Everybody with an interest in Korean films has already seen Train to Busan, Oldboy, The Host, and Snowpiercer – well, those of us that have been able to import the Blu-Ray, catch it at a festival or travelled abroad, anyway. But there is so much more to Korean cinema than revenge thrillers and creature features. The country’s history in the medium has been long and varied. Ergo, here’s an arbitrary list of five under-seen / under-appreciated / under-valued (call it what you want) movies from the South East Asian country that deserve wider recognition, beginning with…
The Foul King (2000)
It seems somewhat bizarre to kick off with a film by one of the Republic of Korea’s most important and iconic filmmakers, Kim Jee-woon, that stars perhaps its most internationally celebrated actor, Song Kang-ho, in a list of so-called “underrated” features. Nevertheless, here in the West, this comedy about a relentlessly bullied office drone who decides to take up amateur wrestling is a shining example of the goofier side of Kim’s work that is rarely talked about outside of The Good, The Bad, The Weird.
Equally it’s just as strange to see a slight and weedy looking Song Kang-ho being picked on and physically dominated and abused by his boss, given how we’ve seen the actor grow into the superstar that he is today with such a huge commanding screen presence. Too often Korea gets associated with just being the home of the revenge thriller, thanks to the Vengeance trilogy, I Saw the Devil, The Chaser and the like. It’s just lovely to see a warm and uplifting comedy that has zero cynicism.
The Housemaid (1960)
Korea experienced a “golden age” of cinema during the period that Kim Ki-young’s noir-inspired psychological drama reached the silver screen, but it would be a good 40 years before The Housemaid would became truly acknowledged outside of its home country – thanks partly to the efforts of Martin Scorsese. Much of the acclaim it has garnered since comes from full on aficionados, rather than being especially popular with the wider cinema-going public, which is a shame.
In the same year that Hitchcock and Powell shocked audiences with Psycho and Peeping Tom respectively, while Fellini and Goddard ushered a European cinematic revolution with La Dolce Vita and Breathless, internationally there was a whole generation of auteurs unfortunately escaping the eye of the influential French critics of the time; probably due to both a logistical and language barrier in accessing these movies – although that doesn’t quite explain the importance of Kurosawa and the like, but we’ll ignore that for the time being. The 2010 remake is possibly more well known, but the original story of the mutual corruption of a husband and father, and his housemaid, convincingly deconstructs the masculine view of a femme fatale through a set of refreshingly un-American and un-European eyes.
Attack the Gas Station (1999)
Seen by less than 1,200 Letterboxd users – I think that qualifies Kim Sang-jin’s characterful comedy as under-seen. It oozes humour by the bucketful and never over-stretches its simple premise about four blundering youths and their botched attempt to rob a gas station. Even just admiring it as a snapshot into a period in time of a culture and a place, Attack the Gas Station has much to offer. The youth battle authority, rival gangs, and are generally disrespectful and anarchic; Kim offers a wider commentary on the way Korea viewed itself in a global sense. Or, it could be taken at face value and be seen for the joyous 110 minute ride that it is. Look out for Yu Ji-tae (of Oldboy fame) if you can recognise him.
Save the Green Planet! (2003)
Bonkers. I can’t think of a more apt description for Jang Joon-hwan’s darkly comic fantasy film. Shin Ha-kyun leads the cast as the mysterious and potentially psychologically deranged Lee Byeong-gu who believes he has kidnapped an alien from the planet Andromeda that is threatening the Earth’s safety. In fact, it turns out, he has actually just kidnapped the CEO of a company from his home town; but is he an alien? Lee enlists the help of his girlfriend and his dog ‘Earth’ to save our planet – and things just get weirder and weirder. Despite the insane narrative, not all of Save the Green Planet! is played entirely for laughs. There’s a dark subtext being shrouded in the surface level humour, while the scenes of torture are distressing; sometimes enough to jolt you out of your seat. Sympathy for the characters is fluid and you will be left with uncertain feelings towards everybody involved, but it is an experiment well worth checking out.
Few Korean directors are as divisive as Kim Ki-duk. In fact, it would perhaps not be too far wide of the mark to suggest the arthouse director is more prestigious outside of his native country. Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sang-soo, even Park Chan-wook have made their name by producing provocative and ponderous movies streaming with social and political commentary. But few will get as close to the nerve as the 57-year-old festival favourite. For example, let’s take Moebius, a dialogue free film that begins with a mother castrating her own son and the subsequent journey of this unconventional family as the father researches methods to have his own genitals grafted onto his son, who then begins desiring his own mother. I daren’t even summarise the knife scenes. It’s… complicated.
Pieta seemed to be Kim Ki-duk’s confusingly obtuse oedipal satire of religion, which also had a mother/son relationship. Samaritan Girl seemed to deal with similar themes in a father/daughter relationship. (I’m beginning to spot a pattern here.) If nothing else, Moebius is quite probably the most unique movie on this list; and likely to be one of the most original movies you will ever see. There is very little I can say that can fully prepare you for Moebius, but I hope that there’s some part of you that finds that exciting and gives this somewhat surreal film at least one extra viewer.
Think we’ve overlooked something or you can do better? Then let us know in the comments section below before finding out how you can attend the LKFF documentary season for free.