Back when there were Blockbusters and Family Videos scattered around the suburbs of northeast Ohio, my family took regular trips to the video store. Each kid was allowed a movie or two, depending on the length of rental times. Somewhere near ten, I gravitated to East Asian films, especially kung-fu and wuxia movies: the crazy wire-work and the boldness of the fight scenes were must-see filmmaking for the smaller version of myself. I shared a small bedroom with my brother, and to avoid disturbing him I watched them late into the night (post-George Lopez on Nick at Nite) without the sound. At ten, I felt that I had conquered the half-inch barrier of the subtitle and had discovered a whole new type of movie that nobody else in my life knew of. 

Turned out, lots of other English-speaking people love East Asian films, and my hidden treasure wasn’t so unheard of. After Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Korean film in particular has garnered more attention from regular filmgoers. In fact, Parasite earned more at the domestic box office than any other non-English language film ever before. 

With the end of the year right around the corner, I wanted to make a list of the best films of 2021 commemorating my first year writing consistently as a film critic (mostly for the Boston Hassle), but, in part because of COVID, 2021 was a rough year for new releases in both quantity and quality. (November is also a bit early for end-of-the-year lists, but my assigned day for the post calvin is the twenty-fourth, and a Christmas-related post next month feels obligatory). So instead I turned to my cinephiliac roots: East Asian, and particularly Korean, cinema. 

The following is a broad palette of five modern Korean films to serve as a starter pack for anyone looking to fully kick down the half-inch barrier. My list presumes the potential viewer is at least aware of the most popular Korean choices for American audiences, namely Parasite, Train to Busan, and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and The Handmaiden. With the new addition of Squid Game, these are the typical suggestions. I intended my list to be more diverse in terms of genre and target audience, and to include some films less likely to be known by average filmgoers than terminally online cinephiles like myself.

Psychokinesis (2018, dir. Yeon Sang-ho)

After acquiring superpowers, Shin Suk-Hun (Ryu Seung-ryong)’s first reaction is to become a magician to provide better financial support for his daughter. This plot invention alone demonstrates how Korean cinema is constantly thinking outside of the Hollywood box. It’s also my favorite display of a superpower in the genre.

The President’s Last Bang (2005, dir. Im Sang-soo)

Imagine a movie about JFK’s death. Now imagine said movie is a dark comedy. That’s essentially the plot to The President’s Last Bang, a comedy about the assassination of dictator president Park Chung-hee in 1979. 

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015, Hong Sang-soo)

With the arguable exception of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, Hong Sang-soo is likely the most romantic—in every sense of the word—director in the world. If you’re into serious romances, especially the sad kinds that don’t end with coupling, a Hong film is a must, and Right Now, Wrong Then is a perfect place to start: it depicts the same chance encounter between a film director and a painter twice, with slight alterations between the two meetings. With neither version being clearly favored by Hong, the version you decide to prefer will force you to seriously contemplate your personal romantic philosophies. When is love okay? When is it not?

The Man From Nowhere (2010, dir. Lee Jeong-beom)

No Korean movie starter pack would be complete without an action thriller. Former special agent and widower Cha Tae-sik (Won Bin) forms a bond with the only person who understands him, the little neighbor girl So-mi (Kim Sae-ron) whose kidnapping catalysts the thriller. I can’t say much without spoiling, but it’s the kind of movie that can make your anxiety nearly incarnate.

The Pirates (2014, dir. Lee Suk-hoon)

The Pirates is an exemplar Korean popcorn-type movie about a gray whale swallowing the Joseon dynasty royal seal and pirates seeking to retrieve it. It was just as dumb as I hoped for.

Most of these are easily accessible or can be found at most public libraries. I hope one of these films can introduce you to the world of Korean cinema.

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