My 30 Favorite South Korean Movies

"Memories of Murder"

                                               South Korean movies, from the late 1990’s was rejuvenated by group of ambitious young film-makers , whose creative style and transcendence of the genre structure provided immense delight for cinephiles all over the world. Uncompromising and critically acclaimed auteurs like Kim Ki-duk, Lee Chang-dong, Han Sang-soo, etc made landmark art-house features, taking us through beautiful and ugliest corners of the human mind and society. Masterful visual stylists Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-hoo, Kim Jee-won, Na Hong-jin used genre as the basis to engage broad audiences, only to later deviate from that path to realize their own great artistic visions. As Mr. Bong Joon-hoo says “Genre is, simply, one of the codes for attracting audience. It is not satisfying to ride in the bus running strictly on a designated route. Instead, deviating from the path often gives new spectacles and surprising moments of pleasure”.

                                               Celebrated Korean films like “Memories of Murder” or “Oldboy” starts off within the premises of two often repeated and famous Hollywood sub-genres: serial killer thriller and revenge thriller respectively. But, neither Bong Joon-hoo nor Park Chan-wook were interested in recreating the genre conventions set forth by American film-makers. They infused the unbridled energy and tension that pertains to their own cultural landscape. The young Korean film-makers not only deconstructed genre structure by incorporating darker shades of grey to their protagonists, they also gradually reconstructed the whole structure with a naturalism to profoundly explore the humans’ basic, primordial instincts: violence, love and sex.  

                                                Film scholar Mr. M.K. Raghavendra in his book “Director’s Cut” says that "The characteristics of the best South Korean cinema is a certain kind of visceral naturalism along with a more widely spread attitude best describable as casually brutal”. This casual brutality plays a vital role in the Korean director’s portrayal of hard-hitting violence. Unlike, the great Hollywood genre films, the South Korean movies don’t camouflage the brutality of a violent burst. A vicious gunfight and a murder in a Hollywood films could generate indifference or even fun in the minds of viewer. That was not the way in New Wave South Korean movies (although i got to admit that the casually brutal violence in itself has lately become a cliche). Korean films doesn’t treat the violent tactics of an antagonist in a different perspective than that of the protagonist.  The villains and the perceived heroes are more or less react in a brutal manner when encompassed by the basic, destructive human instinct. Police brutality and a corrupted justice system are most often scanned thoroughly by Korean film-makers. 

"My Sassy Girl"

                                                South Korean cinema is also widely known for its unique treatment of romance genre. Although I find the majority of these romantic ventures overly sentimental, the eccentricity and positively infectious energy in movies like “My Sassy Girl” and the elegant, genuinely tear-jerking depiction of love in “Christmas in August” made me a fan of their romance films too. From Kim Ki-duk’s “Crocodile” (1996) to the recent Korean box-office sensation “The Wailing” (2016), Korean films continue to offer a resplendent movie experience. It’s been a decade, since I got introduced to South Korean cinema. And, after recently watching one of the most profound horror/thriller “The Wailing”, I got the urge to list out my favorite films that hailed from the small, southern part of Korean peninsula.  Actually the fitting title for this post would be ‘Favorite South Korean from late 1990’s to now’. I am not aware of the Korean films before 1995 (except for the famous 1960 film “Hanyo” aka ‘The Housemaid’). 

 "Christmas in August" (1998) | Director: Hur Jin-ho
"Peppermint Candy" (1999)  | dir: Lee Chang-dong
"JSA Joint Security Area" (2000) | dir: Park Chan-wook
"Failan" (2001)  | dir: Song hae-sung
 "My Sassy Girl" (2001)  | dir: Kim Ho-sik
"Oasis" (2002)  |  dir: Lee Chang-dong

"The Way Home" (2002)  | dir: Lee Jeong-hyang

"On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate" (2002)  | dir: Hong Sang-soo

"Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" (2002)  |  dir: Park Chan-wook

"Painted Fire" (2002) |  dir: Im Kwon-taek
"Memories of Murder" (2003)  | dir: Bong Joon-ho
  "Oldboy" (2003)  | dir: Park Chan-wook

"A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003)  | dir: Kim Jee-woon

"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter......and Spring" (2003)  | dir: Kim Ki-duk

"Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War" (2004)  | dir: Kang Je-gyu

"3-Iron" (2004)  |  dir: Kim Ki-duk

"A Bittersweet Life" (2005)  | dir: Kim Jee-woon

"The President's Last Bang" (2005)  | dir: Im Sang-soo

"The Bow" (2005)  | dir: Kim Ki-duk

"The Host" (2006)  | dir: Bong Joon-ho
"Secret Sunshine" (2007)  | dir : Lee Chang-dong

"Chaser" (2008)  |  dir: Na Hong-jin
"Breathless" (2008) | dir: Yang Ik-joon
"Mother" (2009)  | dir: Bong Joon-ho
"Castaway on the Moon" (2009)  | dir: Lee Hae-jun
 "Poetry" (2010)  | dir: Lee Chang-dong

"I Saw the Devil" (2010)  |  dir: Kim Jee-woon

"Silenced aka The Crucible" (2011)  | dir: Hwang Dong-hyuk

"Right Now, Wrong Then" (2015)   | dir: Hong Sang-soo

"The Wailing" (2016)   | dir: Na Hong-jin

My top three South Korean films:
  • "Memories of Murder"
  • "Poetry"
  • "Painted Fire"


Senthil Nathan S said...

Good collection.. I need to catch up with several in that list. Meanwhile, I suggest you could also try the following, if you haven't done so already..

The king and the clown
The chaser
I saw the devil
Confession of murder
Terror, live
Yellow sea
Miracle in Cell No 7

Arun Kumar said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, i have seen all those movies you have mentioned. I have included Chaser, I Saw the Devil, and Mother. I also liked the rest of the movies.

My few other Korean thriller recommendations:

The Man from Nowhere, Housemaid (2010), New World, The Thieves, Cold Eyes, The Berlin File, Confession of Murder, A Dirty Carnival, Swiri, Gamgi, A Company Man, No Mercy, Montage, Nameless Gangster, Iggi aka Moss, Save the Green Planet, Children (2011), Private Eye (2009), Assassination (2015), The Case of Itaewon Homicide.