The last five years have been an interesting time for South Korean filmmakers. A slew of debut filmmakers found themselves not only making successful first and sophomore films, but a few actually annihilating the box-office numbers that Bong Joon-ho’s The Host had set almost ten years ago.
Speaking of, he along with two of the nation’s best and brightest released their English-language debuts, providing Stoker, The Last Stand, and Snowpiercer. More films are now finding their way to the big-screens internationally, as well as the growing market for video-on-demand.
For fans of South Korean cinema, it’s awesome news. Last year alone almost quadrupled the amount of South Korean films I’ve seen in theaters, especially after The Admiral: Roaring Currents carried it’s mainland success overseas. Select metropolitan areas will also get popular releases, even as far as being covered frequently by major outlets such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
As a fan following South Korean cinema for about a decade, I’ve seen many films that make it to the states. It’s nothing compared to critics who actually live in South Korea — they pretty much see everything. Some years I enjoyed more than others, but I definitely try to catch the ones that make a splash either in South Korea or at some sort of press-covered film festival.
When researching for this list I noticed a trend with the best films on here, sharing certain talent or story elements that just seemed compelling enough to work as a feature. People really seem to like their corrupt courtroom procedurals, and distant rural villages, while the critical community praised certain brave filmmakers for making films that treated rape and abuse more than just a hot-button issue.
In no particular order, the first 20 are some the best films I’ve seen from South Korea in last 5 years, while the remaining handful are solid entries that also happen to personal favorites. In any case, if you have a film that feels criminally absent from this list, comment down below! It may be an unusual list, but I’ll pretty much take any excuse to engage readers about South Korean film.
1. New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013)
Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) is second-in-command for a rising criminal faction, led by a half-Chinese Cheong (Hwang Jeong-min). They are part of a criminal organization called “Goldmoon” and soon they plan on expansion, opening up spots for leadership.
While trying to take the spot from competing gangs, Ja-sung secretly reports to his handler, Chief Kang (Choi Min-sik), as part of his job as an undercover cop. He is asked to participate in the expansion plan — called “New World” — and ultimately have that be last thing done before he’s pulled out. But as expansion gets nearer, Ja-sung’s chances at freedom become much more distant as he has to pick a side.
South Korea has some great modern-classics in this genre, and western audiences seem to be responsive to those features as well. There are some unique to South Korean culture (e.g. Friend), while some rooted in older entries in the genre (e.g. A Bittersweet Life) or classic narratives (e.g. A Dirty Carnival). South Korea has yet to slow down with the genre, but in recent years, it seems like only a couple have been able to stand out.
New World may be the country’s best gangster film in recent years for several reasons. It not only updates the criminal organization to mirror the current methods of gangsters — switching from pipes and bats to real-estate and extortion — but retains the essence of the gangster narrative while playing with familiar tropes as seen in similar films.
It’s The Departed, Donnie Brasco, and The Godfather all rolled into one. And even though their methods have changed, New World isn’t shy with the action. Done by the same stunt team as the films mentioned above (and all your other favorite Korean action films), New World has some superbly directed moments, even containing an action beat as memorable as Oldboy’s “hallway fight.” If you like gangster films in general, don’t miss this.
2. Bedevilled (Jang Chul-soo, 2010)
Hae-won (Ji Seong-won) gets in trouble at her work for having an inappropriate outburst, on top of being witness to an attempted rape and murder. Stressed, she takes a vacation to a remote island called “Moodo.” There, she’s overwhelmingly greeted by childhood friend Bok-nam (Seo Yeong-hie), even though Hae-won doesn’t reciprocate the sentiment.
Entering the village, she is shocked to find Bok-nam being treated like a slave. Even with Hae-won’s presence, it doesn’t do much to sway the locals. As Bok-nam finally makes plans to escape the island, things simply get worse.
Bedevilled is an experience. People have accused it of being exploitative, and it does teeter on that line closely. But much like 12 Years a Slave, it’s a film that’s ultimately remembered by the satisfaction of enduring the overall journey.
Horrific content aside, Bedevilled is an incredibly well-made debut film. The location is superbly utilized, hot and arid that the viewer is just as exhausted and tired as Bok-nam. For almost the entire running time, audiences are subjected to the cruelty, disgust, and indifference toward Bok-nam well past the point of exhaustion. However, the finale is what will rattle most viewers. It’s both satisfying and sad, earned but ultimately tragic.
While the title suggest straight-out horror (which, it arguably becomes), it’s better than a translation the Korean title, because that would’ve spoiled a hell of a finale. Seo Yeong-hie’s portrayal of Bok-nam won the nation’s equivalent of the Best Leading Actress Oscar, and it was well deserved. Be warned, it’s a tough watch, but one that fans shouldn’t miss.
3. Han Gong-ju (Lee Su-jin, 2013)
High-school student Han Gong-ju (Chun Woo-hee) leaves her hometown to live with the mother of her former teacher. Everyone assumes she caused some sort of trouble back home, even to the point in which most characters either don’t want her around, or try to impose what they think is best for the character. But Gong-ju is distant, with a permanently tortured look in her eyes. As the film progresses, the film slowly reveals the heartbreakingly traumatic incident that shaped and brought Gong-ju to this new town.
This film is devastating with a capital D. Much like Silenced and Girl at My Door, this is a film centered around the serious topic of sexual abuse that’s not exploitative, but deftly handled. Another directorial debut, Han Gong-ju puts audiences in the mindset of the character better than a lot of films, using editing, symbolism, and tight-framing to follow the character on a incredibly psychological journey.
Chun Woo-hee’s heartbreaking performance as the lead is excellent. She carries the character’s trauma convincingly throughout, but it’s during scenes where she’s confused and unable to properly react to the smaller joys in life that make Woo-hee’s performance quite affecting.
It’s the type of film in which the viewer wants to reach out and tell the character that everything’s going to be okay. But Han Gong-ju wouldn’t have it’s power if it copped out in that fashion. It frustrating, bleak, and an unnerving film that puts audiences in the mindset of someone who unsure if she can fully recover. It’s absolutely devastating, and should not be missed.
4. Unbowed (Jeong Ji-yeong, 2011)
On January 15, 2007, Kim Kyung-ho (Ahn Sung-kee) waits in an apartment hallway with a bag of chestnuts and a crossbow. He waits for Judge Bong-joo (Kim Eung-soo), and when the man arrives, he takes aim. It’s revealed that Kim used to be a math professor who objected to a question in an entrance exam against his colleagues, move that many considered a career-ending mistake.
Park Jun (Park Won-sang) is a lawyer with a drinking problem and in debt. He’s Kim’s first choice, but after horrible first-impressions, Park turns it down. After seeing Kim in trial first-hand, the two finally meet, and it’s once again disastrous, losing the job a second time. After realizing he can’t go on without working, Park takes Kim’s case, despite the two constantly not getting along.
Not since the recent film The Judge, Unbowed is the type of drama that hardly gets made in the west. South Korea has produced some fine courtroom procedurals, but Unbowed not only tackles South Korean law directly, but comments on the nature of law itself. It’s realized in the character’s profession, and it’s what drives and motivates both men in trial.
Both Kim Eung-soo and Ahn Sung-kee are a fantastic pairing, making their simultaneous conflict and friendship quite believable. Ahn is probably the best actor in South Korea, and he usually does a great job, even when the material isn’t (e.g. Sector 7). He brings gravitas to most of his performances, so when the character makes a declarative statement regarding his ideologies and ideas, it can’t help but feel meaningful.
While the direction isn’t that flashy (being the director’s first in over a decade), it complements a wicked script, forcing the audience to listen and take the dialogue seriously, unlike the men who put Kim in his situation.
5. War of the Arrows (Kim Han-min, 2011)
Prior to the second Manchu invasion, Nam-yi (Park Hae-il) and Ja-in (Moon Chae-won) barely escaped the execution of their family, as the two children take refuge at the estate of a family friend. As adults, Nam-yi is the best archer/hunter in town, while Ja-in is expected to be the bride of the estate’s son.
Before the wedding could finish, the Qing army invades and massacres the town, taking certain individuals hostage, including Ja-in. Armed with only a bow and arrow, Nam-yi single-handedly journey’s to save the person who means the most.
What makes this film amazing is that it takes a small slice of history to provide an action film disguised as a period piece. Most period pieces would go into the politics between factions, nations, classes, etc. — but War of the Arrows ditches a lot of that, opting to transplant a universal premise as an excuse some of the most imaginative and thrilling set-pieces.
Rarely has the bow and arrow received that kind of attention in a narrative film, even when certain elements are heightened for dramatic effect. The action is fast, and the pacing is a constant build-up from one action beat to the next. The camera is utilized even outside the action to convey how much of a badass Nam-yi can be with his gear.
When the third act hits, the film and its hero really take-off. It’s really no surprise that Kim Han-min would go on to direct The Admiral: Roaring Currents since that film similarly uses history as excuse for an all-out naval battle. While that film gets bogged down with certain politics, War of the Arrows is an almost perfect as a period action film.
6. The Thieves (Choi Dong-hoon, 2012)
A group of Korean and Chinese thieves unite to steal a $20 million diamond named “Tear of the Sun.” Both sides are hesitant to work with each other, but under the leadership of Macao Park (Kim Yoon-seok), they’re told that he’s able to pawn it to the mysterious, enigmatic criminal Wei-hong. But this team doesn’t believe in honor amongst thieves, and each have their own ulterior motives regarding the heist.
With an all-star cast, director, and budget, this South Korean blockbuster floored audiences and critics upon release. Despite being a bit long and channeling the flare of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, The Thieves moves along swiftly and confidently. The film actually takes much inspiration of Hong-kong action, even adding several A-list talent from their industry.
It’s a film that isn’t concerned with the deeper, philosophical implications of the job, and would rather simply entertain audience with a ridiculous blockbuster. Despite the many characters and their individual or collective motivations, it’s amazing that it rarely gets confusing. The final act may seem a bit unnecessary, but it’s one of the most audacious action set-pieces put on film. Sexy, clever, and a ton of fun, The Thieves aims to entertain, and boy does it succeed.
7. Sunny (Kang Hyeong-Cheol, 2011)
While visiting her mother-in-law at a hospital, Na-mi (Yu Ho-jeong) sees her old friend Choon-hwa (Jin Hee-kyung) admitted for terminal cancer. As the two reconnect as adults, she asks Na-mi the favor to reunite their old clique — one which they named “Sunny.” As Na-mi goes out in search for her friends, the film goes back to colorful time in the 80s, recounting the moments the glory days of “Sunny” and the tragedy that ultimately broke their bond.
On first glance, Sunny comes off like a chick flick. As the film ends and the credits roll, audiences immediately realize that Sunny is much more than a film for and about women: it’s one of the best films about friendship ever made. Infectiously emotional while also having fun, Sunny shines apart from the many South Korean revenge thrillers, gangster films, or period pieces.
Granted there are other genre films, especially in the comedy department, but none have balanced comedy and raw emotion that’s left a lasting impression like Sunny. The seven girls — past and present — all stay with you like they did with the protagonist. The masterful direction, great performance, the inspired set-pieces, and poppin’ soundtrack will leave you revisiting this film time after time.
8. Masquerade (Choo Chang-min, 2012)
A creative retelling based on missing historical documents (i.e. journal entries), Masquerade focuses on the 15th Joseon king, Gwang-hae (Lee Byung-hun). Paranoid at possible assassination attempts, he orders his counselor Heo-gyun (Ryu Seong-ryong) to find a double. While detaining a lowly street jester named Ha-sun (also Lee Byung-hun) for a disrespectful act, Heo-gyun spots an uncanny resemblance.
When the actual emperor gets poisoned, Ha-sun goes from a night decoy to taking the man’s place. However, to everyone’s surprise, Ha-sun is a pretty great leader, listening to the concerns of individuals that Gwang-hae never bothered. As things seem better, Ha-sun and Heo-gyun’s act attracts its fair share of suspicion.
Masquerade is a well made film, nominated and winning tons of awards during South Korea’s year-end ceremonies. As a period piece/costume drama, the attention to detail is amazing. Lit and shot gorgeously, it makes the world come to life in all the vivid colors onscreen.
The acting is phenomenal, as Lee Byung-hun’s dual role proves that the actor can do more than actions and thrillers. Ryu Seung-ryong is probably famous today for playing mostly villains in South Korean blockbuster, but he gives a subdued, understated performance in a film that’s usually filled with extravagant performances.
Masquerade is period piece that takes history into light consideration, but nonetheless a gorgeous film about true leadership and compassion. While films like The Face Reader and The Fatal Encounter made their way out here (also much recommended), it’s Masquerade that feels like a classic in the making.