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Some Great South Korean Movies

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South Korea’s film industry has been absolutely killing it for the last decade or so, winning admirers across the globe for their character- and plot-driven movies which tackle every genre imaginable, from western to comedy to thrillers. Since arriving, we’ve been watching a lot of Korean flicks, and are almost always surprised and entertained — traditional Hollywood fare, this isn’t.

In our day jobs, we run a film recommendation website called Criticker, which has been very useful in helping us choose which Korean film to watch next. Here, for instance, is a list of the most popular Korean films of the past decade.

And here’s a quick list of the films which we’ve seen since arriving. This doesn’t include many of the most famous South Korean movies, which we had already watched (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, The Host, Thirst, JSA). And there are a few we still have to get to — Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring, A Bittersweet Life, My Sassy Girl and The Brotherhood of War are all on our list. Any other must-see Korean films we should check out? What are your favorites?

1 Dollar DVDs

Mother (2009)

Summary: A mother desperately searches for the killer that framed her son for their horrific murder

This goes to darker places than we were expecting, and we enjoyed it all the way through. Kim Hye-ja’s performance as the nameless Mother, who will do anything to protect her son, was incredible… especially as she slowly uncovers the truth.

5 Stars!

The Chaser (2008)

Summary: A pimp hunts down a pair of his missing girls.

A brutal, brilliant Korean thriller that completely ignores the normal plot devices of such films and presents a story which is impossible to predict. As the baby-faced serial killer, Jung-Woo Ha is positively terrifying (and kind of funny).

4 Stars!

Summary: A man named KIM jumps into the dark, quiet waters of the Han River. He wakes up and finds himself lying on strange ground, covered with sand. For a second, he thinks he is in heaven, but soon recognizes that he simply drifted to a nameless island in the river. In one of the riverside apartment buildings, there’s a girl who hasn’t ventured out of her room for years…

Most often, this whimsical romance is compared to Amelie — a film I really can’t stand. But this movie transcends its “quirky” characters, delivering a thoughtful message about humanity’s struggle to cope with modernity. One of the best, funniest, and most touching movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

5 Stars!

Summary: Sin-ae moves with her son Jun to Miryang, the town where her dead husband was born. As she tries to come to herself and set out on new foundations, another tragic event overturns her life.

Wonderful, unpredictable film. We loved the contrast between two types of people who can use someone’s grief for their own (not entirely selfish) ends… This film has one of the most honest and thoughtful depictions of modern Christianity that we’ve seen on film, and Do-yeon Jeon’s performance as the bereaved mother is astounding. You can’t look away.

5 Stars!

Summary: Jae-Young is an amateur prostitute who sleeps with men while her best friend Yeo-Jin “manages” her, fixing dates, taking care of the money and making sure the coast is clear.

Within the first few minutes, it’s clear that this movie would go in unexpected directions. Unconventional plots seem to be a hallmark of Korean cinema. This bizarre and occasionally brutal film earned director Ki-duk Kim (who also directed the wonderful 3-Iron) a prize at the Berlinale.

4 Stars!

Summary: A bounty hunter (the Good), a gangster (the Bad) and a thief (the Weird) match wits and many, many bullets in a quest for a mysterious treasure map in 1930s Manchuria. Over-the-top shootouts and chase scenes highlight this Korean homage to the Spaghetti Western. The cast includes the three biggest movie stars in Korea.

With Korea’s biggest actors, this was a major smash here. It’s a fun genre piece with some incredible action sequences set in the deserts of Manchuria, when Korea was under the thumb of the Japanese. It went on a little too long, though, for our taste.

3 Stars!

Summary: A secret agent tracks a serial killer who murdered his fiancée.

Very exciting, very brutal, very unpleasant. A horrifically bloody, unrelenting thriller which I kept averting my eyes from and praying for to end — I actually screamed out loud once. It was excellently made and exciting throughout, but only recommended for those who like their hyper-violence extra hyper.

4 Stars!

Summary: Based on a true story, Memories of Murder is a Korean suspense thriller offering an unusual fusion of death and laughter, while recollecting truly nightmarish events.

A gripping detective story which doesn’t shy away from the fact that many crimes are almost impossible to solve. The characters are well-developed, and their progression through the film is both natural and surprising. Given the fact that it’s a true story, there’s a surprising amount of humor. Quentin Tarantino named this one of his favorite films of the past twenty years.

5 Stars!

Summary: An ex-special agent CHA Tae-shik’s only connection to the rest of the world is a little girl, So-mi, who lives nearby. Her mother, Hyo-jeong smuggles drugs from a drug trafficking organization and entrusts Tae-shik with the product, without letting him know. The traffickers find out about her smuggling and kidnap both Hyo-jeong and So-mi. The gang promises to release them if Tae-shik makes a delivery for them, however it actually is a larger plot to eliminate a rival drug ring leader.

Like a Korean version of The Professional, except much better and more brutal. South Korean model/heartthrob/actor Won Bin excels in the role of Unstoppable Avenger, and the action is almost relentless. Includes the sickest knife fight we’ve ever seen on film, and earns an extra star just for that.

4 Stars!

Summary: A tilt-a whirl genre-blender that turns film history against itself to create one of the most savage, affecting and inspired anti-violence movies ever made. This is a movie that defies all marketing labels and is exactly what it wants to be: like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

We weren’t exactly sure what kind of film this was supposed to be. Comedy? It was pretty unfunny, especially during the… you know… bloody torture scenes. While watching this, we began to suspect that Koreans just throw a bloody torture scene into every movie they make.

2 Stars!

Summary: A girl who thinks she is a combat cyborg checks into a mental hospital, where she encounters other psychotics. Eventually, she falls for a man who thinks he can steal people’s souls.

WAY too cutesy, and not nearly funny or endearing enough to justify it. With a wide-ranging cast of wacky inmates, we kept hoping for a fire to break out in the asylum that would kill them all.

2 Stars!

Summary: Joong Rae goes on a road trip to the west coast with his friend Chang Wook and Chang Wook’s girlfriend Moon Suk. In the beautiful beach setting of Shinduri, Joong Rae and Moon Suk find themselves attracted to each other and spend a passionate night together. But where does life go the morning after?

A director’s-showpiece kind of film, with long, languorous shots and emotive performances. It’s all well-done, and is refreshing after the frequent gore of Korean cinema, but gets very long after awhile, and you can easily start to despise the selfish main characters.

3 Stars!
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July 15, 2012 at 10:50 am Comment (1)

Busan Food Journal, Part One

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Korean Cookbooks

We ate a lot of interesting new foods during our time in Busan. The city’s supermarkets are rather expensive, and eating out was almost as cheap as cooking at home, particularly when you stick to the kinds of local joints which we prefer. This is the first of our recaps on what we ate, and what it’s called

Most of Busan’s restaurants don’t have menus with pictures or English descriptions, so a lot of our meal choices will be the result of a random guess-and-point, until we learn the basics. To help ourselves, and other newbies to the food culture of Korea, we’ve decided to keep a little journal of the things we’ve consumed. Bon appetit!

Food Journal: Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six

Mulmil-myeon (월밀면)

Not sure if I’m transliterating that correctly, but mulmil-myeon is cold noodle soup. Thick noodles served in spicy cold broth, and perfect for a hot summer day… except, we had it on an unseasonably cool spring day. Brrrr. Juergen got the dry mixed noodles (???), which were also cold, and we split dumplings. It was all good; the restaurant was called Bonga Milmyeon in the Suyeong District(location). [More Pics]

Dongnae Pajeon (동래 파전)

“Jeon” means something like “pancake”, and this popular Korean dish can be made with a variety of main ingredients. When made with green onions, the name of the dish becomes “pa”-jeon. Pajeon is a specialty of Dongnae, the neighborhood we were in after having hiked around the Geumjeongsanseong Fortress, and we ordered some at a street vendor (approx. location). Our pancakes made with eggs, flour, chunks of pork and bunch of green onions. Yum (I’ve been practicing, and can now write “yum” in Korean: ?) [More Pics]

Pho Bo (포보)
Pho Bo

We tried this Vietnamese dish at a cute restaurant called Saigon, near our home at the Gwangalli Beach (location). I’m not sure what makes this a Vietnamese dish… maybe the type of noodles? But it was good. We also had spring rolls here. [More Pics]

Dolsot Bibimbap (돌조 비빔밥)

Bibimbap is both the cutest word you’re going to see today, and a delicious meal which literally means “mixed rice”. It’s one of Korea’s signature dishes, and can be served up in an infinite number of variations. At the rather pricey Well-Being Rice Cafe in Seumyong (location), I ordered Spicy Octopus Dolsot Bibimbap, while Jürgen went for Mushroom & Bulgogi. Dolsot bibimbaps are served in a piping hot stone bowl coated with oil. Once served, you have to immediately stir the rice around, so that it doesn’t burn to the bowl. [More Pics]

Kalguksu (칼구주)

We had this soup full of thick, wheat noodles at a small restaurant in Dongnae (approx. location). The name Kalguksu literally translates to “knife noodles”, referring to the fact that the noodles are hand-cut into shape. This hot and filling soup is, strangely, a summer dish in Korea. The waitress also gave us black bean noodles for free (“service”, as they say here). We weren’t about to protest! [More Pics]

Tonkatsu (돈카츠)

On the 9th floor of Shinsegae Centum City (location), there are a number of restaurants which look uniformly excellent. Before watching The Avengers in the world’s biggest 4D screen, we got dinner at Mita’s Kitchen. These delicious pork cutlets were soaked in sweet and sour sauce, and served with the usual line-up of delicious side items. [More Pics]

More Pics from Bonga Milmyeon
Busy Noodle Place
Mixed Noodles
Noodle Menue
More Pics of Pajeon
Bacon Pancakes
More Pics from Saigon
Saigon Menu
Saigon Rolls
Another Pic from Well-Being Rice Cafe
More Pics of Kalguksu
We also ate Jajangmyeon, a black-bean noodle dish
Another Pic from Mita’s Cafe
Pork Korea
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May 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm Comments (9)

A Cable Car to Geumjeongsanseong Fortress

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Hiking Gear

Turns out that Busan is the kind of city which can have a giant mountain right in its center, topped by an ancient fortress, accessible by cable car… and it’s not a big deal. We were shocked when we learned of the cable car up Mt. Geumjeongsanseong, and Busan was all “Oh yeah, that. I forgot about that.” It doesn’t even appear in the various “must-do” lists we’ve read for Busan, while in most other cities it would be the top highlight!

Busan Travel Guide

The origins of Geumjeongsanseong Fortress lie obscured in the past, but it’s thought to date from the Three Kingdoms period of Korea (57 AD – 668), when Busan was part of Silla. Rebuilt in 1707, it’s the largest mountain fortress in the country, spanning 3.2 square miles. A wall in various states of repair marks the perimeter, with gates and watchtowers spaced along its length. Nowadays, the interior of the fort is used for hiking (an über-popular Korean pastime) and nature retreats.

The cable car up the mountain was fun, although the day was so hazy that our view was severely limited. It takes about five minutes and runs for over a kilometer. On arriving, we had to hike twenty minutes uphill to arrive at the fortress’ South Gate, which has been recently renovated, as have long stretches of the wall.

After passing through the gate, our day really started. We had underestimated the size of the park, and immediately realized that our planned hike to the North Gate wouldn’t be happening. We walked along the eastern wall for a couple hours on a well-marked but very hilly path, dodging the caterpillars hanging from trees, and enjoying some incredible views over the city.

Busan Nature

For a mountain fortress on a Tuesday morning, this was a surprisingly busy place. We encountered a ton of other hikers, and every single one of them was completely outfitted in Ultimate Hiking Gear. The pants, the jackets, the backpacks, gloves, sticks, caps, etc. It was like we had landed in a commercial for hiking clothing and equipment.

On the way back to the South Gate, we got lost — getting lost seems to be a pattern for us in Busan. We were within 500 meters of the exit, but turned right instead of left, ignoring the sign for something called “Nam Mun” and continuing for an hour before finally pausing and thinking, “… wait a second”. Turns out, Nam Mun means South Gate. Oh silly guys, how did we not recognize the sign that so clearly pointed the way to “남문”?!

Although we were completely exhausted by the time we arrived back home, it was a great day out and I think we’ll be back. The Western Gate of the fortress is supposed to be impressive, as is Godangbong, the city’s highest peak. There’s enough to see on Geumjeongsan Mountain to occupy days.

Location of the Cable Car Entrance
Busan Hotels

Korean Dude
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Busan Subway Train
Cobra Stone Busan
Hiking Busan
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Old Wall Hike
Stone Bed
Wandern Korea
Kids Playing
Happy Wood
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Family Hike
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May 10, 2012 at 9:41 am Comments (5)
Some Great South Korean Movies South Korea's film industry has been absolutely killing it for the last decade or so, winning admirers across the globe for their character- and plot-driven movies which tackle every genre imaginable, from western to comedy to thrillers. Since arriving, we've been watching a lot of Korean flicks, and are almost always surprised and entertained -- traditional Hollywood fare, this isn't.
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