Korean culture has never been more influential or far-reaching, from the Olympic games in Pyeongchang four years ago to the continued spread of K-Pop and Korean cosmetics. The surprising global phenomenon of Squid Game, which became the most watched television show ever on Netflix, occurred simultaneously with the growth in popularity of Korean brands such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. Indiana University is celebrating Korea and its global influence throughout the Spring 2022 semester with the Korea Remixed festival. Involving a wide variety of lectures and events, the focus is on highlighting the interplay between the past and the present in Korea, and the remix of the long past with modern culture and technology. Springing off our blog post in late 2021, Ten TV Shows/Films Similar to Squid Game, published in anticipation of Korea Remixed, we are going to continue the celebration with a closer look at some major Korean cinema hits from the last two decades.
A brief note about our choices. There are several criteria that are important in evaluating the quality and influence of a movie. Some factors we have considered here are: 1) commercial success in terms of box office sales numbers; 2) critical acclaim in the form of aggregate critic ratings; and 3) popular appeal as gauged by viewer or audience scores, along with total number of reviews. For some movies those factors conflict. In this list we are only looking at films that met the criteria in all three areas.
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War [태극기 휘날리며 | Taegukgi Hwinallimyeo], 2004 ‧ War/Drama ‧ 2h 20m
A tale of two brothers and the horrors of war directed by Kang Je-gyu. The title of this movie, Taegukgi, is also a name for the flag of South Korea. At the time of its release this was the most successful movie in Korean cinema. Taegukgi stars Jang Dong-Gun as Jin-tae and Won Bin as Jin-seok, brothers in the Lee family living in Seoul, South Korea. Jin-tae shines shoes and tries to save up money to pay for his brother’s college education. But it is the summer of 1950, and the brothers are conscripted into the Korean Army in the aftermath of North Korea’s surprise invasion. Jin-tae’s superiors make him an offer, if he can earn the highest honor of the Korean army, they will send his brother home. But as Jin-tae volunteers for dangerous mission after dangerous mission, will his brother and his family like what he has become? Fans of this film may also enjoy other Korean films about war, such as Silmido, My Way/마이 웨이 (also directed by Kang Je-Gyu), or 71-Into the Fire/포화 속으로.
Oldboy [올드보이 | Oldŭ boi], 2003 ‧ Mystery/Thriller ‧ 2 hours
As one of the best neo-noir films of recent years, there are many dystopian elements that will appeal to fans of Squid Game. This tragicomedy may be too violent for some viewers but does feature great cinematography and scenography. Oldboy stars Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-Su, who is kidnapped and imprisoned in a hotel room. He learns that he has been framed for his wife’s murder. Then fifteen years later he is released, and the story follows his quest to find out who imprisoned him and murdered his wife and exact his revenge. Oldboy is the recipient of numerous awards from across the world. This film has a loose connection with a Japanese Manga of the same name and inspired a 2013 American reinterpretation by Spike Lee.
Ode to My Father [Kukche sijang | 국제시장], 2014 ‧ Drama/War ‧ 2h 10m
Starring Hwang Jung-min and Yunjin Kim, Ode to My Father, directed by Yoon Je-kyoon, tells the story of Korea from the Korean War to the present day through the eyes of Deok-soo, a young Korean boy who grows to become a man. When his father goes missing in the beginning stages of the Korean War during the Hungnam Evacuation, he must take responsibility for taking care of his family. Deok-soo’s journey to and through adulthood parallels the rise and growth of Korea. This film highlights the struggles and challenges that Koreans have faced to make their country grow, including migrant labor in West Germany and overseas conflicts in Vietnam. Those who enjoy this film may also enjoy Yoon Je-kyoon’s other work, the disaster movie Haeundae (Tidal Wave).
The Host [괴물 | Gwoemul], 2006 ‧ Horror/Action ‧ 1h 59m
A monster film directed by Bong Joon-ho. A monster emerges from the Han River and chaos ensues. There are fears that the monster is also the host of a deadly disease and those in close contact must be quarantined. Song Kang-ho stars as Park Gang-du. He is an ordinary man trying to flee the monster with the rest of the panicked crowd, however just as he gets himself to safety, he sees that his daughter in the clutches of the monster. The Host is the story of one man’s search for his daughter and the search for the monster. Those who enjoy this film may also enjoy Bong Joon-ho’s other successful work, Memories of Murder, loosely based on Korea’s first confirmed serial murders.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents [명량 | Myeongryang], 2014 ‧ Action ‧ 2h 6m
This film, directed and co-written by Kim Han-min, depicts the historical Battle of Myeongnyang. At the time of its release, it was the most successful local film in Korean history. In 1597, Yi Sun-sin, played by Choi Min-sik, commands the navy of the Korean kingdom of Joseon in a heroic victory against the invading Japanese fleet, where his 12 ships overcome the opposing 333 vessels. Yi Sun-sin traps the Japanese fleet into a battle in the Myeongnyang Strait, whose strong and treacherous currents give him an advantage. This battle and Yi Sun-sin may be familiar to those who have played Age of Empires II: The Conquerors, where one scenario in the real-time strategy game has the player take on the role of Yi Sun-sin and defend Korea from Japanese invaders. Kim Han-min has also directed another period film, War of the Arrows, which may be appealing to those who enjoy this film. Another alternative, The Pirates by Lee Seok-hoon, is also a period film.
Extreme Job [ Geukan Jigeop | 극한직업], 2019 ‧ Comedy/Action ‧ 1h 51m
This film, directed by Lee Byeong-heon, is the second-most-viewed film in South Korean film history. A young squad of undercover detectives has one last chance to save their careers. They must stake out an international drug gang from a chicken restaurant. Things change, however, when they decide to purchase the restaurant when it is going to go out of business. A further unexpected twist occurs when the chicken marinade they throw together becomes a runaway sensation and their diner becomes the hottest spot around. Those who enjoy this comedy may also enjoy another hit directed by Lee Byeong-heon, Twenty.
Train to Busan [부산행 | Busanhaeng], 2016 ‧ Horror/Action ‧ 1h 58m
This film is directed by Yeon Sang-ho and stars Gong Yoo as Seok-woo, a fund manager on a high-speed train to Busan taking his daughter to see her mother, who divorced him because he is a workaholic. A chemical leak unleashes a zombie apocalypse that spreads across South Korea. The story follows Seok-woo and the other passengers on the train as they seek to escape the exploding pandemic. The story is somewhat typical of zombie movies. Those who enjoy this film may also be interested in other works by Yeon Sang-ho related to this movie such as the animated prequel Seoul Station and live-action sequel Peninsula.
Honorable Mention: Burning (2018) Poetry (2010), Masquerade (2012), Memories of Murder (2003), Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring (2003), The Handmaiden (2016), The Age of Shadows (2016)
Parasite [기생충 | Gisaengchung], 2019 ‧ Thriller/Dark Comedy ‧ 2h 12m
This black comedy/thriller film was directed by Bong Joon-ho. It earned the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a first for a South Korean film. The Kim family struggles to get by on low-paying temporary jobs. Through connections they meet the wealthy Park family. They endeavor to con their way into employment with the family by getting rid of the family’s former employees. The question remains, when will the Kim family’s luck run out and their ruse be revealed? The film addresses themes of social inequality and class conflict. As mentioned previously, Bong Joon-ho is also the director of The Host, as well as Snowpiercer, so fans of his work may consider looking at some of his earlier work such as these films. SM
Student blogger Seth Morrison joined the Media Services staff in Fall 2021. He hails from Arizona and is a graduate student at IU. This is his first blog post for Media Beat.
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