South Korean Thrillers
With the eagerly awaited black-and-white edition of Bong Joon-ho’s electrifying Parasite finally reaching audiences via Curzon’s home cinema platform, and the sequel to Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 smash hit Train to Busan currently reanimating Asian cinema markets, this week felt like the perfect time to take a deep dive into South Korean thrillers. As Professor Kate Taylor-Jones’ demonstrated in her brilliant talk as part of our Showroom Summer Season recently, South Korean cinema is one of the most exciting, vibrant and socially and politically incisive national cinemas in the world. Thrilling, explosive, and occasionally ultra-violent, there’s an incredible wealth of riches out there for people who loved Parasite and want to dig a little deeper.
Bong’s film was of course this year’s astonishing pre-pandemic success story, and while right now a packed-out Screen 4 feels like a scene from another planet, there’s hope to be found in the box office success that Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is currently experiencing in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia. The follow up to Yeon’s high octane zombie apocalypse thriller takes place four years after the events of the earlier film, and sees the Korean Peninsula decimated by the zombie outbreak and quarantined from the rest of the world. Currently occupying the number one spot in South Korea where it’s clocked up more than $21 million at the box office since its release on the 15th of July, it’s also in the top spot in Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Mongolia. All of which bodes well for the film (which was one of the 56 titles chosen for the Cannes 2020 official selection) when it hits UK cinemas on a yet to be announced date later this year courtesy of Studio Canal.
For now though, here are five of our favourite South Korean thrillers currently available to stream online to get you in the mood. If you’ve not yet seen the first film in Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie apocalypse franchise, what are you waiting for? Train to Busan is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a brilliantly inventive and adrenaline filled rollercoaster of a film that also features the distinctive mix of humour, heart and biting social satire that South Korean cinema has become known for. The film mostly takes place on the passenger train of the title, which is hurtling towards South Korea’s second biggest city whilst the country all around it descends into violent chaos from frenzied flesh-eating zombies. Suffice to say, things do *not* go well on the train as a recently infected passenger climbs on board. Look out for Parasite’s Choi Woo-shik as a bat wielding high school baseball player! There are any number of Park Chan-wook films that could feature on this list. The director of the so-called “Vengeance Trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance) is widely credited with bringing international attention to Korean cinema, and all of his pitch-black, often violent and always meticulously crafted and inventive films are well worth watching. But for us The Handmaiden, a twisted and perverse psychodrama about a conman and an orphaned pickpocket turned handmaid who attempts to relieve a wealthy Japanese woman of her inheritance is up there with the very best. Inspired by Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, Park’s film transports the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule. Mark Kermode called it a “playfully provocative tale of seduction, desire and deceit [that] takes great delight in wrong-footing its audience, peeling away layers of mesmerising misdirection with delicious cinematic sleight of hand.”
Like The Handmaiden, Kim Jee-woon’s film The Age of Shadows also takes place in Korea in the early twentieth century during the period of Japanese rule. This time though, the drama revolves around a police officer played by Song Kang-ho, (the father of the family of grifters in Parasite, and an out-and-out megastar of Korean cinema) who works for the occupying Japanese forces, but secretly harbours sympathies for the resistance fighters he’s tasked with infiltrating. Cue a nail-biting game of cat and mouse, high-octane action sequences and some brilliantly choreographed shootouts.
A genre flick every bit as good as the better known films from Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, The Wailing is a deeply, creepy and intense rural horror / demonic possession film in which a police sergeant investigates a series of brutal murders linked to an unexplained sickness. What follows is what IndieWire, in one of those critical reviews that just makes you want to watch a film even more, called “156-minutes of demented occult nonsense that gradually begins to feel less like a linear scary story than that it does a ritualistic invocation of the antichrist”.
One of our favourite Bong Joon-ho films, The Host is a genre bending and distinctively Korean take on the blockbuster monster movie that sees a giant mutant creature emerge from the Han River after the US military dump toxic chemicals into the water. Song Kang-ho stars in this one too - his second appearance in one of Bong’s films after Memories of a Murder. This time he plays Park Gang-du, the lazy and dim-witted son in a small family who run a snack bar by the river. When Gang-du’s daughter is snatched from the riverside by the creature, the family have to fight to get her back. Song is absolutely brilliant in this film - hilarious, charming and displaying all the magnetic everyman charisma that has made him a star.
This article first featured in the Sheffield Telegraph on 6 August 2020.