The Oscar smash-hit Parasite (2019) has drawn renewed attention to both South Korea and South Korean cinema.
For decades, artistic creativity was suppressed under dictatorial governments, but post-democratization, a cultural renaissance dating to the late 1990s – Hallyu (“The Korean Wave”) – re-energized the industry. Hallyuwood has produced multiple global hits, ranging from violent thrillers (2003’s Oldboy) to horror films (2016’s The Wailing) to arthouse epics (2003’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring) to wacky comedies (2001’s My Sassy Girl).
But Korean film-makers have also looked over their own shoulders to produce works dramatizing the troubled politics, fast-track development and roiled society of a country that was only born in 1948.
Below, Asia Times recommends 10 films that, viewed chronologically, serve as a primer on South Korea’s short, but dramatic history.
Peasant rivalries, murderous ideologies
Korea was wiped off the world’s mind map from 1910-1945, only re-emerging as globally significant when it was divided by the USA and USSR, post-World War II. Few Korean peasants knew what communism or capitalism meant, but a people brutalized by colonial rule and subject to intra-village rivalries proved a combustible combination when Cold War ideologies were hurled into the mix. These dangerous dynamics are explored in To the Starry Island (1993). Few other films have captured the nastiness of the conflict as it played out among rural communities – where some animosities still simmer to this day. Korea’s leading pre-Hallyu actor, Ahn Seung-gi, plays a man who returns to try to bury his father on a backwater island where hideous events occurred during the Korean War.
When devils stalked the land
From 1950-53, Korea was the scene of the first hot conflict of the Cold War, the first war America could not win, and a war that marked the awakening of communist China as a global force. For Koreans, it was a tragedy of the darkest hue. For three years, demons stalked the land, devastating the nation and killing, by consensus estimates, some 2 million. The “Forgotten War,” coming so soon after World War II and just before Vietnam, won little attention in Hollywood. Kang Jae-kyu’s 2004 blockbuster Taekgukki (“National Flag”): Brotherhood of War redresses the balance. Kang’s camera captures epic scenes of devastation, massacre and close-range combat as it tells the emotive story of two brothers swept up in a maelstrom that swept over the peninsula.
Rising from the ashes
Few countries transitioned from rags to riches as swiftly as South Korea. An economic basket-case in the 1950s, it was a global industrial powerhouse by the 1980s. Korean film-makers have largely ignored the conglomerates which provided Korea’s economic locomotive (though TV drama producers are less reticent), but Ode to My Father (2014) lauds the patriotism, diligence and sacrifice of the ordinary people who underwrote economic development. Starting with the desperate evacuation of a family – minus their father – from war-torn North Korea in 1950, this Forrest Gump-style, picaresque tale leads the reader through post-war markets, labor exports and the monetization of the Vietnam War as Korea climbs out of poverty. Bit-part characters include Hyundai founder Chung Ju-young. Slammed by some as right-wing nostalgia, it proved hugely popular among Korea’s older generation and this writer found the final scene deeply moving.
While development eliminated poverty and enriched the populace overall, the process was wrenching for many. No film captures the clash between tradition and modernity as well as 1993’s Seopyeonje – a pre-Hallyu hit, that single-handedly ignited a renaissance in its subject matter, traditional Korean opera. The film’s title refers to a sub-genre of opera. Master auteur Im Kwon-taek’s tragedy about a family of itinerant folk singers struggling to survive in the changing Korea of the 1940s-70s is gorgeously shot. However, the plot twist at its core – the ploy the father uses to retain control of his highly talented adoptive daughter – is one of the most devastating in world cinema.
The plot of Silmido (2003) reads as a ludicrous military fantasy. In 1968, convicted criminals are dragooned by the military and trained as commandos to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Il-sung – then, amid changing political circumstances, are gunned down by their own side. And yet – it was a true story, and the film sparked a re-investigation of the unit, the mission and even the island, Silmido, where the unit was based. In fact, it was one of many shadowy tales from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s as commandos, spies and terrorists clashed in the shadows.
Nation builder or dictator?
The President’s Last Bang (2005) is a fictionalization of the 1979 assassination of Park Chung-hee, the president whose industrial policies raised South Korea from poverty, but who also suppressed human rights and political freedoms. The central figure in modern South Korean history, the ex-general is lauded by many older Koreans, but this film, an incisive comedy of the deepest black, is notable for its revisionist take. Formerly seen as a stern aesthete, Park is portrayed as a drinker, a womanizer and – perhaps worst of all – a Japan-lover.
The battle for democracy
An uprising that led to a massacre in the city of Gwangju in 1980, and subsequent years of protests, failed to deliver democracy. But in 1987, after two student protesters died at the hands of police, South Koreans stood up as a nation, the middle-class hit the streets – and the generals blinked. When the Day Comes (2017) covers the events of that year – as seen through the eyes of officials, prosecutors, secret police, journalists, and a pair of students. (It is the killing of one of the latter that ignites the mass protests.) The film received a rapturous reception from the current Moon Jae-in administration, whose members came of age in the protest era.
The Korean War ended in July 1953 but in a strictly legal sense (de jure) continues to this day. National division has provided rich inspiration for auteurs, and writer-director Park Chan-wook’s 2000 thriller JSA (‘Joint Security Area’) is perhaps the best of the genre. In JSA – the iconic truce village of Panmunjom – future superstars Lee Byung-hoon and Song Kang-ho joust in a tense scenario that keeps viewers guessing. Curiously, the plot, about a friendship between Northern and Southern troops that goes horribly wrong, was an impossibility when made, as both sides were strictly segregated. But due to changes at the border village since the 2018 North-South summit, the plot of this film now looks plausible.
The other Korea
Only 31,000 North Koreans have defected to the South, making them a tiny minority in a country of 51 million. Yet, their presence has import: South Korea’s ability to absorb North Koreans is central to most reunification scenarios. Crossing (2008) is about defection – both its process and aftermath. It portrays a family struggling to survive in a nightmarish, famine-struck, 1990s North Korea, and subsequently, the defector father’s attempts to reunite with his wife and son. The movie was based on a true story, but the defector whose sufferings inspired it could never bring himself to watch it.
With the Korean economy now mature, growth has slowed while globalization has forced Korean conglomerates to take jobs offshore. As a result, modern South Koreans are victims of a social ill that also impacts developed Western societies: middle-class angst. Parasite (2019) explores the non-distribution of wealth in a brilliantly crafted tale of a poor family infiltrating a rich one. The film captured the Korean zeitgeist, the global zeitgeist – and four Oscars.