2020’s Best Picture winner, Parasite, might have been your first first foray into the world of Korean cinema. To be frank, you’re not alone. A lot of people are just dipping their collective toe into the water. That’s an issue when it comes to American cinema—we tend to miss a lot of what doesn’t exist inside our bubble. A few revered films may hop the international boarders, but on the up and up, we don’t take a lot of effort to veer out of mainstream American film culture and into anyone else’s lane. But if you’re looking to expand your international cinema experience, Korea is an incredible place to start.
In terms of countries offering a rich film history, Korea has to be near the top of that list. From sultry thrillers that define Korean cinema, like The Housemaid, all the way to Korean-American crossovers like this year’s beloved, Minari, Korean film has a vibe all its own. Fun fact: The Korean Classic Film channel on YouTube has an expansive library of classic films, if you really want to go back.
So how do you take an entire country’s library of films and decide which is the best for a newbie? Great question. What we’ve done below is take a smattering of classics, recent favorites, and staples that have helped define the genre as it operates today. Yes, Parasite is on the list, if you missed that phenom. But so is Chilsu and Mansu, which redefined the industry as Korea knows it. And then there’s Oldboy, which… well. We’ll let you figure that out on your own.
Jump in and get deep into the world of Korean film. And when you devour these handful of films, keep going.
Where to begin—this 2003 mind-fuck revenge story is probably South Korea’s most famous film before Parasite came along. Spawning a pitiful American re-make, Oldboy should only be watched in it’s original form, directed by Park Chan-Wook. Inspired by Oedipus the King—so take that as a warning—the film won numerous awards and has garnered an international cult following. So if you’re a film buff and haven’t watched Oldboy yet, what are you doing?
My Sassy Girl (2001)
Directed by Kwak Jae-Yong, 2001’s My Sassy Girl is one of Korea’s most highly regarded romantic comedies of all time. The movie dominated Korean mainstream culture upon its release, and catapulted its two stars (Jun Ji-hyun and Cha Tae-hyun) to A-list stardom. Marked with authentic chemistry and subtle hilarity in every scene, the movie is a must watch.
Another classic from 2001, Friend is a powerful story of four childhood friends coming of age in South Korea during the ’70s. The film follows the foursome as they grapple with loyalty, jealousy, and forgiveness, as two friends go to college and the other two become rival gang members. Scorsese-esque, it’s the kind of movie that gets better with each watch. Between its masterful storytelling and accuracy of 1970s South Korean life, Friend has become a staple in any fan’s canon.
The Housemaid (1960)
When talking about Korean cinema, you’d be remiss to not include The Housemaid. Directed by Kim Ki-young, the film is the first in a trilogy of femme fatale movies. (Another of the bunch is on the list as well.) The Housemaid is revered as one of the greatest Korean films of all time and is so beloved that it was remade (to critical acclaim) in 2010, fifty years after the fact.
The Host (2006)
Yes, we have Parasite on here, but if you want another look at Bong Joon-Ho’s repertoire, check out his monster-horror flick, The Host. Always one for a bit of commentary, the movie monster comes to be after American military personnel dump toxic waste into the Han river. Classic Americans.
Woman of Fire (1971)
A follow up to The Housemaid, Woman of Fire or (Hwan-yeo) takes place on a chicken farm and follows a then-unknown Youn Yuh-jung as she assumes the role of a housemaid whose intentions seem pure until she is overtaken by darkness and plagues a family in the most horrific ways.
2011’s Sunny is a feel good comedy that follows a group of girls who formed a tight friendship in high school in the ’80s after one of them gets bullied for being the new girl in school. Fast-forward to present day: they’ve lost touch with each other, but two reconnect serendipitously at the hospital. Of course, that impromptu reunion means one thing: it’s time to get the gang back together again.
Fresh off his stint on The Walking Dead, Steven Yeun stars in Burning: a psychological thriller whose main weapon is keeping you on the edge of your seat. The unease in the film is more powerful than the plot itself, and it’s all due to Lee Chang-dong’s brilliant writing and directing. Not to spoil it, the plot is as simple as this: when two childhood friends run into a charming young man, one of them questions if their new companion is as his seems.
Train to Busan (2016)
We’re going to put on our Snobby Zombie Film Hat and just say it: If you haven’t seen Train to Busan, you can’t call yourself a real zombie movie fan. Sorry! The 2016 thriller is revered as one of the best in the genre. It’s truly the worst train you’d ever want to be on, but a feast of a film for zombie movie fans.
Chilsu and Mansu (1988)
Chilsu and Mansu is a signpost film for Korea. Directed by Park Kwang-su, the film depicts two men in late ’80s Korea, navigating the throes of young adulthood, but what it evolves into is so much more. Released at the time when South Korea was democratizing, the film is the visual representation of rebelliousness and cultural change in a time of unrest. It also went on to influence films for years and years.
The Man From Nowhere (2010)
What would a Korean action movie be without the burning desire for vengeance? The Man from Nowhere is a story of a lone wolf ex-con who befriends a little girl who wanders into his pawn shop. She lives a floor below with her mother, a heroin addict who ends up hiding drugs she stole from a drug-and-organ trafficking kingpin in his shop. When the mother and child get kidnapped, it’s up to the man from nowhere to save his only friend.
Ok, we cheated a but. This film, directed by American Lee Isaac Chung, is set in America, but it’s a powerful portrait of immigration in the ’80s. A major awards contender in 2021, Minari offers a glimpse into the meshing of two worlds: pride in Korean culture and an acclimation to the American Midwest.
The Handmaiden (2016)
If there’s a film you’ve heard of on this list, it’s likely The Handmaiden. Released in 2016, the erotic thriller has the classic “upstairs/downstairs” motif and is split into three different parts, continually playing with the mind of the viewer.
Christmas in August (1998)
In a litany of dramas, erotic thrillers, and horror, there’s Christmas in August. Don’t let the title fool you. The late ’90s film became a blueprint for a lot of Korean filmmakers, marrying romance, drama, and inventive metaphors into one film that set the standard for the genre in Korean filmmaking. The film is still studied and analyzed in film studies classes today.
Yeah, we had to do it to you. The first foreign language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Parasite is part of the reason Americans are seeking out lists like this. Bong Joon Ho’s dark film about class warfare became an immediate classic and is responsible for opening a lot of American eyes to the treasure trove of cinema that’s been coming out of Korea for years.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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