When you think about South Korea, you may think about kimchi, K-pop and fabulous skincare. But the country also boasts a robust film industry.
By now, we have all heard of Parasite, winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, but for decades, Korean movies have been punching above their weight. From mind-twisting plots to adrenalin-pumping battle scenes, South Korea has never been short of producing unique and highly acclaimed drama, suspense and action films.
In the words of Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, ‘Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.’
Speaking of Bong Joon-ho…
Mother is one of Director Bong's previous works, a film about a mother (Kim Hye-ja delivering a superb performance) who tries to free her mentally ill son (Won Bin) who’s been accused of the murder of a young girl. To reveal any more would spoil the film. Suffice to say if you loved the suspense, meticulous attention to detail and twists of Parasite, then you’ll love this film. Go into this knowing as little as possible.
A remake of the 2012 Hong Kong film Drug War, Believer is about a drug dealer who teams up with a cop to bring down a brutal kingpin. This is a top-notch action/crime film filled with suspense, a heart-pounding soundtrack and gorgeous cinematography. Those that have seen the original film will find plenty to admire, with director Lee Hae-young retooling enough elements to provide a fresh experience, as well as including a few winking nods to its inspiration. Larger-than-life performances – notably the last film to showcase the talents of Kim Joo-hyuk before his death in 2017 – plus lots of gun-foo. Beware the high body count.
If John Wick and Nikita had a love child you would get The Villainess. In a nutshell the film sees a highly skilled female assassin go on a killing spree to get revenge. There’s no two ways about it; director Jeong Byeong Gil’s sophomore film is ultra-violent (Quentin Tarantino, eat your heart out). The use of first person point of view and Bourne-style shaky cam can be a little dizzying at times, but stick with it and you’re rewarded with mesmerising and elaborate action sequences. The first act – which sees the lead, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin), infiltrate a gangster’s abode – flies by and will leave you gasping for more. Kim is utterly convincing as she mows down groups of men using a whole arsenal of weapons including swords, knives, guns and her deadliest weapons – her fists!
Train to Busan
Train to Busan contains something for everyone: a nice family story, zombies, action, zombies, themes of sacrifice, and lots of zombies. A handsome gentleman named Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his daughter (Kim Su-an) decide to head to Busan. En route a zombie apocalypse takes over Korea and they, along with the other passengers aboard their train, must fight to stay alive. Director Sang-ho Yeon takes elements from all the best zombie films and adds a Korean twist – these aren’t your usual zombies. They only want to have a little nibble and move on, ensuring their kind multiplies rapidly. Lovely. But at its core this is a story about a father and his daughter, and the lengths humankind will go to to stay alive. And if by the end the film leaves you wanting more, then check out the next offering, Rampant.
From the makers of Train to Busan, Rampant is set in ancient Korea, a prince and his loyal men go to war with… well… zombies. Yes, we have more zombies but the setting of the Joseon era gives the film a nice flavour that refreshingly sets it apart from other zombie flicks. The film features solid performances from its cast, stylised action scenes, and beautiful set and costume designs. This is a must-watch for fans of period zombie drama Kingdom.
The Great Battle
Based on historical events, The Great Battle is about Korean warriors defending their fortress from an invading Tang Dynasty army. Those disappointed with 2016’s The Great Wall (starring Matt Damon) may find this to be a better fit. Placed on many critics’ Best Of lists in 2018, director Kim Gwang-sik successfully mashes together the epic scale of The Lord of the Rings with the visual splendour of Red Cliff. The stylised action is a sight to behold, such as the attack on the fortress which sees scores of soldiers perish. Gwang-sik makes effective use of the film’s surprisingly low budget of $20 million (The Great Wall was made for $150 million) and makes The Great Battle feel appropriately large in scope.
Those seeking a respite from the gloom and doom of 2020 will want to check out Swing Kids. K-pop star Kyung-soo Do (D.O from EXO) stars in this tap dancing extravaganza set in 1951. With the Korean War raging, POW soldiers distract themselves by planning a tap dance show. One might not think of musicals in connection with Korean cinema, and yet this is a charming story that sees characters bond over dance during a time of great struggle. The wonderful choreography is an absolute delight to watch; D.O nails this role. Those with little knowledge of the Korean War will gain a great history lesson, with audiences also made to ponder the internal struggle that is wanting to pursue one’s passion in the face of conflicting societal expectations.
Korean speakers can follow the link to listen to SBS Korea’s interview with Korean Film Festival Selects curator Sojeong Park. Ms Park is Director of the Korean Cultural Centre Australia and Chairwoman of the Korean Film Festival.