10 Great Korean Movies

1. Welcome to Dongmakgol *****

Welcome to DongmakgolEasily one of the best, most unique movies made about the Korean war for two reasons. First it shares a Korean perspective of the absurdity of this civil war with neither side certain who invaded whom or why. As one elder in the far-removed Shangri-La-type village of Dongmakgol puts it when he hears that a war is afoot, “Who’s invaded this time? The Chinese? The Japanese?” and the answer of course is “er… it’s not that simple.” Secondly, it’s not your typical war movie. This movie manages to be heartwarming, humorous and tragic, defying–as many Korean movies do–to be placed strictly within one genre.

2. The King and the Clown *****

The King and the ClownTwo traveling minstrels find themselves in the Seoul of yore and seize upon a plan to mock the mad king and his concubine, raking in money and sending stitches of laughter through the dusty, ruddy market streets of the old city. But when the giggles reach the royal court the minstrels are seized and find themselves performing the parody for the king himself in a twist that ultimately leads the minstrels to walk a very fine tightrope between keeping their wits and mutual love and losing their heads.

.

3. Mi-in-do (Portrait of a Beauty) ****

Miindo Portrait of a BeautyIf for no other reason, watch this movie for the hot sex scenes. Also for the good cinematography, complex character relationships and perspective on historical Korea. A really quality piece of film that stirred up a lot of controversy at its release. A girl’s father is a master calligraphist and hopes to pass the trade to his son, but his son dies and the father makes the decision to disguise his daughter as a boy and raise her in his son’s place. The girl grows into a woman living a man’s life and produces some of Korea’s most famous paintings (not sure if that part’s true to history). The problem is her status and life are a dangerous falsehood and she falls in love with a man who loves her before he fully knows that she’s a woman.

4. Seopyeonje (Sopyonje) ****

SeopyeonjeA sorrowful gaze deep into the heart of Korean culture, this film centers on a traveling minstrel who tries in vain to preserve Korean folk music against Japanese and Western music. His struggle and his hubris reflect Korea’s larger strife over the last 150 years with Japanese and Western influences. Korean viewers often say this movie captures the essence of the Korean “han”.

Han reflects many Korean’s world-view and sense of nationhood and is sometimes described as a painful longing. Han can be summed up from one Korean literary source* as “the five-thousand-year-old, jade-like spirit of the race, imbued with the proudly lonely life-breath of the world’s cleanest, most civilized people.” This might come across as the xenophobia or even racial superiority dogma, but it’s a part of Korean culture born from Korea’s historic isolation and defense against foreign invaders.

*This was a quote I read in “A Pure Race in an Impure World: How North Koreans See Themselves,” published in the National Post on May 10, 2010 and written by Bradley K. Martin. The quote itself was from a Korean source found by B.R. Myers and used in his book “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters”.

5. Yeopgijeogin geunyeo (My Sassy Girl) ***

Yeopgijeogin geunyeo (My Sassy Girl)A good romantic comedy / date movie. This movie made it big in the box offices–big enough to turn heads in Hollywood. It’s well acted, funny and touching. However, cinematographically it doesn’t touch the Korean masterpieces: “The King’s Men”, “Welcome to Dongmakgol”, “Portrait of a Beauty” and “Seopyeonje”. Beats the pants off the Hollywood remake by the same title.

.

.

6. Yeongeo wanjeonjeongbok, (Please Teach Me English ) **

Yeongeo wanjeonjeongbok, (Please Teach Me English )Foreign English teachers in Korea will easily find this charmingly goofy and enjoyable.

.

.

.

.

.

7. Oldboy ****

OldboyThe most talked about Korean movie–a characteristically split genre part psychological thriller, part romance, full-on revenge movie. Grab a hammer, some popcorn, and enjoy.

.

.

.

.

8. Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War ****

Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of WarKorea’s cinematic pillar to the hardship, toil, and psychological trama of the Korean war and its continuing effects. Two brothers find themselves and all their loved ones engulfed in a brutal, bloody pit fit of a war. As the terror of war rages up and down the peninsula, the brothers lose everything–even themselves to the self-destructive madness.

.

.

.

9. Jopog Manura, (My Wife is a Gangster) **

Jopog Manura, (My Wife is a Gangster)A good, funny mock-action movie that’s actually made better by its sequel. See the first two movies, but skip the triquel. It’s got a great actress, but is completely divorced from the first two in plot and cast.

.

.

.

.

10. Swiri (Shiri)***

SwiriA solid spy flick. A tale of two Koreas battling it out in an improbable setting. Like any spy flick, it has sharp shooting, mystery characters, hugely unlikely plot twists, the twists of love on the edge, and high speed explosions.

.

.

.

.

BONUS MOVIES:

Haeundae (Tsunami) (Tidal Wave) **

HaeundaeAt times funny and enjoyable, this falls far short of the high water mark left by other Korean films, such as “The King’s Men”, “Welcome to Dongmakgol”, “Portrait of a Beauty” and “Seopyeonje”. It achieves the look of a Hollywood blockbuster, but if there’s one Korean movie people should see it is not this one. It’s on this list because it made a lot of money in theaters.

.

2009 Lost Memories **

2009 Lost MemoriesThis movie is memorable, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Take a portion of Korea’s diehard bitterness against Japan for the colonial period and distill it into a film and you get this movie.

Advertisements

3 responses to “10 Great Korean Movies

  1. Very good list. #5. My Sassy Girl was one of the first Korean movies I ever watched, and I’ve loved Korean cinema ever since. One of my more recent favourites is Sarang/ A Love from 2007. My review on Sarang here http://aparoo.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/sarang-a-love-k-movie-2007/

    Like

  2. 1,2,8 &10 are one of my favs with 1 being hands down my all time fav k-movie, it leaves you thinking hours after watching it! And I love love Korean political thrillers be they historical or modern day ones cuz they usually show that politicians/leaders are still the same, if not worse than they were 1000s of years ago!

    Like

  3. I wonder why Breathless by Ik-june is not part of your list…

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s