Over the last two years, South Korea has produced some of the world’s most innovative and exciting feature films. While the quality of these movies is outstanding, and unanimously recognized by the film critics at major award ceremonies, it is their unique perspective that makes them special. This – and the various cultural aspects, the movies set out to explore – make the viewers lust for new features. But that is nothing new, South Korean films have been “trending” with the audiences for at least a decade!
In the 2000’s, we saw a market that was dominated by either traditional Western or Hollywood motion pictures. But that dynamic started to slowly change towards the end of the decade. Since then, some of the most loved and highly-acclaimed titles have come from South Korea.
The country is firmly on its way to establishing itself as one of the top movie-makers. This year was a testament to this recent turn of events. Even at award shows that largely focus on US-made films, South Koreans stole the spotlight. Seoul-based actors, directors and producers were suddenly at the center of it all!
So let’s look at some of the best motion pictures produced in South Korea over the last decade.
Probably one of the most talked-about movies of the year, Parasite became an instant classic upon its release. There is nothing quite like Parasite in this year’s repertoire and the reviews and feedback from the movie community have been extremely positive.
Parasite is a story of two families. One of them lives in the worst part of town, having to scam their way through life, just to stay afloat. In contrast, the other family is overwhelmingly privileged and wealthy. But everything changes for the Kim family when their son’s friend suggests that he should take over in his job as an English tutor, since he will be leaving to study abroad. This kickstarts an elaborate plan, where the struggling family poses as a group of well-trained workers – who slowly begin to take over the house, offering the rich family their services as a driver, housekeeper, and an art therapist, all the while pretending that they do not know each other. The movie is filled with outstanding performances, beautiful montages and a complex yet realistic plot twists that keep you on the edge of your seat. The plot is nothing like what you have seen in the past few years – which is exactly why the film has been getting so much attention.
There are already talks about the possibility of making a spin-off TV series. What else is there to say? The general public is brimming with excitement about seeing more from the South Korean director, Bong Joon-ho.
It is hard to believe that the film was released almost 20 years ago – considering how fresh and relevant it feels today. It is definitely one of the most exciting South Korean movies of all time. Oldboy is a neo-noir action thriller, based on a Japanese comic book with the same title.
The movie was co-written and directed by Paul Cahn-wook. Oldboy is a story of Oh Dae-Su, a man who has spent the last 15 years locked in a cell, which is supposed to mimic the interior of a hotel room. The main character has no recollection of how he got here, nor who his captor is. When he is finally released from the cell, he finds himself confused in the middle of a violent scene. The movie closely follows his journey as he attempts to get revenge, while trying to figure out what got him into this mess in the first place. There is also a love element in the movie: the captured Oh Dae-Su falls in love with a sushi chef, who he meets during his quest. The movie is a classic and has since become “the favorite South Korean movie” for many film buffs. There was even an American remake ten years later (directed by none other than Spike Lee), but it failed to get the same level of success or recognition as the original one.
Oldboy remains one of the most original action films out there and has immediately helped to popularise South Korean movies, catching on with different audiences worldwide.
Tazza: High Rollers (2006)
Tazza: High Rollers is one of the highest quality releases in its sub-genre, gambling films. It came out in 2006 and became South Korea’s second highest grossing film that year, selling 6,847,777 admissions across the country.
The film was directed by Choi Dong-hoon and is centered around a South Korean group of gamblers. The main character, Goni, loses all his money – along with his savings and the money he stole from his family, while playing with a couple of cheat gamblers. He decides that he will retrieve all of his money, no matter the cost. He starts training with the most famous gamblers in the country to improve his skills, with the hopes of winning it all back. In the process, Goni ends up becoming famous, traveling to casinos all over South Korea and playing with different groups each night. When the word spreads, the chief of the illegal gambling operation, Madam Joeng, takes interest in Goni. She offers him to join her elaborate scheme. While working together, Goni starts to develop feelings for Joeng. The story takes off from there.
Gambling is a topic that is very easy to portray in the wrong light. There are countless films that show different sides of gambling. But it takes a special “take” to keep the movie exciting, making the audience care for the outcome of the game. Gambling movies often get discarded just because the director has no idea about how the gambling scene actually works. Tazza is a rare exception to the rule – it manages to translate the excitement onto the screen. The pressure, different abilities and skills to survive and win at high roller casino – in our humble opinion, Tazza portrays that side of gambling better than any other movie!
Another South Korean classic called Mother follows the complicated life of a mother – and her only son. The son has a mental disability and is known to get quite aggressive when provoked.
The mother has no name, but we know that she runs an illegal acupuncture service in her house and sells medicinal herbs to people. The main plotline of the movie thickens when the son is accused of murdering a girl, soon after the police find the body. The son is the only suspect in sight, being in the same place as the victim on night of the murder. The boy is arrested immediately, leaving the mother alone. She has no resources to help get him out. The mother ends up hiring a lawyer, even though their services are strictly out of the family’s budget. To her dismay, the lawyer ends up being a fraud. The mother has to pull through and defend her son, asking for the community for help, all while trying to find the killer all by herself.
Throughout the movie, we get to bear witness to the hidden side of the mother-son relationship. We get to learn more about how the two managed to get by and survive for all these years, while the mother tries her hardest to prove that her son is innocent.
Memories of Murder (2003)
The last South Korean movie we discuss on this list is called Memories of Murder. It also belongs to the crime drama category of films. Shot and co-written by the (aforementioned) star director Bong Joon-ho, the story follows the case of South Korea’s first serial murders.
The murders began in 1986 – when a young woman was found raped and murdered in the middle of nowhere. Detectives Park and Seo get on the case, trying to solve the mystery after a similar case pops up, weeks after the initial murder. Detective Park is overwhelmed, since this is his first case of this rank or caliber. He is struggling with the job and asks those who are close to him for help. His girlfriend suggests that he should rely on his instincts and pay close attention to eye contact when he questions the suspects. The young detective finds this method quite helpful. During his next interview, which happens to be with a mentally disabled boy who lives in the same town, he convinces himself that he is in fact the murderer. Since the case is moving along too slowly, professional detectives from Seoul come to offer their help. Finally, three detectives take an individual approach to the case and figure out who the murderer is on their own terms.
The movie received international praise for the riveting plot, direction and outstanding performances. It is still one of the best South Korean movies and is widely considered to be a hallmark production in its own genre.