The growth in popularity of Korean culture (also known as the “Hallyu Wave”) has reached new heights in recent years - whether it be through Kpop music, Korean beauty, or Korean fashion and streetwear. Korean films in particular have had a spotlight on them after Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy social thriller Parasite swept the top prizes at the Academy Awards - in the process, becoming the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture in the ninety year history of the awards show. The film has received wide acclaim for its focus on social commentary as well as its captivating cinematography. However, Parasite is just one of many gems to come out of the ‘Renaissance’ of the Korean film industry. Now, with quarantine keeping everyone at home, we have compiled some of these iconic Korean films for you to watch.
In this iconic romantic comedy film, a young college student Gyeon-woo (played by Cha Tae-hyun) sees a beautiful drunk woman known only as The Girl (played by Jun Ji-hyun) standing too close to the tracks at a subway station and pulls her away from danger. This sparks a series of hilarious events that allow the two main characters to grow closer. After its release, My Sassy Girl became an international sensation with reviews calling it the “Titanic of its time.” Jun Ji-hyun also solidified her domestic popularity with her role in the film, receiving the nickname “The Nation’s First Love”and becoming an icon of Korean beauty and fashion.
Oldboy is a neo-noir action thriller film that follows a man Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik) who was held captive for fifteen years without knowing the identity of his captor or his captor's motives. After he is released, he finds himself still trapped in a web of conspiracy and violence as he finds romance with a young sushi chef Mi-do (played by Kang Hye-jung). The film received high praise from renowned director Quentin Tarantino for its powerful handling of the revenge fantasy.
Korean people have been known for their artistic contributions long before they brought it to the silver screen. Check out our latest blog on one of the most prominent figures featured in traditional art: The Korean Tiger: A Hallmark of Korean Identity.
Another film by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, The Host focuses on the kidnapping of a young girl Park Hyun-seo (played by Go Ah-sung) by a monster and her father Park Gang-du’s (played by Song Kang-ho) desperate attempts to rescue her. Like Parasite, the film has themes of social commentary, as it was based on a 2000 incident where a Korean mortician was ordered by American military to dump a large amount of formaldehyde into a sewer drain.
In this comedy-drama film, a mentally challenged man Lee Yong-gu (played by Ryu Seung-ryong) is wrongfully imprisoned for murder. However, his newfound friendships with the hardened criminals in his cell allow them to band together to help him see his daughter again by smuggling her inside the prison. This film reached unprecedented success given that it had no big stars, eventually becoming the sixth highest grossing film in South Korean history.
Ode To My Father depicts the major events of recent Korean history through the life of an ordinary man Yoon Deok-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min). Yoon attempts to fulfill his promise to his father to protect his family through events such as the Hungnam Evacuation of 1950 during the Korean War, the government's decision to dispatch nurses and miners to West Germany in the 1960s, and the Vietnam War.
This epic war film brings to life the story of the 1597 Battle of Myeongnyang, wherein the titular Admiral Yi Sun-sin (played by Choi Min-sik, who was also the lead in Oldboy) is forced to defend his nation against three hundred Japanese enemy ships with only thirteen battleships. The gritty, action-packed retelling of the historical battle recorded ten million admissions only twelve days after its initial premiere, setting a new record for achieving the highest number of viewers in the shortest amount of time.
[Link]: Korean films often retell true events that occurred throughout Korean history. To find out more about one of the most important holidays in Korea, take a look at our blog: Celebrating Korea’s National Liberation Day.
Arguably one of the most iconic disaster films to come out in the 2010s, the film takes place on the eponymous train to Busan as a father Seok-woo (played by Yoo Gong) attempts to protect his daughter Su-an (played by Kim Su-an) when the train is threatened by the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. In the year of its release, Train To Busan set a record as the first Korean film of 2016 to break the audience record of over 10 million theatergoers.
Based off of the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is an erotic psychological thriller that follows a pickpocket maid Nam Sook-hee (played by Kim Tae-ri) who is hired to help a conman deceive a Japanese heiress Lady Izumi Hideko (played by Kim Min-hee) into marrying him, only to end up entering into a dangerous relationship with her. The story is told using a unique format that shows multiple scenes from different perspectives, shining a new light on the audience’s understanding of the events every time.
The popularity of Korean films have led many to learn about Korean culture. One practice that has become more well-known is the idea of your blood type determining your personality. Learn more about this in our latest blog: Zodiac Sign? No—What’s Your Blood Type?
After failing their latest mission, a group of young narcotics detectives led by Chief Go (played by Ryu Seung-Yong) are offered one last chance to save their career. The mission is to carry out undercover surveillance of an international drug gang at a local chicken restaurant. However, when the team is informed that the restaurant is in danger of closing down, Go and his colleagues decide to take matters into their own hands to save both the restaurant and their investigation.
Exit is a disaster action-comedy film that follows the story of a former rock climber named Yong-nam (played by Jo Jong-suk) who attempts to reconnect with his old crush and fellow ex-rock climber, Eui-joo (played by Im Yoon-ah). However, when a mysterious white gas begins to engulf the city, they must use their skills to escape the gas in a series of hilarious events. After its release, Exit became South Korea's third most-watched domestic film, as it eventually sold more than 9.4 million admissions.
Korean films have gained worldwide attention since the success of Parasite. Since then, Korean-made movies have become more widely available, allowing people from all around the world to enjoy them. Though this list of films showcases some of the best of Korean cinema, the industry is diverse and has plenty to offer for anyone—whether it be action, horror, or drama films.
Have you seen any of these films, or added any to your ‘Watch Next’ list? Let us know in the comment section below!