Now here is my list of 10 South Korean films of this year.
In its calm, delicate pace, “A Midsummer’s Fantasia” slowly and subtly draws us into the sunny and soothing summer days in a rural Japanese city. During its first part, it leisurely looks around the city with meditative curiosity, and we look and listen close to various people who tell us a bit about their lives in front of the camera. And then the movie shifts itself onto a different mode during its second part, and it becomes more playful and poignant as wandering around with two different characters who are possibly inspired by the journey shown during the first part. The movie is the third work directed by Jang Kun-jae, and he lets his story and characters flow by themselves under his effortless direction, and many feelings and thoughts felt below the surface are effectively conveyed to us through subtle and elegant touches. This is a small but fabulous work full of charm and mood to savor, and you will want to revisit this relaxing movie on any summer day.
“Right Now, Wrong Then” is another small piece of delight and amusement from Hong Sang-soo, one of the most prolific filmmakers in South Korea. Again, Hong cheerfully plays with repetitive narrative elements again here in this film, and its second half gives us what is essentially the alternative version of what we saw during its first half. Regardless of how these two different versions are related to each other, the movie is a witty comedy wryly musing on how our life can go differently through small choices and moments even during a short period of time, and there are many things to savor in this film.
Hong Seok-jae’s debut feature film “Socialphobia” is a disturbing mystery thriller for our advancing era of online communication. When one thoughtless twitter comment eventually leads to a devastating outcome, that is just the beginning of the story, and the movie disturbs us more with its unpleasant sights of how nasty online users can be to others on the Internet. The movie is darkly gripping and thought-provoking as its banal, pathetic main characters clumsily reach for any insidious possibility behind what seemed to be caused by their cruel, thoughtless act, and you may think more seriously about how to use online communication after watching it.
Shin Su-won’s “Madonna” is a tough stuff packed with stark power and harrowing emotions. It is often very uncomfortable to watch, but we are gripped by its compelling presentation of sad, gloomy human conditions. Although nothing is changed much in its characters’ reality even in the end, the movie touchingly shows the value of human compassion and kindness among the weak at the bottom of the society, and you will agree that its ill-fated heroine, who is unforgettably played by newcomer Kwon So-hyeon, really deserves her nickname.
Being alive is really hard and difficult in Park Jung-bum’s second film “Alive”, a barren social drama about the endless struggle and frustration in the gray harsh world where people are bound to find themselves against the wall in one way or another. The movie is hardly a pleasant experience, but it lets us have empathy on its struggling hero and a few other characters, and it surely earns a small glimmer of hope and redemption during its understated finale. Life can be very difficult, but that does not mean that you have to lose the capability of kindness and compassion to others. As you will see, that simple but important moral lesson is learned in a hard way in the end.
Stealing is a wrong deed, but “How to Steal a Dog” is pleasant enough to make you forget that for a while. Its little heroine simply wants to be a little happier, so she comes to concoct a small criminal plan for that, and we cannot help but be amused by how funny and absurd her plan is – and how innocent and misguided she is. Based on Barbara O’Connor’s novel of the same name, the movie is delightful to watch for its good comic moments, and its three young performers are charming and likable in their unadorned performances while being supported well by that cute little dog and the adult cast members including Kim Hye-ja, Choi Min-soo, Kang Hye-jeong, and Lee Cheon-hee. It is sweet and sincere, and I still fondly remember this lovable film even though it has been almost a year since I watched it with my parents.
“Alice in Earnestland” is a dark comedy about one woman who has reached for a good life but instead finds herself being pushed down to more despair waiting for her. Occasionally violent and bloody, the movie is hilarious in its quirky mixture of humor and pathos, and we cannot help but laugh even while feeling sorry for her messy predicament. The first-time director Ahn Gook-jin maintains the morbidly cheerful tone of his movie well through edgy black humor and good comic timing, and Lee Jeong-hyeon gives us one of the impressive South Korean movie characters to remember in this year. She is indeed an earnest woman, but, alas, life is not fair to her as usual – and things get only bloodier for her.
“Coin Locker Girl” applies one fresh setting on its genre conventions. Although the movie is essentially a typical South Korean crime noir film, the story looks different while being more interesting thanks to its atypical premise, and Kim Hye-soo and Kim Go-eun give strong performances as the female crime boss in the Chinatown area of Incheon and an orphan lass under her command. Anyone must be tough to survive in their mean world, and the movie surely shows that ladies can be as tough and interesting as guys.
In the midst of the relentless competition for any sensational exclusive to draw more readers and viewers, the reporter hero of “The Exclusive: Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” comes across what looks like a chance of lifetime, but then he is swept along with a storm of media frenzy he unwittingly initiated, and the director Roe Deok has a vicious fun with how he tumbles into more risks and troubles as his lies are growing bigger and bigger. When the movie eventually arrives in a big ironic moment of dark laugh, we are reminded of how insatiable our hunger for sensational news stories is – and how willing media is to go along with that in these days.
While it is basically a thriller film about mad killer on the loose, “Office” is particularly scary when it deals with a ruthless corporate culture many South Korean people are familiar with. We frequently cringe at how the characters in the film often get themselves humiliated, and we are often chilled by how they allow themselves to be pushed and pressured in the name of raise and promotion. It is a jungle out there, and they must be willing to do anything as demanded from above just for getting ahead of others. They say people go a little mad sometimes, and you may say that the characters in “Office” have plenty of reasons for that.
Special Mention: Factory Complex
South Korean documentary “Factory Complex” simply listens to various female workers who talk about each own hardships. Occasionally inserting archival footage or the poetic interlude scenes shot for the documentary, the director Lim Heung-soon slowly and carefully creates a narrative flow to absorb us, and the result is a sad, haunting work of art which not only reflects on the hardship in the past but also observes its another unjust cycle in the present. Many things get better than before in the South Korean society, but, as you will see from this documentary, there are still a lot to be changed for those hard-working people.