While South Korea’s popular shows continue to dominate our screens and our hearts, it’s also home to indie and arthouse films that deserve the same love and respect.
With the success of Academy Award-winning Parasite, South Korea has established itself as an international cinema powerhouse. But while the country continues to dominate the global box-office statistics and stack major award show accolades with its mainstream offerings, it’s also home to equally talented storytellers whose works thrive in the independent and arthouse scene. Here are some of the underrated indie gems that deserve to be watched and celebrated.
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Before his popular Netflix shows like the crime action series Taxi Driver and the moving drama Move to Heaven, South Korean star Lee Je-hoon first flexed his acting chops in the independent coming-of-age film Bleak Night. He plays Ki-tae, a high school student who (trigger warning) takes his own life after his friendship with his best friends, Dong-yoon (Seo Jun-Young) and Hee Joon (Park Jung-Min) gets beset with distrust, doubt, and violence.
Ki-tae’s father, who’s mostly absent throughout his life, seeks for answers about his son’s tragic death through conversations with his friends that will inevitably re-open past wounds. An outstanding debut from director Yoon Sung-hyun (who will collab with Je-hoon and Jung-Min ten years later in Time To Hunt), Bleak Night tells a heart-wrenching story that will leave you broken for days.
If you’re looking for something thrilling then look no further because Lee Chang-dong’s Burning packs a mysterious and gripping story that will put you on the edge of your seat. Loosely based on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, the critically acclaimed film follows the life of an aspiring novelist and deliveryman Jongsu (Yoo Ah In) as his life gets complicatedly intertwined with his childhood friend Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and the enigmatic young man Ben (Steven Yeun).
What starts out as a bubbling romance, the story takes a dark turn when Ben reveals his curious hobby and Hae-mi suddenly disappears. Tackling themes like isolation, class and gender inequity, and the meaning of life, Burning is not your ordinary love-triangle movie; one that will captivate you with its enigma so much you’ll give it a second watch.
Another Lee Chang-dong’s masterpiece that is devastatingly good, Secret Sunshine is about a young widow named Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) who moves to the countryside with her son to start anew. But her plans for a hopeful fresh start gets tormented by yet another tragedy: her son has gone missing. Featuring an award-winning performance from Jeon Do-yeon (she won the Best Actress award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival), Secret Sunshine is a poignant contemplation about suffering, salvation, and spirituality. I recommend that you watch this with the right state of mind because it will surely tear you apart.
Before the Oscar-winning and Letterboxd’s highest rated film to date, Parasite, Bong Joon-ho made a dark yet absorbing tale of motherly love through Mother. It follows an unnamed widow (Kim Hye-ja) with her intellectually challenged son Do-joon (Won Bin) as their quiet lives get disturbed by a murder of a girl in their town. When circumstantial evidence apparently points to Do-joon as the perpetrator, his mother will stop at nothing to prove his innocence. A mix of director Bong’s signature narrative elements of class struggles and dark crime genre motifs, Mother is a cinematic experience at once satisfying and disturbing.
RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN
Hong Sang-soo, whose filmmaking career spans 25 years and 28 feature-length films and shows no signs of stopping, is probably the most prolific South Korean filmmaker alive right now. To put it in context, the 61-year-old auteur has produced two cinematic pieces this year, The Novelist’s Film and Walk Up, which have both premiered in prestigious film festivals and received critical acclaim; a telling sign that you should put the great Hong Sang-soo on your film radar right now. His films, which are more appreciated in the arthouse circuit, are known for their meditative qualities, low-cost production, and quiet introspection.
His 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then embodies all of these qualities to a mesmerizing degree. The Golden Leopard-winning film is a two-part story which tells the romantic encounter of a film director Ham Chun-su (Jung Jae-yung) with a young artist Yoon Hee-jeong (played by Sang-soo’s muse Kim Min-hee). Part one sees the two spending the time together, drinking soju, and meeting friends, which is marked with awkwardness as Chun-su’s secret gets revealed. Part two finds them together again, in almost the same instances, but with a more positive outcome. Both parts leave you with this surprising nostalgia for memories you’ve never had and a deep connection to people you’ve never met. That’s the magic of Hong Sang-soo’s movies that you need to experience.
ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE
Oftentimes, you’ll find striking similarities among Hong Sang-soo’s films. As with Right Now, Wrong Then, themes of complicated love and soulful contemplation are on sublime display once again in On The Beach At Night Alone. Kim Min-hee masterfully plays the celebrated actress Younghee who is painfully ruminating on her affair with a married director, thinking if her former paramour misses her the way she does.
Set between the city of Hamburg and the coastal town of Gangneung, On The Beach will carry you away through Younghee’s melancholic wanderings, café conversations, and occasional emotional outburst. What makes this film even more interesting is it’s based on director Hong’s relationship with Min-hee (who are still together in real life). Be it searching for the meaning of true love or just wanting to have a slow and soul-filling experience, this film is made for you.
A DISTANT PLACE
The year 2020 is a turbulent period, which has undeniably overshadowed a lot of promising independent films. One of them is Park Kun-young’s second feature film A Distant Place. The film is a mix of romance and family drama which centers on the life of a sheep farmer Jin-woo (Kang Gil-wo) and his niece Seol whom he considers his own daughter.
But conflicts arise once Jin-woo’s longtime lover Hyeon-min (Hong Kyung) and twin sister Eun-yong (Lee Sanghee), who is Seol’s biological mother, arrive at the tranquil farm. With an overwhelming pathos that will remind you of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and compelling chemistry between Gil-wo and Kyung, A Distant Place is a quietly romantic and pleasant respite that will hit you right in the feels.
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