Photography courtesy of CJ Entertainment
On Sunday 9 February, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite dominated the 2020 Oscars. Not only was it the first Foreign film to win Best Picture but director Bong Joon-ho is the first filmmaker to win four Oscars in one night since Walt Disney in 1953.
Although for many in the UK and the US Parasite might be the mainstream introduction to the “Hallyu Wave” – meaning South Korea’s cultural economy exporting music, TV dramas, and films – the country is no stranger to global acclaim. Korean music has dominated the charts with BTS being the Korean artists to be nominated for a Grammy and selling out Wembley stadium. Just recently, BlackPink became the first Korean girl group to perform at Coachella and Monsta X were the first K pop group to perform at the Jingle Ball, it wasn’t going to be too long before the Western world paid attention to Korean cinema too.
When accepting his Golden Globe at the beginning of this award season, Bong dragged the audience for filth by highlighting how English speakers limit themselves when it comes to the world of cinema. “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he said.
So, in the spirit of paying homage to “Hallyuwood”, and the excellent projects we’re missing out on, here is a list of South Korea’s must-watch films.
Train To Busan (2016)
Hailed as one of the best zombie- apocalypse film to grace the cinematic screens. Goo Yoo (The Lonely and Great God – Goblin) plays busy and emotionally distant Seok Woo. He reluctantly agrees to take his young daughter to visit her mother in Busan for her birthday. However, the simple train ride quickly turns into a fight to survive as they realise that there is a huge zombie epidemic that has taken over South Korea. It’s an intense thriller that you keep you on the edge of your seat.
My Sassy Girl (2001)
This fun-filled rom-com is the highest-grossing Korean comedy of all time. Starring Jun Ji Hyun (The Thieves) as “the girl” and Cha Tae Hyun (Along With The Gods), who plays Gyeon-woo. This film portrays an unconventional version of love as we see “the girl” puts her boyfriend in some hilarious situations to test how much he’s willing to do for her.
This was such a massive hit across the world that there have been adaptions in the USA, Japan, China, and Nepal.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Another classic written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, the film is based on the true story of the first serial killer ever known in South Korea (who killed an estimate of ten women between 1986 and 1991). The thriller takes place in 1986, where Song Kang-ho (who has frequently collaborated with Bong in Parasite and The Host) plays Detective Park and Kim Sang-Kyungkyung (May 18), plays Detective Seo. Together they must solve the mystery of the young woman who has been violently raped and murdered. The film criticises abuse and the way justice worked during one of South Korea’s darkest periods (military dictatorship, political instability, censorship).
The Thieves (2012)
Slick suits, dark shades, shiny silver briefcases and high octane stunts – this action film tells the story of a gang of thieves at the top of their game, and their biggest job yet: to steal the “Tear of The Sun”. The 318-carat diamond is worth an eye-watering 20 million dollars, and locked away in a casino and will be broken out by Popie (Jung Jae-Lee), the muscle and brains, Pepsee (Hye-su Kim) the safecracker, Yenicall (Giann Jun) who climbs walls, Zampano (Soo Hyun Kim) the strategy man, and Chewingum (Hae-suk Kim) who is a master of disguise. The problem is that there is no honour among thieves, especially not the crew Macao Park, Popie’s old partner, has forced their team to work with.
A Taxi Driver (2017)
Directed by Jang Hoon, A Taxi Driver is based on a true story of the Gwangju Massacre in 1980. Not only is it thoroughly entertaining but it’s doubles up as a history lesson for those unfamiliar with Gwangju, a small city in South Korea. At the time, residents took up arms to protect themselves against military forces after students of Chonnam University were fired upon, killed, raped, and beaten by government troops for peacefully protesting the martial law government. This film follows Kim Man Seo who agrees to drive German reporter Peter to Gwangju without knowing that he was driving straight to where the Gwangju Uprising was taking place.
Seob, who is unable to contact his daughter and he fears for his own safety returns to the capital city. However, as he tries to return to Seoul, he sees the pain and turmoil of those around him and returns to finish his job. Who doesn’t love an emotional story about raging against the man?
Snow Piercer (2013)
I’m being a little cheeky adding this to the list because the film is not spoken in Korean but how could I not tell you about a film that is directed by Bong Joon-ho and stars the delicious Chris Evans?
Bong created a sensational English-language debut featuring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and Song Kang-ho. The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic Ice Age, where a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet. The final survivors board the train called the Snowpiercer, which continually circles the earth.
In true Bong fashion, the story heavily based on privilege or lack thereof since the train itself is separated by social class. Cryptic messages incite the ‘peasants’, lead by Chris’ character Curtis, into a revolution against the elite represented by Mason, played by Tilda. The film is brilliant and more importantly it is available on Netflix so you can stream it immediately.
Directed by Lee – Chang-dong, Burning is a psychological mystery, adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami. It was also the recipient of FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize award at Cannes 2018.
It’s the off-kilter story of Ben (Steven Yeun The Walking Dead) who is caught in a weird love triangle involving Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ha-in) and vixen Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). The film explored the dynamic between these three characters and it unveils that the protagonist Lee is seemingly deceived and manipulated against his will.
The film is a social commentary on class divide and divides the audience in whether to side with wealthy Ben or underprivileged Lee.