Introduction to Korean Cinema: Another List of Best Korean Movies
December 8, 2010
There’s something about Korean movies I just find irresistibly compelling. Sometimes it’s the crude handling of language and humour, or the stylised violence and sex that might have been considered excessive in other films, or biting social commentary that many Koreans are still too conservative and afraid to speak openly about. These uncomfortable and melodramatic elements of Korean cinema come in a form of ‘한 (han)’, a unique concept of painful regret that materialise itself as ravaging maelstrom of violence and melodrama in these movies.
But most importantly, I love Korean movies because they have what we Koreans call ‘멋 (mot)’, or ‘style’ in English. They are not always accessible, you may not like them, but almost always memorable and fascinating to watch. When I watch a good Korean film, I find uniquely stylish taste of cinematic experience that I can’t find in hollywood movies (and that’s all I get on big screens where I live).
I have compiled a list of my favourite Korean movies into groups of different directors and genres, so that it is easier to find related recommendations. Please note that I have only included the movies I’ve watched. I hope you find it useful as introduction to the magic that is contemporary Korean cinema.
BONG JOON-HO’S MURDER MYSTERY THRILLERS
Bong Joon-ho is one of Korea’s most wonderfully twisted directors, and his signature work Memories of Murder demonstrates just how suspenseful his mystery thrillers can be. His writing is phenomenal- we are compelled to connect the dots as one clue leads from one suspect to another, but never fully grasping this chilling serial rape and murder of 10 women in small Korean province (which is based on real murder case). What makes his movies truly briliant however is human drama that provides powerful motivations behind these detectives’ frustration, desperation, and despair. Unforgettable masterpiece of murder mystery. [trailer]
Mother is Bong’s most recent work that has all the mystery intrigues and social critiques of Memories of Murder, but with even more human drama. I especially enoyed the fascinating counter-casting of Kim Hye-ja, who is known to playing many kind motherly figures, but portrayed here as a fanatic mother out to prove his son’s innocence behind the murder of a young girl. Her performance is unbelievable, and all those who watches will soon learn what it truly means to mother. [trailer]
If you still can’t get enough of Bong’s thrillers, I recommend the movie Host. Although closer to a monster movie (like Godzilla) than a murder mystery, this intense roller-coaster ride has lost none of Bong’s tension, puzzle-solving, and drama. The ending is an enormous let down, nevertheless the film is still highly recommended for its dry wit, biting political jab, and realistic portrayal of absurdly unlikely scenario of a monster terrorising the Seoul River. [trailer]
PARK CHAN-WOOK’S REVENGE TRILOGY
For those who can stomach stylised violence and raw sex scenes as long as they can appreciate superbly directed thrillers, then Park Chan-wook’s Revenge Trilogy is a must see. I recommend starting off with the phenomenal Oldboy, utterly unforgettable revenge tale that is guaranteed a place in modern classics of cinema. It’s got everything: innovative action sequences, engaging ‘why dun it’ mystery plot, packed with memorable quotes, the list goes on…though something needs to be said about the mind-blowing twist at the end, which leaves no mercy for the main character as well as us the petrified audience, who can only pity his tragic fate. [trailer]
If you liked Oldboy then don’t hesitate in trying the remaining two excellent instalments of the trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. One of the fascinating facets of Lady Vengeance is how Park kept deliberately juxtaposing the main character’s past as gentle and caring woman, to her present manipulative and relentless goddess of vengeance; female incarnation of Edmond Dantes. As for Mr. Vengeance, it’s considerably slower and less visceral, nevertheless it is another truly excellent story that evokes our sympathy for those innocent souls transformed to become avatars of vengeance.
NUTTY BLACK COMEDY
Korean comedies can be strange and none is more bizarre than the inventively demented Save the Green Planet. It’s completely out of this world, so prepare to expect the unexpected as this crazy mixture of comedy, sci-fi and psychological thriller turns your mind inside out. But hidden underneath this storm of hilarious insanity is a sincere plea to save our green planet. Watch this…if anything, you probably haven’t seen anything like this before, and you won’t forget it. [trailer].
Foul King is another wonderful black comedy that is, although not as stylish, but just as witty as Save the Green Planet. Not only is it really funny, it also skilfully mixes well-timed slapstick comedy with excellent character development to raise relevant societal issues for working men. Special mention must be made to the veteran actor Song Kang-ho for giving life to the confused, but always enthusiastic character of Dae-ho, who is more relatable than laughable as the challenges he faces are much like ours; struggling to find purpose, self-confidence and identity in a working life of endless stress. [trailer]
Park Chan-wook’s oddly charming surrealist comedy I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok is also recommended main ly for its style. It’s not as funny as previously recommended titles, nor does it possess much social commentary, but you can always trust Park to make his motion picture addictive. As an extra, my favourite actress Im Soo-jung is starring as the psychopathic android *squee~ [trailer]
Korean horror don’t exactly possess the kind of terror that drives one senseless like Japanese horror (i.e. Ringu, Ju-on). They are often driven by drama, which I find jarring most of the time. A Tale of Two Sisters is a wonderful exception in that the strong chemistry between the characters serve to instill strangely beautiful sense of horror deep inside us. Horror not of the unknown but of the disturbing consequence of the girl’s love for her sister, and grief for their once beautiful relationship that will only exist in her wishful memories and imagination. Horrifying, but beautiful. [ost]
I also strongly recommend Paradise Murdered, which is less of horror and more of psychological mystery thriller. The premise of people dying one by one in a closed island may seem like another variation on Agatha Christie, but it’s much more interesting than that. There is a considerable amount of humour and joy in the film, especially in the beginning to establish the light-hearted atmosphere of the remote island village community of 17 people. The movie would not have been as immensely suspenseful were it not for such light-hearted beginning, as we are forced to ask who out of these village people would do something like this and why. This is a hugely thrilling puzzle of murder mystery with a spice of humour and supernatural horror, and a real treat for those who can appreciate a delicious final revelation just as much as its compelling journey. [trailer]
Thirst is not a very polished work so it’s somewhat difficult for me to recommend. Nevertheless, it’s a refreshing modern take on vampire tale, and Park Chan-wook’s graphical approach does not disappoint in providing visceral cinematic experience. Everything looks and sounds amazing, especially those very wet and creepy noises that made for one scary as hell hallucination sequence. It’s enough to give one a nightmare. As an icing on the cake, the incredibly sexy female character makes us thirsting for some action, and the movie delivers o so satisfyingly *drools [trailer]
PAINS OF KOREAN MILITARY AFFAIR
Korea is the only divided country in the world today, and many painful memories have been brought to surface via films in recent years. If you are searching for an epic war film similar to Saving Private Ryan, then look no further than Taeguki. Not only is the realism of cruel Korean war reality portrayed really well, the character development involving two brothers is immensely endearing and makes for several tear-jerking moments. [trailer]
Silmido is another intriguing film, which is actually based on an even more intriguing historical event. South Korean government once trained a group of lowlife to elite killing machines in order to assassinate Kim Il-sung (former president of North Korea), but later ordered their elimination due to South’s need to protect its international reputation as a civilised and diplomatic country. When the troops learned of the betrayal, they massacred their trainers and marched towards the South’s capital instead. So the film deserves credit for having the balls to expose the event to public, but it’s also a very entertaining action film with good script and emotionally charged acting. [trailer]
Unforgiven on the other hand is an art film, and its lack of entertainment value will no doubt bore many viewers. Nevertheless, it’s an honest and mature take on very sensitive issues regarding male adults living in Korea, who are still legally required to complete 2 years of ruthless military training. If you don’t mind the sluggish pacing, lots of dialogues, and slightly homoerotic undertone, then this movie will prove insightful and deeply moving. [trailer]
Dirty Carnival is another excellent addition to this potent genre. Although lacking that noir feel of A Bittersweet Life, it tells a Scarface-like story of a mob who loses his ways in ambition, with gritty crudeness. This film was a godsend for the actor Jo In-sung (who has often been criticised as a pretty boy who can’t act for his life), for his tendency to act in highly exaggerated manner injects just enough menacing energy and emotions into the main character who is so central to the story. Jo presents us with the performance of his career in painting a man with good conscience and heart, but forced to survive in a cruel world of beasts, where no mercy is spared to those who walk the dirty road of carnage. [trailer]
If you are looking for something lighter in tone, City of Violence is your answer. It’s essentially an action flick where half the screen time is devoted to kicking ass in style, and with great choreography. There is enough story and character interaction to chew on, but the movie never takes itself completely seriously, and for me that was a good thing in this particular movie. Overall, a great action movie with lots of humour and badassery with just enough story and emotions to not insult your intelligence. [trailer]
ANIMATION FOR ADULTS
Unfortunately many Koreans still treat animations as cartoons for kiddies and do not produce many adult-oriented animations of great artistry and story-telling like Japan. That is not to say no mature and creative works are coming out from Korea. My Beautiful Girl, Mari is a gentle slice-of-life story of loss and nostalgia, as well as an artistic experiment of highest distinction. The fantastic world the main character is transported to is an absolutely stunning surrealist dreamscape…coral-like plants start growing, you feel the clouds hovering twenty feet above ground supported only by thin strings as if it’s weightless. A mesmerising spectacle, a work of mature sensibility and immense imagination. [amv]
If you are looking for more adrelaine-fueled B-grade flick, don’t forget to check out Aachi wa Ssipak, because this is one mindless entertainment that no action junkies should miss. The story goes like this: in a futuristic world where human shits have replaced fuels for energy, mutiple factions are now searching for the thieves who stole the ultimate anus capable of producing endless amount of shits. So it goes without saying, be mindful of its highly sexual, crude, and violent content and language. Otherwise, the writing is surprisingly smart and the way different factions (from police, mafia, terrorists, hoodlums) interweave like a web of intrigue will hook you from start to finish. The visuals are also deliciously stylish with some very skilfully choreographed action sequences with sweeping camera angles that leaves one drooling for more. [trailer]
For more down to earth story, Life is Cool is a completely rotoscoped movie about relationships between the three best friends, and their common romantic interest. The character interactions here always feel genuine because each characters are so carefully crafted with substantial back story and delicate characterisation. The dialogues and characters’ movements flow so naturally, and its writing so witty and intelligent, there is not a moment that feels mundane in this movie. [trailer]
KIM KI-DUK’S ART FILMS
Kim Ki-duk. My all time favourite director. A man who makes silence sing. Once a painter, now a filmmaker, using his former skills to infuse each frame with magic. To watch his movies not to be entertained or thrilled, but to be disgusted, and find beauty within. His intimidating graphic content and highly sensitive issues that no one feels comfortable talking about will no doubt turn many people off. But for those select few, Kim Ki-duk’s films can be orgasmic.
3-Iron is what I’d recommend first, as it is arguably his most popular and critically acclaimed work. Like most Kim Ki-duk films, hardly any dialogue is spoken in the movie, but each carefully composed frames speak so much words that Kim really makes silence sing. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring is another silent work of Kim that focuses on Buddhism, and I have to say no movie has ever portrayed Buddhist ideals better before. The structure of the movie is wonderful: the story is divided into 5 acts, each represented by different seasons, an enchanting meditation on the cycle of human life in its innocence, desire, anger, and contentment. [scene]
If you are brave enough to dig deeper into the unforgiving style of Kim Ki-duk, you should try his The Isle. Let me just quote Roger Ebert’s review because I simply love how he put it:
“The audiences at Sundance are hardened and sophisticated, but when the South Korean film The Isle played there in 2001, there were gasps and walk-outs. People covered their eyes, peeked out, and slammed their palms back again. I report that because I want you to know: This is the most gruesome and quease-inducing film you are likely to have seen. You may not even want to read the descriptions in this review. Yet it is also beautiful, angry and sad, with a curious sick poetry, as if the Marquis de Sade had gone in for pastel landscapes.[...]The way I read The Isle is not about fishhooks and sex at all. It is a cry of pain.”
So Kim’s movies can be as contemplative as 3-Iron and SsfwS, or extremely violent and unbearable like The Isle. For those wanting to explore him further, I recommend The Bow, Samaria, Bad Guy, Birdcage Inn and Breathe. [trailer]
LEE CHANG-DONG’S ART FILMS
Lee Chang-dong is another giant responsible for some of Korea’s most poignant and powerful art house films. His works have much more restraint and refinement than Kim’s wild and untamed energy, and hence he is generally considered a better director by many. He possesses uncanny ability to convincingly create scenes that replicate ordinary Korean life, and using sympathetic characters of that life to appeal to our emotions, and through them he conveys simple messages poetically and sincerely without any pretensions.
Take his amazing Secret Sunshine for example. The main character (played by the ‘queen of Cannes’ actress, Jeon Do-yeon) claims, “where’s god in this sunlight? I don’t see any god here. There’s nothing.” This reflects the kind of person Jeon is, and how her attitude materialises as envy, anger, and despair in her life, all because she can not see what’s really important and dear to her. Many of us, like the main character, won’t realise this until the end when that very simple concept hits us like a ton of brick. The ending is powerful not because it’s a gimmicky symbolism thrown at the last minute, but because everything we’ve seen before that point, including Jeon’s award-winning performance and the script that leaves no minor detail left. [trailer]
I personally found his Oasis more beautiful and affecting, but that movie about two retarded people in love may prove too slow and uncomfortable for most people. If you can tolerate that, it will likely be one of the most beautiful piece of poetry you will witness on silver screen. His Peppermint Candy and debut film Green Fish are also must-watch for all fans of art house film, and I can’t wait to see his latest Poetry.
My Sassy Girl- There is little denying its mainstream nature, but there is also little denying its almost universal appeal. The female lead played by Jun Ji-hyun (from Blood: The Last Vampire) is just so damn adorably sassy, and the delicious master-slave chemistry between her and the lucky (or unlucky?) loser plays out well. Fantastically paced and always full of wit and humour, there is never a dull moment in this film. Although the overall structure remains pretty much the same as any other romantic comedies you have watched, there has never been a romantic comedy I’ve enjoyed even half as much as My Sassy Girl, and I very much doubt there ever will be.
No mercy for the Rude – What can I say? It’s got brutal sex, almost comical knife-stabbings, but also plenty of dark humour and visceral melodrama. Essentially a character study of an eccentric man living an eccentric life in an eccentric environment, this is one of rare occasions where action and melodrama goes well together, providing both style and substance in spades.
Woman on the Beach – I am ashamed to say I have seen only one film of Hong Sang-soo, even though he is considered as one of the greatest Korean art-house directors. But after seeing his Woman on the Beach, I have no reason not to try his other movies. Unlike Kim Ki-duk and Lee Chang-dong, Hong displays surprising level of humour, along with light-hearted atmosphere and leisurely pacing. So ultimately this artsy film exploring very serious issues of adult relationship and insecurities actually makes for a mildly relaxing entertainment. The movie also feels a little like Haruki Murakami novel in that transient Mono no aware way, which can only be good.
My Wife got Married - The female character of Joo In-ah is NUTS, I can tell you that much. And hot. And funny. And enigmatic. Just like the character of In-ah, the movie can be so crazy and absurd it’ll drive you up the wall, yet displaying enough charm to fall in love with it. This is one sexy, funny and intelligent entertainment once you open your mind to twisted values and perspectives of some people. Also, a must watch for soccer fans. You’ll see why when you watch it, trust me.
Tale of Nights – Now this is everything I wanted from erotic movie. Sex, sex, and sex. Starring hot, naked women moaning in ecstasy. Note that the movie is divided into two separate segments with different characters. The first segment is an intensely arousing sexual fantasy of a young married woman, while the other is more like a light-hearted comedy of a young spoiled brat getting to bang a real girl that just came out of video game. Great thing about these two segments is that they both have a sensible story, but just short enough to not drag the movie too long, and the dramatic shift in tone from heavy to light makes for a refreshing transition.
Attack the Gas Station – I am bit hesitant to recommend this comedy title because it hasn’t aged well (from 1999), and the humour can be little lame, especially for foreigners not familiar with Korean sensibilities. Still, I am recommending it because it’s one of my favourite comedies. I just adore the characters, the slapstick comedy is acted out well, the running gag is more funny than annoying, and as icing on the cake the movie has a hint of social commentary on the detrimental effects our ridiculously conservative Korean society’s value system has on younger generation. We are at first dismayed when they randomly attack the Gas station and cause senseless havoc, but as we get to learn more and more of their upbringing and what the adults have done to their innocence and dreams, we begin to cheer for their rebellious rampage and laugh at the adults who must now kneel before these free and energetic spirits of youth.
Since the post is already over 3500 words, I will stop here and list some more worthwhile movies: Friend, Show Must Go On, The Customer is Always Right, JSA, Chiwaseon, Happy End, Welcome to Dong Maek Gol, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Sex is Zero, Tazza, The Chaser, etc.
There are, needless to say, many other great films that deserve honourable mentions (including the ones I haven’t watched) but this list should be enough as an introduction to Korean cinema. Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions to any movies mentioned in this post. Also, feel free to talk about any other Korean movies that you have watched, or actors and directors that you liked.