Before ‘Parasite’: Turning the spotlight to Korean classics

Still+from+%22Hanyo%22+%28The+Housemaid%29%2C+directed+by+Ki-young+Kim+in+1960.

IMDB

Still from “Hanyo” (The Housemaid), directed by Ki-young Kim in 1960.

There’s no denying the magnitude of South Korea’s ever-escalating global cultural stranglehold — from Bong Joon-ho’s masterful “Parasite” Oscar sweep to the explosion in popularity of BTS and other such K-pop artists, and now to Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” which seems poised to recapture the Oscar frenzy of “Parasite” and keep Korean cinema shining in the public eye.

Amidst this climate, I thought it appropriate to briefly turn the spotlight to some classic Korean films lesser known in the West. Many are familiar with such films as Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” and some of Bong Joon-ho’s earlier work, but the blueprint for Bong’s signature social commentary, absurdity and layered symbolism can be traced back many decades, back to South Korea’s “golden age” of cinema.

The golden age encompassed a 17-year stretch from 1955 to 1972, though the most significant films of this period mostly occupy the early 1960s. I’d like to draw attention to two of the golden age’s most prominent releases: “The Housemaid,” from Kim Ki-young, and “Obaltan,” from Yu Hyun-mok. These two films, in addition to being deftly crafted and thrilling melodramas, provide a fascinating window into one of the most significant transitional periods in the young nation’s history.

“The Housemaid,” or “Hanyeo,” is a name you’ve likely come across if you’ve spent any time at all peeling back the myriad of influences behind Bong’s “Parasite.” The film centers around a family enjoying a modest middle-class living in their newly purchased two-story home. With the pregnant mother of the family physically strained by overwork, the father is compelled to hire a housemaid from the factory where he delivers music lessons. The introduction of this serpentine interloper into the household quickly upheaves the established order of their familial hierarchy. Clandestine romances, surreptitious plots and venomous bloodshed will follow.

For fans of  “Parasite,” you may be surprised by the extent to which “Hanyeo” mirrors its style and themes. “Hanyeo” is a shocking and at times absurd thriller that provokes thought just as expertly as it entertains. The film’s themes of class anxiety and familial paranoia are indicative of a war-torn nation attempting to rebuild itself into a more modern society. And these ideas, as in “Parasite,” are communicated brilliantly through the setting of the house which entraps the characters, who themselves are trapped by their own anxieties and inhibitions. To anyone who’s watched any video essays exploring the importance of framing, architecture and the various other symbols in “Parasite,” I encourage you to check out “Hanyeo” and approach it with that same level of cognizance. Just be prepared to process some of the film’s stylistic oddities; like “Parasite,” it’s best approached as something of a parable rather than a down-to-earth drama.

Still from “Obaltan (The Stray Bullet),” directed by Hyun-mok Yoo. (IMDB)

This brings us nicely to “Obaltan,” which translates roughly to “stray bullet” or “aimless bullet.” “Obaltan” is, by comparison, a much more grounded film, and thereby much easier to approach than “Hanyeo” as a melodrama in the traditional sense. It follows two brothers wallowing in the mire of South Korea’s post-war malaise and struggling to make ends meet for their impoverished family. As the world around them seems to resist their every movement, they are left to grapple with the moral implications of what it means to inhabit a society that has abandoned its people.

“Obaltan” is perhaps the quintessential statement of the zeitgeist of early 1960s Korean golden age cinema. In the post-war era, melodramas of this nature were the most popular films in South Korea. It tells a simple story laced with complex thematic challenges, and focuses — like the films of the Italian Neorealist movement — on those downtrodden and left to flounder at the bottom rung in the wake of an unimaginably destructive war. Between “Hanyeo” and “Obaltan,” I’d actually recommend starting with “Obaltan,” as I believe it to be a more accessible watch. If you’re in the mood for more afterward, check out “Hanyeo” next. If you’re here because of “Parasite” and you’re especially eager to dig into the roots of its influences, perhaps start with “Hanyeo.”

“Hanyeo” and “Obaltan” are both great places to begin your expedition, but there exists a whole world of hidden gems waiting to be unearthed in the vast landscape of classic Korean cinema that lies beyond them. And fortunately, many of these films are available on YouTube in HD quality and with English subtitles. So if you’re feeling adventurous and up to test your grit as a cinephile or are simply interested in exploring classics of world cinema with an open mind, I invite you to challenge yourself with some of these great treasures of South Korean film.