I review my cinema professor’s Korean film recommendations
There’s more to Korean movies than Train to Busan and Parasite.
To those that know me, it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Korean popular culture. From following K-pop stars like Baekhyun to binge watching dramas like Vincenzo, I like to keep tabs on the latest happenings in the ‘Koreasphere’.
So imagine my surprise when I wasn’t familiar with a single film on my Korean cinema elective’s syllabus. My professor— who is Korean— is a certified cinema connoisseur. He has written books on film history, and supposedly curated only the best that his national cinema has to offer in this module — so did he deliver on this promise?
Here are my ratings for some of the most memorable films that I watched this semester.
1. Memories of Murder (2003)
This thriller has nothing but unexpected twists and turns that left me gripping my seat. Directed by the critically acclaimed Bong Joon-Ho, the film follows detectives Park (played by Song Kang-Ho) and Seo (played by Kim Sang-Kyung) as they work to solve the crimes of a serial murderer and rapist in Gyeonggi Province. The film is based on a real-life case that was actually solved in 2019, 16 years after the film’s release.
What makes this film brilliant is how Bong Joon-Ho forces the audience to look straight into the eyes of the killer, only to question their judgement. It’s quickly joined my very short list of films I’d gladly watch repeatedly.
2. Oldboy (2003)
A cult classic with a shocking twist, this neo-noir film by Park Chan-Wook has divided its audiences — it’s either you’ll love it or you hate it. Protagonist Oh Dae-Su (played by Choi Min-Sik) is released after being unknowingly trapped in a hotel room for 15 years, and meets sushi chef Mi-do (played by Kang Hye-Jung). The pair fall in love, but Dae-Su discovers that their relationship harbours a dark secret.
A shocking insight into the psychology of vengeance, Park has truly created a masterpiece. My only criticism would be how ridiculous the villain Yoo Ji-Tae’s (Lee Woo-Jin) motives are, which makes the film’s resolution difficult to swallow.
3. March of Fools (1975)
Considered by some to be one of the best Korean films of all time, this romantic comedy by Ha Gil-Jong is a nostalgic trip to vintage Korea. Philosophy major Byeong-Tae (played by Yun Mun-Seop) courts French literature student Yeong-Ja (played by Lee Young-Ok) only to find himself strung along by her indecisiveness.
Ha’s project, produced during former President Park Chung-Hee’s authoritarian regime, is a poignant look into the dilemma of choosing to survive or following your youthful dreams.
With charismatic characters and a powerful storyline, I was fully immersed into this world that I hadn’t seen before. That being said, the pacing is a tad bit slow, and lacks action to capture a contemporary audience that may be used to blockbuster-style action sequences.
4. A Taxi Driver (2017)
Get ready for the waterworks. Based on German journalist Jurgen Hinzpeter’s experiences during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, director Jang Hoon’s genre-bending production centers around how Seoul taxi driver Kim Man-Seob (played by Song Kang-Ho) rediscovers his humanity.
I reveled in how bittersweet the ending was, which inspired me to want to be more fearless in life. The narrative makes it easy to empathise with not only the main characters, but the plight of Korea in the 1980s. Truly an unforgettable film, considering my classmates and I were bawling our eyes out.
5. After My Death (2017)
Haunting, depressing, and just plain… confusing? This independent production by Kim Ui-Seok about manipulation and teenage relationships follows Young-Hee’s (played by Jeon Yeo-Been) attempts to take her life after her friend’s suicide.
The film’s genre is psychological horror, and leaves a lasting impression with viscerally violent scenes that made me wince. While it explores sensitive themes in a fresh way, Kim offers no resolution to the mysteries and left me confused and exhausted. I can’t say that I recommend this film unless you enjoy abstract endings.
Korea’s film industry has raised the bar of global cinema’s storytelling and aesthetics, and I have been converted into a fan. It’s become my favourite part of the K-Wave renaissance — now whenever I visit the theatre, the first thing I look for is a Korean movie.