The 35 Best South Korean Movies of the 21st Century: South Korean cinema is best known for its on-screen, no-holds-barred, grotesque violence that would find space in the list of the most unsettling movies. The biggest name in Korean cinema continues to be Park Chan-wook. His international success opened 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 carved the niche for Korean cult movies, and he can be seen as influencing an entire generation. 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 world cinema. Here is the exhaustive list of the best South Korean movies of the 21st century that redefined the medium.
Right Now, Wrong Then and Hotel by The River – Director: Hong Sang-soo
The Net, 3 Irons, The Isle – Director: Kim Ki-Duk
The Good The Bad The Weird and A Tale of Two Sisters – Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Bedevilled – Director: Jang Cheol-soo
35. 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 their 8-year-old 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 a skin-crawling, disturbing event.
34. Pietà | Kim Ki-Duk | 2012
Can you escape the horrors of your past? Whether you are an amoral person or a victim of circumstances, is there still hope for you? Ki-Duk Kim (Known for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring) often passes small but significant commentary on human nature 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 a story of a vicious loan-shark, who is cold-hearted, merciless, and ruthless towards his debtors. Neither he gives them extension nor he kills them, he just cripples them. He makes their life agonizingly painful. Lack of any remorse or compassion toward his victim makes him cold.
He is alone and depressed, which is evident from one of the essential scenes in the film. But life doesn’t want him to be that way. A mysterious woman comes to his doorstep and refuses to leave his side. Gradually he accepts the woman in his life, wherein he starts to think 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, and also shows how love can often result in pain, revenge, and the like 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.
33. 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.
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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.
32. The Host | Bong Joon-ho | 2006
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 of 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. One of the greatest achievements of Bong Joon-ho is to pull off a moment of hilarity during the saddest scene, and he does with panache in The Host. Try not to laugh when the family is mourning the death of their lovable teenage girl.
Stream The Host on Netflix.
31. On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate | Hong Sangsoo | 2002
One of the earliest works of Hong Sangsoo, ‘On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate’ has a rich and intriguing narrative loaded with up-in-the-air, complex emotions that leaves a young professional actor in tithers. Gyung-soo dates two women in succession while on his visit to a friend. Both romantic tales appear in harmony with some of the events happening exactly, but what separates them is the outcome of the flings. Without giving too much about the plot to ruin your experience, Hong Sangsoo whip up nuanced emotional trickery using the standard tropes he has effectively involved in most of his films.
30. Il Mare | Lee Hyun-Seung | 2000
Lee Hyun-Seung delicately blends old-school romance with a powerful yet minimalistic visual style. He paints every frame with 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 a 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.
29. New World | Park Hoon-jung | 2013
Park Hoon-Jung’s stylish gangster drama ‘New World’ is an experiential character study of the Korean Crime syndicate’s inner functioning, which starts to fall 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 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.
28. The Dark Figure of Crime | Kim Tae-Kyun, Kim Tae-Gyun | 2019
‘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.
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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 somber 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 color, against the darkness of the crime committed. The created paranoia pulls us deep into the ambiguous state of Tae-oh’s narration.
27. The Bow | Kim Ki-Duk | 2005
Kim Ki-Duk’s ‘The Bow’ is an elusive and ambiguous character study of a 16-year-old girl who has spent a decade on the boat. The girl is living under the guardianship of an old man with a multipurpose bow who plans to marry her when she turns 17. She has been away from civilization for a decade, and that has serious psychological implications evident in the behavior of the 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.
26. The World of Us | Yoon Ga-Eun | 2016
Yoon Ga-Eun examines the intrinsic and extrinsic pressures that children in modern Korea face, without the hint of 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 social and financial status interferes. The strain becomes so damaging that the consequences are felt outside the school campus as well. Leisurely paced, aesthetically minimalist, 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.
25. 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 suddenly finds himself at the mercy of the romantic feelings that he fails to concede. What brings sweetness to 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 realization of emptiness propels him to go against his boss, which results in a violent feud.
24. Scattered Night | Sol Kim and Jihyoung Lee | 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.
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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.
23. 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 (Paul Thomas Anderson) and Oasis. The lead characters in their films are atypical men who do not succumb to their limitations to garner sympathy. Neither of the filmmakers ever try to appease their audiences, by making the character likable 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 the perpetual smile on his face could be deceiving. You feel for him, but you would probably run away if you see him in 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.
His life turns interesting when he meets disabled Gong-ju Han (So-ri Moon) on his visit to the family of the man he killed in an accident. She is suffering from cerebral palsy. Gong-ju Han’s brother and sister-in-law shift her to a new apartment meant for a disabled person, locking her in a shabby small room. Abandoned by their families, 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.
22. 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 torture porn but never feels like one as the film utilizes a 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.
21. Oki’s Movie | Hong Sang-soo | 2010
Hong Sang-soo put a frustratingly unstructured but exhilarating narrative spin on the love triangle. It is a 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.
20. Oldboy | Park Chan-wook | 2003
Oldboy brought attention to the Korean thrillers of the International audience and it’s 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 harboring the Oedipus complex, incest, and flickering hope of empathy and humanity. It is mixed with skin-crawling off-screen violence that would leave you in disgust, fear, and horror. What starts as a surreal dream spiral down into a perdition nightmare having Kafkaesque aesthetics.
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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 characters with a strong stroke of grey and a tinge of empathy, but he never takes any moral high ground in the end. Though revenge is at the forefront of the film, the equally intriguing subplot trails the genesis of Lee Woo-jin’s idea of revenge born out of humiliation and cathartic emotions as a way for repentance.
19. House of Hummingbird | Bora Kim | 2019
Arguably, one of the best Korean movies 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 Korean culture and marginally reduced the role of women in society.
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Eunhee is trying to navigate life through her dysfunctional family, abusive brother, and her bullies in school while figuring out her place in 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.
Read the complete review of House of Hummingbird
18. The Way Home | Jeong-Hyang Lee | 2002
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 systems, and 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 slowdown has compelled the 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 clichés 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.
17. 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 filmmaker 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 a teacher friend of Young-ho, a bar owner, and an actor who was promised a role in Seong-jun’s film. Their interactions are mostly mundane as 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.
16. Painted Fire | Im Kwon-taek | 2002
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-eop’. 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 crises 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.
15. Parasite | Bong Joon-ho | 2019
Bong Joon-ho’s wildly entertaining seventh feature changed the course of cinema when it beat hot favorites Sam Mendes’s one-shot War drama ‘1917’, QT’s love letter to Hollywood Once Upon a time in Hollywood’, and Martin Scorsese’s gangster drama ‘The Irishman’ starring veterans Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci at Oscars 2020. Not forgetting its Palme d’Or win at Cannes (2019), but it was a big win at the Oscar that pushed general audiences to overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles. The uninitiated folks mellowed down to foreign cinema, especially Korean cinema. It propelled people to look beyond Hollywood films for their dose of entertainment.
‘Parasite’ is not the best work of Bong Joon-ho, but it is an immensely entertaining film from the word goes. It’s a commercial potboiler with an underlying social & class commentary that effortlessly switches between Shakespearean melodrama and Hitchcockian thriller.
14. Take Care of my Cat | Jae-Eun Jeong | 2001
Writer-director Jae-eun Jeong’s ‘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-centered, and ambitious and finds happiness in 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 do 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 mature 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.
13. Microhabitat | Jeon Go-woon | 2017
The protagonist of Jeon Go-woon’s debut Microhabitat, Miso (Esom), chooses her indulgences – whiskey and cigarette – over a roof over her head. An unusual and unexpected choice. But the film is written with such conviction and, fresh and influencing perspective that Miso’s choice in the film seems potent and rational, contrary to my initial assumption that it was emotional. Miso’s dispassionate outlook towards life and priorities will push you to introspect your life.
When the rental goes up, and cigarette and whiskey turn costly, Miso heads out couch-surfing around Seoul. She carries an egg tray as a gift for every friend she visits. Jeon Go-woon draws our attention to the Korean urban society’s culture and economics against the economics of the poor. She does it without any disparaging and pity lense. What’s fascinating about Miso is that she barters her trade for necessities, and helps her friends in her way, so that she doesn’t incur debt to her friends who are probably in debt themselves.
12. Mother | Bong Joon-ho | 2009
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 ‘Mother’ tries to navigate through the emotional quandary of a mother and realize 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.
11. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring | Kim Ki-Duk | 2004
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?
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We are introduced to a small Buddhist monastery, a world in itself, situated on a raft floating in the center 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, as time has come to a standstill.
10. Moonlit Winter | Dae Hyung Lim | 2019
In his sophomore film ‘Moonlit Winter’, Lim Dae-Hyung shifts his focus to the mother and daughter’s strained relationship after portraying the father and son relationship in his debut film Merry Christmas Mr. Mo (2016). Lim takes a conventional story of a wobbly relationship that crawls towards reconciliation; however, that’s a mirage the filmmaker plants to deal with something more sensitive and controversial for Korean society.
Kim Hee-ae stars as a middle-aged woman who bottle up a secret that eats her inside out, subsequently resulting in divorce and bitter life. The shadows of her past haunt her back when accidentally her estranged daughter reads a letter to her. The subdued narrative is told in an unhurried manner with such pensive sadness that it will crush your heart and throws you into a black hole of melancholy. It stirs such a tsunami of forlorn emotions that it will be difficult to shrug off.
9. The Handmaiden | Park Chan-Wook | 2016
“The Handmaiden” swarms with multiple things at once: an alluring romantic period piece, a psychological sensual 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.
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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.
Read the complete 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.
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. Anger, grief, rage, love, and envy are never explicitly expressed. Rather, they are internalized in uncomfortable silences, and further heightened by Kim Da-won’s unsettling score.
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7. Treeless Mountain | So Yong Kim | 2008
“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-year-old Bin for peeing in bed. The girl sincerely asserts a couple of times that she did not pee in bed. It is her 7-year-old elder sister Jin who has wet the bed, but Jin remains a silent spectator out of embarrassment.
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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 a 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 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 personal loss, grief, leveling disillusionment, and shaky faith. Jeon Do-Yeon gives a committed and superlative performance that won her Best Actress award at 60th Cannes Film Festival.
5. The King and the Clown | Lee Joon-Ik |2005
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.
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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 traveling clowns who get tangled in a web of compassion, kindness, and longing for a good life.
4. The Wailing | Na Hong-jin | 2016
Na Hong-jin seamlessly blends multiple genres with ease, constructing a psychological horror involving satanic cults and ancient folk tales. “The Wailing” is like a giant monster who is not visible, but its terrorizing, ominous presence of supernatural force is felt through the eerie silence like you are about to be gulped by the rain of horror.
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Set in a small mountain town in 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 time while keeping its audiences busy setting the puzzling trap of horror, served with a dash of doleful humor. This horror gem is certainly one of the best Korean movies of the century.
Read the complete review of The Wailing
3. Peppermint Candy | Lee Chang-dong | 2000
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.
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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 Korean society that chews up the relationship of Young Ho with his wife and enables his toxic behavior 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.
2. Memories of Murder | Bong Joon-ho | 2003
Richly detailed and nerve-racking, “Memories of Murder” is a masterful work in character study and in creating disquieting tension throughout the film. The muted color 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 a small town in South Korea brings the two inept local police officers along with a calm and sensible Seoul officer to crack the case.
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The killing is graphical and unsettling, but Bong Joon-ho layers the investigation with the hilarity of the mismatch between the sensibilities and attitudes 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. Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece is one of the best Korean movies of the century and probably of all time.
1. Poetry | Lee Chang-dong | 2010
INARGUABLY, and I say in bold letters on purpose, 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.
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Poetry holds a 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.