Movies, books, and songs to capture the essence of Seoul and get you in the mood for travel

Movies

The Host (2006)
Allegorical horror/black comedy/social critique about a giant, shrimp-like monster emerging from the Han River to chomp on citizens after U.S. troops in central Seoul pour poison down a drain (a real incident). Camera offers unusual city views—from underneath river bridges—as the monsoon pounds down and a family defies bureaucrats to rescue two children from the creature’s lair.

Taegukki: Brotherhood of War (2004)
Melodrama overwhelms this Korean War-era brother-versus-brother tearjerker, but the final widescreen shot—when the camera pans out from a group of refugees cooking in the ruins to reveal the devastated city—is worth the price of entry.

Oldboy (2003)
This ultra-violent film noir earned the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004. An ordinary businessman is locked in a shabby motel room for years for reasons unknown by persons unknown. One day, he is mysteriously released to take revenge. Filled with lurid scenes of back-alley Seoul.

Shiri (1999)
The movie that heralded the “Korea Wave” of movies and TV soaps, which have flooded Asia, this thriller showcased a sophisticated Seoul. South-North spy versus spy: What happens when a handsome capitalist agent falls for a gorgeous communist assassin?

Books

The Red Queen, Margaret Drabble (2005)
British feminist novelist Margaret Drabble’s work juxtaposes Seoul past with Seoul present, as a female academic visiting the city becomes entranced by the real historical story of Lady Hyegyong, “The Red Queen,” wife of the mad Prince Sado—“The Coffin King.”

The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies, Michael Breen (1999)
The ultimate nonfiction guide to the Korean mind, heart, and Seoul. Be it social culture, history, religion, business or politics, Breen’s 20-plus years in Korea and irreverent viewpoint grant businessmen, tourists, and expatriates the liveliest portrait of this people in English.

Jade Lady Burning, Martin Limn (1992)
Whodunnit set in a racy, 1970s Itaewon—the then-red-light district adjacent to the central city U.S. Army base—in the wake of the Vietnam War. Two maverick U.S. Army detectives investigate the apparent murder of a local prostitute by an American soldier. Brilliantly evokes Seoul’s dark underbelly and juxtaposes Korean and U.S. military culture.

"Seoul Brothers" (in the collection Holidays in Hell), P.J. O’Rourke (2000)
American humorist P.J. O’Rourke's gonzo portrait of riot police battling protestors, set against the backdrop of a newly prosperous Seoul, ignited outrage in Korea when first printed. In retrospect, provides vivid jackboot-level view of days when “people power” flooded the streets and the junta grudgingly granted democracy just before the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Music

Compilations:

Greatest Hits: Reminiscing Over a 35-year Musical Career, Cho Youn Pil (2003)
Cho, Korea’s answer to Frank Sinatra and the king of “trot”—a jaunty musical style popular with the older generation—looks back in this four-CD collection.

Ultramania, Seo Tai-ji (2000)
Classic album from Seo, a hip-hop and rock maestro, who is the father of modern popular music in Seoul.

It’s Raining, Rain (2005)
Smash hit from the Pan-Asian superstar of dance. What more is there to say?

Girls on Top, BoA (2004)
Slickly produced album from pop princess BoA, wildly popular in Korea and Japan.

Traveling of Sound, Kim Young Dong (1994)
Haunting, evocative, and beautiful new age arrangements of traditional Korean instruments and synthesizer.

Classic Songs:

The “Korean Wave” of music only started to rise in the late 1990s, but now local rappers and balladeers are garnering fans across Asia. Here are ten hits that evoke Seoul:

1. “Seoul, Seoul, Seoul” by Cho Youn Pil
2. “The Lights of Seoul” by BoA
3. “Got Rice?” by Azn Pride
4. “Dongnae Han Bagui” (“Around the Block”) by Tablo featuring Epic High
5. “Uri Hyeong” (“My Brother”) by Outsider
6. “Ddeobeori” (“Blabbermouth”) by Leo Kekoa
7. “Sora Pururun Sora” (“Evergreen Pine Tree”) by MC Sniper
8. “Inseangeui Sipyee Jinbeob” (“12 Dispositions of Life”) by MC Mong
9. “Chak Hakae Salleo” (“Live Kindly”) by Yang Dong-geun
10. “Onul Seouleun Haru Jongil Malgeum” (“Clear Day in Seoul”) by Toy

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