Korean cinema spans a vast landscape of genres, ranging from heart-pounding zombie apocalypse flicks to slow-burn romances sprinkled with intrigue, such that it sure seems like Korean filmmakers know no limits when it comes to producing delightfully creative fictional storylines.
That said, some of the most powerfully emotive Korean films are those that stem from real life people and events rather than someone’s imagination. More often than not, these works shed light on tragic situations, exploring the despair and desperation of those involved as they struggle to overcome whatever insurmountable challenge stands before them. Below are some films based on true stories that are sure to have you reaching for tissues by the end.
Please be forewarned that this article contains spoilers, as it discusses the real events that inspired these films.
“The Attorney” tells an impassioned story inspired by late president Roh Moo Hyun and his involvement in what became known as the Burim case, in which the government of former authoritarian president Chun Doo Hwan arrested 22 democracy activists in 1981 and charged them with secretly supporting the North Korean regime. Those arrested were detained for up to 63 days without due process, during which time the police tortured them and coerced false confessions stating that they were North Korean sympathizers.
In response to these human rights violations, tax lawyer Roh Moo Hyun — who would go on to become an influential human rights lawyer throughout the ’80s, and later the president of South Korea — formed a legal team alongside now president Moon Jae In and other allies to defend the arrested individuals. Sadly, despite the team’s best efforts, 19 of the activists were convicted of breaking the National Security Law, subsequently serving prison time.
Towards the end of the film, the trial is lost as it was in real life, with the grief and disheartenment of the defendants’ families on full display as Song Kang Ho (who plays the film’s Roh Moo Hyun equivalent) is forcibly dragged out of the courtroom. The film doesn’t end there, though, concluding on a somehow uplifting note thanks to its final moving scene, which depicts the sense of solidarity that surged among Korean citizens in the years following the case as they continued to fight for democracy.
In February 2014, 33 years after the original convictions, five of the 19 defendants in the Burim case were acquitted of all charges through a retrial, during which the presiding judge ruled that the defendants’ original confessions were obtained under duress, as well as that other evidence used against the activists did not constitute a violation of the National Security Law. Unfortunately, due to the statute of limitations having expired, it is unlikely that the police officers involved in the Burim case will ever be held legally accountable for their actions.
Watch “The Attorney” below:
Voice of a Murderer
On January 29, 1991, 9-year-old Lee Hyung Ho was kidnapped and held for ransom. Over the course of 44 days, Lee’s parents attempted to negotiate with the kidnapper — who demanded a ransom of 70 million won (approximately $60,300) — through periodic phone calls, only to ultimately lose contact with the perpetrator after Lee’s body was found in a ditch near his parents’ home in Apgujeong. An autopsy revealed that Lee had been murdered almost immediately after being kidnapped.
The kidnapping of Lee Hyung Ho is one of Korea’s most infamous cold cases, involving about 50 ransom calls in total. Voice profiling based on the phone calls suggests that the kidnapper was a man in his 30s who was very meticulous and intelligent. While there were many suspects in the case, the forensic investigation never produced enough evidence to convict any of them of the kidnap-homicide. The 15-year statute of limitations eventually expired in January 2006, a year prior to the release of this movie.
Due to the notoriety of the case this film is based on, most moviegoers at the time were well aware of how the story would tragically end. The inevitability of the ending in no way detracts from the film’s tension, however, making it actually that much harder to watch the parents’ futile struggle to save their son. The director of “Voice of a Murderer,” Park Jin Pyo, has said that his hope is not to receive public attention for the film itself, but for what he views as an absurd statute of limitations term given the nature of the crime. Park has also said he hopes the murderer sees this movie, feels the intensity of what Lee’s parents must have endured, and knows that his wrongdoings have not been forgotten.
Catch the trailer below:
“My Father” is based on the story of Aaron Bates, who was adopted from Korea by an American family when he was five years old. Although Bates had a happy childhood, as an adult, he yearned to know who his biological parents were, which led him to take a U.S. army assignment in Korea. While stationed in Korea, he appeared on a TV program for Korean adoptees in search of their parents and was featured in a newspaper. Disappointingly, when it came time for him to return to the United States, he had no new leads on who his Korean parents were. Then, he received a call a few years later saying that a man claiming to be his birth father, Sung Nak Joo, wanted to meet him.
Bates’s reunion with his father created a media frenzy, as not only was his father imprisoned for murder, but he was also on death row. Ordinarily, Sung would not have been able to meet with visitors without a glass partition standing between them, but the media was in such an uproar that prison authorities broke precedent and allowed Bates and Sung to meet face-to-face in a reception room. Though some may say the media overstepped their boundaries in order to sensationalize the reunion, Bates expressed gratitude toward them, as it was thanks to the media that he didn’t have to see his father behind bars during their first meeting in two decades.
Following his reunion with his father, Bates asked the U.S. military to reassign him to Korea, which enabled him to regularly visit his father and learn more about both him and his late mother. Later, seeking confirmation that Sung was his biological father, Bates secretly ran a DNA test, only to be baffled when the result showed that Sung was not his father. After grappling with the shock of the result and considering other evidence that contradicted the DNA test, Bates decided to accept Sung as his father regardless of what DNA testing said, going as far as registering himself as Sung’s son in order to be able to collect his ashes in the future.
What makes “My Father” a real gem of a film is not that it has Oscar-worthy acting or brilliant writing (in fact, it’s a bit lacking in both areas), but rather that it offers a deeply emotional portrayal of the Korean adoptee experience, highlighting both the heartwarming and the heartrending aspects of Bates and his father’s newfound relationship. As Bates himself has put it, his story is about more than just finding his father; it’s also about love conquering all, learning to forgive, and enjoying the limited time you have with your loved ones.
Catch the trailer below:
In June of 2002, virtually every South Korean was enraptured as the nation’s soccer team competed in the semifinals of the World Cup. Unbeknownst to most, however, as thousands of citizens filled the streets to cheer on their beloved sports team amidst the festive mood that blanketed the country, a battle was being waged at the Northern Limit Line (a maritime demarcation line in the Yellow Sea, located between North and South Korea).
The Second Battle of Yeonpyeong began on June 29, after North Korean ships crossed the Northern Limit Line, ignored warnings from the South to turn back, and attacked the South Korean patrol boats that were monitoring them. The fighting lasted for only around half an hour, with South Korea being declared the victor, but the fight was not without its casualties. The battle resulted in six South Korean deaths, as well as 18 seriously injured.
Despite being a movie ostensibly about warfare, “Northern Limit Line” spends a significant portion of its runtime focused on the everyday joys and struggles of the naval staff who fought in the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong. The director of the film, Kim Hak Soon, said his goal was not to politicize the event, but to take a humanitarian approach that humanized the South Korean naval staff and their bereaved families, as well as depicted the irony of the situation: while everyday citizens were blissfully celebrating a momentous occasion, their fellow countrymen were fighting to stay alive.
Watch “Northern Limit Line”:
Warning: This film deals with the aftermath of the brutal sexual assault of a child. Though the assault itself is not depicted, it is discussed with some degree of (technical) detail after the fact.
In December 2008, an 8-year-old girl, known by the alias Nayoung, was abducted on her way to school by 57-year-old Cho Doo Soon, who subsequently beat and raped her in a public toilet, after which he left her for dead. Fortunately, Nayoung survived the assault, and Cho was convicted of his crime. Sadly, though, Nayoung did sustain debilitating injuries that have left her permanently and severely disabled. In spite of having undergone such a horrific ordeal and the irreparable harm done to her, Nayoung and her family were able to move forward, with Nayoung currently attending university.
Cho is to be released from prison in December of this year, having spent 12 years behind bars, and is expected to return to his wife’s home, which is said to be about 1 kilometer (approximately 0.6 miles) from Nayoung’s house. Police have pledged to track Cho’s whereabouts for 20 years following his release, as well as to implement other programs to minimize his risk of committing future crimes.
Naturally, due to the nature of the incident that this film is based on, “Hope” is a terribly heartbreaking watch. Yet what this movie is ultimately intended to be is a heartwarming, albeit still gut-wrenching, story that is indeed about hope, as its title suggests. The movie’s director, Lee Joon Ik, said that his goal was to take a horrific situation filled with despair and show how hope can bloom around it — as opposed to focusing on the sensationalism of the crime itself — maintaining that he created this movie to console and encourage victims of sex crimes.
Watch the trailer below:
“Marathon” is based on the story of Bae Hyung Jin, an autistic marathon runner who finished the full course of a marathon in 2001 in just under three hours. Although his time was far from what might qualify him as an elite runner, it did earn him national recognition, and the mere fact that he successfully completed the course was a victory for both him and his mother. The following year, Bae became the youngest Korean to finish a triathlon, completing the course in a little over 15 hours.
While this film does explore Bae’s journey to becoming marathon-ready, the real focus is on what life is like for Bae and his mother, including the touching relationship they have. Bae’s mother explained that she agreed to adapting her son’s story into a movie in hopes that people would come to understand autism better and become more accepting of individuals like her son. She related one incident where her son accidentally hit a man’s eyeglasses and walked away without apologizing, after which the man began shouting at him. She said unpleasant experiences like this are not uncommon, as other people often see her son’s behavior as rude and strange, not realizing that he has a disability or understanding what it means to have autism.
“Marathon” caught moviegoers’ attention when it was released in 2005, drawing more than 5 million attendees, and it is credited with having a notable impact on the general public’s awareness and understanding of autism at the time. When reflecting on the two years spent working with director Jung Yoon Chul, Bae’s mother said the most rewarding part of making this film was that her son was able to open up and befriend new people.
Watch the trailer below:
1987: When the Day Comes
“1987: When the Day Comes” portrays the heroics of everyday Korean citizens who fought to bring democracy to Korea at a time when it was under the harsh military regime of former president Chun Doo Hwan. The film focuses on various people and events — such as the death of student protestor Park Jong Chul and those who dared to reveal the truth behind his death — that brought about the June Democratic Uprising, which was a nationwide democracy movement that led to Korea’s present day government.
In the 1980s, many college student activists began to rebel against Korea’s authoritarian regime following the 1980 Gwangju Massacre, in which students who were demonstrating against the government were assaulted and killed by government troops. Student demonstrations intensified in 1987 after one student, Park Jong Chul, was detained and tortured by authorities, resulting in his death. Although the government attempted to suppress the story, the truth was eventually brought to light, further fueling the public’s outrage and mobilizing more citizens to join the resistance. In February 1988, Korea’s Constitution was officially amended to strengthen civil rights, such as through the implementation of direct presidential elections.
The release of this movie marked the 30th anniversary of South Korea’s June Democratic Uprising. The film’s director, Jang Joon Hwan, said he wanted to tell this story because it’s about ordinary people banding together to write their own history. Jang also mentioned that he wanted to emphasize the power of hope and truth, which were ultimately what enabled ordinary people to do extraordinary things while fighting against an unjust government.
Catch the trailer below:
I Can Speak
“I Can Speak” starts out as a lighthearted comedy that pits Na Ok Boon (Na Moon Hee), a cantankerous elderly woman, against low-level civil servant Park Min Jae (Lee Je Hoon), who’s new in town and has yet to realize just how indomitable Ok Boon is. At first, the two continually butt heads, with neither party willing to yield to the other as Ok Boon files civil complaint after civil complaint, all of which Min Jae attempts to resolve. Then Ok Boon makes an interesting discovery.
Ok Boon wants to learn English but cannot find a suitable teacher. That is, until she finds Min Jae fluently conversing in English one day. Thus, Ok Boon switches gears and decides to pester Min Jae not about civil complaints, but about being her English teacher. Though Min Jae initially refuses her request, he eventually has a change of heart and becomes her tutor. Thanks to this new teaching arrangement, the two gradually come to learn more about each other, developing a special bond.
As Ok Boon continues her journey to learn English, the film reveals the true motive behind her desire to speak English, delving into her experience as a victim of sexual slavery at the hands of Japanese forces that once occupied Korea. It quickly becomes clear that “I Can Speak” is about more than just being able to speak English; it is also about being able to speak up about past injustices. Emotions continue to swell until the climax of the movie, when Ok Boon testifies before the U.S. House of Representatives, revealing the brutality that she and other women faced decades prior.
Although much of this film is fictional, it is true that several women testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007 to pass House Resolution No. 121, which asserts that Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept responsibility for its use of comfort women during its occupation of Korea (and other countries) during the 1900s. The director of the film, Kim Hyun Seok, said that the most fictitious aspect of this movie is that the women testified in English, when in reality, they testified in Korean. That said, the testimony in the film is indeed based on actual events.
Catch the trailer below:
Which Korean movies based on true events have moved you to tears? Let us know in the comments!
seheee is a software engineer by day and an avid K-pop concert goer by night. She also occasionally makes an appearance on Twitter (@_seheee).