Let’s face it. Hollywood doesn’t take chances anymore, especially not like they used to in the 70s, when artists had a lot more pull and blockbuster franchise filmmaking wasn’t the order of the day. Today it feels like we’re getting second rate ripoffs or incessant sequels and making a billion dollars in the worldwide box office is the only way to measure success. How else to explain how Terminator Genisys, a film that made $440 million worldwide was considered such a failure that all plans for a sequel were scrapped? I’m not saying all modern Hollywood movies are bullshit, but the vast majority sure are.
Fortunately, the Korean film industry doesn’t give a fuck about any of that. Some of the bravest, most intense, and disturbingly creative movies I’ve ever seen have come out of Korea in the last two decades. Sure, you’ll have to use subtitles for most of these flicks, but look at it as if you’re not missing any dialogue! If you want stunningly original cinema that will stick with you long after the credits roll for a myriad of reasons, then you need to check out these six flicks right away!
1) Snowpiercer (2013 – Dir: Bong Joon-ho)
Out of the six films on this list, this is by far the most accessible and non-threatening to North American Audiences, mostly due to the fact that the majority of the film is in English and the film stars Captain America himself, Chris Evans. Seasoned thespians like Ed Harris, John Hurt and Tilda Swinton will all be familiar to audiences on this side of the Pacific as well. Don’t let the predominantly white cast fool you though, this brilliant, darkly comic and violent Sci-Fi adventure was directed, produced and financed in Korea, making it the perfect middle ground for a crash course in Korean cinema.
The plot deals with the last remaining shreds of humanity being trapped on a perpetually moving train, lest they freeze to death on the planet’s surface that has been cursed into an uninhabitable ice age by humanity’s own decisions. The poorest on the train are crammed into the back of the train while the wealthiest continue leading their lives of indulgence and excess towards the front. Things come to a head when the poor stage a rebellion led by Evans and the disenfranchised begin making their way up the cars, one by one as things get weirder from one car to the next. This is one of the most ambitious and bizarre Sci-Fi films since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and it’s a must see for dystopia or Sci Fi fans out there.
2) Oldboy (2003 Dir: Park Chan-wook)
The oldest film on this list, now we’re really diving head first into just how messed up Korean thrillers can really be. Oldboy is one of the great all time thrillers from any country, and is a great litmus test for your cinematic stomach. This bizarre and trippy journey of revenge goes in directions that most films would never have the guts to go. The result is a stylish and disturbing examination of vengeance that also happens to feature an all time great fight scene as one character fights dozens of men while armed with a pair of hammers.
The plot starts off simple. A seemingly innocent man wakes up imprisoned in a small motel room with all the necessary amenities to survive. He’s given food every day, he has a television, heat, a bed and enough to drink. There he remains for 15 years until one day he’s mysteriously released. Now, he only has five days to figure out what exactly happened to him and the people responsible. I dare not say more, other than if you only see one movie on this list and have the stomach for it, make it this one. Just avoid the crummy Spike Lee remake with Josh Brolin. It sucks.
3) Save the Green Planet! (2003 Dir: Jang Joon-hwan)
Every movie on this list is weird in its own way, but this perhaps the weirdest. This wacko combination of Silence of the Lambs, K-Pax, Men in Black, and a pinch of 12 Monkeys will blow your mind, if you’re able to track down a copy that is. I remember seeing this film on assignment from The Carleton University newspaper roughly a decade ago and I was one of only two critics in the theatre to review the movie. It’s a shame that this flick is so obscure, because it’s hilarious and frightening in a way that is rarely if ever seen in American thrillers.
The plot deals with a weirdo loner who is convinced that aliens from the Andromeda system are infiltrating our planet at the highest levels and preparing for an all out invasion. This man is so strong in his belief that he kidnaps a high level business executive, convinced that he’s one of these aliens. From there, he holds the man in a torture dungeon to try and get him to confess his extra terrestrial origins. With detectives hot on the case and an uncoorperative hostage, things start getting intense. But of course, the main character is just nuts and he couldn’t possibly be right about his alien conspiracy theories… Could he?
4) The Man from Nowhere (2010 Dir: Lee Jeong-beom)
Probably the most straight forward action flick out of all the movies on this list, The Man from Nowhere is a no holds barred, brutal action picture in the same vein of The Raid or Man on Fire if you prefer a Hollywood comparison. This film is loaded with incredibly choreographed action sequences but with a touching and heartbreaking story at its centre.
The titular Man from Nowhere is a quiet and reserved pawnshop owner who begrudgingly befriends a little girl who is also his next door neighbor. Unfortunately, the girl’s mother is a heroin addict who has mixed herself up with the wrong people. A deal goes wrong and both mother and daughter are kidnapped by a crime ring that casually dabbles in hard drugs, organ harvesting and child labor. Fortunately, our hero’s mysterious background has allowed him a very specific set of skills that would make Liam Neeson nervous to cross. This one is an absolute blast from start to finish, even if it doesn’t explore some of the deeper meaning and themes that something like Oldboy does.
5) The Host (2006 Dir: Bong Joon-ho)
Before he made Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho made this riot of a monster movie that is equally hilarious, terrifying and thrilling. Featuring excellent special effects and a great monster design, there’s also enough scathing social commentary present to give the thrills some much needed weight that’s missing from similar American productions like either American Godzilla film or any Transformers flick.
As the film opens, we’re made witness to a lab run by an American scientist that is gladly dumping toxic waste chemicals down the drain and into South Korea’s water supply. Before long, a lizard like creature emerges from the sea and begins devastating a South Korean city. Even worse, the creature appears to be a Host for a devastating virus. There’s some excellent social commentary on American culture as the in-film news broadcasts repeatedly ignore the Korean side of the devastation to report heavily on the comparatively paltry American casualties. This film is a riot, and was rightly seen on dozens of top ten lists during it’s year of release. Thank god that proposed remake never got off the ground. Check it out!
6) I Saw the Devil (2010 Dir: Kim Jee-woon)
I’ve saved the most disturbing, fucked up, devastating to watch film out of the six for last. It’s almost hard to find things to say about this movie that aren’t going to make it sound like I’m urging you to avoid it. For one of the most disgusting films I’ve ever seen, there’s an undeniable artistry behind the film that makes it every bit as beautiful and thought provoking as it is horrendously violent. My advice is to see the other five flicks on this list before going out with a bloody bang on this one.
The film opens with a woman stranded on the side of the road with a broken down car. She approached by a seemingly helpful man who offers her a ride. She ignores the man as she talks to her secret service agent husband on the phone, who encourages her to stay in the vehicle, lock the doors, and wait for a tow truck. After ending the phone call, the mysterious man returns to her car, smashes the windshield and carries her off to be murdered. He takes her back to a warehouse where the murder of this woman is the least of the unspeakable things he does. This isn’t the first time this man has killed, and it won’t be the last. The woman’s husband, engrossed by grief and a need for revenge, hunts down the killer. Without spoiling anything, he finds the killer roughly a half hour into the film, so what could possibly fill the remaining two hours of the movie? The answer is a thrilling and disturbing journey of vengeance (not to mention casual cannibalism and sliced Achilles tendons) that will have you squirming on the edge of your seat. This is a perfect companion piece to Oldboy (and even stars the same actor, who flips sides as the villain in this one), and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’ve got the stomach for it. You’ve never seen anything like it, for better and for worse.
Be sure to check back with SzteinCreative every Wednesday for a new Musing on Pop Culture. What’s your favorite Korean Thriller? Did I miss yours? Let us know in the comments or check us out on the SzteinCreative Facebook page!