18. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)
Poetry opens with the body of a young girl floating down a river. Mija (Yun Joeng-hie) is an elderly woman taking care of her unappreciative grandson. She’s kind and gentle soul, cheerful despite the difficulty of her situation. During a small checkup, she learns she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. To help cope with the news, she enrolls herself in poetry courses. It seems to be helping, until Mija learns of her grandson’s involvement regarding the girl’s death.
Lee Chang-dong’s films tend to be impactful on an emotional level, dealing with incredibly sensitive subjects without being distasteful. His debut is one the best gangster films from the nation, and he’s the only other South Korean filmmaker with a film put out by the Criterion Collection (Secret Sunshine). Poetry is no different.
It’s an incredibly moving film about finding a voice after losing it from more than just her worsening Alzheimer’s disease. Lee garnered many awards for this film, even winning Best Screenplay Award at Cannes. Yoon Jeong-hee essentially came out of retirement after she stopped acting in 1997. She embodies the character in many scenes, and it’s heartbreaking to see her character endure the burden of more than just her illness.
The film itself is arguably quite poetic, and it’s very much like Lee to attempt something like that. One can also argue that it’s quite pretentious, but it’s tough to follow that viewpoint when the heart of Poetry is clearly in the right place.
19. Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo, 2010)
In a remote countryside location, two old friends reunite for an afternoon of dining and rice wine. Filmmaker Moon-kyung (Kim Sang-kyung) and his best friend Joong-sik (Yoo Jun-sang), talk about their time visiting a small port town called Tongyeong. What both men don’t realize is that as the film progresses, it’s revealed that they’ve both been to the same locations, and have also met the same people.
Hong Sang-soo is fortunate to constantly work, especially as someone who not only makes films on an independent level, but arthouse films that hardly break even. While The Day He Arrives is an excellent release by Hong in recent years, Hahaha succeeds by having the director’s trademark style, while also featuring some newer elements that ultimately work in favor of the narrative.
He doesn’t just stick with B&W or color, but instead combines both in meaningful ways that go beyond a simple shift in perspective. Hong’s use of causality, space, and dialogue have all been previously utilized and experimented (repeatedly) to somehow condemn or embarrass his characters in uncomfortable ways. Here, it’s both damning and quite hilarious.
Most of Hong’s characters are really unlikable, but they aren’t the worst (unlike Kim Ki-duk’s protagonists). It’s even more uncomfortable in some cases due to the verisimilitude that’s found in most of Hong’s films. But here, it’s not really his focus. One can still get Hong’s message without the nihilism of his older work. Here, it’s just great how they can be criticized for being dumb jerks, but can still enjoy an afternoon of rice wine without the baggage.
20. The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Kim Han-min, 2014)
Yi Sun-si (Choi Min-sik) is famous in Korean history for developing the design and strategy of the iconic “turtle ship.” This film focuses on the battle of Myeong-ryang, in which Yi had only 13 ships against the Japanese’s 133 sailing toward them. With the odds stacked against them through numbers and sabotage, Yi is forced to outmaneuver and stop the enemy forces with the little resources he has.
It would be somewhat irresponsible to leave out The Admiral: Roaring Currents, as it essentially eviscerated all the box office records faster than any South Korean film in history, with admissions and tickets sales only growing overtime. As of right now, it is the most successful South Korean film of all time. Personally, I don’t think too highly of the film, but South Korea made their voices heard with their wallets.
It’s easy to see why this film was a hit for several reasons. For the most part, it’s a competently made war film that delivers some exciting naval battle sequences. The tone is highly sensationalized, nationalizing the film in a way that many critics believed was necessary after the tragic sinking and death of the ferry full of students. They got a powerhouse performance from Choi Min-sik, the best person to pull of the intensity of the character.
That said, one can definitely feel the length of this film. The villains here are the Japanese, but they come off as too evil and cartoonish to take seriously. The Admiral: Roaring Currents isn’t terrible by any means, but isn’t all that memorable in the long run. It takes a the David and Goliath scenario and does more with it than 300: Rise of an Empire, a film that was also meant to feature creative naval battle as well. The Admiral: Roaring Currents is certainly better than that film, but don’t expect a masterpiece.
21. Haemoo (Shim Sung-bo, 2014)
Submitted last year to represent South Korea in the 87th Academy Awards, Haemoo is based on the stage-play about smuggling of illegal immigrants. Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yun-seok) and his small crew expect a good catch from their hard work, but their efforts aren’t rewarded.
Down on his luck and in debt, he decides to take an illegal job: using their boat to smuggle around 30 illegal immigrants. Tension and chaos erupt between the crew and the immigrants, as they both fight for better conditions. It isn’t until a tragic accident that tests the men on the boat in ways they were not expecting.
Haemoo was written and directed by Bong Joon-ho’s co-writer for Memories of Murder,Shim Sung-bo. Being his debut film (also co-written by Bong), Haemoo initially feels similar to Snowpiercer, but after crucial moment in the middle, the film and crew descend to darker territory, almost becoming a horror film once the sea fog completely engulfs their ship.
The tension doesn’t let go from that moment, and once the crew members start losing themselves in the fog, the film shifts gears accordingly. Now, Haemoo does give into certain genre conventions as the tone changes, jumping from romance to thriller, forcing a love story amidst the chaos.
In all honesty, it doesn’t feel like the best choice to represent South Korea, since the film doesn’t seem to represent the best that South Korean filmmaking had to offer that year. Still, it’s one of the better thrillers recently released, with solid direction and performances by the ensemble cast.
22. Moss (Kang Woo-suk, 2010)
Moss opens in the past. A crooked cop named Cheon Yong-deok (Jeong Jae-yeong) investigates a small village to investigate the influence of an unknown preacher. Suspicious about his actions, Cheon goes to investigate. In the present, Ryoo Hae-kook (Park Hae-il) travels to the same small village where his estranged father had passed.
Upon arriving, he finds an unusual welcoming, but a welcoming nonetheless. Rather than wanting to know more about Hae-kook, the village is curious to know when he’ll leave. Hae-gook ultimately finds things a bit odd and decides to snoop around, despite the warnings from a now elderly Cheon, who happens to be the village senior.
Much like A Hard Day, Moss is the type of film that relies on the audience to play along with the character’s investigation. Once Hae-kook and the audience feel like they’re onto something, the filmmaker throws a curveball that’s catches off guard without being unreasonable. The island is unsettling in it’s own unique way, with secrets that aren’t limited to just limited to the actions of the island’s inhabitance.
Park Hae-il does an awesome job as the lead, determined but the with the right amount of vulnerability. But it’s Jung Jae-young as the villain who’s amazing as the villain. The character had the potential to come off as incredibly cartoony, but the performance as both young and old Cheon is effective, even under the old-age makeup.
It’s different from something like F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus, but it’s nonetheless gripping. It’s a bit longer than most mystery thrillers, but Moss keeps one guessing until the very end with it’s playful, and purposefully subversive story.
23. Punch (Han Lee, 2011)
Wan-duek (Ah In-yoo) is a young man in high-school who’s grades suck, mostly spending his time using his fists to get by. He’s not a bad kid, just frustrated. It doesn’t help that his biggest nagger and supporter is his teacher/neighbor (Kim Yun-seok). On top of all that, Wan-deuk only has a father who works as street-performing clown that gets pummeled by thugs on a daily basis. This all changes for Wan-deuk when his teacher claims to have found the boy’s birthmother.
Much like Sunny, Punch is another film that puts aims to put a smile across the viewer’s face. Teacher-student relationships don’t get this nuanced and funny, as Wan-deuk literally prays to God for his teacher’s destruction. Despite their unusual relationship, Punch is actually about family and community. Wan-deuk’s neighbor steals almost every scene he’s in, hilarious in how overly cantankerous he is.
There is an underdog, sports element to the story, but much like everything else in Wan-deuk’s life, the sport (in this case, kickboxing) is a metaphor for his character and not be the central focus of the plot. It’s not glamorized, but that’s okay — Punch is a film that reaches without asking. It’s heartfelt, honest, and incredibly funny.
24. Cold Eyes (Jo Ui-seok, Kim Byung-seo, 2013)
Yoon-joo (Han Hyo-ju) is a young woman who barely passes and joins an elite surveillance team for the South Korean police, mentored by her boss, Chief Hwang (Sol Kyung-gu). Meanwhile, James (Jung Woo-sung) is a master thief responsible for orchestrating some of the most unstoppable heists in recent memory. Eventually, both sides finally clash, testing both sides unlike ever before, resulting in a city-wide game of cat-and-mouse.
This one feels a bit odd to feature on this list, being a remake of the Hong-Kong thriller Eye in the Sky (with a great callback in the end). But Cold Eyes surpasses the original by taking the best elements of the source material and as well as fitting some elements from Johnnie To, Christopher Nolan, and Michael Mann, resulting in an even tighter film than the original, which is still pretty great.
Slick and efficient, just like the team itself, Cold Eyes rarely has a dull moment since the team dynamic — both the surveillance team and thieves — provide the right amount of build up before their many confrontations. Jung Woo-sung’s James might get complaints for being slightly underdeveloped, but he does enough to warrant him as a worthy villain, let alone his arrest.
It’s quite an achievement that an advanced surveillance team can have as much fun and excitement as countless other cinematic spies. It’s a chess match as much as it’s a chase, and Cold Eyes rarely slows down.
25. The Man from Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)
Running a pawn shop, the quiet and reclusive Tae-shik (Won Bin) keeps to himself. When his heroine addicted neighbor shoots up, he opens his door the neighbor’s daughter, a spunky little girl named Soo-mi (Kim Sae-ron).
When Soo-mi’s mother rips off her drug-dealing employers, they abduct both mother and daughter for nefarious purposes. Tae-shik chases after the girl, much to the abductor’s delight, even submits to their demands. When he realizes that they won’t release Soo-mi, Tae-shik decides to find her using his own deadly methods.
Whenever I get asked by a friend, colleague, or classmate for a recommendation of good Korean film, I usually think about it, basing it on their personality and tastes. If I didn’t know them that well, it would be The Man From Nowhere. This filmed not only rocked the South Korean box-office and award’s season, but was a surprise hit at Fantastic Fest where it premiered in out here in the states, appealing to western audiences.
Director Lee Jeong-beom’s film is essentially the Korean version of The Professional and Taken, down to the lead character originally written as a much older gentleman. But with the interest and buzz from superstar Won Bin, he decided to change the script to feature much more action, resulting in Won Bin’s training to what would eventually become a complete physical transformation.
As a result, The Man From Nowhere is a small little action film that doesn’t want to do more than satisfy audiences. It doesn’t have the ballsy fatalism of The Chaser or Hong-Kong’s The Beast Stalker, but holy shit does it have one of the best knife fights ever shot (recently outdone by The Raid 2). It’s just a great little action film.
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.