The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

My first encounter with South Korean cinema

with 27 comments

One of the best things about joining a local film club is that it gives you a little push to expand into new strange cinematic territories. Since you’ve already paid for the membership card, you want to use it as much as possible, so you end up watching a lot of movies normally wouldn’t have been your first choice.

It was solely thanks to my film club that I recently watched what – as far as I can recall – must have been my first movie from South Korea.

Before you say anything, I’m certain that there are those who will grumble at this. South Korean cinema isn’t small and obscure; it’s pretty well established and has a lot of fans all over the world as far as I understand it. But for me it’s new, so bare with me for being a bit clueless. And if you have suggestions about South Korean films that I “must” watch, by all means, go ahead and share them.

My first encounter with this film country turned out to be a fairly new one, The Housemaid, which is a remake of a Korean movie from 1960. Obviously I haven’t watched the original, so I’m afraid that I can’t make any comparison of how well this holds up against it.

The film takes place in the house of a wealthy family. In the centre of it is a young housemaid who gets into a sexual relationship with the father/husband in the house, resulting in the housemaid getting pregnant. This doesn’t go unnoticed, obviously, and other inhabitants of the house see their positions threatened and start plotting against the housemaid. It turns into a thriller with class, sex and power games as the major ingredients.

While beautifully shot and technically impeccable, I must admit that I found this film a little bit shallow and too much of a soap opera for my liking. Towards the end the melodrama takes over completely and one of the last scenes is so over-the-top that it left me scratching my head. “Where did that come from? Really? Are you kidding me?”

On the other hand it gave me a change of environment and the opportunity to see a bit of life in South Korea (although limited to the life of the upper class) and this element of exoticism was enough to keep me interested.

The Housemaid gave me my first glimpse of South Korean cinema and while I wasn’t overwhelmed by it, I wasn’t completely put off either. I’m ready for more.

The Housemaid (Hanyo, Sang-Soo Im, KR, 2010) My rating: 3,5/5

Written by Jessica

February 23, 2012 at 1:00 am

27 Responses

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  1. Haha…I recently saw Hanyo as well and I remember my reaction to that ending very well. It comes completely out of the blue but I liked it.

    I have hardly seen 5 Korean movies but from what I have seen of Korean Cinema, I am yet to see a movie which does not a little over the top. But in most cases, I didn’t mind it. I saw I saw the devil and The Host in the same week as this, They are both violent and strikingly blunt in the way they depict that violence. But nothing is more striking than Oldboy. But mind you it is disturbing and by disturbing I mean Incendies disturbing or there is an English remake coming up, you can wait for that. No Really don’t.

    After all this blood and gore, I would really love to see a lovey-dovey korean movie(In an attempt I saw My Girl and I but it turned out to be a heart wrenching tragic movie. Phew.)


    February 23, 2012 at 1:58 am

    • No remakes for me, please! I think I Saw the Devil will come up on Swedish cinemas later this year and if it does, I might watch it, even though I maybe shouldn’t. I’m pretty sensitive about violence, but trying to work on it. I did manage to get through Drive without covering my face with more than a few fingers.


      February 23, 2012 at 8:03 am

  2. Nice to hear you finally started watching Korean movies, there are so many amazing one you should watch. If I can suggest a couple of movies:
    – Oldboy (revenge movie (quite violent and shocking)
    – The Good, the Bad, the Weird (western with some very cool action scenes)
    – Mother (psychological movie about a movie trying to get her son out of jail)
    – The Man From Nowhere (action movie)
    – The Chaser (violent thriller)
    – Memories of Murder (police investigation story)
    – The Host (monster movie)
    – My Sassy Girl (very funny comedy)
    – The Yellow Sea (action thriller)
    – Welcome to Dongmakgol (comedy/war movie)
    – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (beautiful spiritual film)
    – A Bittersweet Life (gangster movie)
    – Joint Security Area (about the border between North and South Korea)

    Most of these movies I have reviewed, so do a search for them if you want to know more. Hope you will be able to check some of them out!


    February 23, 2012 at 9:30 am

    • A lot of good suggestions there, thank you! I have a lot of movies on my to-watch-list, but I’ll try to squeeze in a Korean one every once in a while.


      February 23, 2012 at 9:41 am

  3. Nice! You need to watch Sunny, I really think you will like it. If you want any more suggestions about Korean (os Asian in general) cinema we have tons of review over at YAM!


    February 23, 2012 at 11:15 am

    • I remember you gushed over that movie when we met. I’ll make a mental note about it now that I’ve started my exploration.


      February 23, 2012 at 11:19 am

  4. People have already left a lot oof recommendations for South Korean films, so some of these will be repeats, but whatever. The Host is probably my favorite, as it blends action, drama, comedy and more, all in the context of a monster movie. Highly enjoyable film, that one. Then you have the thematic Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), which are all good but somewhat violent and gruesome. Mother is a great little mystery drama that I think you would probably enjoy. And if you want to try out horror, there’s A Tale of Two Sisters, which is very psychological and chilling, even if the plot gets a bit confusing at times.


    February 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    • The more, the merrier. Thank you for your suggestions!


      February 23, 2012 at 1:18 pm

  5. I’ve heard good things about this one but haven’t seen it. I really need to find a way to expand my horizons more with some of these foreign films. I do like that you’re part of film club too. Seems like it would be a good way to find out about new movies and different genres.


    February 23, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    • Yeah, a film club is really a good way to get that push. Also: my film club sometimes offers movie going experiences that otehrwise are hard to get, such as silent film in a theatre with live music. That’s pretty awesome!


      February 23, 2012 at 1:36 pm

  6. I think you can stream (for free) the 1960s version of Housemaid on MUBI. South Korean films tend to get a little overdramatic at times, but I think it comes with the culture, and it’s something you get into after you get to know it better.

    If you check YAM Magazine, you can get a couple more reviews on what to watch from Korean films – just search for the term “korea”.


    February 24, 2012 at 4:35 am

    • I have no idea what MUBI is tbh. Right now I don’t think it’s my highest priority to watch the 1960 version. But I’d be happy to check up more Korean movies. I’ve had some suggestions here and if I need more I know where to go!


      February 24, 2012 at 8:02 am

      • MUBI is a film streaming site / online film community. You usually have to pay for streams, but some of their films become available for free for a period of time. You can also pay a monthly subscription and watch any number of films.

        They usually carry a good amount of foreign films too 🙂

        There’s also going to be a Korean Cinema Blogathon on from March 5 to March 11, just so you know 😉


        February 24, 2012 at 9:09 am

  7. Can’t comment on this one as I have yet to see it, but one recent film that I enjoyed that nobody has mentioned yet is Poetry by Lee Chang-dong. A great story about an elderly woman facing the onset of Alzheimer’s.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    February 24, 2012 at 8:54 am

    • I’ve heard a lot of good about that one; unfortunately I missed it when it went here. But I think I’ve seen it on DVD. I think it’s the kind of movie that my library would go for, so I’ll search for it there.


      February 24, 2012 at 9:02 am

  8. A lot of people have already named Chan-wook Parks well known trilogy (which is very good, Lady Vengeance is a visual symphony if you ask me) but I would like to strike a blow for Joint Security Area. I think you might appreciate its political and philosophic message. I can also add that I found The Host quite weird and a lot of people with more experience with the country as a movie producer have vouched for the fact that South Korean films often mix a very crude form of humor into a wide variety of other genres. Not for every palate, if I may say so.


    February 24, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    • Another conneasseur of Korean movies! Thanks for more great ideas. I actually stumbled upon Lady Vengence in my library the other day, but realizing it wasn’t the first one in the trilogy I didn’t borrow it. Not sure if it was the right decision.


      February 24, 2012 at 11:23 pm

      • I wouldn’t definitely not say connaisseur, the only one I’ve encountered are the ones mentioned above 🙂 I don’t think I saw the trilogy and that was no problem. However, it might be a good idea to see them in order of quality so as to not to get the expectations up. For me that would be: Mr V, Lady V and lastly Oldboy.


        February 26, 2012 at 10:23 am

  9. I’m relatively new to Korean cinema, too, but so far, I think I’ve liked or loved every single one so far – I’m sure there must be bad Korean movies out there somewhere, but I haven’t seen any yet. I enjoyed The Housemaid as well, and yeah, I totally know what you mean about the ending. But that crazy tone-switching is something that a LOT of Korean films do. You just kind of have to learn to live with it. Frankly, I like the way they do it – it’s unpredictable, and yet somehow tends to work.

    Nostra took most of the ones I would’ve recommended to you. 🙂 And Emil took the other one, A Tale of Two Sisters. That movie scared the crap out of me, but it was so worth it. Same director as the not-at-all-scary but really fun The Good The Bad The Weird that Nostra mentioned. And I’d throw an extra rec behind Memories of Murder, too. That film is amazing – actually, I’ve loved everything I’ve seen from Bong Joon-ho.

    Did anyone mention Thirst? That’s Park Chan-wook, the same director as Oldboy, but I like it better than any of his Vengeance trilogy. A really unusual take on the vampire story. And last, I’d recommend films from Hong Sang-soo, but they’re difficult to find in the US at least – not sure about Sweden. He’s much less genre-y than most of these other filmmakers, focusing on intimate, conversation-driven dramas. If you see his stuff playing at a fest near you, I’d definitely check it out.


    March 5, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    • Thirst is on my to-watch list, I should bump it up a few places. The South-Koreans are really good at making excellent horror movies, they genuinely scare me without being bloodfests.


      March 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm

      • Oh, Thirst definitely has some bloody moments, so be forewarned if that bothers you. But it’s very thoughtful and evocative as well.


        March 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm

        • I don’t mind the blood, I’m not explaining myself very well.

          The movies that I’ve seen tend to be more intelligent than the average Hollywood movie. It’s more than having one killer who kills one victim after another until you know who did it. That can be fun like in the Final Destination movies but a movie needs a bit more to be great.


          March 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      • I just borrowed it at my library. We’ll see if I’ll find time to see it before I need to return it


        March 14, 2012 at 7:35 am

  10. Thank you for the suggestions! Not many film fests near where I live, but I can always hope for the film club to run a South Korean theme.

    It was also interesting to hear that there’s a crazy tone-switching in many Korean movies. I consider myself warned!


    March 5, 2012 at 11:31 pm

  11. I wrote a whole post a few weeks ago but my work-firewall has disabled posting to blogs. Anyway, here goes…

    It’s a nice list of which I’ve seen about half. I should probably watch a few more 🙂

    I concur with Oldboy, The Chaser, JSA and Spring, Summer, Fall… they’re brilliant movies, well worth watching. I’ll just add “The isle” and “I saw the devil”.

    There’s something about these east-Asian movies which sets them apart from our movies and that’s quite refreshing.


    March 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    • Shame on your employer! Your presence has been missed! Great to see you around again!


      March 14, 2012 at 7:36 am

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