The audience for South Korean cinema is currently larger than it was back when the New Wave started in 1998. Today, films by Cj Entertainment or Showbox could easily find foreign distribution if it feels right for international markets and audiences. The most convenient way to watch these films today is to probably stream it or watch them on-demand, both providing a hefty selection. Those interested in the classics could find a small collection over at YouTube channel of the Korean Film Archive, while more recent releases could be found on streaming platforms such as Netflix or Hulu; all three constantly updating their catalogs.
For those interested but completely unaware of South Korean cinema, there are several great lists (a few on this site), primers, or articles online to guide unfamiliar audiences. A good amount of films found in those guides are going to be New Wave titles, since that’s when the country was consistently producing the most interesting films than it had previously. There are plenty fans and distributors today that still chase the genre benders that were done so well by filmmakers such as Park Chan-Wook and Kim Jee-woon.
Many films that were hits in South Korea got a foreign release, so most are going to show up on this list. Majority can also be legally streamed online, with certain older selection only available on disc format. There are a few obscure titles, a couple classics, but the rest are mostly recent and widely available (some even native blockbusters). So after you’ve seen the awesome choices listed here and here, check out these other great films that for whatever reason, aren’t mentioned in the same conversation as Memories of Murder, Friend, or My Sassy Girl.
1. Punch (Lee Han, 2011)
Teenage boys in Korean cinema always seem to have it pretty rough. While probably far from what it’s actually like to grow up in South Korea, the films make it seem that if brains and academia aren’t their strongest attribute, then hopefully they’re good with their fists. Wan-deuk (Ah In-yoo) is 17 and happens to be the latter. He’s poor, his grades are terrible, he’s motherless, and has a dad who constantly gets abused by street thugs.
Wan-Deuk gets by with his fist better than most, but he can’t punch everything that bugs him, especially his neighbor and high-school teacher (played wonderfully by Kim Yun-seok). When his teacher reveals to Wan-Deuk that he may have found his long lost mother, it sparks the first of many events that changes Wan-Deuk’s perspective on the life he though he hated so much.
Korean cinema has it fair share of coming-of-age stories (there are a few more on this list), but they’re structured in a way that the stakes leading up unto the finale may seem a bit heightened, therefore unrealistic. My Tutor Friend is a great comedy and coming-of-age film, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s building to a climactic action beat, where losing has external consequences. What’s great about Punch is that the film is interested in the internal growth of Wan-Deuk through his physical talents, hoping audiences will connect with the character as he lives moment through moment.
Punch does feel like a Korean version of a quirky indie at times, but it’s tough to deny the heart and soul this film provides, even fulfilling the arcs of the supporting characters as well. Punch was a financial success, but it’s foreign releases might have gotten overshadowed by the home releases of larger titles such as The Front Line and War of the Arrows. In any case, Punch will definitely put a smile on your face.
2. Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2002)
Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis has a premise that on paper seems like a tough viewing experience: unstable and troublemaking ex-con Jong-Du (Sol Kyung-gu) meets a girl with Cerebral palsy named Han Gong-ju (Moon So-ri). After failing to force himself on her, the two develop bond after slowly realizing that they understand each other better than their own families. What starts out as purely platonic, turns into something more, causing their families to intervene.
As a testament to the filmmaker, most of this film is quite difficult to watch, but not because it’s terribly made, but due to its honesty. With the exception of Gong-ju, mostly all the other characters are terrible people, knowing fully well that their actions are hurtful and unfounded. It poses an interesting question regarding the actions of everyone involved, and the film purposefully doesn’t put it’s foot down on one side entirely.
While honest, Oasis takes liberty with certain points in the film. These fantasy sequences aren’t ostentatious as seen in something like Precious, and definitely aren’t real in the world of the film, but the desire and emotion that drive these moments are tragically realized in the sequence that it’s understandable why scenes like that are rarely seen in general.
One sequence involving a song on a subway is perfectly designed to destroy one’s heart strings. It’s the only moment where the director gets to romanticize a relationship that’s red flag from the get go. So while Cannes darling Poetry or Criterion treated Secret Sunshine is out there for consumption among cinephiles and academics, Oasis is one to definitely check out for the lonely soul.
3. The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (Hong Sang-soo, 1996)
Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo’s films are beloved for their minimalist approach in storytelling, but rarely does his debut film, The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well receive discussion. While some later picks do convey some growth in the filmmaking, this independent film from 1996 is incredibly impressive at conveying such mature themes, especially when considering Hong made the film barely in his mid-20’s. It feels like an Innaritu movie in which it follows multiple characters through intertwining storylines in nearby proximity to one other, but Hong doesn’t call attention to it like Innaritu.
Characters boil with rage and frustration at their dissatisfied lives in a modern Seoul, with each bit heightening their problems or anxieties. There’s a scene in particular involving the business man who checks into a motel, ready to cheat on his wife. Just moments before he engages in the act, the character sits nervously, with the performance revealing several insecurities about his personality without actually opening his mouth.
There is actual dialogue in the film, with a script that mostly works, but it’s Hong’s assured direction that’s the star of this film. The atmosphere, tone, and restraint shown in this movie are still present in his later work, not to also being well shot. Most lists would pick titles from Hong such as The Power of Kangwon Province or The Day He Arrives, but The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well is one that’s equally important in considering his best work.
4. Spin Kick (Nam Sang-guk, 2004)
Min-gyu (Hyun-Bin) is the star martial artists of the once renowned Manseh High School, known for it’s amazing Taekwondo team. But now, Min-gyu not only has to face his coach quitting, but has to deal with the news that most of his team got incapacitated while accidentally getting into a fight with the school’s notorious gang. In an effort to solve the gang and martial arts problem at once, the Principal gives the gang a choice: either go to jail or join the school’s martial arts team. Min-gyu now has to control a roster of rowdy, unappreciative teammates, since the new coach Chung-geun (Kim Young-Ho) seems to know less than what he states.
Korea’s version of inspirational sports films such as A Barefoot Dream and Glove are signs that the country also loves making these stories. They’ll even go on to cover sports that aren’t as popular worldwide, such as alpine skiing (Take Off), hand-ball (Forever the Moment), and weight-lifting (Lifting King-Kong). Spin Kick’s use of Taekwondo provides the promise of some martial arts action — a promise that it gladly fulfills — but the film is recommended for more than just the action. Knowing that the violence probably can’t get too extreme, the film attempts (and mostly succeeds) at being a full blown comedy.
Whether situational or incredibly physical (i.e. “ballet kick”), Spin Kick uses character to mostly provide the laughs, mostly coming from the new coach and the equipment boy. There is also genuine heart to Spin Kick, reminiscent of Disney’s The Might Ducks. Despite the film trying real hard to apply the discipline of the sport to the lives of the character, the ending is one that’s definitely earned and incredibly satisfying.
5. Haunters (Kim Min-suk, 2010)
Imagine being able to control another living being simply by looking into their eyes and commanding them. Depending on who receives the ability, it can either be a gift or curse. For Cho-in (Kang Dong-Won), it’s been a curse his whole life. After his family fails to kill him as child for his condition, he takes revenge and survives off his powers, stealing from loan sharks and others to get by in modern-day Seoul. When he encounters loan worker Im-gyoo (Go Soo), immune to his command, Im-gyoo commits himself to stop Cho-in from hurting others.
Korean cinema doesn’t dabble in the superhero genre like the U.S. is currently. When superhero films get mentioned on Korean variety shows like Movie World, the hosts are usually baffled at the consistent turnout to films that are almost identical to each other. Whether or not they saw Haunters, it’s tough to admit that film resembling any superhero film out there. For starters, Haunters flips the formula by having the film focus on a super-powered villain. There are hints that Im-gyoo might have an ability as well, but the joy of this film is to see him powerless, struggling each time he battles Cho-in.
Go Soo plays Im-gyoo with heart and earnest that one believes he can’t simply neglect helping complete strangers, especially when they’re used against him. Im-gyoo’s good-natured persona is seen though his interactions with his friends and boss — a standup guy through and through. What follows is purely a battle between good v.s. evil. It’s an unusual genre feature, but Haunters was memorable enough that it was remade last year by Japan.
6. Crocodile (Kim Ki-duk, 1996)
Three homeless men live under the Han River bridge. A little boy and an elderly man get by as they can, but struggle to get on the good side of their third member: a violent thug named Crocodile. When Crocodile saves a woman from a failed suicide attempt from the bridge, he uses his actions as an excuse to use her as an object. But rather than leaving immediately, she stays to everyone’s confusion, even managing to reach affect Crocodile in unexpected ways.
Filmmaker Kim Ki-duk is a polarizing individual within and outside the mainland. His notable work are usually met with extreme reactions, with everything else considered as middling efforts. When people are advised to watch his films, the suggestions that come up are usually 3-Iron, Pieta, Bad Guy, and his masterpiece Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring.
But his debut film Crocodile seeds certain elements that Kim would go on to be notorious for in his later titles. There’s poverty, isolation, violence against women, low lives, and disillusioned miscreants that are seen throughout his filmography. But like his strongest efforts, there’s a point. Here, Kim examines the theme of family, one Kim will go on to examine in later films. And much like his stronger films, Crocodile leads to a poetic yet melancholy finish that even Kim’s naysayers couldn’t deny the craft on display.
7. A Hard Day (Kim Sung-hoon, 2014)
Driving haphazardly to his mother’s funeral one night, Detective Go Geon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun) accidentally strikes a pedestrian with his vehicle. Instead of calling it in, he’s pressured and reduced to cover it up at that moment. From that fatal decision, A Hard Day takes pleasure in putting the lead through the wringer, adding the right amount of obstacles and turns to keep the detective’s day as miserable as possible.
Even with good intentions, Geon-soo isn’t the nicest guy, so as a viewer it’s fun to see how the lead barely squeezes through each predicament, but simultaneously pulling for him to succeed. It’s just a lot of fun seeing him almost get away of a problem, only to have thrown back at him. Without spoiling specific incidents, lets just say he didn’t do as great a job covering his tracks.
The impressive thing about this film is how it plays with it’s initial conceit. The first act alone plays like a short film about a hit and run to the point in which audiences can almost play the entire scenario in their head. But A Hard Day isn’t content with even just an inciting incident, it wants to see how far it can take Geon-soo for every decision he makes. Which is fitting, since the original title translates into Take it the End.
Of 2014’s releases, films like The Pirates, The Admiral: Roaring Currents, The Divine Move, and even the lackluster No Tears for the Dead all got stateside releases, but the strong word of mouth wasn’t enough to bring this overseas. But when available, A Hard Day is simply a fantastic thriller that’s reminiscent of favorites such as The Chaser, minus the brutality.