Korean New Wave of cinema swept across rest of the world from later 90’s and early 2000’s. It was the most defining era of the Korean cinema, which created and popularized the romance genre and thriller/mystery genre. Kim Ki-duk, Chan-Wook Park, Joon-ho Bong, Kim Jee-Woon, John H. Lee were some of the directors, who made a paradigm shift in the region. Before the new wave, Korean romances (Asian romances in general) always had a bad rap: either it was filled with perversity or was filled up with saccharine. It ignored the simple pleasures of love. But, these movies, I mentioned here, spent the time with man’s inner most innocent child and explored the true nature of love. They also had the guts to wander over the dark side of love. The list is solely based only on my viewing experience. This is not the quintessential list about Korean romance. And, if you had your own favorite ones (the ones I missed out), please mention it in the comments section
Christmas In August (1998)
Jung-Won runs a small photo studio in Seoul. He goes about his daily routine, facing the fussing of various kinds of customers. The mid 30’s protagonist, one day, finds out that he has terminal disease and surprisingly accepts his fate, only until the chance meeting of Darim, an employee at the Traffic Control Division of the local district office. She is a frequent customer with picture of parking violators and a sublime relationship gradually starts between them. There is not much of an original story here, but its subtleness and the awkward silences make it much more interesting and touching.
Il Mare (2000)
Sung-hyun, an architect, in 1997, inherits a sea side house from his departed father. Eun-Joo, a struggling voice-actor moves out of her seaside house. It is 1999 and she leaves behind a Christmas card for the newcomer. Sung-Hyun finds Christmas card from Eun-Joo and thinks of it as a joke and leaves a letter inside telling her that it is 1997, not 1999. After letter exchanges, they realize that they are separated by two years of time but can somehow communicate through the same mailbox and gradually begin a friendship through their letters. The facial expressions, minimal dialogues and slowly unfolding twists stay buried in our hearts in a touching manner. The overly beautiful atmospheres add to the fantasy aspect of this romance.
Korean powerhouse performer Min-sik Choi (“Oldboy”, “I Saw the Devil”) plays as a washed-up, third-rate gangster named Kang-jae in “Failan.” Over the years, his status among fellow gangsters has diminished. Failan, after her parents’ demise, arrives to Korea to live with her relatives. Unfortunately, they all have immigrated to Canada and is forced to marry a stranger, in order to stay. She marries Kang-jae and he does it for money. Both move on with their life. The story, shown side by side (at different time periods) reveals the faint love, both of them had for each other. The letters of Failan shows the real love and is sure to break the viewers’ heart.
My Sassy Girl (2001)
This ground-breaking romantic comedy subverted all the clichés of this genre, and that too with a story, very common. It is basically a boy-meets-girl story, but the tomfoolery and unconventional scenarios these two drum up is beyond words. The chemistry between lead pairs Cha Tae-hyun and Jeon Ji-hyun is laughably amazing. The unconventional romance looks more realistic than some other movies. The struggle their relationship takes keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, anticipating how Sassy Girl's destiny will work out in the end.
Please avoid the schmaltzy American remake.
Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis conjures up a love story that collides very well with the life in Seoul. An ex-convict falls in love with a woman, who is affected by cerebral palsy – both abandoned by their families. The heartfelt love between the two main characters concentrates on telling the story as it needs to be told rather than staying away from taboo subjects, fearing of viewers’ reactions. There is one uncomfortable scene, which might scare away the conventional romantic movie lovers. Nonetheless, it is a love story that forces us to consider our preconceptions and prejudices about societal misfits.
The Classic (2003)
This Korean romance tells a set of love stories, happens across two generations. College friends Ji-hae and Soo-kyung both like a boy in their theatre class named Sang-min. Soo-kyoung, asks Ji- hae to write a love letter to Sang-min. Ji-hae pours out her own feelings for him on paper, but sadly in her friend's name. However, as fate would have it, Sang-min and Ji-hae keep bumping into each other. The other love story is about Ji-hae’s mom, who keeps memorabilia of her first love. The acting is terrific. The film is quite unique in dealing with the themes of love, loss and destiny.
A Moment to Remember (2004)
This engaging, glossy melodrama is about a 27 year old fashion designer, Kim Su-Jin, who begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease – the one which slowly damages her memory. Her husband, Chul-Soo agonizes over his wife’s painful ordeal and tries to capture a perfect and lasting moment of their love. This weepie romance story is handled with the right amount of balance, without getting into the syrupy romance. The film takes its time to carefully develop the characters and foreshadows what is to come. An unbelievable situation, but asks haunting questions about a love without any memories.
The story unfolds in Amsterdam and is set around a young naïve Korean artist girl, Hye-Young, who spends her life working in her grandfather’s antique shop and doing portraits for tourists. One day, she receives flowers from a secret admirer, whom she thinks to be Jeong-Woo -- an Interpol agent tracking Asian criminals in the Netherlands. However, the flowers are sent by Park Yi, an assassin. This triangular, face-off love story has an idealized notion of love, which seems to hold amazing sway over everyone. Nonetheless, the movie possesses a startlingly mundane script, which spells out everything for a viewer. It also plays certain scenes to gain heart-rending emotional effect.
Castaway on the Moon (2009)
This offbeat romantic drama is about a man named Kim, who jumps into the quiet, dark waters of Han River. Why did he jump? Well, he has enormous amount of debt and suffers from loneliness, ever since his girlfriend dumped him. But, this suicide attempt doesn’t result in his demise. He wakes to find himself in a tiny island along the river and the cruel fact is, he is amidst all the urban chaos – like highway noises and apartment buildings – but no one sees him, except for a young woman with a camera, who lives in her room, closed off from the real world. This film witnesses the intersection of two eccentric characters and is mostly an allegory to all this urban isolation. It doesn’t have any typical romantic element, but in a nuanced manner, details our need for human connection.
Always aka Only You (2011)
Serious sentimental romantic drama “Always” embraces all the clichéd tropes, but is very well stitched together and helped by low-key performances. The love story is centered between ex-boxer Chul-min and telemarketer Jung-hwa. He is a recluse and she remains spirited despite slowly losing her vision. As usual, their fate intertwines, a relationship blooms and a hope for better life starts.
Notable Omissions: "I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay", "More than Blue", "Ditto", "Windstruck", "Feathers in the Wind"