What are the 10 Best Korean films?
Here is my list. Some may question the inclusion of some of these films but they fulfill my requirements –
- a compelling story
- superb acting
- captivating cinematography
- a larger societal impact and message
I make these recommendations not simply because I’m Korean-American and have a healthy level of pride in Korean art & culture but because anyone that knows anything about film can attest how the Korean film industry is making some serious waves around the world. Each year, you will see an increasing number of films being entered into international film festivals (and some that have walked away with notable prizes such as Oldboy in the 2004 Cannes film festival). With the emergence of Asian film festivals in growing urban cities around the world, you’ll be learning more and more about Korean actors, actresses, directors, and films.
While it helps to have Korean-Americans such as Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim as very visible characters in the ever slow moving drama series, ‘Lost,‘ there have been many incredible Korean films especially in the past 10 years. It is significant to note that the top Korean blockbusters are earning higher ticket sales in comparison to Hollywood films being marketed in Korea at the same time [more on this later]. As crazy as this sounds, you’ll also see a growing trend of Hollywood films being adapted from Korean films such as The Lake House (starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock) from Il Mare, My Sassy Girl, Friend, among others.
Let me also say, that in my opinion, Koreans don’t do comedy and satire very well. It’s also very possible that my Korean language capacity is at such a Junior High School level that I just don’t get the nuances of comedy. This may make sense because my wife is laughing at a film and I’m laughing at her laughing at the film. My other explanation is that Korea is a country and a people with an intense history of injustice, foreign occupation, a paralyzing Korean war, poverty, etc. And technically, North and South Korea are still at war and remain separated and divided as two nations. Painful.
These elements come out in films as dark, painful, melodramatic, and other emotions that can be summed up by the Korean cultural concept of ‘HAN.‘ You will not see more gutwrenching, heartfelt, painful, and authentic tears and crying than in Korean films. To better understand Korean people and culture, you must attempt to grasp this sense of HAN [and another concept called ‘Jung’]. To my knowledge, there is no fair equivalent translation that gives ‘HAN’ justice in the English language. Only two comedies (and one is easily a melodramatic comedy that leaves you in tears] made it to my top 10 list and the rest are painful stories of divided families and loyalties, human depravity, the Korean War, and the North/South Korea separation.
Because I live in Seattle, I get exposure to these films about 12-24 months after they’re released in Korea. There are several other well regarded films that are not on my list simply because I have yet to see them and this list is comprised of only films I have seen with my own eyes.
So, without further ado, here’s my version of the 10 Best Korean Movies/Films. If you have any interest in exposing yourself to the blossoming Korean cinema, catching these films will be worth your time. I’m sure you’ll have your disagreement or your suggested additions. Feel free to add your contributions to the comments list.
Honorable Mention: 200 pounds beauty, My Little Bride, Samaritan Girl, The King and the Clown.
#10 | Bin Jip [3 Iron] - written and directed by kim ki duk. i have to be honest and say that the first time i saw this film, it just didn’t capture me. it seemed to move too slow for my initial taste. this is one of those films you just need to sit, relax, and enjoy the film. each time i see this film, i enjoy it more and more. the plot is simple: a transient man who breaks into peoples’ homes but with no malicious intent. to have a place to stay and in the process, he “fixes” things – broken devices, clocks, does their laundry, etc. film takes a turn when he encounters an actress/model who is in an abusive marriage. FYI, “Bin Jip” simply means ‘Empty House.’
#9 | sassy girl -one of the two comedies that crept into my top 10. but this film provides unpredictable surprises, good acting, and many laughs. such an influential film that it’ll be remade and released by hollywood in ’07. I enjoy this film but there are many that simply love this film.
#8 | sympathy for mr. vengeance – either you hate or ‘appreciate’ such films. it is hard to use the word ‘enjoy’ because there are such twisted, complicated, and disturbing scenes and storylines. this stars kang-ho song, an amazing actor who seems to churn out superb acting in everything he does. this film involves loyalty – to siblings, children, friends and revenge – and everything in between. the director does an incredible job painting a story about each person; warning you ahead of time that this film is violent and very disturbing.
#7 | the way home – many of the recent korean films have been so intense that this film was incredibly refreshing; it speaks to the heart and soul; speaks to the commitment of a grandmother who is ill, old, and frail and her love (without words as she’s a mute) to her grandson who has been left in this rural village by her mother who needs to return to seoul to find work. gutwrenching and heartwarming story of generations, humility, tension between urban and rural, and the importance of family and devotion. a must see film.
#6 | welcome to dongmakgol – it’s difficult to call this a straight comedy. it’s certainly funny but it’s comedy, satire, and drama all rolled up into one. it’ll make you laugh and cry and at times, simultaneously. this is based on the korean war and involves the US army and a soldier coincidentally named ‘smith,’ and soldiers from both the North and the South. it does not involve brutal violence and bloodshed. circumstances bring them together to a village called DongMagGol and it is here, that we are given an image of ‘shalom’ – of hospitality, friendship, kindness, and forgiveness – and what could be. particularly powerful in light of the fact that the lessons of true beauty come from villagers and a young girl who plays something equivalent to a Shakespearean ‘fool’ in the film. beautiful film; classic east asian literature themes, and wonderful cinematography. i want to see this again – right now.
#5 | joint security area – the tragedy of the korean war and the repercussions of that war is prominent in korean pain or HAN – and HAN, i mentioned in an earlier blog entry is critical to Korean Identity. this film speaks to that pain and the possibility of a future where reconciliation can take place as it did amongst a handful of soldiers. a casual filmwatcher may not fully understand the substance of the film w/o understanding the nature of the separated countries. having visited the DMZ on couple occasions and being a son to parents who were both born in what is now called ‘north korea’ – all of these films of the korean war speak to my heart.
#4 | oldboy – it’s one of those films you wished you didn’t watch; easily one that didn’t have to be in my top 10 but after watching it, i was so disturbed that i couldn’t stop thinking about it. the tagline of the film is “15 years of imprisonment…5 days of vengeance.” superb acting (choi min-sik is one of the finest actors that hollywood will never have the privilege of truly enjoying) and directing; earned honors at the Cannes film festival in ’04; one of the most intense, brilliant and disturbing psychological thrillers i have ever seen. i usually watch most of these films with my wife but she wouldn’t even come in the same room when i was watching this from what she read on reviews.
#3 | shiri – the oldest film (1999) on this list. an action packed thriller with the classic storyline of tension and espionage between north and south korea and a love story imbedded beautifully into the larger tension. it made the top 3 on my list because of couple intangibles: 1) it introduced yunjin kim (lost) to the world and 2) surpassed cameron’s titanic as the biggest blockbuster in the history of korea. this film empowered korean directors and investors to believe they could produce korean films and compete against western cinema. that alone makes this a worthy #3 for me. yunjin kim is the most prominent korean-american actor (she grew up in NYC) that has ‘made it’ in both the east and west.
#2 | friend - starring jang dong gun amongst a group of four friends. he too is one of the finer actors in korea and is often seen as the chow yun fat of korean cinema. i loved this film; it begins with the innocent story of four young boys growing up as friends and the choices they make as teenagers and later as adults that destroy their innocence but ultimately demonstrating, the significance of loyalty, devotion, and friendship.
#1 | taekukgi – the brotherhood of war – directed by the same person who filmed Shiri and starring jang dong gun again. this is the story of two brothers – a shoemaker and his younger brother (an intellectual aspiring student) and their devotion to one another and their family. they are forced into the army, to fight in the korean war that they have no idea why they’re fighting, and the rest of the film details the horrible war, the quest of the older brother to protect the younger brother, and stories of a divided brotherhood, family, and nation. many literature, stories, film and other forms of art still focus on the korean war because there was never adequate time for the people to process what transpired. this, in many ways, is part of the healing process of a nation. technically, the countries are still at war and a people still remain divided. this film makes saving private ryan look like a PG movie. my wife and i just wept during and after the film. my father, who loves war films, simply cannot watch this film because of the pain it brings up for him.
There you have it folks. My top 10 list of Korean films I’ve seen.