Scenes from ‘Right Now, Wrong Then’
Scenes from ‘Right Now, Wrong Then’

Korean cinema starter kit

Looking for other Korean films after ‘Parasite’? From arthouse drama to supercharged action, here are five titles to start you on your search

On 9 February, Parasite won four Academy Awards, including Best Director for Bong Joon-ho and Best Picture. Lost in the excitement of a non-English film winning the top prize for the first time was a surprising statistic: Parasite was the first South Korean film to even be nominated for an Oscar. Yet the country’s cinema has, since the 1990s, been a huge force on the global scene, giving us intimate chroniclers like Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong, stylists like Bong and Park Chan-wook, and several excellent commercial directors. If you are just starting out, here are five films that give some idea of the range of South Korean cinema.

Poetry

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning was one of the great films of the last decade; its biting class criticism makes it an ideal double bill with Parasite. Lee has been making quiet but heavy films at regular intervals since 1997. One of his finest is Poetry (2010), in which the ageing Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jeong-hee) enrols in a poetry class at the same time as her grandson is implicated in a terrible crime and she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The last scene—a hand-off in verse—is a gut-punch impossible to forget.

Scene from ‘The Housemaid’.
Scene from ‘The Housemaid’.

The Housemaid

A perverse delight, this 1960 black and white film by Kim Ki-young has found increased global acclaim after a 2008 restoration. A domestic worker slyly disrupts the life of her employer, a piano teacher, and his dutiful, sickly wife. The precise, economical film-making is at odds with the psychosexual games being played and the emotions forever threatening to boil over. The Housemaid was remade in 2010, and you can also see traces of it in Parasite and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden.

Right Now, Wrong Then

Hong Sang-soo has made 24 films since 1996. Most of them involve a feckless artist, often a director or writer, a self-possessed young woman, extended takes with rambling conversations, and copious amounts of drinking. It sounds simple (and at first glance, it looks that way) but Hong’s great gift is in achieving utterly un-movie-like movies, filled with hesitations and imperfect characters. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), starring the incandescent Kim Min-hee as a painter infatuated with an older director, is a delightful experiment: Something happens midway through the film that will make you question what you have been watching.

The Villainess

For all its auteurist cred, South Korean film is best known for its endless capacity for repackaging and reinvigorating genre cinema. Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess (2017) is a straightforward assassin revenge story, but filmed with such violent style that cult status looks likely. The 7-minute opening scene has the hero fight her way out of a building (with a nod to the famous hallway scene from Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy), and the film doesn’t let up for the next 2 hours. You really can’t top the high-speed chase by katana-wielding bikers—you can only copy it, as John Wick 3 did.

Thirst

Jo Yeong-wook may not be as well-known a name as Park Chan-wook, but the composer’s collaboration with the director is one of the most rewarding in modern cinema, from 2000’s Joint Security Area to 2018’s The Little Drummer Girl. Thirst (2009), with Parasite star Song Kang-ho as a priest-turned-vampire in love with his friend’s wife, is Park at his most eerily seductive, and Jo sets the mood beautifully with a mix of sensual tango rhythms and shimmering strings.

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