My Top Ten Korean Films

As the London Korean Film Festival is taking place this week I decided to write down my top ten Korean films for your viewing pleasure… but when I added the list up there were eleven. And that’s not counting the two must-see Korean films I already included in my 25 Great Films on Netflix UK post… so this is actually my top thirteen Korean films… but Top Ten sounds better. Let’s call it the Top Ten and pretend I’m giving you an extra three incredible films at no extra charge. Because I’m nice like that. I’ll be going to see two exciting new Korean films this Sunday at the Odeon in Covent Garden so watch out for a future blog post about Montage and Secretly, Greatly.

11. The Man from Nowhere (2010)

Director: Jeong-beom Lee

Starring: Won Bin, Sae-ron Kim

On paper, The Man from Nowhere looks very similar to Luc Besson’s 1994 film Leon. A secretive man who puts a lot of effort into keeping the world at a distance crosses paths with a young girl and finds he can’t get rid of her… I mean, he’s won over by her innocence and vulnerability. However, where Jean Reno walked right on the line between mentor and child molester in Leon, Korean actor Won Bin seems a lot less dubious… don’t ask me why, maybe it’s because he’s a lot younger. And he doesn’t wear creepy sunglasses all the time. Won Bin plays Tae-sik, the titular man from nowhere, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the much younger So-mi. So-mi’s mum is a drug mule whose greed lands her in deep water with the local gang. Tae-sik, our enigmatic hero, does everything he can to ignore his innocent young buddy as the gangsters’ threats increase. Of course, Tae-sik’s moral compass eventually compels him to get involved, which he does in a brutal and uncompromising manner. The film is beautifully acted and shot, making the tension ever greater as Tae-Sik strives to protect So-mi and her mother.

10. The Warrior (2001)

Director: Sung-su Kim

Starring: Woo-Sung Jung, Zhang Ziyi

Zhang Ziyi is probably the only name you’ll recognise on this entire list, unless you watch a lot of Korean films already. The Chinese actress has become quite well known for her roles in such popular films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and Rush Hour 2 (I said popular, not necessarily good). Here she plays a Chinese princess who gets kidnapped from a Korean envoy by Mongol bandits. Yes, it may sound extremely racially convoluted, but it’s all clear in the film, trust me. The Warrior is a historical epic set during a particularly fraught period of Asian history as China is under attack from hordes of angry Mongolians. And these Mongolians are every bit as furious and persistent as the ones in South Park. You’ll feel bad for the Korean hero, Yeo-sol, who does his best to ward off the enemies and return the princess to her father. Especially when she seems so determined to give herself up all the damn time. The ending is pretty heartbreaking. I didn’t personally cry, because I never cry at films (except Alien vs. Predator, which should have been so much better) but I can definitely see sensitive souls shedding a few tears at The Warrior.

9. Bad Guy (2001)

Director: Ki-duk Kim

Starring: Jae-hyeon Jo, Won Seo

The title says it all to be honest. This dude is one bad motherfucker. Bad Guy is the story of a pimp who sets his sights on an innocent woman who is not currently a prostitute. This woman also has no plans to become a prostitute at any time in the future. But Han-ki the pimp forces her, through some hideously devious blackmail, into a life of prostitution. Like the title says, he’s a bad guy. This is one of the most chilling psychological thrillers I’ve ever seen. You will be scared of Han-ki; he’s an utter, utter bastard, and he does lots of evil things. But, and this is where the film is really remarkable, there are brief moments when you’ll understand him. You won’t necessarily sympathise, but you will see him as a human being, something that’s not easy to achieve given the premise of the film. The other thing that’s remarkable about Bad Guy is that it has two murders that will make you literally stand up and shout “What the SHIT?!” quite loudly. It’s not often a filmmaker is able to think of an original way to kill someone these days, pretty much everything’s been done before… but I tip my hat to Ki-duk Kim for managing to do it twice in one film. And both times he uses everyday household items. Things that I would never in a million years look at and think “I could murder someone with that.”

8. Moss (2010)

Director: Woo-suk Kang

Starring: Jae-young Jung, Hae-il Park

I saw Moss at the London Korean Film Festival back in 2010 and really enjoyed it. The film is based on a popular Korean online comic strip. It tells the story of a man who attends his father’s funeral in a remote village and is drawn into a sinister conspiracy. This film is pretty long, at two hours and forty minutes, but the script is strong enough to keep you enthralled throughout. The harrowing village becomes a character in its own right as we are pulled deeper and deeper into the plot. A fantastic performance from Hae-il Park (also appearing in The Host and Memories of Murder below) effectively ramps up the suspense. Moss is a slow-paced, character-driven mystery film that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

7. Thirst (2009)

Director: Chan-wook Park

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ok-bin Kim

Chan-wook Park recently directed the Nicole Kidman vehicle Stoker, which I keep meaning to watch… and his iconic Korean film Oldboy has just been remade with Josh Brolin as the title character. There are a lot of good reasons why Hollywood has taken notice of Park, and Thirst is one of them. I have to tell you right off the bat, it’s a vampire film… but you’ve never seen a vampire film like this. At its heart, Thirst is a romance. Well, it’s kind of romantic, in an ever-so-slightly disturbing way. Sang-hyun is a priest who volunteers for a medical trial and comes down with a nasty case of vampirism. The thirst for blood brings all his beliefs into question and he starts doing some very un-priestly things. If, like me, you’re sick of sparkly vampires who do their homework and wouldn’t hurt a fly, Thirst is the perfect antidote. However, if you’re uncomfortable with the sight of blood you’d better stick with Twilight.

6. Memories of Murder (2003)

Director: Joon-ho Bong

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim

Kang-ho Song appears in a staggering five films on this list (see The Host, Thirst, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and The Good, The Bad, The Weird). It’s not often you find such a prolific actor who is able to rise to the pinnacle of his profession. He’s like the Korean Michael Caine, but without quite so many shit films… In Memories of Murder Song plays an idiotic and violent detective who quite literally doesn’t have a clue. When a series of women are murdered and a young, hot-shot detective from Seoul arrives to bolster the investigation, Song’s character, Doo-man Park, reacts badly… and when I say he reacts badly, he drop-kicks his new colleague in the face. Despite this unfortunate beginning, the two cops grudgingly begin to work together as the case progresses. And several other people get drop-kicked in the face. By policemen. Out of nowhere. Seriously, watch this film. Or if you really can’t be arsed but still want to see all the awesome drop-kicks, just type “memories of murder dropkicks” into Youtube and enjoy.

5. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)

Director: Chan-wook Park

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin

Another film from Chan-wook Park whose Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Lady Vengeance and Oldboy) almost all made the list. The reason I chose this film over Lady Vengeance is because it’s a lot funnier. Mr Vengeance is a darkly comic tale of a deaf factory worker who gets laid off and kidnaps his boss’ daughter in order to pay for a life-saving kidney transplant for his sister. Sounds straightforward enough doesn’t it? But our hero, Ryu, is probably the unluckiest guy to ever live, and things go from bad to worse before he’s even performed the kidnapping. When his own blood type isn’t a good enough match to his sister’s, Ryu makes a deal with some black-market organ dealers and (shockingly) they aren’t entirely straight with him. He gets royally shafted in what is probably the rawest deal in cinema history. And then fate joins in and slaps him in the face repeatedly while he’s down. Cue the vengeance.

4. I Saw the Devil (2010)

Director: Jee-woon Kim

Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi

Byung-hun Lee has recently had a few appearances in Hollywood films such as the terrible G.I. Joe and the probably very good Red 2 (which I have yet to see). I first came across him in A Bittersweet Life and The Good, The Bad, The Weird (see below). Lee is an incredibly versatile and capable actor who is effortlessly awesome in everything. He’s like a Korean Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood in terms of screen presence, but he also kicks people really hard in the face. A lot. So when I learned that he starred in I Saw the Devil as a policeman whose wife is murdered by a notorious serial killer, I knew something special was about to happen. I was right (naturally), but not in the way I expected. This film barely has any martial arts in it at all. It’s a drama more than anything; a study of the nature of evil, and what it can do to even the best of men when they decide to confront it. Lee’s performance is equaled by a terrifying turn from Min-sik Choi (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) who plays the murderer. As the two men engage in a battle of wits and nerves, the line between good and evil becomes so blurred it’s difficult to tell apart from the rivers of blood running out of the killer’s hideout.

3. The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Director: Jee-woon Kim

Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Kang-ho Song

This is the most fun film on the list. It’s a mash-up of so many genres it’s almost impossible to describe. So I’ll just give you a hint of what you can expect: a bounty hunter, a train robber, a gunslinger, the Japanese army, a treasure map, the desert, a thieves’ bazaar, a whole load of horses, a motorbike with a sidecar… gunfights, a horseback chase, a motorbike chase, two train robberies at once, a good guy, a bad guy, an extremely weird guy… You’ve probably guessed from the title that this is an homage to one of the greatest Westerns of all time, Paint Your Wagon… joking… The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but how they got this from that is beyond me. This film is completely insane. It’s also gut-wrenchingly hilarious in places, and it’s genuinely exciting. This is the film that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Blah Blah Blah should have been. If Indiana Jones was Korean. And Steven Spielberg cared about our cherished childhood memories.

2. The Host (2006)

Director: Joon-ho Bong

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Hae-il Park

This is the monster movie to end all monster movies. Forget Godzilla (the Matthew Broderick one, and probably the new one starring Bryan Cranston and Kick-Ass). Forget Cloverfield (if you didn’t already). The only monster film I’ve seen in recent years that even comes close to The Host is the Norwegian film Troll Hunter. In the centre of Seoul, a giant sea-monster… no wait, it’s a lizard… or is it a fish? I think maybe it started out as some kind of newt… in any case, this horrific thing comes out of the Han river and starts eating Koreans. And they don’t like it. The scene when we first see the monster running through crowds of people on the riverbank is one of the most impressive pieces of CGI I’ve seen. The monster drags away a young girl named Hyun-seo, leaving her incompetent dad Gang-du and the rest of her oddball family in mourning. When they find out Hyun-seo is still alive, her family mount the most bizarre and haphazard rescue mission of all time. The Host has everything you want from a monster movie: it has a monster; it has edible people; it has sewers; it has archery; it has government bureaucracy; it has haz-mat suits; and it has an everyman hero who nobody believes in. In this case, they’re pretty much right not to believe in Gang-du, he’s an idiot.

1. A Bittersweet Life (2005)

Director: Jee-woon Kim

Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Yeong-cheol Kim

The third film from Jee-woon Kim on the list, A Bittersweet Life is kind of a character drama about a gangster who goes against his boss’ orders. Sun-woo is asked by gang leader Mr. Kang to watch over his new girlfriend for a few days. Kang explicitly states that Sun-woo is not to get involved with the girl, but obviously that’s easier said than done when it comes to love. Sun-woo quickly goes from the boss’ golden boy to the gang’s number one enemy, and all kinds of carnage ensues. As I said above, Byung-hun Lee makes everything awesome, and his portrayal of the jilted gangster is nothing short of masterful. There are too many standout scenes to list here and I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Just watch this film. A Bittersweet Life is bloody, violent, harrowing, beautiful, sensitive, epic and gripping. It’s full of precisely choreographed martial arts, but the fight scenes are so cleverly woven into the story that it never feels like an action film. This is a love story. However, you will never see another character who takes as much physical punishment as Sun-woo. This guy takes more hits in one film than John McLane does in all five Die Hard films (or is it six now? Who even cares anymore?). A Bittersweet Life had to be an incredible film to take the number one spot in this list of absolute gold, so take my word for it and check it out!

Now, as I said at the beginning of this top ten list of the thirteen best Korean films I’ve seen, I’m giving you a couple of bonus films. Both Oldboy and Woochi Demon Slayer are worthy of a spot on the list but as I’ve already written about them in a previous post (of great films to watch on Netflix UK) I decided to give them an honorable mention here. So consider them honorably mentioned. And watch them. I’d just like to say in closing, that there are great films being made all over the world. We don’t have to settle for the latest Michael Bay monstrosity, or yet another shitty remake of a unique eighties movie (watch out for another post about this). No! This is the global age of the internet, we can watch whatever the hell we want. So before you fork out a week’s wages to see the prequel to the remake of the third film in some shitty franchise that’s already been done to death, or the eighteenth Fast and Furious, come back to my blog and see if you can’t find something a bit more deserving of your attention!

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