And now here is the list of 10 South Korean films you should not miss.
1. Han Gong-ju
Through its close, intimate observation of its ill-fated heroine, “Han Gong-ju” slowly lets us get to know about what is behind her detached face, and it is really devastating to watch at times as we are watching her silent suffering. While there are some glimmers of hope around the story, this is ultimately a sad, harrowing drama about a girl trying to cope alone with what happened to her, and it shakes us hard with her deep emotional pain as we sympathize with her. The first-time director Lee Su-jin handles his story with care and confidence while steadily maintaining his low-key approach to story and characters, and young actress Cheon Woo-hee gives one of the best performances in South Korean films of this year as a high school girl unfairly treated by her harsh society which stigmatizes her rather than protecting her. Her confused reply to a minor supporting character during one scene will linger on your mind long after its haunting finale: “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
If you want me to recommend any other South Korean cites besides Seoul to visit for sightseeing, Gyeongju is one of several excellent places coming to my mind instantly, and Zhang Lu’s new film “Gyeongju” is mainly about its hero’s one long day in this wonderful city which is sometimes called “the museum without walls.” Compared to his previous films, this is a lightweight work from the director, but it is constantly compelling and humorous along with a very vivid sense of locations on the screen, and I had several good laughs during some of its playful moments. Although I still think it could have been better if its finale had been shortened a bit, this is still a charming and relaxing journey to be watched on the whole despite its flawed destination.
“A Girl at My Door” has an uneasy undercurrent behind its seemingly plain rural background, and that becomes more palpable as things get complicated for its distraught heroine and a young, problematic girl she pities and cares about. She just wants to help the girl in the need of the kindness of a stranger, but, as observing them and other people in their village, the movie gradually pushes these two lonely tarnished souls into the dark, uncomfortable territory of country noir. The first-time director July Jung drew two superb performances from her actresses Bae Doona and Kim Sae-roon (Song Sae-byeok is also very effective as a despicable supporting character), and her movie works as a very compelling mix of character drama and shady noir tale. There were actions, and then there are consequences, so what will happen next for them?
4. Set Me Free
The main strength of “Set Me Free” is that it makes us care about its hero as not making any excuse on his bad behaviors. The director Kim Tae-young gives us a gloomy but powerful coming-of-age drama which vividly presents a tough slice of life in the shabby corner of society, and young actor Choi Woo-sik is terrific as its unlikable hero who desperately wriggles to get out of his hopeless reality. He is essentially an opportunistic liar and thief manipulating others around him, but Choi constantly holds our attention while never asking for pity on his character, and his uncompromising performance is sometimes difficult to watch as we come to sense more of his character’s growing desperation. We are still repulsed by his character’s many amoral behaviors even in the end, but we come to understand his suffocating reality, and we can only hope that things may get a little better for him.
5. Night Flight
It is really hard out there for two adolescent heroes of Lee Song-hee-ill’s “Night Flight”. One is a gay high school student who has to hide his sexuality from others including his mother and his close friend, and the other one is a tough juvenile delinquent who has already been destined to be at the bottom of the society. As their story slowly rolls on the fine line between friendship and sexual feeling, the director/screenplay writer Lee Song-hee-il, who has made several notable gay drama films including “White Night” (2012), made a sensitive coming-of-age drama, and I was reminded again of why we should not lose the ability to understand and comfort others. Things may not change easily for these two kids or other minority people, but that is usually the best we can do at least as decent human beings.
“Hill of Freedom” has everything we can expect from Hong Sang-soo, who has delighted us with his small but witty human comedies. What we have here is another amusing tale of men and women from one of the most distinctive South Korean directors, and we have a pleasant time with its lightweight stroll which is alternatively baffling and tantalizing. While seemingly staying in his usual territory, Hong Sang-soo tries a different way to present his familiar story, and I watched it with amused smiles even when I felt a bit lost during my viewing. I felt like doing the same things again whenever I wrote about his films, and this film is no exception as expected, but I will not deny that watching this small playful movie was a nice experience to end the last day of my holiday vacation.
I must confess to you that I do not know anything about “Jokgu”, a Korean term for foot volley, and that was not a big problem for me at all when I watched “The King of Jokgu”, the funniest South Korea movie of this year. Its premise is corny and ridiculous to say the least, but the movie cheerfully pushes its fairly predictable plot with its colorful assembly of likable performances including a liberating breakout performance by its lead actor Ahn Jae-hong, and it keeps its ball hanged in the air through a bunch of good laughs generated from silly and amusing human behaviors we can easily recognize. While there are several exaggerated moments which may look too cartoonish for you, this is a comedy willing to do anything for laughs, and it succeeds in most cases while drawing good laughs from us. I still do not have much interest in Jokgu, but this is a small, charming fun to play and laugh with.
“Heamoo” feels so real at times that it did not take much time for me to get involved in its shabby main characters and their dark, harrowing drama. I could sense their gloomy life with no bright future on the horizon, and I sometimes felt like smelling something bad from the dim, damp corners of their small ship on the sea. While the plot gets thickens, their seemingly simple voyage becomes more ominous, and then they find themselves stuck in a situation more desperate than ever as it takes an unexpected turn which affects all of them in one way or another. In spite of that visible weakness and other flaws, the movie is a compelling movie with memorable moments, and the gray heart pulsating behind its dark story is something you cannot forget easily when it is over.
9. A Hard Day
While it looks like a generic thriller at first, but “A Hard Day” has its own ways to surprise and excite us, and it is fun to see how this solid thriller plays with our expectation while not holding its cards behind its back during most of its running time. Whenever we thinks we are one or two steps ahead of it, the movie surprises us as pulling out unexpected moments of thrill and suspense from its seemingly simple thriller plot, and it gradually turns out to be smarter than expected as following the busy and twisted plight of its corrupt hero. This is a solid crime thriller which does exactly what it intends to do, and it surely exceeded my initial low expectation I had when I heard about it.
“Cart” has undeniable earnestness in its angry urgent drama about a group of helpless workers who are suddenly discarded in the name of profit, and its rather conventional drama has some painful moments which may remind of South Korean audiences of a number of infuriating recent news in their reality. The movie sometimes stumbles, but it is compensated by a nice ensemble work from the cast led by Yeom Jeong-ah, and it mostly works well when focusing on the social injustices it wants to emphasize. It is getting harder and harder for many people nowadays, and maybe we should listen to them at least – even if we become frustrated as much as them in the end.
Which S Korean film won global applause in years gone by?
SC: I bet on “Han Gong-ju”.