5. Thirst (2009, Park Chan-wook)
Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) is a devoted and selfless priest, helping hospital patients and respected by many in his community. Still unsatisfied, Sang-hyeon volunteers to test a vaccine for a deadly disease called the Emmanuel Virus. It fails, leaving Sang-hyeon ill, bloody, and deformed. However, after a blood transfusion, Sang-hyeon is quickly healed. This draws many to his congregation, even his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun).
Sang-hyeon is invited to his friend’s home to play mahjong, where he meets Kang-woo’s wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), falling for her. Sang-hyeon relapses back into the Emmanuel Virus, but quickly realizes that human blood is the solution to the problem, additionally causing other forms of vampirism to arise. Not only does Sang-hyeon have a newfound energy and vigor, but he’s conflicted between his faith and his newfound temptations.
A bit long and slightly slow in some areas, Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst” is still a solid horror and romance film that does world’s more with the conceit than films like “Twilight” and horror, young-adult genre fare. “Thirst” probably did a more accurate job than the “Twilight” films in selling a serious relationship between two (for the lack of a better term) thirsty bloodsuckers.
While I do think Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” or the original “Let the Right One In” have the better vampire romances, “Thirst” actually rests nicely in between those two films.
The relationship isn’t as refined as the couple in Jarmusch’s film, or as fresh as the two children in the latter film, but “Thirst” feels like two young irresponsible lovers that give into their carnal desires, only to disastrously realize that they’re wrong for each other. Just add the fact that they’re two bloodsuckers in a Park Chan-wook world, so expect things to be bloody, violent, and operatic.
4. Hansel and Gretel (2007, Yim Pil-sung)
After arguing with his pregnant girlfriend, a young salesman by the name of Eun-soo (Cheon Jeong-myeong) swerves off a winding country road and drives into the forest. After struggling to stay conscious, he’s awaken by a young girl named Young-hee (Shim Eun-kyung) holding a lantern.
A complete wreck, Eun-soo follows Young-hee to her home in the woods: a picturesque and warm two-story house straight out of a storybook. There, Eun-soo is greeted by Young-hee’s siblings — the youngest girl Jung-soon (Jin Ji-hee) and her older brother Man-bok (Eun Won-jae) — as well as the children’s parents. Eun-soo is welcomed into their beautifully decorative home, almost like it’s Christmas.
As he’s taken in by these people, Eun-soo is hesitant about his seemingly perfect setting, deciding to leave the following day. When Eun-soo tries to leave, he finds himself oddly circling back to the house. When Eun-soo notices something off about the parents, he begins to investigate the secret behind the children and this house.
“Hansel and Gretel” is probably my favorite discovery I made during my research. It takes the storybook, fairytale genre and turns it into something quite creepy and disturbing. Visually, a snapshot from this film feels like something one would see in a Christmas film — candlelit and warm.
That effect is cranked up to the extreme that it becomes almost sickening, which is appropriate, since the reveal behind the house’s secret is pretty fucking dark.
What’s great about “Hansel and Gretel” is that the film itself is one of those homages that act as both commentary and entry into the fantasy and haunted-house genre. I really love how Yim twists the moral dynamics usually found between children and adults in this story to make it his own, with an ending that’s both appropriate, but also poignant.
It’s like a lesser Guillermo del Toro film, minus the fantasy-heavy bits. Without spoiling several great reveals, this film will immediately remind western audiences about a certain “Twilight Zone” episode that has a similar setup. “Hansel and Gretel” is an absolute recommend for horror fans and for audiences who enjoy South Korean cinema.
3. Bedevilled (2010, Jang Cheol-soo)
Hae-won (Ji Sung-won) works at a bank and one day causes a scene. The pressures of work and a possible police investigation have become to much for her to handle. Hae-won to finally respond to the letter of an old friend, leading her on an impromptu vacation to a small island she used to frequent as a child. Upon arriving, she sees greeted by a tan and tired, but nonetheless ecstatic Bok-nam (Seo Young-hee).
It isn’t long before Hae-won notices that Bok-nam is the only young woman in town, with everyone being men or the elderly. Furthermore, Bok-nam is treated like the island’s slave and punching bag. Hae-won is disturbed by everything she’s witnessing, second-guessing her trip constantly. Bok-nam, however, wishes nothing more than to escape with her daughter, and sees Hae-won as her one opportunity.
South Korea has several films about secluded, mysterious islands. I’ve covered this specific topic before in other lists, whether it’s classic films such as “Splendid Outing” and “Iodo” or more modern choices such as “Paradise Island” and “Moss,” the filmmakers attempt to make these relatively foreign locations to be both ominous and creepy.
“Bedevilled” — much like “I Saw the Devil” and revenge films — is essentially the most extreme, be-all-end-all version of this conceit. There aren’t any malevolent spirits, ghosts, or creatures in “Bedevilled.” It’s horrible people doing horrible things to one person.
It’s a horror film in the same way “Misery” can be considered a horror film, only Kathy Bates is an entire town (or a twisted old lady) minus the adulation. It isn’t until the film’s final act that more recognizable conventions start to show, but “Bedevilled” takes the opportunity to subvert genre expectations in thrilling ways.
“Bedevilled” is the type of film that you only watch once out of appreciation, but can’t see yourself revisiting the film due to its sheer brutality. It affects you, leaving you quite shaken long after the credits roll.
2. The Host (2006, Bong Joon-ho)
Gang-doo (Song Kang-ho) is a buffoon who runs a small snack shack alongside the Han river with his father and daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung). One afternoon, a large, mysterious creature emerges from the Han river, attacking everyone along the riverbank. As the monster jumps back into the river, he snatches Hyun-seo in front of Gang-doo. He dives in after his daughter, but is unable to catch up to the beast.
As a result, his brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and his sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona) join him and their father in quarantine, mourning with the other families with them. When Gang-doo awakes one night and receives a call on his cell, he’s shocked to hear his daughter’s voice on the other end. Determined it wasn’t a hallucination, Gang-doo and the rest of the family team up to track down their youngest, and eliminate the monster.
South Korea hardly makes the creature feature, and understandably so, since they’re quite expensive to produce. This film’s budget is reported to be around 13 million (adjusted for inflation), and most South Korean budgets are usually half that number — unless it’s a reportedly large production. While I would’ve loved to have chosen an another monster flick, the few that are out there aren’t that great.
“Chaw” is alright, but mostly as a comparative exercise when paired with “Jaws,” while “Sector 7” and it’s impressive cast and creature design couldn’t help that dumb film. But leave it to Bong in taking what could’ve been a typical monster film and turn it into a meaningful and emotional family film.
As a sociologist, Bong’s films aren’t devoid in commenting on social hierarchies and systems, creating antagonists that at times worst than the creature itself. It’s action packed, but Bong shoots the scenes featuring the children trapped by using darkness, space, and editing to draw tension rather than simply unleash the damn beast. It’s economical and overall great filmmaking. If you haven’t seen “The Host,” definitely check it out.
1. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, Kim Jee-woon)
Returning from her stay at a mental institution, Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) is released to her father. Still affected, Su-mi slowly readjusts, but ultimately finds comfort when she’s with her younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young). The father brings the sisters to a secluded, yet gorgeous cabin by a lake.
There, Su-mi is greeted by her stepmother (Yum Jung-ah). Immediately, there’s some conflict between the sisters and their stepmother, even though the latter has planned the retreat to be about family. As tension between the three ladies only grows, things become more disturbing as if something is haunting them.
Based on the famous Korean fairy tale, “A Tale of Two Sisters” is probably my number one recommendation for South Korean horror film. Not only does Kim Jee-woon shoot this thing like a conventional horror flick, but does so with style and purpose that the movie is utterly engaging.
It’s gorgeous and colorful, whereas other films don’t take the effort to make the style more meaningful. The acting is pretty amazing in this film as well. Im Soo-jung and Su-yeon are both great as the sisters, and you really feel that their bond is the only thing keeping their fragile selfs together. However, Yum Jung-ah’s performance as the stepmother is probably the winner here, being so wickedly despicable without being too exaggerated (although at times, she gets there).
The film gets a lot of tension and mileage out of the three characters, rather than introduce a bunch of victims. I don’t wish to spoil the reveal for this film, but suffice to say that it does a decent job of explaining the odd occurrences that took place. This is simply a fantastic film, one you’ll remember as the end theme swells the film to a close.
Author Bio: Hanajun Chung is a geek and struggling writer. Once he got his degree, he found work mainly in post-production. But after studying journalism, he gained a newfound appreciation in writing about the things he loves, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.