Given the success of South Korean television series (including Squid game and Hell) and numerous international distinctions for films in Korean (Minari, Parasite), we can only assume that audiences worldwide have listened to director Bong Joon-ho’s advice: ‘Once you get over the inch-tall subtitle barrier, you’ll find so many more amazing movies.
Korean pop culture is no different from American, British, Italian or Spanish themes. There are stories of dysfunctional families, crime bosses, veterans, altruistic and selfish people as well as an array of monsters. Often times, films with a universal vocation are the ones that bend genres or start long discussions.
Here are some recommendations, taken from SBS On Demand’s new Korean movie collection, which celebrates the variety and talent of Korean filmmakers.
It’s been almost 2 years since this film was released and it remains etched in our memory because of its complexity and its unforeseen circumstances. On the surface, this is a critique of modern society and the wealth gap in South Korea. The two families, the Kim’s and the Parks, embody the haves and have-nots. The Kim’s, tired of day-to-day living, manipulate their way through the rich lives and homes of the parks with a mix of cunning tricks and good timing. They almost succeed but come face to face with the longtime park housekeeper who has her own reason for staying at the residence.
Dig a little deeper and it’s also a movie about some nasty characters who may or may not get their Redemption Arc. There is no backstory to explain their origin story, no subplot excuses their lies and prejudices. In the words of director Bong Joon-ho, “it’s a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.”
Bong won 3 Oscars for the film in 2020, including Best Picture. Even if you’ve seen it during its festival and are aware of the plot twist, it’s worth watching a second time because you’ll discover the nuances you missed the first time around.
Parasite is now airing on SBS On Demand.
Train to Busan
In 2021, watching a movie about a virus, quarantine, death and sacrifice seems like self-inflicted agony. Do we really want to watch a movie about survival in a health crisis featuring the living dead?
The answer is yes, because while it does feature zombies, it truly is a film about humans and persevering humanity. Gong Yoo (aka the seller in Squid game) plays a divorced and estranged father who takes his daughter by train from Seoul to Busan. On the train are a set of people of age, survival skills, and class hierarchy who play vital roles later.
When a sick passenger infects the driver and turns him into a blind zombie killer, all hell breaks loose. Zombies replicate quickly and without impunity. The other passengers must find a way to survive, justify their own (sometimes mistaken) reasons for surviving while trying to figure out who they can trust. These elements turn the film into a thrilling, fast-paced race on wheels.
Disaster films with a parent-child combination are not new (see A quiet place), but the emphasis on unpleasant characters, social commentary, and scathing criticism of Korean culture Train to Busan a standout. On the contrary, it brings a new perspective in an old genre.
Train to Busan is now airing on SBS On Demand.
This is a delightful film by director E J-yong, shot like a mock documentary where each actress plays herself as well as a fictional version of herself. The premise is simple: six actresses, each an icon in their time, are invited to a Vogue photoshoot. This includes Youn Yuh-jung, the film’s memorable grandmother. Minari and Choi Ji-woo from the TV series Winter sonata.
However, the studio space is not big enough to contain their ego and emotional baggage. They laugh at each other, laugh at their declining celebrity status, or scramble for better clothes and treatment. Occasionally, they also find solidarity with each other. The shaking camera and the muffled dialogue between the managers give the impression that we are listening to a set. It is disorienting at first but softens in the second act.
The film will appeal to people familiar with the South Korean film industry as there are a lot of jokes and riffs about the actresses’ preconceptions. But even if you don’t have that context, it’s an interesting take on how to mix “real” and “fictional” lives.
the actresses is now airing on SBS On Demand.
The film’s opening scene is breathtaking, bloody, bloody, and almost looks like a first-person view in a video game. But the heavily choreographed fight scene between a woman (Kim Ok-bin) and a few dozen henchmen also raises more questions. Who is she? Why is she on a murderous carnage?
The film is told in flashbacks and it is up to the spectator to reconstruct everything. What we do know is that Kim is a highly skilled assassin for an agency that saved her from serious trouble. But Kim has a daughter and wants to go out. She buys her freedom in increments, treating each mission like a key that unlocks more autonomy. She even falls in love with the sweet young man next door who, unbeknownst to her, also works for the agency and has been sent to babysit her.
Kim is a star. She oscillates between killing machine, friend, mother and lover with ease, but with some melodramas in the second half.
The meanie is now airing on SBS On Demand.
Kim Ji-young, born in 1982
This film is an adaptation of a bestselling novel of the same name and has sparked debates about sexism and the #metoo movement in South Korea. Which means the film had supporters and detractors even before its release.
This is the eponymous character, Kim Ji-Young (Jung Yu-mi) which represents the average woman in the country. The film is set today with her husband and child, with flashbacks to Kim’s childhood and adulthood. For most of the movie, Kim is unhappy even though she doesn’t realize it. She plans to return to her full-time job, and the interactions she has with family and friends provide additional insight into the outright sexism and internalized misogyny she faces.
Compared to other films about sexism and the #metoo movement (eg. Bomb), there is no scandal, drama or aggression at the heart of it. Instead, it’s a slow-paced movie, and we see how Kim’s mundane, mundane activities run out of steam due to the micro-aggression from the company. In one scene, she is in a cafe with her child and a group of people call her a “cockroach mom” or “worm mom,” a derogatory word for stay-at-home moms.
Incidents like these are the reason Kim ends up falling apart. It’s heartbreaking to watch and a testament to Jung’s performance.
Kim Ji-young, born in 1982 is now airing on SBS On Demand.
It is one of the first works of director Bong Joon-ho and as Parasite, it’s a genre game, witty and subversive. It’s also a movie that you can continuously discuss and dissect, as each viewer will have their own take on the ending.
It starts with a standard premise: a woman has died and a mentally disabled man is charged with her murder based on circumstantial evidence. It should be an open and closed case for the police, but the man’s mother [AH(1] (Kim Hye-ja) is fiercely protective and has saved her son from dangerous situations since he was young. She’s not about to let her son go to jail without a fight. She becomes an investigator, detective and lawyer and we understand why she is the main character of this film.
The plot in Mother lies in the inability to really classify it. It could be a crime drama or a family drama, but there are no heroes or villains. Instead, it’s a seamless story of how disenfranchised people navigate a system that is stacked on them. He challenges the viewer to judge them.
And that’s what makes it so exciting.
Mother is now airing on SBS On Demand.
SBS on demand Korean collection includes a captivating collection of Korean films, dramas and documentaries, plus SBS favorites available with Korean subtitles.