What To Watch After 'Parasite': A Primer For The Incredible World Of South Korean Cinema

Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite destroyed the awards circuit this season, and for good reason. The dark comedy and thriller about a family of con artists strategically inserting themselves into a rich family's lives is a masterwork of filmmaking. The less you know about Parasite before viewing, the better, so stop reading now and go watch it.So...have you watched it? Would you like to know where to find other South Korean cinema to scratch a newfound itch for unusual and compelling human dramas? Great news – here's a handy, quick guide to other South Korean films that you might enjoy.

The Host (2006) – Bong Joon-Ho

If you enjoyed Parasite, you would also probably enjoy the rest of director Bong Joon-Ho's filmography. While his films Snowpiercer, Okja, Mother, Memories of Murder, and Barking Dogs Never Bite are all fantastic, his most accessible film is 2006's The Host. The Host is a genre-busting monster movie. It's funny, scary, and full of action, but what centers The Host is its human protagonists. Like other South Korean films, the relatable human drama at the center of absurd situations drives the story.

As we saw with Parasite, Bong is a master at telling stories about damaged families. The family at the center of The Host is no exception, though they must face an actual tentacle monster in addition to their poverty. Bong's greatest strength as a storyteller is his use of humor to inspire empathy. While The Host is a horror film, it is also wonderfully funny. Overall, The Host uses its genre trappings to great effect, hiding a drama about class relations and the importance of family beneath its' flashy, monster-filled exterior. 

Train to Busan (2016) – Yeon Sang-ho

Much like The Host, Train to Busan is hiding a relatable human drama within extraordinary circumstances. Halfway through a high-speed train ride to Busan, the apocalypse happens. Everyone is forced to deal with this knowledge and one another as zombies invade the speeding train. Family problems, class struggles, and more are brought to an excruciating head as even the most benign concerns become life or death. Train to Busan forces the audience to confront how they might behave in an emergency. In addition to basic zombie scares, Train to Busan is full of existential dread. It's a look at how humans can be just as monstrous as the undead. Like Parasite, Train to Busan also features a fantastic ensemble cast bringing their A-game performances.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) – Kim Jee-woon

One of the most unique things about South Korean cinema is its unique aesthetic. Many South Korean films, including Parasite, have a dreamy atmosphere that makes everything seem slightly more fantastic. This surreal quality is best illustrated in A Tale of Two Sisters, an unusual ghost story from writer/director Kim Jee-woon. A Tale of Two Sisters is a gothic fairy tale with detached, spotless style. Even the ugliest of things are visually beautiful, something rarely seen in Western cinema.

Like many of the other films on this list, A Tale of Two Sisters is full of surprises and twists that change the entire meaning of the film. South Korean cinema keeps viewers on their toes, because what's being shown onscreen isn't always what's really happening. While western viewers are used to unreliable narrators, its often the omniscient third-person viewpoint that's unreliable in South Korean cinema, which can be both unsettling and refreshing. A Tale of Two Sisters illustrates this beautifully, on top of being a truly spooky ghost movie. 

The Handmaiden (2016) – Park Chan-wook

Writer/director Park Chan-wook is the master of playing with audience expectations and unreliable narration. His breakout hit, Oldboy, is one of the most internationally acclaimed South Korean films of all time. However, fans of Parasite might find more to like in his 2016 romantic thriller, The Handmaiden.

The Handmaiden is told by two separate narrators – Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and con artist and maid Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri). Each has a completely different version of what they've experienced, and only when their stories are brought together can we see the truth. The Handmaiden is its own kind of fairy tale, with two flawed and fascinating heroines at its center. Set in 1930s Korea during Japanese occupation, The Handmaiden is a steamy historical romance between two women traumatized by surviving in a man's world. It's aesthetically gorgeous, extremely sexy, and occasionally quite funny. The Handmaiden is some of what's best about both Park's filmography and South Korean cinema, wrapped up in a pretty silk bow. 

Burning (2018) – Lee Chang-dong

Lee Chang-dong's Burning may not have elaborate costumes, jaw-dropping sets, or supernatural elements, but it's a prime stripped-down example of the unique tone and themes of South Korean cinema. Burning follows Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a lost young man who runs into his old crush from high school and falls in love with her all over again. It's a drama about expectations, class division, misogyny, and the lies we tell about ourselves. Jong-su is a completely unreliable narrator, and the film's tagline is even "The truth is all in your head."

While Burning lacks many of the truly fantastical elements of its peers, it's shot with a haunting, mythic aesthetic all the same. Lee allows his shots to breathe, lingering on faces and locations long after other directors might have cut away. Despite Burning's deliberately relaxed pacing, it always feels tense and claustrophobic. 

I Saw the Devil (2010) – Kim Jee-woon

South Korean cinema finds beauty in the grotesque, but no film comes close to Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil. If Burning is claustrophobic, I Saw the Devil is suffocating. Lacking the humor of Park or Bong's filmography, Kim's revenge thriller is one of the most emotionally wringing experiences ever committed to film. It would be easy for this film about a police officer going renegade to track down the serial killer who killed his wife and child to become a self-parodying mess. Many films that deal in the extreme subject matter of I Saw the Devil end up being little more than trauma for titillation. Kim's assured direction keeps the film grounded, however, and centered on the human drama at its center.

This attention to the humanity at the core of the film is what makes I Saw the Devil so effective and heart-wrenching. It's a similar attention paid to the characters in Parasite, though to a much more brutal effect.

Thirst (2009) – Park Chan-wook

Thirst is so much more than a vampire movie. It's a story about romance, faith, and self-doubt. When a Catholic priest (Song Kang-ho) becomes a vampire through a failed experiment and falls in love with his friend's wife, he must reconcile his "monstrous" urges with his personal morality. Thirst has all the great trademarks of South Korean cinema: it's darkly funny, beautifully shot, edited deftly but with room to breathe, and it's about the human condition while pretending to be something else entirely. Thirst is haunting and gorgeous while still being heartbreakingly relatable.The thread of brilliance throughout these films is a willingness to examine the human condition through a different lens. These unflinching portraits of humanity are as stunning to look at as they are emotionally uncomfortable, making for a cinematic experience that feels truly fresh.