Cinema is one of the biggest and most influential art forms in the current world. It not only serves as entertainment and aesthetic purposes, but also provides an insight into human psychology and world issues: whether it’s a cute love story, a possible futuristic apocalypse, or a critique of society, films have explored virtually everything.
Korea has not fallen short of this revolutionary art form. The first film was introduced in Korea in 1897, where the first cinema was built to show foreign films. Soon after, Korea started producing their own films. To begin with, it was mostly documentaries or kino-dramas (a live theatrical production with a film in the backdrop). The first feature films came around 1920s, and since then the Korean film industry has grown massively. Hallyuwood (a compound word combining Hallyu and Hollywood), has massive support from the Korean government, and in recent years the Korean box office has made around $700 million per year with only national films.
Here are 10 amazing Korean films you cannot miss!
- Chunhyang-Jeon (1921)
Chunhyang-jeon is a film many consider to be the first Korean feature film (although some people argue it’s Plighted Love Under The Moon (1923). Whether it was the first feature film or not, it was unarguably the first Korean sound film, color film, and widescreen film. It was one of the films that revolutionized cinema in Korea, as it gave people an understanding of how amazing this new invention could be. It tells the story of the popular 17th century folk tale of two people falling in love from different classes, and having to face societies judgemental obstacles.
- Farewell (1927)
Jalitgeola (Farewell) is a 1927 Korean silent film. It was made by Na Woon-gyu, a famous and highly-influencing film director and star. He is considered one of the first Korean movie stars, and his films are a big part of what is known as the Golden Age of Silent Films—one of the most important eras of film for Korea. In fact, his most famous film, Arirang (1922), started the era, but is considered a lost film as there are no copies to be found anywhere. Farewell tells the story of greed and lust, with shocking scenes of murder, prison sentences and blackmail throughout the film.
- The Man With Three Coffins (1987)
Following the Korean War (1950-1953) and severe censorship in the 1970s due to the heightened tension of the Cold War, Korean cinema underwent a period of regression. However, when the ‘80s came around, censorship laws loosened up, and the Korean film industry was able to recover. The Man With Three Coffins is one of the greatest films produced in that era. It provides a critic of the Korean War in an extremely artistic manner, and it was praised for the use of sepia tones, pansori sounds and unconventional storytelling. Watching this film will give you a sense of peace and melancholy simultaneously, as the themes and the aesthetic harmonize each other, despite being polar opposites.
- Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)
Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War is a 2004 war film, directed by Kang Je-kyu. The story follows two brothers (Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin) who are forced to join the South Korean army due to the outbreak of the Korean War. It is one of the most-viewed modern Korean war films, and many say it’s comparable to Saving Private Ryan (1998); however, it’s more successful with being relatable to the audience as it involves family.
- The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014)
The Admiral is Korea’s highest-grossing film of all time, making $4.7 million. It also surpassed Avatar (2009) as the most-watched movie in cinemas. It tells the epic story of the Battle of Myeongnyang (1597), one of the most remarkable Korean navy victories. The film has a sixty-one-minute long battle scene, which viewers said never felt long, and has been praised for pulling it off, something Hollywood sometimes struggles to do.
- Train to Busan (2016)
Train To Busan, directed by Yeong Sang-ho is one of the most widely-recognised Korean films. The zombie apocalypse film takes an original twist as it shows passengers on a train to Busan struggling to survive the zombie outbreak. The film shows horrifyingly fast zombies, and how the outbreak successfully spread so quickly, something many zombie fans have long waited for – a decent explanation to the thrilling world of an apocalypse.
- Midnight Runners (2017)
Midnight Runners is an action-comedy film by Kim Joo-hwan that tells the story of two Korean National Police University students who decide to take on an investigation after they witness a crime. Although it tries to stay real and as accurate to police investigations as possible, the movie is filled with knee-slapping jokes that are incredibly relatable and the kind of humor anyone would have with a good friend. Needless to say, the chemistry between the two main characters (Park Seo-joon and Kang Ha-neul) is both hilarious and brotherly, making for an awesome Friday night film.
- Be With You (2018)
Be With You is a cute family film based off a Japanese book of the same name. The story is about a father and his son living their messy day-to-day life, when the mother makes an appearance one year after her death, with no recollection of her husband or son. The film makes you watch this family grow fond of each other once again, and teaches the audience the power of love and fundamentals of a family. You also will not be able to resist Kim Ji-hwan’s adorable (and brilliant) acting! However, grab some tissues, as this film truly is a tear-jerker!
- Burning (2018)
Burning is a film directed by Lee Chang-dong, which was shortlisted for Best International Film at the 91st Academy Awards (2019 Oscars). The film is one that leaves the entire audience confused and intrigued until it ties beautifully at the end. At the Cannes Film Festival, it was described as “a dance that seeks the meaning of life.” The film stars Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun (who is most-known for Glenn in The Walking Dead), and Jeon Jeong-seo, who have been highly praised for their performances in the film. This film is ideal to watch if you fancy pondering the true values of life.
- Parasite (2019)
Parasite is a film directed by Bong Joon-ho, that won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The film shows the unemployed, poor and hopeless Ki-taek (played by Song Kang-ho) who poses as an English tutor for the daughter of a rich family. The films offers a consistent pace, and shows scenes that will make the audience go through every emotion. The actors have been praised for their amazing performances as their extremely well-written characters. The film is definitely one of the most unique and deeply moving films of the 2010s, and it leads us to ask, will it be the first ever Oscar-nominated film (and winner!) in the award show next year?
This is the list of must-watch films! Korean films have all sorts of genres, dating from the 1920s, and it is impossible not to find a film that you will fall in love with. Have you watched any of these films? Which one seems most appealing to you? Let us know in the comments below!
Cover Image: Midnight Runners
Written by Lucille Bamber