20 Movies to Approach New (South) Korean Cinema
915 6.9 71. The Host (2006)
director: Joon-ho Bong
One of my favorite movies ever.
This is one of the finest examples of new south korean cinema, and the highest grossing movie ever in the history of south korean cinema.
Also, I think Joon-ho Bong is one of the best directors around nowadays, and I'm not talking just about Korea, I'm talking worldwide.
Unfortunately, this movie is very underappreciated, especially by western audience; it's actually not only entertaining, but also very deep and subtle.
The best recent example of how mainstream movies can be pieces of art.
It's also funny and crazy as shit; as I said in my Underrated & Overrated Movies from 2000 to 2011 (so...yeah...I'm quoting myself right now): it's like Godzilla meeting Antonioni and Cohen brothers; simply amazing!
WATCH IT. NOW.
100 6.9 7.22. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Joon-ho Bong's directorial debut...impressive...really impressive!
Smart, funny and sophisticated. The first time I watched it I was just very impressed, the second time I fell in love with this movie.
518 8.1 8.13. Memories of Murder (2003)
This was Joon-ho Bong's first worldwide success and it's also interesting 'cause it feels like an important premise to Fincher's "Zodiac", so it gives us an interesting comparing opportunity.
I liked "Zodiac", but I found this to be way better...well I also think Bong's generally better then Fincher...so...
I think comparing New Korean cinema with American cinema is natural for many reasons that I can't completely enumerate here; let's just say, first of all: 'cause South Korea became sort of the far east hollywood (without being derivative); than because of the strong, ambiguous relationship between the two countries; relationship that, by the way, has a strong role in this movie, that's why I'm alking about this right here (America's shadow is actually also present in "The Host", on a different, more accusatory, level).
2656 8.2 8.44. Oldboy (2003)
director: Park Chan-wook
This is obviously the most well known south korean movie ever, mostly thank to Quentin Tarantino's excited comments that promote its release.
It's part of Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy and, considering its huge success, I guess it's the more suitable for a western audience; I also think, though, this is actually the worst title of the trilogy.
Don't get me wrong, I like this movie a lot, I just found it less impressive compared to the other two; as I said in my aforementioned Underrated & Overrated Movies from 2000 to 2011 list, I understand how this is more suitable for a big audience then "Mr Vengeance", but I don't really see how this could have a stronger impact than "Lady Vengeance".
My suggestion is: watch the three movies and judge yourself; they're all great anyway!
867 7.7 7.75. Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005)
This was the last movie of the trilogy and, in my opinion, the absolute best.
strong, visually Impressive and wonderfully developed; Park Chan-wook's masterpiece.
730 7.7 7.76. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
The first movie of the trilogy, the roughest one.
Don't get fouled by the fact this was a commercial failure, it's a great movie and it shows strong personality...probably more than both the other two.
560 7.8 7.87. I Saw the Devil (2010)
director: Kim Jee-woon
This director is pretty appreciated down here! Two of his movies were released in italian theatres ("Tales of Two Sisters" and "The Good, The Bad, The Weird"...his two worst movies goddamn it!!) when, except for "Oldboy" there aren't other examples of south korean movies that were.
Today, this still is his latest movie...and it's great! Jee-woon is here trying to have the last word about the all vengeance theme (is not just a Chan-wook's thing, there's an all genre based on that, revenge thrillers are very common); it features massive doses of brutality, conceptually it's almost one of those so called 'torture-porn'...and then there's that ending, giving form to the emptiness left to the main character and, supposedly, to any main character of any revenge movie.
322 7.8 7.88. A Bittersweet Life (2005)
What a cool, stylish, surreal modern-days noir this is! Impressive!
I guess the all thing could be received as 'ambiguous', and it is; the all movie is extremely dreamy. It actually says more than what it shows...way more...but I don't want to impose my interpretation.
Anyway, it's very entertaining and wonderfully shot.
34 6.6 7.19. The Foul King (2000)
Usually people mention Jee-woon's first movie ("The Quiet Family"), but I think this second one was better thought and funnier.
It's a classic zero to hero story, except it's actually a zero to...still zero sarcastic comedy.
I think this was the first movie featuring the always-fun-to-watch Song Kang-ho in a leading role.
He was in a lot of movies in this list and basically in every historically-relevant-to-give-birth-to-the-new-korean-cinema movie; he's probably the biggest south korean star nowadays and he deserves it all!
248 7.2 7.210. Samaritan Girl (2004)
director: Kim Ki-duk
Like his characters, this director is usually considered as some sort of outsider of the so called 'new korean cinema', but I don't think is possible exclude him while getting to know it, especially considering that new korean cinema is not really a 'style' but a period during wich directors (and the all industry) are (were?) sharing some goals. These goals are somehow present in Kim ki-duk's work too, especially in its earlier phase (before "The Bow").
Getting to this movie: "Samaritan Girl" is my favorite Kim Ki-duk's movie, from back when he was still used to explore human nature; this is probably the one that goes deeper.
Early Kim Ki-duk's topics are all in here, and he never analyzed 'em so deeply like in this movie.
"Samaritan Girl" is strong, rough and direct, it's able to touch all kind of audiences and it doesn't care to please them.
Definitely Kim Ki-duk at his best.
157 6.6 6.911. Bad Guy (2001)
My second favorite Ki-duk's movie; probably the saddest one.
Disconnection, violence, love and lack of love. Ki-duk never treated his outsiders better than here.
50 6.3 6.812. Crocodile (1996)
First movie by Kim Ki-duk. Apparently, before doing this, he never held a camera in his life.
This is quite a unique and unconventional piece of work, containing the most important topics of early Kim Ki-duk in their embryonic stages.
79 6.8 7.413. Save the Green Planet! (2003)
director: Joon-Hwan Jang
One of the most recurring peculiarities of New Korean Cinema is the way it plays with movie genres; we could say this is an aspect it shares with post-modern cinema in general, but they sure play hard on it! So hard that, sometimes, it could get disorienting for western audiences.
When talking about this aspect we cannot avoid mentioning this movie.
"Save The Green Planet!" is crazy as shit!! It changes mood so rapidly and frequently it's literally a miracle how it manages to stay not only believable, but also pretty damn solid!
I'm not saying everybody will love this movie, but one thing's for sure: anybody approaching this cinematography should see it...actually...every single "cinephile" (or curious viewer or whatever) should!
80 7.9 814. Peppermint Candy (1999)
director: Lee Chang-dong
A story narrated backwards, kind of like "Memento", except it came out few months before it, and it stays pretty solid even after you saw it once.
Before Korean cinema changed once for all, they basically only did melodramas and martial arts movies; they were movies 'for women and children' and that was basically the only audience for a long period.
These two genres were obviously influential on the new 'trend', and they're still very present in a lot of 'new' movies (every single movie in this list has something to do with at least one of them two).
I said this because "Peppermint Candy" is probably the most genre-oriented movie on this list, and it sure comes from that long melodramatic tradition.
Fact, this one, not that surprising considering that this is a movie that shows and reflect about Korea's recent history, so the choice to use the most typical genre in old korean movies is only natural.
More specifically: it shows us the last (at the time of its release, of course) 2 decades of south-korea history, from 1979 to 1999 (basically it shows how 'new korea' was born), laying a deeply bitter glare at it. It also subtly reflects about the all concept of "memory".
It's very well thought and structured; just keep in mind that this is far from be light-hearted. It sure deserves to be watched.
30 7.9 7.115. The Show Must Go On (2007)
director: Han Jae-rim
This one won the blue dragon film award for the best movie, and it yet managed to stay pretty much out of the radar...that's a shame!
First of all because this is funny and well done, than because it's the definitive 'Song Kang-ho show'; seriously, this was well shot and everything, but it's a typical case of an actor making the movie worthy of being watched, and I'm pretty sure that was a commercial choice, the part is basically written on him. The movie literally changes mood with Kang-ho changing expression, it kind of lead the all vision in a pretty impressive way...
Anyway, from this point of the list you'll see how K-gangster movies became important down there, being "conjugated" in all the possible ways, from action to drama to comedy to martial arts, passing by family-movie (the all things are often combined); this is probably the most obvious example of how the gangster world became iconic more than genre-defining.
Firstly, this is a comedy and a drama about an husband and a father, than, and only than, it's ALSO a comedy and a drama about a gangster.
...oh and it also features some bad-ass action sequences and car chases...
seriously, this movie is the shit!
69 7.3 7.516. Friend (2001)
director: Kwak Kyung-Taek
This was one of the first "new korean movies" to get famous worldwide, and it features a lot of what I've said 'till here; its melodramatic roots are obvious, and it tries giving us a portrait of an historical period while telling a story about friendship and being a gangster movie...oh and it's also a based on a true story.
I'd say the director totally failed in making a portrait of a period, that really falls into the backgruond, but the movie is still good; the characters are nicely built and the all story is absorbing...
It features some very cool action sequences and a lot of beautiful shots.
Both the mise-en-scene and the cinematography are simply gorgeous.
40 7.3 7.117. Guns & Talks (2001)
director: Jin Jang
This is a more common comedy\action movie about a bunch of nice and respectable killers for hire.
It's funny and nicely written, it could result somehow more predictable then other movies on this list, but it still get to its point thank to amusing characters and some very cool sequences; the use of the narrating voice over is not too obvious.
The only thing I didn't really appreciate about this is the mess they did with the aspect-ratio every time there is a split screen (they're funny though)...but that's a technicality since it doesn't really affect the result.
50 7 7.318. Rough Cut (2008)
director: Hun Jang
Korean movies also get meta sometimes, and "Rough Cut" is a perfect example of that. It's kind of strange and got mixed reviews, I personally think it's effective.
You can really forsee how this movie will work just reading the plot:
A violent K-Gangster movie star meet a real life gangster (who's also a fan of him); he asks the gangster to work with him on a flick, the gangster accepts, but only at his own rules: they'll fight for real. So there are no guarantees about how the movie will end...
And here it is, a martial arts-comedy flick with a bit of drama in it; you can see Kim Ki-duk wrote it 'cause it manages to touch many of his dearest themes, but the style is way less ambitious and more mainstream.
There are some nice sequences and shots.
Too bad that the director's next flick ("secret reunion") was bullshit!
76 7.3 7.119. Attack the Gas Station! (1999)
director: Kim Sang-jin
This is an MTV flick about 4 young thugs messing with a gas station "just because".
It's kind of juvenile about some things, but it seems to do it deliberately; with his comic-book logic and his neurotic characters, this movie has its own way to get to the viewer; it's also subtly cynical and sarcastic in the way it describes a society apparently composed only by morons and losers.
It sure doesn't save the main characters neither; these young wanna-be-nihilist seems to want to hit privileged classes and whoever got a chance when, 'cause of society, they didn't, but they end up only destroying the life of a poor bastard!
"Attack the Gas Station", with all its exagerations and (sometimes forced) craziness, deals with generational conflicts and with the concept of cultural impasse, asking for cultural renovation.
Maybe there are some rhetorical passages that could result somehow childish, but it generally comes out as a nice, enjoyable, funny movie.
5 7 7.320. Beat (1997)
director: Kim Sung-su
This is a little classic I think you should watch while approaching new korean cinema, sure it was an important step to get where they went.
I think this was the first korean movie to massively use digital camera and effects.
I found this somehow similar to "Attack the Gas Station", this is also about 'troubled youth' and it's also a little juvenile.
This is a perfect example of K-gangster meeting high-school movies, and, also like "Attack the Gas Station", it shows a willing to be a social commentary.
It's the story of a young high-school dropout very good at fighting, becoming a gangster.
I guess we could say that "Beat" is a 'teen-age noir' with plenty of fighting scenes (nicely done btw).
Maybe not personal or mature enough to talk about 'new korean cinema' yet, but it had a huge impact and it showed the way to a lot of great movies to come, some of which are also in this list.
It's a good movie and it's fairly entertaining.
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