The popularity of South Korean movies is hardly surprising, given that they are both plot and character driven, and offer a refreshing change from the formulaic scripts of western movies. South Korean cinema caters to every taste – romance, suspense, comedy, fantasy – or all of them at once. If you have never watched South Korean cinema, here are ten movies you must see to give you an idea of the rich cinematic experience that awaits. But, perhaps best of all, these are the perfect films to buy for Christmas for film-buff friends who may be unfamiliar with non-US and non-European films.
Starring one of South Korea’s most popular actors, Song Kang-Ho (from The Good, The Bad, The Weird and The Host), and Kim Sang-Kyeong, this movie is an all-time hit with fans of Korean cinema. Directed in 2003 by Bong Joon-Ho, Memories of Murder is based on the true story of the investigation into South Korea’s first serial killings, in the 1980s. The impact of the grisly murders on a police force not trained or equipped to deal with them, and the efforts of unsophisticated country cops to track down the murderer, make for an engrossing movie. Song plays Detective Park Doo-Man, a simple soul, who is overwhelmed by the case, and is assisted by city cop Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyeong). The two do not form an easy partnership, as Seo tries to impress upon Park the need for proper investigation methods. The setting, a small town outside Seoul, is beautifully realised and takes you right into the story.
This haunting movie will linger long in the memory after the closing credits. The setting is exquisitely beautiful, a temple floating on a lake surrounded by hills and trees. It is home to an old monk and the young boy he is training. This is spring, in the boy’s innocent youth. In summer, when the boy is in his teens, he gets his first taste of desire when he meets a young girl and her mother, who is seeking help for the girl’s illness. When the old monk sends the girl away, the boy also leaves, and the seasons turn to autumn and winter, as the world outside intrudes. This lyrical poem of a movie was directed by Kim Ki-Duk.
No one can do romance like the Koreans. If you want to be swept up in a love story that leaves you breathless, don’t watch Love Story again, watch this. Starring current South Korean box office magnet Woo-Sung Jung as Cheol-Su, and the lovely Ye-Jin Son as Su-Jin, the movie is about two people whose love survives even the tragedy of Su-Jin developing Alzheimer’s disease at a young age. Together they are building beautiful memories as they meet, and marry, but all those memories are soon to be lost to Su-Jin’s rare illness. Woo-Sung gives a mesmerising performance as the man who goes from a loner with a chip on his shoulder to a loving husband who has to face the fact that his wife doesn’t recognise him any more. Have the tissues ready, because director John H. Lee and his hand picked cast sure know how to get those tears flowing.
Run, don’t walk, away from the American remake of 2008 and watch the 2001 South Korean original instead. It is based on the real-life blog of Kim Ho-Sik, writing about his relationship with an unnamed girl. She’s a terror, abusing him, testing him, embarrassing him in public, and generally making his life hell. Why does he put up with it? Because she is suffering and he believes he can help her. On one level, this is one of the funniest movies ever made – Char tae-Hyun plays the hapless hero, rescuer and victim, while Jun Ji-Hyun (now known as Gianna Jun from Blood: The Last Vampire) plays the girl. From their first meeting, when the drunk girl vomits on the bald head of an elderly train passenger, to the meeting with another old man that awakens her to the realisation that she knew real love, this movie couple will steal your heart.
South Korean cinema is not all about murder mysteries and love stories. When it comes to psychological horror, this 2003 movie is guaranteed to creep out even the most hardened fan. Two sisters, Soo-Mi and Soo-Yeon, return to their home after a stay in hospital. What follows, when the elder sister believes her step-mother is abusing the younger sister, mounts in spine chilling horror and tension until the shocking truth is revealed. Director Kim Ji-Woon extracted consummate performances from his young stars, Lim Su-Jeong and Moon Gyung-Young, using a well known folk tale as the basis for this movie. A remake called The Uninvited in 2009 simply failed to catch the atmospheric essence of the original.
Manchuria in the 1940s – full of desperate characters and wild rumors of secret treasures – makes a great substitute for the wild west, in this South Korean re-imagining of Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (but then so did Spain in the original movie). Into this eye scorching landscape come three men in pursuit of a map that leads to a buried treasure. The men are bounty hunter Park do-Won (the Good) played by Woo-Sung Jung from A Moment to Remember; bandit Park Chang-Yi (The Bad) played by Lee Byun-Hun; and thief Yoon Tae-Goo (The Weird) played by Song Kang-Ho from Memories of Murder. The action is unrelenting as they pursue each other, and are pursued by Japanese soldiers, other thieves and bandits, and anyone who happens to like a good chase. The stunts are intense – Lee broke his leg, and Jung his arm, falling off horses. Director Kin Je-Woon calls his movie a ‘kimchi western’. Everyone else calls it one hell of a ride.
Western movie goers rarely get to see the Korean War from the Korean side, although M*A*S*H gave us brief glimpses during its long run on TV. This South Korean epic follows the lives of two brothers roughly conscripted into the conflict. The older brother, Lee Jin-Tae, tries to secure the freedom of the younger brother, Lee-Jeon, by performing brave acts, but all he does is incur the boy’s anger and jealousy. This intensely moving drama doesn’t care which side is right or wrong, it shows the horrible consequences of war on families and ordinary people. It is harrowing to watch, but director Kang Je-Gyu gets his message across – war is hell, for all of us.
Joong-Ho used to be on the right side of the law as a detective. Now he is a pimp, facing financial ruin because his girls are disappearing mysteriously, and he isn’t making any money. The police don’t seem to care, so Joong-Ho calls on his own former skills to find out what has happened to the girls. What he finds is horrifying in the extreme, and it takes a strong stomach to sit through all of it, but those who have to – namely, critics – have acclaimed the movie. It is a stunning movie, taking the audience in unexpected directions as Joong-Ho desperately tries to track down one of the girls, called Mi-Jin, before the worst happens. Directed by Ha Hong-Jin, The Chaser doesn’t let up until you fall off the edge of your chair.
Imagine being imprisoned for 15 years – no, not in a real prison, but in a hotel room, held there by someone you don’t know, and for something you can’t remember. This is the situation Oh Dae-Su finds himself in, going slowly mad for a decade and a half until he is suddenly and inexplicably released. Director Park Chan-Wook based this movie on a Japanese manga, but took it totally in a new direction. The movie succeeds in being thrilling, entertaining and unexpected, and most of that is due to the intensity with which actor Choi Min-Sik tackles the role of Dae-su. The twists and turns are seemingly endless – and often shocking – yet Choi holds it all together. You just can’t take your eyes off him.
In 2001, when Seong-Soo Kim directed this epic, it was the most expensive South Korean movie ever made. Starring Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Zhang Ziyi, and the then largely unknown Woo-Sung Jung, it tells of the kidnapping of a Ming Princess and how she grows through her experiences from a spoilt royal into a commanding woman. Of course, being Zhang Ziyi, she also plays well the image of a beautiful and unattainable woman that men would die for. The men in this case are a freed slave (Jung) who is handy with a fighting staff, and General Choi-Jung (Ju Jin-Mo) who is just as handy with a sword. The fighting and battle scenes give no quarter – Jung sustained another injury filming this one.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the success of South Korean movies. It’s like the wild frontier of film making, and South Korean actors throw everything they’ve got into a performance – and laugh about the broken bones.
As Woo-Sung Jung joked when he broke his arm filming The Good, the Bad, the Weird – “I was glad it wasn’t my right arm – then I wouldn’t have been able to hold the rifle.”