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The 25 Best Films of The South Korean New Wave

24 July 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Kimberly Kenobi

best south korean films

The South Korean New Wave began in 1998 when, for the first time, nine home-grown films made it into the top 20 at the South Korean box office. The release of Shiri in 1999 put the South Korean New Wave on the map by becoming the biggest box-office success in South Korean film history with total admissions of over six million.

Prior to Shiri’s release, South Korean films made up just 15% of the domestic box-office whereas in 2001 that number jumped to a staggering 49%. Admissions quickly followed with sales soaring from 54 million in 1999 to 88 million in 2001. In 2004, the market share for home-grown films passed 50% for the first time ever. In addition, South Korean films enjoyed international sales across Asia, Europe and North America for the first time.

It is widely acknowledged that the South Korean New Wave is a fresh cinema with a young, vibrant voice; a generation of eastern filmmakers fluent in the tradition of Korean oral storytelling (pansori) and educated in western film genres producing ‘well made’ films featuring high production values, interesting and, at times, disturbing narratives being made on minimal budgets.

It is a cinema that challenges audiences through its use of genre bending. A cinema that does not rely on merely telling a story, instead it dares to show the story by asserting the importance of the image within a filmic and cultural context.

This is a list of the twenty five definitive South Korean New Wave Films.

 

1. The Quiet Family (Kim Jee-woon, 1998)

The_Quiet_Family

In Kim Jee-woon’s feature-length directorial debut we are introduced to the Kang Family who have moved to a remote mountain village to run a lodge for hikers. The only problem is, their first guest kills himself and so, to avoid bad publicity, they decide to hide the body. And so it goes for the Kang family and their highly unusual guests.

Starring a pre-fame Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy) and Song Kang-ho (The Host) the film is an exploration of the South Korean psyche in reverse. The application of genre-bending throughout leads to scenes of shock and hilarity housed in a hotel that symbolises the fractured nature of this quiet family.

Re-made in 2002 by Takashi Miike as The Happiness of the Katakuris, The Quiet Family quietly kick-started the South Korean New Wave in 1998 with its unique brand of dark comedy, inspired by traditional Korean horror films (minus the girl ghost) but skewed in its approach and delivery to reflect this bourgeoning auteur’s profound understanding of western genres.

 

2. Shiri (Kang Je-kyu, 1999)

Shiri

Known as Swiri in South Korea but released as Shiri everywhere else this film, written and directed by Kang Je-gyu, is often cited as the very first South Korean New Wave film. Dealing, for the first time in a direct manner, with the issue of reunification, Shiri is an action packed homage to the films of Michael Bay and John Woo.

Shiri might not have accomplished what it set out to do; open up dialogue about reunification between North and South, but what it did do was inspire a new generation of filmmakers. Shiri also breathed life back into what was, at the time, a fledgling film industry. Generating tons of revenue, Shiri proved for the first time ever, that a South Korean national cinema could stand up to the competition flooding South Korean multiplexes from abroad.

In as far as action movies go, this is a tremendous effort. The film combines the traditional values of Korean storytelling with the nuances of the contemporary action genres, including all the spectacle you’d expect to find in Hong Kong and Hollywood action blockbusters of the time but on a fraction of the budget.

 

3. Attack the Gas Station! (Kin Sang-jin, 1999)

Attack the Gas Station!

Attack the Gas Station, directed by King Sang-jin in 1999 tells the story of a group of bored teenagers who have nothing better to do than rob the local gas station… Twice. Fortunately for them the gas station is run by the most inept people on the planet (a little social commentary about big business) and things, as they tend to do in cinema, go tits up.

The movie explodes off the screen. It is visceral, fresh, stylish, packed with laughs and outstanding action sequences but more importantly, it has a lot to say about the emerging generation gap in South Korea and the folly of youth in the face of tradition and ancestry.

The movie proved so popular that it spawned a sequel in 2004. As a result of its hyper-critical commentary on South Korean society, Attack the Gas Station helped set the blueprint for South Korean filmmaking in the new millennium and soon the critical edge became a focal point of most New Wave output.

 

4. Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 1999)

Peppermint Candy

Peppermint Candy is a profound film which explores the violent history of South Korean society and notions of masculinity in the face of 50 years of oppression. It is not a movie about one man, it is a movie about an entire generation of men.

Telling its story in reverse from 1999 to 1979, Peppermint Candy deals with topics including the Kwangju massacre of 1980, which left hundreds of students dead, and the historical violence that marred the country for over five decades. The power of the film is that our engagement with our protagonist, Yong-ho, stems entirely from knowing how he meets his end.

Directed by Lee Chang-dong, who would go on to be South Korean Minister of Culture in 2003, Peppermint Candy is one of the films that spearheaded the South Korean New Wave by refusing to cater to audience expectations and by challenging our understanding of identity, gender and history on-screen. Like the life of Yong-ho in the film, there is not one single incident to blame for the turbulent events that have transpired in South Korea over the past 50 years. Instead there is a lifetime of unresolved issues, unrecognised brutality and painful struggle.

 

5. Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000)

joint security area

Directed by Park Chan-wook, who would later become the patron saint of the New Wave to international audiences with his Vengeance Trilogy, JSA is a film that explores the deep-seeded issues surrounding the physical divide between North and South Korea. Locating the action in the DMZ (de-militarized zone) and amidst a murder investigation the film sits comfortably in the murder mystery genre.

Park borrows from the conventions of the murder mystery genre to draw in a commercial audience and to aid with the building of tension. This tension is then diffused through the careful application of humour via genre-bending. One of the trademarks of the South Korean New Wave, which primarily serves to humanise the sometimes grotesque themes presented in the film. In particular, the themes of violence as a cry for redemption, violence as an act of sin or inherent institutional violence. These are not intended to be stylish or entertaining but rather to challenge an audience who has a half century of violence in their past.

Compared to Park’s other films, JSA makes the most straightforward political statement but it is the friendship that grows between the Northern and Southern soldiers that is the most important theme in the film. By defining their differences and, more importantly, their similarities Park is able to demonstrate a humanity that transcends borders; everyone loves a chocolate pie.

 

6. The Foul King (Kim Jee-woon, 2000)

The Foul King

Kim Jee-woon, who will pop up several times on this list, strikes again with an, at times, irreverent comedy about wrestling. Telling the story of Im Dae-ho, played by the incomparable Song Kang-ho, an inept bank clerk who is perpetually late and fed up with his mundane existence and the daily abuse suffered at the hands of his boss. So, he does what any one of us would do – he seeks out the help of a former pro wrestler to toughen him up.

Part schmaltzy drama, part knee-slapping comedy with some great wrestling sequences thrown in, The Foul King explores the definition of masculinity in contemporary South Korean society. The role also paved the way for Song Kang-ho to become one of the biggest stars of the South Korean film industry.

 

7. My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-yong, 2001)

My Sassy Girl

Based on the blog entries of Kim Ho-sik, My Sassy Girl tells the story of Gyeon-woo, who after a random encounter with a drunken girl on the metro finds his life changed forever.

A rom-com at heart, My Sassy Girl features all the tropes one might expect from the staid genre including over the top romantic gesture and a scene where they run into each other’s arms, but what it does even better is focus on the moments in between making the film less about ‘boy meets girl’ and more about the context of growing up, falling in love, loss and pain.

Full of symbolism and featuring incredible fantasy sequences that toy with traditional gender roles (the samurai fantasy is just genius) it is easy to see why, upon its initial release, My Sassy Girl became the most successful South Korean film ever made. Its international success only cemented its position in the pantheon of South Korean classics drawing comparisons to films like Titanic along the way.

Thirteen years later it remains the second highest grossing South Korean comedy of all-time. Several attempts to remake the film in Japan and America failed, as neither was able to capture the same level of intensity and quirkiness that makes this film a giant of its genre. Endearing and powerful, My Sassy Girl, like its titular character, is full of spirit, a little bit crazy and beautiful.

 

 

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  • Awesome list – South Korean filmmakers feel edgier to me. A lot of these movies have these really great (sometimes weird) shifts in tone – from slapstick to thrills and back again. I’m sure there are more specific traits, but that’s one of the things I enjoy most – a real willingness to give their characters and stories a well-roundedness and depth that doesn’t happen much here in the US.

    A US studio-action movie or a thriller typically feels very one note and chopped to the bone, by comparison.

  • Egg MacGuffin

    You forgot the best of all…The Man From Nowhere.

  • Naman Bansal

    You also forgot to mention the last movie of Vengeance Trilogy-
    Lady Vengeance (2005) “Chinjeolhan geumjassi” . This one’s also great.

  • Paul De Carvalho

    Great list – I recall we screened all of these during the years we (Juanita Kwok and I) presented The Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival in the early 2000s. Great to revisit them in this list – thanks!

  • nrvs

    I’m a cyborg is a terrific movie. Loved it.

  • Ernest Dln

    Cool, my personal favorite is a Bittersweet Life.

    I think it’s also important to denote Melville’s influence on the film, and, particularly on the lead. And maybe add western to noir, gangster and revenge. The final shootout is clearly a western one, almost taking place in a saloon.

  • Andrew lowry

    Great list. well done. I would also add ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…..And Spring’ along with ‘Mother’.

  • quickone

    Fantastic list. South Korean movies are so good – such wonderful direction, actors, cinematography, “genre-bending” – that you could make a substantial list of the top 40 without using any fillers. Glad to see Save the Green Planet! make the cut.

  • As

    What about one of my favorite comedies… Castaway on the moon!

  • vilija

    quite a neat list. though I’s add “dogani”/”crucible”, “pieta” and “the man from nowhere” to it

  • Salma Wong

    Awesome list!! <3 Sympathy for lady vengeance and Mother should've been on it but great list 😀

  • Diego Alejandro González Gil

    Only one more, The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Awesome film

  • Karim Maarouf

    South Koreans make every type of cinema pale in comparison and rivals pre80s Italian Cinema when it comes to thought provoking films

  • Sri

    Castaway on the moon, Crucible, marathon

  • Daniel Miranda Araoz

    You also forgot The Yellow Sea, a masterpiece.

  • Iván Solorio

    You forgot two of Hong Sang-soo films: Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate.

  • Lilsung

    Where is Sunflower? probably the best korean movie of all time

  • jai-il jang

    Great. List indicates international hits. The old boy talks about pedophilia in modern korea albeit justifies it by saying marry the girl. This is not current as law condemns pedophilia and always has. We know old boy as who he is – a scum of the earth and beyond.

  • lando
  • Bogdan

    Do you have a personal issue with Kim Ki Duk? There’s no other explanation why you put only one of his movies here, ranked somewhere in the middle while forgetting his masterpiece and some otherof his impressive works that are far better expressions of cinema than 33.3% of this list.

  • John Davidsson

    Top 10:

    1. Oldboy. 2. Spring, summer, fall, winter… and spring. 3. Memories of murder. 4. Castaway on the moon. 5. My sassy girl. 6. The chaser. 7.Poetry. 8. A tale of two sisters. 9. Bedevilled. 10. The brotherhood of war.

  • Colby Doler

    So glad you called Spike Lee’s remake an abortion. It’s lucky to even get that. Why remake one of the greatest films ever made?

  • Slobodan Cedic
    • Javier

      yeah, it’s really sad not seeing that movie in this countdown… is well-regarded in South Korea and a cult masterpiece worldwide.

    • But is it a part of the South Korean New Wave of the late ’90s?

  • Keith

    This list has many good movies that I definitely recommend. But the best movie is Miracle In Cell No7!!!! Also what about all the movies that ryu seung ryong acted in?!

  • Pingback: A train runs through it | Long Time Gone()

  • Algitya Widhiarso

    Barking Dogs Never Bite..

  • Adam Hartzell

    “This is a list of the twenty five definitive South Korean New Wave Films” Uhm, none of them are definitive because they are all films from “New Korean Cinema”. The “Korean New Wave” was mid-80s to 98-ish.

    Yes, the nomenclature is not distinct enough so we are often bound to be confused by these terms, but it is important to clarify because academic scholarship refers to the films in this listicle as “New Korean Cinema”. We don’t want folks confused, say, when attending a future “Korean New Wave” expecting OLD BOY and getting BLACK REPUBLIC instead.

    I do wish critics/scholars had chosen different, more distinct nomenclature when “Korean New Wave” and “New Korean Cinema” were decided. ‘Minjung Cinema” and “Hallyu Cinema” respectively might have been more helpful.