17. Taegukgi (Kang Je-gyu, 2004)
Taegukgi is a film that marked a new direction for the South Korean New Wave. Having had huge success with Shiri, director Kang Je-gyu was able to attract some big names to his next project. With big names come big budgets and in doing so one of the key tenements of the New Wave; the well-made film on a shoestring budget became the first casualty of success.
Costing a reported 13 million USD to make (Shiri cost less than eight million USD and the bulk of that was funded by Samsung) Taegukgi became the single most successful film in the history of South Korea in 2004 earning over 68 million at home and 1.1 million during its limited theatrical release in North America.
An important film because of the impact it had; this war movie about two brothers during the civil war in 1950 features strong performances by Jang Dong-gun & Lee Jin-tae as the brothers & serves as a link to a not-so distant past that many South Koreans wish had never happened.
Part war film, part melodrama, par historical document (the title of the film relates to the South Korean flag which was banned under Japanese colonial rule until 1948) this movie has some of the finest battle sequences ever produced and a beautiful soundtrack to match.
18. 3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk, 2004)
In speaking about 3-Iron South Korean director & filmmaking legend Kim Ki-duk said, “We are all empty houses waiting for someone to open the lock and set us free.”
3-Iron is a film about our eternal search for identity created by a film master who has lived through the times most other New Wave directors have only read about. One of the reasons why New Wave filmmakers took to genre-bending in such an audacious manner is tied in with what some have called an ‘inherent identity crisis’; entire generations of South Koreans who lived their whole lives under military rule then suddenly being shunted into freedom, unprepared. The stillness and silence of this film in its search for identity echoes the search of millions of South Koreans.
Following the lives of a hapless young man named Tae-suk who breaks into people’s houses for shelter and an abused housewife named Sun-hwa, 3-Iron is a love story at heart. The fact that the couple don’t really speak to each other until the end of the film makes their dynamic much more powerful and inviting, like the silent homes that Tae-suk borrows for a night or two.
3-Iron is a masterpiece that combines our penchant for violence and tenderness, juxtaposing these two sides of humanity often simultaneously. It professes a nontheistic approach to life and proves, yet again, that Kim Ki-duk is indeed the godfather of South Korean cinema.
Go watch all of his movies, you owe it to yourself.
19. Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, 2005)
Hong Sang-soo has been making films since the late 1990s. With a lifetime of experiences to pull from as source material his films often present us with everyday life scenarios that are completely lacking in context.
Often self-referential and ‘meta’ in nature, Hong explores the notion of cinema itself through the use of repetition and by playing with temporal agencies within his films. In doing so Hong Sang-soo has created some of the most interesting and challenging films not just of the New Wave but of the past twenty years.
In Tale of Cinema Hong suggests that cinema, as a medium, can never really depict the reality of our lives. Cinema is merely artifice, a two dimensional representation of our lives. So he presents, in the first half of the film, a film within a film featuring three characters whose lives converge around a short film starring one of them. Hong does this to connect us and his characters with the past.
Starring Hong regular Kim Sang-kyung, Lee Ki-woo & Uhm Ji-won, Tale of Cinema poses the question; what are the inherent dangers in mistaking life for art or vice versa and reminds us all to keep thinking.
20. Welcome to Dongmakgol (Park Kwang-hyun, 2005)
Set in September of 1950 & amidst the ongoing Korean civil War, Welcome to Dongmakgol (South Korea’s entry to the 2005 Academy Awards) is a film about the hope of reunification between North & South.
Criticised for being too predictable, Welcome to Dongmakgol went on to become the 4th highest grossing South Korean film of all-time upon its release in 2005.
Part fairy-tale and part melodrama Welcome to Dongmakgol tells the story of a quaint village located in an idealised rural area of South Korea that has been forgotten by time. The people who live in Dongmakgol have no knowledge of guns or the war. They live an innocent existence reliant on the land for nourishment. Due to a series of unfortunate events, or a pretty yellow butterfly (depends how you see it), an American pilot crash-lands near the village. He is soon followed by northern and southern soldiers who all converge on Dongmakgol in a sort of hilarious Korean style Mexican stand-off with on-looking villagers wondering why they keep pointing those ‘sticks’ at each other.
The film is an optimistic look back to a simpler time, the South Korean equivalent to a western you might say. Based on a play by Jang Jin, the film is nostalgia and nationalism, a plea to the people of Korea to do away with age-old feelings of resentment and to embrace a new life together as a unified country. A tad schmaltzy in places and yeah, somewhat predictable but it is a wonderfully sincere and moving piece about a country embroiled in a senseless civil war for well over 50 years. For that reason I think we can forgive the odd cliché.
21. Crying Fist (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2005)
Crying Fist is the fourth feature film of New Wave director Ryoo Seung-wan whose previous films include Die Bad, No Blood No Tears and the fantastical epic Arahan. Ryoo started off in the business working as an assistant director for Park Chan-wook and continued to do so even after achieving his own success as a director.
Crying Fist, starring Ryoo’s brother Ryoo Seung-bum and top character actor Choi Min-sik, juxtaposes the lives of two boxers; Sang-hwan who is at the beginning of his career and Tae-shik who is at the end of his less than glamorous and disappointing career. The film also juxtaposes their personal relationships. Sang-hwans volatile relationship with his father and Tae-shiks less than enviable relationship with his young son are just as important to the film as the moments they are in the ring.
In doing this the film openly addresses the generation gap in contemporary South Korean society by presenting for the viewer a world of juxtapositions translated on-screen through genre bending. When discussing Crying Fist in 2005 director Ryoo said; “Not just the characters but also the situations and spaces are constantly juxtaposed, collided and exploded in the end”. By asserting itself outside the traditional mode of Korean storytelling and by redefining the staid boxing sub-genre, the film manages to appeal to both generations. It is at once a rich character study of two halves of South Korean society and a hard-hitting boxing redemption story.
22. A Bittersweet Life (Kim Jee-woon, 2005)
This time taking on the might of the gangster & noir genres , Kim Jee-woon once again proves to the cinematic world that he has the goods to deliver no matter what the subject or the genre with A Bittersweet Life.
Starring Lee Byung-hun, who would go on to make it ‘state-side’ with appearances in the GI Joe franchise & a role in RED 2, A Bittersweet Life is a dark and violent journey into the life of a gangster who, unable to carry out the wishes of his boss, becomes the central target of the gang.
A film of two halves, the first half introduces Sun-woo, a rich character study of a dedicated & loyal ‘hotel manager’ who lives in a world where power is king and violence is the only means by which to seize it. A highly controlled mise-en-scene reinforces everything we are told from the near clinical aesthetic of Sun-woo’s apartment to the warm, somewhat beguiling aesthetic of Hee-soo’s house. Each of the locations in the film becomes a character in its own right, speaking volumes on behalf of the near silent characters who occupy them & creating a filmic identity rarely seen in contemporary cinema.
The second half of the film is an ultraviolent journey into this world. Featuring some of the most vicious death scenes you will ever see, A Bittersweet Life remains unapologetic throughout. Substituting style for grit, the film avoids some of the tropes normally associated with this type of film, most notably via the films open-ending. A masterful film which blends all the best elements of noir, gangster and revenge films to create a dynamic, often brutal piece of work destined for the pantheon of the all-time great South Korean films.
23. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
In his third film, Bong Joon-ho delivered what would go on to become the highest grossing South Korean film of all time, an honour the film still holds. Rife with social commentary and using the monster film sub-genre as the infrastructure for what is a family melodrama at heart, The Host is unlike any film you have ever seen.
Featuring the outstanding Song Kang-ho as Park Gang-du, a shambles of a man/single father who works at his father’s food kiosk on the banks of the Han River, he is our dim-witted anti-hero. Wasting little time, director Bong Joon-go thrusts the audience into the action when in broad daylight in a crowded urban space, less than 15 minutes into the film the monster is exposed.
The Host immediately sets itself apart from its b-movie counterparts by establishing early on that its main theme is not the spectacle of the monster but the once taboo issue of national division. This theme is symbolised visually for us by the motherless child (the daughter of Gang-du) being birthed into a sewer from the mouth of the monster. The rest of the film revolves around her fragmented family and their search for her.
Powerful in its message & delivery and featuring scenes of suspense that or of Hitchocockian proportions, The Host is a masterpiece of genre-bending. Comedy, horror, drama and action collide in an explosion of cinematic perfection, making it easy to see why it is the biggest film in South Korean history.
24. A Dirty Carnival (Ha Yu, 2006)
Starring Jo In-sung, who made a name for himself as a soap star, in what many have called a career-changing role as Kim Byung-du, A Dirty carnival is an explosive gangster film with a twist courtesy of director Ha Yu.
Byung-du is a low level gangster who wants to provide for his impoverished family. Held back by his boss Sang-chul, Byung-du sees an opportunity to seize the power he need and takes it. Following the rise and fall arch traditionally associated with the gangster genre, A Dirty Carnival challenges audience expectations by focusing less on Byung-du’s greed, a common trope of the western gangster genre, and more on Byung-du the man.
By contrasting his two lives & showing how they divide our protagonist, A Dirty Carnival subverts the gangster genre. It further does so by including a unique sub-plot featuring Byung-du’s high school friend & filmmaker Min-ho who uses information given to him by his gangster friend to make a movie which has tragic consequences for all involved.
Brutal in its depiction of violence the film eschews typical gun play for knives and bats, suggesting the reality that South Korea doesn’t have much a gun culture. A Dirty Carnival is a film that intentionally cuts beneath the surface, a movie about a man torn between his two families; the one he was born into and the one who created for himself.
25. The Chaser (No Hong-jin, 2008)
The directorial debut of Na Hong-jin, The Chaser is a film loosely based on the events surrounding South Korean serial killer Yoo Yang-chul who murdered over 20 people between September 2003 & July 2004.
Whereas typical serial killer thrillers will keep an audience guessing till the final act Na Hong reveals the identity of his killer in the first 20 minutes of the film. In typical New Wave fashion the film is heavily critical of the institutional failings of the police who hinder detective turned pimp Joong-ho in gathering evidence when one of his ‘girls’ Kim Mi-jin goes missing.
The story unfolds via cross-cutting between Joong-ho’s search and Kim Mi-jin’s attempts to escape from her incarceration at the hands of killer Jee Young-min. Although the film does read as familiar serial killer/thriller fare it sets itself apart through the complex interweaving of events at the hands of newcomer Na Hong-jin. By subverting nearly all of the traditional conventions associated with the genre, The Chaser provides film audiences with a rewarding, albeit disturbing, cinematic experience. Oh & expect to see a Hollywood remake sometime in the near future as the rights to the film were purchased by Warner Bros in 2008.
Renewed entrepreneurial zeal provided opportunities for novice filmmakers with a unique worldview who were raised in South Korea but exposed to western influence via education and film. Amidst an atmosphere of creative freedom, artistic daring, significant legislative & economic changes these filmmakers nurtured the birth of the New Wave by making emotional films that challenge audiences the world over. As a result the staples of the golden age of Korean cinema have been replaced with bold art house films (Oldboy), big budget action juggernauts (The Host) and dark horrors (A Tale of Two Sisters).
The New Wave has also delivered thought provoking dramas like Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007), psychological thrillers like I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee-woon, 2010), martial arts spectaculars like City of Violence (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2007), subversive comedies like I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK (Park Chan-wook, 2006), challenging family melodramas like Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009), eastern westerns like The Good, The Bad, The Weird (Kim Jee-woon, 2008) and even a vampire film in Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009).
More recently South Korean New Wave directors have crossed the pond & made their ‘Hollywood’ debuts with films including The Last Stand (Kim Jee-woon, 2013), Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013) & Snowpiercer (Bong joon-ho, 2013) leading the way.
The South Korean New Wave played a significant role in the development of South Korean cinema, economy & culture. It helped to define a generation through its iconoclasm & willingness to hold a mirror up to society while kick-starting a fledgling economy & turning a weak industry into the powerhouse it is today.
Author Bio: Kimberly is a Visiting Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. She runs a popular Film & TV Quiz, has a dog named Akira & enjoys playing Pac-Man, you can find her on Twitter @KimberlyKenobi.