Released in 2010, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry centers around an elderly woman, Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jeong-hee), who has recently taken up a poetry class after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and realizing that her grandson is responsible for the brutal group sexual assault of a female student who subsequently committed suicide. Over the course of the film, Yang is forced to confront her grandson, the victim’s mother, and the parents of the attackers, all while her mental state deteriorates.
This movie, like much of Korean cinema, is not for the faint of heart and explores topics such as violence, corruption, losing faith in one’s family, and losing your grasp on your own mental awareness. Despite all of this, Poetry is a strikingly beautiful piece of cinema and offers audiences peace, love, and tranquility through its numerous poetry scenes and as Yang makes sense of her grandson’s crime and her own fleeting memory.
The Wailing (2016)
Released in 2016, Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing tells the story of a small village that has been taken over by a mysterious epidemic of rage and violence upon the arrival of a suspicious stranger. Over time, the rage and suspicion turns to something more sinister as the villagers begin to brutally murder one another. The Wailing features compelling performances from Kwak Do-won as police detective Jong-goo and Hwang Jung-min as Il-gwang, a shaman who has been hired to protect the village who is called in after Hwang’s daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes infected with the same condition.
What starts out as a simple story of villagers fearing and condemning a stranger new to town quickly turns into a complex narrative revolving around demons, witches, and other spiritual and supernatural entities. This Korean horror movie is a must-watch for anyone who is a fan of the genre.
Released in 2018, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning follows what seems to be a love triangle involving aspiring novelist Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), his childhood friend Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and Ben (portrayed by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), but as the plot unfolds, we realize that this is anything but a simple romantic feature. Before Ham-mi goes off for a trip to Africa, she asks Jong-su to watch her cat, Boil, while she is gone. Upon her return, Hae-mi is joined by the mysterious, and wealthy, Ben. Once Ben reveals to Jong-su what he likes to do in his free time, the tone of the picture changes entirely.
Without giving too much away, the title of the film, Burning, is shown to have more than one meaning, as we find out throughout the course of this highly praised piece of Korean cinema.
Old Boy (2003)
Released in 2003, Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy (not to be confused with 2013 American remake by Spike Lee), is perhaps one of the most gutting movies I have ever seen. This action-packed, traumatic, and at points, disgusting movie, tells the story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Mink-ski), who has been imprisoned for the past 15 years for reasons unknown to him. Over the course of his imprisonment in a hotel room, Oh spends his time training, planning, and contemplating the life decisions that led him there.
Old Boy goes into overdrive once Oh is released from his confinement and attempts to find the person, or persons, responsible for his capture 15 years earlier. This journey takes audiences to places they never thought they could or wanted to go once they get there. Without giving too much away, the twist at the end of this film is one that we’re still talking about 17 years after the film was first released. One thing that is for sure is that Old Boy gives us one of the most gratifying single-take shots in all of cinema in the infamous hallway fight scene.