I am not an expert in the seventh art but I can say that I have spent a few hours on it and since a long time, I wanted to talk about Korean cinema. I will not focus on independent or commercial films. I will not build on if this actor or that movie has won more awards. I just want to talk about Korean films that can contribute something about the culture, history and customs of Korea and/or, at the same time could be good options to escape from the routine of american or european cinema. They are posted in chronological order, so it’s not a ranking. I could include many more, but I think 12 is ok by the moment. Most of them are easy to find in the net and I recommend to watch them in the original version with subtitles.
- Chin Goo / Friend (2001)
Mafia is part of Korean history. This film tells a story of four friends who grow up together in a time of changes. Although if you don’t speak Korean, if you’ve seen a few movies you can sense the difference southern Busan accent with the correct pronunciation of Seoul. Something like the difference between british and american english. Hyung (older brother) is the treatment given to someone older than you and that you should respect.
- Old Boy (2003)
Perhaps the most internationally famous film since started the boom of korean cinema. The mythical fight scene that was filmed in one take without cuts is awesome. Like many other asian cult films, it has an american version. The only thing I did not like much was the end. Too far-fetched, in my opinion. By the way, eating live octopus is typical of Korean food but, to be honest, the main character does it in a disgusting way.
- 3-Iron (2004)
By the consecrated Kim Ki-duk. One of those independent filmmakers you can like or not, but you can not stay indifferent. Neither about the protagonist, who does not utter a single word throughout the movie. Not having spent a lot of money on it, the movie gives an idea of how creative can be the independent Korean cinema just playing with glances and silences. In Korea this director is not liked as much as in the rest of the world. Nobody is a prophet in their own land.
- Tazza: The High Rollers (2006)
The film revolves around Hwatu, Korean poker and the dark world behind a card game in which the stakes reach uncontrollable levels. Many Koreans grew up watching their parents playing at home, so we can say that is part of Korean culture. As with Chingoo (Friend) there is a sequel starred by Big Bang’s TOP but, as in many cases, it is said that it is not up to the first.
- Nameless Gangster (2012)
An abstract of black cinema Korean masterfully played by Choi Min-Sik and located in Busan’s underworld, where the biggest scandal in the country about corruption and organized gangs took place. “Sara Inne” has become a mythical phrase of the korean film history which literally means “you are alive”, something like “still rocking”
- The Flu / Gamgi (2013)
Although everyone talks about Train to Busan, regarding disaster films, this film caught my eye. On the one hand it shows how, in terms of cinema, koreans have many resources and good ideas. It is more credible a story about a catastrophe by an outbreak of avian flu, rather than a zombie invasion. Don’t you think so? But on the other hand, it also shows how in such an advanced and developed society in a huge city as Seoul, in some aspects, the sense of humanity has been lost, because I really think people would react that way.
- The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014)
Everyone knows the feat of the 300 Spartans, but nobody knows the Korean version in the naval battle in which Admiral Yi Sun-sin faced 330 Japanese ships with only 12 and the knowledge of the sea during the Japanese invasion of the sixteenth century. One of those myths in the history of Korea to feel pride about and that all koreans know since childhood.
- Ode To My Father (2014)
I could say this is a dramatic version of Forrest Gump because of the merits reached by the protagonist, the celebrities he meets during his journey (like the founder of Hyundai) and especially for his humble way of being, present at several important events in the history of Korea. One of those movies that will make you cry even if you do not know the history of the Korean War and the trauma of the lives of millions of Koreans who lost their relatives during the armistice in 1953. The market exists and the store is a must for people who visit Busan. The main actress is Yun-jin Kim (Lost).
- The Royal Tailor (2014)
Another wink to the Korean culture, this time through the textile design. Watching this film you can get an idea of the difference with China and Japan about traditional asian dresses. It is a duel of egos where the king’s tailor, anchored to the old school patterns, is faced to a talented young man who is breaking the rules. A theme always repeated in the history of any sector of design and creativity.
- The Tiger: An Old Hunter’s Tale / Daeho (2015)
Choi Min-Sik, my favorite Korean actor, mystified in Oldboy, starring a movie that I liked quite much. Awesome featuring, good theme and better photography. It is a beautiful story of a retired hunter and a tiger. The movie itself is a tribute to the tiger, the animal that symbolizes Korea in another film set in the time of the Japanese invasion, also very frequent topic in Korean cinema. Do not sell the skin of the tiger before you catching it.
- C’est si bon (2015)
C’est si bon is an introduction to the Korean folk music during the 70’s through Twin Folio, a group formed by three young musicians. The story tells how they reached success and describes the usual ups and downs of a band when there is a lot of ego involved. An interesting musical nod to a part of the history of Korean music that describes a harder time which has nothing to do with the popular KPop that is now sweeping the world.
- Seoul Station (2016)
I didn’t want to leave the animated films out of the box and this is why I make a brief mention of Seoul Station. As we spoke before about Train to Busan, it is Sang-ho Yeon, the same director who, with this animation, made this prequel to the blockbuster zombies movie which subsequently jumped to the big screen with real actors.
(Choi Min-Sik. Nameless Gangster)