Now here are 12 South Korean films of this year.
“Jane” begins with one story and then proceeds with another story to tell. While these two stories feel different from each other, they are gradually connected with each other as the movie observes the harsh, despairing world surrounding its wretched heroine, and the emotional resonance between these two stories induces our empathy toward her even though she turns out to be very unreliable as the narrator of her stories. The movie is the first feature film by director/writer Cho Hyun-hoon, and his unforgettable mix of dry realism and poetic beauty has lingered on me for a long time since I watched it in 2017 June. In short, this is the best South Korean film of this year.
Subtly sensitive and somberly observant, Kim Dae-hwan’s small character drama film “The First Lap” looks into the anxious uncertainty of a young ordinary couple. Like any other young happy couples, they simply want to continue their life as usual, but then they become more aware of how uncertain and vulnerable their relationship is, and the movie gradually immerses us into the quiet emotional undercurrents around them. While definitely demanding some patience from you due to its low-key tone and slow narrative pacing, this is a rewarding experience on the whole, and I admire its thoughtful handling of mood and characters a lot.
While being a funny and enjoyable summation of another side of director Moon So-ri’s considerable talent, “The Running Actress” makes sharp points on how many talented South Korean actresses like Moon have been under-utilized during recent years, and that reminds me of how most of recent major South Korean films have been male-dominant despite the notable critical success of “The Handmaiden” and other South Korean films representing female perspectives. That biased trend is surely needed to be changed, and I sincerely hope there will be more chances for Moon as well as other talented women in South Korean movie business.
“Merry Christmas Mr. Mo”, directed by Lim Dae-yeong, is advertised as a ‘black comedy stranger than paradise’, and that description is correct to some degrees. While I was a bit disappointed to find that it is not as uproarious or edgy as I thought, the movie works as a deadpan comedy film reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s works including, yes, “Stranger Than Paradise”, and I had a fun with its small good moments which become more emotionally resonant around its expected arrival point. Sure, it may be a little too dry and slow for you at first, but it is a charming and touching human tale about life and love nonetheless, and its finale will surely make you smile in the end.
5. Snowy Road
Directed by Lee Na-jeong, “Snowy Road” reflects its harrowing historical fact well through thoughtful good storytelling and characterization. It has story and characters we can care about, and that makes us think more about not only the past but also the present. Never overlooking the dark, horrific aspects of its story, the movie wisely avoids being exploitative or sensational, and it eventually comes to us as a respectful tribute to the memory of those ill-fated women who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese Army during World War II.
Based on a dramatic real-life story from the Japanese Occupation era, Lee Joon-ik’s new film “Anarchist from Colony” is more amusing and entertaining than I expected. While being as serious as required by its historical subject, the movie is also quite humorous as cheerfully bouncing along with its two spirited main characters, and we cannot help but admire their indomitable spirit while observing how they passionately and mischievously stand by each other in front of social injustice and oppression. Yes, they are indeed hardcore anarchists, but they are a pretty cool couple, aren’t they?
7. Romans 8:37
“Romans 8:37”, directed by Shin Yeon-shick, is something we do not encounter everyday: a thought-provoking Christian film which does not give us any easy answer in its gloomy tale of faith and disillusionment. As an agnostic atheist who grew up in a Buddhist family, I naturally observed its story and characters with a certain degree of skepticism and criticism, but some of you may have different opinions on them, and that is why the movie is worthwhile to watch in any case. Sure, its target audiences will appreciate its details more than me, but this is still an interesting work accessible to any audience, and I think you should give it a chance.
Alternatively playful and melancholic, “On the Beach at Night Alone”, the latest work from Hong Sang-soo, gives us a somber character study which amusingly resonates with what happened in its auteur’s personal life. To be frank with you, I have no idea on how much the movie actually reflects the relationship between him and his lead performer Kim Min-hee, but all I can tell you for now is that Hong gives us an interesting human comedy while also drawing what may be remembered as one of the best performances in his lead performer’s career. In case of “The Day After”, it is not as enjoyable as “On the Beach at Night Alone”, but it is still another amusing work from Hong, and maybe I will revisit it someday for getting more from it. After all, Hong’s films are a kind of acquired taste, aren’t they?
9. Ash Flower
“Ash Flower”, which is the last chapter of the Flower trilogy by director/co-writer Park Seok-yeong, is a simple but intimate character drama to admire for its sensitive and thoughtful storytelling. While it is mainly about two young girls who get close to each other after their accidental encounter, the movie also pays considerable attention to other few characters surrounding them, and there are several touching moments as the movie calmly observes all of them with care and empathy. This is another engaging work from Park and his lead actress Jeong Ha-dam, and they certainly give a satisfying finishing touch to their trilogy on the whole.
10. The End of April
Directed by Kim Kang-bok, “The End of April” is a stark, gloomy psychological horror thriller which often unnerves and confounds us with a number of darkly nervous moments. While some of you may be confused about what exactly happens in the story, the movie constantly engages us thanks to its good mood and solid performances, and we are eventually left with a chilling impression as it arrives in its ambiguous ending. Some of you may be frustrated as many things in the movie are left unanswered even in the end, but this is still an interesting work to watch, and it is certainly one of better South Korean films of this year.
Special Mention: Dancesport Girls
Documentary film “Dancesport Girls” is filled with genuine positive spirit. Here are a bunch of high school girls who simply enjoy themselves as preparing for their big moment to come, and it is really fun to watch them doing their best under their good teacher’s guidance. Although the reality outside their school is not that bright, they feel free and happy as they dance together, and we gladly go along with that as appreciating their warm, youthful energy on the screen. I don’t know what lies ahead of these spirited girls, but I really hope that they will keep moving on as remembering their joyous moments.