15 Essential Films for an Introduction to Classic South Korean Cinema
When I usually recommend South Korean cinema to average watcher with a Netflix or Hulu subscription, I usually suggest something recent. While there is nothing wrong with the classics, I find as pure entertainment, there’s a lot variety when considering something from the most recent New Wave.
While many consider the South Korean New Wave covering the late-90s into the aughts, some texts will suggest that following the democratization of South Korea in the late-1980s, cinema no longer found themselves restricted by censors, providing a comparably smaller “New Wave” of creative films. Meaning, the films I’d recommend would technically be from the “Second New Wave,” one facet of the international spread of South Korean pop-culture during that time: “Hallyu.”
While there’s nothing wrong with older titles, some of the most memorable films referenced today are direct responses to the socio-political conditions of the country depending on the year, especially under militaristic rule. Without that history, a lot of these films can come off as repetitive to unfamiliar eyes. Many deal with themes such as urbanization, modernity, globalization, either complementing or clashing with either tradition or the ideals at the time.
But aside from having cultural significance, the ones that last are also just well made films. Some directors continued certain filmmaking and storytelling traditions rooted in the culture, while others have infused foreign styles and influences.
Even though they’re decades old, the technical experimentation — and mastery in a few cases — can still impact modern viewers despite all the dated elements. A handful of the nation’s best and revered actors were stars decades prior, and it’s amazing to see them in their youth, especially the amazing Ahn Sung-kee.*
South Korea today is doing really well in preserving the classics. The Korean Film Archive has found and added many classic films to its Youtube channel in their entirety — fully subtitled. I actually tried my best to make a list that’s mostly available on that channel, and with the exception of a few, most can be seen there legally and for free.
I’m sure there are several other great films that aren’t on the channel that are also not on this list. I tried to get all the textbook favorites, but there were a couple I couldn’t find on time (“Flame,” “Deep Blue Night”). So, if you have a classic that you love but is not on this list, please comment down below.
*Not all the characters are credited with the actor who portrayed them. Unless they’re incredibly famous and/or I recognize them from something else, several of these films don’t provide that information in their opening or closing credits. Even in certain databases online (IMDB, KMDB, HanCinema), it’s only the actor, not character.
15. The Shower (1979, Ko Young-nam)
Living a carefree life in the country, a young boy named Suk-ie (Lee Young-su) only concerns himself with playing games with the other boys. One day, a young girl from Seoul named Yeon-ie (Cho Yun-suk) moves to his village, and Suk-ie immediately develops a crush.
Much like a lot of young boys in that situation, he expresses it by making fun of her. He does that for a while, even following her after she befriends another local boy. When she’s pestered by some other boys, Suk-ie appears and defends her, immediately gaining her friendship. Together, they both roam the beautiful countryside and happily spend time together.
“The Shower” is a incredibly popular story in South Korea, one that’s almost mandatory for the middle-schools. I didn’t know that going in, and was mostly surprised to find the story center almost entirely around the two children. There is a subplot that’s reflective of other family dramas — the idea of the traditional v.s. the modern — since Yeon-ie’s move from Seoul was brought upon her father’s financial failure.
While the film won’t put that on the forefront, that dichotomy is still present visually in certain scenes, especially in the composition. The children themselves are metaphors for both class and gender, but Ko doesn’t let that drive his story outside some minor foreshadowing.
While I can appreciate Ko for going the extra mile in making a kid’s film feel incredibly mature, what most takeaway from “The Shower” is the cinematography. It’s the best looking film on this list hands down. The country environment — anything involving nature, really — just pops onscreen in complete wonderment.
Mostly everything since the opening shot — from start to finish — is breathtaking composed. As for the title? South Korean cinema isn’t a stranger to rainfall, but the film’s most intimate sequences shower the young couple with rain. In story, rainfall or storms usually reflect the turbulent emotions of the characters, but here, it brings them closer together in this wonderful coming-of-age film.
On a side note: fans of the Korean film “My Sassy Girl” might remember a reference to this film during one of their imagined sequences.
14. Mulberry (1986, Lee Doo-yong)
An-hyup (Lee Mi-sook) is young and beautiful, living alone in a poor, mountain village called Yongdam during the 1920s. Her husband leaves her constantly, known to be a freedom fighter and gambler.
As a result, An-hyup sleeps with the men in her village for food, money, and other gifts — orchestrated at times by her landlady. Sam-dol (Lee Dae-kun) works with An-hyup picking mulberries, but he’s the only man in the village to have not bed An-hyup. She rejects him constantly, repulsed by the man. When An-hyup’s husband returns, a humiliated and rejected Sam-dol, decides to let her husband in on the secret.
“Mulberry” has the fortunate (or unfortunate) honor of being South Korea’s early sex comedy drama. It has a reputation of being exploitative and pornographic, and the film barely reaches those heights at times. While the sex does feel uncomfortable in a few occasions,
Lee’s direction is a bit more than just gratuitous. His closeups during certain moments are both sensual, sexy, and fiendishly naughty, cutting away at the right moments. But aside from that, Lee’s portrayal of the Yongdam village is quite amazing.
I’ve never seen a sex dramedy so dedicated in it’s world-building, providing equal time to the community as he does An-hyup. Those scenes are actually quite funny, seeing how men and women spent their days. But “Mulberry” is still recommended for being mostly successful in it’s audaciousness. It was so successful that it spawned two sequels.
13. Night Journey (1977, Kim Soo-yong)
Miss Lee (Yoon Jeong-hee) works at bank, friendly but not close to her co-workers. Mr. Park (Shin Seong-il) also works at the same bank, similar rapport and all. The two hardly interact with each other in the office. When their shift is over, both Lee and Park go to the same apartment, revealing that two have had a secret relationship that’s mostly physical and playful.
Lately, Park hasn’t been satisfying Lee all that much in bed, questioning how their relationship would work. When Park shrugs off the idea of marriage as “lame,” Lee feels at a lost. This sparks her conquest of self-discovery, both sexual and psychological.
“Night Journey” has had a reputation (much like “Mulberry”) of being reduced to pornographic. It’s been reported that there are two cuts (censored v.s. director’s cut), and the cut people are able to see is highly debated as one or the other (the filmmaker himself is unsure). While Miss Lee’s sexual journey is the driving crux of the plot, it’s far from pornographic. The film slowly reveals that it’s not great sex she ultimately desires, but the intimacy and compatibility that she once lost when younger.
The director does allow the film to be erotic in some places, but it’s mostly just as dull for the audience as it is for our protagonist. It also helps that Yoon Jeong-hee is absolutely fantastic as this lustfully lost women trying to find some kind of connection. My only issue with this film involves a slightly problematic sequence near the finale that’s borderline offensive, but Kim doesn’t linger on it too much.
It was really refreshing to a film in which our heroine isn’t a victim the whole time, as she’s able to contend with the opposite sex on several occasions (much like at the start of “A Splendid Outing”). She’s not only a symbol, but a real, flawed character with a past that’s made an impact on her current life. With many films in South Korea (past and present) focus on mostly the male perspective, it’s refreshing to it flipped in a mostly fair way.
12. A Splendid Outing (1978, Kim Soo-yong)
Gong Do-hi (Yoon Jeong-hee) is a successful and wealthy Chairwoman in a completely masculine enterprise. Her schedule is crazy, conducting meetings and attending cocktail parties that she barely has anytime for herself or her kids. While she’s pestered by the idea of remarrying, Do-hi is really bothered by these odd dreams of a woman in red (dressed as a shaman) dancing on a beach.
A fortune teller tells Do-hi that it’s her long lost twin sister who died as an infant. She drives South toward a seaside town in what seems like impromptu retreat and reaches the shore, only to be stopped and captured by an angry mob. She’s sold to a man on a small island who now claims to be her husband. Despite her objections, no one believes her, trapping her in this strange place.
The opening for “A Splendid Outing” is quite spectacular. It’s a POV-like shot from within a car as it frames the metropolitan skyscrapers and cityscape, before following three businessmen as they go up to the top of a building. As the camera pans around the desk, it reveals that these gentlemen are here to seek the approval of our female protagonist. It not only beautifully paints modernity as progressive in both infrastructure and culture, but a clever twist on expectations, saying multitudes with one shot.
So when Do-hi is trapped on the island, you feel her horror and frustration. I honestly thought it was going to just be another standard drama and was surprised to find it being mostly horror, down to the Argento-inspired disorienting, creepy closeups. Whereas “Io Island” was more unsettling in it’s tone, here it’s objectively upsetting, reminiscent of the more recent South Korean horror-thriller “Bedevilled.”
Depending on how one views the ending, the film may or may not work as a form of feminist text, but a “A Splendid Outing” was a tough watch regardless, despite being used to seeing that depiction of the abusive and aggressively obstinate male. Yoon Jeong-hee’s (from the recent film, “Poetry”) performance as Do-hi is fantastic, as you really feel for her situation. I was hoping this was going to build toward a twist similar to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but what it does instead is far darker and much more effective.
11. Io Island or Iodo (1977, Kim Ki-young)
Wu-hyun works for a travel agency, hoping to strike big in marketing a new hotel, naming it after a mysterious paradise island called “Iodo.” During a promotional tour, he’s objected by a reporter named Nam-suk, who claims to be from an island near Iodo. After the two calm down and pass out from drinking, Wu-hyun wakes to find Nam-suk missing.
Even though he’s the prime suspect, the incident seems mostly accidental, freeing Wu-hyun. In addition, Wu-hyun learns about Nam-suk from others, learning that the man was supposedly cursed. Bothered, he brings an investigator to find Iodo and uncover the truth.
Initially, “Io Island” feels like a horror movie about a haunted island, since the tone and atmosphere by Kim is dark and unsettling, topped with all this talk about evil spirits and curses. It gives off a similar vibe to the original “The Wicker Man,” down to the island’s odd practices that creep out the two men visiting. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Kim isn’t doing a ghost story, but he’s using the idea of a ghost story to provide a compelling murder mystery.
As the flashbacks slowly start filling in the missing pieces, the film does more than a standard “whodunnit,” introducing several thematic conflicts that makes it difficult to pick a side. While Kim’s camera for “The Housemaid” brought some great B&W photography, “Io Island” utilizes a more fluid camera that moves and sweeps through the landscape, with some of the most breathtaking wide shots that are both haunting and beautiful.
However, there’s also a moment in the end of the film that’s completely gratuitous and bonkers, so uncomfortable that I was tempted to skip over it. “Io Island” wasn’t a big hit like “The Housemaid” when it was released, but it has gone on to be recognized as one of Kim’s finest films from that decade.
10. The Man With Three Coffins (1987, Lee Jang-ho)
The titular “man” (he has no name, played by Kim Myung-gon) is a widower traveling to the Eastern coastline near the DMZ to spread the ashes of his deceased wife (Lee Bo-hee). During his journey, he encounters several different individuals who ultimately remind him about his dead wife. This further confuses him when he meets a prostitute and a hospice nurse (also both played by Lee Bo-hee), both who look identical to his dead wife.
Of all the South Korean films from the 1980s, “The Man with Three Coffins” is one that’s difficult to follow what’s exactly happening. Lee doesn’t use any sort of tool outside editing to signify the flashbacks from the present-day action. There are several strange, avant-garde moments, and a somewhat related subplot involving the nurse on the run from her bosses.
The fact that it’s presented monochromatically in sepia-tone that makes everything feel nostalgic, but also distractingly cheap. That said, it all works in providing this hypnotic experience. His actual journey is both emotional and psychological, and by the end, oddly spiritual. Some of the shots are simply breathtaking, especially the finale when the characters encounter a shaman boat.
Kim Myung-gon is great as the troubled widow, and you really get the sense that this man has been living a lost life without his wife, only further complicated when he encounters her dopplegangers. The whole film feels like his mourning work, building towards his eventual acceptance of her passing. While the film won’t explicitly tell you if that’s the case. “The Man with Three Coffins” makes you feel it in it’s own unique way.
9. The Ball Shot By a Midget (1981, Lee Won-see)
In a salt farm community, a family of five live in a small shack. All adults, the family relies on the eldest Young-su (Ahn Sung-kee) to take care of things, even though he’s unemployed. Their father is a little person, making money performing for South Korean circus’s before disbanding. The father’s appearance has been difficult to the entire family, only making things worse when he forgoes his retirement to be a novelty host for a bar/nightclub.
Despite all that, the family is close and they stick up for each other, especially the hot-headed younger brother. When their land and salt farms are deemed too polluted, the family is forced to relocate. With the offers for their deed being cripplingly low, the family must figure out how to continue while their village faces urbanization.
Lee Won-see’s “The Ball Shot by a Midget” is a quiet family drama based on a famous novel. At first it seems like a film in which a family has to overcome the difficulty of the patriarch being ridiculed and humiliated constantly, but the film gets passed that quite quickly.
It uses the family as another look and metaphor at the negative effects urbanization and a modern infrastructure can have on the poverty-stricken working class. Not only through bureaucracy, but also shining a light on those individuals who use that as a business opportunity to exploit and steal from these families.
The direction and performances in this film are spectacular, with Ahn Sung-kee providing another solid performance in an early debut role as the eldest brother Young-su. He’s great as the audience surrogate, using his eyes and the stillness in his performance to observe and engage without overreacting.
Lee has several great sequences in this film, with the highlight being a quiet, contemplative moment between Young-su and his father on a dinghy over the saltwater, perfect in it’s intimacy. Overall the film is spectacularly shot, especially the scenes around the salt farm.
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