25 Overlooked South Korean Movies That Are Worth Watching
Just in case you needed more South Korean cinema, here is an additional article featuring 25 more overlooked South Korean films. If you haven’t checked out the first one, please do so — mainly just in case I might’ve missed something (as well as several other similar lists).
Once again, I use the term “overlooked” incredibly loosely. Whether it be ticket sales (either here or South Korea), awards, critical acclaim, obscurity, or overshadowed by more successful films, this list is really an excuse to talk about some choice South Korean titles.
The list isn’t meant to be representative of the nation’s best since the recent new wave (we have lists for those), so don’t be too angered with the exclusion of a film by Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho on this list. In addition, I purposely left out horror films, as I’m currently working on a list specifically highlighting the nation’s best in that genre.
I tried to pick things that I think are not only great and entertaining, but readily available via streaming or purchase online. There are a few really obscure titles that might not be as easy to find, but with a little effort, they can be seen. As usual, if you don’t see a film on this list, but you believe it absolutely deserves to be, comment below!
1. The President’s Last Bang (2005, Im Sang-soo)
Based on the true event, “The President’s Last Bang” centers around the events surrounding the assassination of Korean President Park Chung-hee in October 26, 1979. The film opens hours prior to event. KCIA Chief Agent Ju (Han Suk-kyu) and KCIA Director Kim (Baek Yun-shik) have a close working relationship, one of mutual respect.
Kim, however, doesn’t find that same respect from the President (Song Jae-ho) and his people, undermined constantly instead. As Park’s antics become more and more bothersome and frustrating to Kim, he works with Agent Ju to assassinate the President for the good of the nation.
“The President’s Last Bang” is another notable title that belongs to the excellent list of films to come out of the recent wave of South Korean cinema. The fact that it’s a great film that also brings up a modern perspective of a historical events adds another layer of significance when considering how Korean culture is depicted in its art.
What makes Im’s film so great — other than how marvelous it looks — is this unexpected layer of comedy that’s fresh in what could’ve been dour, deathly serious endeavor. Don’t get me wrong, it’s violent, bloody, and quite heavy in some cases (e.g. scenes of interrogation, abuse, executions, etc.), but it does so to increase tension, especially after a significant event mid-way through the film (for better or worse).
It subverts expectations and Im uses the opportunity to ramp up the tension and stakes to an unbelievably graceful ending. The trailer compare this to Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” which is somewhat a stretch. While I don’t think it’s that great, it does share that similar tone and humor, just with a lot more gunshots and Japanese hookers.
I completely understand why this film is mentioned in the same texts as “Oldboy” or “Memories of Murder,” but I’m seeing it being talked about outside those academic sources. Which is a shame, since “The President’s Last Bang” is one of the better entries from the wave of mostly amazing titles.
2. Breathless (2008, Yang Ik-joon)
Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-joon) is a loan shark that’s hated by almost everyone. The only person that tolerates him is his friend/boss Man-shik (Jung Man-sik), who constantly advises Sang-hoon to calm down. Always pissed and angry, Sang-hoon even beats his co-workers when he feels that they’re weak.
On his way to visit his nephew, Sang-hoon accidentally spits on a high school student named Yeon-hee (Kim Kko-bi). When she demands an apology, he simply knocks her out. When she tracks him down and asks for a second time, Sang-hoon is taken by her tenacity and the two develop and odd friendship.
Yang Ik-joon surprised everyone in 2008 when he released “Breathless” (or translated as “Shit Fly” in Korean). Not only was his performance amazing, but Yang also wrote, directed, and starred, but he most likely produced the film as well. At first glance, the raw, digital look isn’t as clean or polished as most features.
As tired as this next statement can be, the gritty look matches/complements the dog-eat-dog environment that Sang-hoon barely comprehends. Sang-hoon is constantly frustrated, and Yang plays him totally unlikable, to the point where you’d cross the street if you saw the man approaching you.
Yet, Yang takes his time and eventually uses Sang-hoon’s tragic and violent past to inform the hopeless cycle of domestic violence that consume people at a young age. Aspiring filmmakers with no money, crew, or resources should definitely watch “Breathless” to see what Yang was able to do on his own. The film might not be pretty, but it’s an engrossing tale nonetheless.
3. Marathon (2005, Chung Yoon-chul)
Based on a true story, Cho-won (Cho Seung-woo) is an autistic young man who seems to only respond to his mother (Kim Mi-suk), zebras, and a Korean treat called “Choco-Pie.” In addition to those three, Cho-won spends most of his time running. Always encouraging of Cho-won, his mother hires a burnt out P.E. teacher named Jung-wook (Lee Ki-young) to properly train Cho-won.
At first, Jung-wook just takes payment and barely acknowledges the kid, even though Cho-won mistakes it for training. When Cho-won surprises everyone by taking third at a 10km race, his mom pushes the two of them to train Cho-won to run a full marathon (42km) in under 3 hours.
Get the tissue ready folks, because “Marathon” is most likely going to bring out the waterworks. As far as inspirational sports films go, I was debating between several films — mostly based on true stories. I thought of something like the hand-ball film “Forever the Moment” or the alpine skiing in “Take Off” but those films are hardly that memorably and feature sports that are highly esoteric.
While I was going to pick “Glove” — a film about a deaf baseball team — “Marathon” is not only inspired and inspirational, but it’s also a fine example of writing characters and motivations in a pure and effective manner. The climax brings together these their separate wants and desires, fulfilling the story emotionally by seeing Cho-won’s character literally go the distance.
When I think of South Korean sports films, I keep coming back to this (and oddly, “Mr. Go”), for being damn effective. At first glance, it comes off as a parody of these types of films, but Cho Seung-woo is amazing as the autistic Cho-won with a balanced performance that’s engaging and hardly distracting.
While most of the films on this list aren’t appropriate for the whole family, “Marathon” is one that most people will enjoy. It was a hit in South Korea, and got a modest DVD release with a few other new wave titles. This film is definitely around the streaming platforms and it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.
4. Beat (1997, Kim Sung-su)
At 19, Min (Jung Woo-sung) is a high-school dropout who spends his days getting into street brawls accompanied by his best friend Tae-su (Yu Oh-seung). With life at home being equally terrible, Min is pressured by his mother to stop ignoring education, causing Min to enroll in a new school.
There, he meets a new friend, but also falls for a young girl named Ro-mi (Ko So-young). Things look promising for a moment, but Min soon follows a now low-level gangster Tae-su into a world of violence and crime.
In 1997, South Korean cinema was introduced to “Green Fish,” a gangster epic by Lee Chang-dong. While it might not be as popular as something like “A Bittersweet Life,” “Green Fish” is an effective cautionary metaphor that used the gangster narrative to reflect many Korean men at the time. The same year also released “Beat,” a similar gangster film that focuses on a much younger cast of characters.
In a sense, it somewhat feels like “Boyz in the Hood” or “Menace to Society,” a story of misguided youth led astray, finding solace in violence and crime. It’s a bit dated to see today (especially scenes involving music and dancing), since the characters of “Beat” are obsessed with Korean and American popular culture that was big in late-90s, but it isn’t hard to see the allure it has on them.
My first part of overlooked Korean films had “Green Fish” listed, and while I think “Green Fish” ages better as film, “Beat” is very much of its time. Still, it’s a beautifully shot gangster film — at moments channeling Wong Kar-wai — that would eventually pave the way for something like “Attack the Gas Station.” Despite it’s shortcomings, the parts where “Beat” works are pretty memorable.
5. Kick the Moon (2001, Kim Sang-jin)
As high school students, pals Gi-dong (Cha Seung-won) and Young-joon (Lee Sung-jae) are at Gyeongju city for a field trip. Gi-dong was known to be a tough brawler and thug, leading his classmates and fellow thugs into a legendary street fight against a rival gang.
Young-joon, an A-student, hides at the karaoke lounge during the fight. Ten years later, the two meet again in Gyeongju, essentially swapping roles: Gi-dong is now a dedicated P.E. teacher for high school delinquents while Young-joon is a leading member of a huge gang.
As they barely get through their impromptu reunion, both men are instantly smitten by the lovely Ju-ran (Kim Hye-soo) at a local Police Station. As they try to stake their claim on the lady, both men rekindle a somewhat old beef as they both compete against each other for Ju-ran’s affection.
Originally, I was going to feature “Attack the Gas Station” on this list, but anyone who’s aware of South Korean cinema (especially oddities such as “Save the Green Planet”) most likely has heard or seen that film. If you haven’t seen it (or “Save the Green Planet” for that matter), check it out. Kim Sang-jin is one of those directors that’s able to mix the serious and comical quite well.
“Kick the Moon” can get wild at times like Kim’s “Attack the Gas Station,” but the director takes a more subtle approach with the characters and their relationship when they’re not punching and kicking other people or each other.
At its core, it’s essentially about Gi-dong and Young-joon and their differing ideologies. It’s especially interesting when considering in how each contributed in shaping the other’s future. The subplots involving the students and underlings don’t connect as well in the end, but regardless, “Kick the Moon” is a great gangster comedy that fans of “Attack the Gas Station” should enjoy.
6. Young Gun in the Time (2012, Oh Young-doo)
Young-gun (Hong Young-geun) is a Hawaiian-shirt sporting P.I., in debt and taking on shameful cases. One day, a pretty woman named Song-hyun (Choi Song-hyun) walks into his office, asking him to kill a man wearing a specific watch, since this man murdered her mentor who was working on time travel. He refuses, sending her away.
As she leaves, he sees her getting abducted, and eventually die in an unexpected, fatal car crash. When Young-gun later sees Song-hyun alive, he starts putting pieces together, realizing that the woman who visited him was from the future. Determined, Young-gun uses what time he has left to track down the killer, but also save Song-hyun and the time machine.
I wanted to select a few indie features on this list, since real indie films don’t get released outside of South Korea without a lot of assistance — already assuming the film is great and was received well critically. Made for the equivalent of $30,000, “Young Gun in the Time” is a fine example of a great idea and inventive storytelling stretched to the max with a small budget.
Billed as a sci-fi, comedy-action film, “Young Gun in the Time” tries it’s absolute best to satisfy that descriptive. When it comes to the science-fiction element, the budget shows. However, the action and laughs are plentiful, with Hong Young-geun being surprisingly capable in the lead role.
To come off like a badass dressed like a tourist is no easy feat, and Hong does an awesome job. This one is going to be harder to track down, but I highly recommend it when the opportunity to see “Young Gun in the Time” arrives. It’s a weird little gem.
7. Bleak Night (2010, Yoon Sung-hyun)
Ki-tae (Lee Je-hoon) is a high school boy who commits suicide at the start of the film. His father (Jo Sung-ha) tracks down his two best friends, Hee-joon (Park Jung-min) and Dong-yoon (Seo Jun-young), hoping to find some sort of explanation. As the father tries to uncover any information he can from the boys, the film reveals through flashbacks the events that lead to the tragic suicide of Ki-tae.
“Bleak Night” is an interesting little title, since it was actually made as a student feature film by The Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA). Don’t let that descriptive fool you, it doesn’t have that roughness that most student films have.
Sure it doesn’t look expensive, but “Bleak Night” feels like the work by the most seasoned filmmaker — which makes this debut by 29-year old Yoon Sung-hyun quite spectacular. There’s quite a bit to like in this film. The acting by the young leads are phenomenal, and it’s no wonder that Lee Je-hoon would go on to bigger films such as “The Front Line,” or Park Jung-min getting casted in the “Flu” or “Legendary Fists.”
The script and direction is incredibly minimalistic, with flashbacks expertly integrated in the main plot without ever being confusing. “Bleak Night” succeeds at telling it’s brutal story about young men who find trouble understanding the true meaning of friendship when they’re plagued with violence and insults from all around. “Bleak Night” is a quite little drama that’s wildly mature and affecting.
8. Two Cops (1993, Kang Woo-suk)
Detective Cho (Ahn Sung-kee) is a crooked cop, using his badge to frequent illegal clubs and getting handouts left and right without care. When he’s assigned the straight-laced, top-of-the-class rookie Kang (Park Joong-hoon), Cho acts like nothing’s new. To the rookie’s utter surprise, Cho seems to enjoy being a terrible cop, while his colleagues love him and criminals fear him. Kang, finding this unacceptable, tries to forcefully correct Cho.
When Kang falls for a femme fatale, he starts behaving like his scoundrel partner, slacking off and taking bribes as well. As Cho notices his new partner becoming even more corrupt, he eventually intervenes, especially with Kang’s new lady being more trouble than originally thought.
Kang Woo-suk became one of South Korean industry’s most important filmmaker and producer in the mid-90s, with much of his success coming from his hit film “Two Cops.” It’s a buddy cop film that feels like a Korean version of a Joel Silver or Shane Black vehicle, but with a fraction of the budget and scope. Where this film gets most of it’s mileage is the comedy.
Playing against type, Ahn is having fun playing the crooked cop, and his scenes are almost a delight. It’s no surprise to South Koreans that both leads have great chemistry, since the two previously starred together in the seminal “Chilsu and Mansu,” a relationship that would lead them into further collaboration.
I feel like as a director, Kang Woo-suk is mostly known outside here for films like his “Public Enemy” films and “Silmido,” but “Two Cops” is an action-comedy delight that’s a bit easier to watch, especially compared to something like “Silmido.”
It’s a bit dated, but being a comedy, it adds another layer of ridiculousness. I doubt audiences outside South Korea has heard about this film. Although it made a ton of money, ranking second in the box-office, it did so following “Sopyonje,” one of South Korea’s finest cinematic achievements, overshadowing almost anything that year.