Celebrating International Movies: Korea

Since Parasite won best picture, I couldn’t write my usual rant about how bad the Oscars are again. But it did show that international, non-English language films, are gaining recognition in the U.S., and there is a whole world of film across the globe offering stories that people here can connect with. The one-inch barrier of subtitles is starting to be broken down, so I thought it would be fun to go through and talk about international films. This will be part of a longer running series where I talk about different films from different parts of the world. So for this first one, we’ll start with Korean cinema.

In my opinion, the contemporary Korean film industry is making some of the best films currently, especially when it comes to their thrillers. Parasite is a great example of this and has become one of my favorite films. The director Bong Joon-ho’s other Korean language films are also excellent. Mother, Memories of Murder, The Host, and Barking Dogs Don’t Bite are all great films of different genres with memorable characters, amazing production, and biting social commentary. He also has two English language films, Snowpiercer and Okja, that are also great, but I personally prefer his Korean language films.

Another fun thing about Bong Joon-ho’s movies is that he has a consistent theme he likes to explore across his different films and comes to different conclusions with them, which is often related to class consciousness. For example, Mother and Parasite explore how class solidarity can break down. On the other hand, The Host and Snowpiercer explore how the lower class unites. All of them explore the futility of class mobility, and, for the sake of not spoiling, you can view the conclusions of all of them and get a really unique and holistic picture about class from a director who has created this thematic universe. It’s neat to see a director do this.

What’s also interesting about Korean thrillers, and East Asian cinema as a whole, is how they go all out in the production of all of their movies. The financiers trust the directors, and the directors trust the audience to stick with them through the ride. There are American films that do this as well, but for some reason with Korean cinema, it’s at another level.

My favorite Korean director who embodies this philosophy is Park Chan-wook, who has made masterpieces like Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Thirst, Sympathy for Mister Vengeance, and Lady Vengeance. The first two in that list are two of my personal favorite films ever.

Oldboy, which came out in 2003, is one of the most twisted, hypnotic revenge sagas I have ever seen. It is a visceral deconstruction of revenge and the injustice of taking justice into your own hands. I have seen it four times, and I feel physically gross after finishing it each time. Park Chan-wook is also a master at getting the audience to glean a lot about a character while not showing a lot. It also has one of the best fight scenes ever, with the three minute one take in the hallway. It’s not very common to have a film like this have a fight scene with 25 guys flailing around, but this film does it incredibly well.

The Handmaiden came out in 2016, and it was my favorite film from that year. It’s a historical erotic thriller of a man using a caretaker to con a Japanese heiress. If that premise doesn’t entice you, watch the film anyway because it gets more insane as it goes along. I won’t say anything more about it.

What’s amazing about Korean thrillers is that as crazy as they can get, it still feels grounded and believable because there is such a great understanding of the characters within the story. Their motivations make sense, and the insanity of the story is helped along by the decisions each character makes.

From my understanding, these are also considered mainstream films in Korea. It’s a bit similar to the American cinema in the 1970s, where films like The Godfather were also mainstream, commercial films. It’s amazing how there are producers who understand that it’s possible to create original and unique stories that are profitable. I wish they were more common in the U.S today.

The last director I’ll mention is Lee Chang-dong. He directed Burning, which was one of my favorite films of 2018. It also has Steven Yuen from The Walking Dead, and it’s easily the best performance I have seen from him. Whereas the films of Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook are faster paced, this one is a slow burn, patient mystery. But it’s one of the slow burn films that even those who aren’t into slow burn movies would be into because of how entrancing it is.

Lee Chang-dong’s films in general are a lot more slow burn and meditative, so if you’re into that, Secret Sunshine is another great one I’d recommend, too. The film follows a widow dealing with grief, and while it’s a really sad film, it’s incredibly breathtaking and really powerfully acted. I haven’t mentioned the actors yet, but if the Academy actually recognized Korean actors, then Song Kang-ho and Jeon Do-yeon would have been nominated for this film and many others.

I haven’t seen any Korean films from before 2000 that I can remember off the top of my head, so that’s something I would like to personally find out more about. But as of now, Korean cinema is doing really well, and I’m glad that Parasite winning best picture is getting Korean films more attention. There are many Korean directors I am following, and I am really excited to see what other films we will get from them.

Other notable recommendations:
The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom)
Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho)
A Taxi Driver (Jang Hoon)
A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon)
I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee-woon)
The Wailing (Na Hong-jin)
Moss (Kang Woo-suk)
The Chaser (Na Hong-jin)
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring (Kim Ki-duk)