Thirty minutes into “Iron Mask,” the debut feature from Korean writer-director Kim Sung Hwan, its kendo-crazed antihero, Jae-woo (Joo Jong-hyuk), stares trancelike through shadows at an offscreen character, his eyes unblinking. Under fire from his dojo for excessive violence and foul play, Jae-woo’s terse line of self-defense is chilling: “We’re in competition here.”

That sentence gave me pause during the film’s premiere last month at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) in South Korea, where “Iron Mask” took one of the two top awards. A vision of life as constant competition propels the most riveting of South Korea’s global cinematic sensations, from the Oscar-winning “Parasite” to hit Netflix series “Squid Game” and “D.P.” Characters on the verge of failure are tempted by Machiavellian schemes to survive in a society that respects only winners and demands of its members brute desperation, fortitude and guile.