Korean Movies You Should Watch Before You Die #1

October 27, 2009

This is a guest post by Nick Mann


Over the approximate year and a half I lived and taught in Korea, I developed quite an affinity for films from that country. Unfortunately, since my return to Toronto I’ve had too few opportunities to watch any new or noteworthy Korean films.  Even video stores carry a scant, sad collection of Korean cinema.  That being the case, I made a special point of going to a matinee screening of a Korean film at the only theatre in the city (and I speculate one of only a few in the country) at which it was playing.  The Korean film I saw was Haeundae and though it wasn’t a great movie in itself it inspired what I hope will become a series on Korean film to be featured on this website approximately once a month.

The premise of Haeundae is simple enough: a huge tidal wave hits the most popular beach in Korea during peak season and pandemonium ensues. Despite being made in Korea, it is in many respects your typical disaster movie… I was telling my friend about it later and he was able, with seemingly uncanny accuracy, to predict story arcs. Things like the estranged husband and wife who, through the ensuing bedlam, reconcile; the scientist who predicted the whole thing; numerous martyrs who sacrifice themselves in order that others may be saved. The entire concept is such an easy target for mockery I will forgo the process altogether and simply provide a link that takes the piss out of disaster movies very effectively  (note that, though it was not written with Haeundae in mind, the observations apply in almost every case).

Perhaps this film’s finest moment comes when one of the minor clowns finds himself precariously positioned beneath the looming shadow of an upended freighter leaning against the supports of Gwangan Bridge. A very unfortunate extra peering alongside this clown disappears in the bat of an eye when a support cable snaps. She re-appears seconds later as her body plummets to the pavement some 30 meters back. Being confronted on all sides with mortal peril and in a state of semi-shock, it is all the clown can do to shuffle haphazardly away from the threat, as huge shipping containers crash down on the road all around him.  It’s thrilling and funny at the same time and the sound and visual spectacle work quite well on the big screen, though I imagine much of the effect would be lost watching it on a TV or computer screen.

I mention this scene in particular because, with that exception, I can’t think of one noteworthy cinematic moment in the entire film.

This information probably comes as no surprise. I mean, not since elementary school when I watched Will Smith kick ass against alien aggressors in Independence Day have I been impressed by a big budget disaster movie and I have a feeling that my interest in that film – not to mention the genre as a whole – had more to do with my age than any merit of the movie itself. Disaster movies by their nature are cheesy and bad, and the real question becomes why did someone with that opinion bother to see Haeundae in the first place?

The answer to that is simple: I have a strange and intense, dare I say perverse, fascination with Korean movies, even bad ones. That’s right; despite all its laughable clichés and impossible scenarios; in spite of its general absurdity (and partly because of it) I did glean pleasure from watching this movie.

One of the things I like most about Korean movies is how they almost never conform to Hollywood standards of structure or genre convention.  Haeundae is the perfect example of this, because even though it appears to be aspiring in every way to be a Hollywood movie, it’s something different and unique altogether. The first half of the film plays like a romantic or even screwball comedy.  The tone is mostly lighthearted, even zany.  If not for the odd scene thrown in of scientists following seismic activity in their lab it would seem like another day at the beach. The problems are domestic: blue-collar workers eking out a living, young love, family tensions, etc. and the action includes a father getting fall-down drunk at a baseball game, a university student who awakens from a near-death experience to immediately stick her tongue down her rescuer’s mouth (I guess she was dreaming…?) and an idiot uncle who bullies his nephew into an ill-advised panhandling scheme.

Mother Nature, she fucking hates Asians

Then suddenly (and from a structural perspective much too far into the movie) the wave hits and all hell breaks loose.  Everyone is scrambling and clinging for their lives; crying and screaming for loved ones as the wave tears them from one another.  The light, comedic mood is shattered almost in a single scene and it’s predominantly melodrama for the rest of the film. This split in the film even comes across in the Korean trailer which can be viewed below. If you’re patient enough to watch the whole thing you can see parts of the bridge scene here too.

The ease with which Korean films swing between comedy and pathos confounded me at first. But since my earliest experiences with Korean film about three years ago, that nation’s cinema has found a special place in my heart. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected.  Watching a Korean movie makes you realize just how predictable and structured the average Hollywood film is. Sure, there are lots of ways to tell your story , even within the Hollywood rules, and plenty of great American films, and filmmakers, toy with genre conventions. But imagine this…

  • A monster-movie, in the tradition of Jurassic Park, where the father, after many trials and tribulations, kills the monster and retrieves his daughter in the final act… only to discover that she has died moments earlier.
  • A Silence of the Lambs-style thriller where the single-mother protagonist escapes a serial killer’s basement against all odds and then by mere chance happens across the murderer again who then proceeds to butcher her, completing his original objective.
  • An American Pie-style comedy where the romantic lead finishes her climactic dance routine and proceeds to the bathroom where she is discovered on the floor in a pool of blood after a botched abortion operation.

If you’re into Korean movies you probably know the films I’m alluding to in these examples and if you don’t I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to read future articles in this series. The fact is there are nearly as many jarring, unexpected moments such as these as there are Korean movies.  It is a mystery to me how often this phenomenon is a result of Korean filmmakers’ failure to ape the Hollywood style successfully or, alternatively, whether they are always interested in resisting conventions. Maybe they are following specifically Korean conventions of storytelling, which are totally alien to me. Whatever the case, the effect is fascinating and one reason I advocate Korean films to an international audience.  These films have an unusual energy and freshness.  And after watching movies like this I find I have a fresh perspective on the Hollywood productions that make up the majority of my movie diet.  If you will permit me the indulgence of a metaphor, Korean movies are like watching a Hollywood movie through all the distorting mirrors of a funhouse.

All that being said, I must admit you don’t have to watch Haeundae to see this ‘House of Mirrors’ at work.  There are other better examples of the effect, which are also quite enjoyable to watch or at least more culturally interesting.  However, as this post is already getting rather lengthy, I would like to postpone talking about any other films in detail until my next entry.  On the other hand I am aware how unreliable I would appear if I introduced a series entitled “Korean Movies You Should Watch…” without any mention of a Korean movie you actually should see.

Therefore, allow me to briefly and humbly recommend Wet Dreams 2 (Mongjunggi 2).  It’s not really related to the things I talk about above, but it is one of the first Korean movies I saw and it seems somehow appropriate that it should be mentioned in my first essay on the subject. The story follows four middle school girls and their experiences with puberty.  The story is pretty dumb, but I think it is a humorous and honest portrayal of that awkward, frustrating time in everyone’s life.  Especially entertaining is the casting choice of Jeon Hye-bin as the middle school protagonist’s rival.  While most of the girls appear about 13 or 14 years old, Jeon is a knock-out who looks to be at least 18 years old.  How is the heroine supposed to compete with that?!

Stay tuned.  To follow up this perhaps unorthodox introduction to my series, I promise a more conventional structure for November’s entry.

Haeundae trailer –

POST SCRIPT:  You will notice that I have not deigned to title the series “Top 10 Korean Movies of All Time”, or anything so presumptuous.  As you may have inferred, the intended purpose of this series is to discuss some Korean films of especial merit and to promote them to a wider viewer-ship. I also hope to explore trends which I find unique or interesting in the nation’s contemporary cinema.

I have a lot of opinions on the topic of Korean film, but no one to share them with these days, and I hope that these essays will encourage (intelligent) dialog on the topic. I would like to direct a few words specifically to any filmmakers working in the Korean industry or Korean film historians: in the unlikely event that any of you read one of these articles please don’t navigate away from the site until you share your opinion!

Cynical, know-it-all ESL teachers, you can share your comments too, but don’t be hatin’.



  1. “Cynical know-it-all ESL teachers”?
    Is that directed at me or is it merely that you can smell your own?

    Thank you for this. I especially liked when you mention the Korean films by referring to their Hollywood counterparts. I’ve seen one of them (The Host), know another (Sex Is Zero) but couldn’t get the third, serial killer one.

    Cheers, Nick. Looking forward to the next one.

  2. I appreciated the added fanfare with which this guest posting was greeted — the accompanying image was classic. And I would like to say Thanks again to David for hosting a sweet blog.

    David: nice job nailing two out of three of the movies alluded to in my discussion of Korean cinema story structure. The third is a movie (SPOILER ALERT!!) called The Chaser from 2008 http://www.koreanmovie.com/The_Chaser_kmintro_592/. It was recommended to me by a few people, it’s about an ex-cop-turned-pimp trying to track down one of his ho’s, but it’s not quite as cool as it sounds — no offense to people who liked it. Serial killer movies just aren’t really my thing.

  3. Damn, I that was a spoiler (but I did ask).
    I thought The Chaser was more police procedural involving two cops but I could be confusing it with Memories Of Murder.

    I’ve wanted to see that for a while.

  4. […] 1 Haeundae […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: