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The 30 Best South Korean Movies of the 21st Century

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The Best South Korean Movies of the Century

South Korean cinema is best known for their on-screen, no-holds-barred, grotesque violence that would find space in the list of the most fucked up movies. The biggest name in Korean cinema continues to be Park Chan-wook, with his international success opening up Korean cinema for similar directors, who make genre films aimed at popular domestic and international festival crowds.

Thus, although Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-Woon are contemporaries of Park and began making films around the same time, it is fair to say that Park is the name that establishes the Korean cult director, and thus can be seen as influencing an entire generation. The modern renaissance filmmakers like Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-Woon and Bong Joon-ho have put South Korean cinema on the world stage.

While modern auteurs like Lee Chang-dong, Kim Ki-Duk, Hong Sang-soo and Im Kwon-Taek have garnered praise for their masterful direction in the film festivals, they have carved an inviolable niche for themselves. South-Korean cinema has found a balance between competitive contemporary mainstream and art films that shape the world cinema. Here is the exhaustive list of the best South Korean movies of the 21st century that redefined the medium.

Honourable Mention

Right Now, Wrong Then and Hotel by The River – dir. Hong Sang-soo

The Net, 3 Irons, The Isle – dir. Kim Ki-Duk

The Good The Bad The Weird and A Tale of Two Sisters – dir. Kim Jee-Woon

Bedevilled – dir. Jang Cheol-soo

30. Pietà | Kim Ki-Duk | 2012

Can you escape the horrors of your past? Whether you are a really bad person or a victim of circumstances, is there still hope for you? Ki-Duk Kim (Known for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring) is someone who gives small but significant messages through his films. While “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring” was his meditation on life along with all its significant entities, through “Pieta” (피에타) he tells the story of a vicious loan-shark, who is cold-hearted, merciless and ruthless towards all the people who owe him money. He doesn’t give them time, he doesn’t kill them, he just cripples them, making their life agonizingly painful. He doesn’t have any remorse or compassion towards them, basically making him devoid of any kind of emotions. He is alone and depressed, which is evident from one of the essential scenes in films.

But life doesn’t want him to be that way. A mysterious woman comes on his doorstep and refuses to leave his side. Slowly and gradually he accepts the woman in his life, wherein he also starts thinking that there’s hope for him. Kim’s “Pieta” is a staggering study of the human condition. It shows how love can be the start of every single thing that goes right and wrong in life. It also shows how love can often result in pain, revenge, and the likes of it. It is not a happy film. And even despite the big reveal towards the end of the film, it leaves you with a lump in your throat with its hypnotic tendency that doesn’t let go.

30. Thirst | Park Chan-Wook | 2009

Park Chan-Wook brings a new twist to a generic staple of our usual high cheekbones Vampires that appear in Pop Culture; vampires who siphon off blood, and have elongated teeth to hook on the carotid artery. His jazzed up & evolved vampire tale feels relatable, even if the possibility of their existence shares a similar fate to fairy tales.

Driven by the invigorated passion, Park Chan-Wook’s “Thirst” is filled with an abundance of inventive ideas and meticulous characterization, at times he gets nasty & creepy- which is usual for him. His ideas sometimes hover in a cynical zone that may leave you agitated.

The characters are layered and Park Chan manages to give them emotional depth. He creates an arena of moral disputes between two diametrically opposite souls, connected by alienated feelings.

29. The Host | Bong Joon-ho | 2006

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Bong Joon-ho’s monster drama ‘The Host’ is less of a horror film about a slimy tentacle monster unleashing terror across the Han River shoreline, and more of a subtle, but scathing, criticism on mass hysteria, health-care bureaucracy, consumerism and pollution.

The drama surrounding the dysfunctional family acts as a connecting tissue, to address the said issues in the garb of a monster movie, without weighing down the screenplay.

The greatest achievement of Bong Joon-ho is to pull off a moment of hilarity during the saddest scene. Try not to laugh when the family is mourning over the death of their lovable teenage girl.

28. Hope | Lee Joon-Ik | 2013

Based on the infamously tragic Nayoung Case, that shook the country in 2008, “Hope” is a devastating film about an idyllic family. Their harmonious lives fall apart when the 8 y.o. daughter So-won is beaten, raped and left for dying. So-won survives the inhuman brutality, but it leaves a psychological and emotional scar on her and the family.

The film is far off from the true event. So-won’s journey in finding herself and getting back to stability would fill you with hope, even if the film never digs deeper into the psychological conundrum she went through. It has melodrama in abundance, but it is the only way to deal with such skin-crawling, disturbing event.

27. Il Mare |  Lee Hyun-Seung | 2000

Lee Hyun-Seung delicately blends the old school romance with a powerful yet minimalistic visual style. He paints every frame with the stunning, idyllic soft-focus shots, without indulging in heavy-handed dialogues, letting the visible curiosity and well-guarded personal space of characters bring the narrative alive.

Two troubled individuals, separated by temporal time warp, connect through letters found in the letterbox at Il Mare, the name of the Lake House.

The idea sounds preposterous, but the way characters navigate through their personal space and heal each other, without succumbing to the genre tropes, via the fantastical exchange of letters, has more to do with impulse and the emotion of love, than the plot itself. Hollywood could not resist the charm and remade the film in 2006 titled ‘The Lake House’, starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.

26. New World | Park Hoon-Jung | 2013

Park Hoon-Jung’s stylish gangster drama ‘New World’ is an observational character study of the Korean Crime syndicate’s inner functioning, which starts falling apart after the death of the Chairman in a staged road accident.

A helpless Ja-sung (Lee Jung-Jae), an impassive undercover cop who infiltrated the syndicate eight years ago, has his loyalty questioned when he doesn’t find a way out. Navigating through the crumbling empire, the drama unfolds on the Shakespearean landscape made up of betrayal and shifting loyalties.

‘New World’ would closely resemble ‘Infernal Affair’ in its setting, but Park Hoon-Jung takes a humanistic approach in fleshing out the characters, including of those gangsters, who feel vulnerable and threatened. Though it doesn’t mean ‘New World’ is devoid of gut-churning action sequences and bone-chilling thrilling moments.

25. The Dark Figure of Crime | Kim Tae-Kyun, Kim Tae-Gyun | 2019

Ju Ji-hoon, Kim Yoon-seok in Dark Figure of Crime
@Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment
New York Premiere

‘Dark Figure of Crime’ is a gritty, visceral crime-drama that works both as a fine character study, exploring the inimical side of human nature, and a drama about hope in a bleak and dejected world. It is everything that Kim Hyeong-jun’s murder mystery ‘No Mercy’ wanted to achieve, but fell short of, due to his overindulgence in smartness.

Hyong-min’s life is turned into a visceral chase when a cold blood serial killer Tae-oh casually confesses to the unreported past crime.

Kim Yoon-Seok’s understated and committed performance layers the character. It dismantles all the “detective” stereotypes. Hwang Ki-suk’s muted cinematography renders a sombre feel to the already desolate drama, reminiscent of the way Kim Hyung-Koo achieved the murkiness in ‘Memories of Murder’. Yoon-Seok contrasts the city in the night, glistening with colour, against the darkness of the crime committed. The created paranoia pulls us deep into the ambiguous state of Tae-oh’s narration. Read the complete review of The Dark Figure of Crime.

24. The Bow | Kim Ki-Duk | 2005

Kim Ki-Duk’s ‘The Bow’ is an elusive and ambiguous character study of a 16 y.o. girl who has spent a decade on the boat, and an old man with a multipurpose bow who plans to marry her when she turns 17. The girl has been away from civilization for a decade, and that has serious psychological implications evident in the ambiguity of her character.

The peaceful, routine life and bond of trust, show a crack when a young, college student boards their tugboat. The crack widens when the girl internalizes the freedom of choice. Kim Ki-Duk never explains the motive or tries to resolve the conflicts, instead, he immaculately uses silence and soothing music to reflect upon the emotional quandary of the characters.

23. The World of Us | Yoon Ga-Eun | 2016

Yoon Ga-Eun examines the intrinsic and extrinsic pressures that children in modern Korea face, without any melodrama or manipulation of the events. When an outcast Sun (Choi Soo-in), constantly bullied in school, meets the newcomer  Jia (Seol Hye-in) during a summer holiday, she believes she has finally found a friend.

The friendship, built on the need, turns sour when the social and financial status interferes. The strain becomes so damaging that the consequences are felt outside the school campus as well.  Leisurely paced, aesthetically minimalistic and absorbing throughout, “The World of Us” takes the audiences on a ride they might have experienced themselves or seen during their childhood. The performance of both child actors is effortless and exudes naturalism.

22. A Bittersweet Life | Kim Jee-Woon | 2005

“A Bittersweet Life” is often acknowledged for two things: its razor-sharp action scenes, stitched together, one after another; and the taut narrative that doesn’t let you catch your breath until the end credits.

The affecting character drama of its protagonist is rarely brought up for discussion. But I believe strongly, that what makes those action scenes worthy is the invigorating drama surrounding Lee Byung-hun’s Sun-woo. A man who has never been in love before, he suddenly finds himself at the mercy of the romantic feelings that he fails to concede.

What brings sweetness in Sun-woo’s bitter life is his boss’s mistress, Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah), playing songs at a music recital, and reflecting how empty and shallow his life is. The realisation of emptiness propels him to go against his boss, which results in a violent feud.

21. Scattered Night | KIM Sol and LEE Jihyoung | 2019

MOON Seung-a & KIM Hyeyoung looking sad in the frame of Scattered Night 2019

KIM Sol and LEE Jihyoung directorial Korean film ‘Scattered Night’ grounds the plot in this unfortunate event, while giving an intimate and internal perspective from the children’s point of view, especially from the youngest daughter Sumin, with no melodrama and glossy arc to feel their state, or with no resolution at the hindsight.

Scatted Night featured in our list of the Best Movies of 2019

Scattered Night is an intimate and intricate portrayal of a collapsing family seen through the eyes of smart but naive Sumin. It doesn’t succumb into providing straightforward answers to an emotional quandary.

20. Oasis | Lee Chang-dong | 2002

It is serendipity that two of my most loved, transgressive romantic films of the century released in the same year: Punch Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) and Oasis. The lead characters in their films are atypical men who do not succumb to their limitation to garner the sympathy.

Neither of the film-makers ever try to appease their audiences, by making the character likeable or heroic. They never judge their character for what they are, and that is where lies the strength of the film.

“Oasis” opens with Hong Jong-du (Sol Kyung-gu) released from prison after serving three years for a hit-and-run case. His immediate family has moved to a new place without providing the forwarding address. They don’t want him. They don’t even care if he is dead or alive. His mother is indifferent to his presence.

Hong Jong-du is socially awkward. His gleaming eyes and a perpetual smile on his face could be deceiving. You feel for him, but you would probably run away if you see him in a person. He lacks social and familial skills.

Even after cold reception and explicitly telling him how life was good in his absence, he doesn’t budge and sticks with the family, as if he doesn’t understand that his family doesn’t want him.

He meets disabled Gong-ju Han (So-ri Moon), who is suffering from cerebral palsy, when he visits the family of the man he killed in an accident. Gong-Ju Han’s brother- and sister-in-law shift to a new apartment meant for a disabled person, locking her in a shabby small room.

Families abandon Gong-Ju Han and Jong-du. They are ignored and abused for self-gain. Lee Chang-dong doesn’t manufacture sympathy for them, he doesn’t judge them. “Oasis” is a story of what constitutes love and desire between two physically disabled people in a perfectly abled society.

19. I saw the Devil | Kim Jee-Woon | 2010

If Oldboy’s violence made your stomach curl, Kim Jee-Woon’s ‘I Saw The Devil’ would make you squirm in your seat. It borders the torture porn but never feels like one as the film utilizes bloody violence ballad as a vessel to serve the narrative and feed characters with a sense of purpose, rather than merely an exercise in the shocking audience.

I Saw The Devil is driven by powerful performances, grotesque on-screen violence porn, bolstered by fitting dark cinematography and a haunting score — Korean director Jee-Woon Kim’s 2010 horror/thriller is perhaps one of the scariest films of the 21st century.

18. Oki’s Movie | Hong Sangsoo | 2010

Hong Sang-soo put a frustratingly unstructured but exhilarating narrative spin to the love triangle. It is self-referential metadrama, adorned with sly wit and awkward droll. Ambiguities, ironies and the rift between men’s and women’s experiences open in the fractured narrative that reflects the uneasy and painful chaos of love. It chronicles the upsetting but amorous entanglement of a neurotic, insecure young director Jingu, matured but questionable professor Song, and fellow student Oki.

17. Oldboy | Park Chan-wook | 2003

Oldboy brought attention to the Korean thrillers of the Internation audience and considered as one of the best pioneering movies in the genre. The second chapter in Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Vengence Trilogy’ is a hyper-violent, bloodcurdling revenge symphony. An exotic revenge drama harbouring Oedipus complex, incest and flickering hope of empathy and humanity mixed with skin-crawling offscreen violence would leave you in disgust, fear and horror. What starts as a surreal dream spiral down into a perdition nightmare having kafkaesque aesthetics.

A drunken, arrogant man is held captive for fourteen years and, one day, he is suddenly released without any explanation, and given a cell phone, money and expensive clothes. He navigates a meaningless life to find a purpose, which eventually translates into finding the man – Lee Woo-jin- who did it to him and seeking revenge.

Park Chan-wook paints both the characters with a strong stroke of grey and tinge of empathy, but he never takes any moral high ground in the end. Though the revenge is at the forefront of the film, the equally intriguing subplot trails the genesis of Lee Woo-jin idea of revenge born out of humiliation and cathartic emotions as a way for repentance.

16. House of Hummingbird | Bora Kim | 2019

Inarguably, the best Korean movie of 2019. In her feature debut, Bora Kim paints an intimate and sensitive story of a lonely and whimsical eighth-grader Eunhee (Ji-hu Park) during the mid-90s. The intentional glacial pacing of the narration allows nuanced observation of the Korean culture and marginally reduced the role of women in society.

House of Hummingbird featured in our list of the Best Movies of 2019

Eunhee is trying to navigate life through her dysfunctional family, abusive brother and her bullies in school while figuring out her place in the society.  Bora Kim presents an honest and poignant take on youth, filled with warm cinematography from Gook-Hyun and introduces a powerhouse performance from the young Ji-hu Park. Continue reading the review of House of Hummingbird.

15. The Way Home | Jeong-Hyang Lee | 2002

The Way Home 2002 The Best Korean Movies of The Century

The plot of ‘The Way Home’ is familiar and bound to have sentimental elements. A gentle, muted grandmother (Eul-Boon Kim), who is ignorant of modern technologies including electricity, drainage system, Kentucky Fried chicken, wins over her spoiled grandson (Seung-Ho Yoo) when they spend a summer together in her rural South Korean village.

The economic slow down has compelled grandmother’s (Eul-Boon Kim) daughter to leave Sang-woo for summer until she finds a job in a city. Writer & director Jeong-Hyang Lee has realized the story with such tenderness and affection for the characters that it ‘feels’ fresh and new. He avoids all the cliches and genre tropes to structure a narrative around the character whose arc forms at the behest of their internalized feelings rather than the ideological and social differences between its protagonists.

14. The Day He Arrives | Hang Sang-soo | 2011

It is no news that Hang Sang-soo blends personal experience in a fictional story to structure an intimate meta-narrative. “The Day He Arrives” could be his most heartfelt, existential slacker comedy. A feckless film-maker Seong-jun (Yu Jun-sang), four films old, is on the edge of being washed off. He has come to Seoul to meet his critic friend Young-ho (Kim Sang-Joong).

They hang out in a bar over several seemingly repetitive days, just like Groundhog Day, except that there are new development and shifts in energy every day. They meet teacher friend of Young-ho, bar owner, and an actor who was promised a role in Seong-jun’s film. Their interactions are mostly mundane like you would expect in Hang’s films.

This time around, the characters are more rounded. The mundane conversation is a way to deal with their unperturbed existential crisis. There is bittersweet wisdom in it, that makes it even more profound. Simply composed and beautifully shot in black-and-white, “The Day He Arrives” is almost a perfect summation of Hong’s artistic approach and ideas.

13. Painted Fire | Im Kwon-taek | 2002

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The sprawling, layered narrative and picturesque visuals of ‘Painted Fire’ takes inspiration from the life and work of a 19th-century Korean painter ‘Jang Seung-ub’. His self-willed artistic fire made him arguably the greatest painter of his time, despite lacking the formal education, deemed a necessity to succeed in any art form.

He captivates art connoisseurs with his surreal paintings while battling personal demons and incessant artistic crisis at a time of great social and cultural change. Choi Min-Shik embodies artistic vulnerability & stubbornness in the character to deliver the performance of a lifetime.

12. Take Care of my Cat | Jae-Eun Jeong | 2001

The Best Korean Movies of The Century

Writer-director Jae-Eun Jeong ‘Take care of my Cat’ is a multifaceted, layered drama. It takes a subtle look at class division & economic disparity that strain the childhood friendship of five friends from the industrial port city of Inchon. Hae-Joo (Yo-won Lee) is selfish, self-centred and ambitious who finds happiness in the material things. She has planned out her future, and her friends are nowhere to fit in it. She looks down upon them. And it has to with their lack of a stable job.

She’s particularly dismissive of Ji-young (Ji-young Ok), who wants to study textile design abroad. Ji-young’s parents are dead and the financial crisis at home doesn’t allow her to pursue further studies. Hae-Joo callously reminds Ji-young about it. Tae-hee (Doo-na Bae) is matured and kind-hearted among all. She works for her parents. She finds staying at home suffocating due to her huge family.

Inseparable identical twins Ohn-jo and Bi-Ryu (Eun-shil and Eun-Joo Lee) are content with their life in a small town. They are indifferent to their poor condition and have no plan for the future.

Jae-eun structures the plot around three reunions to show the widening crack in their friendship that goes beyond repair and uses a small cat, which Ji-young finds in an alleyway and is passed from friend to friend, to keep the four-story arcs linked.

11. Mother | Bong Joon-ho | 2009

The Best Korean Movies of The Century

A mother is always considered as a symbol of unconditional love who could sacrifice everything for her child without giving a thought. Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Mothe’ tries to navigate through the emotional quandary of a mother and realise the actuality of unconditional love.

Bong Joon weaves a gut-wrenching mystery thriller around the murder of a teenage girl, the suspect of which is a marginally intelligent boy. His mother (Kim Hye-Ja ) starts an amateurish investigation to find out the real culprit. It throws her into the labyrinth of deception and moral corruption. Kim Hye-Ja terrifically gets into the skin of this role to give a nuanced performance to remember for a long time.

10. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring | Kim Ki-Duk | 2004

Kim Ki Duk's spiritual film - The Best Korean Movies of The Century

It’s fairly difficult to write about a film that is intuitive, visceral and expansive in its sprawling narrative. How do you write about something which mimics life so intimately and explores it in the backdrop of changing seasons?

We are introduced to a small Buddhist monastery, a world in itself, situated on a raft floating in the centre of a mountain pond. An old monk (Oh Young-soo) is preparing to pass on his wisdom to a child monk (KIM Jong-ho), a repetitive cycle of life. We see life grow in the backdrop of four seasons. Encapsulating the emotions of existing and constantly flourishing, like the time has come standstill.

9. The Handmaiden | Park Chan-Wook | 2016

The Handmaiden The Best Korean Movies of The Century

“The Handmaiden” swarms with multiple things at once: an alluring romantic period piece, a psychosexual erotic drama, an extended commentary on Japan’s occupation of Korea in the 1930s, a con story where the con man gets conned; more than anything, “The Handmaiden” is an accomplished, visceral cinematic exercise that packs disquieting fable of love, deception and liberation of women that piles on expensive imagery.

The Handmaiden featured in our list of The 25 best Non-English Films of 2016

It’s a masterful work by Park Chan-Wook, as he puts his audiences amid a large puzzle spread all over the floor where they are forced to question every action, feel distressed by some of them and in a very dark, hilarious way, feel greatly amused by them. Continue reading the review of The Handmaiden.

8. Burning | Lee Chang-dong | 2018

“Burning” is a stunning, opaque, ambiguous riddle-story, filled with uncertain turns of events. It’s a well-crafted film, with muted cinematography, and absolute control of its writing, as displayed in the powerful characterization and well-earned climax that you won’t see coming from five hundred miles.

Burning featured in our list of the 25 Best Foreign films of 2018

The greatest achievement of “Burning” lies in the controlled and restrained narration that uses minimal exposition, relying on visual cues to express the airtight tension among the characters. The anger, grief, rage, love and envy are never explicitly expressed. Rather, they are internalised in uncomfortable silences, and further heightened by Kim Da-won’s unsettling score. Read the complete review of Burning.

7. Treeless Mountain | So Yong Kim | 2008

Best Korean Drama Movies - Treeless Mountain

“Treeless Mountain” is a piercing, minimalist movie that smartly avoids sentimentalism for finding the naturalism in its narrative and characters. It is about two innocent girls, 7 YO Jin and her younger sister Bin, who are left by their distraught mother in the care of their aunt while she attempts to reconcile with her delinquent husband.

In one of the scenes, Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim) scolds a 5 y.o. Bin for peeing in bed. The girl sincerely asserts a couple of time that she did not pee in bed. It is her 7 y.o. elder sister Jin that has wet the bed, but Jin remains a silent spectator out of embarrassment. Any other film-maker would have created a space for dramatic conflict to empathize with Bin, but the writer-director So Yong Kim never revisits the issue or resolve the misunderstanding. She never provides an easy answer. She never trivializes the incorrupt naivety of young girls for the sake of creating a linear arc that validates their innocence.

So Yong Kim weaves the heart-wrenching story with the fabric similar to Asghar Farhadi’s complex but nuanced drama and Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi’s impeccable charm and innocence that the children possess.

6. Secret Sunshine | Lee Chang-dong | 2007

Secret Sunshine Lee Chang-dong's films ranked

Secret Sunshine is an unflinching, lyrical drama that gets emotionally taxing as we get to know more about meek and genial Shin-ae (Jeon Do-Yeon). Lee Chang-dong’s dense narrative is brimming with the emotional and psychological breakdowns that Shin-ae experiences while grieving over the loss of her son.

The opening scene of the film foreshadows the fate of Shin-ae and her son. They are stuck in the middle of the highway, looking for help while moving to Miryang (literally translates to Secret Sunshine in Chinese). She wishes to restart a fresh life in her husband’s native land, after his death.

Her unsettled life takes a tragic turn when her son is kidnapped and later found dead, leading her to the struggle of finding peace amidst the personal loss, grief, levelling disillusionment and shaky faith. Jeon Do-Yeon gives a committed and superlative performance that won her Best Actress awards at 60th Cannes Film Festival.

5. The King and the Clown | Lee Joon-Ik |2005

Jung Jin-young, Lee Joon-gi and Kam Woo-sung in the film The King and The Clown - The Best Korean Movies of The Century

The King and the Clown is a historical tragic-comedy. It’s a subtle and nuanced exploration of sexuality, love, jealousy and madness neatly decorated in the backdrop of 15th-century Korean socio-culture elements, during the reign of King Yeonsan. The layered narrative, powerful monologues and dramatic tropes form a tragic conundrum remarkably reminding of Shakespearean tragedy.

Adapted from the stage play, Yi (“You”), the film-director ‘Lee Joon-ik’ and the screenwriter ‘Choi Seok-hwan’ deconstructs the interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships of two ill-fated travelling clowns who get tangled in a web of compassion, kindness and longing for a good life. Continue reading the complete review of The King and The Clown.

4. The Wailing | Na Hong-jin | 2016

Best Korean Horror Movies - The Wailing

Na Hong-jin seamlessly blends multiple genres with ease, constructing a psychological horror involving satanic cult and ancient folk tale. “The Wailing” is like a giant monster whose is not visible, but whose terrorising, ominous presence of supernatural force is felt through the eerie silence, like you are just to be gulped by the rain of horror.

The Wailing Featured in our list of the 50 Best Films of 2016

Set in a small mountain town of  South-Korea, village dwellers find themselves in the worst nightmare – the mysterious killing of dwellers with no suspect. Na Hong-jin let the central plot grow organically with the time while keeping its audiences busy setting the puzzling trap of horror, served with the dash of doleful humour. Read the complete review of The Wailing

3. Peppermint Candy | Lee Chang-dong | 2000

Peppermint Candy - Lee Chang-dong masterpiece The Best Korean Movies of The Century

Lee Chang-dong’s ‘Peppermint Candy’ is an unflinching and unhurried examination of a man in the backdrop of the ever-changing and volatile sociopolitical environment in Korea.

The five phases in the protagonist’s life form the narrative in Peppermint Candy. It is structured in reverse order and opens with his suicide on the bridge, then goes back in time to his college days. It does a psychological exploration of Young Ho (Sol Kyung-gu) after he accidentally shoots an innocent girl during the Gwangju massacre in the 1980s. It leaves a scar on his psychology that turns into a blister under the military dictatorship in the Korean government, during the 1980s, to the economic crisis in the 1990s, within the Korean government.

Peppermint Candy also explores the rise of masculinity in the Korean society that chews up the relationship of Young Ho with his wife and enables the toxic behaviour in him. Director Lee Chang-Dong explores one of the most tragic moments in Korean history in an extremely powerful way by portraying a male character who struggles within the militarized society.

Also, Read – Every Lee Chang-dong film ranked

2. Memories of Murder | Bong Joon-ho | 2003

The Best Korean Movies - Memories of Murder

Richly detailed and nerve-racking, “Memories of Murder” is a masterful work in character study and in creating the disquieting tension throughout the film. The muted colour cinematography and the vast emptiness of the fields in the rain create a sense of horror lurking in every frame.

The ritualistic serial killing of women in the small town of South Korea brings the two inept local police officers along with a calm and sensible Seoul officer to crack the case. The killing is graphical and unsettling, but Bong Joon-ho layers the investigation with the hilarity of the mismatch between the sensibilities and attitude of the two police officers.

The conflict in their approach to the case reveals a great deal about the critical connection between these people and the repressive society. As the lunkheaded officers become obsessed with the case, the character arc sees a tectonic shift that tells about the psychological implication of the ongoing serial killings.

1. Poetry | Lee Chang-dong | 2010

Poetry - Lee Chang-dong films Ranked - The Best Korean Movies of The Century

INARGUABLY, and I say in bold letters on purpose, one of the best Korean movies of the century. Lee Chang-dong is undoubtedly one of the best contemporary screenwriters and directors working today. Even with the thinnest plot that can be reduced to one sentence, the complex and layered drama that he packs would require multiple viewing to comprehend completely. It doesn’t get better than in “Poetry”.

Contemplating the guilt and grief, and articulating it to vent out while facing the existential crisis forms an underlying theme of Lee’s melancholic “Poetry.” This is Lee’s most accessible work, but it contains a multitude of emotional and psychological layers. Poetry holds labyrinth of emotions in its subtext. The emotional depth and psychological complexity Lee’s film carries is nothing less than a conundrum piece.

A sixty-six-year-old Mija (Yun Jung-hee), a part-time caretaker, living in a modest house with her grandson, learns about the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s an irony to her tragic news when she joins the poetry learning community. A wistful desire to learn a new medium of expressing herself while she is thrown into the abyss of unconscious forgetfulness of the language she knows well.

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