8. No Manners (Jo Geun-sik, 2002)
Out of many Korean comedies, No Manners (also going by Conduct Zero) is one that also plays with conventions of the aggressive Korean male youth on film. Ryu Seung-beom plays a school thug Jung-pil, feared with a reputation of always winning a fight, respected by underlings made of underclassmen — even running a schoolyard racket that treats him like a Don.
The thing is, Jung-pil’s street cred is only told through rumors that are so heightened, that the film shows how absurd it all is by having said rumor realized in a sequence straight out of Kung-Fu Hustle. Even then it’s mostly posturing. Instead, the film goes along by hardly showing Jung-pil in action, with the plausibility coming from Ryu Seung-beom’s performance. In actuality, Jung-pil doesn’t care about any of that, but instead wishes to date on a young guitarist.
No Manners’s main focus also isn’t the characters fighting, but rather questions the notion of that reputation even being a desirable thing. Recent film Legendary Fists played with that idea of reputation as well, but that film took things a bit too seriously. There’s some action near the end, but it’s just fun to see Jung-pil brutishly navigating through his neighborhood, enforcing his status while simultaneously baffled at everything surrounding his love interest.
It does fall into the familiar trap in Korean films of being somewhat heavy near the finale, with an action sequence that feels like belongs in Friend. While far from perfect, Ryu Seung-beom is quite perfect in the role as the lovable asshole. It’s not as risqué as Sex is Zero — the bigger comedy of that year — but it’s definitely worth the watch.
9. Nowhere to Hide / Duelists (Lee Myung-se, 1999 / 2005)
Director Lee Myung-se is stylistic filmmaker, creating impressionistic genre pieces that might not have the best scripts, but nonetheless visually unmatched. Nowhere to Hide got some international acclaim overtime, but Duelist was only met lukewarm reception, one that still feels unchanged. The latter is definitely an overlooked gem, while the former barely edges itself in and out many best-of guides out there.
Rather than a cat-and-mouse procedural about a pair of cops chasing after a murderer, Nowhere to Hide uses the setup to experiment with framing, color, tone, and pacing to make many of the larger set pieces look and feel different from each other.
The detective pair leading the case feature the old seasoned vet (Park Joong-Hoon) and the young rookie (Jang Dong-gun) as they chase down an enigmatic killer (the iconic Ahn Sung-Kee) who seems to barely get away each time. Nowhere to Hide has been discussed in the same vein as films such as Save the Green Planet, since both open themselves more readily to examine the filmmaking along with the actual story.
Upon close examination, Duelist feels like Nowhere to Hide transplanted into the Joseon Dynasty. Hotshot magistrate Namsoon (Ha Ji-Won) tracks down a deadly assassin known as “Sad Eyes” (Kang Dong-won), who’s quite skilled with the blade. Whereas Nowhere to Hide was concerned experimenting with the filmmaking, Duelists aims to paint each frame with maximum aesthetic effect. Here, color, mise-en-scene, and movement work together harmoniously to present the swordplay and fights like an intensely choreographed dance number.
There are a lot of similarities in staging and shooting a fight or dance scene (or both if you’re The Kick). In Duelists, Namsoon and Sad Eyes’s clash in several moments, but what’s originally meant to stop the other organically becomes something much more intimate, reflective of the character’s internal feeling for each other. Duelists doesn’t get the recognition as Nowhere to Hide, but they’re both technically interesting films in their own right, representing of a unique filmmaker.
10. The Unjust (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2010)
Another young girl is raped and murdered in Seoul, and with the perp still out there, public outrage is far from settled. Officer Choi-Cheol-gi (Hwang Jung-min) wants nothing more than to recover from a past case and capture this sociopath, ultimately hoping for a promotion. Pressured by the public and his superiors, he decides to invent a killer to pin the crimes on, with a help of a crooked land-developer.
Rivaling the developer is Kim Yang-su, who assigns district attorney Joo-yang (Ryu Seung-beom) to investigate the detective and his inner workings. What follows is a fast-paced neo-noir that’s filled with allegiances, betrayals, and back alley deals that make it difficult for anyone to get out of this ordeal unscathed.
Director Ryoo Seung-wan is known as Korea’s premiere action filmmaker. His filmography consists of mostly action films (City of Violence, The Berlin File, Arahan) or films that heavily feature scenes of action (Crying Fist, No Blood No Tears) for good reason: the man knows how to stage and shoot an exciting action scene.
It seems like there’s more love for his action films than something like The Unjust. But if his debut Die Bad is any indication of his true talents, Ryoo is skilled as a genre storyteller. It was no surprise that a film that lacks all his signature action direction (with frequent collaborator/stunt master Jung Doo-hong), The Unjust still captures the same energy and pacing of his popular efforts.
11. Castaway on the Moon (Lee Hae-jun, 2009)
When a failed business man named Kim Seong-geun (Jeong Jae-yeong) survives a suicidal jump into the Han river, he finds himself stranded on a small island in the center. Unable to swim and escape from all sides, Seong-guen realizes he’s stuck and tries his best to stay alive. However, Seoung-guen figures that maybe he doesn’t want to leave, and decides to set up camp.
In an apartment complex nearby lives a reclusive young lady named Jung-yeon (Jung Ryeo-Won), who spends her days in an online world while never leaving her apartment. While Jung-yeon takes a photo of a full moon one night, she discovers the word “HELP” carved on the sand of the island, also discovering Seong-guen. Finding it fascinating, she delivers him a message in a bottle, starting a conversation and a relationship between the two.
In a year that released a film by both Bong Joon-ho (Mother) and Park Chan-wook (Thirst), Castaway on the Moon seemed to have a hard time finding audiences inside and out of Korea. While it did do okay in it’s opening week, it didn’t make the top ten of that year. But the reviews by a few foreign film critics will agree, Castaway on the Moon is an uplifting little romantic comedy.
Whether it’s finding a salt replacement or finally making noodles from scratch, this life-affirming film keeps things simple with the storytelling. A small cast, a few locations, and minimal dialogue achieved quite a bit, delivering one of the most hopeful films in recent years. It’s the little film that definitely could.
12. My Teacher, Mr. Kim (Jang Gyu-seong, 2003)
Elementary school teacher Kim Bong-doo (Cha Seung-won) is transferred from Seoul to Kangwon based on parent complains. Simply put, he’s not an ideal teacher: he spends his money on karaoke girls, cares for kids who’ve bribed him with money, and treats the remaining student with lesser consideration. Mr. Kim hates the transfer and the overall location even before arriving, and once he does, he finds that he only has five registered students in a dilapidated school. He tries everything he can to leave, but it proves difficult once Mr. Kim starts to understand his students.
The blueprint for My Teacher, Mr. Kim feels like many other stories about inspirational teachers, with this and Spin Kick are the closest to kids film on this list. What audiences get is a honest and comedic look into the educational system of underprivileged areas in the South Korean countryside. There’s even a portion of the film in which Mr. Kim tries to have his students transfer to Seoul, albeit for selfish reasons, but it’s a request that doesn’t seem that unreasonable upon close examination.
What My Teacher, Mr. Kim does with that subplot is definitely unique, but it doesn’t take away from the film’s search of what makes a good instructor, and why education is important especially when some can barely survive outside of school. It’s not condescending, nor does is it point fingers — sometimes even the best instructors can’t help everyone.
And even though “teacher-leaning-from-students” motif is seen throughout these types of films, My Teacher, Mr. Kim shines light on the issue through great character work and a solid lead performance by Cha Seung-won. As the film gears towards its finale, you really believe he’ll do anything for these kids.
13. No. 3 (Song Neung-han, 1997)
No. 3 is an unusual pick when considering the many other Korean gangster comedies out there. The film doesn’t fully commit to be a full-blown comedy, since the tone does get serious at certain moments, especially during the violence. Still, the tonal incongruity is something that Korean cinema usually handles with a deft hand, if at all to squeeze a laugh or two.
This parody is about a third-ranked gangster Tae-Ju (Han Suk-kyu) trying to be No. 1. No. 3’s goal is pretty straightforward, done through a somewhat episodic fashion that really lets the comedy unfold. Tae-Ju goes from encounter to encounter, with each moment either encouraging or discouraging his desire in becoming the leader.
Much of why it works is due to the supporting characters that make up these encounters. There’s legitimate fear and dread when dealing with the No. 2, an ashtray-wielding brute appropriately named Ashtray (Park Sang-myun), only to be followed by a slapstick fight at a playground between Tae-Ju and an overly ambitious prosecutor (Choi Min-sik). The highlight has to go to a young Song Kang-ho, playing the stuttering drill sergeant for the underling thugs. He’s the very definition of scene-stealing, especially when the character’s pride is challenged.
While this film doesn’t fully embrace the comedy as something like Marrying the Mafia, My Wife is a Gangster, or My Boss, My Hero (films that also get somewhat heavy by the end), No. 3 is dark comedy that fans of gangster comedies should give a chance.
14. General’s Son (Im Kwon-taek, 1990)
General’s Son is a classic Korean biopic that tells the true story of one of the country’s greatest modern folk hero named Kim Doo-Han. Despite the story not even a century old, the man’s tale is almost ripe for the biopic treatment: as the orphaned son of a fabled war general, Doo-Han conquered poverty as a child, only to rise and unite the Korean criminal underworld against the ruthless Japanese occupation.
While what actually happened in reality is still up for debate, the figure Kim Doo-Han is almost revered in the country, even hosting a radio show about his exploits decades ago. The film treats his story as the power tale we’ve seen in many gangster films. While Scorcese might punctuate his with executions and shootouts, General’s Son almost reserves all the action to hand-to-hand combat. Compared to action done today, it looks incredibly outdated, but the stakes still feel real.
Whereas a Hollywood gangster would end a character’s arc in a bodybag, it’s fascinating to see the weight of one man’s honor in their fighting prowess, and to see what happens if they simply lose, or give up the bout. General’s Son is an interesting time capsule at not only how people behaved, but also a look into a Korean film pre-New Wave; usually reserved for a film such as the original Housemaid.
The cadence and pacing seem decades apart from films that would come out only years later, making it all feel incredibly appropriate with the period it features. There were two sequels that followed, but this is the one to check out. If viewers can handle the pacing of this film, then it’s a good sign to work backwards for many other long forgotten classics.
15. Sopyonje (Im Kwon-Taek, 1993)
Sopyonje has the honor of being one of those films that’s considered to have weight beyond the New Wave excitement, due to it’s historical significance and ideas of cultural preservation. With all the exciting modern films out there, it’s easy to neglect this for being slightly older, and somewhat academic.
A man named Dong-hu (Kim Kyu-chul) returns to the country where he grew up, hoping to find medicine for his sick child. As the story begins, Dong-hu flashes back at his life as an orphan, in which he and a young girl named Yu-Bong were performers of “pansori,” a traditional, folk form of musical storytelling. Under a master, both kids were pressured and pushed to excel at the art, despite Japanese and Western musical influences reducing the popularity of pansori. As he navigates through his past in the present, Dong-hu searches to uncover the fate of Yu-Bong after he left her and his master as rebellious young man.
Sopyonje is a drama through and through, but directed by Korea’s most renowned directors: Im Kwon-Taek. His films follow the theme of the past conflicting with the present, but rarely with a damning eye. Instead, the beautiful cinematography and the steady pacing present a sense of longing that’s subtle in it’s nostalgia, mirroring the attitude of their master. There’s a long take somewhere between the first and second act that rightfully encapsulate that thought.
Another interesting thing about this films is that it feels more modern than a film like General’s Son, which he did 3 years prior. Whether it’s indicative of the time or a master filmmaker at work, it’s more deserving more than the academic, historical value that seems to surround this film’s discussion. Instead, Sopyonje is a sentimental and beautiful look into one’s confrontation with history and the truths that come of it.