9. Pieta (Kim Ki-duk, 2012)
Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a brutish loan shark, collecting from late clients in a small, industrial town. When they’re unable to pay, Kang-do injures them for the insurance compensation. He’s hated and feared throughout the area — even his own boss dislikes him.
One day, a mysterious elderly woman named Mi-sun (Jo Min-su) appears on his doorstep, claiming to be his long-lost mother, looking to reenter his life after abandoning him as a chiled. Enraged, he tells her off, even getting physical with the old lady. Undeterred, she remains, taking the abuse until Kang-do slowly opens up to the idea, realizing she may actually be his mother.
In a country known for some great films regarding revenge, Pieta is a film that stays with audiences, much like the first time seeing Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. Kim Ki-duk isn’t shy to put some incredibly uncomfortable, disturbing scenes onscreen, specifically like his films from the late 90s, early 2000s. Pieta doesn’t go as far as some of his most vicious moments (I’m looking at you The Isle).
In fact, outside a few scenes, Pieta is subdued for the most part. The film still manages to unsettle, and Kang-do’s disbelief lend to some of the film’s most toughest scenes. But he’s matched by an equally determined Mi-sun, played magnetically by actress Jo Min-su. The actress hesitated with taking the role, based on Kim’s past repuation. However, she took it upon herself as a challenge, bringing one of the strongest performances in recent memory.
Kim has proven that he can make a film without being brutal and so damning, as evidence with 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring. But if Kim does wanted to go dark today, Pieta is the way to go.
10. The Fake (Yeon Sang-ho, 2013)
The Fake is an animated film about a village that’s visited by an evangelist and his greedy publicist. The citizens are taken back by the presence of such a figure, with some individuals donating their entire savings to the holy man, hoping to be healed in some way.
While his popularity grows, Min-cheol (Yang Ik-joon) returns from prison sentence, outraged at the behavior of his community. The problem, however, is that Min-cheol is the worst kind of father and human being imaginable — a scumbag through and through. The citizens — even his own family — don’t want him around, but the stubborn Min-cheol refuses stand by. What begins as an awkward altercation between a faith healer and Min-cheol, spirals into a full on battle for the soul of this small location.
Where his first film, The King of Pigs, might’ve utilized the medium in more creative ways, The Fake has a more engaging and more memorable narrative than the former. Actually, the animation in both films aren’t as polished as one would like — at times being downright ugly. But in a film that uses religion as the tool for lies, manipulation, and corruption — the ugliness is fitting.
The Fake could’ve worked as live-action, and it would’ve probably felt like something Kim Ki-duk would’ve done during his angrier days. It’s a film in which two evils clash, where the collateral damage is cripplingly devastating for those unfortunate to be caught in the crossfire. With the exception of Japan, animation like this rarely get made. It’s a testament to an upcoming animator/filmmaker with a singular vision. It’s not a pretty experience, but definitely one that’s hard to forget.
11. The Attorney (Yang Woo-seok, 2013)
Song Woo-suk (Song Kang-ho) tries to gain acceptance with the legal community in Busan, but his lack of higher education marginalizes him greatly. In order to make money, he dives into tax and real estate law. Proving quite lucrative, he even hires a visiting associate Dong-ho (Oh Dal-su) on the spot. The pair continues to grow their business, despite complaints and criticism by other lawyers and notaries.
When the son (Yim Si-wan) of a close friend/restaurant owner Choi Soon-ae (Kim Young-ae) is wrongfully arrested and tortured — labeled as a communist sympathizer — Woo-suk is in shock. He doesn’t forget the woman’s help when he first started, even as far as rejecting Woo-suk’s repayment for an old loan. Despite understanding the corruption he’s about to enter, Woo-suk decides to take the boy’s case case against insurmountable odds.
The Attorney is a great film, deserving of all its sales during it’s 2013 release. As cliché as the line is, it’s a film that’ll make you laugh, cry, and cheer for the protagonist as he struggles to against the many obstacles thrown at him. Structurally, it’s a bit odd, since the film’s carefree first half starts to take a darker turn for the courtroom scenes. However, the film complements the story’s tone by muting the vibrancy, bringing down the color as the blues start seeping into the frame.
Something must be said for the film’s star, arguably the strongest element in the film. Much like Unbowed, it’s tough not to side with the ever-likable Song Kang-ho as he goes from an under-appreciated by his colleagues to someone who wants to do something good “for the people.”
When he looks directly into his boss’s eyes and tells him he’ll take the case, it’s a turning point in his character that audience’s fell. A stellar courtroom drama, The Attorney should not be missed. A great pairing (if one dares) with the recent National Security.
12. Silenced (Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2011)
In-ho (Gong Yoo) travels to Gwangju as the teacher for a school for hearing-impaired children. Upon arrival, he is unsettled by the fog and the gloominess of his new environment. The staff don’t seem that different from what he’s used to, and a bit fender-bender with a woman named Yoo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) doesn’t deter him.
However, one night, he eventually learns of a dark secret the changes everything: some of the staff have been sexually assaulting the less fortunate children. Outraged, In-ho teams up with Yoo-jin and the children take the staff to trial.
While most of Silenced is a courtroom drama, it’s still nonetheless effective. Every little bit that leads to the finale is riveting, all the while remaining muted, and quiet, but definitely not silent. The acting across the board is phenomenal. Gong Yoo and Jung Yu-min do a great job as the voice of the children (no pun intended).
The actors who play the lecherous staff members disgust in effective ways. But the real praise must go to the child actors, who are tasked to act out some of these rape scenes that feel maddeningly uncomfortable. Silenced creates an atmosphere that’s cold, morbid, and incredibly unsettling to earn said outrage.
13. Girl at My Door (July Jung, 2014)
Young-nam (Bae Doona) is a cop, transferred to a small rural village after an incident at her old precinct. At her new precinct, she’s captain and learns that her new home is mostly known for agriculture and fishing. During her stay, she comes across a 14-year old girl named Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron), who runs off and hides at the sight of anyone.
Eventually, Young-nam realizes Do-hee suffers beatings from the town’s most profitable citizen, Yong-ha (Song Sae-byok), who happens to be the girl’s father. After the death of Do-hee’s grandmother (Yong-ha’s mother), Young-nam houses and protects Do-hee from her father. What seems like a good solution at first is challenged not only by Yong-ha, but also in the relationship between both Young-nam and Do-hee.
Probably one of the best films of last year, Girl at My Door takes a serious subject matter and treats with respect and care. A film like this had the danger of being overdramatic, sensationalizing the tragedy for dramatic effect. The direction and performances are grounded and compelling for the most part, save for Song Sae-byok’s drunk, deadbeat dad character. He goes a bit over the top, but he’s still nonetheless despicable.
Doona Bae could’ve taken her cop character into ridiculous heights, especially if the film decided to go the thriller route for its finale. Kim Sae-ron is amazing. Audiences will recognize her as the girl who gets taken in The Man from Nowhere, and her performance here shows a vast improvement since.
What the young actor has to endure, most performers her age can’t pull off the complexity of the scene and character. But she demolishes expectations, building the performance into a heart-stopping climax that’s pretty ballsy as much as it’s unforgettable. Girl at My Door isn’t an easy film to sit through, but it’s rewarding in a way that Han Gong-ju and Silenced aren’t.
14. The Front Line (Hun Jang, 2011)
Cease-fire negotiations for the Korean War can’t be met by both sides when the north and south seem to constantly fight over the strategic spot Aerok Hills. On top of all that, a South Korean senior officer has been shot, but forensics reveal the bullet was South Korean ammunition.
Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) is sent to the hill to investigate the mystery and report the actions of the soldiers. There, he is shocked to his old friend Soo-hyeok (Go Soo), who he figured was captured and killed by the north. As the two reunite, Eun-pyo must grapple with the fog of war on top of uncovering the secret of Aerok Hills and the South’s troops.
Films about the Korean Civil war released in the last decade will find it tough to beat Taeguki: Brotherhood of War. Taeguki holds up so well that the director’s follow-up My Way seems like bloated attempt at his former glory. The Front Line, however, is as intense and well-made as both those films above, despite lacking the epic scope in the story. It’s kind of like Taeguki’s action direction and attention to detail with the added procedural premise of JSA: Joint Security Area.
Through music, gifts, and playful behavior, The Front Line tells a devastating story about a group of soldiers (“Alligator company”) that realize that they are more or less fodder, counting the days until they hear something good from HQ. As the protagonist get closer to the company, The Front Line becomes an intense, harrowing war film thatshows the struggles and bonds required to stay alive just a little while longer.
15. Nameless Gangster (Yun Jong-bin, 2012)
Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik) is a corrupt customs official who happens to come across a modest shipment of drugs. Rather than going to the police, he contacts his cousin Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo), hoping to strike some sort of deal. Initially hesitant, Hyung-bae eventually partners with Ik-hyun. Overtime, the two create of one the strongest criminal organization of their time, absorbing rivals and political figures to their advantage.
Another debut, Nameless Gangster seems like a film that a veteran filmmaker would attempt, playing with genre conventions, specifically the rise-and-fall. What’s great about Nameless Gangster is that is primarily focuses on the rise, because some of the achievements feel completely unbelievable. That’s not meant as a criticism to the film, as the violence and extortion utilized for certain territories feel quite believable.
What’s ridiculous is Ik-hyun’s as a gangster wouldn’t last long in any other gangster film. Choi doesn’t play the character as either too clever or dumb, but jumps between the two. It becomes unsure if he’s a genius or if he’s a lucky bastard. It’s a testament to Choi, being one his best performance in recent years.
Nameless Gangster soaks in the period, down to the camerawork and costume design, bringing the 1980s onscreen beautifully. Fans expecting action won’t be disappointed, as it’s sprinkled throughout, but ultimately culminating in a crazy finale near a rice field.
16. A Hard Day (Kim Seong-hoon, 2014)
One night, Detective Geon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun) drives to his mother’s funeral. While on the phone with his sister for being late, he unexpectedly runs someone over with his car, finding him dead soon after. From a distance, a police car slowly approaches the dirt road he’s currently parked.
Desperate, Geon-soo makes the fatal decision to cover it up, stashing the body in his trunk. With the body in tow, he finds himself in a tough situation, compounded by his marital problems and the corruption between his colleagues. As Geon-soo desperately tries overcome each surmounting problem, he’s contacted by a figure who claims to have seen it all.
A Hard Day is a thriller that other thrillers should aspire to be. First off, the pacing is incredibly expedient, making an almost two-hour long film to feel like a tight 80 or 90-minute feature. It’s the type of film that asks audiences what they would’ve done in the same situation, only to have the film delightfully pull one over on them time and time again.
It has a villain that’s — despite the criminal behavior — actually quite charismatic and fun. The character is quite unpredictable, while Geon-soo can be read quite easily, and to see both sides clash makes for a fun little crime-thriller. A Hard Day was the only film in 2014 that was a success in South Korea, but didn’t find a release out here in the U.S. — not even a limited one. Once this film gets distribution in the mainland — whenever that may be — it’s definitely worth checking out.
17. The Unjust (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2010)
Seoul’s police force is under much scrutiny by the public, as a series of rapes and murders of young schoolgirls go unsolved. This doesn’t help Officer Choi (Hwang Jeong-min), who’s been working for a promotion after being demoted. To make things worse, their prime suspect dies while chased by the authorities.
Pressured by his higher ups, Choi decides to create a prime suspect with the help of a corrupt real-estate developer Kim (Jo Yeong-jin). A rival developer of Kim enforces a crooked D.A. Yang (Ryoo Seung-bum) to investigate Kim’s activities. As the D.A. gets further in his investigation towards Kim and Choi, both sides must try to outsmart the other before their actions ultimately come to light.
The Berlin File is Ryoo Seung-wan back in form after taking on the political thriller with The Unjust. Known as the country’s premiere action filmmaker, The Berlin File has some of the slickest fights, shootouts, and set pieces by both Ryoo and South Korea. That said, the story and plotting of that film isn overcomplicated and isn’t all that interesting, even for an action film.
The Unjust uses dialogue, camerawork, and great acting to engage audiences where some stunt work would normally handle. There’s a memorable moment near the end in which our cop learns the DNA results of another character. The way Ryoo frames the cop and manipulates sound in that moment unnerves the audience as it does Choi.
There are some smaller physical moments, but they’re incredibly grounded. Ryoo has proven with Crying Fist and No Blood No Tears that he can balance the action with storytelling. The Unjust is Ryoo at the furthest from his comfort zone and the result is one best political thrillers in recent memory.