Parasite made history when it became the first non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture this week. The much deserved – but somewhat unexpected – victory is hoped to inspire a global appeal for Korean films (and hopefully more international works in general too).
But it does raise a pertinent question: why are we only seeing South Korean films come to the fore in 2020?
South Korean cinema has been active since the mid-20th century, with a golden age between 1955 and 1972. But the industry's renaissance, which began in 1997, saw the creation of some truly unforgettable works.Whether you're a film buff that's looking to expand your must-watch list or are only just venturing into the world of Korean cinema, here are some films we've highlighted for you to watch:
Park Chan-wook's Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and has earned the praise of directors Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee. It is the kind of movie that will have you on the edge of your seat for the full two hours.
The film follows the story of Oh Dae-su, who is imprisoned in a cell that looks like a hotel room. Though he’s been held there for 15 years, he has no idea who his captor is or what his motives are. After he is finally released, he finds himself in a spider’s web of conspiracy and violence. His quest for vengeance is further complicated when he falls in love with a sushi chef.
Be mentally prepared for the worst when you watch this film, and whatever you do, do not watch the 2013 remake with Josh Brolin.
I Saw The Devil (2010)
Keeping up with the theme of vengeance, there's Kim Jee-woon's I Saw The Devil. The 2010 thriller follows an NIS (National Intelligence Service) agent as he embarks on a quest for revenge after his fiancee is murdered by a serial killer.
The movie never flinches in its conical descent towards violence and depravity. Rolling Stone magazine placed the film in the top 20 list of "the scariest movies you've never seen". Like with Oldboy, be prepared for the worst with this one. By the end of it, you'll see where it gets its title from.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Bong Joon-Ho has become a household name overnight with his quadruple Oscar win, but ardent film fans know that he’s been making classics for the last two decades.
Memories of Murder is a crime thriller that relentlessly grips and captivates you. If you're a fan of the David Fincher film Zodiac or the first season of True Detective then look no further than this. An added bonus is that Parasite star Song Kang-Ho also stars in this film.
My Sassy Girl (2001)
The 2001 romantic comedy My Sassy Girl was very successful in Korea upon its release. Directed by Kwak Jae-yong, the film is often considered one that has helped Korean cinema break into the international scene.
The movie is split into three parts to tell the tale of a seemingly mismatched couple who fall in love. The three parts act as different timelines in their relationship, interwoven to tell how they came to be. It's the twist at the end that makes the film so special.
My Sassy Girl has been remade as a film and TV series many times, including an American remake in 2008.
Castaway on the Moon (2009)
Let's lighten up the atmosphere, shall we? Castaway on the Moon by Lee Hae-jun is a romantic movie that follows the love story between a suicidal man turned castaway and a woman who is addicted to South Korean social network service Cyworld.
The film starts off with Kim Seong-geun, who is deep in debt, jumping off a bridge into the Han River and washing up on the shore of Bamseom, which lies directly below the bridge. A funny and touching film, and an original take on the rom-com genre. Like with Oldboy, don't bother with the 2011 remake.
The Host (2006)
Another one of Bong's films, The Host is a genre binding action adventure about a monster unleashed upon an unsuspecting Seoul. With lots of social commentary and great creature effects that look better than most Hollywood films released today, The Host is perfect if you're looking for an unconventional experience. Surprise, it also stars constant collaborator, Song Kang-Ho.
The Wailing (2016)
Perhaps the most "Korean" film you might see, Na Hong-jin's The Wailing is deeply steeped in Asian magic lore, but is also very accessible for a global audience.
What sets it apart is the long running time (it's two hours and 36 minutes) and the ability to suck you in and not give you too much information about what you're watching. At the time of its release, we think The Wailing should have at least received a Best Foreign Film nomination at the Oscars.
Train to Busan (2016)
Yeon Sang-ho's drama-zombie thriller Train to Busan was a massive success when it came out. It reportedly had more than 11 million moviegoers see it in South Korea and it is also the highest-grossing Korean film in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.
The film mostly takes place on a train as a zombie apocalypse breaks out in the country and threatens all the passengers. While it may seem like a typical horror film, there's more than meets the eye and it wouldn't be surprising if a tear or two was shed before the end of the movie.
Sunny is a 2011 comedy-drama by Kang Hyeong-cheol and tells the story of a group of high school friends who try to fulfill their friend's dying wish by reuniting. The film switches between two timelines: the present day where they are middle-aged and back in the 1980s when they are in high school and thus helps the viewer understand their friendship even more. Much like any good film, there are a range of reactions that it will elicit: laughter and tears included.
Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017)
Kim Yong-hwa's epic fantasy action film features an all-star cast and is the fourth highest-grossing film of all-time in South Korea. Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds follows a firefighter who heroically dies in the line of duty and is taken to the afterlife where he must undergo seven separate trials to evaluate his life on Earth. His journey is helped by three guardians.
The film was adapted from a popular Korean web-comic and much like many great movies (can you start to see a pattern here?), everything is not as it seems. There's also a sequel that's been released called Along with the Gods: The Last 49 days.