany Eckhart, Dave Steel, Chris Wilson and Sarah Carroll, Jordie Lane, Butterfly Boucher, Pinky Beecroft & the White Russians
22rd – 24th November 2013
The Pigs, Russell Morris, Transvaal Diamond Syndicate, Darren Percival, The Owls, The Tiny Giants, The Living End, The Brow Horn Orchestra, Tides of Welcome, Yirrmal and the Yonglu Boys, Hussy Hicks, Sweethearts, Ginger and Tonic, Chris Russell’s Chicken Walk, Andrew Swift and the Rattlesnake Choir, Genevieve Chadwick, Spiderbait, Stompy and the Heat, The Ray Mann Three, Twin Beasts, Papa Pilko and the Bin Rats, Microwave Jenny, Jeff Lang, Dallas Frasca, Underground Lovers, The Basics, Mason Rack Band, King of the North
28th – 30th November 2014
Davidson Brothers, Sweethearts, Hiatus Kaiyote, The Little Stevies, Georgia Rodgers, Skunkhour, Skyscraper Stan and the Commission Flats, The Delta Riggs, Dan Sultan, Áine Tyrrell, Karl S Williams, Charles Jenkins, Marlon Williams, DD Dumbo, WILSN, Murdena, Dyson Stringer Cloher, Emma Swift, The Bombay Royale, Jazzy Jazzper and the DARE OHHS, Jesse Valach & Blues Mountain, Stella Angelico, Tijuana Cartel, The Imprints, Tides of Welcome, Aluka, Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Waifs, Charm of Finches
27th – 29th November 2015
Tinpan Orange, Faux, Georgia Rodgers, Jack Filmore, Louis Baker, Harts, Morgan Bain, 19-Twenty, The Snowdroppers, The California Honeydrops, Sahara Beck, Bellarine VET Music (Righteous Desmond, Evony Dilema, Rachael Hart, Chitra Ridwan, Abby Grace & Erica Lyon, Mild Child), Sweethearts, Mustered Courage, Áine Tyrrell, Benny Walker, All Our Exes Live in Texas, The Tiny Giants, Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine, Tides of Welcome, Ainslie Wills
25th – 27th November 2016
with The Mojo Corner, Jordie Lane and the Sleepers, Liz Stringer, Chitra, Kylie Auldist, Bobby Alu and the Palms, Quarter Street, Alice Ivy, Bellarine VET Music (Hey Mammoth, Gypsy May (Liz Powell), Madeliene Cope & Zack Darkes, Erica Bjornenak, Jess Viola, Nina Denham), Sweethearts, Sarah Carroll and the Left Wing, JAWN, Leah Senior, Sweet Jean, Eilen Jewell, The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer, Peter Garrett and the Alter Egos, Kira Puru, The Run, Geoff Achison & the Souldiggers with Chris Wilson, The Tiny Giants, Hollie Joyce, Tides of Welcome, Reuben Stone, Matt Anderson, Charm of Finches, Snuff Puppets, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals
You would have thought that we’d had enough of these in the first few years of this century. George Bush Junior wanted to have his war with his war with Iraq and he got it, in the aftermath many countries borders changed and it led to the greatest mass migration since World War II.
The Australian government gave up on the Pacific Solution after unrest in the smaller countries of the South Pacific over being used as dumping grounds for unwanted arrivals.
Everyone remembers the old refugee camps in the Australian desert, but thankfully after a change in government the majority of new arrivals were settled in the community. You will have no trouble finding a good Middle Eastern take away in any decent sized town in Australia.
This has continued in Africa and also in the Middle East as a result of the Greater Middle Eastern War of 2003-2008. Eastern Europe also experienced widespread food shortages due to extreme weather conditions beginning with the floods of 2002 and compounded by another massive volcanic eruption in the Philippines that put Mt Pinatubo in the shade for the amount of ash that went into the atmosphere.
Contrary to the rest of the world the situation in Africa has improved compared to the end of the 20th Century. However this is mostly due to the large number of deaths from AIDS and related diseases which have decimated the population. (Some commentators compared its impact to that of the Black Plague in Europe during 1345AD.)
Despite hopes in the first few years of this century of a cure or vaccine AIDS is still as prevalent as ever.
The deaths in the Third World due to AIDS and related diseases have been horrendous and there has also been a resurgence of infections in more developed countries due to complacency. Of course the treatment for AIDS in the first world has improved to the point that it can be effectively managed by courses of drugs so that people can lead relatively normal lives.
Although there were some scaremongers who though Smallpox would make a reappearance, it has remained safely in containment and various governments looked a bit stupid after stockpiling vaccines for their entire populations. (They thought it better to be safe than sorry.)
This was a major concern in the first few years of this century, but its impact has faded since there have been no major attacks in many years apart from the one that the USA will never let anyone forget. (Some media outlets have now banned ‘that’ footage.)
The September 11th Conspiracy theorists have produced many books, lectures, videos, films, websites and so on which everyone is thoroughly sick of.
The attacks on the forces engaged in the Greater Middle Eastern War were mostly the work of suicide bombers, even though the organizations that were meant to be supporting them were no longer in existence.
Science and Technology
The growth of scientific research especially genetic research has been exponential. Most likely it was accelerated by the dire situations in other areas of the world.
Human cloning was meant to have been banned, but about ten years ago a remote research facility was located in South America with many failed ‘experiments’ who were trying to live as best a life as they could – a modern day Leper colony. Some of the former residents of this research station became quite famous and travelled the world lecturing about taking responsibility for scientific research and the effects it can have on society.
The communications market has exploded with mobile phones turning into portable entertainment and communications centres.
Popular trends in mobiles include built in sound systems, mini movie players and multiplayer games. (There have been a few transporter crashes due to this.)
I remember I used to work in a job where I maintained the a website for a company. People eventually got sick of these and implemented digital secretaries on their home severs to answer customer queries. (I need not explain the DigiSec wars of Microsoft vs. AOL.)
Eventually the major movie studios got sick of people downloading movies from unauthorised sources and put in their own ‘pay per download’ services (which where hacked as soon as they were released – you can’t win.)
Hollywood only releases about half a dozen movies a year now, but they are ultra blockbusters with multi-billion dollar budgets and many concurrent interactive plot-lines.
Some studios have bought entire countries and destroyed them in the process of filming the movie. (The countries are rebuilt with the box office proceeds.)
This has backfired however when an attempt to film Armageddon III ended with the death of several million people when the ‘prop’ asteroid they were using actually hit the Earth when someone missed their cue.
The most popular movie at the moment is the Total Immersion Star Wars Saga which has grossed a record box office and is now in its fourth year of continuous top ten download.
Although there are still many old cars around many of them are sitting in garages un-driven due to the high cost of registration as part of the environmental regulations.
Running a ‘gas-guzzler’ is viewed as bad as smoking once was, but the people who can afford it don’t care that much as they have the highways to themselves mostly.
The reason cars aren’t so popular anymore was that there ended up being so many of them that the roads were in an almost permanent state of gridlock and it was quicker in the end to walk where you wanted to go.
Personal transports were also the height of fashion for a few years. They were about ¼ the size of a normal car so you could only fit about 1 other passenger apart from the driver. That didn’t stop people playing ‘sardines’ – the record was about 20 I think, at least
that’s what the accident investigators said.
As most of the highways had less cars on them, the trucks got bigger until the Mega Transports got their own roads for safety after one too many caravans was destroyed by a illegal gene modded ‘stay-awake’ driver.
Due to all the problems planet-side, there has been somewhat limited advances in this area. The former International Space Station has been a luxury hotel for quite a few years with discarded rocket housings providing the extra rooms.
The major movie studios have had their space operations licences suspended until they compensate for their damage to the Earth and the Moon caused by some accidents on set (it should only take the profits from two movies.)
Space is still the domain of the rich and powerful due to the high support costs, but a weekend away in the upper atmosphere has become quite affordable in the past few years.
Mineral exploration in space is a major success story with many precious metals being recovered from passing asteroids, leading to a bit of upset on the markets.
Interplanetary mining is very highly paid, but extremely dangerous and a lonely existence. Some of the first people to mine off-world came from isolated mines in Western
Australia and other Australians are leaders in this field. (One of the first mining colonies in space was called Port Headland.)