Things We've Learned About South Korea From 10 of Its Best Movies

3-Iron, 2004
'3-Iron', 2004 | © Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo
Paul Stafford

South Korean filmmakers have a long history of producing introspective, inquisitive films that examine the human condition. As such, they are also excellent barometers of Korean society and much can be learned about the country through its films.

In the early 2000s, South Korean films began to gain a wider international fanbase, thanks to a small collection of dark, thrilling and delightfully unpredictable movies, like Oldboy (2003). Major awards were quick to take note and the Palme d’Or, BAFTAs, Silver Bears and Golden Lions have been part of the cultural return for Korea’s cinematic output ever since. But few would have anticipated a Korean-language film would wipe the awards board in the manner it did at the 2020 Oscars.

For K-film fans though, Parasite’s (2019) success was a confirmation that the Korean movie scene is as strong as ever and always willing to probe thorny issues in the most idiosyncratic of ways. In the same vein as some of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, such as P.T. Anderson, Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Fellini, Korean directors are known for their auteur-style approach to the medium, whereby they have extended powers of creative control. For Parasite, Bong Joon-ho won Oscars for his roles as writer, director and producer of the film. Here are 10 of the best films from the Land of Morning Calm for those who wish to broaden their knowledge of this trove of cinematic gold. Each one contains a unique or unusual perspective on the country as told through the lens of its director.

‘Parasite’ – The class divide is a growing issue in South Korea

Fans of Bong Joon-ho’s flawless oeuvre would hardly have been surprised by the musings on class inequality that define Parasite. After all, the issue forms the backbone of his earlier films Snowpiercer (2013) and The Host (2006) too. It’s the perfect introduction for many to Korean film, containing many of the elements found across the country’s glowing portfolio: wicked plot twists, witty writing that often demonstrates real ingenuity and performed with a kind of energy that takes acting to the brink of hamfistery without ever seeming hackneyed. Parasite follows the travails of a family who is struggling to find work and who routinely ward off passing drunks who pee on their dingy basement apartment. Through some good fortune, they work their way into the employ of a wealthy Seoulite family, whose largesse was amassed on the back of Korea’s cornering of the global tech market. Both sides soon demonstrate their deeply entrenched disgust for ‘the other’ through remarks of disgust and deplorable discriminations that escalate to actions. The film taps into a very real, growing problem for South Korea as its stellar economy slowly reaches its apogee: that hard work and no play don’t lead to a fulfilled life. Many younger Koreans have started to kick back against the culture of hard work, having seen the efforts of their elders often provide no pathway out of poverty. Parasite brilliantly depicts this disenfranchisement from both sides.

The Kim family folds pizza boxes in their subbasement apartment in the film ‘Parasite’

‘Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War’ (2004) – The Korean peninsula was once united

Unless you live under a rock and never emerge, you’ll know that South Korea has a belligerent, grandstanding neighbour: North Korea. Once a single nation, the Korean Peninsula was racked by a brutal war in which millions were killed from 1950 to 1953. Taegukgi, which adopts an unapologetically sentimental, melodramatic style (one to which ardent K-drama fans are well accustomed), highlights just how much pathos surrounds the whole affair. After all, families were literally torn in two, remaining estranged to this day. The film is set in 1950, where we meet two brothers, Jin-tae and Jin-seok shortly before the North Korean invasion of the south and the commencement of the war. Both brothers eventually come to find themselves fighting on separate sides in the war, and (in a rather predictable spoiler alert) have a battlefield showdown towards the end. But every second of that sentimentality is earned. After all, the separation of Korea is still seen as a national tragedy.

‘Take Care of My Cat’ (2001) – Leaving school can be a particularly difficult time in Korea

Another film that examines the psychological impact of the pressure to excel and work hard is Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care of My Cat. The film follows five friends as they transition from high school to the ‘real world’. In South Korea, high school can be tough for many kids and there is often a lot of expectation from without from parents and teachers, and competition from within. There are three main universities: Seoul, Korea and Yonsei. Competition to get into SKY, as they’re known collectively, is so fierce that children often study for 12 hours a day or more in the years leading up to the single exam, known as Suneung. The widely-held belief, however misguided it may be in reality, is that failing to enter one of these universities closes off all the good jobs to young people. However, the process often has a galvanising effect on school-based friendships, which makes any split after high school all the more difficult for those left behind. Take Care of My Cat examines the fallout of this veritable Korean coming-of-age phase as one friend leaves the others behind for the glitz of Seoul. As such, this is not so much a coming-of-age film as it is an awakening.

‘Take Care of My Cat’, 2001

‘Obaltan’ (1960) – The Korean War’s devastating impact lasted long after it had ended

Obaltan (The Stray Bullet) is one of many intriguing films to emerge in the early ’60s that made waves beyond the Korean peninsula during a brief, yet fertile, respite in government censorship half a decade after the Korean War ended. In many ways, this film is deeply prescient, dealing with issues that are now discussed openly, but which were often brushed aside or ignored at the time, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Obaltan follows a broken family as they navigate their impoverished existence. Unlike Parasite’s comparison of poor and rich lifestyles however, this film depicts the lasting stigma of war on the poor. In it, protagonist Cheol-ho can’t afford to get his poorly tooth seen to. One day he gets a role in a film because, unbeknownst to him, his war scars give him a dishevelled appearance. His sister, who was a nurse during the war, is forced to work as a prostitute for the US soldiers still posted in Korea, meanwhile throughout, his mother randomly panics and starts screaming “We have to get out of here”. The film focusses on the hardships of post-war poverty and the sacrifices and shame those who were considered heroes at the time, felt and received in the helpless aftermath. It provides a captivating look at a nation struggling to find its feet after a bitter war.

‘Oldboy’ – There has not been any closure to the Korean War

If Korean film is better known for one genre, it’s the revenge thriller. Korea made grit cool and Park Chanwook, with his Vengeance Trilogy, defines the niche genre. The readiness to explore the human psyche’s dark recesses, as well as the obsession with revenge, point to a deep-seated desire to resolve an unresolved (and seemingly unresolvable) conflict. Food, a cultural element the Koreas share, is portrayed throughout the movie in a particularly grotesque or desperate fashion. In one famed scene in particular, protagonist Oh Dae-su eats san-nakji, a writhing, seemingly live octopus (it’s actually posthumous nerve activity which makes the tentacles squirm), customarily eaten by some people in the country. In this case, the poor mite was live and the actor Choi Min-sik, who plays Dae-su, had a particularly tough time as they didn’t get the scene in one take and he’s a Buddhist, so this scene stepped on his ideals. Animal lovers might prefer to watch Okja (2017) instead. Ultimately the film is about being trapped in a never-ending cycle of violence, and the deleterious effects of obsessing over revenge.

‘Oldboy’, 2003

‘Chilsu and Mansu’ (1988) – South Korea was a military dictatorship until the late 1980s

The South Korean military government’s heavy-handed censorship banished film into a dark age between the early ’60s and late ’80s. Chilsu and Mansu was one of the first films to benefit from the relaxing rules. The political change also ushered in a new era of wealth and freedom of speech that would see South Korea’s economy begin to flourish. The resulting groundswell of creative expression was kick-started in many ways by Chilsu and Mansu which, although not overtly political, deeply influenced many of the aspiring filmmakers who would transform Korean film in the 21st century. The film follows two out-of-work painters, the eponymous Chilsu and Mansu, who are united more by their impoverished desperation (do you see a common thread here?) than by their profession. Both dream of escaping to the West; one of many subtle nods to the West’s cultural imperialism, which filled the void left by the departing despotism. In many ways, the film seen in this context is prescient, as the Korea of today is undoubtedly shaped by Western European and American tastes and trends.

‘3-Iron’ (2004) – The Westernized, modern Korea has not always been a welcome change

This list is packed with innovation and ingenuity in filmic storytelling, but none is more daring that Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron. All the technology and wealth that came with Korea’s miraculous rise only increased citizens’ loneliness. At least that’s the message 3-Iron (Bin Jip) seems to convey brilliantly. This starkly beautiful film follows Tae-suk, a transient loner who works as a restaurant menu delivery guy. He tapes the menus over the keyhole of people’s apartments. He returns days later and breaks into apartments where the menu has not been removed, then lives in these homes briefly, while mending anything that is broken within and doing the laundry for the owners before moving on, taking nothing with him. One day, he enters a wealthy home. Little does he realise that it’s still inhabited by an abused woman, a former model, who watches his behaviour secretly (her husband/abuser, who’s away on business, forbids her to leave the house). 3-Iron could easily be overlooked by the brasher, bloodier films, but this mostly silent (the main characters don’t have lines) musing on loneliness is chilling to the core, delivering a damning condemnation of the downsides of consumerism and Western modernity at the expense of core Korean values.

‘3-Iron’, 2004

‘Poetry’ (2011) – The nation’s suffering has bred a beautiful, deep-seated empathy

Poetry is not an easy viewing experience, but then again, neither are any of the films on this list. Somehow the Korean propensity to tackle its hard reality head-on could well be the ultimate secret to the success of their films. Poetry is no different, unapologetically depicting the slide of main character Yang Mija (played by Yoon Jeong-hee) into Alzheimer’s soon after uncovering a horrifying family secret. She finds solace and a supportive community through poetry, and the juxtaposition with the harsh brutality of life with the succinct, cathartic beauty of poetry in this setting is likely to move viewers to the very core. Lee Chang-dong is another of the major modern Korean directors, alongside Bong, Park and Kim to explore at length after watching this gateway film to his work. The former novelist’s literary sensibilities can be felt in his films, which often frame an unapologetic examination of Korean society.

‘Mother’ (2009) – Korea was doing the meta, post-feminist revenge story way before it was fashionable

There has been a proud tradition in Korean film since the turn of the millennium of righting the gender wrongs on screen, even if it persists in society. Couple this with 2005’s Lady Vengeance (the final installment of Park’s Vengeance Trilogy) and you have some exceptional revenge films that presaged the #MeToo movement, which has gripped Korea as much as the US lately (Kim Kiduk, of 3-Iron fame was accused of physical and sexual assault by an unnamed actress). Mother, made by none other than Bong Joon-ho, follows Mother, a widow, as she tracks down a murderer who framed her adult son, who has a learning disability. The film’s plot is less than straightforward, exemplifying the ingenuity for which Bong has now been handsomely rewarded. The hardship encountered by Mother is primarily created by the state, in a nod towards the inequality baked into national legislature to favour men.

‘Mother’, 2009

‘Okja’ – There’s a burgeoning anti-meat movement in the country

Which finally brings us to the present. Korea has been helping to lead the way in terms of technology and industry for some decades now, and social and animal rights are rapidly gaining ground too. So, we turn once more to our old friend Bong Joon-ho. Before he decided to rewrite the Academy Awards’ rulebook, Bong was enlisted by Netflix to channel his precise, social insight and blend it with some of his more supernatural, magical-realist tendencies. The result was a wonderful film that challenges its viewers to think twice about animal abuse and meat production. Okja follows Mija, who discovers a genetically modified super pig, befriends it and then ultimately goes on an ET-esque quest to protect it from the corporate pigs (so to speak). This is yet another top-notch Korean film from a country that can’t seem to stop producing unique and socially valuable films. The hope of course is that this may continue, and that major studios might just pay a little attention to what can be achieved when you eschew explosions and CGI for something more genuine.

‘Okja’, 2017
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