An Intro to Korean Cinema & Television

We live in a world of global entertainment. Movies and television shows feature diverse casts and crew, and it’s never been easier to gain access to stories from all around the world. As more people explore content from new cultures, we have come to realize that there are far more fascinating tales to be told in new and unique ways from voices and cultures we may not have thought about.

Of late, South Korean entertainment has peaked, reaching international audiences and earning immense accolades. Most notably, Bong Joon-ho earned a bevy of Academy Awards, receiving a nod for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and seeing his film Parasite snag the Best Picture award. It’s part of a wave of Korean content that has gained eyeballs and interest over the past few years. Two of the most popular shows on TV right now — the reality music competition The Masked Singer and the network drama The Good Doctor — are both remakes of Korean shows.

Networks and studios have watched the success of promoting and adapting Korean stories, and there are many more to come. HBO is making an English-language adaptation of Parasite into a limited series, while Showtime is producing a show called Memory from a studio involved with Parasite. The recent success of Korean entertainment has rightly put a spotlight on the country. As the influx begins to come, here are some Korean filmmakers, movies, and shows that you should take time to enjoy.

Bong Joon-ho – The Host

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Source: IMDb

Bong Joon-ho has gotten a lot of attention for Parasite and rightly so. But before he earned international acclaim, he was making a lot of poignant and powerful stories. His 2006 film The Host is one of the best monster movies ever made, and arguably the best monster movie with a message. Subverting genre conventions, he reveals his creature almost from the outset, as an amphibious beast terrorizing Seoul in a frenetic, chaotic sequence. The film shifts and focuses on one family that comes together in the face of such a disaster in a story that’s sweet, scary, tense, and utterly engaging. And as for that monster – well, it’s the result of American intervention in South Korea and the unintended consequences of destroying the environment.

Park Chan-wook

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Source: IMDb

One of the most well-known and acclaimed South Korean directors is Park-Chan-wook, who has a rich, diverse collection of impressive films, from violent tales of vengeance to erotic, suspenseful stories. He’s a master at pacing, tension, and framing. Oldboy is one of the most powerful revenge films ever crafted (the U.S. remake was lackluster) while his first English language film Stoker was an eerie, beautiful, and uncomfortable family drama. It’s also worth checking out The Handmaiden, a sensual story of love and betrayal that unfolds from the different perspectives of those involved, slowly, methodically revealing layers of adoration and deception. There’s something for everyone, but you’re sure to be rapt either way.

Yoon Ga-eun – The House of Us

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Source: IMDb

Bong Joon-ho recently released a list of directors he sees as the influential and impressive filmmakers of the future. The diverse roster includes Yoon Ga-eun and her 2019 family drama The House of Us demonstrated why. A coming-of-age tale told from a child’s perspective, the film follows young Hana as she navigates a dysfunctional home life with a newfound group of supportive friends. A charming and at times difficult watch, The House of Us is a beautifully told, intimate tale.

Kingdom

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Source: IMDb

Netflix has a been a boon to global cinema and entertainment, allowing viewers to easily discover content they might not otherwise have known existed. Kingdom was Netflix’s first original Korean series, and after a successful and highly regarded first season, it has recently released its second. It’s a historical, political zombie thriller of sorts — kind of like if Walking Dead were placed in 16th century Korea and didn’t drag its storyline for episodes at a time. Scary and dramatic, it’s a relatively light commitment (only 12 episodes so far) and well worth the investment.

Mr. Sunshine

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Source: IMDb

One of the highest rated television shows ever in Korea, Mr. Sunshine has won praise from critics and the public alike for engaging, enlightening storytelling. Mr. Sunshine tells the tale of a young man born into slavery before the turn of the 20th century. Taken to America and enlisted in the military, he later returns home where he meets the beautiful daughter of an aristocrat. So begins a story of forbidden romance between two people from different castes of life and divergent upbringings. While the base for this melodrama is universal, it’s one with terrific acting and what’s likely an unfamiliar time and place for many viewers.

The Inheritors

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Source: IMDb

Also known as The Heirs, this 2013 drama is a little bit of Gossip Girl mixed in with some Succession. Rich and affluent high school students dabble in love, jealously, politics, and money in this very watchable melodrama. There are broken hearts, sibling betrayal, forbidden romances, and twists and turns every step of the way. Young, attractive, and wildly wealthy young people certainly have a way of making some compelling TV. There is only one season, but the 20 episodes are each an hour long — plenty of time to spend in this engrossing world.

Stranger

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Source: IMDb

Maybe you’ve heard this story formula before: two detectives or lawyers or doctors or really any professionals with very different personalities are partnered together to solve something. In the case of Stranger, it’s an empathy-devoid prosecutor and a compassionate detective who team up to solve a growing case of murder and corruption. Despite the familiar conceit, Stranger won a slew of awards and earned international acclaim for its superb acting and impressive storytelling. It’s a slow burn of a show — there are 16 episodes, each between 60 and 75 minutes — but it’s an engaging, immersive one you’ll want to keep binging.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.