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As with any robust national cinema, there is a wide range of work for every taste and temperament, mood and occasion. There are horror freakouts, action adventures, chin-stroking dramas, goofball comedies, tear-soaked melodramas, rarefied art films and down-and-dirty exploitation flicks. The veteran auteur Im Kwon-taek has made more than 100 movies and deserves a deep dive. On the other end of the cine-spectrum, I recommend Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan,” a pulse-pounder that focuses on an inattentive businessman and his young daughter who become trapped on a train of fast-moving chomping zombies. It’s a tough, surprisingly emotional ride.
Given the sheer bounty of South Korean cinema, I can only point to a selection of favorite artists, among them the brilliant Lee Chang-dong, who deserves a far larger audience in the United States. He’s best known here for his unsettling, shrewdly class-conscious drama “Burning,” which centers on an uneasy triangle — featuring a revelatory turn from the American actor Steven Yeun — that ends in catastrophe. Two other essential Lee movies to check out are “Poetry,” about a woman who comes to realize that her grandson has committed a ghastly crime, and “Secret Sunshine,” about a mother who turns — briefly, disastrously — to religion after a personal crisis.
The prolific director Hong Sang-soo is another mainstay on the festival scene, though his movies often secure limited theatrical distribution in the United States. His narratively supple and inventive films chart the coordinates of desire among men and women who share and overshare, often during alcohol-soaked conversations. Few directors do so much with so ostensibly little, but, at Hong’s best, worlds of feeling are revealed in scenes of people facing one another — and themselves — across a table littered with soju bottles. “The Power of Kangwon Province,” “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,” “Turning Gate,” “Woman on the Beach,” “The Day He Arrives,” “The Day After,” “Hotel by the River” — there’s a lot to choose from, so get watching.
Plus! One of my favorite movies of the past decade is Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” a wild, often very funny and touching erotic thriller. Kim Ki-duk isn’t always my cup of cruelty, but I like his self-portrait “Arirang,” which he made in the wake of a near-fatal accident on one of his shoots. Na Hong-jin’s first feature, “The Chaser,” is a pitch-black action movie about a cop-turned-pimp hunting down a serial killer and features, as its title suggests, a lot of cat-and-mouse scrambling. His most recent release, “The Wailing,” is an unnerving, sprawling horror movie about demonic possession in a small town; it’s good, but I prefer “The Yellow Sea,” a blood-soaked tour de force of kinetic action and choreographed mayhem topped with acid politics.