18. Fighter in the Wind (2004, Yang Yun-ho)
Near the end of WWII, Choi Bae-dal (Yang Dong-geun) stows away to Japan, hoping to fly planes. Instead, he’s immediately conned by Chun-bae (Jung Tae-woo), also Korean. Bae-dal learns from his new friend that Koreans are abused heavily by the Japanese soldiers. One night, the two men are captured, in which Bae-dal — in front of a Japanese Commander Kato (Masayo Kato) — protects his people with his fists.
Challenging Bae-dal one-on-one, Kato defeats him swiftly. With luck, they manage to escape to a Japanese market place, hoping to find work, but find more abuse by Japanese criminals. When an old friend Bum-soo (Jung Doo-hong) saves the pair, he invites them to live at their circus, in addition to training Bae-dal to be a better fighter. Appreciative, Bae-dal accepts, training to improve his skills as a fighter.
As a fan of the Shaw Brother’s catalog, I was surprised to see South Korea’s lack of entries specifically in the martial-arts sub-genre. This changed with the release of “Fighter in the Wind,” but it’s hardly like a Shaw Brother’s production. The action choreography is minimal and there is a relatively greater emphasis on character and story.
In fact, the film opens with Bae-dal confessing to the audience (via voice over) that he doesn’t like to fight — that he’s actually afraid of it. It’s a truth that resonates through most of the film, making the eventual violence (or avoidance of it) all the more impactful. Even as the film adheres to the conventions of the sub-genre in the second-half, it doesn’t sacrifice the character and world-building in the film’s beginning.
Of course, this wouldn’t fit the genre if it didn’t have a training montage and “Fighter in the Wind” has one of the best and most ridiculous training montages ever. It’s hard with a capital “H.” Fans looking for something more kinetic should look elsewhere, because these fights are over fairly quickly.
On a side note, Choi Bae-dal is actually based on Choi Yeung-Eui, who would go onto change his name to Masutastu Oyama and father Kyoushin Karate.
19. Running Turtle (2009, Lee Yeon-woo)
Officer Jo (Kim Yun-seok) is an pudgy and poor cop who gambles his earnings away, only to come home to his wife’s comic book store empty-handed. Gi-tae (Jung Kyung-ho) is a criminal who’s unbeatable in a fight, even so far as to going viral in certain websites.
Desperate and down to nothing, Officer Jo catches a break and wins a duffel bag full of money, waiting for him at his bookie’s office. However, Gi-tae attacks the bookie’s office and takes Officer Jo’s winnings. Desperate and embarrassed, Jo tries his best to uncover the secret behind Gi-tae and the location of his money. But every time they meet, Jo gets his ass handed to him.
Originally, I did not want to see this film other than the fact that it stars one of my favorite South Korean actors, Kim Yun-seok. It was until I read the review another critic (Pierce Conran) that sold me with his piece. You see, a lot South Korean action or thrillers have the tendency to have two characters oppose each other on an equal playing field.
By making them both unbeatable in a certain way, the filmmakers are setting up the inevitable showdown that can go either way. The tension is usually there, since South Korean cinema isn’t afraid to kill their protagonist (and their family, friends, pets, etc.). But “Running Turtle” creates a scenario that shows us a pair that’s wildly mismatched. How the film then forces Officer Jo to react is what eventually drew me in and won me over.
It’s not a thriller that reinvents the genre, but a great cat-and-mouse film that’s both funny and entertaining. This one should be fairly easy to find on certain streaming sites.
20. Marrying the Mafia (2002, Jeong Heung-sun)
Dae-soo (Jeong Jun-ho) is a successful businessman in modern-day Seoul with everything pretty much going great. One night he gets a bit too drunk, only to wake up next to a gorgeous stranger named Jin-kyeong (Kim Jeong-eun). He doesn’t recognize her, and after an awkward morning, they split ways.
While at work, Dae-soo is forcefully taken to the roof of a tall building by three gangsters, led by man named In-tae (Yun Dong-geun). In-tae reveals that he’s the woman’s older brother, and the other men are as well. He runs a large criminal organization with a patriarch that wishes not only for some legitimacy as businessmen, but desires a clean life for his daughter. Threatened and afraid, Dae-soo attempts to remedy the situation.
Aside from romantic comedies being big in South Korea these days, you’ll also find no shortage of gangster comedies as well. While there aren’t anything as unique and memorable as something like “No. 3,” the specifically Korean sub-genre has usually had some modest success with the public.
“Marrying the Mafia” is quite hilarious, but the comedy is unique to the way Korean culture — specifically gangsters — operate; the humor coming from twisted expectations. So if you’re familiar with the tropes of Korean gangster films, then the laughs should work.
Spawning three sequels, this franchise has been quite popular with South Korea, but I’d recommend the first to see if the humor works. While there are other film series such as the “My Wife is a Gangster” movies or “My Boss, My Hero” films, the ensemble cast in “Marrying the Mafia” is just too good to ignore, specifically Yun Dong-geun as the older brother.
21. Arahan (2004, Ryoo Seung-wan)
Sang-wan (Ryu Seong-beom) is a rookie cop trying to uphold the law. Not only does he fail at doing so, but he ends up being at the mercy of the criminals he’s trying so desperately to put away. Simply put, Sang-wan is a loser. When he fails to retrieve a stolen purse, he’s injured and unconscious, but rescued by Wi-jin (Yoon So-yi), a skilled martial artists.
While he heals at her home, Wi-jin also lives with six Masters of Tao, who recognize great Qi in Sang-wan. He initially refuses, but returns to train. Meanwhile, an ancient evil known as Heuk-woon (Jung Doo-hong) is awakened with hopes to finding the way to becoming invincible.
“Arahan” is probably best described as the South Korean “Kung-fu Hustle.” Despite being an action martial-arts film by the nations best action filmmaker, “Arahan” is also a comedy. That’s much in part to the antics of the Tao Masters and Sang-wan.
Whether it’s conversational or actual sight gags, “Arahan” has plenty of light-hearted moments amidst the action. Ryoo and his longtime collaborator Jung create some of the most energetic fight sequences in this film — at times adding a layer of comedy that’s both inventive and welcome.
The magical, fantasy elements of the film might be an odd device/explanation for the action, especially since many Hong-kong films will demonstrate this same level of fighting while claiming to be grounded in reality.
I saw this film when I was in my teens with my kid cousins, and honestly, that’s the perfect age for this type of film. But if you’re a fan of martial-arts action, choreography and don’t mind a dash of fantasy and humor, then “Arahan” should be a ton of fun.
22. Doomsday Book (2012, Various Directors)
“Doomsday Book” is an anthology film made up of three shorts that center around the end of humanity.
“In a Brave New World” (Yim Pil-sung)
When his terrible and messy family leaves for vacation, Seok-woo (Ryoo Seong-beom) takes the opportunity to clean his house, disposing a rotten apple that later gets processed as feed. During his date with the lovely Yoo-min (Ko Joon-hee), they receive some complimentary beef, unknowing of the meat’s infection by the apple. As a result, they and the rest of the city turn into flesh-eating zombies.
“The Heavenly Creature” (Kim Jee-woon)
At a Buddhist monastery, a robot named In-myung (voiced by Park Hae-il) meant for trivial and menial tasks, claims to have achieved enlightenment. Thinking it may be a glitch, a technician named Do-won (Kim Kang-woo) arrives at the monastery to do a provide a quick check-up.
After declaring that In-myung is fine, the chairman of the company (Song Young-chang) and a small tactical unit arrive to “decommission” the robot, despite hesitation and objections by the monks.
“Happy Birthday” (Yim Pil-sung)
As a young girl, Min-seo (Jin Ji-hee) orders an 8 Ball from a strange website to replace the one’s she’s damaged, fearing punishment by her pool-obsessed father (Lee Seung-joon) and her uncle (Song Sae-byeok). Before she finds what she’s looking for, she tosses the broken ball out the window, rolling into a hole down the street.
Two years later, Earth has less than 24 hours before an oncoming comet wipes everything out. As she watches the news, Min-seo realizes the comet looks exactly like an 8 Ball. Desperate, she and her uncle try to cancel the order while in their makeshift bunker.
Personally, I’ve gotten mixed reactions from these shorts when watching “Doomsday Book” with friends and colleagues. Some might like the idiosyncratic comedic style of Yim’s first and last short, while others are drawn to the contemplative entry by Kim.
Regardless, each one has it’s pros and cons, and admittedly, I’m more drawn to “The Heavenly Creature” than Yim’s entries, but Yim’s shorts are still well-made, even if the story doesn’t land. His entries overall feel odd.
I enjoy the discussions about each short, and for doing that alone, I recommend “Doomsday Book.” I know Kim Jee-woon is a favorite among fans of South Korean cinema, but I think there’s some pretty interesting stuff happening with Yim as well.
23. Always (2011, Song Il-gon)
Chul-min (So Ji-sub) is an ex-boxer who works odd jobs while keeping his form and staying in shape. He earns a new job working the security/tollbooth for an apartment complex at night. One evening, an cute young lady named Jeong-hwa (Han Hyo-ju) walks into his booth with some food, speaking to Chul-min about watching television together.
Realizing she’s blind, Chul-min informs her that the man she was expecting to meet no longer works there and that he’s taken his position. After an awkward meet-cute, the two eventually grow fond of each other, eventually starting a relationship. When Chul-min inadvertently gets Jeong-hwa fired by saving her from her lecherous boss, Chul-min enters the ring once more to support Jeong-hwa and pay for the operation to fix her eyes.
Once again, South Korea loves the romance genre, much like it does the revenge or gangster narrative. But unlike the latter two, the romance films I’ve seen tend to overcomplicate the formula to unnecessary heights. “Always” isn’t safe from that criticism as well. As much as the boxing sub-plot seemed excessive, there’s this forced backstory involving the pair that’s just too ridiculous.
In fact, the last act of the film is highly problematic, since what’s meant to be coincidental is purely Deus ex machina. Despite all that, “Always” actually comes together nicely in the end. The way the relationship unfolds is steady and gradual, working their way to that first kiss. The two leads have great chemistry, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a female performer who didn’t want to play So Ji-sub’s girlfriend (don’t get me started).
Not the best romance film by far (I’d gladly pick “3-Iron,” “The Shower,” or “My Sassy Girl” any day), but one that gets the job done. I prefer this over films readily available like “A Moment to Remember” or “More than Blue.”
Despite the boxing stuff being in the film to mainly satisfy the male audiences of this film, the end of “Always” should tug at the heartstrings of either gender by the films last few shots.
24. The Anarchists (2000, Yu Yong-sik)
The film opens with the protagonist Sang-gu (Kim In-kwon) thinking back to his days in Shanghai during the 1920s. As he faces execution from the Japanese-occupied government, an impromptu explosion sees Sang-gu getting rescued by a group of men — Sergei (Jang Dong-gun), Lee Geun (Jung Joon-ho), Han Myung-gon (Kimg Sang-joong), and Dol-suk (Lee Beom-soo) — who make up a small anarchy group.
Their goal is to overturn the Japanese occupation through violence and terrorism, bringing Sang-gu into the group. While Sang-gu is enamored with these men, he finds it difficult in partaking in the more violent actions of his group, despite receiving training. When their supporters back out in favor of the Japanese, the group finds itself scrambling to make money, while also escaping capture and death.
“The Anarchists” is going to be tough film to find on home video, but if you get the chance to check this film out, then I highly recommend it for several reasons. It looks and feels like a gangster, but the unusual storyline just uses the sheen of that genre. It is the first Chinese and South Korean co-production, with many of the resources and locations provided by the Chinese industry, looking authentic as ever.
The action, therefore, feels quite reminiscent of Chinese cinema than it does South Korean, at least in scope and scale for the time. “The Anarchist” is also an early script that Park Chan-wook help write before going on to make “J.S.A.: Joint Security Area.” While I wasn’t impressed in re-watching the film (first saw it as a kid), I did find the attention to detail quite impressive, despite falling into action and melodrama trappings.
Still, it was an early peak into the Hong-kong action films of the late-90s, and fans of those types of films should get some enjoyment out of “The Anarchists.” Despite being referred to as “anarchists” — a few scenes are dedicated to its themes — the film mostly is sympathetic to their cause, acting as freedom fighters than outright terrorists.
25. Howling (2012, Ha Yoo)
Sang-il (Song Kang-ho) is a veteran homicide detective who believes he’s due for a promotion. To appease his captain, he takes on a rookie partner, a young lady named Eun-young (Lee Na-young). With his new partner, the two check out what looks like a basic suicide via self-immolation. It seems pretty straightforward until the two uncover a large bite mark across the victim’s thigh at the autopsy table.
Adding to the suspicion, it seems like the fire was triggered by the man’s belt, suggesting that this suicide is actually murder. Sang-il withholds evidence and takes the investigation head on, even shrugging off his new partner. It’s unpleasant, but the two put their differences aside when another victim with the similar bite marks appears dead.
Before any of the promotional material surfaced detailing the film’s story, I legitimately got excited thinking this was the South Korean remake to the campy yet awesome series of werewolf films from the 80s. Disappointed, I remember going into “Howling” expecting another bland police procedural.
I found myself quite surprised at how awesome the character stuff works in this film. Song Kang-ho’s performance is magnificent. He’s an ass, but you get where he’s coming from. The real surprise is how awesome the character Eun-young is portrayed. She takes the same abuse and ridicule like her male counterparts, but doesn’t let it defeat her drive.
Lee does a fantastic job making Eun-young strong enough despite her incredibly vulnerable appearance. On top of all that, despite being a pretty straightforward thriller, it’s directed by Ha Yoo, the man responsible for the gangster classic “A Dirty Carnival.” It’s not as great as that film, but Ha cuts out all the unnecessary fat to deliver a straightforward, propulsive thriller that looks amazing as well.
Author Bio: Hanajun Chung is a geek and struggling writer. Once he got his degree, he found work mainly in post-production. But after studying journalism, he gained a newfound appreciation in writing about the things he loves, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.
Check out other South Korean movie list written by Hanajun Chung