10 Must-See Classics of Korean Cinema

Most of us will be familiar with some 21st century Korean cinema. From Oldboy to Parasite, via auteurs like Lee Chang-dong and Hong Sang-soo, and to more commercial filmmakers like Kim Jee-woon or Yeon Sang-ho — the wave of Korean movies that has travelled the world in recent years spreads across a wide spectrum of cinematic achievement. But what about the foundations of the national Korean film industry and the cinematic legacies these films were built on? South Korea boasts a legacy of filmmaking now over 100 years old, has had a bustling film industry since the 1950s, and has been one of the most cinephile nations in the world since the 1990s.

How then to discover more of these hidden horizons of Korean filmmaking which we outside of Korea know too little of? Well, thanks to the work of the Korean Film Archive there are no more excuses for the adventurous cinephile not to take a deep dive into Korean cinema. On their fantastic Youtube channel, the KFA has made available (for free) a veritable treasure trove of Korean films from the 1940s to the 2000s, with many films in restored HD versions and with English subtitles (and in many cases subtitles in other languages too). In chronological order, here are 10 of my recommendations of classic Korean films to watch with links provided.

A Hometown of the Heart (Yun Yong-gyu, 1949)

The story: An incontestable classic of Korean cinema, A Hometown of the Heart centres on the emotional life of a 12-year-old child-monk in a Buddhist monastery. Left there by his mother as a toddler, he has never ceased hoping for her return or daydreaming about how elegant and pretty she must be. One day a young woman from Seoul, elegant and pretty herself, travels to the monastery to offer prayers for her recently deceased 6-year-old son. She strikes up a rapport with the boy and adoption seems the mutually beneficial option for a mother-less son and a grieving mother. But the idea goes against the doctrines of the monastery, whose head monk staunchly believes the child must stay put in order to regain positive karma. In his desperation, the boy is left with difficult choices to make.

The style: What could easily have fallen into sentimentality is handled here with such delicate poise, such lyrical use of the beautiful landscape around the monastery to frame the characters within a more expansive (and hence less melodramatic) register, centred around such a naturalistic child performance, that the film feels like the 1940s Korean equal of Ozu or the Italian neo-realists.

The context: The prospective mother is played by a legend of Korean cinema, Choi Eun-hee, a popular star in her day who brings a gentle grace to her role, and who is also remembered for an infamous incident in the 1970s when she and director Shin Sang-ok were kidnapped by North Korea to make films for the Communist regime. Of course, when Hometown of the Heart was made, one year after the founding of the Republic of Korea (1948) and one year before the start of the Korean War (1950), there was no ‘North Korea’ yet. Under its wonderful surface, this landmark classic may be read as the time capsule of a national allegory for a unified nation that never quite was. In this reading, the young boy longing for independence and acceptance represents the then-foundling nation of Korea aiming to stand on its own two feet.

Available to watch in HD w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jw4WFDq-uUg

Aimless Bullet (Yu Hyun-mok, 1961)

The story: An unapologetically bleak record of post-Korean War Seoul as moral wasteland, Aimless Bullet continues to rank near the top of greatest Korean film polls even sixty years on. It focuses on various members of a family of North Korean refugees, relocated to a Seoul slum after the War and each afflicted with their own internal and external struggles. There’s an older brother striving to provide for his young family and whose perpetual toothache is symbolic of his deeper, incurable woes. The younger brother is an ex-soldier maimed during the War who remains bitter and resentful, unable to find any means to integrate back into society. The sister is forced into prostitution, and the bed-bound mother suffers from manic bouts of dementia in which she wakes up to shout “Let’s leave this place!” But there is nowhere to go, no escape from the personal and societal existential crises.

The style: In a fusion of film noir and neo-realist drama, Aimless Bullet condemns all of a society in which a complete lack of scruples appears to be the only way to advance, and where depression and poverty seem to plague nearly everyone (the most shocking moment of the film is a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a dead mother and her abandoned child who are unconnected to the plot). This is a film full of righteous anger, exposing through gritted teeth the underbelly of a morally compromised new Korea, in which every character potentially qualifies as the ‘aimless bullet’ of the title, a PTSD-struck person left without purpose.

The context: Released just 8 years after the end of the Korean War, one year after mass protests forced President Syngman Rhee to resign, and a few months before a military coup put the authoritarian General Park Chung-hee in power (if it had been released a few months later, Park’s severe censorship would have banned the film for good), this is a film mirroring the ongoing malaise in the country. That such an unflinching film was made in the Seoul-based film industry where for the most part films were made quickly, cheaply and without any particular artistic ambition, remains truly astonishing.

Available to watch in HD w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfxIfK8ThFc

The Coachman (Kang Dae-jin, 1961)

The story: Like in Aimless Bullet, we follow the various trials and tribulations of the different members of one family: the older son desperately trying to pass the government law exam which he’s already failed twice before, the older daughter a deaf-mute stuck in an abusive marriage, and her younger sister so ashamed of her family that she pretends to be the daughter of a wealthy businessman. But at the heart of it all is the father, the horse-cart driver of the title, a widower trying his best to keep his family together while working in a profession withering into obsolescence.

The style: Despite similar subject matter, this is a film that never descends into Aimless Bullet‘s territory of blunt and righteous pessimism. Instead, The Coachman is infused with a warm, humanistic tone, in large part thanks to Kim Seung-ho’s performance as the coachman. This character is a long-suffering but big-hearted working-class man, the type of lovable blue collar rogue which the great Song Kang-ho has made his specialty in contemporary Korean films, including of course in Parasite. Kim though deserves to be better known internationally as the precursor of great contemporary Korean actors with character like Song; see also on the KFA channel another of his iconic performances in the 1963 classic Kinship.

The context: The Coachman was the first Korean film to win an award at a major international festival, picking up a Silver Bear at Berlin and making 1961 a landmark year for Korean cinema if a tumultuous one for the country’s politics. General Park’s takeover would see South Korea move further into rapid economic development through industrialisation and export-oriented five-year plans. What better expression of local working-class Koreans and their traditional trades being discarded by the relentless pace of Korea’s so-called progress, or more generally of the country being split between old and modern, than to see this amiable middle-aged man, once a staple of city life, now impotently pulling his horse-driven coach amid the car traffic of Seoul’s streets?

Available to watch in HD w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqqB0HUFmUU

A Day Off (Lee Man-hee, 1968)

The story: “Every day is like Sunday, every day is silent and grey” Morrissey once sang. That same mood pervades Lee Man-hee’s tale of urban alienation, set all on one gloomy day of rest in Seoul, and centred on two lovers who can only meet on that one day of the week. On this particular Sunday they are at a crossroads in their relationship: the girlfriend is pregnant, but abortion seems the only option. They lack the means to marry and start a family, and hence become respectable within General Park Chung-hee’s staunchly conservative Korean society. In this city, everyone seems to be having a case of the Sunday blues: as the boyfriend desperately hunts for money to pay for the operation, we meet a gallery of secondary characters each with their own tried-and-tested method for getting through the dreaded day, from gambling with friends, to spending hours in the bathtub, or dousing themselves in the local bar.

The style: It is no disservice to this film to loosely describe it as a South Korean take on 1960s Antonioni, evidenced by the moody scenes of characters walking and talking, or the use of widescreen compositions framing the two lovers from unconventional angles and distant from each other. More than anything, it’s the atmosphere of disillusionment that connects A Day Off to the contemporary European modernist cinema of unease. Like in earlier Korean films such as Aimless Bullet, Lee Man-hee’s film characterises the feeling of malaise as widespread and societal but, rather than pinpointing a cause, it depicts the sense of doom as abstract, emanating from everywhere, as if the very air around these doomed lovers feels oppressive.

The context: The emotional stasis of one gloomy Sunday in the city, in which everyone is gripped by a form of collective depression, becomes a metaphor for life during the middle years of Park Chung-hee’s iron-fisted military dictatorship. Indeed, it was banned by the regime for its honest depiction of stark human emotion and ‘taboo’ topics like abortion. It was among several battles with censorship in the career of director Lee Man-hee, one of the first Korean directors who can truly be labelled an auteur. Not that there was much room for him in Korea’s film industry of the time — the film went unseen until 2005 when it was finally resdiscovered and restored, allowing it and Lee’s work to be re-evaluated. Lee himself sadly died far too young at 43, in 1975, suffering a stroke during post-production on his final film, The Road to Sampo.

Available to watch in HD w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f6eLMTooaM

Woman of Fire (Kim Ki-young, 1971)

The story: This deliriously and deliciously morbid melodrama begins with two corpses in a bourgeois villa and a police investigation, leading to a flashback gradually revealing what induced the bloodbath: first, a rural farm girl, naïve and full of idealistic hopes, moves to the big city and finds work as the housemaid of a famous composer and his wife. Soon, petty jealousies, rivalries, and power games dominate the household and throw it into turmoil, reminding us of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite… Director Kim Ki-young remains a legendary figure for Korean cinephiles, and much like Ozu or Hitchcock filmed remakes of their own films, Woman of Fire is Kim’s re-telling of his own 1960 classic The Housemaid (not on the KFA website but recently restored via Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation and available in HD on various platforms).

The style: If you’re new to Kim’s films, then a word of warning to forget plausibility and let yourself be propelled into his weird and baroque world is in order here. This is melodrama in grand guignol style. Everything is heightened: the emotions, the technical displays of colour and camerawork, the potential for violence, the thematic symbolism. The house, filmed in exaggerated hues of red and blue, is an expressionist pressure cooker in which all of Korean society’s class, financial and gender divides will come to steam. Strange angles, flashes of fragmentary editing, the onset of psychosexual tension and macabre style over naturalism or psychological realism — dare we say Kim’s melodramas were almost the equivalent of Korean giallos?

The contextNo survey of Korean cinema could be complete without a Kim Ki-young film, an obvious influence on Bong Joon-ho. Always the eccentric, Kim’s fascination for the bloody and the grotesque (his nickname was ‘Mr Monster’), and his skill for unleashing into life the repressed desires and impulses of Koreans through his memorable characters and plots, make him something like a cross between Mario Bava and Shohei Imamura. He was one of a kind, though, and even his tragic death (an accidental house fire killed him and his wife in 1998) seems apt for this incendiary provocateur.

Available to watch in HD w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcV5-YDmxJ0

Declaration of Fools (Lee Jang-ho, 1983)

The story: Not to be confused with the 1975 Korean film March of Fools, with which it is unrelated, Declaration of Fools is a one-of-a-kind oddity. Opening with the suicide of a filmmaker played by the director Lee Jang-ho himself, a symbolic death of the artist to represent that from hereon the film is on its own, it is narrated by the ramblings and drawings of a 5-year-old boy. Other than intermittently adding a naivety to proceedings, he has nothing to do with the digressive picaresque plot, which is loosely about an odd couple of wandering hobos, both infatuated with the same prostitute, who go on an odyssey together from one caper to the next.

The style: Entering a more modern era of Korean cinema, the style now is the story. Apart from the child’s voiceover, there is no dialogue for the first third of the film, and very little even in the rest of it. Imagine a mix of Chaplinesque slapstick and experimental 1960s-era Nagisa Oshima, where the editing and sound design are constantly playful, creative, irreverent, and you get a rough idea of what this film is like. In this era of heavy censorship, director Lee Jang-ho broke every rule of film logic so that it left the bamboozled censors scratching their heads — and so they had no choice but to pass it without cuts. The sly spine of social satire running through it (the choice of celebrating protagonists who are losers and outcasts is already a big clue) is clear though, and Declaration can sit alongside DaisiesZazie dans le métro, ATG-era Japanese new wave films and 1960s Godard in the pantheon of zany masterpieces of anarchic cinema.

The context: By 1983, Park Chung-hee had given way to the similarly dictatorial grip of Chun Doo-hwan, who in 1980 ordered the suppression of peaceful protests, leading to the infamous Gwangju massacre. As for the film industry, a new homegrown quota rule gave rise to many quick and cheap Korean films, but also allowed room for more rebellious directors to manoeuvre, since industry heads (who made their money on foreign imports) really did not care what kind of Korean films were made as long as the quota of domestic films was met. In this environment, director Lee Jang-ho, a veteran of many battles with censors who wanted to quit filmmaking — a feeling his staged suicide at the start of Declaration evokes — managed to find the energy and opportunity to make this free-wheeling classic, shot without script nor shooting plan. The result was a surprise box office hit with pro-democracy students and youths of the era, and which remains a cult landmark of Korean cinema.

Available to watch in HD w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4djhhewVJg

The Surrogate Woman (Im Kwon-taek, 1987)

The story: In the stratified Confucianist world of 19th century Korea, a noble family unable to bear a son had the right to offer peasant girls a small plot of land in exchange for the use of her womb as surrogate mother. So it comes to be that Ok-nyeo, the headstrong daughter of an impoverished family, is taken on by a noble clan to perform the job of giving birth to their heir. The longer her strange contract elapses the more she comes to like life in the relative luxury of this home and, even more dangerously, develops feelings for the man of the household, feelings that can only prove catastrophic since the rules of secrecy dictate she must be sent back home after giving birth and never see her child again.

The style: Like Zhang Yimou‘s early Gong Li-centred melodramas, The Surrogate Woman focuses on the suffering of a young woman victimised by an unjust set of mores and traditions, and does so with immaculate craft in merging image and sound, music and mood. Never revelling in Ok-nyeo’s pain, Im’s camera frames with sensitivity the emotional and physical tortures women in this patriarchal world were forced to endure. The stylistic palate expands, however, to tinge moments of genuine harmony (Ok-nyeo’s bittersweet experience or first love, or her fleeting joy at giving birth) with exquisite sorrow. The evocative electro score bridges over the smooth editing and slow dissolves, filling the frame with a melancholy atmosphere that overpowers us, soon making us feel not just for Ok-nyeo but all women whose lot was like hers. This is not an aestheticisation of suffering, so much as a poetic rendering of one slice of the human condition.

The context: Im Kwon-taek, the first Korean auteur to make a name for himself beyond Korean borders, has had a long and prolific career ranging from beginnings as a director-for-hire to a more artistic-minded chronicler of his nation’s culture and soul. In all, he has directed over 100 features, from quota quickies to profound art films via documentaries on the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Over a dozen of his films are on the KFA Youtube channel, and many are worth checking out: Mandala (1981) is a philosophical exploration of Buddhism through the relationship struck between two wandering monks with completely opposing philosophies to life; Ticket (1986) is more humanistic in its empathetic depiction of a group of four young women and their madam in a seaside bar-slash-brothel; and Sopyonje (1993), a surprise smash-hit with Korean audiences, centred on a travelling pansori troupe (a traditional form of Korean singing combining oral storytelling with musical accompaniment) who are torn between their traditional lifestyle and the modern world. As a whole, Im’s considerable body of work forms a national epic revealing so much about Korea.

Available to watch in HD w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY4wn6Kf9po

The Age of Success (Jang Sun-woo, 1988)

The storyThe Age of Success begins with a pan over a man sleeping alongside books with titles like “You Can Negotiate Anything”, the poster above his bed claiming that “Anyone who sleeps more than 4 hours is doomed” setting up his imminent arising, his methodically getting dressed, his opening of his fridge to reveal nothing but his suitcase and a pair of shoes, and his ritualistic sieg-heil salute to a framed 10,000 won banknote with his portrait on it before leaving the apartment. This robotic man in which capitalism meets fascism, Kim Pan-chok his name (it literally translates to ‘sales promotion’), lives, breathes and sleeps corporate success. The film takes him (and us) on a wild picaresque ride through his rise and fall in the cut-throat world of financial wars, where everything is geared to the altar of money-making, a westernised capitalist world where Korean culture and spirituality has become nothing but superficiality. Kim Pan-chok is essentially an empty shell, an early Korean version of Patrick Bateman, not with a taste for murder but with an insatiable thirst for accumulating money for its own sake.

The styleEarlier films like Aimless Bullet or The Coachman had questioned the impact on those left behind by Korea’s relentless economic march, but by the 1980s — the decade of a bubble of excess that would later burst in the 1997 financial crisis — a very different approach was required. Enter iconoclast director Jang Sun-woo and his bombastic critique of corporate culture. His take on this is direct, in-your-face,  completely irreverent in its black humour, and constantly imaginative in its takedown of macho money-worship. Jang’s partner-in-satire is the great Korean acting legend Ahn Sung-ki in the lead role of Kim Pan-chok. Ahn seems to have starred in just about every 1980s Korean film of note, from Im Kwon-taek’s Buddhist tale of wandering monks Mandala (1981) to Park Kwang-su’s buddy movie about two working class rebels-with-a-cause Chilsu and Mansu (1988). Here, he shows off his versatility by portraying this half-man half-selling machine with an unswerving zeal that only amps up the satirical intent of Jang’s film.

The context: Following the Gwangju massacre in 1980, a mass movement arose demanding political reforms and democratisation. Among this generation of protestors were many young artists and public intellectuals (among them Lee Chang-dong) who actively campaigned for the end of Korea’s dictatorship. The chameleon-like filmmaker Jang Sun-woo came of age in this generation which shaped his rebellious and taboo-breaking stance. By the late 1980s, he and other directors like Park Kwang-su represented a new wave within Korean cinema, even attempting to make independent feature films outside of the commercial film industry.

Jang’s own career would be predictable only in its unpredictability — no two films of his are ever alike, and it was impossible to know what he would do next, other than that it would be something original, experimental and different. This was the case up to and including his self-exile from filmmaking in 2005, following the collapse of his purported children’s film in Mongolia. In hindsight, we may now see Jang’s 20-year filmmaking career as a relentless soul-searching quest for freedom, from among other things the hypocrisy and materialism of modern society — the very things he was already harpooning in his Age of Success.

Available to watch in HD w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DLNGgfbXfo

North Korean Partisan in South Korea (Chung Ji-young, 1990)

The storyA reporter (played again by the great Ahn Sung-ki from Age of Success) for a North Korean news agency during the Korean War joins the partisan army to prove his sense of duty in their guerrilla fight against both foe and nature in the mountains of Korea. Sticking firm to their idealistic beliefs in the worthiness of their struggle for a better, fairer nation, they weather illnesses, feuds, injuries, hunger, harsh weather as well as the enemy fire of the US-backed South Koreans, as both their bodies and their ideals take hit after hit in this epic saga of war, courage and collective sacrifice. The reporter even falls in love with an army nurse, but the discipline of their cause means they must sacrifice any hope of togetherness.

The style: At three hours long, Chung Ji-young’s revisionist depiction of the North Korean partisans (previously treated in a propagandistic way as rabid commies in the South) is a true epic, taking its time to cover the full sweep of circumstances faced by these soldiers. It is far more humanistic than your average war film, however, and the landscape itself becomes a character, underscored by slow pans across it over the sounds of a gentle electro soundtrack not unlike the music of the 1989-release A City of Sadness (about a different kind of political resistance happening at the same time in Taiwan). Chung, for the most part though, favours characters and situations rather than ostentatious stylistic effects. Ahn, in a completely different kind of performance from the bombastic caricature of Age of Success, gives a dignified portrayal of one man’s attempt to balance his principles and his emotional integrity.

The context: Based on the memoirs of the real-life journalised-turned-partisan Lee Tae, the screenplay was adapted by none other than director Jang Sun-woo. Even if the film has none of his brash experimentation, it still remains rebellious if only in its depiction of the North Korean fighters as humans rather than cardboard villains. These struggling soldiers and their cause and beliefs are paid their due respect, something which was still very bold and new in South Korean cinema, and which speaks to the collective trauma of the split across the 38th parallel that left a whole society divided and families split apart. One particularly poignant scene shows North Koreans and South Koreans both putting down their rifles in an impromptu truce, hinting towards a wish at conciliation, a wish of being able to at least exorcise the hatred of the past in moving forward.

Available to watch w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxiur5Y6JAg

A Single Spark (Park Kwang-su, 1995)

The storyLike North Korean Partisan, this 1990s classic is based on the story of a real historical figure, in this case the life and death of  Jeon Tae-il (1948-1970), someone unfamiliar to us in the West but an icon for pro-democracy movements in Korea. Jeon was a workers’ rights activist and labour unionist who, at the age of 22, during the dark years of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship, committed suicide in protest at the horrendous working conditions of Korean labourers. The narrative of A Single Spark combines his story with the fictionalised account of a writer researching for a book about the young martyr, five years after Jeon’s death. By refracting both the 1960s and the 1970s from the point-of-view of the more democratic Korea of the mid-1990s, this biopic becomes more than a tale of injustice, but also a meditation on the survival of history and of national memory through suppression and institutional amnesia.

The style:The 1960s plot-strand, in which the young Jeon Tae-il struggles for the rights of all those cramped in claustrophobic sweatshops and forced to work slave-like hours, is filmed in high-contrast black-and-white. The 1970s plot-strand, in which the writer researching Jeon’s life is on the run from the oppressive state forces of General Park (to whom even attempting to remember the likes of Jeon was a crime) is filmed in muted naturalistic colour. The overall structure likewise juxtaposes life and art, politics and poetry, book-ending the film with real documentary images of contemporary political protests in Korea (where, in fact, the rights of workers still leaves much to be desired and workers’ demonstrations remain largely illegal).

Political biopic it may be, A Single Spark smoothly ventures into the realm of the poetic and meditative. Its inter-weaving of the life of Jeon with the difficult task of one writer attempting to remember Jeon’s life for posterity is a meta-textual engagement with what the film itself is doing: a multi-layered exploration of the way memory, history, life and art all interconnect, an attempt to publicly commemorate the actions of one young man who became a martyr and a symbol, and the exorcism of decades of political and military dictatorship.

The context: Director Park Kwang-su, and his screenwriters Lee Chang-dong and Hur Jin-ho (both of whom later became directors in their own right) came of age during the 1980s and were actively involved in that decade’s pro-democracy movement. Whereas the great Im Kwon-taek provided more humanist and metaphysical explorations of Korea’s soul and culture, Park Kwang-su was immediately more political. This is perhaps one of the reasons Park has faded post-2000s, when the outburst of more flashy, stylised and violent ‘postmodern’ Korean filmmaking made his films seem more old-fashioned and less relevant. It would be completely unfair to ignore Park’s significance to Korean cinema, however. Alongside Jang Sun-woo, Park was in the late 1980s and early 1990s a trailblazer in making bold, independent films openly critical of Korean society’s dominant values — in other words he represents the cinematic analogue of Korean democratisation, part of the voice and conscience marking the tentative steps towards a more open, liberal, civilian-led South Korea. Thankfully, with the Korean Film Archive’s excellent work, we can re-discover his films and so many more gems of Korean cinema, kept for posterity just like Jeon Tae-il’s life in A Single Spark.

Available to watch in HD w/ English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTvVq_aeC6g