Everyone’s talking about Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, a brilliant social satire that recently won four Academy Awards at the Oscars. The response that this film has garnered is well and truly deserved, and comes from a booming South Korean entertainment industry with a wealth of talented directors and actors. So if you loved Parasite, there’s plenty more where that came from. Here are 5 film suggestions to introduce you to the wide world of Korean cinema.
1. Midnight Runners
Equal parts dark and comedic, Midnight Runners is about an idealistic duo of cops-in-training who accidentally witnesses a kidnapping and must scramble to rescue the victim when the police system fails them. The film, directed by Jason Kim and starring Park Seo Joon and Kang Ha Neul, offers a scathing critique of the police system even as it makes you laugh at the most inopportune moments.
2. Swing Kids
This film is a gem, and I’m not just saying that because Do Kyung Soo, actor and singer of the K-pop group EXO, stars in it. Swing Kids takes place in a prisoner of war camp during the Korean War, where North Korean soldier Ro Ki Soo falls in love with tap dancing. He plans a tap show with a handful of others at the camp and together, they find freedom even within the constraints of war.
Burning is an intense, psychological film about working class anxiety and simmering male rage. Directed by Lee Chang Dong and starring Yoo Ah In, Jeon Jong Seo, and Steven Yeun, this film burns slow, building quietly to the climax. Burning was actually shortlisted for an Academy Award, the same ceremony that saw four wins for Parasite—so if you enjoyed Bong’s take on class inequality, you’ll want to watch this one, too.
4. The Handmaiden
An erotic psychological thriller set in Korea under Japanese colonial rule, a pickpocket named Sook Hee is hired to become the handmaiden of a rich Japanese heiress and assist in a plot to steal her inheritance. Directed by Park Chan Wook, The Handmaiden takes delight in sending the audience in spirals.
5. Extreme Job
Similar to Midnight Runners, this film combines action and comedy as a team of detectives work undercover in a chicken restaurant to try and bring in a gang of criminals, only to be faced with a new dilemma when their restaurant suddenly explodes in popularity. Extreme Job, directed by Lee Byeong Heon, is a hilarious break from the seriousness of the first few film suggestions.
6. Sky Castle
While not a movie, but a TV series, Sky Castle deserves to be on this list. This dark, satirical drama exploded with popularity in South Korea, and centres around the housewives of four prestigious families who live in the exclusive Sky Castle community. Sky Castle explores the psychological consequences of South Korea’s competitive, rigorous academic standards as it permeates each household and leaves not one member unscathed.
This list is far from perfect. While each movie was chosen for a reason, the directors of these suggestions are all male, which says something significant about South Korean cinema. (To be clear: this problem is not specific to any one country. I’m looking at you, Oscars.)
So, while I absolutely recommend the above, I would consider them introductions to a trove of great cinema. For the films Burning and The Handmaiden especially, I caution that you remain critical of the ways in which they sexualize female bodies. As for myself, I’ve got several films on my to-watch list, thanks to this article: Maggie by Yi Ok Seop, Heart by Jeong Ga Young, and House of Hummingbird by Kim Bo Ra.
One thing’s for sure: South Korea has a legacy that extends far beyond Bong Joon Ho and Parasite.