An A to Z Guide to Korean Cinema – Part 1

Since I first discovered the wonderful world of Korean cinema in 1999, I have seen an impressive number of great Korean films. So as I started working on a top 10 list to contribute to this year’s Korean Blogathon, I actually found it incredibly difficult to narrow the number down to ten. Because of this, I have decided to do something a bit different instead – a list of my favourite Korean movies from A to Z.

I hope you will enjoy reading this article, share fond memories of the Korean films that you have seen, and possibly discover something that you may want to check out in the future. This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some of the best:

Attack the Gas Station (1999): Filled with youthful energy, unexpected twists and funny situations, this enjoyable comedy was a big hit in Korea, scoring the second highest number of admissions for a local film in the year it was released. Outside of Korea, it has (sadly) not received a lot of attention, but its DVD shouldn’t be too hard to track down.

Bittersweet Life, A (2005): Directed by Kim Jee-woon, a filmmaker with that special gift of being able to master different genres with ease, this gorgeous-looking ultra-cool gangster film is one of the best examples of the genre to come out of Asia. It stars Lee Byung-heon (GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra), one of Korea’s coolest actors, as the male lead.

Chaser (2008): This gritty serial-killer film builds up suspense to an almost unbearable level and maintains the intensity till the final frame. Anyone after edge-of-the-seat entertainment should really enjoy this movie. The fact that it is the work of first-time director Na Hong-jin makes him someone worth looking out for in the coming years.

Dirty Carnival, A (2006): This is another fine gangster film to come out of Korea in recent years. The script is tightly written, the performances are superb, and the fight scenes are incredibly realistic. All these factors combine to make this one immensely exciting film. There are also a lot of dramatic elements that help set this film apart from other gangster flicks.  

Eye for an Eye (2008): This is a more recent film that stars Han Suk-kyu, one of Korea’s great actors who played key roles in many of the films from the ‘Korean New Wave’ (Shiri, Tell Me Something). While it may not qualify as a great film, it is nevertheless a solid and satisfying thriller. Still, this is not director Kwak Kyung-taek’s best work. The next film is.

Friend (2001): Based on Kwak Kyung-taek’s true story of himself and his childhood friends, this is clearly a personal film for the director. It is a tale about friendship, loyalty and growing up. All of the 4 lead actors give wonderful performances. Also deserving a special mention is the cinematography that beautifully captures the city on screen.     

Good, the Bad and the Weird, The (2008): Coming from director Kim Jee-woon, this Western offers one huge dose of exhilarating fun. There are plenty of heart-pumping chases and frantic action scenes to be enjoyed. The cast is full of big name actors, including Song Kang-ho (The Foul King, Secret Sunshine), Lee Byung-heon and Jung Woo-sung (Musa).  

Host, The (2006): From my favourite Korean director Bong Joon-ho comes this amazing creature feature. The well-designed creature and great performances from the cast make this film totally believable. The Host is multilayered and goes well beyond the basic premise of humans vs creature. In short, it is a monster masterpiece!

Isle, The (2000): One cannot write a best-of-Korean-films list without mentioning any work by director Kim Ki-duk. This strangely mesmerising film may make some people nauseated, but for those who can appreciate its beauty, it is a little gem. Certainly not as accessible as many of Kim’s later films, but this one has left an impression on me for its uniqueness.

Joint Security Area (2000): While director Park Chan-wook may be best known for his revenge trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), his older film Joint Security Area is equally as worthy of film lovers’ attention for its assured direction, skillful story-telling and excellent performances.

King and the Clown (2005): This was the surprise Korean hit of 2005. This period drama without star casting became a phenomenon in Korea upon its release. In retrospect, it is not hard to see why it was so popular. It is touching, it is charming and above all, it is entertaining. After all, entertainment is what we are after when we watch movies, isn’t it?

Next time… the rest of the list from L to Z!

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