After ‘Parasite’, Here Are 10 Must-Watch South Korean Films
On 10 February, history was made when South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won the Best Picture award at the Oscars in Los Angeles. It became the first-ever foreign-language film to bag the top Oscar award. Like Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy-drama, South Korean cinema has many other gems hidden behind the veil of subtitles for the English-speaking world. So if you’re planning to dive into South Korean cinema but don’t know where to start, here’s a handy guide.
1. The Host by Bong Joon-Ho
I think it’s only befitting to begin with the work of the Oscar-winner himself. With its anti-capitalist sentiment, The Host is somewhat in the same broad territory as Parasite. It’s also the film that actually established Bong Joon Ho by placing him on the international map. After a dump of toxic chemicals in the Han river, a mysterious monster begins attacking people. Through the government’s intervention in the film, Joon-ho makes a reference to the USA’s chemical warfare program. The Host stars Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doona and Go Ah-sung.
It can be streamed on Netflix.
2. Mother by Bong Joon-Ho
In Mother, Bong Joon-ho explores the simple yet magnetic mother-son relationship. After a local high school girl is mysteriously found dead, all eyes are on Kim Hye-ja’s disabled son (Woh Bin). Mother is about a widow’s fight for justice and the powerful instinct to protect her son. Following its release, the film received much critical acclaim for its portrayal of family drama and just how adeptly it blends horror with comedy - a feat we witnessed in Parasite as well.
3. Okja by Bong Joon-Ho
Similar to The Host, Okja features a supernatural being that is the product of capitalism and technology. Here, it’s a special (really cute) super-pig created by some big corporation and raised by a 10-year-old girl. The purpose of ‘Okja’ is to solve world hunger. When the corporation comes back to take Okja, the little girl who has raised it puts her foot down. A dark, hard-hitting tale that plays with themes of consumerism, corporate greed and animal rights, Okja also stars Jake Gyllenhaal in an interesting role.
It can be streamed on Netflix.
4. Oldboy (The Vengeance Trilogy) by Park Chan-Wook
Perhaps one of the most well-known south Korean films outside of the region, Oldboy is considered a classic. It’s part of Park Chan-wook’s trilogy that includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. In Oldboy, a man is released from prison after fifteen long years. However, he is never given a reason for why he was imprisoned. We follow his journey as he seeks to find his captor with a ticking clock next to him. Just like Oldboy, the other two films also deal with themes of revenge and violence.
5. The Handmaiden by Park Chan-Wook
Set against the backdrop of Korea under Japanese rule, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is an adaptation of the book Fingersmith. An erotic suspense thriller, The Handmaiden is the story of a woman who has been hired by a secluded handmaiden by a Japanese heiress. The twist is that the maid has been hired to defraud the heiress. The plan seems airtight until unexpected emotions take over the two women. When it released, the film got a lot of attention for its sexually explicit scenes that left people both fascinated and uncomfortable. However, it went on to win many awards. For something lighter, you can also check out I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK by the same filmmaker.
6. The Chaser by Na Hong-Jin
The directorial debut of Na Hong-jin , The Chaser is based on a real-life serial killer who was infamous for hammering chisels into the heads of prostitutes. Unlike regular murder thrillers, The Chaser is not about a mysterious killer on the run. There are no games; the director reveals the identity of the killer within the first half an hour. It also has its flaws, but watch it for how the filmmaker plays with intensity despite giving away the murderer’s identity and motives.
7. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring by Kim Ki-Duk
A philosophical journey, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring stands out from Kim Ki-duk’s other films for how poetic it is. The film follows the story of a Buddhist monk across four seasons. He lives in a monastery that is afloat on a lake. The director himself also appears as the protagonist in one of the stages of his life. Another lesser-known but impactful film by Kim Ki-duk is Bad Guy.
8. Burning by Lee Chang-Dong
An adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-dong’s psychological mystery drama stars Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, and Jeon Jong-seo. After a mysterious Ben enters and turns the relationship between Lee Jong-su and Hae-mi into a strange love triangle, things get strange especially since Ben comes with a strange hobby of burning things. Commentary on class divide and an exploration of the human mind, Burning is profound and hard-hitting.
9. Train to Busan by Ma Dong-seok
A zombie film that’s incredibly fun and engaging to watch, Ma Dong-seok directorial continues to hold the position of one of the highest-grossing films of South Korea. The plot is simple: panic strikes after a zombie apocalypse breaks out in the country. The lives of the passengers on the train are in danger and chaos is everywhere. In a genre that remains exciting despite multiple retellings, Train to Busan stands out and how.
10. Memories of Murder by Bong Joon-Ho
Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder is a crime drama film based on Korea’s first case of serial murders. Two detectives are on the hunt for a murderer after several women are found raped and dead. This was Bong Joon-ho’s first collaboration with actor Song Kang Ho, who plays one of the two detectives. He also appears in Oscar-winning film Parasite.
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