By KEI staff and interns
With the coronavirus situation worsening in the United States and the prospect of a normal summer slipping out of our grasp, we at KEI have prepared a list of some of our favorite Korean films – after all, we may never again have as much time to catch up on watching movies. As 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, these selections are portrayals of key periods in Korea’s history since the war through to the present day. Bloodshed, industrialization, protest, repression and hope – these films have it all. We hope you’ll join us in breaking out the popcorn and your favorite Korean snack in watching them all!
Taegugki: The Brotherhood of War (2003) — directed by Kang Je-gyu
This intense story of two brothers forcibly drafted into the South Korean military during the Korean War smashed box office records upon its release. It tells a complicated story of the war, with both North and South Korea portrayed as unconcerned for the lives of their soldiers.
Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005) — directed by Jang Jin
Soldiers from both South and North Korea and an American pilot end up by accident in a town known as Dongmakgol, where the villagers, cut off from the outside world, are unaware of the war raging across the peninsula.
The Front Line (2011) — directed by Jang Hoon
As peace talks to end the Korean War come to a close after years of stalemate along the front lines, a South Korean investigator is sent to investigate the suspicious death of a commander during one of the war’s last battles. A gritty, unsparing look at the futility and loss of the end of the Korean War.
Early Rain (1966) — directed by Jeong Jin-woo
A young couple meet for the first time in a bohemian Myeong-dong jazz club. The girl works as a maid, but wearing a hand-me-down dress, she tells the boy she is a diplomat’s daughter. He’s a poor mechanic, but he sneaks his new love out with a high-class car and pretends to be an industrialist’s son. The stark inequality of 1960s Seoul is painted to heartrending effect in stunning black-and-white cinematography. A gorgeous restoration by the Korean Film Archive is available on YouTube.
The Man Standing Next (2020) — directed by Woo Min-ho
Based on an original novel of the same title, this political drama chronicles the 1979 presidential assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who had been in power for 18 years. The plot centers around Kim Jae-gyu, former director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), and the events leading up to his decision to assassinate President Park.
A Taxi Driver (2017) — directed by Jang Hoon
This 2017 historical action film revolves around a taxi driver from Seoul who inadvertently becomes involved in the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 — a landmark event in South Korea’s march towards democracy. The story is based on real-life events documented by a German journalist’s interactions with driver Kim Sa-bok.
Maiden Who Went to the City (1981) — directed by Kim Soo Yong
Bong Joon-ho is hardly the first Korean director to take on the theme of inequality through the medium of cinema. The 1981 movie “Maiden Who Went to the City” is one such example: the timeless plot of a country girl trying to make it in a big city is laden with critiques of gender discrimination and labor repression. The movie is a mystifyingly candid look into the plight of Korean workers at a time when demands for collective bargaining was still met with violent government pushback. In addition to the Fellini-esque realism, the film also provides a look at Seoul during its slow transition – when it was still called “Warsaw of the East” – before donning its current profile as a hyper-modern metropolis.
The Attorney (2013) — directed by Yang Woo-suk
Inspired by the real-life “Burim” case of 1981, The Attorney is a courtroom drama about Song Woo Seok, a greedy tax attorney who discovers his conscience when he stumbles on evidence of torture and murder under South Korea’s military dictatorship. As the movie unfolds, Song begins to change his views after meeting a student activist who he eventually defends as his client.
1987: When the Day Comes (2017) — directed by Jang Joon-hwan
The torture and killing of a student activist by police under the Chun Doo-hwan regime, which directly led to the 1987 June Democracy Uprising, is told through shifting perspectives. Kim Yoon-seok shines as a brutally anti-communist police commissioner.
Memories of Murder (2003) — directed by Bong Joon Ho
Based on the true story of a serial killer who stalked rural Korea and frustrated police efforts in the 1980s, Bong captures the rawness of rapidly changing Korean lifestyles and mores in a compelling story that highlights tensions over police practices, social prejudice and much more.
Default (2018) — directed by Choi Kook-hee
Korea’s harrowing experiences during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and subsequent IMF bailout are rendered through the travails of three people: a small business owner, financial analyst and economic policymaker.
Black Money (2019) — directed by Chung Ji-young
“Black Money” is a white-collar crime film based on the true story of the ongoing multi-million-dollar investor-state dispute between the South Korean government and a private equity firm Lone Star that began in 2006. In this fictionalized version of the real-world case, Prosecutor Yang Min-hyeok ends up in a complicated situation because of a suspect who commits suicide. While investigating a case to clear himself of suspicion, he comes to see the truth behind the huge financial scandal rocking South Korea.
Ode to My Father (2014) — directed by Yoon Je-kyoon
“Forrest Gump” might be the point of comparison for this “Ode to My Father,” an epoch-spanning tale of South Korea’s 20th-century history. One man experiences the Hungnam Evacuation during the Korean War, life as a migrant worker in West Germany, the Vietnam War and the country’s industrialization and rise to prosperity.
The recommendations above are the views of individual KEI staff members and interns and do not represent an institutional endorsement. KEI Intern James Constant helped in compiling and editing this list.
Photo from Jens-Olaf Walter’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.