Film Misery Movie Marathon – Korean Wave Cinema

Korean Wave Cinema FEATURED

‘Mother,’ by Bong Joon-ho

Movie buffs and critics have spent more than a decade praising the electrifying and idiosyncratic output from the numerous contemporary filmmakers working in South Korea. An argument can almost be made, however, that it wasn’t until 2013 that the influence of those movies had finally made a mainstream breakthrough in the Western world. It all started quite early in the year with the release of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return vehicle The Last Stand. The action flick was directed by Korean genre expert Ji-woon Kim, though his work might now be overshadowed both by his leading man’s star power, and the unfortunate fact of the movie’s dismal box office performance.

Korean Wave Cinema 1

‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring,’
by Kim Ki-duk

Still, considering the magnificently orchestrated action set-pieces in The Last Stand, it’s clear American studios seemed ready to gamble on a different kind of talent. You get a similar feeling from this spring’s Stoker which, while marketed primarily as a “Mia Wasikowska does Wednesday Addams” creep-fest, is most noteworthy for the insidiously playful direction from the man at its helm, Oldboy director Park Chan-wook. Oh, and speaking of Oldboy, arguably the best-known film from America’s preferred of the two Koreas, let’s not forget about Spike Lee’s impending remake (sorry, “re-adaptation”) coming out in November.

With South Korean stories and storytellers making their inevitable (yet still-uncertain) stride across the Pacific, and into the more opulent financially lucrative terrain of Hollywood, we thought it might be worthwhile to explore the most recent wave of movies from South Korea – works that have made contributed to one of the most talked-about film movements in recent memory. Many pinpoint the movement’s beginnings alongside Kim Eui-suk’s 1992 comedy Marriage Story, which was the first South Korean Film not funded by the country’s government. Unfortunately, Marriage Story’s not easily available in the United States, and won’t be a part of this marathon.

Korean Wave Cinema 2

‘Tale of Two Sisters,’
by Ji-woon Kim

Later in the decade, Korea saw the massive success of Shiri, whose box office haul – it beat Titanic’s record in that country from two years prior – is largely credited as helping Korean cinema win back the majority of its own domestic market. That increased faith in Korean cinema has since helped foster the talent of the country’s most unique artistic voices, the likes of whom (Park, Kim and Bong Joon-ho) are churning out films marked by their fearless weirdness (I’m a Cyborg, but that’s Okay), meditative splendor (Poetry) or grotesque violence (Oldboy, I Saw the Devil and dozens more).

Few other world markets in the still-young century have managed an output at once this distinctive, this diverse, yet this unequivocally of-a-piece. When you watch a South Korean import, you know exactly what to expect. Yet at the same time, you have no idea what is in store for you.

Korean Wave Cinema 3

Film Misery Marathon: Korean Wave Cinema

Below is the list of the contemporary South Korean films we plan on discussing throughout the month (we have noted which ones are available on notable streaming services):


Shiri (1999, dir. Je Gyu Kang)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “North and South Korean super-spies battle and fall in love.”
Streaming Services: None


 Ji Yi Zhang-Woo-sung Jung

Musa, aka “The Warrior” (2001, dir. Sung-su Kim)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “1375. Nine Koryo warriors, envoys exiled by Imperial China, battle to protect a Chinese Ming Princess from Mongolian troops.”
Streaming Services: Netflix and Hulu Plus


 Tale of Two Sisters

A Tale of Two Sisters (2004, dir. Ji-woon Kim)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “A family is haunted by the tragedies of deaths within the family.”
Streaming Services: Amazon Rental


 Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2004, dir. Ki-duk Kim)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “On an isolated lake, an old monk lives on a small floating temple. The wise master has also a young boy with him who learns to become a monk. And we watch as seasons and years pass by.”
Streaming Services: None


 Sympathy for Mr Vengeance

The Vengeance Trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002, dir. Chan-wook Park)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “A recently laid off factory worker kidnaps his former boss’ daughter, hoping to use the ransom money to pay for his sister’s kidney transplant.”
Streaming Services: Netflix and Hulu Plus and Amazon Rental



The Vengeance Trilogy: Oldboy (2004, dir. Chan-wook Park)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “After being kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, Oh Dae-Su is released, only to find that he must find his captor in 5 days.”
Streaming Services: Netflix and Hulu Plus and Amazon Rental


 Lady Vengeance

The Vengeance Trilogy: Lady Vengeance (2005, dir. Chan-wook Park)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “After thirteen and half years in prison for kidnapping and murdering a boy, Geum-ja Lee is released and plots revenge against the real killer. With the support of former inmates from prison.” [sic.]
Streaming Services: Netflix and Hulu Plus and Amazon Rental


 Secret Sunshine

Secret Sunshine (2007, dir. Chang-dong Lee)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “Sin-ae moves with her son Jun to Miryang, the town where her dead husband was born. As she tries to come to herself and set out on new foundations, another tragic event overturns her life.”
Streaming Services: Netflix and iTunes Rental


 Treeless Mountain

Treeless Mountain (2008, dir. So yong Kim)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “In Seoul, Korea, two sisters must look after one another when their mother leaves them to search for their estranged father.”
Streaming Services: Amazon Rental



Mother (2009, dir. Joon-ho Bong)

IMDb Plot Synopsis: “A mother desperately searches for the killer that framed her son for a girl’s horrific murder.”
Streaming Services: Netflix and Amazon Rental and iTunes Rental

What are some of your favorite South Korean Films? What movie in this Marathon are you most excited to see?

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  • Hisashi

    It’s a pity when I don’t see ‘Memories of Murder’ along your marathon list. To me, it IS the Korean movie of the last decade. ‘Mother’ is also a very strong movie coming from Bong Joon-ho, but not quite as powerful as the former, in my opinion.

    Other choices, I must say, quite impeccable.

    • Trust me, Memories of Murder was one of many, MANY regretful omissions for this marathon. Actually, there were more omissions than there were movies we ultimately included. We tried to spread the work out evenly in terms of release date, director representation, cultural significance and overall availability, so a lot of great movies got left off.

      Thanks for the recommendation though Hisashi! I just added Memories to my Netflix queue!!!

  • Paul

    Quite excited to hear about this months movie marathon! My one question though is if the selection of films was decided with the intent of representing a variety of directors why is all of Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy on the list? I’m not saying it was a bad choice, I am just curious.

    • The whole trilogy is likely to be the subject of a single essay, similar to what we did with the Informal Trilogy in our Wong Kar Wai marathon. We just wanted to make sure Streaming options for each of the 3 films were clear.

  • I am so glad to see a movie marathon being done once again. I have pretty much not seen South Korean movies at all so (since you guys motivated me to check out WKW) quite sure that this will be very helpful for me. From this list i have seen the obvious Oldboy and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring. Some other titles i have been hearing a lot of that are missing but nevertheless the line-up is pretty good. Excited!

  • Scott Segrell

    I cannot recommend “Mother” enough. An outstanding film. Glad to see the press you have given it.

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