Korean cinema made a name for itself among cinephiles at the turn of the 21st century for original genre film, and in particular with slick, ultraviolet action films, mostly with a focus on the revenge theme. Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Triology being the ur-text. Seeing as guns are not as readily available in Korea the characters had to improvise a little, which means a lot of the fight or combat sequences were lent an extra element as characters scramble about utilising everyday objects such as kitchen knives, and, most notably, hammers, to incapacitate each-other. In the last decade this tradition has continued, as you’ll see in the list below, and matured but the filmic landscape has diversified a lot.
Genre still holds a place at the centre of the Korean output, but there are a growing number of meditative, arthouse directors producing engaging films. These films examine Korean societal rifts—class divisions, gender, partition and the legacy therein and the effects of modernisation— in a more nuanced fashion, which is not to say that the genre work doesn’t satirise the culture, only that it does so on a macro level. Directors such as Lee Chang-dong and Hong Sang-soo focus their respective cameras on a small cast of characters in order to reach the universal through specificity.
10. The Yellow Sea
What starts as a character study of a self-destructive man, down on his luck, soon develops into a tight action-thriller with incredible, blood soaked chase sequences and frenzied fight scenes. Our protagonist has mounting gambling debts, and so agrees to a dangerous job in the South of Korea, for which he is woefully under experienced. He must kill a man, that is all he has been told. From here a line of treachery and betrayal unspools. There is also a lot of stabbing and bludgeoning in the second half as the tension mounts and we marvel at how much this man pushed to the extremes can endure.
9. The Man from Nowhere
This is an action film in which the protagonist goes on a killing spree a la John Wick, in this case in order to protect his only friend (So-mí), who happens to be a young girl. The hero is a pawn shop owner with a shady past, who gets drawn into violence by the local, deadly drug and organ trafficking crime syndicate who have kidnaped So-mí. He has befriended the aforementioned kid because she spends time in his pawn shop avoiding the turbulence of their slum building and her family.
8. Right Now, Wrong Then
This naturalistic, low key film centres on a arthouse film director who has come a day too early to a film festival which is about to screen his latest film. The film is spare on climactic moments, instead we are given run of the mill encounters with long stretches of dialogue. What is unusual though is that the film tells of the same day twice, so halfway through we go back to the beginning and start again. The second time around is obviously not the same as the first yet the differences aren’t massive at the same time. In essence this film is a romance in the mould of Before Sunrise, in that a man and woman have a chance encounter and spend the day getting to know each other.
7. The Housemaid
As big as the theme of revenge which keeps popping up in Korean cinema, and often intertwined with the revenge, is that of class differences, and the master, slave roles perpetuated by the wealthy. In this remake of Kim Ki-Young’s 1960 Korean classic, high society is again skewered, with some cursory psychosexual dynamics to add some spice to the broth. The pleasure in this film, about a disastrous affair between housemaid and employer, is all in the aesthetics—it looks gorgeous.
The focus here is on an ageing woman who is having trouble remembering words. She is working class, living off social welfare and a cleaning job, but takes great pride in her appearance—she is often described as chic by other characters. Either to keep her brain active or for more resonant reasons (we’re not told) she joins a poetry class early on in the film and so we join her as she tries to observe and find the beauty in her surroundings. Unfortunately, the circumstances of her life and her family too often impinge, so instead we see her struggle and suffer in perfectly pitched scenes which can only be described as poetic for their subtlety and humanity. This is a beautiful film.
5. I Saw the Devil
A highly trained agent exacts revenge on the killer of his finance, though a simple killing or torture obviously doesn’t seem sufficient for our hero. Instead he catches and releases him numerous times in a series of elaborately plotted and increasingly violent sequences held together by strong performances and impressive direction and blocking. The killer has also previous murdered numerous people, so, while the severity of his punishment makes one squirm, he is always the clear villain of the film.
4. Train To Busan
This is one of the most popular films domestically and internationally to come out of Korea. Our characters are on a train from Seoul to Busan and a zombie virus breaks out. Mashing together elements of horror and action, Yeon Sang-Ho uses these genre constructs to criticise the social structure of Korea, the class divide in particular, while also delivering a non-stop onslaught of cinematic thrills. The film moves along at a steady clip providing a heightened sense of suspense and anxiety that will keep you constantly alert and engaged.
3. The Handmaiden
Chan-wook Park is known for intricate plotting with many reveals and shocks, as seen in his entire back catalogue (all of which are worth exploring)—arguably the films which drew most attention to Korea as a producer of quality, exciting film—this film doesn’t disappoint. The Handmaiden, like much of his previous work, is concerned with revenge, or more accurately, with fraud and defrauding. A poor woman is sent as handmaid to a wealthy Japanese heiress, who, along with the assistance of a young Korean con-artist, they hope to extort. This plan goes the way of all such endeavours.
First Korean winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival, and the most successful Korean film in history, Parasite is a rare beast, in that it was a critical hit and a box-office bonanza. Bong Joon Ho has long been releasing incredible arthouse and genre films, but has had trouble with distribution, especially in the UK. Now, with Parasite, while he is at the peak of his powers, he has broken through in the west in a big way. The story focuses on a working class family who are struggling financially and end up infiltrating a ludicrously wealthy household. Their plan is to pretend they are strangers and manipulate the rich family into hiring them all in various positions around the house. As you’d expect, appropriate levels of mayhem ensue.
Based loosely on a Haruki Murakami short story about a man who burns down greenhouses in the Korean countryside, the film instead focuses on a young aimless man, Lee, who bumps into a woman who remembers him from before he moved to the city, but whom he cannot recognise. From here, Lee is absorbed by the mystery of Shin and her new, wealthy boyfriend (played by the excellent Steven Yeun).
Burning is a poignant, slow moving yet gripping meditation on memory, class and obsession that merits multiple viewings. It has an elusive quality itself, just like Shin, and leaves you wondering what is going on below the surface, if anything. Bewilderingly, it has been described as a ghost story, though one wonders why. At the same time, there is that cat… and what really did happen to Shin and why couldn’t Lee recognise her?