I’ve been a fan of Korean cinema for a long time. Ever since I saw Oldboy, I’ve been adamant in trying to watch as many Korean films as I can. There is something about their culture that allows them to take film into unexpected places that really dig deep into the heart of humanity. The films are bold, disturbing and tap into a level of darkness that is genuinely affecting. Once you’ve seen a couple, you’ll know that Korean cinema offers no easy answers and instead opts to not only complicate things, but also deliver consistently depressing endings. However, the experience itself is thrilling — it’s emotionally charged as well as visually striking. It delivers something distinctive and goes to great length to latch into your mind and never let go.
These are the films that will serve as a great introduction to Korean cinema and hopefully will turn you into a fan:
10. 'I Saw The Devil'
Let’s kick the list off with our first tale of revenge. When secret service agent Joo-yun’s fiancé is brutally murdered by school bus driver Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), Joo-yun (Lee Byung-hun) uses his resources to hunt down and kill Jang Kyung-chul. While I Saw The Devil has a familiar premise, the film quickly lets you know that you’re in for something different when the protagonist catches the killer within the first 30 minutes. Even more to the point is the fact that he lets the killer go and so begins a game of cat and mouse.
The film begins in a disturbing manner and gets progressively more fucked up as the protagonist is forced to dive further down into the criminal underworld. Beyond the excellent action and pools of blood, is an intimate examination of the lengths we can go to in our pursuit of redemption. At the end of the film, you’ll have difficulty distinguishing who exactly is the devil.
9. 'Train To Busan'
Continuing with gore, Train To Busan is Korea’s take on the zombie genre and it is remarkable. Fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) boards the night train with his estranged daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an), unaware that their departing city has just been hit with a virus that turns people into rage-filled zombies. Of course, one of the infected manages to enter the train, and Seok-woo struggles to keep his daughter as the virus continues to infect the passengers.
Train To Busan does several great things and one of them is taking a cue from 28 Days Later, delivering a slew of agile zombies. These zombies are unrelenting and, as such, every scene that feature them is drenched in tension. It’s frightening throughout and similarly to Snowpiercer, Train To Busan utilizes its confined settings creatively to the point where the intensity and tension is always increasing. Train To Busan is as much as zombie film as it is a man versus nature film, in that human nature itself become a greater obstacle as the film progresses. In desperation and with death looming ever so closely, some people cease to make rational decisions and their selfishness leads to their communal demise.
8. 'The Man From Nowhere'
In The Man From Nowhere, ex-black ops soldier Cha Tae-sik (Won Bin) runs a pawnshop quietly and refrains from socializing with people, except with a little girl named So-mi (Kim Sae-ron) who just happens to be his neighbor. So-mi’s mother is a heroin addict and she idiotically decides to steal drugs from drug kingpin Oh Myung-gyu (Song Young-chang). Oh Myung-gyu sends his subordinates to retreive the package and in the process rough up Cha Tae-sik before kidnapping So-mi. As you’d expect, Cha Tae-sik then goes to retrieve his one friend while battling through waves and waves of killers.
The Man From Nowhere is a straight-forward action film that serves as a great example of how distinctive action can be within Korean cinema. Most action films — especially those coming from Hollywood — rely heavily on guns, explosions and the like. South Korea has some severely restrictive laws on guns, and as such, their action films rely more on fist fights and knifes. There are guns here, of course, but The Man From Nowhere stand outs because you see a different and fresher approach to action. There’s a palpable sense of danger, and when you see the protagonist really struggling to overcome the almost unending wave of foes the payoff is way more effective. Plus, The Man From Nowhere has the distinction of being the first of two films on this list without a depressing ending.
7. 'The Wailing'
In a remote village up in the mountains, a disease is causing people to violently murder their loved ones. Everyone suspects the old Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura), who recently arrived, and as Officer Jong-woo (Kwak Do-won) investigates the case, he begins having bizarre nightmares. Things get worse when his daughter is infected by the disease, and his search for a cure leads him down a path full supernatural despair.
The Wailing is an interesting horror film because it is aware of how to effectively frighten the audience. Instead of relying on gore or jump scares, the film opts to create an eerie landscape that not only creeps you out but also makes you question what is and isn’t real. The fact that it’s all presented in such a realistic manner heightens the effectiveness of the story, which in itself is full of twists that lead to a truly unexpected ending. The last 30 minutes are a whirlwind of tension and surprisingly existential ideas that turn everything on its head and we’re left pondering what the fuck just happened. There’s a purposeful confusion that demands audience involvement, and when a film is able remain in your psyche even days after it’s done you know you’ve seen something really special.
Much like it was for me, I feel that Oldboy was the introduction to Korean cinema for a lot of people. Oldboy certainly is the most famous film on this list and it has more than earned all its praise. From the twisted mind of Park Chan-wook, Oldboy is the second film in his Vengeance Trilogy and it centers on businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik). The night of his daughter’s fourth birthday, Oh Dae-su is kidnapped and placed in a sealed hotel room. 15 years later, he is released and after being mysteriously handed a cellphone, Oh Dae-su searches for both the people who imprisoned him for all those years and the reasons why they did it.
Oldboy feels a bit like Tarantino in terms of its self-aware humor, music selection, stylized visuals and violent outbursts. However, Park Chan-wook takes the film into some really fucked up territory that is as disturbing as it is awesome. The twist near the end is so outrageous and unexpected that I remember the first time I saw it I was utterly speechless. It reminds me of Shutter Island, because once you know the twist the film feels completely different on the second viewing.
5. 'The Host'
Japan has Godzilla, Hollywood has rip-offs of Godzilla, and South Korea has The Host. Several years after 200 bottles of formaldehyde were dumped into the Han River, an abomination has been birthed. Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) runs a small snack bar near the river with his father, and during a delivery he sees a huge monster come out of the river attacking people. In his panic, he runs and grabs a girl he believes to be his daughter but isn’t. When he turns, he sees the monster capture his daughter, Park Hyun-seo, and disappear into the river.
I personally love this film but the monster of The Host, while looking absolutely weird, different and cool, also looks a bit fake. The CGI work is not the best; it isn’t Hollywood, but do not let it deter you from experiencing this film. If you look past it — or better yet, embrace the monster — you will find an exciting adventure about family coming together to defeat the unnatural. It’s fun with a near-perfect balance of light-hearted moments with more serious and dark tones, that never ceases to deliver entertainment. It’s fucking great.
4. 'Memories Of Murder'
Based on true events, Memories of Murder takes us back to 1986, where not soon after a woman is found raped and murdered in a ditch near a field, another woman is found in similar fashion elsewhere. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) figures the local handicapped boy is to blame, but Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) from Seol believes these murders to be the actions of a serial killer. Since forensic technology is non-existent and Park Doo-ham’s inexperience lead to mishandling of evidence, the case becomes more and more complicated.
Memories of Murder is a beautifully crafted modern film-noir with a detective story that is intricate, frustrating and upsetting. The film embraces the limitations of the era, and shows the police to be mediocre yet capable of some actually good investigative work. It demonstrates the reality of police work, the hurdles that come with it and the frustrating truth that, unlike most TV shows, these investigations remain unresolved.
3. 'The Chaser'
The Chaser is the debut film of director Na Hong-jin (The Wailing) and it is a thunderstorm of tension, violence and compelling storytelling. Eom Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok) is an ex-detective turned pimp who begins to suspect something is amiss when two of his girls go missing. Receiving a request for another girl, he notices the request came from the same customer his two missing girls’ last visited. Eom Joong-ho begins to search for the culprit, who turns out to be Je Yeong-min (Ha Jung-woo), a serial killer.
As its title suggests, The Chaser is essentially a never-ending chase sequence created with such unnerving tension that you could have a heart attack. That’s a hyperbole, of course, but I think it accurately implies the effect of the film. The action is brilliant and it doesn’t rely on guns or even fist fights. It’s all about the chase between the two leads, who both give amazing performances. Ha Jung-woo, especially, shines as the serial killer, thanks to not only looking like a killer but the almost effortless manner in which he can warp his expression into something genuinely sinister. The Chaser is fascinating to witness and the film even manages to include several sub-plots that instead of distracting, actually compliment the entire experience.
Silenced, also known as The Crucible, centers on Kang In-ho (Gong Yoo), the new art teacher at Benevolence Academy, a deaf school for children. A few days after starting his new position, Kang In-ho witnesses other teachers abusing the children, which prompts him to take the children away and contact human rights activist Seo Yoo-jin (Jung Yu-mi). Together, they discover that the children in the school have been sexually assaulted by several teaches and the principal himself. This leads Kang In-ho and Seo Yoo-jin to file a lawsuit against the school’s staff.
Based on true events, Silenced is by far the most disturbing film on this list. The subject matter is upsetting and utterly heartbreaking, but what compounds these feelings is the film’s deliberate and uncompromising depictions of the children being raped. It’s one thing to hear the testimonials of the children and have your imagination fill in the blanks, but Silenced wants to avoid that. It doesn’t want you to imagine, it wants you to see it because when you see it you cannot forget it. Yes, it’s crude and horrible but it works. If the laws of The United States or Canada upset you when it comes to sexual abuse, then the laws of South Korea will drive you to madness, because such transgressions receive little to zero punishment. It’s all about politics and money, and it is so very unfair. Silenced is absolutely devastating, as it showcases the utter injustice and malice of people, while also serving as a call to action, a hopeful step towards change.
1. 'Lady Vengeance'
We have now arrived at my favorite Korean film. Lady Vengeance, also known as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, is the third film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy and it is absolutely glorious — a genuine masterpiece. Some people prefer Oldboy, but I believe this is the film that perfectly showcases the artistry and genius of Park Chan-wook. After spending 13 years in prison and forming alliances with the other inmates, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) is ready to kick off her plan. She searches for her estranged daughter, who lives in Australia, and begins to use her now released inmate friends in order to capture child rapist and murderer, Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik).
As you may have noticed, Lady Vengeance is the only film on this list with a female protagonist and it is this female factor that helps it rise above the rest. Lee Young-ae’s performance is compelling, humorous and incredibly sincere. She can embody different emotions beautifully and displays a deadpan charisma that is infectious. There’s power in the action’s of her character, a form of justice that digs deeper and manages to provide an even more affecting resolution. Stepping away from the action, Lady Vengeance works more as a thriller that makes you think and examine the real meaning and purpose of revenge. This concept, which is at times overplayed in films, is given new light in this film and a lot of its effectiveness is the result of having a female perspective.
Stylistically, Lady Vengeance is unmatched delivering a vibrancy that is awe-inspiring from its cinematography to its costume design. The soundtrack heightens every sentiment and the central relationship of mother and daughter is sincere and sweet. Lady Vengeance is unique in the most positive way, and by far one of the most majestic films I've ever seen.
That's the list! Do try to check these films out, as they will open up a whole new world for you. Also, most of the films are available for rent on iTunes and some can be found on Netflix.
What is your favorite Korean film from this list?