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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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.