15 Essential Films for an Introduction to Classic South Korean Cinema

8. Woman of Fire (1971 & 1982, Kim Ki-young)

Woman of Fire

“Woman of Fire” has two separate years, because these two films are both remakes of the 1960 South Korean classic, “The Housemaid.” Aside from a change in certain details and actors, both remakes follow a similar formula. One day, the bodies of Dong-shik and his housemaid Myung-ja are found dead with several stab wounds on a poultry farm outside of Seoul.

As the police investigate the aftermath of the crime, the film flashes back to moments that led to their death. In the flashback, we learn that Myung-ja and her friend leave the country, hoping to find a better future in Seoul. As Myung-ja works for the poultry farm, she doesn’t hope to earn money, but to marry a husband. Even though the matriarch agrees to help Myung-ja, she gets entangled with Dong-shik, complicating things with many.

There are a few key differences between these two films and the 1960 classic, other than the title alone. Both remakes are bookended by a procedural as opposed to a linear narrative. Both “Woman on Fire” are shot in color. The 1971 version is a bit more impressionistic with the style, while the 1982 version — still well shot in it’s own right — is more straightforward in presentation.

Also, both films give a bit of backstory to the femme fatale character, where “The Housemaid” is able to get a lot out of keeping the character a bit mysterious. Other than that, the plotting is almost identical, down to the murder, pregnancy, abortion, and poisons.

If I had to recommend one between the two, it would probably be the 1971 version. It not only leaves a stronger impression, but it’s much more successful at what it’s trying to do. While all three versions focus on the femme fatale’s presence, it’s in this version does the audience get a better sense of the emotional and psychological state of all the characters.

Visually, Kim is far more ambitious here with the editing and color, a risk that pays off immensely whereas the 1982 version — aside from the finale — feels like a safe adaptation.

On a side note: “The Housemaid” was remade once more in 2010, but this time flipping the formula. In most recent version, the housemaid is innocent and pure while the family she works for is corrupted as people. It’s gorgeously shot and incredibly sexy, but also the worst version of this story.


7. The Oldest Son (1984, Lee Doo-yong)

The Oldest Son

Lee Tae-yeong (Shin Seong-il) is the eldest son and the most successful member of his extended family, managing a company that manufactures computer technology. One day his elderly parents visit (Kim Il-hae, Hwang Jung-seun), gathering the entire family. It’s during this large get together that the sister tells the entire family that their hometown has been flooded, forcing them to relocate.

Eager to help, Tae-yeong orchestrates and plans to take care of his parents by building a large home for everyone on a private piece of land he owns, projected to increase in value. The only problem is that it takes time and patience, both which is tough when considering the parents can’t seem to keep up with the pressures by their children-in-law and their new environment.

“The Oldest Son” has been referred to as the South Korean “Tokyo Story” and that comparison is apt, since their stories are quite similar. However, “The Oldest Son” infuses the theme of modernization with the tropes of the family melodrama (incredibly popular in South Korea) to make “The Oldest Son” resonant and uniquely Korean.

What makes this stand out from a lot of similar films, despite the roadblocks some of the characters encounter, there’s an underlying sense of hope throughout, whereas a film like “A Ball Shot by a Midget” seems to trap the characters in their worsening poverty (to be fair, it’s reflective of the time), due to eldest finances and overall support.

It does have some tired tropes found in Korean dramas (e.g. overbearing wife/mother, drunk/dysfunctional sibling, adulterous husband), and seeing those elements initially brought the film down for me. Yet, the writing and direction utilized those tropes to move the story in an incredibly grounded fashion.

Even though “The Oldest Son” doesn’t go overboard in style, Lee still manages to evoke the internal conflict visually. The camera moves unhinged in glorious steadicam with the eldest in his office, but that same freedom and fluidity is gone with the static framing of his parents, stressfully locking them in. This world doesn’t allow them that freedom.

The script could’ve had the entire family spiral into oblivion, but I respect the writer and director for keeping the plot and character work balanced enough that this film doesn’t look or feel predictable. It might end in the same fashion as other similar films, but it was most definitely earned, which isn’t something I can say for other, lesser titles. I didn’t feel particular to any specific character, but rather the entire family — which to me, is a sign of a good family drama.


6. The General’s Son (1990, Im Kwon-taek)

General’s Son

Based on a true story, “The General’s Son” follows the early rise of notorious South Korean gangster Kim Doo-han (Park Sang-min) during Japanese occupation of Korea pre-Civil War.

Growing up on the streets, resorting to fighting, Doo-han as an adult gains the attention of local gangsters during a turbulent time for both the nation and criminal underworld. First he uses his fist to unite and gain respect from his community, but soon finds himself the best chance of protection against the harassment brought upon by the increasing Japanese presence.

“The General’s Son” is not only an early look at the now popular South Korean gangster flick, but also falls under the camp of gangster films in which the story is all about the rise. The genre usually punishes these characters for their earlier, immoral behavior, but that’s not the case here. In reality, Kim Doo-ha has a folk-like quality to his story that resonated with many South Koreans, even getting a radio show later in his life to tell stories of his street fights.

Im’s film uses the man’s story for the gangster narrative, but also effectively mixes some heightened elements from genre films like Westerns or Samurai flicks in building the character and the action. Despite Kim Doo-han becoming a makeshift Sheriff for this small community, Im isn’t shy to emasculate his hero during quieter moments. It adds another dimension to this character, grounding the myth, making his achievements all the more impressive.


5. Chilsu and Mansu (1988, Park Kwang-su)

Chilsu and Mansu

Chilsu (Park Joong-hoon) is a young painter for billboards and movie posters, optimistic about the democratization of South Korea that affected many in the late-1980s. Sharing that optimism is his friend Mansu (Ahn Sung-kee), a painter with dreams of higher education.

Feeling like he can do anything, Chilsu quits his job and works for Mansu, while lying and chasing after young woman named Jina (Bae Chong-ok). Initially, things look bright for the two of them, feeling large like their ambitions. However, as the film progresses, it dawns on the characters and audiences that democratization is only inclusive to some, and not so much for the working-class.

“Chilsu and Mansu” is a look into a huge transitional period in South Korean history. What struck me the most after seeing this film is the subtle foreshadowing by Park. Despite how the two behave with each other or with different people, Park’s background informs what’s really happening to the characters.

Whether it’s the two of them painting an apartment building they’ll never afford or Mansu watching the news about a man taking himself hostage, it dawns on them that they won’t get what they desire. Aside from the direction, both Ahn Sung-kee and Park Joong-hoon are excellent in the lead roles, carrying their leading man status well into today’s features.

They make a great pairing, leading to many future collaborations between the two. Their friendship in reality carries over into this film, making their story all the more tragic. The last act of the film not only encapsulates the film’s thesis statement — for better or worse — but does so in an impressively directed stand-off that’s intense, exciting, comical, and tragic all at once.


4. Sopyonje (1993, Im Kwon-taek)


Dong-ho (Kim Kyu-cheol) rests at an inn inside the mountains, hearing the innkeeper singing in the traditional pansori style. It’s the 60s, and Dong-ho thinks back to when he was a child, when he used to play drums for a young girl named Song-hwa (Oh Jeong-hae), who sang while he played.

Under the tutelage and instruction from master Pansori performer Yu-bong (Kim Myeong-kon), the three traveled a culturally shifting South Korea as music and art become more and more influenced by western styles. As Dong-ho recounts his turbulent past, he’s pushed to locate Song-hwa as an adult.

Along with “The Housemaid” or “Aimless Bullet,” “Sopyonje” is recognized as one of the best films EVER to come out of South Korea. Whereas other films used something like setting and location to signify a societal shift from traditional values, “Sopyonje” uses the arts — specifically music and pansori — to signal a shift from tradition. Kind of like the blues, sorrow and hardship are the literal instruments to convey the concept what Koreans refer to as “han”: “deep and long-suppressed grief.”

There’s a lot of pansori in this film, but Im casts some of the best performers of the art, and lets his camera roll as they pull audiences in with their performance. It might seem boring on paper, but Im shoots —whether pansori or violence — for maximum emotional effect, especially when the character states that great pansori must come from great suffering.

It’s no wonder this film single-handedly revived a dying art form. Nationalism aside, “Sopyonje” is simply a great drama containing some moving performances and stellar direction. Almost every time I watch this with an audience, theres usually several people who wipe their eyes afterwards.


3. The Pollen of Flowers (1972, Ha Kil-jong)

the pollen of flowers

Se-ran (Choi Ji-hee) and Mi-ran (Yoon So-ra) are sisters that live in a mansion in the Seoul suburbs referred to as the “Blue Mansion.” Se-ran is a mistress for a wealthy businessman named Hyeon-ma (Nam Koong-won). One day, Hyeon-ma brings his new secretary and occasional lover Dan-ju (Hah Myung-joong) with him to the “Blue Mansion.”

When Mi-ran has her first period — causing Se-ran to taunt her — she flees the mansion in embarrassment. As everyone laughs about the situation, Dan-ju is ordered to bring her back. When they return the next day as lovers, jealousy from Se-ran and Hyeon-ma becomes destructive to all involved.

After seeing this last fall with a few other films, “The Pollen of Flowers” is the one that surprisingly comes back to me. It starts out like a Sirk-ian melodrama, with the usual relationship dynamics and the colorful mise-en-scene. Even with soft colors painting the frame, it’s lit like theres a pervasive overcast that looms over this world.

After tensions erupt, the film becomes pretty dark as Hyeon-ma’s jealousy and Se-ran’s dismissiveness do some messed up things to their younger counterparts. But what’s surprisingly refreshing about seeing this film was how open the film deals with infidelity and homosexuality.

The former pops up in almost any drama with a romantic arc, but homosexuality is not only implied, but is one of the big reasons for Hyeon-ma’s downward spiral. But Ha’s film goes even further. Using their home as an allegory for the country’s Presidential “Blue House,” the film also reworks the themes of class, power, and sexual dominance into the characters and setting, leading to several tense yet inventive sequences.

While many South Korean films have been known to be reflectively somber, “The Pollen of Flowers” — in all it’s formal and technical proficiency and progression — is simply bleak and unforgettable an unforgettable film.


2. The Housemaid (1960, Kim Ki-young)

The Housemaid film

Kim Dong-shik (Kim Jin-kyu) is a pianist and instructor who moves into a large new home with his wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) and their two children. When his wife is exhausted due to her workload at home, they decide to hire a maid to help around the house. Through a student of his, Dong-shik meets Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim).

As Myung-sook gets accustomed to her new role, Dong-shik and his family start noticing some odd traits about Myung-sook. It isn’t long after that Myung-sook seduces Dong-shik, throwing the family into utter chaos.

Of all the South Korean classics on this list, “The Housemaid” is probably the most renowned and recognized, even included in Scorcese’s World Cinema Project. It’s an effectively creepy, atmospheric, sensual, and downright brutal at points. At times it feels like a horror film. Not only is there a haunted-house vibe, but what the titular maid does is almost in line with the more unhinged femme fatales.

Lee Eun-shim’s performance and Myung-sook is quite phenomenal. Right off the bat there’s something off about Myung-sook, and Lee does an excellent job as that eeriness that’s both alluring and concerning. The film also features an incredibly young Ahn Sung-kee — playing the son — who would go on to be nation’s finest thespian.

There’s a twist at the end that may negatively affect your overall impression of the film, but I think it’s incredibly minor. The intense yet erotic (for the 60s, at least) journey is worth experiencing, especially if you’re familiar with modern South Korean films and tropes. They’re still biting “The Housemaid” even today. It’s that good.


1. Aimless Bullet (1961, Yoo Hyun-mok)

Aimless Bullet

Following a small family unit post-Korean Civil war, “Aimless Bullet” focuses on three siblings as they struggle to cope with their lives following the aftermath. Yeong-ho (Kim Jin-kyu) is the responsible one, with a pregnant wife, steady job, and a daughter. However, his younger sister (Seo Ae-ja) and his unemployed brother Cheol-ho (Choi Moco-Ryong) seem to only encounter trouble and despair.

Unemployment and poverty not pervade their lives, but the lives of many citizens and veterans of the town. As much as Yeong-ho tries to maintain stability for his home, it slowly dawns on him and Cheol-ho that their best efforts won’t be enough.

“Aimless Bullet” is an effective film that really paints a somber look into the lifestyle of post-war South Korea. Despite having several able-bodied adults at home, the characters in “Aimless Bullet” don’t find much success living a normal life after all that they had experienced during the war.

The commonality brings characters together, creating this unfortunate yet supportive collective of people in which the reality of their lives are too painful to face alone and without alcohol. This becomes evident during the sub-plot of the younger brother being offered money and a role starring in a film about a post-war vet. Not only does he turn it down, but he damns the director and crew for commodifying his suffering.

Whether it’s the extras on crutches or the drunk with a hook, Yoo adds these little details to realize an otherwise unforgiving world. The neorealist shooting style makes it all feel incredibly immersive, often enhancing several climactic moments in their emotional payoff. Whether it’s compared to “The Bicycle Thief” or “Citizen Kane,” “Aimless Bullet” is simply one of South Koreas best films ever made.

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.