As part of this week's Korean Blogathon, I thought I would contribute my Best Ten Korean films. Although my consumption of Korean cinema is far from comprehensive and heavily weighted towards certain auteurs, I have now seen enough films to provide a decent list. I decided to include only one film per director in order to vary the selection. My hope is that it provides a good introductory guide to the best Korean film has to offer. Also, the list is biased towards films of the past two decades. Part of this is because I have not seen a wide variety of classic Korean films, but mostly it is because I think contemporary Korean cinema surpasses its classic period, unlike the cinemas of America or Japan. This is mostly due to contextual factors. I have no doubt that under different conditions, directors like Kim Ki-young and Yoo Hyeon-mok could have made films that were the equivalent of John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, et al. But however interesting classic Korean cinema is (and it's one that is increasingly fascinating to me), I do not feel it compares aesthetically to contemporary Korean films. That said, here is my list:
1. SECRET SUNSHINE (Lee Chang-dong, 2007)
Finally receiving a release recently in North America, this is the Korean film that has stayed with me the longest. I'm a huge fan of Lee's 2002 OASIS, and while the social relevance of that film and his recent POETRY is greater, something about the style, performances and existential themes of SECRET SUNSHINE make it resonant in a way few movies have. The film so obsessed me that I wrote a long article trying to analyze and understand it (it's available here). I still don't believe I have. Not that I'm complaining. Other great films by Lee: PEPPERMINT CANDY (1999), OASIS (2002), and POETRY (2010).
2. LIES (Jang Sun-woo, 1999)
Director Jang Sun-woo spent the 1990s creating a number of provocative movies, such as ROAD TO THE RACETRACK (1991), FROM ME, TO YOU (1994), A PETAL (1996), and BAD MOVIE (1997). In 1999, he finally went all the way with his adaptation of the censored Korean novel LIES. It was censored and cut here in Korea (as was BAD MOVIE), only appearing uncut at festival screenings and eventually on foreign DVD releases. I first saw the film at the 2008 Chungmuro film festival here in Seoul, and thought it was one of the great films about not only sexuality and eroticism, but also Korean society as a whole. My original review is here. Also by Jang, A PETAL is essential and important viewing.
3. VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS (Hong Sang-soo, 2000)
My favorite current director, Hong Sang-soo has made 11 features and one short film in the last 15 years. All are very good and worth seeing, thus selecting one of his films as a stand-out is difficult. I chose VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE because of its beautiful black and white look and its narrative complexity, a structure so challenging that critics continue to debate its significance. You can see my original review here. Other Hong films demanding serious consideration here are WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN, NIGHT AND DAY, LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS and OKI'S MOVIE.
4. AN AIMLESS BULLET (Yoo Hyeon-mok, 1961)
For a brief period of time in 1961, the Korean film censorship laws lessened, and Yoo Hyeon-mok took the opportunity to sneak in this great post-Korean war drama, reminiscent of the great Hollywood noirs. The bleakness of the film and its view of Korean society is rather stunning, unmatched by anything in Korean cinema until the birth of the Korean New Wave in the late 80s.
5. CHRISTMAS IN AUGUST (Hur Jin-ho, 1998)
Hur Jin-ho is the master of understated melodrama, and CHRISTMAS IN AUGUST is a near perfect example of the form. The plot outline of a young photographer who is slowly dying and the relationship he forms with a young girl sounds hopelessly maudlin, but is transformed by Hur's patient style. That a film that departs from the stylistic norm of intensified continuity so greatly could be such a box office attraction shows how adventurous Korean audiences of the late 90s were.
6. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
The first in Park's Vengeance trilogy, followed by the Cannes winner (and box office smash) OLD BOY and completed by LADY VENGEANCE. OLD BOY is probably the most accessible and crowd-pleasing of the three, while LADY VENGEANCE the most thorough in its deconstruction of revenge. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE has a nice balancing of the two, avoiding the contradictory virtuosity of the violent set-pieces of OLD BOY while not sacrificing storytelling momentum in the manner of LADY VENGEANCE's final half. All three films work best together as a whole and represent Park's height as a director thus far.
7. TAKE CARE OF MY CAT (Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)
The only film on my list by a female director, who are still under-represented in Korean cinema. I saw this film at the 2008 Women's International Film Festival in Seoul, and was struck by how different it was from other female-centered films made in the west, in particular, the lack of focus on the character's relationships with men. Jeong's concern was to center the action around the young women, all recently graduated, and how their friendships change as they enter the adult world. In an interview after the screening, Jeong revealed that she constructed the story out of fragments of her own experience, and the result shows, with hardly a false note in the entire film. Original review here.
8. MEMORIES OF MURDER (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
Within a serial killer genre that has really worn out its welcome since David Fincher's SEVEN in 1995, MEMORIES OF MURDER was able to bring something new to the table, managing to make a great entry into the genre while also critiquing it from within. Everything that critics said about the overly praised ZODIAC applies much more to Bong's masterpiece. Despite the success he achieved with THE HOST and MOTHER, this remains his best work. Original review here.
9. A GOOD LAWYER'S WIFE (Im Sang-soo, 2003)
I was first introduced to Im Sang-soo's cinema through his 2005 political satire THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANG, a work I admired (especially for its politics) but didn't really love as cinema. The film he made previously, A GOOD LAWYER'S WIFE, is both socially astute while also being a superbly shot drama. It also features another amazing performance from the greatest of Korea's seemingly endless roster of incredible actresses, Moon So-ri. My original review is here. Also see Im's great reworking of THE HOUSEMAID.
10. THE HOUSEMAID (Kim Ki-Young, 1960)
While I personally may prefer Im Sang-soo's remake, Kim Ki-young's 1960 original is the more complex and disturbing work, a deft mixture of melodrama and horror that makes great use of Kim's interest in Freudian themes. The sympathies here are rather divided, with both the family and the housemaid shown to be monstrous in their own ways. The framing device also shows a modern self-awareness within this classical Korean text. My original review is here.
HAPPY END (Chung Ji-woo, 1999)
CHILSU AND MANSU (Park Kwang-su, 1988)
GILSODDEUM (Im Kwon-taek, 1986) and CHUNHYANG (Im Kwon-taek, 2000)
MADAME FREEDOM (Han Hyung-mo, 1956)
MY DEAR ENEMY (Lee Yoon-ki, 2008)