South Korean cinema influences

Today, I’m very happy to welcome Chris Irvin to Pulp Curry.

Chris is a short story writer, one of the editors of the great short fiction site, Shotgun Honey, and the author of the recently released novella, Federales. Federales is  about a Mexican federal agent, drugs, and politics. It’s on my to-read list and I’m pretty certain it should be on yours, too.

Chris wanted to write about how South Korean crime cinema has influenced his own crime writing. Welcome Chris.

And by the way, if you are interested in winning a copy of the Federales e-book, just leave a comment on this post. I’ll pick a winner from among them a little later in the week.

fullsizephoto254644Perhaps like many fans of South Korean (Korean) Cinema, I was first introduced through Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy (2003), a brutal revenge tale adapted from a Japanese manga.

Revenge is central to many Korean thrillers Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002), I Saw the Devil (2010), Bittersweet Life (2005), etc.

But take a step back and look at the common themes that set Korean films apart from their American cousins, and what I find inspiring and influential to my writing.

I find many themes and layers of Korean cinema to be fascinating, especially those informed/influenced by Korean history/society, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus on three:

The Dysfunctional Family – The dysfunctional family bands together to defeat the foreign menace and overcome its own natural flaws. When a crisis occurs, Koreans tend to want to believe they can turn to their own family members for support.

The natural dysfunction in a family can create great tension in these moments, The Host (2006) being a perfect example. The Host follows a family consisting of a hardworking grandfather and his lazy son (who run a snack bar together), the son’s daughter, sister (a medal-winning competition archer – with confidence issues), and brother (drinking heavily and unemployed) who must band together in order to save their youngest who has been kidnapped by a giant monster.

On the surface, The Host is a monster movie, but the real story is the family’s internal struggle. This familial concept is also very important to Korean gangster and corporate films – look for it to play a prominent role alongside the broken illusion of the perfect family.

Black Humour – I love Korean humor, the dryer, the blacker, the better. Actor Song Kang-ho is famous for playing the role of the dunce in many films, The Host, The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), Memories of Murder (2003) Thirst (2009 – to some extent). His usual silliness is often paired with very dark/bleak scenes: a rampaging monster in The Host, an investigation into a serial killer in Memories of a Murder, a new vampire “exploring” her newfound abilities in Thirst – or to be more specific, as a vampire, drinking blood from an IV out of a patient’s arm who is in a coma (trust me). None of the aforementioned films are comedies, and that makes the use of humor all the more effective and important.

Measured use of extreme/intense violence – Regular folks in seemingly non-violent professions suddenly take ferocious turns when the situation demands it. Korean thrillers aren’t for the squeamish.

However these films are nowhere near what some critics would classify as “torture porn,” the tag often stuck with violent modern American (and European, for that matter) thriller and horror films. Instead, these moments of intense violence often rise out of great sequences of tension, a slow burn punctuated by short spurts of violence. Take I Saw the Devil, where a secret agent tracks down a serial killer and tortures him as he tortured his victims. Or The Chaser (2008) where a former-detective-turned-pimp must track down a man who has been kidnapping and murdering girls. Or better still, the parental group participation in revenge toward the end of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The violence is brutal – overly so, that vengeance requires the avenger to dehumanize and in the end everyone will be worse off. And it is necessary.

New to Korean cinema? Check out some of my top picks:

The Host


Memories of Murder

The Chaser

A Company Man

And some on my radar I have yet to see:

The Yellow Sea (2010)

Pieta (2012)

federalesfrontcoverThe Suspect (2014 -Not yet released in USA)

Snowpiecer (2014 – Not yet released in USA)

Mother (2009)

Bio: Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night’s sleep for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. He is the author of  short stories featured in several publications, including Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, and Shotgun Honey.

Federales has just been released in print and digital formats through One Eye Press and is available here.

He lives with his wife and son in Boston, Massachusetts. For more, visit


13 Responses

  1. Thanks for this great post. Nice to see the confluence of the East and West.

  2. Great interview guys. You might also like this interview I did with crime author Urban Waite on Huff Po about South Korean Cinema. He’s a big fan, and because of that interview, so now am I.

  3. Gave you the wrong link for the Urban Waite interview!

  4. Cheers for that Court, I’ll check it out.

  5. Pingback: South Korean cinema influences | HouseLeague Fiction

  6. Love any love for Korean cinema. Couple of others that are well worth checking out:

    ‘The quiet family’ – black comedy about a family that starts a hotel in which people keep dying. Fits in nicely with the dysfunctional family theme.
    ‘unbowed’ – true story about a man who uses a crossbow to seek justice for being unfairly sacked. Great for the real world reflection of themes of justice and revenge in Korean movies.
    ‘A bitter sweet life’ – my favorite of the gangster movies, has a nice noir feel then changes gears into an action movie!
    ‘A tale of two sisters’ – the most terrifying movie ever, made the mistake of watching it by my self in the dark. Big big mistake!
    Yeah I obviously have a power of enthusiasm for Korean movies! Watch as many of them as any anything else. There’s prob a ton Im forgetting. Like ‘the thevies, ‘spider forest’, etc. hope I brought up a few you didn’t know. Thanks for the post!

  7. Oops you mentioned ‘a bittersweet life’, oh well throw in ‘new world’ new one I watched the other Day, and ‘the dirty carnival’ is pretty good!

  8. Michael,
    I don’t think I’ve seen any of the ones you mention. ‘Unbowed’ sounds pretty amazing. What was so full on about ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’?

  9. “Unbowed” is pretty great but looking at my post I think I played up the ‘crossbow’ aspect a bit much. It’s primarily a court drama in which his lawyer is also on a personal journey. It’s great because I can see the theme of personal justice, that is in so many of these movies have, played out in a ‘real’ story. It just made the movies more vivid to me and showed me that they show true aspects of Korean culture.
    I wish I could explain ‘a tale of two sister’, but anything i say about it will ruin the story. It is however horrifying in the same way that japanese horror movies where in the 90s like the ‘grudge’ and ‘dark water’.
    You’ve actual jogged my memory of another movie that stands out from the rest. ‘bedeviled’. It is about a selfish woman who goes back to her home Island to stay after being assaulted. The island is small, backward and under the surface lurks violence and fear. Ultimately the movie becomes one of retribution and its pretty bloody, even by Korean standards. It is very good though.
    Haha writing about these makes me realise how many of these movies I’ve seen! Some thing about them gets under my skin. I’ve only been able to watch ‘old boy’ once, and yet it’s one of my favorite movies of all time.

  10. Lol, I just remembered talking to a Korean girl overseas about ‘a tale of two sisters’. She went visibly pale!

  11. Thanks, Michael! A Tale of a Two Sisters is great and scary as hell. Looking forward to New World.

    • Chris,
      I saw the short to Snowpiercer the other day. It looked pretty incredible in a completely over the top way.

      • Excellent – great to hear. I’ve heard some mixed opinions (including rumors that the US will get a new cut that isn’t as long or good) but I’m really looking forward to it.

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