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We here at Headstuff loved new release Burning, a strange blend of social drama and Hitchcockian mystery. In fact, it could be an early contender for best film of 2019. That said, it is only the latest entry in a series of stellar South Korean thrillers. With their enhanced grittiness, more morally ambiguous characters and a willingness to push boundaries, they leave American counterparts in the dust.
Shiri (1999) – Dir Kang Je-gyu
A great entry point for Western audiences, Shiri was South Korea’s first attempt at crafting a blockbuster to rival Hollywood and other Asian cinema following an economic boom in the country. It centres on a South Korean agent on the trail of an elusive North Korean female assassin who has resurfaced and is seeking to get her hands on a new experimental bomb capable of destroying cities.
Fans of John Woo will get a kick out of Shiri’s hyper-kinetic action and spy intrigue. However, its the exciting twists, moments of dark comedy and exploration of paranoia surrounding reunification with North Korea which feel distinct to the country. Also, watch out for great supporting turns from future leading men Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host and Thirst) and Choi Min-Sik (I Saw the Devil, Oldboy), the latter akin to a South Korean Gary Oldman. Stephen Porzio
Memories of Murder (2003) – Dir Bong Joon-ho
Far more original and distinct than Shiri is Memories of Murder, based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders in history. Set over 17 years, it follows an older less formal local cop, Park (Kang-ho), and a young idealistic officer, Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), from Seoul as they attempt to find a killer who targets his victims when it rains.
While the rural setting looks gorgeous and Joon-ho stages not only some thrilling action but terrifying scenes of the killer stalking his victims – often hiding above them in trees – what stands out about Memories of Murder is its story. The viewer really gets a sense of the effect these killings have on the local community. It’s as if the violence has upset the natural order, with both the locals and police’s fear and interest in the case leading to more chaos.
Without sanding off any rough edges, Memories of Murder is also a very moral film, criticising the desperate police’s torturing of suspects for information. Each act of violence comes back to bite the cops in some way as the movie progresses. Meanwhile, its heartbreaking to watch the youthful confidence of Seo disintegrate, growing wearier until he finally snaps in the climactic scene.
The Host (2006) – Dir Bong Joon-ho
No, not the Saoirse Ronan film. Yes, the film about the mutant fish monster that attacks Seoul. By the end of its run in 2006 The Host was the most successful South Korean movie ever made up to that point.
Coming off of Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho has had a run of success making films about the country’s and the world’s downtrodden with Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017). Yet, The Host is his most personal and probably best work. Ostensibly a creature-feature horror film, it’s surprisingly tender and a lot funnier than it should be.
In 2000, American army doctors pour gone-off formaldehyde down a drain. In 2006, a mutated fish emerges from a river and swallows Park Gang-du’s (Kang-ho again) daughter (Go Ah-sung). What follows is a comedy of errors rescue mission by the bumbling Park, his nagging father, overachieving sister and alcoholic brother.
The Host has a lot to say about America’s effect on South Korea but it also indicts uncaring politicians and inept protesters. Plus, the flopping, ungainly creature is a sight to behold and ranks as one of the most original monsters in the modern cinematic landscape. Andrew Carroll
Thirst (2009) – Dir Park Chan-wook
Vampires don’t have much of a reputation anymore. You can probably thank Twilight for that but if Thirst doesn’t put some respect back on the vampire name I don’t know what will.
Dedicated but doubtful Catholic priest Sang-hyun (Kang-ho yet again!) takes part in an experimental medical trial to find a cure for a deadly virus. After receiving a blood transfusion he finds himself cured and in possession of extraordinary powers and a thirst for blood. Not only that but he’s also attracted to his childhood friend’s wife. Nothing’s ever simple especially as Sang-hyun’s condition worsens.
Thirst might be a horror film but it’s also a film about forbidden, illegal love. It’s a love triangle story much like but also very different from Burning. Directed by Korean master Park Chan-wook – who by this point had already made his much loved Vengeance trilogy [Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005)] – the film is noticeably different from his earlier work. It’s an oddity that despite all the bloodletting is quite a sweet film that slowly curdles into sourness.
Relationships are difficult especially when you’re a member of the living dead and Chan-wook makes sure to examine this from every angle. A domestic spat, for instance, turns dramatic as the bickering couple clear rooftops in a single bound. Vampire movies may be well and truly staked but you can always resurrect Thirst if you need a reminder of how good they once were. Andrew Carroll
The Man From Nowhere (2010) – Dir Lee Jeong-beom
South Korean movies, especially genre movies as this list shows, are often brutal affairs. Maybe it’s their unpredictable northern neighbour. Maybe it’s centuries of upheaval and foreign invasion. Whatever it is it’s leant itself to one of the most brutal, harrowing and uncompromising national cinemas in the world. The Man From Nowhere is no exception with its tale of former government assassin Cha Tae-sik (Won Bin) and his race to rescue his young neighbour So-Mi (Kim Sae-ron) from Korean-Vietnamese organ harvesters.
Won Bin is the most selective Korean actor working right now with only five films throughout his entire career. The Man From Nowhere was his most recent and that came out in 2010. Still the film’s physically demanding and fatally efficient action alongside its viciously nihilistic story would encourage anyone to take a break from acting. The final fight scene sees Tae-sik knife fight seven goons. Mostly shot in closeups, it is both a bloody grudge match and a lesson in major blood vessel placement. I would say that South Korean revenge movies don’t get more disturbing than this but that’s just not true. Andrew Carroll
I Saw the Devil (2010) – Dir Kim Jee-woon
Speaking of disturbing and bloody, this action horror thriller may be the most disturbing and bloody movie ever! When a serial killer (Choi Min-sik – playing the character like he is pure id) brutally murders the pregnant wife of an National Intelligence Service Agent (Lee Byung-hun, G.I. Joe), the latter goes rogue to track him down.
However, it doesn’t stop there. Wanting him to suffer as his wife did, he beats the murderer half to death and implants within him a tracker before setting him free. The goal: so that any time the killer thinks he is safe, the agent will be on call again to give his bones a fresh break. Needless to say, all does not go according to plan.
One could laud tons of praise on the direction which manages to casually chuck into the film insane action set pieces on top of its already gripping cat and mouse thriller – beats which would be the centrepiece of your typical Hollywood movie. The result: a film which feels like Seven meets John Wick.
However, that’s not what I Saw the Devil is truly about. Like Memories of Murder, it’s character and idea driven. People throw around phrases like ‘violence begets violence’ or the Nietzsche quote: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster.” When I hear them, the first thing that springs to mind is I Saw the Devil. Stephen Porzio
Train to Busan (2016) – Dir Yeon Sang-ho
Reinvention seems to come so easily to South Korean cinema. Whether it’s vampires in Thirst, a two-and-a-half hour slow boiler like Burning or zombies in Train to Busan, the country seems to know just how to tweak the formula. Train to Busan is not especially violent or gory nor does it generate any new characters out of the stock of pre-existing zombie movie sketches. Instead it mobilises pre-existing tropes for the whole film.
After a zombie outbreak in Seoul banker Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter board a train to Busan. Unbeknownst to them and their fellow archetypes, I mean passengers, an infected girl is also on board. Much like the speeding bullet it’s set on the movie never slows down. Yet, even at moments such as the station attack or train switches director Yeon Sang-ho keeps things human. Characters instantly become favourites through their actions. Working class everyman Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) bulldozes through zombies. Brave highschool lovers fight it out to the end. Seok-woo might be an asshole in the world of finance but when his daughter’s in danger he’s a different man.
Train to Busan is one of this decade’s best zombie movies even if that phrase means very little these days. Andrew Carroll
The Handmaiden (2016) – Dir Park Chan-wook
Queer romance doesn’t come more complex than this. Inspired by the British novel Fingersmith. Park Chan-wook adapts a tale of con artistry turned into female rebellion powered by layered, defiant performances from its two leads. A conman under the moniker Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) hires pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as a maid for the Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Hoping that Sook-hee will convince Hideko to marry him things instead begin to turn against the Count as the two women fall for each other and the Lady’s perverted Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) enters the fray.
Complex as the plot is, The Handmaiden never strays far from its core conceit which is – like Chan-wook’s previous movie Thirst – the trials and tribulations of forbidden love. No matter how many pornographic tales Lady Hideko is forced to read to her uncle nor how desperately the Count tries to insinuate himself in between Sook-hee and Hideko, The Handmaiden always comes back to its two leads. It’s in their long looks and stolen glances as well as the over-the-top love scenes the film makes its mark.
The Handmaiden is Romeo and Juliet only Romeo’s a conniving thief and Juliet is an impassive vixen that crushes men in her white gloved hands.
The Wailing (2016) – Dir Na Hong-jin
Na Hong-jin is one of the most promising figures in South Korean cinema, having broken onto the scene with 2008’s The Chaser, centring on an ex-detective turned pimp whose forced to go back to his old ways when his girls begin to go missing. He followed this up in 2010 with The Yellow Sea, a grander more uneven tale of gangsters and immigrants, with flashes of utter brilliance.
However, The Wailing is his best work to date, a thrilling over two and a half hour genre mash up which really puts into perspective how bad Cowboys vs Aliens and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies truly are. Set in a little village in the mountains of South Korea – resembling True Detective’s depiction of Louisiana – a series of random gruesome murders take place. The only element common to the crimes is that the killers all share a strange rash. Could the murders be linked to the Japanese stranger who has newly arrived in the village?
Beginning as a crime thriller before adding zombies, demonic possessions and more into the mix, The Wailing strength comes from how mysterious it is. While many American mash-ups literally spoil the twist in their title, one never gets a sense of where Hong-jin’s thriller is going. It continually dishes out rich symbolism and intriguing details – never spelling out anything clearly for audiences. It helps too the whole film is seen through the eyes of an ordinary joe police officer, adding an off-kilter mundanity to proceedings – leading everything to feel even more visceral. Stephen Porzio
The Villainess (2017) – Dir Jeong Byeong-Gil
I was a little harsh when I reviewed The Villainess for HeadStuff back in 2017. But with hindsight and a greater appreciation for Korean cinema I see it’s value. Essentially The Man From Nowhere with a female lead and a healthy dose of melodrama, it follows Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), a former assassin turned South Korean intelligence agent trying to protect her child and fellow agent lover Jung Hyun-soo (Sung Joon) from the truth. Although The Villainess isn’t cut from the taboo breaking mould of Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho it’s influence is still felt worldwide.
The thriller is not as cleanly shot as it could be which works to both its advantage and disadvantage. The action scenes from the opening first person POV assault to the bus set climax are exhilarating. It feels like a found footage action movie just not like Hardcore Henry thankfully.
The romantic interlude between Sook-hee and Hyun-soo adds a bit of levity and a lot of pathos as the thriller barrels towards its end game. Without The Villainess we wouldn’t have the shot in the John Wick 3 trailer that seems to hint at a sword fight on motorbikes. Not many people in the West may have seen The Villainess but those that did took notice. Andrew Carroll