An Abridged Initiation to Modern South Korean Cinema7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
South Korean films have always been a contender on the world stage. The industry saw its golden age in the 50s to 70s, and has been steadily going through a renaissance since the 90s. With the New Wave of Korean movies, not to mention Bong Joon-ho’s momentous Oscar win for Parasite, it’s clear that South Korean cinema is currently in the spotlight.
If you’re unsure where to start, here’s a list of films to get yourself versed with South Korean cinema – from celebrated names, to lesser known but equally talented filmmakers.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok 싸이보그지만 괜찮아
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Im Soo-jung, Rain
Runtime: 107 minutes
Park Chan-wook is most known for his dark action-thriller Vengeance Trilogy, with Oldboy (2003) garnering him the most attention. I’m personally a fan of this trilogy, so I was pleasantly surprised when I first watched the starkly different tone of I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok. It’s an off-beat romantic comedy set in a psychiatric hospital filled with an eccentric party of patients (I know it sounds absurd, but stay with me).
With Cyborg, Park proves that he’s no one-trick pony. The story sees us follow the peculiar journey of a young girl who believes herself to be a cyborg. Young-goon (Im Soo-jung) meets Il-sun (Rain), who was admitted before her for kleptomania. They strike an unexpected friendship, which eventually blossoms into romance.
The eccentric plot definitely reels you in, but my personal favourite aspect of the film is its striking technical style. The cinematography and art direction come together in beautiful harmony, perfectly fitting the witty and bizarre nature of the film. Park also uses pastel and primary colours thoughtfully, symbolizing the central themes in the film
There’s a strange charm in Park’s subversive Cyborg; I found the story amusing but also slightly unnerving. After all, it’s set in an asylum. But his nuanced artistry is what makes Park such an impressive director. Cyborg is also a great example of technical mastery in South Korean cinema.
Cyborg is available on Amazon Prime.
The President’s Barber 효자동 이발사
Director: Im Chan-sang
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Moon So-ri
Runtime: 116 minutes
This comedy drama from Im Chan-sang follows a simple and impressionable barber Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) and his family as they get involved in the political scene during the 60s. The story starts off innocently enough; when Han-mo becomes the president’s personal barber, everyone is elated by this prestige.
But the 60s was a time of political unrest, with South Korea falling into a military regime and getting involved with the Vietnam war. Soon, the movie takes a tragic turn, with Han-mo’s misplaced beliefs getting his family into trouble.
Watching The President’s Barber is a peculiar experience; I often found myself wondering if I should be finding situations in the film amusing given the tragic historical circumstances. This tragi-comedy take on South Korean history humanises the film, by giving us a more personal affinity with the characters’ lives.
Films about history are usually either too matter-of-fact and impersonal or violence-laden that it’s hard to get truly personally attached to the characters. However, Im’s ensemble are very much recognisable; they’re well-meaning but imperfect, using humour to deal with their misfortunes.
We’re not given with a black-and-white picture of life, where the line between good and bad is clear. Our lives are often a jumble of grey dilemmas and disillusionment. This film is an appropriate introduction to the nuances in writing and directing that make South Korean films so accessible, yet compellingly unique.
The President’s Barber is available for streaming on Netflix.
Director: Im Kwon-taek
Cast: Lee Hyo-jeong, Cho Seung-woo
Runtime: 133 minutes
The richness of traditional Korean culture has always provided filmmakers with a distinctive flair in their works. Im Kwon-taek is internationally acclaimed for his works that are often based on traditional Korean stories and fairy tales. Any discussion about modern classics in Korean cinema wouldn’t be complete without Im Kwon-Taek. Chunhyang is one of my favourites, and in my opinion, the most accessible.
Chunhyang has the magic and optimism of fairy tales, but also the tragedies that folk stories often warn us about. It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers; the daughter of a courtesan and the son of a governor fall in love, and the odds are against them. The lovers’ fates take a horrific turn, but are eventually reunited for the happy ending we come to fairy tales for.
The film is essentially a musical. It’s told through the traditional art-form of pansori where the lyrics of the Korean fairytale, Chunhyangga, is sung to narrate the story. I’m by no means an expert in traditional Korean culture, so I can’t make any claims about the accuracy of the story. But watching Im’s retelling of the story is memorable; it tells a familiar fairy tale about love through a distinctly Korean voice.
Chunhyang is available to watch on Youtube.
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Cast: Yoo Ah-In, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo
Runtime: 148 minutes
Lee Chang-dong is known for his visceral filmmaking approach, usually tackling themes of psychological trauma. Unlike his usual melodramatic works, Burning is a haunting thriller that reads as an allegory for class inequalities and social anxieties.
Lee shows us two very different sides of Korea – the cold, capitalistic world of the wealthy, and the one where unemployment and financial desperation is rampant. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is an aspiring novelist who is struggling to make ends meet. He is reunited with his old schoolmate, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who is also financially unstable. She meets the affluent Ben (Steven Yeun) on her soul-searching trip to Africa, which becomes the start of a slippery slope down to madness.
It’s no wonder that Burning received critical acclaim; it’s as well-written as it is executed. Burning is a modern horror story, revealing the true horrors of our lives to be the inescapable economic and existential despair. As a lover of horror and thriller movies, Burning affected me in ways that the films in the genre usually does. This is characteristic of recent Korean films like Parasite, that delve deep into the psyche and point out the anxieties we may not even know we had.
Burning is available on Amazon Prime.
There’s a wide selection of exceptional Korean films out there, so narrowing it down to these movies was hard. But I chose these films according to my personal opinion on how to showcase the artistic diversity of Korean cinema. Once you get a taste of their talent, a whole world of creativity will be opened for you.