8. Ryoo Seung-wan
Ryoo Seung-wan is South Korea’s premiere action filmmaker. Ever since the man laid eyes on Jackie Chan as a child in “Drunken Fist,” Ryoo dedicated his life to making action films. His 2000 debut “Die Bad” is a collection of four short films that Ryoo filmed over the period of three years. Unable to afford film school, Ryoo worked as a crew on a few features, even using left over film stock when permitted, most notably for Park Chan-wook’s early films.
Upon releasing “Die Bad,” audiences were stunned not only at the quality of the debut film, but the range demonstrated in each short. As the years passed, Ryoo would not only grow as a filmmaker, he’d play an instrumental role in the growth of South Korean action films and stuntwork.
His early collaborators would go on run the nation’s premiere stunt school, responsible in creating the most memorable action sequences in recent years (“Oldboy,” “New World,” “The Man From Nowhere”). While great as he is with action, Ryoo can make a pretty engaging film as well. His upcoming film “Veteran” seems similar to his political thriller “The Unjust” while Ryoo is also in the early stages of directing a zombie film called “Busan Bound.”
City of Violence (2006)
When it comes to displaying Ryoo’s talents on full display, it doesn’t beat “City of Violence.” Working in front and behind the camera, “City of Violence” is a glorious B-movie fight film about a cop coming home to avenge the death of a childhood friend.
Inspired by film noir, Hong-kong action films, and Walter Hill’s “The Warriors,” this martial-arts action flick not only contains some inventive moments, but it’s Ryoo having fun visually, with some of the most interesting transitions and camera work in all of his library.
Whether it’s a gang of break dancers, or middle-school children having a street fight, Ryoo’s film is over-the-top in style. It’s beyond ridiculous, but the film wants audiences to embrace the insanity of the violence. It’s the best of a Shaw Brother’s narrative but the best of B-movie action without feeling cheap. It’s showy, but “City of Violence” is a showy film.
Crying Fist (2004)
“Crying Fist” is about two fighters at the lowest. One is a street thug (Ryoo Seung-beom) while the other is a washed up olympic boxer (Choi Min-sik) struggling to make ends meat in a rapidly changing Seoul. For this film, Ryoo adapted the true story of Korean boxer Seo Cheol (who trained and perfected his craft while under juvenile detention) and a Japanese man who’d reportedly pay people to beat him up, basing his leads off these two men.
Ryoo could’ve taken this story into many routes, but instead took a direct page from the first “Rocky.” It’s important that you make the distinction, because he wanted the fight to mean more for the characters, rather than actual fight itself, something the later “Rocky” films adhered heavily towards.
He stuck with Avildsen’s classic and made it a film about both men overcoming their personal demons and insecurities to do right for their family. With “Crying Fist,” Ryoo once again demonstrates that his films can have visceral action, but a lot of heart as well.
9. Choi Dong-hoon
After graduation The Korean Academy of Film Arts, Choi Dong-hoon got his start in the industry as an assistant director to Im San-soo, responsible for erotic thrillers such as “The Housemaid” and “A Good Lawyer’s Wife.” His 2004 debut “The Big Swindle” brought a different type of energy to the heist/con genre.
Mixing elements of “The Sting” with South Korean dramas, “The Big Swindle” turned out to be a solid start that would lead to hit after hit. He has a loose trilogy of heist films with “The Big Swindle,” “Tazza: The High Rollers,” and “The Thieves” which are all familiar and inventive in their own right. I say loose because Choi made an modern update to an old Korean fable with the action adventure “Woochi” in between the latter two films.
That films did fine in the box office, and more importantly, it didn’t take anything away from Choi when making “The Thieves.” It just made him better. His next film is reportedly titled “The Assassination” and based on the description, it looks like a pan-Asian spy western. That film is expected to release sometime in fall.
Tazza: The High Rollers (2006)
Based on a popular webcomic, “Tazza: The High Rollers” follows the exploits of master gambler and con-artist Go-ni (Cho Seung-woo), as he transitions from small-time matches to playing high-stakes, underground matches. The central game of “Hwatu” will be lost to most audiences outside South Korea, but the film’s more concerned about the lifestyle and risks involving professional (illegal) gambling.
It has a cool, jazzy atmosphere where everyone speaks with equivocation and style, an odd mixing between film noir and gambling/con film. Structured in chapters, each segment moves the story, while also being acting as a guide to being a master.
The film’s best performance is from Kim Hye-soo, playing the femme fatale. It’s an amazing achievement when you’re watching a completely foreign game but the stakes are still there. The mechanics of the game itself are secondary to the delusions of grandeur that come with the life.
The Thieves (2010)
With an ensemble cast, “The Thieves” follows a group of Korean and Chinese thieves as they team up to steal a diamond worth $20 million. Instead of following the hopeful sentiment of “Honor amongst thieves,” every person is out to get their own. With allegiances shifting left and right, “The Thieves” is an explosive blockbuster that’s simply a great time.
It was like Choi was using “Tazza: The High Rollers” as a test run for his blockbuster hit, “The Thieves.” At the time of release, it held the record of highest admission that year. As of now, it’s ranked 4th of all time sales. But what makes this film awesome is that Choi directs the film with confidence and surprising ease.
When asked how he felt making a film with ten members in the cast, he simply quoted Fellini: “It’s like going on a trip with your best friends.” In that exact featurette, most of the actors interviewed follow up that quote by sharing the exact same sentiment. But he’s far from a slacker.
Choi shot the film faster than most productions, and the older cast members found it difficult to match his speed, but were usually satisfied with almost all their takes.
On top of all that, he has a few actors perform some of their own stunts, which is crazy when considering the things some of the thieves perform in their heist. The logistics and planning involved for this production was probably next to impossible, but Choi made it work. This is the type of set that many filmmakers strive to achieve. It’s a lot of work, but Choi makes it every bit as fun as the finished product.
10. Kim Han-min
Another graduate of Dongguk University, Kim Han-min started as a short film director, making six over the course of eight years (1995-2003). In 2007, he found modest success with his rural mystery thriller “Paradise Murdered.” In 2009, he made a mobile phone thriller called “Handphone” that wasn’t as well received, but I’d argue is underrated.
While his first two films might not have impressed many, it was next two films “War of the Arrows” and “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” that would make Kim a household name. “War of the Arrows” not only was the highest grossing film that year, but managed to find small crossover success out here in the mainland.
However, “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” took Kim to the top — literally — as he’s now responsible for the highest-grossing film in South Korea of all time. Kim seems to be secretly deciding his next project since he barely finished doing the rounds promoting that film. Personally, I think he’s only made one great film, but it’s wrong to ignore the recent achievement by this filmmaker.
This film is far from being the best or most inventive thriller out there. It actually feels like a big-budget version of a student film, since it’s mostly a cat-and-mouse chase between two men, and one of them simply wants his cellphone back. All the conversations and inciting incidents are either shown, or discussed over the phone.
For the first 2/3 of the film, you really feel the thriller tropes being tacked on, until it really shifts gears by the remaining third. It’s trashy, pulpy, but a thrill ride nonetheless. It’s attempts at weight and depth simply come off as cliché, down to the villain being menaced by an overbearing mother.
The title — you guessed it — is an awkward translation, since most Korean’s call their cellular phones “hand phones” instead of referring to it as portable or cellular. If the film had one more pass with the script than this film would’ve been a tighter experience. But when it’s good “Handphone” almost reaches the trashy heights of a de Palma film.
War of the Arrows (2011)
If I’ve written or spoken about any South Korean film repeatedly, it’s this one. “War of the Arrows” is an action-chase film that’s dressed and set during the second Manchu invasion, centered around a hunter/archer (Park Hae-il) as he single-handedly tries to rescue his imprisoned sister.
“The Admiral: Roaring Currents” is a great blockbuster and a fun time at the theater, but the film is incredibly bloated and awkwardly nationalistic in portraying the titular admiral. Choi Min-sik (“Oldboy” himself), however, is great in the lead. After seeing it, it’s not difficult to see why South Korean audiences returned to see this film in droves.
“War of the Arrows” has minimal historical backstory dealing with imperialism and politics, because it’s operating as a genre film first. For the action, Kim had everyone playing archers take lessons in both modern and classical styles of shooting. Some of the instructors even expressed at how natural the lead actor Park seemed was during the training, joking he could go pro.
The bows and arrows themselves are featured in several different models and firing techniques, the the filmmaker essentially geeked out when seeing how to incorporate each one in the main set-pieces. As the pacing ramps up near the final third of this film as well, all the visual cues and set-up done by Kim subtly appear in the action, making it both surprising and incredibly visceral.
There are some bits at comedy and there’s a pretty weak CGI sequence that’s meant to be a big fist-pumping moment for our hero, but the final product on the effect slightly diminishes the overall impact. Still, “War of the Arrows” is one of most satisfying action films from South Korea, available on most streaming platforms.
Honorable Mention: Na Hong-jin
Na Hong-jin has made two crime films that most genre filmmakers wish they could. His worlds are bleak, cold, and uncaring. A television critic for South Korea’s “Movie World” show not only reviewed Na’s films, but once jokingly mentioned that he’s too afraid to meet the man responsible for such brutality.
His debut “The Chaser” won the best film, director, and lead in several national award ceremonies, even boosting the lead Kim Yun-seok to superstardom. With all the good will from his debut, Na was able to make “The Yellow Sea” in 2011. His sophomore feature also got similar love and appreciation from critics — local and worldwide — yet the year-end release date hurt the film’s chances financially.
His next film is scheduled to come out this year entitled “Gokseong.” The past five years have brought a slew of amazing debut films from first-time directors, but no debut has gripped and excited audiences worldwide than “The Chaser.” Na is definitely one to watch out for.
The Chaser (2008)
No one could’ve guessed that a thriller about a pimp (Kim Yun-seok) chasing a serial killer (Ha Jung-woo) could’ve been this good. The film itself broke even, but where 2008 was a recession for the industry, “The Chaser” proved to be a hit with audiences and critics for toying with thriller conventions.
The stories behind Na’s debut film are incredible. After directing two shorts and working countless jobs, Na had saved up enough money to finally making his debut. The centerpiece chase sequence was not only filmed on location, but the lights, camera, and sound essentially ran after both actors, taking seven days to complete.
A film that should look and feel cheap surprisingly doesn’t. Instead, it feels raw, which is appropriate, because The Chaser is gritty, grounded, and brutal. No one is likable, but more importantly, no one is safe. And the crazy part? The filmmaker wanted to make something fun and entertaining. Warner Brothers must’ve loved it, since they bought the remake rights for $1 million a couple months after it’s South Korean release.
The Yellow Sea (2011)
Named after the northern East China Sea, “The Yellow Sea” is crime film that brings back the actors from his first film. Here, the leads from “The Chaser” essentially swap roles. Ha Jung-woo plays a cab driver living in a slum bordering North Korea, China, and Russia. Low on money, he takes a hit job by a crime boss (Kim Yun-seok), with his target in South Korea.
The tone is similar to “The Chaser,” if not darker. Many critics against this film feared that the filmmakers uncontrolled ego from his debut’s success would’ve led to disaster, but others have applauded Na for keeping his style while upping the scope.
The action in here is larger and ferocious than “The Chaser,” being incredibly violent as people get stabbed, beat, clubbed, and axed. The budget is definitely on-screen, reportedly going over budget. 2011 brought some bleak entries, but nothing as singular as “The Yellow Sea.”
It’s also notable for being one of the few South Korean films to have the leads be “Yanbian” Koreans who inhabit that area. Many Koreans from that region are usually discriminated against by mainland South Koreans, portrayed as rugged and filthy in popular culture.
The film doesn’t really go that deep into the cultural dynamics since both leads are from there, but the desperation of their setting definitely helps with the character’s motivation. “The Yellow Sea” is a bit longer, and the plot is slightly convoluted at times, but it doesn’t lose a bit of Na’s intensity and bite.
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 he loves, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.