Judging from the South Korean movies that make it to these shores, almost everyone in that country is a murderer.
It probably says more about Americans’ taste than it does about South Korean movies because Korea does make other genres, but we hardly ever see them. (Rom-com “My Sassy Girl” is a rare non-grisly film that made it to the States.) Korea’s first big splash in America was Park Chan-wook’s violent trilogy, “Oldboy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Lady Vengeance,” and many others have followed that blood-spattered suit. After Park opened up the U.S. for other offerings from his country — including the murder-filled, widely acclaimed, Oscar-nominated “Parasite” — a wave of great filmmakers arrived here.
Astonishingly, if we date the start of the wave to 2003’s “Oldboy,” it took 17 years of consistent South Korean excellence for the Oscars to finally take notice, with “Parasite” the first Korean nominee for the international film and best picture prizes. (Those awards will be handed out tonight on ABC and writer/director Bong Joon-ho will be at the Walker Art Center on Wednesday as part of a retrospective of his films.)
That means a lot of great movies have failed to get Academy Awards attention. Maybe they’ve flown under your radar, too.
So far, Park is the only Korean to make the transition from foreign to U.S. movies, directing Nicole Kidman in “Stoker” and Florence Pugh in the “Little Drummer Girl” miniseries. But judging from the acclaim for “Parasite,” Bong is on deck. While we wait to see what a bunch of interesting Korean directors will do next, here are 10 great South Korean movies you may want to stream or rent:
“The Age of Shadows” (2016) — The two Kim Jee-woon movies on this list could not be more different. This one is a nervy, remake (ish) of the classic “Army of Shadows,” a tale of the French Resistance during World War II, when it became impossible to tell the good guys from the bad (or if either makes sense in an era of complicated morality). Those themes recur in “Age,” a glamorous pulse-pounder about members of the Korean resistance scheming against their Japanese occupiers in the 1920s. “Age” proceeds from one exciting scene to the next, but the best is a race-against-time sequence set on a train loaded with explosives. Song Kang-ho, the lead in “Parasite,” stars in this movie, as well as a couple others on this list.
“Alone” (2015) — This one has the most obvious debt to director Alfred Hitchcock, specifically his classic “Rear Window”: Alone in his apartment in a crowded city, a man looks out his window and witnesses a murder. But “Rear Window” is nowhere near as bananas as “Alone,” in which the hero tries to report the crime and gets bashed in the head with a hammer for his troubles, beginning an increasingly harrowing series of adventures.
“Burning” (2018) — When a handsome drifter confesses to a new friend that he loves burning down greenhouses, is he really talking about greenhouses? Or is it code for something else, something that may have to do with the disappearance of a mutual friend? Lee Chang-dong’s creepy drama forces us to question the things we think we understand, whether it’s in scenes of a man agreeing to feed a cat he never lays eyes on or a budding actor confiding that the secret to pantomiming the eating of a tangerine is not to pretend it exists but to forget that it doesn’t.
“The Chaser” (2008) — Warner Bros. once planned to remake this pulse-pounding and oddly funny melodrama but who needs an English-language version when the original is so accomplished? It’s a bit like “Silence of the Lambs” in that it comes down to a battle of wits between a cop and a serial killer who seems to take delight in stringing along the cop. Most of the time, it’s hard to tell who’s chasing whom in Na Hong-jin’s gruesome movie, which gets bloodier and bloodier as its detectives follow one false lead after another.
“I Saw the Devil” (2010) — Of all the cat-and-mouse games on this list, this is the cat-and-mousiest: A detective keeps capturing and releasing a killer, just to mess with him. The elegant filmmaking of murder auteur Brian De Palma (“Carrie”) is all over Kim Jee-woon’s stylized movie, which is suspenseful, grisly and oddly beautiful. Even the beautiful, mournful score by Mowg recalls Pino Donaggio’s work for De Palma.
“The Handmaiden” (2016) — Park took Sarah Waters’ bestseller “Fingersmith,” about one Englishwoman educating another in the art of picking pockets, shifted the action to Korea under Japanese occupation and made it way, way more perverted. When a pickpocket is hired to be a maid to a lady she pretends to worship, the women’s psychosexual battle of wits plays out in a setting that is both erotic and gasp-inducingly pretty.
“Memories of Murder” (2003) — One of the earliest in the recent wave of South Korean movies is also my favorite Bong movie — and, yes, I’ve seen “Parasite.” Surprise! It’s about a serial killer. The maniac, who preys on young women in a rural area, eludes an in-over-his-head cop (Song Kang-ho again) who keeps finding new people to wrongly suspect. Sad and suspenseful, “Memories of Murder” is a puzzle that’s also about the difficulty of ever getting at the truth.
“Oasis” (2002) — I’m only allowing myself two Lee Chang-dong movies on this list, but his “Poetry” and “Secret Sunshine” (the latter starring the ubiquitous Song Kang-ho) are almost as good as this devastating romance, which climaxes with a shivery scene in which a woman with cerebral palsy imagines herself into a world where her disease doesn’t confine her.
“Oldboy” (2003) — Maybe you’ve seen Spike Lee’s not-terrible remake starring Josh Brolin? Or maybe you’ve heard the original is a thriller in which a guy eats a live octopus in front of our eyes? This claustrophobic masterpiece, which won the Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Film Festival, features a guy waking to find himself locked in a tiny room, where he’s held prisoner for years. After he finally escapes, he has some questions about why he was imprisoned and who he needs to slaughter in revenge.
“Train to Busan” (2016) — Trains figure in almost as many of the Korean movies that make their way to the U.S. as do serial killers (think of, for instance, Bong’s “Snowpiercer,” entirely set on a car in which the have-nots battle the haves). This one’s a thrill-a-minute movie in which the zombie apocalypse happens just as an absentee father is escorting his daughter home. “Busan” is endlessly inventive and full of macabre humor, but it’s also an emotionally satisfying drama about a man doing everything he can to keep his kid safe.