New to Korean Films? 5 Films to Start Watching

I’ve always loved going to the movies so it was no surprise that when I was living in Korea, I embraced Korean films wholeheartedly. At first, it was simply for fun, a way of spending time with friends and getting to know Korean culture just a little bit. [Side note: Yeah, I realize that films & dramas aren’t real or entirely representative of any country’s culture but they do offer some insight. Just don’t believe they are all true. ^^]

But from the first Korean film I watched – My Tutor Friend (동갑내기 과외하기) – I was hooked. I started asking friends to go watch movies with me and reading more about them. Korea is a great place to be a film fan – it’s a little cheaper to go see films in theatre and you get to choose your seats (I loved that, we only have it for some theatres/films in Toronto). Plus – and of course, we aren’t advocating this – you can buy bootlegged copies of movies outside a lot of subway stations so I was easily able to explore the exciting world of Korean film.

When I moved back to Toronto I felt a little lost because there weren’t that many Korean films to choose from. In 2009, not many Korean films played in the theatres here, although it was possible to buy DVDs online or in some Asian stores in Toronto. Thankfully, more and more Korean films are coming here – not only to the theatres but also to the various film festivals.

And then a wonderful thing happened last year – in 2012. Two different Korean film festivals debuted and helped bring more awareness to Korean film. It was fabulous seeing not only long-time Korean film buffs but also those who were simply curious or adventurous, come check out the great Korean films available. Not only did more people get a chance to see more Korean films but it sparked conversation – both online and off – about Korean films which is key. One of the questions I get asked most about Korean films – other than what films are playing in Toronto – is for recommendations from newbies. And since the Toronto Korean Film Festival is only a little over a month away, I thought it was a good time to introduce 5 Korean films I think would make a good introduction for newbies.

10 Korean Films to Start Watching

Old Boy (올드보이)

I know pretty much every list about Korean films mentions or recommends Old Boy. There’s a reason for that – it’s a superb film. Plus it’s part of a trilogy so if you like it, there are 2 more similar ones you can watch.

Brief synopsis: A guy is locked in a hotel room for 15 years without knowing why. After getting out, he finds out that it’s not truly over and his life is complicated by both violence and a burgeoning love with a younger sushi chef.

My Sassy Girl (엽기적인 그녀)

While I personally like My Tutor Friend better – in a large part because it was my first Korean film – My Sassy Girl is the ultimate Korean romantic comedy.

Brief synopsis: It’s based on a series of blog posts (later made into a novel) detailing a love story about a guy and “the girl” (who isn’t named in the film). Basically, girl torments boy because she is tormented, boy wants to help girl, and of course, there’s a twist or rather a couple of them.

A Moment to Remember (내 머리 속의 지우개)

Now I’m a sucker for sad films and cry like a baby at a lot of films but A Moment to Remember will make even the most hardened film-goer weep. It’s such a sad but beautiful love story. Now there are a lot of great Korean romantic films but this is the best of the bunch in my opinion. Bring tissues!

Brief synopsis: Girl has a bad break up, bumps into a new boy, later meets boy again and despite their different circumstances, falls for him. Things go well for a while but then girl appears to be getting ill. Girl is ill, boy is devastated. A sad tale of true love through difficulty.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈)

Korean films blend genres with the best of them and this spaghetti western is amazing. Perhaps not the best film but it’s a great introduction to Korean films as there are so many elements in it – comedy, action, Lee Byun-Hun (one of my favourite actors).

Brief synopsis: It’s set in Manchuria in the 1930s. The Bad (Lee Byun-Hun) is to steal a treasure map but the Weird steals it first. The Good, a bounty hunter after the Bad chases them. The Japanese army also chase after the map. Lots of shootouts and action, as well as some complications.

Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (태극기 휘날리며)

It should come as no surprise that there are a lot of Korean War movies as South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea. And there are a lot of good ones – I could write another list of just war films – but the Brotherhood of War is one of the best. Plus it stars Jang Dong-Gun and Won Bin (need I say more).

Brief synopsis: A story of two brothers and the horrors of war.

Bonus entry – Thieves (도둑들)

This is the most recent film on the list and it’s one of those films that even people who don’t like foreign films (those pesky subtitles) love. What’s not to like with all the action, love, double-crossing and spectacular locations?

Brief Synopsis: A group of Korean and Hong Kong thieves work together to steal a diamond necklace from a casino in Macau. Betrayal, different agendas, and lots of action ensues.

Are there other great Korean films?

Oh yeah, there are literally dozens of films I could recommend. I barely scratched the surface. But the above 5 – or rather 6 – films will give you a solid introduction to the variety of Korean films out there. There are great Korean films in every genre – horror, comedy, action, drama, thriller, period drama, crime, etc. – just like in Hollywood films. There are also fabulous actors and actresses who can elevate a film and make it more than a simple viewing experience. Plus, just like all actors… some of them are gorgeous eye candy!

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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