Five Great South Korean Films

Updated on August 19, 2019

While Hollywood may still be the first thing that comes to mind for many people when it comes to films and filmmaking, there are many other countries around the world which have also proved to be perfectly capable of making some fantastic films. It doesn't really matter what your preferred style or genre of film is either—as long as a county actually has the resources and support for filmmaking to be possible, then the chances are pretty good that you will be able to find something worth your time.

South Korea, for example, is a country that has produced an impressive number of genuinely great films over the years. The five films that I have listed below are really just a small sample.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

The Western genre is one that has always been intimately tied to American history (for obvious reasons), but that doesn't mean that other countries cannot produce their own take on the genre. All you really need is an appropriate location—a time and place known for a similar brand of rugged lawlessness. If you can find that, than you can set a Western just about anywhere. In the case of The Good, the Bad, the Weird, that setting is Manchuria in the 1930s—portrayed here as a place where bandits and bounty hunters are free to ply their respective trades, so long as they can avoid the notice of Japanese occupying forces.

Here, we have three men, each exiled from Korea for different reasons, who are each determined to make a name for themselves in this violent and lawless land. Park Do-wan (Jung Woo-sung) is a bounty hunter, Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun) is a ruthless hit-man, and Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho) is an eccentric and seemingly inept bandit. When the three men cross paths during a train robbery, they find themselves caught up in a three-way contest for possession of a map which promises to lead to buried treasure.

While the film does share some basic plot elements with the classic spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (with the film's own title obviously intended to bring Sergio Leone's classic to mind), it doesn't quite reach the level of straightforward adaptation. Instead, the sombre seriousness of Sergio Leone's own film is replaced by some fantastically over-the-top action sequences, and some genuinely entertaining moments of comedy.

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK

I can appreciate the romantic elements of a story as much as anyone. With that being said, I have to admit that there has always been something about the romantic comedy, as a genre, that has never really appealed to me. They often strike me as being a bit bland for one thing. The style of humour that they tend to rely on generally doesn't appeal to me. The approach that they tend to take toward love and relationships often strikes me as a bit simplistic. Perhaps worst of all, they also tend to feature a cast of characters who I find to be incredibly difficult to like.

Despite all of that, though, if I were to take a step back, I would have to admit that there is nothing about the genre, in itself, that suggests that each and every film of its type should inevitably turn out to be complete garbage. I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK can be classified as a romantic comedy, for example. It also happens to be a film that I genuinely enjoyed.

Setting itself in a mental institution somewhere in Korea, the film is clearly determined to approach its subject matter from an unusual angle—featuring as its romantic leads a young woman who believes she is actually a highly sophisticated cyborg (Soo-jung Lim), and a young man convinced he is capable of stealing other people's souls (K-pop idol, Rain). Honestly, while it may not be the strangest film I have ever seen, it certainly seems to be making an effort.

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK is a film which often manages to be genuinely funny, without ever feeling as though it is mocking its cast of characters (or, the issue of mental illness, in general). It is also a film which manages to be genuinely touching, at times—featuring a cast of characters who it is easy to sympathise with (in particular, the film's two leads).

The Man from Nowhere

Films featuring violent, and occasionally unlikable, anti-heroes compelled to set off on a blood-soaked rampage of revenge have practically become their own sub-genre at this point. But if you were even curious to see how another country approaches this oddly specific sub-genre, than The Man from Nowhere may be the film for you.

Cha Tae-sik (Won Bin) is a clearly broken man. Once a highly trained operative in the Korean military, whose activities are still classified, he is now content with running a small pawn shop in a rundown neigbourhood. So-mi (Sae-ron Kim), on the other hand, is a young girl who has been practically abandoned by her drug-addict mother. Despite Tae-sik's obvious desire to simply be left alone, an odd sort of friendship gradually develops between the two—creating the perfect excuse for Tae-sik to unleash his "very particular set of skills" when So-mi is inevitably kidnapped.

The parallels between The Man from Nowhere and other films of its type should be fairly obvious (any sort of American remake would be entirely superfluous, since films like Taken already exist). The action is violent, bloody, and occasionally genuinely shocking—which could be enough, on its own, to make it worth watching. More importantly, though, some great performances from the film's cast give it a genuine emotional core, which makes the whole experience much more compelling than it might otherwise have been.

Memories of Murder

A desperate investigation to uncover the identity of an active serial killer and bring an end to a series of horrifying murders has served as the basis for many great films over the years (and, admittedly, some fairly terrible ones, too). It's obviously a fairly popular premise—and the reasons why should be fairly clear. Unlike with many "movie monsters", there is always going to be an element of unpleasant reality to any story about a serial killer. This is especially true in the case of Memories of Murder, which sets itself up as a fictionalised account of the very real case of South Korea's first reported serial killer.

It all begins with the discovery of a young woman's body, left lying in a ditch in what is, at first, assumed to be a fairly conventional, though still tragic, murder. Soon enough, though, another body is discovered in a similar condition—and with clear evidence of a common thread connected between these separate cases, it falls to two detectives, Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), to track down the killer. With very limited resources at their disposal, though, the two detectives find their efforts constantly hampered.

Memories of Murder is a film that relies on an odd blend of serious drama, occasional moments of black comedy, and social satire in its fictionalised account of this true story. It's a fascinating film—one made even more disturbing with the knowledge that the series of real-life murders the film is based on were never solved.

The Host

Several years after the staff of an American military base made the ill-advised decision to carelessly dispose of some toxic chemicals, a strange creature emerges from Seoul's Han river—going on a rampage that sends the gathered crowds fleeing in terror. In the midst of all of this chaos, a young girl, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung), is separated from her family, only to be snatched up by the creature and taken away when it eventually flees.

Convinced that the youngest member of their eccentric clan must still be alive, the other members of the Park family—including Hyun-seo's bumbling and slow-witted father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), her grandfather Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong), her uncle Hae-il (Park Nam-il), and her aunt Nam-joo (Bae Doona)—are understandably desperate to get help in rescuing her. Finding themselves caught up in a whole lot of government red tape, and an attempted cover-up, though, the Park family soon realise that they are essentially on their own. If they have any real hope of finding Hyun-seo, then they are going to have to put aside their own differences and hunt the creature down themselves.

The Host is a film which successfully manages to blend elements of horror, comedy, family drama, action, and political satire into what, at first glance, seems like a relatively straightforward monster film. The most impressive thing about the film, though, is that all of these separate elements actually work together very well.

© 2019 Dallas Matier

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    • Dallas Matier profile imageAUTHOR

      Dallas Matier 

      5 weeks ago from Australia

      I've actually been a fan of anime since the late 90s, when I saw Akira for the first time. Netflix does have a pretty good selection, especially with the exclusives that they buy the streaming rights to. I think, in general, Netflix has been doing a pretty good job of bringing in content from every country where it's officially launched—so, there's a lot of interesting stuff from all over the place.

      I'm not familiar with The Queen's Man. I'll have to see if I can track it down, sometime.

    • profile image

      Jacqueline G Rozell 

      5 weeks ago

      Don't know if it was a film or a TV presentation, but there was a terrific showing of a story set in historical times with the title of something like, "The Queen's Man" or some such. I forget titles, but actually, all the Asian offerings, even the historical ones, are amazing.

    • profile image

      Jacqueline G Rozell 

      5 weeks ago

      I have seen all of these except the "cyborg" one and recommend all of them. I became a fan of Asian films and the TV series of drama, romance and crime they offer, several years ago when I couldn't find anything worthwhile to watch on network TV. I had been avoiding them because I felt it would be annoying to have to read subtitles. But in desperation I watched one, "Playful Kiss," and it wasn't tedious at all. I love the Asian offers on Hulu and Netflix, and went on, at my age, to become a great fan anime. Try it, you will like it.

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