In 2017, Boon Joon-ho hired the likes of Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllennhaal to star in Okja, a South Korean-US co-production for Netflix in which a young girl befriends a genetically modified “super pig”. That’s how, three years before he took an Academy Award for his masterpiece Parasite, Joon-hoo was introduced to American audiences. Okja, which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, was the first Korean movie to resonate with audiences in a long time and inaugurated a new golden era for Korean filmmaking.
As a result, American audiences, who are usually quite conservative when it comes to choosing what to watch, have started to actively look for Korean films to watch on their favourite streaming platforms. One of the reasons for this is that great films such as Okja and Parasite have made people curious about Korean culture in general and the Korean language in particular.
You should be aware, however, that not all movies from Korea are as great as Boon Joon-ho’s best work, the same way that Adam Sandler comedies are not as good as The Godfather. For that reason, we’ve decided to step in and help you find the best Korean drama to watch this weekend.
House of Hummingbird (2020) – A touching coming-of-age drama
Directed by Kim Bora from a script inspired by her own childhood, House of Hummingbird is one of the most internationally successful Korean dramas in recent years. The film has received innumerable accolades including the Grand Prix Award at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival and has made Bora a name to be reckoned with.
Set in 1994 in Seoul, this is the story of a quiet, introverted eighth-grader named Eun-Hee. An unexceptional student, Eun-Hee has a hard time coping with her aggressive parents who are constantly yelling at each other. To escape from all that toxicity, she meanders around the city and tries to find meaning and comfort in her friends, in music stores, and in karaoke pubs. However, it’s in a new school teacher named Yong-Ji that Eun-Hee finds the answers that she’s been looking for, as the two form an unlikely but endearing friendship.
The Handmaiden (2016) – A riveting psychological thriller
A work of exquisite delicacy, Agassi is an erotic Korean drama loosely based on the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters, with the setting changed from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Among other accolades, the film won a British Academy Film Award in the category of Best Foreign Film.
The Handmaiden tells the story of Sooke, a new girl who is brought to serve as a handmaiden for Hideko, a reclusive heiress who lives in a mansion with her sinister uncle. Soon we find out that Sooke has been recruited by this tyrant to rob her of her fortune through an elaborate plan. However, things take an unexpected turn when Sooke and Hideko discover that they have romantic feelings for each other.
Mother (2009) – A gripping murder mystery
Parasite was not Bong Joon-ho’s first masterpiece. In 2009, he wowed Korean audiences with a film that critics praised as a masterful combination of “family drama, horror, comedy, and a deft grasp of tone and plenty of eerie visuals.”
A devoted, working-class mother lives a quiet life with her intellectually disabled son, Do-joon, selling curative herbs and acupuncture around the neighbourhood. One day, a young woman is brutally murdered, and Do-joon is accused of the killing. From them on, this groundbreaking Korean drama follows the journey of a desperate woman trying to prove that her son is innocent, even if that means having to find the real killer herself.
Right Now, Wrong Them (2015) – A pensive romantic drama
Quite by chance, a filmmaker arrives in town for a lecture a day early. With plenty of time to kill, he decides to visit a restored, old palace and meets a mysterious artist. Though she finds his name vaguely familiar, she’s never seen any of his movies, which he finds attractive. After a long conversation, they stop by her workshop to take a look at her paintings and have a few drinks. Then, they join a party organised by one of the girl’s friends where they share all kinds of secrets and realise that they are falling for each other. But then, all of a sudden, we go back to the beginning of the story, only now things seem to be somewhat different.
From then on, this unique Korean drama follows two alternative stories which follow the romantic fate between the two characters to their own distinct but equally satisfying endings.
Though very different in tone and style, these four Korean films have one thing in common: the search for artistic truth and the ambition to tell important stories in new ways. For language lovers, the fact that all these wonderful movies are accessible on streaming platforms or on demand means that you can listen to hours of Korean while you do something rewarding.
Which of these Korean dramas will you start with?
If after watching these titles you feel ready to go beyond listening and you want to start speaking Korean, let us know on our website. As soon as we receive your message, we’ll pair you up with a fully-qualified Korean teacher that will be delighted to teach you everything there is to know about their language and culture.