12 nifty 90s films from South Korea

Phobia, compulsion and the baggage of our pasts that creates these monsters are superbly unpacked in Park Chul-soo's most accomplished outing in a highly active directing career. Using the claustrophobia of the apartment setting and its narrow peephole-sized view of the outside world, Park takes Freudian themes and combines them with neurotic manias to great effect. 

 

Two obsessive-compulsives, brash home cook Song-hee (Bang Eun-jin) and shy anorexic writer Yoon-hee (Hwang Shin-hye) see their words collide and even bond over their dark pasts. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

We return to the reoccurring theme of Korea’s disenfranchised youth in Attack the Gas Station, with two hours of fights, feuds and doltish encounters from a single gas station location. ​Released around the time of the IMF crisis, when Korea found itself in severe economic turmoil, such frustrations are vented through four aggressive hooligans and their slapdash plan to occupy a gas station. 

 

After taking over the station, No Mark (Lee Sung-jae), Bulldozer (Yu Oh-seong), Rockstar (Kang Sung-jin) and Paint (Yoo Ji-tae) find new ways to amuse themselves with antics such as fist-fights and kidnapping customers. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

While blending a premature death with a romantic liaison may seem a melodramatic stable, Christmas in August manages to steer into far more interesting waters in a subtle and lyrical manner. It instead touches on that fury we can feel at facing an early death, something shown here in the more restrained outbursts of photo shop owner Jung-won (Han Suk-kyu). 

 

Jung-won meets young parking attendant Da-rim (Shim Eun-ha) and the pair click, but he learns he has a terminal disease and this flourishing relationship might be doomed before it has even started. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

The 1990s launched the careers of several new wave giant of the Korean director’s chair, including this somber but impressive debut outing from Hong Sang-soo. For many directors, the early work can be rough round the edges and technically frayed, but this first offering might be Hong’s most formalistic. We also get a first look at a young actor by the name of Song Kang-ho. 

 

This cluster of stories includes a novelist having an affair with two women, a married businessman straying from the wife he can’t satisfy, and another married woman trying to get satisfaction from a frustrating affair.​ READ OUR FULL REVIEW

Legendary director Im Kwon-taek serves up the first in a trilogy of these gang crime dramas, laying the foundations of what Korean action films will become in the following years. It achieves this with a series of rapid action fights that Korean cinema will become increasingly famous for from the later 90s onwards. You never have to wait long for the next fist-fight in General's Son

 

Despite his slight stature, Kim Du-han (Park Sang-min) is a natural born bruiser and attracts the attention of Shin Ma-jeok, the head of a student gang. Problems emerge when the Yakuza look to expand their power. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

When Whispering Corridors was released in 1998, it signalled the start of the modern K-Horror film, providing a creepy and supernatural take on Korea’s demanding education system. ​While horror sequels offer focus on the concept of more – more deaths, more blood, more gore – Memento Mori instead offers a more polished incarnation of its source material. 

 

High school students Shi-eun and Hyo-shin find that their taboo relationship pushes them to the fringes of school life when fellow student Soh Min-ah then becomes invested in the fortunes of this contentious coupling. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

Lee Myung-se set-out to make a Hong Kong-inspired action film on home soil with Nowhere to Hide, a feat he largely achieves in this over-stylised but never dull police procedure feature. ​The film plays out as a reference guide to every form of stylised action such as jump cuts, colour morphs and super slow-mo fighting. It opens on a disorientating monochrome fight scene, then moves into full palette colour.  

 

Hot-headed, violent and obsessive Detective Woo (Park Joong-hoon) is hunting a killer who murdered a man on the 40–step stairway, a historic stairway in the Jung District of Busan. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

What pushes a person to the tragic conclusion of suicide is an epicentre of angst for those left behind. This emotionally-charged forensic investigation seeks to understand the forks in the road, or the final defining straw, which drove that person to the abyss. It does all this in the context of the defining events of South Korea as we look through the decades. 

 

Peppermint Candy opens with the suicide of Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) and from there we jump backwards, trying to understand what or who, drove someone to this tragic final act. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

In 1998, you could not quite have anticipated what those involved in The Quiet Family would go on to achieve. It stars Choi Min-sik five years before Oldboy, Song Kang-ho also fives years before Memories of Murder, and was the debut feature for Director Kim Jee-woon before he went on to make A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), A Bittersweet Life (2005) and I Saw The Devil (2010). 

 

This heady cocktail of rising talent manages to mix to such great effect, producing something genuinely funny and darkly bizarre as a family decides to buy a lodge but circumstance and bad luck causes a series of deaths.  READ OUR FULL REVIEW

Seopyeonje is a film of profound cultural importance, demonstrating the significance of traditional musical storytelling Pansori and reactions to growing Japanese and Western musical influences. The film does a superb job of demonstrating the power of Pansori, as the depth of the characters' sadness is realised when we hear and see their emotional performances.  

A family’s father, Yu-bong (Kim Myung-gon), is determined to pass down his Pansori skills to his adoptive children Song-hwa (Oh Jung-hae) and Dong-ho (Kim Kyu-chul), but his draconian teaching starts to tear the family apart. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

As Korea awoke from a period of more modest economic prosperity, the film industry in the late 90s finally had the budgets to produce the expensive action films previously the domain of the US. The first such realisation of this aim was Shiri – which cost around an eye-watering US$8.5m to make – a film heavily inspired not just by Hollywood, but also the action films of Hong Kong.  

Set in 1992, a group of super soldiers in North Korea led by their commander, Park Mu-young (Choi Min-sik), are undergoing a brutal training regime ahead of being sent to the South as sleeper agents. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

Jeon Tae-il holds an important place in the history of the workers’ right movement in Korea and Park Kwang-su’s film finds a tactful and respectful way to show his life and its tragic end in 1970. Director Park was partly enabled to achieve this with one of the screenwriters being Lee Chang-dong (Burning, Secret Sunshine, Poetry) before he had started his directing career.

 

A split story feature, part set further in the past as we follow the events before Tae-il’s (Hong Kyung-in) death and the other half as we follow his biographer Kim Yeong-soo (Moon Sung-geun) five years later. READ OUR FULL REVIEW

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