North Korea doesn’t have much of a film industry, so this look at Korean movies is strictly limited to those works produced in South Korea. The film industry experienced a major boom in the late 1990s, and this success has carried over into the new millennium. With projects boasting high production values, original and challenging storylines, and plenty of talented and attractive actors, Korean movies have garnered international acclaim with no sign of slowing down.
The following list is intended to be an introduction to the cinema of South Korea. You’ll notice that the oldest film on the list was released in 1998, but that was an intentional choice on my part. I want to get viewers who are unaccustomed to foreign films interested, and I’m guessing that including Korean movies from the ’60s and ’70s isn’t the best way to go about this.
Oldboy (2003) – The second film in director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy tells the story of businessman Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik). Captured and imprisoned in a hotel room for unknown reasons, he’s released after 15 years and tasked with finding the identity of his captor. What follows is a wickedly beautiful tale of revenge and forbidden love. Voters on CNN named it one of the 10 best Asian films ever made, and it’s drawn rave reviews from Quentin Tarantino.
Attack the Gas Station (1999) – A gang of likable thugs rob a gas station at the beginning of the movie, and then they turn right around and rob it again the next night. But this time the manager has stashed the cash, and so the quartet of hooligans kidnap the employees, pump the gas themselves, and keep the money. As they fend off bullies, cops, and deadbeat customers, they become more sympathetic and learn a few things about themselves.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) – The directorial debut of Bong Joon-ho (The Host), this film revolves around an out-of-work college professor who’s driven up the wall by the barking dogs in his apartment complex. Resorting to abuse and kidnapping to silence them, he’s soon pursued by a plucky young employee at the building (Bae Doona). In case you’re wondering, it’s a dark comedy.
Thirst (2009) – Park Chan-wook helms this tale of a priest who gets turned into a vampire due to a failed medical experiment. As he tries to cope with his condition, he falls for the abused wife of an old friend–with rather bloody results.
The Quiet Family (1998) – Combining horror and dark comedy, this Korean film centers around a family who opens a lodge for hikers, but their clients always end up dying. Korean stars Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik co-star.
Joint Security Area (2002) – When two soldiers are killed in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, a special investigative unit is dispatched to get to the truth. Quentin Tarantino named it one of his 20 favorite films since 1992.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) – The final film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, the motion picture follows a mild-mannered woman just released from prison for the murder of a schoolboy. It turns out that she’s innocent, and every day spent in prison was a day she was plotting revenge against the man who was actually guilty of the crime. A delicious tale of revenge and high-heel pumps.
The Host (2006) – An average Korean family is nearly torn apart when their youngest member is captured and drug into the sewers by a mutated amphibious monster. Pooling their talents together, they seek to rescue the girl and destroy the loathsome creature. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, it’s the highest-grossing South Korean film of all time.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) – The first film in Park Chan-wook’s excellent Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy takes a look at a deaf-mute man trying to get a kidney transplant for his sister. When things don’t work out, he resorts to kidnapping the young daughter of an executive–with tragic consequences.
Shiri (1999) – The South Korean version of a Hollywood action film, Shiri is about a team of North Korean agents intent on wreaking havoc against their southern neighbors. Their most successful member is a female sniper who’s been active in South Korea as a sleeper agent for years, picking off a number of government officials during that time. An honest cop and his partner must try to unravel the plot and root out the enemy agent, although her true identity may prove troublesome for very different reasons. You’ll recognize Yunjin Kim, better known as Sun from the television series Lost.
If you’re the type of person who avoids subtitles, I’m hoping this brief look at Korean movies may tempt you to give at least one film on the list a try. You’ll find Korean cinema to be a rich blend of foreign culture and modern filmmaking techniques, and they’re currently turning out some of the most entertaining motion pictures on any continent. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however, and a search of online rental sites such as Netflix and Blockbuster will turn up hundreds of other films from the country.