5. I Saw the Devil
A highly trained agent exacts revenge on the killer of his finance, though a simple killing or torture obviously doesn’t seem sufficient for our hero. Instead he catches and releases him numerous times in a series of elaborately plotted and increasingly violent sequences held together by strong performances and impressive direction and blocking. The killer has also previous murdered numerous people, so, while the severity of his punishment makes one squirm, he is always the clear villain of the film.
4. Train To Busan
This is one of the most popular films domestically and internationally to come out of Korea. Our characters are on a train from Seoul to Busan and a zombie virus breaks out. Mashing together elements of horror and action, Yeon Sang-Ho uses these genre constructs to criticise the social structure of Korea, the class divide in particular, while also delivering a non-stop onslaught of cinematic thrills. The film moves along at a steady clip providing a heightened sense of suspense and anxiety that will keep you constantly alert and engaged.
3. The Handmaiden
Chan-wook Park is known for intricate plotting with many reveals and shocks, as seen in his entire back catalogue (all of which are worth exploring)—arguably the films which drew most attention to Korea as a producer of quality, exciting film—this film doesn’t disappoint. The Handmaiden, like much of his previous work, is concerned with revenge, or more accurately, with fraud and defrauding. A poor woman is sent as handmaid to a wealthy Japanese heiress, who, along with the assistance of a young Korean con-artist, they hope to extort. This plan goes the way of all such endeavours.
First Korean winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival, and the most successful Korean film in history, Parasite is a rare beast, in that it was a critical hit and a box-office bonanza. Bong Joon Ho has long been releasing incredible arthouse and genre films, but has had trouble with distribution, especially in the UK. Now, with Parasite, while he is at the peak of his powers, he has broken through in the west in a big way. The story focuses on a working class family who are struggling financially and end up infiltrating a ludicrously wealthy household. Their plan is to pretend they are strangers and manipulate the rich family into hiring them all in various positions around the house. As you’d expect, appropriate levels of mayhem ensue.
Based loosely on a Haruki Murakami short story about a man who burns down greenhouses in the Korean countryside, the film instead focuses on a young aimless man, Lee, who bumps into a woman who remembers him from before he moved to the city, but whom he cannot recognise. From here, Lee is absorbed by the mystery of Shin and her new, wealthy boyfriend (played by the excellent Steven Yeun).
Burning is a poignant, slow moving yet gripping meditation on memory, class and obsession that merits multiple viewings. It has an elusive quality itself, just like Shin, and leaves you wondering what is going on below the surface, if anything. Bewilderingly, it has been described as a ghost story, though one wonders why. At the same time, there is that cat… and what really did happen to Shin and why couldn’t Lee recognise her?