Viva La Horror is a bi-monthly column discussing horror films and iconic moments that have revolutionized the horror genre, Sadie Clark looks at how moments in horror history have radically evolved the established order of horror cinema.
Korean horror cinema brings new elements of psychological terror and intricate storylines to solidify the foundation for deeply disturbing films.
Horror is never static. The bar for what makes a horror thriller so “thrilling” seems to be constantly changing, and recently Korean cinema has stolen the show in creating some of the most hair-raising films to date. Korean films have had a huge uprising in popularity, with some television shows and films stealing the stage and setting new standards for other films in the horror genre. Two of the most notable creations in the past two years include director Bong Joon-ho’s thriller Parasite (2019) and Hwang Dong-hyuk’s masterpiece Squid Game (2021).
What makes these films so surreal and disturbing is the frighteningly realistic atmosphere they create. Most horror films—at least American horror films—focus primarily on visual horror, which means lots of at times excessive gore. Dramatic amounts of red blood and guts spilling everywhere seem to define the American horror and thriller genre, along with drawn-out pauses and scenes to create an unsettling effect. The films Parasite and Midsommar (2019) seemed to hit opposite ends of the spectrum. While Parasite focused on realistic violence and Midsommar portrayed incredibly bizarre hyper-violence. Parasite also takes place during broad daylight in what seems to be a hazy fever dream sequence, setting it apart from other horror films.
The beauty behind Korean cinema, though, is that it does not need these outrageous details to make the movie an instant hit—Korean horror films are able to take the realistic side of being a human and make it seem terrifying and unpredictable in real-time. The stories, like in Parasite, take time to build momentum and show the nature and background of the plot and characters. The viewer is given a chance to watch things go down firsthand in an unsettling fashion. Bong Joon-ho is a wizard when it comes to making viewers feel so involved in the plot that they feel like they are intruding on personal moments, including the intimacy between the wealthy couple Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Cho) and Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun Gyun).
These horror thrillers also aren't focused on giving the viewer what they want, and instead often choose to leave them unsatisfied, confused, disturbed, or sad. In Squid Game, Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae), also known as Player 456, completes the games and wins a surplus of money to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. Despite his sudden influx of wealth, the deadbeat dad decides to take on the games once again, leaving viewers angered at his lack of a moral compass and common sense. Gi-Hun was never present for his daughter to begin with and chooses once again to abandon her by the end of the series. In Parasite, it is unknown whether or not the family of charlatans will ever be reunited again. Korean cinema recognizes the need for a film to be a piece of art, not just satisfy the viewer’s needs.
Imagery and themes are also heavily focused on in Korean horror thrillers, unlike a lot of their American counterparts. In Parasite and Squid Game alike, beautiful camera shots and cinematography are able to capture the essence of the story and communicate things that words might not be able to. Different themes and motifs are addressed in both the show and film, including classism and revenge. Squid Game takes an aim at the impoverished and debt-ridden citizens in Korea, who are so desperate for money they would kill for it. Parasite focuses on classism and the revenge of a family who faces financial struggles, living in a poor neighborhood, and having to scrape by. When faced with opportunities to better themselves, the characters from both will do whatever possible in order to succeed.
K-horror—instead of focusing so much on the scare factor—chooses to focus on the individual stories of the people involved. Building up characters and making them vulnerable, showing their struggles and how they are whittled down to their weakest point. Whether they overcome this or not is important to the film’s narrative. There are important messages surrounding humanity and what makes a person, or even what fulfills a person.
Maybe what makes Korean cinema so scary is how raw it is. The human condition and morality are both tested when the characters are stripped bare to show their true selves in times of need.
In Parasite, people are driven to the brink of insanity through a chain reaction of different events. These people, who seem to be normal people much like the viewer, are driven to do unspeakable things. While this might not be the most outward type of scare, it is an ingrained psychological horror that can deeply disturb those who can catch the message behind it. While most people believe that only the evil and corrupt are to be feared, K-horror teaches that anyone is capable of violence and evil deeds. The action-packed climax help drive the story home.
Squid Game does a similar thing but also focuses heavily on violence. While most Korean films like to take this part of the film in a different direction, a lot of these horror thrillers also function as social commentary. What makes Squid Game so terrifying is how it is a direct reflection of human nature. People, whether they are operating the games or participating in them, are inherently violent and will do violent things in the name of betterment or even enjoyment. It shows just how primal human beings truly are, even if they are the richest people in the world.
Korean cinema is not afraid to test boundaries, genre-bend, and experiment to create some of the most nightmare-inducing and thought-provoking films. The world of television and film horror has been revolutionized forever by their cinematography, story-telling, and frightening authenticity. Bong Joon-ho, Hwang Dong-hyuk, and other Korean storytellers like Ahn Byeong-ki and Kim Dong-bin have opened up a new, darker, and more thrilling universe within the horror genre.
Sadie Clark is an English major at the University of Central Arkansas and contributing writer for Dead Talk News in addition to her bi-monthly column for Slay Away. In her spare time, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, and spending time with her guinea pigs, Ginger and Spike.