There’s no doubt about it: The culture of South Korea is having a moment.
Any proud consumer of popular culture knows by now that Japanese culture has had an immense global influence through its video games, anime, pop music and literature.
Now South Korea’s pop culture offerings have risen to similar heights of popularity. “Parasite,” the black comedy masterpiece from Bong Joon-Ho, became the first foreign film to win Best Picture at the 2019 Oscars. More recently, “Squid Game” became an almost overnight success on Netflix, breaking records at the streaming giant for its blend of weirdness, violence and cliffhangers. And the boyband BTS remains one of the most popular bands in the world.
While the country’s culture has clearly reached a new peak of popularity, any true movie aficionado has been paying attention to South Korea’s film industry for years, as it has produced some of the best thrillers in recent history — and maybe for all time.
If you’re interested in exploring more of South Korea’s rich cinematic offerings, here’s a few suggestions for getting started.
Long before Bong Joon-Ho became an international superstar with “Parasite,” he made a perfect example of the monster genre with “The Host.”
At turns thrilling, heartbreaking and funny, “The Host” is a worthy addition to one of the oldest genres in film, while serving as an excellent starting point for those new to South Korean cinema.
It’s also a deeply political film that’s both critical of American involvement in Korean history, and skeptical of how much Koreans can trust their own government.
As an excellent essay in Cinema Escapist put it: “In The Host, just as the monster rises from the Han River, everything derives from han—whether it’s disdain for America, or economic disillusionment. And that’s why anyone who cares about Korea should watch the film.”
The Gangster The Cop The Devil
In 2019, director Won-Tae Lee released “The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil,” a perfect example of how South Korean cinema has become the king of thrillers.
The film expertly blends together a traditional Mafia film with a murder mystery for one of the most entertaining and action-packed films in recent memory. It features a sneering, charismatic performance from Don Lee (also known as Ma Dong-seok), one of South Korea’s greatest living actors, as the eponymous Mafia boss of the title. (He also appeared recently in Marvel’s “The Eternals.)
Don Lee is set to reprise the role in the American remake of the film, which Sylvestor Stallone announced in 2019.
“I think ‘The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil’ is one of the all-time great Mafia films, and will become a cult classic, if it isn’t already,” said Bardya Ziaian, a Canadian indie filmmaker and the founder of Bardya Pictures Ltd.
One of the earliest examples of international success for Korean cinema came with 2003’s “Oldboy,” a gritty, strange and pulse-pounding action film from director Park Chan-wook that contains fight scenes so brutal and original they continue to influence action movies today.
The film, an adaptation of a manga of the same name, tells the story of Oh Dae-su, played by Choi Min-sik, who is kept in a cell (made to look like a hotel room) for 15 years. In this Kafkaesque plot, the protagonist is ignorant of the identity of his captors and the reason for his imprisonment.
Oh Dae-su then embarks on a quest for vengeance that includes some of the most jaw-dropping fight scenes ever choreographed. Do yourself a favor by skipping the American remake and going straight to the source with this one.
Train to Busan
At a time when many film critics understandably felt that zombie films had been played out, director Yeon Sang-ho released “Train To Busan” in 2016, bringing originality and thrill back to the zombie genre.
Featuring the cinematographer from “Squid Game,” Lee Hyung-deok, “Train To Busan” delivers the character-driven action long missing from zombie movies for one of the best Korean films of the 2010s — and one of the best zombie flicks ever. It also includes another performance from the always-great Don Lee.
These are just a few examples of a country with some of the most talented and relevant filmmakers in the world right now, making films that resonate globally with their trenchant critiques of class, crime and politics.
If you’ve been looking to try something new, South Korean cinema offers an abundance of modern classics.