Flicks from outta town are great. Okay, maybe they’re not always great. But more often than not, they’re great. Usually because they give you something completely out of your context. Or they approach a familiar story or concept in new and diverse ways. That’s how I feel about (South) Korean cinema. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve talked about Korea and the Pacific Rim here. But I’d like to point to some specific movies to get your grey matter buzzing.
Korea (and Koreans across the diaspora) may be in the news right now for political unrest and ridiculous assassination plots and anti-black attacks in beauty stores. But, all things contain multitudes and the Korean cultural diaspora is no different. And when it comes to Korean movies, they’ve long been a mainstay of the dap lexicon, and the larger movie world at large. Praised for their excellence and focus, many Korean movies are often deeply embedded in popular culture and you ain’t eem know it. Despite this, I feel like they don’t get the specific shine they should. So, in an effort to broaden your horizons (or retread some of your faves) and honor Adam’s current residency in South Korea, here’s a list of some Korean movies that have impacted me and why you should watch them ASAP.
Infinitely referenced. Rarely duplicated. Constantly outclassing the competition. It’s also the oldest movie on this list. A tragic story of revenge, twists and turns, Old Boy is a cult classic for all the right reasons. From the direction to the actual writing to the endless debates over the ending, it’s a masterpiece. Directed by Park Chan-wook, Old Boy is actually based on a manga of the same name that ran 1996-98. It was ported to the silver screen in 2003 and kind of became an instant hit. Not least of all because of this carefully choreographed fight scene.
Spike Lee attempted a remake in 2010. And it fell flat. I personally feel that’s because you can rarely bottle lightning twice. And, Old Boy’s story is one that relies on specific Korean cultural contexts (or perhaps, East Asian is better here, as the manga was Japanese in origin) as much as it does on masterful filmmaking. Spike’s joint didn’t do enough to make the story American while also respecting the source material. The result ended up being a mess that’s best left unwatched, unbought and unrented.
This 2007 film follows one father’s journey to save his daughter from the clutches of a slippery sludge monster. On paper this sounds like a straight up sci-fi/horror situation. But as with many of the movies on this list: nothing is as it seems. Employing a range of tones and sentiments, director Bong Joon-ho weaves an idiosyncratic tale that is equally confusing and interesting. The Host is on this list purely for that reason, but also because it’s a precursor to Joon-ho’s work in 2013’s Snowpiercer.
Shared between the films is a flair for framing dramatic sequences in ways that are impactful. The Host of course shows some earlier signs of this, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Inspired by a real-life serial killer, The Chaser is one of the darker films on the list. Following an ex-cop-turned-pimp, the story is a murder mystery/cop thriller in the vein of Se7en and Zodiac. Directed by Na Hong-jin, this movie lays a lot of the groundwork for themes that would reemerge in 2016 with The Wailing.
There’s a dark sense of desperation about this film. Eom Joong-ho’s search for the killer is compounded by a series of mishaps and events that prove just how much we really don’t know our neighbors. What’s more, it works well to show just how shitty cities can be. And how labyrinthine they are when it comes to actually trying to find people. Ultimately, it’s a great watch. Just don’t expect a happy ending.
I Saw The Devil
I Saw The Devil is a masterwork in brutality, morality and revenge narratives. Centering on a special services agent who loses his wife to a sadistic serial killer, I Saw The Devil is as much about the showdown as it is about the journey.
With scenes and themes reminiscent of the Saw series and The Hunted, this movie is just rich with the good stuff: intricate plotting, fight scenes, questionable psychology and a strangely satisfying ending (if you’re fucked up like me.)
While all these films have some horrific elements, The Wailing is the most straightforward horror movie. Centering on a series of deaths and illnesses in a small Korean village, it’s as much about faith and fatherhood as it is about the uneasy presence of Japanese people and culture in Korea. From the jump, you can expect tons of sweeping landscape shots and beautifully set scenes. And shit like this.
You’ll also find yourself trying to follow the tone of the film. The Wailing throws comedy, drama and horror together in increasingly different combinations. It’s a disorienting formula that’ll keep you off balance from start to finish. This isn’t bad either. It sets up some great surprises and “wtf just happened” moments that are hard to come by these days. The last two thirds of the movie are especially re-watch worthy as the plot unravels.
The crown jewel of 2016 and this list, The Handmaiden is quite possibly one of the greatest films I’ve seen in the last 5-10 years. In a classic caper story turned upside down, a con man employs one of his understudies to swindle an heiress out of her fortune in Japanese-occupied Korea. Or at least, that’s how the story begins. In three parts, director Park Chan-wook is able to keep you on the edge of your seat without rushing, overdoing anything or being outright lame.
From beautifully framed shots of the mansion to an incredibly witty script, The Handmaiden is damn near perfect, transgressive and funny. Watch it. Watch it now. You won’t regret it.
Of course, there’s a bit of cross-pollination in this list and I clearly have a love for thrillers, horror and noir. So this is by no means exhaustive or inclusive. I just wanted to share some of the dope shit I watch, and that I think you should too. So hop to it. Expand your knowledge. Find faves of your own. @ me on Twitter and let’s talk.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter