Most cinephiles eventually see the limits of what Hollywood has to offer, and even the most amateur movie buffs often reach the edge of Netflix with nothing left to watch. Luckily there’s more to cinema than half-assed reboots and Chris Pratt’s abs; If you’re willing to read some subtitles and flex a little cultural consideration Korean film can be a deeply satisfying experience.
Korea steps into the ring with production values and directorial prowess rivaling the best that North America has to offer, and often the story telling devices used in their films are fresh in comparison to the clichés that flood the big box office (I’m talking to you Star Wars).
Below are four of my favorite Korean flicks (mostly available on Netflix). This list is curated based on my opinion alone, but opinions are all I’ve got to offer, so try and be grateful for what I have to give. I think we can all agree to keep the spoilers on the down-low.
1. The Wailing
This horror-thriller, written and directed by Na Hong-jin, is a must see for anyone who loves a good scare. It’s one of the rare horror films which master both the jump-scare and the psychological spookiness that lingers for weeks. The plot revolves around a mysterious illness driving citizens of a small rural village to violence and madness; seamlessly flowing between reality and dreamscape, the movie is always two steps ahead of the viewer and steadily lays down surprises and intrigue. By the time the credits roll you’ll have a dozen theories running through your head and a nagging desire to watch the movie again and again.
2. Memories of Murders
The second film by Bong Joon-ho, one of Koreas most commercially successful and iconic directors. Based on the true story of South Korea’s first documented serial killer; the narrative follows a team of small-town detectives who find themselves in over their heads while investigating a string of sexually charged murders. Though their policing methods are unprofessional (and at times despicable), the main crew of characters remain likeable despite all their efforts to make the viewer hate them. The film is technically a drama, but the pacing feels much more like a thriller, and the impeccable performances by the lead actors should impress even the most critical thespian. On top of all that, this movie is full of insane dropkicks that will make any wrestling fan wet in the trousers.
Bedevilled is the directorial debut of Jang Cheol-soo, and though it was made on a minuscule budget it was wildly successful in it’s domestic release, and has since become a cult classic around the world. It is difficult to say much about this one without giving the horse away with the saddle, however it should be stated that this is an entirely unique movie, hovering between genres it covers topics such as poverty, upward mobility in traditional cultures, domestic abuse, infidelity, and revenge. Though the first half hour of the film may require some patience, the rest of the movie flies by with well paced execution.
From legendary director Park Chan-wook, Oldboy has action, drama, intrigue, character development, and the kind of twists and turns that would make M. Night Shyamalan cream himself super hard. This one is not for those with weak nerves, it keeps you on the edge of your seat for the duration of the film, and the film’s conclusion will leave you ethically confused for years to come.
5. The Treacherous
This period piece is twisted and shocking the whole way through, and entirely inappropriate for children and good Christians. It is based on the true story of Koreas most notorious leader, Emperor Yeonsan, who ruled with violence and tyranny; aided by equally maleficent magistrates who encouraged his sexual deviance and cravings for violence. The story revolves around Yeonsan’s most infamous crime against his people; kidnapping the wives and daughters of aristocrats who imprisoned him and forcing them to train in the concubine arts as members of his own private harem. There is hardly a single redeemable character in the whole film, and parts of it are even gut churning, but it plays like an airplane crash: you can’t look away.