My Top Korean Cinema

My Top Korean Cinema.

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The ‘cult’ of Korean cinema is a popular brand of cinema slowly making an impact on western audiences. Of course when I say Korean I almost entirely mean South Korea. North Korean cinema is indeed quite something to behold but all for the wrong reasons.

Over the last 15 years Korean cinema has boomed, exports since 1990 have increased threefold. The Hallyu (The Korean Cultural Wave) has finally reached our shores and it’s time to embrace it but what’s with the sudden rise in cinema from a nation previously renown for its war.

Korea historically is a nation of the repressed, since the Japanese invasion and the almost total eradication of their heritage, language and culture. Then the occupation of Korea until WWII when after the nation split into north and south. It was only until 1990 when South Korea introduced democracy that the nation’s cinema industry began to thrive and with it the birth of the Korean Movie brats arrived Kim Ki Duk – “Three Iron”, “Spring, Summer, Fall…”, Je-gyu Kang – “Brotherhood”, Joon-ho Bong – “The Host, Park Chan-wook – The vengeance trilogy.

Korean cinema’s identity in one of shock, humour and innovation by rebranding and breathing new life into sub genre’s such as the revenge thriller and the romantic comedy Korean cinema not only made a name for itself as an institution but changed audiences expectations forever.

Below is ten films that I feel best represent the diversity and range Korean cinema.

J.S.A.:Joint Security Area

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A touching thriller (if there can be such a thing) about communication between North Korean and South Korean troops amongst the infamous Joint Security Area. JSA is a delicate film that doesn’t shy away from confronting the two countries differences through conversation and action but does handle those differences in a sensitive way that keeps the film from turning into propaganda material. This film is aimed to tug at the heart strings of even the most northern of the North Koreans. To put this film into perspective my twenty something year old brother who genuinely believes Jason Statham movies are cinemas greatest gifts came to me puffy eyed after watching this film saying, “yeah it’s alright that Korean movie, not a lot of action but still pretty good *sniff*”.

The Chaser 

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The Chaser is quite literally one of Korea’s biggest suspense thrillers. It’s nonstop edge of your seat action sequences and mystery will keep any viewer watching until the very end. With a main character that everyone can hate, the Chaser is an unforgiving tale of murder and suspicion. The characters are rich, the script is intelligent and chilling tension is relentless. The Chaser is a great example of the tone of Korean cinema, bleak and blighted but brilliant.

I Saw the Devil

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A film more about the performance of Byung-hun Lee vs the performance of Min-sik Choi arguably two of Korea’s greatest actors. This perfect tale of revenge has no problem exploring themes of torture, cannibalism, explicit sexual content and extremely bad language. This one isn’t for the faint hearted. It can be easy for a revenge film of this standard to be consumed by its shock factor but thanks to the actor’s performances the film manages to claw back some reputation. Min-sik Choi’s performance in particular is a perfect interpretation of a serial killer, a broken monster with little left going on upstairs.

My Sassy Girl

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My Sassy Girl is a compassionate film with both a humane message and humane characters. Almost every scene in the film gives the viewer’s something to laugh, cry, or think about.  There are no moments of silence or dead air and every act within the film carries it owns heart-warming blend of physical comedy, straight melodrama and emotional highs.

The Man from Nowhere

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Finally the bodyguard movie, Jason Statham eat your heart out. No seriously this film blends those traditional elements of a lost child being kidnapped and an angry outsider (who previously befriended the young girl) trying to find her with South Korea’s brutally honest gangland underworld, that’ll give the usual non-descript European sex rings in ‘Taken’ a run for their money. This is an adrenaline fueled, fist fight of a film with little secrecy left to the imagination.

Memories of Murder

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My favourite Korean film Memories of Murder is based on the true story of the country’s first known serial killings. Memories of Murder is an authentic tale of detective work that doesn’t give its audience anything extra, a look into the killer, a clue hidden from the detectives. It’s an honest movie filmed in a realistic manner by Joon-ho Bong giving the film a poignant but effect final point. Without giving the ending away, the story concludes in an unfashionable tone, giving the audience the final say and leaving them with a hard impression of what they’ve just witnessed.

A Bittersweet Life

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A bittersweet life is a film with great endearing personality through its main character and the struggles he faces both physically and emotionally. Director Kim Jee-woon is renown for his stylish action adventures and horrors, a Tale of Two Sisters, The good the bad and the weird, brings us an equally stylish and engrossing film who’s slick look and polished surfaces are both spoilt and enriched by the honesty of the script. The film consistently admits its character’s and openly invites the audience to identify with the character and his situation, even if it’s utterly ludicrous. Check this film out people before Hollywood get a hold of it.

3-Iron 

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Ki-duk Kim’s strange but enchanting love story about a man who breaks into empty homes to partake of the vacationing residents’ lives for a few days but ends up falling in love with one of the opponents. 3-Iron is a great example of the kind of beautiful cinematography that tenderly takes it’s viewer through the strange wonderful plot then calmly sits them down and leaves without saying a word about what just happened. Ki-duk Kim a film making focused on the artform and less so on the story telling. The plot is at first glance an extreme case for Kim’s auteurism but in reality the plot takes a back seat whilst just being the platform that allows the art of film to be better examined.

Oldboy

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“Revenge requires exhausting concentrations and patience, one is obsessed by it. This I thought was something only found in humans and is an interesting way to explain what we are all about.” – Park

Oldboy is a film that redefines the revenge genre a film with a fresh perspective on what’s been tried-and-true. A traditional thriller uses mystery and suspense built from its character emotions to generate jeopardy and intrigue, Old boy does the opposite it relies on an absence of emotions to drive its story, our main character is so far removed from society (physically) that when he’s reintroduced he no longer experience emotion on the same level and from this the audience is caught off guard, unaware what’s to come, suspense, death, romance?

Oldboy can be dismissed as being just an overly stylistic revenge movie by Park, which uses both extreme violence and ambiguity to attract more “Asia Extreme fanboys” than “buttoned-down cineastes”. However Oldboy also appeals to the more intuitive film fanatic, who will easily re-watch the film over and over again not just for memorable scenes but for a better understanding of the film as a whole.

A Moment to Remember

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Korea’s answer to the Notebook but not exactly. ‘A Korean love story about a young couple’s enduring love’, someone pass me the bucket because I’ll need it to urinate in because I don’t want a miss a second of this film. Everyone’s got a guilty pleasure but I don’t, I don’t feel in the least bit guilty about enjoying this film, it’s well written, superbly performed and wonderfully directed. A Moment to Remember is a story of innocence, tragedy, disease and of course love.

I’d quickly like to remind readers not to indulge in any of the American remakes of said or other Korean films. The following are to be avoided at all costs; The Lake House, Old Boy, My Sassy Girl, Mirrors and The Uninvited.

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One thought on “My Top Korean Cinema

  1. Your favourite movie is my favourite movie. Memories of Murder sits comfortably at the top, ahead of so many other fantastic films. Needless to say, I have a very similar list. I know you’ve not ranked them, but this is me: 1) Memories of Murder;
    2) Christmas in August;
    3) 3-Iron;
    4) Oldboy;
    5) A Bittersweet Life / The Chaser.
    As of now.
    Also, I was wondering why you didn’t put The Host (monster), A Tale of Two Sisters (horror), as examples above, to show Korean cinema’s amazing versatility, or more accurately, innovation thereof.

    Also, here’s 3 films (relatively unnoticed but wonderful) that I always recommend to anyone who’s even mildly interested:
    1) No Mercy for the Rude;
    2) Once Upon a Time in High School: The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do; and the aforementioned
    3) Christmas in August.

    Cheers. From a lover of Asian cinema and fellow space cowboy to another.

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