Between Burning’s release last February and now Parasite coming to Irish theatres on Friday (Feb 7), this time of year has become the space for HeadStuff to promote South Korean cinema.
Indeed Parasite, nominated at the Oscars this year in six categories, is exemplary of what’s so great about its country’s output in terms of thrillers. They produce pictures which can be weighty and full of social commentary. Yet, their rarely didactic or morally manipulative. For example, Parasite, for all its probing of class division, is still an ingenious con artist movie, one which just grows more unpredictable and tense until it reaches its shocking pitch perfect denouement.
To mark Burning’s release last year, Headstuff editors Andrew Carroll and Stephen Porzio highlighted 10 great South Korean thrillers. This year in anticipation of Parasite, they recommend 10 more. Have a read to see what made the cut.
Joint Security Area (2000), Dir Park Chan-wook
North and South Korea are separated by the DMZ, a heavily fortified border occupied by soldiers on both sides. Any kerfuffle that breaks out in this space can have a very negative effect on the fragile relationship that exists between the two countries. One imagines having neighbours constantly threatening nuclear war plays some part in the dark twisted tales that come from South Korea. Yet, Park Chan-wook’s sophomore feature uses this ever present paranoia and tension more explicitly as its jumping off point.
Joint Security Area (JSA) begins with South Korean soldier, Lee (Lee Byung-hun), on border duty fleeing from the North, leaving two of their soldiers dead. He claims he was kidnapped by the enemy, shot his kidnappers in self-defence and fled. Yet, a North Korean witness (Parasite’s Song Kang-ho) says Lee crossed the border of his own volition and committed the murders. Needless to say the truth is far more complicated. The film juxtaposes the investigation into the killings with flashbacks of the events leading to them.
Without spoling, what begins as a Rashomon-esque thriller of murder and spy intrigue turns into a powerful searing drama about the futility of division. A massive hit in South Korea and a success overseas, JSA introduced Westerners to writer-director Park Chan-wook, later acclaimed for his Vengeance Trilogy. Stephen Porzio
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), Dir Park Chan-wook
Before Park Chan-wook had proven his talents as a South Korean and English language auteur and Parasite’s Song Kang-ho became known as a respected character actor and the hot dad of Korean cinema there was the meanness and nihilism of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. Wealthy business executive Park Dong-jin’s (Song) daughter is kidnapped by a deaf-mute man Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) in an attempt at extorting a ransom. Soon everything dominoes into tragedy and Dong-jin is set on an irreversible course of vengeance that will consume and destroy everyone he comes in contact with.
Although it was Park’s third film it displayed the kind of chops he’d fully develop with Oldboy and would later bring to Stoker and The Handmaiden. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance – as the first entry in Park’s Vengeance Trilogy – is quite different from both Oldboy and Lady Vengeance in that there is almost no hope of redemption. By the end of the trilogy Lady Vengeance would offer a bright flame in the darkness Park so often drops audiences into. Still, without Song Kang-ho Sympathy for Mr Vengeance would be a flatter, less textured film.
It’s easy to register Dong-jin as a one note man-on-a-mission character but that essentially ignores the bone-shaking loss he endures when Ryu accidentally lets his daughter drown. Although we see him briefly before her death, our first proper scene with Dong-jin is when he’s curled in a ball in the middle of the crime scene, howling with grief. From then on both he and Ryu become men obsessed with a cruel kind of justice; one doled out with screwdrivers, baseball bats, electrocutions and slashed tendons. Throughout it all though Song’s performance captures that specific feeling of innocence lost, of losing everything once held dear. When one innocent life is taken away how much does a guilty one matter? Andrew Carroll
Oldboy (2003), Dir Park Chan-wook
As this list and its predecessor show Korean thrillers are wide and varied but the undefeated king of them all is 2003’s Oldboy. A violent, psychologically complex odyssey into the black pit of revenge, the movie is both the mid and high point of director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. On a fateful rainy night in 1988, drunken businessman Oh Dae-su (South Korean powerhouse Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped and kept prisoner. 15 years later he is inexplicably released and sets out to find the person who imprisoned him. However Dae-su’s nightmare has only just begun.
Oldboy is most famous for its four minute, uninterrupted corridor fight scene where Dae-su goes nuts with a claw hammer against a big group of gangsters. If that was it though the film wouldn’t have maintained the cult status it has over the last 17 years. Driven by Choi’s man-out-of-time performance and Park’s darkly dry script and direction Oldboy maintains a manic energy and powerful emotional core that a lot of other thrillers lack.
Even when it slows down to lay out its convoluted plot Oldboy does so with style. Exposition heavy scenes come in the form of a stark cut to black and white, a montage of Dae-su force feeding himself dumplings or an unbroken shot of him eating a very real, very live octopus. Oldboy – even at its most strange – is one of South Korea’s best films with characters so morally compromised that by its end you’re left asking the same question that bookends the thriller: “Even though I am no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?” Andrew Carroll
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Dir Kim Jee-woon
Unreliable narrators and themes of memory and identity have carved out a niche for themselves in South Korea’s thriller landscape. Whether it was the character Ben (Steven Yeun) in last year’s Burning or the bait-and-switch structure of The Handmaiden, Korean cinema has often sought to mess with viewers’ heads. A Tale of Two Sisters is no different as it tells the tale of two siblings Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) trapped in a vicious relationship with their step-mother that only becomes more disturbing the further it examines the sisters’ identities.
A Tale of Two Sisters was one of the first Korean films to be given a theatrical release in the United States and although its American release didn’t meet the success of its home country’s, it lit the path for a lot of Korean films going forward. Its dark plot, focus on mental illness and gory violence would inspire other Korean filmmakers like Park Chan-wook and Na Hong-jin as well as American remakes of Korean horror films. The J-horror remake wave was just crashing in 2004 but the K-horror remake wave was far enough behind it to make its own impact. While A Tale of Two Sisters’ 2009 American update The Uninvited didn’t reach the same critical heights, it did open up a door for appreciating the original, something that has led to the wider contemporary reception to Korean cinema. Andrew Carroll
Secret Sunshine (2007), Dir Lee Chang-dong
Only nominally a thriller, it’s hard not to read Secret Sunshine as a reaction to the often bloody and gory South Korean new wave of cinema highlighted above. It sees the country’s most acclaimed arthouse and drama filmmaker (Lee also helmed the aforementioned Burning) explore what would perhaps happen next to the anti-heroes of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy after justice has been served and the credits roll.
Jeon Do-yeon gives a remarkable performance as a widower in her 30s with a small son. She decides to move to Miryang, a small town – one whose name translates to ‘Secret Sunshine’. Her late husband was from the area and always dreamed of returning so she tries to honour him by relocating to the area. Tragedy strikes however. What would fill an average Korean thriller takes up 20 minutes of Secret Sunshine‘s 142 minute runtime. Instead, the film is more focused on painting an unpredictable, terrifying yet hugely honest portrait of a person unravelling from grief and their subsequent attempts to rebuild themselves.
Like Burning, Secret Sunshine showcases its director’s ability to spin real-life’s banality and untidyness into gripping cinema. While the movie may lack the action of the rest of the films on this list, it’s still thrilling. The violence of Secret Sunshine is psychological, hidden in the haunted melancholic performances of Jeon and again Song Kang-ho, here playing a downtrodden confidante of our heroine. Stephen Porzio
The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), Dir Kim Jee-woon
Only in South Korea would a movie called The Good, the Bad, the Weird have its central character be The Weird. Described as a ‘kimchi western’, the 1939-set film sees a hired bandit/hitman (Lee Byung-hun), a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung) and a thief (Song Kang-ho) intersect with each other in a myriad of ways in the quest for treasure hidden in the desert wilderness of Manchuria.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird is one of the coolest westerns in recent memory, with charasmatic lead turns and an awesome Ennio Morricone by way of Asia score to back it up. Whether it’s the train robbery which kicks off the film; the central set-piece where all the central players descend on a small village market; a car and horse led chase/shootout across the desert; and a climactic Mexican stand-off worthy of Sergio Leone, the action throughout is flawless. The sequences Kim Jee-woon conjures here, and throughout most of his filmmography, are that special South Korean blend of super extended and completely bonkers. Stephen Porzio
Mother (2009), Dir Bong Joon-ho
Parasite director Bong Joon-ho is adept at mixing genres. Horror and comedy blend easily in Memories of Murder and The Host while satire mixes well with action in Snowpiercer and Okja. Mother may be his most singular work in terms of genre then as this crime drama rarely diverts from its tragic path into lighter territory. After the arrest of her mentally disabled son Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) for murder, his mother (Kim Hye-ja) goes to extreme lengths to ensure his release.
Set in a rural village surrounded by golden wheat fields and dark woodlands, Mother finds horror in the banality of ordinary life. Each shocking revelation hits like a blow from a claw hammer and the evil lengths our anti-heroine goes to are only softened by the devastating regret playing across Kim’s incredibly expressive face. Even as Bong plumbs the darkness of the human psyche Mother maintains a lyrical quality reflective of a mother’s love. By the end of the film Bong asks not how far you would go for someone you love but whether you’re willing to forgive yourself afterwards? Andrew Carroll
The Yellow Sea (2010), Dir Na Hong-jin
A lot of South Korean thrillers like The Villainess or Train to Busan will often seek to slow things down with a melancholy plot strand. Few do it better than Na Hong-jin with his 2010 film The Yellow Sea. Korean cab driver Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is riddled with debts and abandoned by his wife. Desperate he takes a job that will clear his money problems and help him find his wife in Seoul. All he has to do is kill a South Korean professor. Threaded through the frenetic action and bloody violence is a sense of romantic melancholy that never really lets go.
Melodrama is often viewed as a crutch, especially in western cinema but in Asian films especially Korean ones it’s used liberally in every genre. Action films and other genre pieces offer a heightened sense of reality so it goes without saying that the emotion of the dialogue must match what the characters do. This is always evident in The Yellow Sea as Gu-Nam pines after his vanished wife and is haunted by visions of her possible infidelity. It makes sense to keep the character work grounded while the action soars but at the same time why ground one part of a film while the rest of it reaches for the stars? Andrew Carroll
Steel Rain (2017), Dir Yang Woo-suk
Similar to JSA, Steel Rain mines tension and thrills from Korea’s division into North and South. A military coup in North Korea forces one of the country’s agents (Jung Woo-sung, The Good, the Bad, the Weird) to defect to the South with the unconscious “Number One”, also known as the Great Leader. While operatives from the North hunt for them, the agent has to work with South Koreans to stop a nuclear war.
Steel Rain in 139 minutes manages many things. It’s an espionage thriller, a buddy movie between the Northern agent and a Southern government man (The Wailing’s Kwak Do-won), and a plea for peace between the two nations. On all levels it’s a fast-paced rollicking adventure, one which rivals Hollywood blockbusters in terms of production value and exceeds them in regards action set pieces and thematic weight. Stephen Porzio
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (2019), Dir Lee Won-tae
Imagine Al Pacino and Robert De Niro teamed up in Heat to kill Waingro and you are halfway to picturing the antics which occur in the terrific The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil. When an infamous crime lord (Train to Busan and upcoming MCU star Ma Dong-seok) is injured by a serial killer, he teams with a young hot shot police officer (Kim Mu-yeol) to track the murderer down. They strike a deal – the killer belongs to the one who finds him first.
The type of ingenious and inventive plot set up one so often sees in South Korean cinema, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is then elevated further thanks to its wonderfully twisty narrative, top notch action sequences and a string of incredible scenes involving Ma’s hulking crime lord anti-hero. At one point we see him in the gym pummeling a punching bag, a scene capped off with the reveal it contains one of his enemies. A later moment sees him break through a night club door with his bare hands. Yet, despite his character’s brute strength and viciousness in doling it out, Ma manages to make him charming.
As such, it’s no surprise the actor will feature in The Eternals this year and down the line in an American remake of The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil reprising his role. Between his and Parasite’s success, expect to see Korea’s influence on Hollywood rise in the coming years. Stephen Porzio