There was a time when the term “Korean cinema” was uttered in conspiratorial whispers in (Indian) film festival lines, shady allies, smoky bar sessions and engineering hostel rooms. A thorough knowledge of rare torrent sites, unsung South Korean thrillers and an honour role of New Wave names like Park Chan-wook, Na Hong-jin, Bong Joon-ho, Lee Chang-dong, Hong Sangsoo and Kim Jee-woon became a membership card for those seeking entry into this underground serious-cinephile club. If you could rattle off these names in the middle of the night, an indie filmmaking community adopted you.
Over the years, even as this secret knowledge has become mainstream – thanks in no small measure to “unofficial” Bollywood remakes – the streaming platforms are yet to grace their Indian libraries with an extensive collection of the originals. As of now, only a few handpicked titles are available on Netflix, even as K-dramas and K-pop music have been catching fire in local circles. Cult classics like The Handmaiden, The Chaser, Oldboy, Memories of Murder, Peppermint Candy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, A Girl At My Door, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Housemaid, Right Now Wrong Then and Burning are…unavailable.
But for now, we make do with what we have. Here are the 9 good South Korean films available – legally – on streaming platforms in India:
Train to Busan (Netflix)
It’s never a bad time to comfort-watch a zombie apocalypse thriller set on a moving train, but Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016) – widely considered the best zombie movie ever made – acquires a new dimension of claustrophobia and relatability during this global pandemic. For those who’ve only just woken up to Korean innovations on class warfare and social inequality, Train to Busan might feel like a gory genre cousin to Parasite.
Sang-ho’s second live-action film uses the language of another popular genre – the superhero origin story – as a front to attack Asian capitalism. A security guard acquires telekinetic powers after drinking “meteor water,” and the rest is
history civics. It may not be as celebrated as the zombie movie, but Psychokinesis is hugely entertaining and, at the right times, a mellow meditation on society.
Parasite (Amazon Prime)
Parasite is nowhere close to Bong Joon-ho’s finest (Memories of Murder). But if there were ever a film that transcended borders to frame South Korean cinema as more than just an ‘underground movement,’ it is Parasite: wryly observant, morbidly moving, arriving at the right time and right place. Not to mention the film’s premise – a resourceful low-income family infiltrating a naive rich household – as an eerie reflection of Parasite’s own awards journey in the white white West as a seductive “foreign language film”.
The Host (Netflix)
America unwittingly creates a monster in global darling Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), a “biting” political satire dressed in the costume of a Korean creature movie. The poker-faced film – lauded by North Korea for its depiction of United States’ ignorance – also features Bong’s frequent collaborator and Parasite actor Song Kang-ho, as a lazy father in pursuit of the amphibious monster that has kidnapped his daughter.
Seoul Searching (Netflix)
Benson Lee’s tender but inconsistent 2015 film examines the 80s Korean immigrant experience and the global displacement of adolescence through a crowd-pleasing premise. An oddball group of West-raised Korean teenagers land in Seoul to attend a government-sponsored summer camp to “reconnect” with their roots. The film at once operates as an angsty teen comedy, a coming-of-age ensemble and a cross-generational melodrama – a young narrative with an old soul.
Bong Joon-ho’s first Netflix Original made a big splash at Cannes. But the boos that welcomed the first “streaming” film to compete for the Palme d’Or morphed into applause by the end. The imaginative plot – of a girl raising a genetically modified super pig and going up against an evil corporation to rescue it – doubled up as a PETA crusader’s wet dream as well as a perverse satire on the ruthless processed-meat industry.
Hang-jun Jang shows great finesse and feel for moment-building in this psychological thriller about a boy who pursues the truth behind his abducted brother returning with no memory of his last 19 days. The premise is deceptively simple, but there’s far more to the surprisingly evocative hybrid-suspense thriller. It’s best to go in blind, like I did, and come out amazed by the audacity of a plot to pack in so many twists without blinking an eye.
The President’s Barber (Netflix)
Song Kang-ho has turned the “simpleton” into a cultural symbol of working-class South Korea over his acting career. One of his early turns – as a gullible barber to the hard-nosed General of the country’s 60s military regime – melds fiction with reality to offer a Forrest-Gump-styled look at the nation’s storied political history. The result is a quasi-biopic period-comedy that’s funny enough to hint at the dark ironies of a dictatorship and serious enough to evoke the accidental everyman gliding his way through time.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Netflix)
Quite simply known as the highest-grossing Korean film of all time, it might feel strange to watch this war epic – based on the 16th century Battle of Myeongnyang between the Korean naval forces and Japanese navy – on anything but a big screen. But there’s much to admire, in both scale and storytelling courage, in a movie that dares to feature a stunning 61-minute naval battle sequence. It helps that Oldboy actor Choi Min-sik leads the underdog 12-v/s-330 ship charge.