With our trip to South Korea and Japan quickly approaching (less than a week away now) I’ve been delving into my favourite Korean and Japanese movies to get me in mood for our trip. It’s the small details in the films that have been getting me really excited – the bottles of Cass on the table in a bar scene, the Seoul subway train cars and the familiar expressions in the language.
Admittedly, the list below features a lot more Korean movies than Japanese movies. When I moved to Korea the discovery of their vibrant movie scene was a pleasant surprise. South Korea has a screen quota in place stating domestic films must be shown in their cinemas 73 days a year. This has allowed Korean cinema to flourish and has prevented Hollywood from steamrolling over their film industry like it’s done to pretty much every other country in the world.
Korean cinema is genuinely excellent. Some of the most entertaining, groundbreaking films I’ve ever seen have been Korean. Something I’ve found very surprising about Korean cinema is that it can be extremely shocking – the films I’ve listed below include a storyline involving incest, sexual assault of a disabled person, and a teenage schoolgirl having sex with multiple much older partners – completely at odds with Korea’s very conservative culture. Another thing that surprises me about Korean cinema is how critical is it about Korean society. The films listed below look at corruption in the police force, how people in poverty are treated in Korea, and how easily those in positions of authority can abuse their power. This surprises me because from my experience of living in Korea it did not seem to be a country that responded well to criticisms of its way of life.
Here’s the movies I’ve been watching in preparation for my Korea and Japan Trip.
Mother (마더, Madeo)
Mother is probably in my personal top five favourite movies of all time. It’s one of the shocking ones; without giving anything away, it features some very odd scenes. It also has some brutal violence. It tells the story of an older woman whose disabled son is accused of murder and her quest to prove his innocence. It’s filled with twists and turns and has you on the edge of your seat the entire time. The cinematography is beautiful too, particularly in the opening and closing scenes.
Train To Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng)
Train To Busan is so.much.fun. It’s an old fashioned zombie movie about a man and his daughter who are stuck on the train from Seoul to Busan when a zombie outbreak happens. It’s much cleverer than your average zombie movie though, with super sharp storyling and loads of that biting social commentary I mentioned above. If you want to sit down with a tub of popcorn and be massively entertained for two hours, this is the movie to watch.
Memories Of Murder (살인의 추억, Salinui chueok)
Memories Of Murder is based on a true story about Korea’s first mass murders which strangely enough took place in Hwaseong which is where I lived in Korea (the murders took place in the 80s and 90s). Not only is an intriguing “whodunnit,” it mixes in a lot of humour as well. Memories Of Murder is directed by Bong Joon-ho who also directed Mother, above.
Take Care Of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해, Goyangireul Butakhae)
Take Care Of My Cat is about five friends who’ve just left high school and the problems they face when they go out into the adult world. It’s a coming of age movie about teenage angst, the difficulties of maintaining friendships, and the discrepancies between social class in Korea.
Oasis is a movie about a mentally handicapped man and a physically handicapped woman in a relationship. It definitely features some of the shocking scenes I referenced above and is not always comfortable to watch, or understand, offering no easy interpretation of whether the main character is “good” or “bad.” It really is worth watching though – it’s honest and heartbreaking.
Poetry (시, Si)
Just like the stream in the shot the movie opens and closes with, Poetry is a slow and winding film about an older lady who is diagnosed with alzheimer’s disease who aims to write a poem before the disease consumes her completely. Her task is derailed when her grandson is accused of a terrible crime. This film also includes some pretty controversial scenes. Poetry was directed by Lee Chang-dong who also directed Oasis, above.
Lost In Translation
Okay, Lost in Translation is not a Japanese movie whatsoever, but how could I visit Tokyo without watching this love letter to the city? Shibuya Crossing, arcades and karoake rooms all feature in this movie which shows Japan through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time. The last time we were in Tokyo we didn’t go to the bar in the Park Hyatt Tokyo that Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson spent most of their time in but I’d like to on this trip, if we have time. Bill Murray is just brilliant in this film. The soundtrack is fab too.
I Wish (奇跡 Kiseki)
The two Japanese movies I’ve watched are both directed and written by Hirokazu Koreeda. I Wish is about two brothers who are separated to different parts of Japan by their parent’s divorce. When they hear the news a new bullet train is to open linking the two towns, they began to plan for a miracle. The two brothers in the film are played by real life brothers and their performances are the highlight of this magical film.
Like Father, Like Son (そして父になる Soshite Chichi ni Naru)
Like Father, Like Son is about two families whose sons are switched at birth. Sounds silly, but it’s a very affecting film about fatherhood. Like I Wish, it’s subtle, beautifully shot, and has great performances from the kids.
So those are the Korean and Japanese movies I’ve been watching lately to get me in the mood for my trip. One Korean film I haven’t got round to watching yet but I’ve heard tons of good things about is The Handmaiden. I’d also like to watch the Japanese film After The Storm. Unbelievably, I’ve never seen the most famous Korean movie of all – Oldboy! Are there any other Korean and Japanese films you think I should watch?