Best In The World: South Korea

Lord Ian O’Itall is back, and this time he’s taking a look at the best films to ever come out of Korea. Not the northern bit run by his second cousin Kim, but the southern, less oppressed bit.

While half of Korea sits brooding behind a bamboo curtain in sullen secrecy like a stubborn child, the half the rest of the world is familiar with has really come out of its shell and produced some cracking films. Some might take umbrage at the fact that this list includes only South Korean films, omitting our friends in the north, but apart from the fact that most of the latter’s are military-based propaganda, South Korea has simply produced the better movies. Besides, some of the films below deal brilliantly with the ongoing conflict between both states, and could not have been imagined if there was no deep but communal divide between the two. But there’s more than just that. South Korean films are kimchi-packed with dark, dark humour, action, drama, violence and a distinctive sense of what they call ‘Han’, a collective sense of horrible injustice and a deep-rooted need to seek revenge for it and to right a wrong. Each of these films proved hugely successful in their homeland, in turn breaking box office records at a time when South Korea enjoyed an economic boom that saw cinema seats filled like never before. Why not see what they’ve been enjoying?

5. The Host (Gweomul), 2006

This brilliant creature feature boasts not only bite but a fair amount to chew on too. Like Alien or Jaws, it’s so much more than a scary monster movie. It’s a clever film focusing not on what the monster – a genetic mutant caused by a chemical spill – does, which is still pretty damn good, but the effect its actions has on the people living in fear of it. For monster fans, there’s a lot of absolutely brilliant scenes of the giant creature doing what giant creatures do best when they find themselves downtown, but there’s a hell of a lot more to it. The almost-perfect tyrannical terror scenes are punctuated by surprising but brilliant family drama, action, horror and pulp humour, with fleeing-in-terror mayhem and a missing child story all sewn into the same monster movie outfit. On its release, The Host quickly became the highest-grossing film in South Korean history. This was something everybody wanted to see. It’s hard to draw comparisons with this brilliantly entertaining film, but imagine the family from Little Miss Sunshine battling Godzilla, as written by Bill Hicks, and you come somewhere close to the mark. Time magazine said: ‘If this madly entertaining movie has a fault, it’s that it’s too ingenious for the genre it ostensibly inhabits.’ Put simply, it’s too good to be considered just a monster movie.

4. A Tale Of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon), 2003

Based on a Korean folk tale (which suggests just how dark Koreans can be), this creepy psychological thriller-horror is like The Shining in that it creates a pervasive sense of dread that remains long after the unsatisfactory denouement. Hugely successful at home, it was also the first South Korean film to be shown in American cinemas, which led to it being remade and Hollywoodised as The Uninvited. It is far, far superior to the saccharine-soaked remake starring Emily Browning’s lips though, because it chills you to the bone throughout. It’s brilliantly shot in contrasting ultra-bright and sombrely dark tones, giving a beautifully unsettling atmosphere, with a great mix of suitably scary music and absolute silence thrown in to increase the tension. It’s spooky, with some pretty terrifying scenes and images – is there anything scarier than seeing a dead girl hiding under the sink? – and it has a spectacular twist that M Night Shyamalan would give his soul for (if he didn’t do that already to get The Village made). Revenge and an urge to put things right are at the heart of the story, but who is really behind this urge is kept from us long enough to ensure the brilliant change of direction catches us completely by surprise. The story has been told in Korea for centuries, so it’s probably about time you knew it too.

3. Shiri (Swiri), 1999


This slam-bang action movie was the first all-out blockbuster made in South Korea after its economic boom, and it has rarely been bettered. The action explodes around a dangerous love triangle and a plot to unite both nations by simply blowing up one of them. A direct homage to all-action Hollywood movies and heavily influenced by the films coming out of the Hong Kong stable of John Woo and co (the gunfights go on for aaaaaaaaaaaages), it gives you everything such a film should, but its also got at its heart a strong story close to Korean national sentiment in that it deals with the contentious issue of reunification – the first big film to do so. Its box-office record has of course been surpassed by almost every major film made in South Korea, but at the time it was quite the achievement, way back in 1999. It even outgrossed Titanic (if indeed any film can ‘out gross’ Titanic), and its commercial success gave South Korean directors the confidence to produce films that could, and did, compete with those of the West. Oh, and it has Yunjin Kim, the Korean woman off Lost, in it too. Director Kang Je-gyu would go on to make another superb war film, which, conveniently, is next on our list…

2. The Brotherhood of War (Taegukgi Hwinallimyo), 2004

What list of Korean films would be complete without at least one set in and directly dealing with the Korean War? Where Shiri is an action-packed piece of abstract storytelling, this is a deeply personal drama about two brothers forced into a conflict they want no part of. The war is the backdrop, but at its unforgiving frontline is the deteriorating relationship between the brave Jin-Tae and the bookish Jin-Seok, which is left soured and tragic by the ongoing conflict out of which no good can come. South Koreans old enough to have fought in the war reportedly find this film difficult to watch because it hammers home so truthfully what it was like for many people to be dragged into a senselessly destructive conflict, and it does this remarkably well by focusing on the devastating effect it has on one family. The brothers’ fractured bond is a tragedy, indicative of the terrible truth that no matter how strong the urge to right a wrong, they can never bring back those who have fallen victim to the cold war between the two nations. M*A*S*H* it ain’t.

1. Old Boy, 2003


Ah, Old Boy. What can you say about a film that is quite simply unlike any other? This has got to be one of the strangest, most disturbing, most bizarre films ever to receive such acclaim. It’s downright weird, but it’s got everything – action, tension, drama, romance, revenge (of course), twists aplenty and lots of blood – all presented to us with a distinctly disturbing Korean flavour. Oh and have I mentioned how Korean films have a dark sense of humour? A lot of the story doesn’t make sense as you watch it, but just think how poor old Oh-Dae Sun (Choi Min-sik) feels – abducted on his daughter’s birthday and held in a cell for no apparent reason for 15 years, then released with a suit and a mobile phone. Oh-Dae doesn’t know what the hell is going on, so why should we? It’s all made perfectly, painfully clear in the end, when things get really disturbing. The irresistible urge to find revenge and right a wrong is there for all to see, with Oh-Dae going to horrible lengths in a quest we just know isn’t going to go quite as planned. It is fairly gruesome – the live squid scene will go down in movie folklore – and hilariously violent – there’s a ten on one fight scene involving knives and a hammer – but it’s gripping, tense, and funny too. Old Boy stands out as something special, if only because it dares to go where few other films have dared, and even fewer have triumphed.


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9 Responses to “Best In The World: South Korea”

  1. I really like The Good, the Bad, the Weird lately, but how can you drop off all the other Park Chan-wook films? Sympathy for Mr/Lady Vengeance, Thirst, I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK? I realize you had to choose, but damn.

    Anyway, good call on Tale of Two Sisters.

  2. I’m with Simon/Ripley on this one, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is great fun but Park Chan-wook IS Korean cineam at the moment. My top five of his movies:

    5 – I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK
    4 – Sympathy for Mr Vengeance
    3 – Thirst
    2 – Lady Vengeance
    1 – Oldboy

    And by the way Oldboy is the best movie of the last ten years, not just the best Korean movie of the last ten years!

  3. So predictable to see Oldboy at #1!!! I’m actually waiting for The Brotherhood of War (it’s on my netflix queue) so I have high expectations for it now that it was ranked number 2 on your top 5. I wasn’t a big fan of The Host though, it just dragged on for too long and come on, the beast dies after getting simply stabbed by a stop sign in the mouth? that’s a lame ending!

  4. Some great films listed above, but telling that they’re all from the past 15 years or so. S. Korea just seemed to click it in to place around Shiri and hasn’t looked back since. I’d have taken out Tale of Two Sisters and the Host and replaced them with Good, Bad, Weird and 3-Iron… but then again, there’s just so many great films coming out of there right now.

    Memories of Murder is also a brilliant S. Korean flick.

  5. SPOILER!!!
    Castor, Lord Ian was just about to lend me The Host as I’ve never gotten round to seeing it, thanx for RUINING MY LIFE!!!

  6. I don’t know what it is, but I just can’t seem to enjoy Asian cinema as much as others.

  7. lordianoitall Says:

    thanks for the feedback and comments folks. yep, all films from the last 15 years or so, but as mentioned i felt that was when south korean films really came into their own. old boy at number one is predictable, but for a reason. more of park chan-wook could easily have made the list, but i wanted to give a few others credit too. and 3-iron narrowly missed out, paragraph films

  8. Happy to help with that cause McD!

  9. I’d definitely go with The Good, The Bad, The Wierd. After watching Oldboy, I felt dirty =S

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