Director Bong Joon-ho made cinematic history at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2019 as he took home 4 awards for Parasite, the first non-English film to ever win Best Picture. But what did this phenomenal victory mean for the future of Korean cinema?
(From left to right) Midnight Runners (2017), dir. Jason Kim; Little Forest (2018) dir. Im Soon-rye; The Handmaiden (2016) dir. Park Chan-wook; A Taxi Driver (2017) dir. Jang Hoon; Exit (2016) dir. Lee Sang-geun.
Following the buzz after director Bong Joon-ho's sweep of the 92nd Academy Awards in 2019, many Asian-Americans felt optimistic that Parasite was the threshold to widespread Western reception of international, or at least Korean, film. Critics, movie-goers, and directors alike showered the film with stars and press for months...
but soon the din fell silent, and seemingly nothing had changed.
Many had failed to see the long-term successes of Parasite, and thus hampered its legacy in Western audiences. But the simple truth remains: this film was a necessary phenomenon. It served as a glimmer into a sprawling genre of diverse cinematography. From the writing room to the studio, Korean cinema demands the attention it deserves; but is there a willingness to listen?
"Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films."
- Bong Joon-ho
Americans turned away from the blip on their otherwise unchanging radar and returned to their domestic comforts. Subtitles, unknown actors, and culture shock were too inconvenient--to unfamiliar-- to further entertain.
I, ashamedly, was one of them. Though rather than for the aforementioned reasons, I simply forgot my options. As time droned on, I grew indifferent to movies touted by streaming platforms and theaters. I needed something else, something that made me feel like Ki-jung and Ki-woo as they entered the Parks' mansion for the first time in Parasite-- unrelenting attentiveness, a grip on the edge of my seat-- I needed devotion to the screen.
I simply could not bring myself to watch yet another by-the-book flick. So, I tried a handful of Korean films over the course of a year. Please allow me to share them with you.
A Taxi Driver (2017)
Director: Jang Hoon
Genre: Action, Drama
A widowed father and taxi driver takes a German reporter determined to cover the Gwangju Uprising across the country. What begins as an "odd job" driving a foreigner quickly becomes a struggle between integrity and security.
A Taxi Driver has seemingly everything from heart-wrenching moments to riveting car chases. For those who enjoyed seeing Song Kang-ho in Parasite, this will surely be a treat.
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Midnight Runners (2017)
Director: Jason Kim
Genre: Comedy, Action
Two students at Korea National Police University witness a kidnapping. When they approach officials to report the crime they are met with apathy and disinterest. Forced to take matters into their own hands, they put their skills to the test to close the case-- before it's too late.
This film is an absolute joy to watch. You feel like a part of the chase; every minute feels like one step closer to the truth.
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Director: Lee Sang-geun
Genre: Comedy, Disaster
A once-talented rock climber down on his luck races to save a city when a mysterious, toxic gas begins to rise and harm citizens by the dozen.
This definitely made me scream a few times; no horror movie could ever compete. Strangely, the suspense will have you on the edge of your seat to the very end, laughing all the while.
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The Handmaiden (2016)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Genre: Romance, Psychological Thriller
An orphaned pick-pocketer and a con man create an elaborate scheme to bilk a Japanese heiress of her inheritance. But just as success seems right within grasp, an unexpected conflict arises.
This one is definitely not for the weak-hearted. A vivid exploration of femininity, power, and sexuality, this film is as risqué as it is gorgeous. As such, please watch at your own discretion.
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Little Forest (2018)
Director: Im Soon-rye
When a young woman fails to pass the qualification exam to become a teacher, she abandons the stifling buzz of Seoul to return to her rural hometown in which she discovers the true, simple joys of life.
Little Forest perfectly depicts a tranquil life in a small village in the Korean countryside. This film is perfect to watch on a quiet night with a cup of tea in hand.
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Swing Kids (2018)
Director: Kang Hyung-cheol
Genre: Musical, Drama
Set in the Korean War, an unlikely ragtag team of POW's come together under an even more unlikely cause: tap dance.
This feature is an honorable mention not only because it's my favorite of the bunch, but because it was a deeply moving story of humanity, compassion, and empathy I have yet to see in any American film. People from all walks of life overcame war, language, and prejudice for a common dream.
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I am hopeful that the times will welcome Korean cinematography, though such change can only begin in waves. So turn off the lights, grab a snack or two, and help make this breakthrough a reality.