The hidden gems of Korean cinema

Following Parasite’s historic best picture win at the Oscars in February, Korean cinema has finally started getting the attention it deserves.

For years, many Korean masterpieces have gone under the radar of the western world. In fact, some would argue that Parasite isn’t even director Bong Joon-ho’s best film. In particular, Korean cinema constantly produces outstanding films in the thriller sub-genres.

‘Train to Busan’ is one that certainly fits into this category. The movie follows Seok-woo as he brings his daughter Su-an to Busan by train for her birthday. As the train departs the station, a visibly ill woman enters one of the carriages. The woman turns into a zombie and attacks an employee on the train. As more people are infected on board, Seok-woo tries to protect his daughter from the outbreak.

Despite the description, Train to Busan is so much more than a generic zombie film. It has very well-developed secondary characters and is surprisingly an intensely emotional roller coaster. The film is directed by Yeon Sang-ho and is really worth a viewing, particularly if you have an interest in zombie movies.

Another fantastic Korean director of the thriller genre is Kim Jee-woon, who effortlessly manipulates the audience’s emotions. One of Jee-woon’s best pieces of work is ‘I Saw the Devil’, which begins with a lady called Jang Joo who is driving home on a snowy night when she gets a flat tire and must pull over.

She calls her fiancé, trained secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon to let him know her car has broken down. This is the last time Kim hears from Jang before her discarded body parts are discovered in a local river. He then goes on a desperate journey to brutally avenge his fiancée’s death.

The story is an extreme cautionary tale of what revenge can do to a person. The name of the film refers to three people: Jang Joo’s killer, Kim Soo-hyeon on his path to revenge and you, the viewer, for willing Kim towards an act of complete revenge.

A major reason for the film’s success is a terrifying performance from Choi Min-sik, who plays the antagonist, Jang Kyung-chul.

Choi Min-sik also plays the main character in one of the few Korean films that is somewhat known outside of Asia. In yet another disturbing viewing, Choi plays the character of family man Oh Dae-su, in Park Chan-wook’s neo-noir thriller, Oldboy.

The film sees Oh Dae-su trapped in a cell for 15 years for reasons unknown until he is abruptly released from captivity. Oh Dae-su attempts to seek vengeance without yet knowing the identity of his captor and tries to unravel the mystery of his imprisonment.

Oldboy is a mystifying classic and when you think you’ve got the movie figured out; the rug is completely pulled from beneath you.

Though Oldboy is Park Chan-wook’s best-known film, it truly pales in comparison to his erotic psychological thriller, ‘The Handmaiden’.

For numerous reasons, this movie is nothing short of an absolute masterpiece. The film is based on the novel ‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters.

It follows a Korean conman, using the alias of Count Fujiwara who seeks the help of pickpocket Sook-hee to woo Japanese heiress Lady Hideko and steal her inheritance.

Everything about it is stunning. The cinematography is breath-taking. The performances from Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as Lady Hideko and Sook-hee are incredible and it contains one of the best second acts in the history of cinema.

When it comes to underappreciated Korean movies, however, nothing comes close to ‘Memories of a Murder’.

If you’re a fan of Korean cinema, you may consider this crime drama to be Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus, rather than Parasite. The film is loosely based on true Korean serial murders which happened in the mid-80s.

Two small time incompetent police officers, Park and his partner Cho lead a murder investigation. When the bodies of more women are found, the officers realise they are dealing with a serial killer.

Memories of a murder is beautifully directed and gives a masterclass in ensemble staging. You will forever struggle to find a film that juggles comedy and drama as uniquely as this one.

Detective Park is played by Song Kang-ho, who also plays the father Kim Ki-taek in Parasite.

Seán Power

Image credit: Flickr