16. Green Fish (Lee Chang-dong, 1997)
Recently, Korean gangsters have been exceedingly popular with international audiences. Lee Chang-dong’s 1997 debut, Green Fish, is far from the first Korean gangster film, but it’s a pre-New Wave release that fits perfectly with other gangster tales such as Friend or A Dirty Carnival. Much like his later film Peppermint Candy, Green Fish is about the disillusioned Korean male ego trying to make it in a globalized, modern society.
On a train ride home from his military service, Makdong (Han Suk-kyu) gets into a fight trying to protect a harassed woman from some thugs. Upon returning, life is less than desirable, despite his family’s good intentions. To escape his home life, Makdong starts working for the local hoods, working his way up the ranks. It’s there he reunites with the woman from the train, revealed to be the boss’s lady.
Green Fish has little gangster action, being far more interested in the narrative and emotional through line. Once again, Green Fish is far from original, yet the timing couldn’t have been any more appropriate. When South Korea became more globalized in the leading up to the 1997, it marginalized much of the older generation, especially men.
Filtered through the peaks and troughs of a gangster narrative, the character’s fate feels all the more tragic, since Makdong’s ambitions (opening a restaurant with his mom) aren’t designed to crush him like other memorable gangsters in cinema. Makdong’s simply never stood a chance in the world he thought he knew.
17. Nameless Gangster (Yoon Jong-bin, 2012)
When Oldboy was unleashed onto the world, people were met with an audacious feature that became memorable for many reasons. A huge reason was due to Choi Min-sik’s lead performance. The actor had appeared in several films before and after Oldboy (Failan also worth checking out), only to leave the spotlight for a few years. In 2009, he delivered his talents once more as the villain in Kim Jee-woon’s hit film I Saw the Devil.
But in 2012, he starred in Nameless Gangster, a film met with equal praise. He’s so good that he did it again in the following year for New World. With the recent release of The Admiral: Roaring Currents setting records, the man is on another resurgence. But from his newer films, Nameless Gangster is where Choi is a hitting on all cylinders.
Choi plays Choi Ik-hyun, a customs officer who happens to come across a modest shipment of drugs on the dock where he works. Instead of turning it into the police, he reaches out to his cousin, a vicious gangster Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo), hoping to earn a proper payday. Once inside, he slowly tries to milk the situation for all it’s worth, honoring, befriending, and remembering the right people.
Choi’s performance is so good as the lead that posits quite the dueling interpretation: Ik-hyun is either a master manipulator who’s acting according to some plan OR he’s a endearing buffoon who happens to be in the right place at the right time. It’s equal parts menacing and hilarious. While Choi is great as the cold handler in New World, or the inspiring leader inThe Admiral: Roaring Currents, it’s here that audiences get to see the same energy he brought to Oh Dae-su and to his character in I Saw the Devil. It’s a truly inspired comedic performance that’s worth watching after seeing his most famous role in Oldboy.
18. Sunny (Kang Hyung-chul, 2011)
Jumping between the present and the 80’s, Sunny is one of the best films about friendship and growing up. Na-mi (Yu Ho-jeong) is a middle-aged housewife to a busy husband and takes care of her troubled teenage daughter. During a hospital visit, Na-mi encounters a childhood friend Choon-hwa (Jin Hee-kyung), who’s currently admitted for cancer.
As a dying request, Choon-hwa asks Na-mi to reunite and see the friends that made their middle-school clique “Sunny” once more before passing. As Na-mi commits to honor Choon-hwa’s request, the film flashes back to when the girls were students, revealing not only what happened to their group, but also providing a somber look into the adult lives of the characters.
There’s a lot to like about Sunny. On a technical level, the film does a great job making the switch between time periods feel seamless, while having an identity of their own. The scenes in the 80’s come to life with the vibrancy and Benetton-style color palette that complements the energy and excitement the girls. The cast playing the younger version of Sunny is absolutely phenomenal, continued by the veteran performers playing their older counterparts.
Director Kang Hyeong-Cheol directs the flashback scenes with so much energy — highlighted by an inspired set piece involving a girl fight during a riot. When it’s funny, the comedy flies. When it gets serious, he doesn’t downplay it. Music also plays a big role in this film, with an 80’s inspired soundtrack that’s equally immersive while quite sentimental in nostalgia.
But outside the technical achievements, Sunny is simply a great story about how the bonds of friendship can transcend the passage of time. It’s like the much happier version of Friend.
19. Silenced (Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2011)
Based on a 2009 novel entitled Dogani, Silenced is about a young teacher named Kang In-Ho (Gong Yoo) who relocates to Mujin city at an elementary school for hearing-impaired children. Upon arriving, he’s soon pressured in providing bribes and back dealings, but discovers a horror most unexpected: a select group of students are being sexually assaulted by the same school officials that run the corrupt institution. It doesn’t take long for In-Ho to take a stand, and along with human rights activist Yoo-jin (Jung Yu-mi), they decide too protect the children and prosecute those involved.
Receiving critical success in South Korea, Silenced seem to follow its title and made minimal notice internationally outside the film community. Despite the subject matter, Silenced is a well made film. The cinematography is dark, muted, and lacking of color, captured through a beautifully creepy fog that haunts Mujin like the dark secret that pervades the town. The acting across the board is phenomenal. The two heroes are admirable and their frustrations and concerns feel palpable.
The school officials are so despicable, that audiences might accidentally destroy their screens in an attempt for justice. But the true stars of the film are the child actors. During the uncomfortable scenes of abuse (and there a few) their performances are visceral and troubling, but it’s the quiet moments (no pun intended) in which their blank expressions are utterly gut-wrenching.
What makes the film even more tragic is that the source material was based on a true event that took place at a similar school in Gwangju. This film probably wouldn’t have been made if the actor Gong Yoo didn’t read the novel and approach the author for the rights, immediately realizing the author had every intent on spreading the story however he can.
This did get overlooked during Korea’s award season, but Silenced — and many other similar films — have been overlooked for its content. Since this film’s debut, South Korea has released several other great films about abuse against children (Han Gong-Ju, A Girl at my Doorstep), but Silenced is the one film that uses an isolated incident as a window to deeper forms of widespread corruption.
20. Moss (Kang Woo-suk, 2010)
Ryu Hae-guk (Park Hae-il) lives in Seoul and is constantly berated by city officials for a past mistake, especially Prosecutor Park Min-Huk (Yu Jun-Sang). Hae-guk receives a mysterious call stating that his estranged father had passed away at a rural village out in the countryside. Upon arriving, he’s greeted by the town’s leader and elder, Chun Yonk-Duk (Jeong Jae-yeong), an ex-cop who helped build and reform this village with Hae-guk’s late-father.
Despite the condolences, Hae-guk notices certain men behaving strangely, furthered by the key members of the community asking when Hae-guk plans to leave. Suspicious, Hae-guk reluctantly joins forces with Prosecutor Park to uncover the mystery behind his father’s passing and the town.
Director Kang Woo-suk is a veteran filmmaker in South Korea, responsible for hits such as Two Cops, Public Enemy, and Silmido. The latter two have found releases outside of Korea, with Silmido especially considered as a New Wave classic. With Moss, Kang expertly constructs a thriller that subverts expectations in almost every step of the way the story unfolds.
What also makes this a notable recommendation over something like Public Enemy (which is also enjoyable) is the cast, most notably to Jeong Jae-yeong and the performers that make up his henchmen. Their behavior and performance is so uncomfortable that the audience feels Hae-guk’s unease at the situation. As this lengthy mystery unfolds, Moss throws curveball after curveball up until the very end.
Based on the webcomic by the same name, Moss was a critical and commercial success. But like many record-breaking hits, it seems that the following year releases a title that overshadows previous winners from the public consciousness. If Tidal Wave was a slightly better film (it’s alright), it would definitely be on this list. Moss wasn’t even the top grosser that year, but was topped by a pair of action films (The Man from Nowhere and Secret Sunshine).
While those two films are highly enjoyable (especially The Man form Nowhere), Moss is an example of a film that might seem like something that isn’t overlooked initially, but faces the worse fate in being forgotten for a more successful blockbuster.
War of the Arrows
Hollywood and mainstream audiences have been getting their fair share of memorable archers recently. There’s Legolas, Katniss Everdeen, Green Arrow, and Hawkeye to represent fantasy, science-fiction, and even comic-book properties. Even before them we had the character Robin Hood in his various forms. War of the Arrows doesn’t have an archer with a name as memorable as the previously mentioned. However, audiences will find it hard to forget the skills, talent, and deadly efficiency the hero has with the bow and arrow.
Starting prior to the Manchu invasion, Nam-yi (Park Hae-il) and his sister Ja-in as children escaped the execution of the King and grew with in the noble home of a family friend. As adults, Nam-Yi is a highly skilled hunter for the family, while Ja-in is a young lady expected to marry the Patriarch’s son. When the Manchu’s invade his town during a hunt and take Ja-in, Nam-yi must use his skills to infiltrate behind enemy lines to retrieve his only family.
Despite the historical backdrop, this is an action film at heart. The archery scenes are fast, breathtaking in execution. The wide landscape shots not only add a good sense of geography for the action, but look gorgeous onscreen. This was a hit in South Korea, making a small splash internationally on home video, but still not discussed in the same vein as Masquerade or The Face Reader. The fact that director Kim Han-min would go on to direct The Admiral: Roaring Currents (current highest-grossing South Korean film) is no fluke.
The Front Line
The best film about the Korean war is probably Taeguki: Brotherhood of War. The story is incredibly intimate, but told through a scope that’s fitting for a war film. The Front Line focuses on a specific time and place during the same war, but still manages to captures the trials and tribulation for the surviving soldiers.
The story is similar to that of JSA: Joint Security Agency: Lieutenant Kang Eun-Po is sent to a hill that borders between the North and South, constantly changing hands between both sides during both sides attempt at a ceasefire. He is sent to investigate the death of a South Korean commander that’s suspected to be caused by a South Korean soldier, based on ballistics.
Upon arriving he’s shocked to meet his once meek and milquetoast friend Kim Soo-hyeok (Go Soo) not only alive, but changed as the fierce leader of the remaining Southern troops. The lieutenant must try his best to solve the initial mystery while struggling to stay alive during the constant combat for the hilltop.
The Front Line is probably the biggest release on this list, even being the country’s official submission to the Oscars. The Front Line isn’t short by any means necessary, but there’s hardly a dull moment. When there isn’t any fighting onscreen, The Front Line is a somber look at the lives and the struggles these young soldiers are faced in order to survive in their already fragile conditions.
The relationships between the group is believable, being incredibly effecting during their high and low points. There’s an especially touching segment in how both sides communicate and send gifts to each other, and it’s scenes as such that add life and personality outside the set pieces.
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 I love, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.