The Korean New Wave has been one of the most important film movements in my life as a cinefile. As a film student trying to consume as much international film as possible, this matched perfectly with the rise of exciting new filmmakers like Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and Bong Joon-ho. These filmmakers’ interest in expanding the bounds of genre filmmaking was especially right up my alley at the time. $1 Foreign Film Tuesdays at the campus video store provided plenty of opportunity to explore South Korean cinema and films as wide-ranging as The Foul King, Failan, Happy End, The Quiet Family, and many others. Today, That’s Rentertainment may be closed but there is no shortage of South Korean films from the past two decades on streaming platforms.
Available on Netflix
Barking Dogs Never Bite [Bong Joon-ho, 2000]
Even for one of the strangest filmmakers working today, Bong Joon-ho’s debut Barking Dogs Never Bite is a strange film. It doesn’t have any of the sci-fi or fantasy elements that the filmmaker has often embraced through his careers, especially in his most recent work, but it seems to live in some sort of alternate reality nonetheless. The film takes place in and around an apartment complex where one resident becomes enraged by the endless yipping of a neighbor’s dog. After he kidnaps and kills the small pup, a circle of violence and canine cuisine encircles the circle. As a dog owner, there is some pretty difficult imagery here [you’ll quickly understand why the film opens with a “no animal was harmed” disclaimer] and it is especially interesting given Bong’s most recent film Okja, which leans heavily on the side of animal rights. Still, I couldn’t help but find a lot of dark humor in Barking Dogs Never Bite and laughed [often uncomfortably] quite a bit. Bong Joon-ho has become maybe the most prominent filmmaker to come out of South Korea [an argument can be made for Park Chan-wook, certainly] and the most successful to work in English-language film. His first film is rough [or should I saw ‘ruff’?] around the edges, but it undeniably taps into the bleak character humor he has come to master.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird [Kim Jee-woon, 2008]
Another Korean filmmaker that has made the jump into Hollywood film [though I’m not sure anyone really remembers his Arnold Schwarzenegger star vehicle The Last Stand], Kim Jee-woon is probably best known for horror films A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil. His take on the spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, is one of his most kinetically entertaining films, however. Though it isn’t the spoof of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that one might expect, the film definitely jumps off of the classic before launching into the sky with its incredible setpieces and non-stop pace. The film stars three of South Korea’s biggest stars, Lee Byung-hun [of I Saw the Devil and the G.I. Joe movies], Song Kang-ho [of The Host], and Jung Woo-sung [of Korean melodramas] as a twisted trio of thieves all after a treasure map. Set in the late 1930s, the film is exquisitely staged with contemporary machines and weapons all used perfectly in a modern action aesthetic. Bong Joon-ho may have perfected the train action movie with Snowpiercer, but Kim does a hell of a job with his own train-set action sequences. If you are interested in Kim Jee-woon’s work, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a good place to start. It has all of the filmmaker’s trademark kinetics but is a little easier to handle than his more graphically and realistically violent films.
Available on Amazon Prime
Oasis [Lee Chang-dong, 2002]
One of Korea’s premiere filmmakers of melodrama, Lee Chang-dong’s films may not follow the ultra-violent genre trends of his contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean his films aren’t extreme. His follow-up to his international breakthrough Peppermint Candy, Oasis very much shows this. While the film is ostensibly a romantic drama it lives on the fringes of society and continually breaks the conventions of its genre with sheer force. The film follows a young man after being released from prison for a hit-and-run death. He is the black sheep of his family, possibly has a mental illness, and is constantly belittled by his two successful brothers. Through a chance meeting that I don’t want to spoil, Jong-du meets Gong-ju, a young woman with cerebral palsy. Over time they build a friendship that leads to a romance. Sounds kind of sweet, doesn’t it? Well, Oasis is anything but sweet. Despite a few beautifully touching moments involving the two young lovers, the film is mostly an ugly, troubling look at two outcasts who are spurned by those closest to them. The film challenges you to find grace in the bleakness, even within Jong-du whose actions are often difficult to accept, sometimes monstrous. Lee Chang-dong has never been interested in cheap sentimentality, even in his more mainstream dramas Secret Sunshine and Poetry. Oasis is definitely his most extreme example of a drama that pushes against all the expected plot conventions.
Revivre [Im Kwon-taek, 2014]
Im Kwon-taek is one of Korea’s most prolific directors, having made more than 100 films since the early 1960s. Like Lee Chang-dong, he is primarily known for dramas, though in a more conventional sense. Im helped build South Korea as an international film market with popular, mainstream films and lush romantic dramas, such as his most known film Chunhyang . Revivre [also known as Hwajang], is a tender and heartbreaking drama about a middle-aged businessman struggling with the impending death of his wife. As she slowly slips away from cancer, Mr. Oh begins fantasizing about a beautiful young co-worker. In the fashion of South Korean dramas, the character study is intimate and quite complicated—you sympathize with the emotional, traumatic pain of its lead character while still condemning him for not being completely committed to his grieving family. Veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki plays this divide perfectly in a sad austerity. Revivre is different from other Im Kwon-taek films I’ve seen, so I’m not sure it is perfectly emblematic of his overall work, but his ability to work within multiple heightened emotions is very much in the classic Korean melodramatic style that he helped build.
Available on Fandor
Time [Kim Ki-duk, 2006]
Kim Ki-duk is Korea’s leading provocateur in a film culture full of filmmakers pushing boundaries to the extreme. His work tends to be bleak, examining misery and psychological torture, and there have been many controversies surrounding the content and productions of his films. Time is reminiscent of 90s sexual thrillers with a touch of Hitchcock’s interest in identity. In the film, as a young couple’s relationship is breaking apart, the woman disappears from her boyfriend’s life after receiving face-altering plastic surgery. Six months later, she reappears in her ex’s life as a new woman and their new relationship spirals into emotional and psychological violence. And it only gets crazier from there. Time is a rather small thriller that keeps changing the stakes throughout. The intentions or even identities of its characters are never clear and the increasingly wild behavior makes for a twisty, unbelievable experience. I’m not sure if Kim Ki-duk is using the cultural interest in plastic surgery as a critique or just as a backdrop for ridiculous thriller but it almost doesn’t matter either way—honestly, not being able to tell is a sign of a good provocateur, who can elevate the trashiest entertainment into something else. Many of Kim Ki-duk’s films are available on streaming, including the The Isle [controversial for its animal rights abuses] and sex slavery drama Bad Guy both also available on Fandor.
In Another Country [Hong Sang-soo, 2012]
Hong Sang-soo has risen to international acclaim in recent years for his artistic romantic comedies that play with storytelling narratives. His 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then received critical acclaim for its inventive structure focusing on how minor choices in a chance meeting could lead to massive differences. In Another Country had a smaller profile when it was released in 2012 and I have the feeling if it had been released after Right Now, Wrong Then it would have received a bigger spotlight. Through the framework of a Korean woman writing a screenplay, the film tells three different stories about a French woman visiting a small seaside town. Each woman stays at the same resort, interacts with a bickering married couple and a cute lifeguard, and has various romantic encounters. In Hong Sang-soo fashion, though, each woman is played by the same actor, the great Isabelle Huppert. Each story is sweet and charming, mostly unassuming on its own but told together the similar narrative circumstances become defined by the differences in the lead characters and dramatic context. It is extremely playful, almost to the point of fantasy. Many of Hong Sang-soo’s inventive films are available on streaming, including the previously mentioned Right Now, Wrong Then and The Day He Arrives on Fandor, Oki’s Movie, HaHaHa, Like You Know It All, and The Power of Kangwon Province on Amazon Prime.
Available on FilmStruck
The Vengeance Trilogy [Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance / Oldboy / Lady Vengeance, Park Chan-wook, 2002-2005]
The introduction of many young cinefiles to Korean film, Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy” are three narratively unrelated tales held together by violent, twisted revenge. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance  involves a kidnapping for ransom that goes horribly wrong, leading a wealthy industrialist [Song Kang-ho, star of The Host and many other of Korea’s most popular films] on a rampage. Though it isn’t as popular as the follow-up, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is equally beautiful and brilliantly plays with audience expectations and character allegiances. There isn’t much I have to say about Oldboy  as I’m sure you’ve seen it. The explosive and twisty film holds up, though, because of the incredible filmmaking, even if you know the infamous twist ending on a second viewing. Finally, Lady Vengeance  had lofty expectations upon its release and Park absolutely meets them with this expertly edited and incredibly entertaining story. Lady Vengeance puts an interesting twist on the themes of imprisonment, as the lead character is seen as a monster by society but is actually a victim of circumstance. Lee Yeong-ae is super cool as the title character the reveal of a familiar face as the villain is a fun spin on the series. If you’re only familiar with Oldboy, I urge you to seek out the other two films of this trilogy. Each offers something to love with different visual styles and emotional tones. And once you are ready to expand further into the work of Park Chan-wook, his most recent film, The Handmaiden, is available on Amazon Prime.