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BUSAN, South Korea -- When I tell people that I’m a film critic, the question I’m most often asked is “What are some good Korean films I should see?”  More often than not, people tend to end up at a DVD-room without a clue as to what Korean film to partake in other than “Old Boy,” which I think almost everyone has seen more than once.  

Usually there are a plethora of choices on hand, from raunchy comedies, to inanely twisted tales of horror, to overtly manipulative melodramas, to downright silly action films that take themselves way too seriously.  

Ten Korean Movies You Should See


BUSAN, South Korea — When I tell people that I’m a film critic, the question I’m most often asked is “What are some good Korean films I should see?”  More often than not, people tend to end up at a DVD-room without a clue as to what Korean film to partake in other than “Old Boy,” which I think almost everyone has seen more than once.  

Usually there are a plethora of choices on hand, from raunchy comedies, to inanely twisted tales of horror, to overtly manipulative melodramas, to downright silly action films that take themselves way too seriously.  

For those of you who are fairly new to Korean films (or just Korea in general), I have created a very accessible list of cinematic gems that range from the masterpiece dramas to the superbly crafted popcorn action flicks (all of which won’t rot your brain).  If you do consider yourself a fellow cinephile, this list may not offer many surprises, though you might still find one or two obscure titles here that you have yet to see.

All of these films span the past decade, as Korean cinema really came into its own at the turn of the century:

   

 

 

Memories of Murder (2003)

Critically acclaimed and widely regarded as one of the best films of the past decade, director Bong Joon-ho’s intricately plotted masterpiece is (quite possibly) the best Korean film I have ever seen.  Set during a tumultuous period in the militaristic 1980’s, the film runs a social subtext parallel to the story of a gruesome series of murders in which all of the victims are women who are bound, gagged, and raped.  Starring Song Kang-ho in what is arguably his best role (the guy has so many to choose from), the film is a ponderous and entertaining police procedural that rivals the best Hollywood crime dramas.  You absolutely must not miss out on this wonderful film. (Full Review)

 

 

A Bittersweet Life (2005)

Director Kim Ji-woon rose to prominence, bringing along Korea’s leading man Lee Byun-hung, with his gorgeous gangster ode to La Dolce Vita.  Easily my second-favorite Korean film, A Bitter Sweet life blends stunning art-direction with intense outbursts of gritty violence.  Lee Byung-hun’s performance carries the emotional weight of a man who finds his rude awakening when he is betrayed by his gangster boss.  This tragic tale of a man who loses everything as a result of finding his dreams of love and happiness personified is a tour de force, one of the rare gems of Korean cinema.

 

 

Secret Sunshine (2007)

When talking about one of Korea’s absolute best orchestrators of human emotion on film, many will be quick to cite Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy or Oasis (which boasts one of the greatest performances by a lead actress ever captured on celluloid) as being the highlights of his work.  Those films are absolutely essential viewing for anyone looking to immerse themselves in Korean cinema.  As a result of the popularity of those films, I’d rather take a look at Lee Chang-dong’s underrated Secret Sunshine.  Never has a film embodied the essence of a mother’s grief quite like Secret Sunshine, thanks largely to Jeon Do-yeon’s heart-wrenching performance which won her the Prix d'interprétation féminine du Festival de Cannes in 2007.  Also, Song Kang-ho turns in a solid supporting performance, which pretty much means I was going to like this film right from the start (I think I have a man-crush).

 

 

Thirst (2009)

Thirst is my favorite Park Chan-wook film, and that’s reason enough to put it on my list.  I would go on to explain my reasons, but my very thorough review of the film is already featured on Busan Haps, and you can read it here. Suffice to say, this is one gruesome and sexy vampire film that you do not want to miss.

 

 

The Show Must Go On (2007)

Another one of my personal favorites that I have reviewed in full for Busan Haps.  Song Kang-ho (yes, him again!) takes the lead in a Tony Soprano-esque role in which a petty gangster desperately tries to hold together his relationship with his family while fending off attacks from rival gangs and a jealous underboss from within his own syndicate.  This is an earnest parable about the working man, and his family, in Korean society.

 

 

The Chaser (2008)

The Chaser is an extremely taut thriller about an ex-cop-turned-pimp (played by Kim Yoon-seok) whose missing girls lead him to take matters into his own hands.  The disturbing revelation of his investigation is almost too much to bear, as he finds himself face-to-face with evil incarnate, a serial murderer played with sickeningly subdued cruelty by Ha Jeong-woo.  As the twists and turns of the plot unfold, the film becomes a chokehold of suspense.  It’s so brutal right up until its final moments, yet so stylishly executed and effortlessly engaging, and that makes The Chaser one of the finest thrillers to be released in some time.  Also worth noting is famed film critic Roger Ebert’s review of the film as he writes “The Chaser is an expert serial-killer film from South Korea and a poster child for what a well-made thriller looked like in the classic days.”

 

 

The Host (2006)

A monster movie that is destined to go down in history as a classic, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host should need no real introduction, least of all from me.  Starring (drum roll, please) Song Kang-ho as a father who is desperate to retrieve his daughter from the clutches of a mutated beast which resides in the Han river, the movie also plays into deep political satire involving the U.S. military’s presence in Korea.  Achieving worldwide critical acclaim as well as some of the highest box office figures a South Korean film has ever seen, The Host is already a cult phenomenon in many foreign markets (check RottenTomatoes.com to see the astounding number of favorable reviews from North American critics, some of which liken its greatness to that of Jaws).  This is just an awesome film from top to bottom.

 

 

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

Kim Ji-woon’s challenging psychological horror film is at once a delicately sweet coming-of-age tale and a disturbingly tragic examination of sisterly love.  A Tale of Two Sisters is another masterful display of Kim Ji-woon’s directorial prowess, complete with striking art direction and hallway tracking shots that are clearly influenced by the likes of Stanley Kubrick.  This is one of the highest grossing Korean horror films of all-time.

 

 

Mother (2009)

Bong Joon-ho’s latest offering about a mother trying to exonerate her son for murder is a tricky little film.  The narrative winds its way around a series of events involving the dutiful mother of Do-joon (expertly played by Won Bin), a socially awkward man who has slight mental deficiencies.  Do-joon’s endearing nature draws us into his unfortunate circumstances as he is blamed for the murder of a local school girl.  His mother Hye-Ja (played by Kim Hye-ja) is unrelenting in her search to uncover the truth and prove her sons innocence.  Bong Joon-ho is a director who is always eager to tackle the simplest of subjects in the most indirect way.  It is in his unwillingness to compromise on the evolution of his characters that makes him one of the most vivid story tellers working in Korean cinema today.  Almost any film from Bong Joon-ho is worth a look, but Mother is one of his best.

 

 

The Good The Bad The Weird (2008)

The “Pièce de résistance” of Korean blockbusters, a raucous amalgamation of Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and Road Warrior chase scenes set against the barren backdrop of 1930’s Manchuria.  Kim Ji-woon’s trio of over-the-top outlaws, consisting of Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, and Jung Woo-sung, vie for possession of a stolen treasure map.  Their heated battle for supremacy leads them on an epic chase through the Manchurian badlands, engaging in one breathtaking action sequence after another.  This is pure escapist entertainment, a popcorn blockbuster that asks you to simply strap in and enjoy the ride.  Incredible set-pieces abound (look for the long, continuous shot that follows Song Kang-ho through a village marketplace) in this crowd-pleasing homage to the great, classic westerns.

 

 

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