Train To Busan, Korean Films

What Makes These 3 Korean Films So Successful?

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While there are gore and intense action-packed fistfights with handsome actors involved, it’s mostly the father figures that make these Korean films so triumphant. These fathers take the famous line “I am your father” to a new level. They show tough love to their daughters by making sacrifices, which makes us laugh. Here are three Korean films, ranging from action thriller to comedy, that portray these types of father figures:

1. The Man From Nowhere — The Best Byronic Hero Of Korean Films

Cha Tae Sik is a former South Korean Army Intelligence agent. The beginning of the Korean movie introduces him as the neighborhood “ahjussi” or “mister” who is a remote pawn-shop owner.

In the Korean film cover of "The Man From Nowhere," Cha Tae Sik holds Jung So Mi close as he aims a pistol.
Credit: Opus Pictures, 2010

Jung So Mi is an innocent girl who grew up in an unstable household. Against her mother’s warnings, she befriends Cha Tae Sik and naturally clings to him. She pesters him with her youthful troubles, despite ahjussi‘s aloof and mysterious aura. When her mother steals heroin, gangsters capture So Mi in retaliation for her mother’s theft. As Cha Tae Sik tracks down the crime organization to rescue So Mi, the Korean film shows glimpses of his tragic past.

The action thriller builds suspense as Cha Tae Sik transforms into a vigilante. You know the fight’s about to get real when the main protagonist dramatically cuts his hair and reveals his six-pack abs midway through his vigilante mission. He arms himself with a pistol and prepares for combat, marking the first threshold in his hero’s journey.

Distant Byronic Hero Opens Up His Heart

What makes Cha Tae Sik a Byronic hero is his resoluteness in his efforts to save So Mi and even in his merciless agenda for revenge. This is evident when Cha Tae Sik strides into the crime organization’s hideout. He mutters his famous line:

“I’ll keep the gold teeth, and I’ll chew up everything else.”

Cha Tae Sik, from the Korean film "The Man From Nowhere," aims a pistol.
Credit: CJ Entertainment, 2010

Although he is reserved and distances himself from others, his unexpressed loyalty to So Mi reveals his surprising capacity for love. While he is not So Mi’s biological father, Cha Tae Sik acts as a father figure. He wants to protect her from the harm resulting from the absence of grounded parents in her own household. He listens to her inane stories and teaches her not to steal. His motivation to live appears to stem from So Mi’s child-like innocence and carefreeness.

When a gangster demands to know the reasons for his extensive sacrifices to rescue a child, Cha Tae Sik bluntly replies,

“I’m her next-door neighbor (‘ahjussi‘).”

In this way, the Korean film’s title, “Ahjussi” seems to refer to “father.” So Mi, on the other hand, is naive, as expressed in her interactions with Cha Tae Sik and even her captors. She develops the personal strength to be independent and persevere through misfortune, a trait that resembles a more hopeful version of Cha Tae Sik’s beginning in the Korean film. Like father, like daughter.

Justice In Cold Blood

I thought The Man From Nowhere was a stellar Korean film because Cha Tae Sik is charismatic. We are intrigued by his mysterious past, repulsed by the injustices he observes, touched by his love for So Mi, and we revel in his abilities to kick ass. And sometimes, it’s satisfying to see justice best served cold. The Man From Nowhere was the highest-grossing film in South Korea in 2010. The actor Won Bin, who plays Cha Tae Sik, also won the Grand Bell Award for Best Actor in 2011. Note: This is an R rated movie, and it contains violence, child abuse, gory scenes, and profanity.

2. The Dude In Me — The Freaky Friday Of Korean Films

Since watching The Dude in Me, I’ve learned that the best way to lose weight is to switch bodies with a gangster. Jang Pan Soo is an apathetic, sophisticated member of a criminal organization, not to mention he packs a punch. On the other hand, Kim Dong Hyun is a clumsy, feeble high school student and often the target of bullying. When Dong Hyun slips on a roof and falls on top of Pan Soo, they find that their bodies have been switched. This Korean film is so comedic because of the irony within the story. Pan Soo wishes to appear laid-back and striking, but the reality of Dong Hyun’s belly fat prevents him from doing so. Pan Soo is unaware that their worlds align more than they seem. This body swap, however, is his opportunity to search for a woman in his past.

In the Korean movie poster for "The Dude in Me," Jang Pan Soo and Kim Dong Hyun stand back-to-back and hold rifles.
Credit: Rakuten, 2019

Jang Pan Soo encounters his daughter in Dong Hyun’s body — not in the form he expects. Although Pan Soo fails to take care of her when she is young, he tries to compensate by toughening her up. She intimidates her bullies and high school crush whose kindness is a mere facade for his insolence. Pan Soo mentors her to be both physically and mentally strong, and in the resolution of the Korean film, she overcomes the dissatisfaction in her school life. A detail that I appreciated from this Korean film was that Pan Soo’s daughter is no damsel in distress. Even though Pan Soo saves her from embarrassing social situations, she is capable of protecting herself.

A Gangster Stuck In A High Schooler’s Body

I personally enjoyed the funny interactions between Pan Soo stuck in a high schooler’s body and his daughter. I also thought the Korean film cleverly incorporated humor in its fight scenes as well. For example, in the climactic fight scene, gangsters enter a restaurant, searching for Jang Pan Soo. Unexpectedly, they find a teenager — Jang Pan Soo in Dong Hyun’s body — has more audacity than the rugged-looking Jang Pan Soo. While Dong Hyun remains composed, Jang Pan Soo meanwhile fearfully clutches the restaurant owner’s hand and whimpers,

“Save us, please.”

This Korean film was particularly interesting because of the versatile characters and use of dramatic irony. Dong Hyun’s father, gangsters, and Jang Pan Soo’s daughter are all confused to see the once-puny Dong Hyun high school student transform into a coolheaded guy. Because Jang Pan Soo is trapped in a high schooler’s body, the Korean film uniquely portrayed the father-daughter relationship as one beyond the boundaries of age. Jang Pan Soo as a father quietly works behind the scenes to support his daughter, pulling at viewers’ heartstrings.

Watch The Dude in Me on Viki.

3. Train To Busan — The Best Zombie Apocalypse

Train to Busan was the highest-grossing film in South Korea in 2016. Horror movies are not particularly my cup of tea, but I thought this Korean film had an astonishingly good balance between scary and sentimental. Seok Woo is a fund manager who is so immersed in his work that he is absent from his estranged daughter, Su An. Amid a zombie outbreak in South Korea, they become trapped together on a speeding train. The suspense escalates as the passengers escape each car with zombies dangerously on the verge of scratching and infecting them.

In the Korean film poster for "Train to Busan," Seok Woo, embracing Su An, and other passengers run away from Busan Station that is rampant with zombies.
Credit: Next Entertainment World, 2016

The zombies, who appear uncannily realistic, achieve the rigid contortions of their bodies and have spine-chilling facial expressions. The zombies in this Korean film are often praised for their impressive acting. While the horror elements are well-executed, this Korean film leaves viewers in tears. It presents several key emotional aspects such as young love, the tacit expressions of devotion in a father-daughter relationship and quivering group dynamics amid an extinction-level event. It’s only when they are struggling to survive that Seok Woo realizes his daughter takes precedence over his work. He desperately tries to save her through his own great sacrifice to make up for his failure as a father.

When Nothing Else Matters Except Survival

Mix the thrill of jump scares, heated betrayals, and instances of altruism and that will make the story a heart-rending roller coaster. This delightfully terrifying movie will get your adrenaline rushing. You’ll find yourself behind the screen with a gut-wrenching mix of fright and anxiety, urging characters to run faster from the horror closely trailing behind them. This is my favorite Korean film because it captures the characters’ emotions so well, including fright, desperation, and love. All of the passengers have their own conflicts, but cooperation melts their worries into a single need for survival.

This poses the thought-provoking question of what our own priorities are. The movie also did a good job of building up to Seok Woo’s ultimate sacrifice for his daughter. Watch until the end — you might just end up changing your amount of faith in humanity.

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