7. Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2002)
Jong Du is a socially inadaptable and mildly retarded individual who has just been released from prison after serving three years for a hit-and-run accident. His family takes him back, but they are hesitant about him.
One day, he decides to visit the victim’s family and in their home, he meets Gong-ju, the sister of the deceased, who has cerebral palsy. A strange relationship forms between the two, but things take a turn for the worse when her family is informed of the fact.
Lee Chang-dong directs a film that focuses on a relationship that seems impossible for many reasons, although the protagonists make it work, in a way. The film’s strongest point lies with the depiction of the characters and their relationship, which is by no means idealized and does not pretend that love can magically solve the issues the characters carry.
The film benefits the most from the protagonists’ performances, with Sol Jing-du as Jong-Du and Moon So-ri as Gong-ju being magnificent in their respective parts.
6. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, 2015)
The film tells the same romantic story twice, with different outcomes. Chun-su, a director, has traveled to Suwon for a festival screening of his latest film. Due to an error made by the organizers, he has some free time and decides to visit an ancient palace in the area. While there, he meets a beautiful and shy painter named Hee-jung and eventually the two of them decide to spend the day together.
Their excursion involves drinking coffee and eating sushi while telling life stories and philosophizing, and a party held by a poet friend of Chun-su, where the film’s turning point takes place.
Hong Sang-soo directs a naturalistic film that focuses on a “what if” romance between two strangers, which benefits the most by the magnificent performances of Jung Jae-young as Chun-su and Kim Min-hee as Yoon Hee-jung. Through their relationships, the director communicates his message, that the little choices we make every day end up shaping the rest of our lives.
Additionally filled with his distinct sense of humor and his unique cinematographic style, which includes long takes interrupted by sudden zooms, this film is one of the best works from Hong Sang-soo and by rights became one of the most acclaimed films of the previous year, both in Korea and internationally.
5. Il Mare (Lee Hyun-seung, 2000)
In 1997, Han moves to a magnificent seaside house where he discovers a letter by a girl named Kim in the mailbox, which states that she was the previous owner of the house, and asks to forward her an important letter that will eventually arrive. Han initially thinks this is a farce, since he is the first person to live in the house, a notion that is strengthened when he realizes the letter is dated in 1999.
Eventually, he responds to the letter, only to discover that Kim actually lives in 1999 and the two of them share a communication beyond time.
Lee Hyun-seung focuses on two axes. The first and most obvious one is the relationship between the two, and particularly if they manage to meet and form a relationship. The second one is the change the two of them experience through a relationship that could only be attributed to a miracle.
The two protagonists have a peculiar interaction since their relationship occurs without them sharing scenes. In that fashion, Hyun-seung managed to create a romantic film that is far more than standard.
4. I’m a Cyborg but That’s Ok (Park Chan-wook, 2006)
Cha Young-goon is a patient in a mental home as she believes that she is a cyborg, that she could sustain herself just by taking energy from batteries, and that food consumption will ruin her circuits. Furthermore, he thinks that she can communicate with other machines, thus spending much of her time talking to vending machines.
Park Il-sun, a former electrician who thinks he can steal personalities, falls in love with her and tries to “conquer” her while he searches for a way to make her eat.
Park Chan-wook’s take on the romance genre could not be a normal one, with the love story of the film being utterly unconventional, while he managed to avoid almost every cliché of the category. His biggest achievement lies with his use of humor, which appears in some of the most dramatic scenes of the film. The way he manages to balance the two is truly magnificent. The highlight of this is the different ways Il-sun invents to make Young-goon eat, which could only be characterized as adorably paranoid.
Su Jeong-lim as Cha Young-goon is magnificent in the role of a vulnerable, schizophrenic mannequin, benefitting the most by both her performance and her physical appearance.
3. 3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk, 2004)
Seemingly homeless, Tae-suk is an urban hermit who spends his life in the apartments of people who are not present at the time. He eats from their refrigerators, takes selfies with their heirlooms, and pays for his stay by fixing broken apparatuses and washing their clothes. Eventually, he reaches Sun hwa’s house thinking it is empty, due to her husband being away on business. He begins his routine, up until he discovers her beaten.
Subsequently, they decide to leave together and he introduces her to his peculiar way of life. Nevertheless, her husband is not eager to let her leave him.
Probably Kim Ki-duk’s easiest film to watch, chiefly because he had a large budget in his hands, which he implemented in “furbishing” the production, particularly in contrast to his previous ones that were utterly low budget.
On the other hand, the film gives us a very extreme romance that entails all the characteristics of Kim’s cinema, with the two protagonists hardly uttering a word, and the utterly surrealistic last act, which is the film’s best part.
Lee Hyun-kyoon as Tae-suk and Lee Seung-yeon are magnificent in their silence, while Kwon Hyuk-ho gives an impressive performance as the “evil” husband.
2. Ode to My Father (JK Youn, 2015)
This particular movie sold more than 14 million tickets, thus becoming the second highest-grossing film in the history of Korean cinema. Moreover, it netted 10 awards at the 52nd Grand Bell Awards, including those for Best Movie, Best Director and Best Leading Actors.
The script portrays the most touching episodes in contemporary Korean history through the life of a man named Yoon Deok-soo, explaining the various reasons for his life choices.
In that fashion, the film begins with the Hungnam evacuation of 1950 during the Korean War, and continues with the massive migration of Koreans to Germany in the 1960s in order to find work, and the war in Vietnam in the 70s. It concludes in 1983, when the major broadcast stations in South Korea held TV programs with the purpose of joining family members that had been split during the partition of the Korean peninsula.
However, apart from the historic events, the story also revolves around the romance between Deok-soo and Young-ja, a nurse he meets in Germany, Their relationship goes through a number of obstacles, only for them to conquer them all.
This relationship benefits the most by the individual performances of Hwang Jung-min as Yoon Deok-soo and Yunjin Kim as Young-ja, but also from their evident chemistry.
1. Failan (Song Hae-sung, 2001)
Failan arrives in Korea after the death of her parents. However, the aunt she was supposed to live with has left the country. All alone, she tries to find work, but before this, she must first acquire an extended residence permit.
Kang-jae is a pathetic individual, a low-grade criminal of a minor organization. He agrees to a sham marriage with Failan, without ever having seen her even once, in order to earn some extra money and for her to get her permit.
Song Hae-sung directed an unusual romantic film based on the Japanese novel “Love Letter” by Jiro Asada, since the two protagonists almost never meet and neither are actually aware of the other’s existence, until one of them dies.
In that fashion, the film is quite melancholy, with Hae-sung focusing as much on the romance as on loneliness, yearning, and hope. The biggest asset of his direction is the narration, which is presented in an easy-to-understand way, despite the flashbacks and the complexity of the story.
Both of the protagonists, Cecilia Cheung as Failan and Choi Min-shik as Kang-jae, are magnificent in their respective parts, with the former portraying a naive but determined woman and the latter a total loser without any hope of redemption. The way love seems to blossom in the film is also a point of excellence, particularly due to its originality.
Author Bio: Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic who focuses on the cinema of East Asia. He enjoys films from all genres, although he is a big fan of exploitation. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.