8. Failan (Song Hae-sung, 2001)
Someone once said that melodrama is the national genre of South Korea, and when it is done as well as it is in Failan, it’s hard to disagree.
Directed by Song Hae-sung and based on the Japanese novel Love Letter, Failan tells the story of a young Japanese ex-pat named Failan (played by Hong Kong legend Cecilia Cheung). Following the death of her parents, Failan moves to South Korea to stay with family only to find that they have emigrated to Canada. Alone and with nowhere to go she agrees to an arranged marriage, brokered by a marriage agency, and soon finds herself wed to disgraced ex-gang member Kang-jae (played by Choi Min-sik) who is about to start serving a ten year prison sentence for a murder that his boss committed.
The mastery of Song Hae-sung as a director shines through in this film. His control over every aspect of the film heightens the sense that his characters have no control over their circumstances. Not in any way overly sentimental and lacking in the usual tropes associated with the genre, this melodrama substitutes sweeping diatribes about love and loss for genuine moments where the audience is allowed to become part of Failan and Kang-jae’s lives. Choi Min-sik and Cecilia Cheung deliver master class performances and when it all comes to a head in the final act the emotions explode off the screen and there we are, right there with them, grieving and alone.
9. Friend (Kwak Kyun-taek, 2001)
Friend is a film about four boys who despite coming from completely different socio-economic backgrounds become best friends. The film follows the boys from their school days in the 1970s into adulthood. Semi-autobiographical in nature (although some have said it is entirely based on events from the director’s life) the film is set in Kwak Kyun-teak’s hometown of Pusan with the actors speaking a very particular Korean regional dialect.
Beautifully composed thanks in part to cinematographer Hwang Ki-seok, Friend is violent and hilarious. It is alive with tension and raw emotion. Some have said it is heavy-handed in its application of melodrama but you can forgive that once you understand that the subject matter is so close to the director’s heart.
The epic nature of the film, spanning three decades, echoes traditional gangster conventions (the rise and fall of the protagonists) but in typical New Wave style it blends the contemporary with the traditional creating an east vs west coming of age gangster melodrama.
Friend became the highest grossing South Korean film of all time upon its initial release in 2001 and remained the highest grossing film until Silmido was released in 2003. In 2013 a sequel was released entitled Friend: The Great Legacy which did very well at the box-office but failed to receive the same level of critical acclaim that the first film did.
10. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
In the first instalment of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (Oldboy & Lady Vengeance round out the three) we are confronted with two diametrically opposed men and throughout the film are asked repeatedly to make up our own mind as to who Mr Vengeance is. Is it the rich upper middle class business owner Mr Park whose daughter has been kidnapped or is it the young deaf foundry worker with the dying sister?
By playing with genre, the film moves with ease between psychological thriller, horror and even comedy with elements of the revenge film thrown in for good measure. In this film Park uses genre to define, as well as conceal the motivations of the characters, all the while suggesting that coincidence plays a bigger part in our lives than we think.
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance makes the bold statement that revenge is unique to humankind; it is a part of who we are. The film works as a whole, incorporating elements from various genres to unsettle the audience and stir emotions. With beautiful cinematography courtesy of Kim Byung-il & powerful performances by the two leads (Song Kang-ho & Shin Ha-kyun); Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is a must-see for film fans the world over.
11. Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2002)
Lee Chang-dong’s third film Oasis, his last before becoming South Korean Culture Minister in 2003, is a film that challenges orthodox cultural, moral and artistic boundaries through the representation of unconventional behaviour. It challenges, like all good New Wave films do, but it does so in a truly aggressive manner by telling the story of a mentally disabled young man and a young girl with cerebral palsy who somehow find love in a world that doesn’t care about either of them.
Part of the ethos of the New Wave was to allow types of behaviour on-screen that audiences might not get the opportunity to see anywhere else. New Wave directors never felt obligated to make their characters likeable in an attempt to appease audiences, they don’t want to ‘fit in’, and Oasis is the film that captures that ethos most poignantly.
This is a love story that challenges century old cinematic notions about what love looks like and makes no attempt to redress the disparity between what we’re shown onscreen and what we accept as ‘normal’ in society.
12. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
In 2003 the South Korean New Wave really hit its stride. Home-grown film production had tripled since 1999 and the South Korean film industry was making more money than it ever had in the past.
So quick and widespread was the success that multiplexes were popping up all over the country to keep up with the demand of South Korean movie-goers. This national cinema was also attracting a lot of attention internationally and Oldboy quickly became the ambassador of this vibrant, young cinematic movement.
The second film in Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy, Oldboy stars Choi Min-sik who gives a stellar performance as Oh Dae-su, a man who is kidnapped and confined for 15 years without ever knowing why then suddenly released back into the world as abruptly as he was removed from it. What follows is some of the most dynamic, perverse, sincere and haunting film imagery.
Arguably the most significant South Korean New Wave film ever made for the attention it brought to the national cinema of South Korea; Oldboy is nothing short of a game-changer. A moving soliloquy on revenge, loss, love and regret, it could be easily understand if it goes down in history as the most important Korean film ever made. And we can all go on pretending that the abortion of a film Spike Lee made last year never happened.
13. Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
Memories of Murder is a film that explores the true events surrounding the investigation into South Korea’s first ever serial killer in the Gyunggi Province in 1986 while the country was still under military dictatorship.
Beautifully shot by director Bong Joon-ho and cinematographer Kim Hyung-ku, Memories of Murder is a crime thriller at heart but in typical New Wave fashion we are given moments of respite from the brutal subject matter via the application of genre-bending. This allows the audience to remain engaged throughout, what can be a trying film in terms of imagery and content. Much of the comedy in this film targets the antics of the ‘bumbling’ rural cops played by Song Kang-ho and Kim Rwe-ha who, despite their efforts, are unable to make any progress on the case until they are joined by a detective from Seoul. As is the case with most buddy cop films, initially the three cannot see eye to eye, but as the case progresses and the body count increases they eventually learn to work together.
Through repetition & mimicry moments of slapstick pervade the film, most notably at one of the crime scenes which feels more like a carnival complete with detectives and paramedics falling about all over the place. However, beneath all the slapstick lies an undercurrent of desperation and tension which makes Memories of Murder the gripping film that it is. With yet another tour-de-force performance courtesy of Song Kang-ho as Inspector Park, Memories of Murder is as engaging from the quiet of the opening shot to the stillness of the final frame. At once a poignant, contemplative & powerful look back at a less than proud time in the country’s history which cemented Bong Joon-ho among the upper echelon of New Wave filmmakers.
14. Save the Green Planet (Jang Jun-hwan, 2003)
Save the Green Planet is the debut film of writer/director Jang Jun-hwan which tells the story of Lee Byeong-gu (played by Shin Ha-kyun who starred as Ryu in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance), a deluded young man who believes aliens from Andromeda are about to attack earth and he alone can stop it from happening.
An exploration into the psyche of a man who, raised amidst violence creates a fantasy world where he can makes sense of all the pain and loss in his life. The film uses flashbacks to reveal the true experiences of Byeong-gu’s life including the death of his father at the hands of his mother and the brutal beating of his girlfriend at a rally which led to her death.
Said to have been inspired by the film Misery and some crazy true-life conspiracy theories about Leonardo DiCaprio being an alien sent to earth to seduce & weaken our women (Google it), Save the Green Planet explores the notion of kidnapping from the point of view of the kidnapper.
Part satire, part thriller and part horror Save the Green Planet will have you oscillating between believing that Byeong-gu is a true hero and a twisted psychopath. A rare gem of a film in both its visual style and use of genre-bending (way more frenetic than in previous films discussed) Save the Green Planet is a film true to the ethos of the New Wave in both its content and style.
15. Silmido (Kang Woo-suk, 2003)
Silmido is the story of Unit 684, a collection of ex-cons and outcasts who were cobbled together by the government to infiltrate North Korea and assassinate Kim Il-sung in 1968.
The film was so wildly successful in South Korea that it brought renewed interest into Unit 684 and three years after its release the government finally acknowledged the existence of the Unit and the role it played in the Silmido uprising of 1971. In 2010 courts ordered the government to pay over 200 million won in compensation to the families of Unit 684 who had never been told what happened to their family members until 2006, some 35 years after they died.
Based in part on the book Silmido written by ex-convict Baek Dong-ho, the movie Silmido (named for the secret island where the group was trained) tells the story of the men who formed Unit 684 and their struggle in the face of tyranny at the hands of South Korean military officials. After promising each member of Unit 684 a clean record upon completion of the mission and a brutal training regime which left several members dead the military cancelled the mission, partially due to a shift in the political climate of the country.
In an attempt to keep this group of now highly trained killers a secret, they then decided to ‘get rid’ of them. What followed was one of the most gruesome stand-offs in South Korean political history as the surviving members of Unit 684 hijacked a bus en route to Seoul to tell their side of the story on 23 August 1971.
It would be easy to view Silmido as a simple historical action piece but like many of its New Wave counterparts, the film is a look back on a very dark period on South Korea’s history. It addresses national identity and consciousness. Silmido isn’t just a place where the soldiers were trained; it is a metaphor for a South Korea under the rule of Park Chun-hee. A metaphor for a country crippled by fear and willing to do whatever it takes, no matter how inhumane, to stop the infiltration of corruption from the North.
16. A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon, 2003)
Having played a key role in the advent of the New Wave in 1998, Kim Jee-woon continued to make daring and dynamic films of every conceivable genre throughout the first decade of the new millennium.
Taking a page from the Korean horror almanac, A Tale of Two Sisters is inspired by a folktale of the Joesun Dynasty (more commonly known as Chosun) entitled Rose Flower, Red Lotus. Telling the story of two sisters named Su-mi and Su-yeon (which mean Rose and Lotus) who upon returning to their father’s home after a stint in a mental asylum find that things are not as they appear to be.
Revealed in a jigsaw puzzle structure, saving the more salient set-pieces for the final act, A Tale of Two Sisters honours the tradition of horror in Korean culture while revamping the genre for international audiences.
A success at home and abroad (the first South Korean film to have a theatrical run in America) A Tale of Two Sisters brought much acclaim to director Kim Jee-woon while garnering an equal amount of attention for the New Wave movement.
Remade in 2009 as The Uninvited by Dreamworks, A Tale of Two Sisters remains one of the most iconic films of the South Korean New Wave, both at home and abroad, in terms of its content, visual style and reception. It remains the highest grossing South Korean horror film ever made.