Korean pop culture is gaining visibility, and you shouldn’t miss out on their amazing films! Here are some tips and movies to get started.
Between K-pop, K-dramas, and a strong presence at film festivals, Korean pop culture is quickly becoming more mainstream, and what was once a niche fandom in the West is gaining more visibility. With the 2018 Winter Olympics taking place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, now is the perfect time for you to get started on the amazing world of Korean cinema.
If you’re not used to watching movies in languages other than English, the Pyeongchang Olympics are the perfect time start. You’ll be pleased to find that Korean films are refreshingly different from the often formulaic Western ones.
Tips for the first-timer
Know where to watch
There are plenty of Korean films available for streaming on Netflix, or on DVD, with subtitles in various languages. There are also websites that legally stream movies and shows from many Asian countries, like Viki.com or Dramafever.com.
Viki is probably the most convenient, although without a premium account (called ‘Viki Pass’) you’ll occasionally be interrupted by ads. But they have a wide variety of movies, and even a great commenting system that gives you the option to see comments in real time on the movie itself (so you can see what people said of that specific scene when they were watching).
You can also start a free trial on Dramafever and get access to plenty of movies and shows there.
Make sure you know your ratings
But before you start watching, there’s something you need to know about Korean movies: they come in two very distinct flavors: “No knives or kissing because it’s too inappropriate” and “Everybody is brutally murdered (and there’s a lot of sex).”
In PG-13 movies, romantic relationships tend to be depicted as very chaste, and violence is dramatic but never bloody. Some of these movies can be either K-dramas adapted to film, and/or films starring entire K-pop bands. They tend to have a lot of montages of clothes, food, and fun couple activities. But don’t let the cutesy stuff fool you — while restrained when it comes to typical romance or action tropes, they focus on making the drama unforgettable.
Conversely, when movies are rated R, they don’t hold back at all. 90% of the cast of characters is likely to die in amazing, creative ways. Sometimes there will be lots of (extremely creative) sex scenes for long periods of time. And often, these two things will overlap. But free to exercise their creativity, directors weave complicated, fascinating stories that definitely make the gore worth it.
Prepare yourself for lifechanging emotional intensity
Most Korean films are very aware of the aesthetics of every scene, and you’re likely to be blown away by some of the shots, which are sure to showcase the most attractive sides of their actors against gorgeous backdrops. It’s like watching a Vanity Fair photoshoot come to life.
Revenge, family, and honor tend to be prevalent in these stories. You’ll notice that the priorities different characters have vary greatly from what we’ve come to expect from Western movie leads, and that stories play out in ways that are very different from Hollywood.
With a firm focus on characters’ values, these movies manage to do some deep character development through Oscar-worthy acting, and the combination of unexpected twists and terms with the strong emotional core of the movie is likely to make you emotional, even if you don’t usually cry with movies. Even in romantic comedies, where clichés are often shamelessly exploited, you’ll walk away identifying with the main characters.
Enjoy striking stories
Korean directors have made an art out of combining exquisite cinematographic taste with the brutally unexpected, managing to create stories that are intensely gripping.
Especially when it comes to historical films, filmmakers get away with much more than you would expect. The characters in these movies hardly ever fit the mold we’ve become used to seeing in heroes and villains. Everyone is ruthless, no one is to be trusted — but the complicated tangle of politics, romance and family that they create is incredibly satisfying.
Beyond that, as a foreign viewer, there’s a lot worth appreciating when getting a glimpse at another culture’s interpretation of their own stories. From beautifully crafted dialogue to the amazing outfits of ancient Korean royalty, these movies are setting a completely new standard for art and storytelling, diversifying the type of stories we enjoy and bringing freshness to an industry that sometimes feels saturated with overused tropes.
Movies to get started
Don’t know where to start? There are many amazing movies out there, but whether you start watching during the Olympics or later on, here are a few of different genres to choose from.
Train to Busan (2016) Action/Thriller. A businessman and his daughter get trapped in a moving train during a zombie virus outbreak.
The Beauty Inside (2015) Drama/Romance. A person who wakes up every morning in a different body has to find ways to reunite with the woman he loves.
Kiss Me, Kill Me (2009) Action/Romance. An assassin is hired to kill someone in their sleep. Unfortunately, it was the victim who hired him. Naturally, they fall in love.
Lucid Dream (2017) Drama/Thriller. After his son’s abduction three years ago, a man employs lucid dreaming techniques to investigate the past and find him.
The Silenced (2016) Horror/Suspense. A girl is sent to a sanatorium during Korea’s Japanese occupation. But something is wrong, and everyone is keeping secrets.
The Handmaiden (2016) Thriller/Romance. A young girl is employed to wait on an heiress, while secretly plotting to rob her. But love and loyalties are not what they seem.
The Concubine (2016) Drama/Thriller. A woman is taken to be the concubine of the King, and creates a plan of her own to survive the deadly palace intrigue.
A Taxi Driver (2016) Drama/Biographical. A taxi driver is hired by a German reporter to take him to the frontline of the Kwangju Uprising in 1980: one of the most important events in South Korea’s democratization.