Chris Evans stars in Snowpiercer.
Chris Evans stars in Snowpiercer. Supplied

Amazing movies you’ve been ignoring

You might think you're pretty savvy when it comes to great films, but most Australians have been ignoring a whole swath of great films at their own peril.

Right now, Oscar favourite Parasite seems unstoppable - and it's a reminder that Korean films are making a play for English-language cinemas and we should all be paying attention.

The black comedy from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, which sees a desperately poor family connive their way into becoming servants for a much wealthier clan, only for things to take a turn for the horrific and bleakly hilarious, has been a critical darling since it was unanimously awarded the Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

But now, following an enviable string of wins over the course of the awards season, it seems poised to take the coveted Best Picture Academy Award next week, beating out such noted - and notably English-language - contenders as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 1917, and Joker.

The nomination alone is remarkable - only 10 other foreign language films have been nominated for best picture in the 92-year history of the awards.

 

Parasite has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture
Parasite has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture

 

Parasite is the first Asian film to have made the grade since Ang Lee's sumptuous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, and the first South Korean film to be recognised in any category outside of the Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film), where Lee Chang-dong's Burning made the shortlist in 2019.

That's kind of surprising, because dedicated followers of international cinema have known that South Korea has been a leading film nation since the mid-90s, pumping out excellent feature films with a consistency that's not only admirable, it arguably has a better hit-to-miss ratio than the franchise-dominated American industry.

Meanwhile, Korean filmmakers are making inroads into Western cinema; Bong Joon-ho made the English language science fiction action parable Snowpiercer in 2013, while Park Chan-wook, whose lurid 2016 psychosexual thriller The Handmaiden was an arthouse crossover hit, cast Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska in his first English language offering, Stoker (2013).

 

Parasite director Bong Joon-ho also made Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and John Hurt
Parasite director Bong Joon-ho also made Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and John Hurt

 

But it's not just arthouse fare and feted awards season darlings - Korean cinema is for the most part resoundingly populist and accessible.

The heavy presence of American culture in South Korea since the Korean War, coupled with the country's admirably healthy exhibition space that needs plenty of content for bored teens to take in while escaping the family home, means most Korean films are made for mass appeal, and that appeal transcends language barriers.

Subtitles - which Bong referred to as a "one inch tall barrier" in a recent speech - aside, along with the obvious casting demographics, in terms of genre and subject matter there's little that the average Western film-goer would find utterly alien.

Currently in cinemas now, Ashfall by directors Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo sees South Korean emergency responders struggle to handle a massive volcanic eruption right on the North Korean border. It's an old-school disaster flick not a million miles away from Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Dante's Peak, or Armageddon.

Its stars are familiar to Western audiences too - Ma Dong-seok, aka Don Lee, made a splash in frenetic Korean zombie movie Last Train to Busan and will feature in Marvel's The Eternals later this year, while Lee Byung-hun was shown up in the G.I. Joe movies, Red 2, Terminator: Genisys, and The Magnificent Seven.

 

Burning was based on a Murakami Haruki short story
Burning was based on a Murakami Haruki short story

 

Elsewhere, actors like Bae Doona, who has appeared in both Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006) and the Wachowski sisters' Sense8 (2015) and Cloud Atlas (2012), and Korean-American actor Steve Yeun, who rose to prominence in The Walking Dead and drew critical acclaim for his turn in last year's Korean drama Burning have careers that straddle American and Korean fare.

While Bong Joon-ho racks up critical plaudits and Park Chan-wook pushes the boundaries of taste with his Vengeance Trilogy of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005), other South Korean directors mine more commercial veins.

Choi Dong-hoon is one of the country's foremost action thriller directors. His 2002 heist film The Thieves makes the moribund Oceans franchise look like it's asleep at the wheel, while 2015's Assassination, which sees a mixed bag of resistance fighters plot to bump off a collaborator in Japanese-occupied 1930s Seoul, is simply one of the best action movies of the last decade.

 

Train to Busan is a thrilling zombie flick
Train to Busan is a thrilling zombie flick

 

So too is Jung Byung-gil's The Villainess, which sees a vengeful woman transformed into a ruthless assassin by a shadowy government agency, ala Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita (1990). Indeed, some of The Villainess's action sequences were so good, they pretty much found their way into last year's John Wick 3: Parabellum by way of homage.

While these filmmakers jumping across to helm American features is almost inevitable - imagine Choi Dong-hoon on a Fast and Furious movie! - ideally the success of Parasite will also push audiences to see what else is coming out of the Korean Peninsula and onto our screens, discovering the likes of historical actioner War of the Arrows (2011), horror masterpiece I Saw the Devil (2010), gonzo Western The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008) and, more importantly, whatever amazing films the future brings. After all, as director Bong himself has said, the barrier is only one inch high.

Travis Johnson is a freelance film writer | @CelluloidWhisky