5 cult korean horror movies to watch now
Korea has produced some of the most incredible horror films of all time.
Here’s a Korean urban legend that will strike terror into your soul. There once was a girl who was consumed by vanity and was eager to try any beauty treatment that could enhance her looks. Having heard from someone that sitting in a bathtub full of water and sesame seeds would improve the quality of her skin, she decided to try it out. After several hours, she hadn’t emerged from the bathroom, and her mother began to worry about her. When her mother finally forced her way in, she was dumbstruck with horror. The sesame seeds had grown roots and latched themselves onto every pore of the girl’s skin, and she was frantically trying to remove them with a toothpick.
The tale is lingeringly sinister, and lends itself well to modern myth-making. It was adapted for one of the episodes of the Korean horror TV series Hometown Legends in 2008, and is representative of the deep-seated anxieties that plague a society obsessed with image and physical appearance. In a similar vein, the main characters in the movies Cinderella (2006) and Wig (2005) are punished for pursuing a monolithic idea of beauty. The greater their vanity, the fouler the extent of their moral decrepitude. No other variant of the horror genre is quite like Korean horror cinema in its violence, and the way it draws from centuries of folklore to subvert modern social values in a parable-like fashion.
This allegorical quality underpinning Korean horror cinema can be traced back to gwonseonjingak, a Korean idiomatic expression that is inspired by Confucian notions of poetic justice. Gwonseonjingak has found its way into several Korean fables: do good and you will be rewarded, commit an evil deed and not only you but your family too will be made to suffer. This concept of retribution pervades two recurring motifs in Korean horror cinema: vengeance and the redress of grievances. Human foibles such as lust and envy may be condemned in early Korean horror classics such as The Housemaid (1960), but the moral reasoning behind gwonseonjingak has been harshly interrogated in more recent examples of the genre.
Films by Park Chan Wook and Kim Ki-duk make it clear that not all wrongdoers are equal, and some have been coerced to do wrong by their circumstances, typically caused by the intense pressures of conforming to a social order that demands uncompromising respect for authority. This tension between repression and rebellion is also made vividly visible through the grit and grime of Seoul, used prevalently as a backdrop for most Korean horror films. Destroyed almost completely during the war in the 1950s, Seoul exists in the universe of Korean horror as a spiritual netherworld where bloodbaths are commonplace, striking for its garish bursts of neon amidst an otherwise noir-ish blanket of grey. Killer schoolgirls, knife-wielding policemen and dysfunctional families helmed by malevolent fathers are tropes that are familiar to fans of horror, but Korean directors in particular transform these clichés through a culturally specific blend of melodrama and tragedy.
From slasher flicks to supernatural melodramas to zombie thrillers, these five Korean horror films are certain to leave you sleepless at night.
1. The Wailing (2016)
An atmospheric, visually lush study on how evil takes shape within a community, transforming it into a quagmire of paranoia and violence. What’s striking about The Wailing isn’t just the way director Na Hong-jin (known also for his critically acclaimed debut The Chaser) deftly reproduces a slow-brewing dread that will cling to you long after the closing scene of the film. It’s also a medley of other elements: the confusion, anger and exhaustion of the lead character, police sergeant Jong-Goo, as he attempts to unravel the mystery of serial killings in his village committed by those who suddenly display zombie-like symptoms; frenzied sequences portraying traditional Korean shamanic rituals; the darkly comedic interactions between him and his colleague.
The stakes climb when Jong-Goo’s young daughter becomes afflicted by this curse herself. The first hour starts slow, but persist and you will be rewarded. The Wailing has echoes of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in its biblical depiction of moral panic and how it challenges the steadfastness of one’s character -- but perhaps it is more terrifying because the film ultimately suggests there is no redemption even for those who resist the devil until the bitter end.
2. Phone (2002)
Ahn Byeong-ki is often hailed as one of the biggest contributors to the Korean horror canon, and was once quoted as saying that “the universal language of fear has the greatest potential to cross national borders”. His film Phone (2002) was made in the golden decade for Korean horror. The films offers an Oedipal twist on the the figure of the wonhon (vengeful spirit) which has defined the genre since its inception.
The plot revolves around Ji-won, a journalist who has been receiving threatening calls since writing an exposé on a paedophile. Moving into a home owned by her friend Ho-jung, she becomes embroiled in an increasingly disquieting family drama: after Ho-jung’s young daughter picks up a call meant for Ji-won she suddenly begins to display sexual attraction towards her father and loathing of her mother. One thing is for sure: the use of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in this film will ruin that song for you forever.
3. The Vengeance Trilogy (2002 – 2005)
Can you compile a list of the best Korean horror films without including Park Chan Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy? In particular, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has achieved iconic status for questioning the patriarchal norms that continue to define Korean society. The actress Lee Young-ae, who plays the eponymous Lady Vengeance, had established a reputation for the wholesome feminine roles that she took on prior to the film. It is for this reason that her turn as a maligned mother bent on revenge astounded many and shook her image to its core.
Oldboy, which tracks the tale of the woeful Oh Dae-su, confined in a hotel-like room for over a decade without any knowledge why, or the identity of his captor, remains transgressive no matter how many times you’ve seen the film (avoid the decidedly appalling Hollywood remake). Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) is frequently overlooked even though it probably best conveys Park’s message about the ugliness of vengeance itself: as characters are corrupted by wrath and lash out, the ensuing murderous onslaught leaves a stain that not only cannot be washed away, but is passed on from one person to another.
4. Hide and Seek (2013)
Hide and Seek opens with a tense cinematic preamble where a young woman returns home to a dilapidated apartment block, furtively glancing around her to check that her creepy neighbour (who always wears a motorcycle helmet that obscures his face) isn’t following her. Needless to say, she comes to a grisly end, and the story then shifts to that of Sung-soo, an affluent café owner in Seoul who, to the outside world, seems to have the ideal life: a loving wife, a swanky apartment and two adoring children. When he discovers that his estranged brother has gone missing, he goes looking for him -- only to realise that his last address was the aforementioned apartment block, occupied primarily by those of a social class far beneath Sung-soo’s own.
The film employs horror to create an awareness of the jarring inequality that cuts into the heart of Korean society. It makes a mockery of how wealth is frittered away on building gilded cages, which the rich gaze out of onto those whose labour they profit from. For all its jump scares and high-octane chase sequences, the film’s most memorable moment is one where the demonisation of the poor is made painfully clear. When Sung-soo and his family are invited into a woman’s home for tea, his daughter refuses to let the woman’s daughter touch a toy she has brought with her. “She’s dirty,” she shrieks, and the hurt expression on the woman’s face is enough to make you wince.
5. Train to Busan (2016)
Possibly the best zombie film of the last few years, Train to Busan is set on the high-speed train from Seoul to Busan and features a colourful cast of characters: there is a distracted businessman taking his daughter to visit his wife from whom he is separated, a snobbish older woman, a cheerleader and her jock boyfriend, a gruff builder and his pregnant wife, a cowardly senior executive. As an unknown virus spreads through the towns that the train hurtles past, it becomes obvious that it is not simply the swarms of milky-eyed, drooling, bloodthirsty zombies that the characters are up against -- they also have to defend themselves against one another.
Train to Busan takes several bleak jibes at the hollowness of the national fixation with stereotypical markers of success. One of these is a scene where a homeless man stumbles around, yelling frantically that “everyone’s dead”. The businessman’s daughter is told in a completely deadpan fashion: “If you don’t study hard, you’ll end up like him.” But it isn’t all blood and gore, and the film also takes pains to emphasise the random acts of selfless kindness that ultimately underscores the logic of any good survival flick -- that we are better together than apart.