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.