2018 has been a rather interesting year for Korean cinema, which, despite the continuous turn towards Hollywood aesthetics and the non-stop production of crime-thrillers, managed to produce a number of interesting films, headed by the return of two of the contemporary greats, Kim Ki-duk and Lee Chang-dong.
The blockbusters were here once more, but the surprise came from independent productions, with a number of newcomers (Jeon Go-woon, Shin Dong-seok) and the return of some “older” directors (Baek Seung-bin, Kim Ui-seok) having large impact with their debuts, dealing with social issues, of which bullying was the most central one. Lastly, Lee Il-ha directed one of the best documentaries we have seen the latest years with “Counters” and Lee Byeong-heon directed one of the best comedy of the last years, with “What A Man Wants”.
Some films may have premiered in 2017, but since this occurred at the end of the year, I took the liberty of including them.
With a focus on diversity, here are the 10 best Korean films of 2017.
10. Man of Will (Lee Won-tae)
This list would not be complete without a historic drama, and Kim Gu, a Korean nationalist politician, and the last Premier of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, as much as a leader of the Korean independence movement against the Japanese Empire and a reunification activist after 1945, was long due a biopic.
The film begins in 1890, when the young Kim Chang-soo is sent to prison for his role in the murder of a Japanese man who took part in Empress Myeongseong’s assassination. While in there, he finds out that the majority of the imprisoned is impoverished, uneducated, and even wrongly convicted, and proceeds on having a real impact in their lives, even sacrificing himself in the process. The events that follow shape a truly significant man.
Lee Won-tae, in his feature debut, directs a film that functions much as a Hollywood production in terms of productions values (big budget, fast editing, grandiose music etc) and in its overall aesthetics, which results in a rather entertaining movie that takes full advantage of both the aforementioned, and Cho Jin-woong’s great performance as Kim Chang-soo.
The rest of the characters suffer somewhat from the focus on the main character, but the very interesting story actually carries the film until the end.
9. The Spy Gone North (Yoon Jong-bin)
Probably the best commercial film to come out from South Korea this year, “The Spy Gone North” deals with the true story of Park Chae-Seo, a South Korean spy with the code name of “Black Venus.”
The film tells his story from his recruitment from the NIS, to the assignment of infiltrating the highest North Korean echelons in order to learn about their nuclear program, his meeting with North Korean official Ri Myung-un in Beijing and the test he has to pass in the face of Jung Moo-taek in order to meet with Kim Jong-il.
Yoon Jong-bin directs a very entertaining spy thriller, which does not focus on action (as so many entries in the category) but on the build-up of the story and the subsequent tension.
The focus is on the entertainment aspect, and with the production values of a true blockbuster and another great performance by Hwang Jung-min, Yoon definitely succeeds in that aspect, while also managing to avoid the many clichés of the genre.
8. Microhabitat (Jeon Go-woon)
Miso works part-time as housekeeper but can barely make ends meet. She lives in a dingy little room with no heating. Her only solaces in life are her equally out-on-his-luck webtoon-artist boyfriend Han-sol, cigarettes and whisky. In fact, all her expenses are on meals, rent, whisky, cigarettes, tax and medicine for a condition that makes hair turn grey if the medicine is not consumed at regular intervals.
When her landlord increases her rent and the government imposes a ₩2,000 increase in cigarette prices, she knows decisions need to be made and some “luxuries” need to be cut. And so she does what any sane person would… and decides to cut out on her rent!
From here on, Miso begins a reflective, often hilarious journey asking favors of old band-mates from her university days to spend a few days with them in their homes, while she helps out cleaning their homes and cooking for them when she can. The journey, however, is not so smooth-sailing, as most of her friends have jobs and families of their own and are not quite as how Miso remembers them to be.
Jeon Go-woon in her feature debut directs a film about human relationships and particularly friendship, exploring, in a quite amusing and humorous way, the concept of “leeching,” of people who “take advantage” of their friends in order to “survive” in the contemporary society. The difference of these people, who consider friendship a concept above all, with the majority of the “normal” people, who consider friendship a concept with specific boundaries is explored to the fullest, and is actually the main source of the film’s subtle comedy.
Through this concept, Jeon also explores the difficulty youths experience in contemporary Korea, a setting where chasing one’s own dreams is perceived as lack of connection with reality.
7. What a Man Wants (Lee Byeong-heon)
In a rather strange setting in Jeju Island, current taxi driver and former roller coaster designer Seok-geun and his wife Dam-deok share a building to his sister Mi-young and her husband, Bong-soo, with the four being quite close, living next door to each other. Seok-geun however, is a habitual womanizer, and eventually tries to woo his brother-in-law in this kind of life. Bong-soo resists, but as his problems with his headstrong wife, and particularly her denial in turning their failing Italian restaurant to a Chinese one persist, he eventually succumbs to the appeal of Je-ni, a dance instructor who was initially courted by Seok-geun.
Things seem to go quite well for him after that, but as tragedy hits the family and Je-ni begins having more intense feelings for him, all members of the family are led into taking a good look at themselves and their relationships.
Lee Byeong-heon-I directs a character-driven, quirky comedy, which manages to carry the second aspect to the end, despite the fact that drama and a number of social comments are presented rather eloquently. Through this approach, Lee takes a thorough look at the concept of marriage, and particularly regarding couples who have been at it for some time.
His message of understanding and acceptance, which even extends to extramarital affairs, may seem a bit extreme, particularly in the eyes of conservatives, but his approach justifies even this message, through a story that seems to state that “everybody cheats” (and lies subsequently).
The protagonists represent four common archetypes. Seok-geun is the embodiment of the alpha-male whose appeal in the opposite sex is a given. Bong-soo is the exact opposite, a timid man afraid to jeopardize his marriage in any way. Mi-young is the bossy wife who knows what she wants and uses her husband to get it. Dam-deok is also timid, and content on being with a “prize husband” like Seok-geun, which, for her, is enough to keep her bitterness inside.
Lastly, Je-ni is the embodiment of the sex symbol, a woman every man desires, and one who thinks she can get whatever she wants due to her beauty. The way Lee presents all these characters and the layers that are hiding underneath is one of the film’s greatest aspects, which also carries to the end, through a number of plot twists, both dramatic and hilarious.
6. I Have a Date with Spring (Baek Seung-bin)
In rather unusual fashion, the film opens with a filmmaker sitting on a lake during his birthday, trying to complete a screenplay that has been standing for over a decade. Suddenly, he hears an explosion and four individuals appear from the woods behind the lake, with a middle-aged woman among them staying with him, stating she is his fan and wishing to hear about his new script.
The story then moves to other characters, probably the heroes of his script, who also have their birthdays, but whose arcs include the other three individuals that appeared before. These include a schoolgirl who is acquainted with a man in his forties, a romantic poetry professor who suffers from depression who meets a beautiful, but very sick woman, and a housewife, who meets a woman her age, who seems to be a fan of a book about female fighting she wrote back at the day. All three characters take a trip with their newfound “friends” both actually and metaphorically. All the while, the world seems to be ending.
Baek Seung-bin directs a film that unfolds in peculiar, but intriguing fashion, through which he manages to present a number of comments about individuals who represent a specific caste of society, while the “aliens” represent each of these caste’s needs. The filmmaker wants someone to appreciate him (a fan if you wish), the schoolgirl someone to interact with her (a friend or a parent) since her parents seem to neglect her. The professor is searching for love, for a woman who can dedicate his poems to, and the housewife a female friend, someone who will make her feel appreciated, and give her life a purpose outside her taking care of her household.
The aliens embody these needs to the fullest, offering satisfaction to the people they accompany initially, but Baek destroys this perspective completely, through the finale of each story, which is anything but a happy ending. This concept gives the film a nihilistic approach, but at the same time seems to suggest that the end of each person is not so significant if he has found what he wanted in his life, that even some moments of happiness can be more important than anything else.
At the same time, Baek seems to address the marginalized of society, since the main characters are social pariahs, thus presenting the main themes of the film, solitude and the melancholy deriving from it.
5. Counters (Lee Il-ha)
The rise of the extreme right to the point of fascism, and the racism associated with it have been on the rise for quite some time now, unfortunately on a global level. Japan has quite a past in this concept, with the history of the country always leaning towards the right; however, since 2013, the extreme right-racist groups have been on the rise, having organized more than 1000 speeches around the nation, with 329 of them taking place in 2016, when most of this documentary takes place.
One of the leading groups of these speeches is the Zaitoku, whose hate is mostly addressed towards Zainichi Koreans, who have actually been residing in the country since the early 20th century. The hatred of the group reaches so far, that phrases like “kill Koreans” and “if you find a Korean woman on the street don’t hesitate to throw stones and rape them!” are quite common during their demonstrations. The documentary however, focuses on an opposing group called “Counters”, whose purpose is to disrupt peacefully the demonstrations of the fascists and to demonstrate against racism, themselves.
Specifically, former mid-level Yakuza Takahashi, who has been reborn according to his own words, heads a group inside the Counters called Otoko, who think that violence is necessary to disrupt the powers of racism and discrimination. The documentary follows Takahashi and the other members of the group in their struggle, while also presenting the Zaitoku and particularly their founder and leader, Sakurai, who uses the concept of the freedom of speech to spread his hate.
Among the most central issues of the documentary, is that groups like Zaitoku take advantage of the fact that the police cannot deny any kind of protest that is filed properly in a precinct, thus deeming the antiracist actions illegal. In that fashion, the Otoko group also has to face the police, who, actually obeying the law, have to disrupt the antifascist groups from obstructing the fascist speeches.
This is actually one of the main goals of the Counters movement, who, with the help of the head-lawyer of their legal team, Kambara, and Arita, a Diet Member who is also a member of the movement, try to declare Zaitoku’s and other similar groups’ hate speech illegal.
4. After My Death (Kim Ui-seok)
One day, high school girl Kyeong-min goes missing. She seemed to jump off a bridge to her death, but without a body, or a suicide note, no conclusion can be drawn. The next day the police arrive at her school to investigate the matter. Soon it is revealed that a classmate of hers, Yeong-hee was the last to see her. With no direct answers visible, the girl soon becomes the victim of bullying in her school, instigated by the now discovered dead girl’s mother and her classmates, who believe she is the one responsible for Kyeong-min’s death, and violence soon takes over.
Yeong-hee tries to find out on her own what happened to the girl, but as the school and her family offer no support in the bullying she experiences, she decides to commit suicide herself, in the most horrible fashion.
Quite similarly to the Japanese films about the subject (“Confessions” comes to mind), Kim Ui-seok wraps his social comments in a mantle of mystery and violence, with the latter offering a number of shocking scenes, as the ones in Yeong-hee’s house and the one in the funeral. Through this approach, that also uses Yeong-hee as medium into exploring the reasons teenagers commit suicide and retort to violence, Kim makes a rather harsh comment, which mainly focuses on teachers and schools in general, and parents.
Kim presents the former as an institution that just wants to save face and move on, hiding behind ceremony and rituals, while neglecting the actual needs of the students to the point of ignoring even the harsh events that take place here. Ignorance is also attributed to the parents, who seem to have no clue about what is going on with their children, as so eloquently portrayed by both Yeong-hee’s father and the deceased’s mother.
3. Last Child (Shin Dong-seok)
Seong-cheol and his wife, Mi-sook try to cope with a tragedy, as their son has recently drowned, trying to save a classmate of his, Gi-hyeon. Seong-cheol has thrown himself to work, as he runs an interior design entrepreneurship mostly dealing with wallpapers, while he has filed papers for his son to be accounted as a heroic citizen, an honor bestowed to people killed in a righteous account. His wife experiences the death of their only son much worse, shutting herself from the outside world, even including her husband, for whom she only has bitter remarks every time he mentions their son.
Eventually, and in a rather strange turn of events, Seong-cheol befriends Gi-hyeon, and after he learns of his miserable life story, since the kid has to live on his own, has no money, is bullied in school and has just recently lost his job, decides to hire him as a disciple. Soon, the boy grows on him, despite his wife’s fierce protests. Even she, though, eventually takes a liking to Gi-hyeon, with the two of them taking him under their wing, as the beginning of a sense of harmony begins to appear in their lives. Alas, this sense does not last for long, as the truth about their son comes out.
Shin Dong-seok directs a genuine drama, where grief and sadness seem to encircle all aspects of life, and the moments of joy are few and brief. Using the concept of the “lost child” and examining how the parents can cope with a loss of that magnitude, Shin presents a number of social comments that deal with parenthood, bullying, the way schools function in order to protect their fame, coping with grief, forgiveness, and truth and its consequences. His story follows the lines of “nothing good goes unpunished” in the harshest way, in a tale that keeps getting worse as the script progresses.
Yet, through his very thorough character analysis and the realism that permeates the film, he manages to avoid completely the reef of sentimentality, thus presenting a movie that has nothing to do with melodrama, as is the common tendency in Korean cinema. The fact that there is almost no music in the film trying to draw sentiment from various scenes is a testament to the aforementioned.
Furthermore, and in the element that most reminded me of Greek Tragedies, in the end, he provides a complete catharses for his characters, after he has allowed them to sink to the deepest depths a human can reach. I found the fact that this catharses is presented in literally terms, through actual water, ingenious, and one of the best elements in the whole production.
2. Human, Space, Time and Human (Kim Ki-duk)
The rather surrealistic and full of allegories script takes place in a warship, which is taking a cruise with a number of quite different characters. The most central are a corrupt Politician and his supposedly idealistic son named Adam, a Gang boss and the rest of his group, a freshly-wedded couple comprising of Eve and her activist/idealist husband, the righteous Captain and his crew, and a strange old hermit.
Trouble brews almost immediately since the politician receives special treatment both regarding his meals and by occupying the sole suite in the boat, to the disgruntlement of the rest of the passengers, who eventually express their annoyance, with the Gangster and his group taking the role of the bodyguard of the privileged, almost without consent, and despite Adam’s protests.
During the night, and after consumption of large quantities of alcohol, sex begins to dominate the setting, with a number of prostitutes “hanging out” with the crew and the gangsters. However, things soon take a turn for their worse when Eve and another woman in the boat get raped repeatedly, while Eve’s husband ends up dead, with the gangsters and the politician and his son having a central role in all that is happening.
The next day, the people on board the vessel discover that the ship is flowing on air, above the clouds and the sea is nowhere to be found. Soon, their lives become a death race about the remaining food, with the Politician and the gangsters taking the role of the leaders from the Captain and the crew. The consequences are dire, and soon all hell breaks loose. As violence takes over, the only one who seems to hold his grip is the hermit, who starts planning for the future in cruelly logical fashion, while also taking Eve under his protective wing.
Kim’s sociopolitical comments are, mostly, obvious. Politicians just want power in order to retain a status (and the privileges that come with it) much higher than that of common people, and are willing to do anything to achieve just that, including having ties with organized crime and succumbing to various forms of violence. Furthermore, Kim seems to state that this concept is one of the main factors that lead to dictatorships.
Kim also makes a direct comment on the fight between authority (The Politician) and idealism (Eve’s husband), with the former presented as the obvious “winner”, and the latter as a notion that does not apply in real life. Furthermore, the concept of opportunism and its tactics is presented through The Gang Leader and his crew.
The cruelty associated with the instincts of survival of humans is also presented in the harshest fashion, in a concept that has been revisited a number of times in cinema (“Die Welle” comes to mind) by putting people in a claustrophobic environment and making a group of them in-charge. Expectantly, Kim takes the concept to its borders by also adding the basic instinct of survival through the lack of food, as violence, murder and a number of other grotesque concepts eventually take over.
1. Burning (Lee Chang-dong)
Lee Chang-dong is one of the greatest Korean filmmakers of our era (to say the least) and “Burning”, which has already won awards in festivals all around the world including Cannes, is a testament to the fact.
Loosely based on a Haruki Murakami novel titled “Barn Burning”, the film revolves around three characters: Lee Jong-su is an aspiring author who has not managed to come up with any writing yet, and sustains himself financially by performing odd jobs in Paju. One day he runs into Shin Hae-mi, a former classmate who is in a similar, dead-end situation and the two of them end up spending the night together.
Soon after, Hae-mi leaves for a trip to Africa, and “tasks” Jong-su with taking care of her cat in the small apartment she lives in, although in the meantime, the young man has moved back to his family home in the country. Eventually the girl returns and a more than happy Jong-su goes to pick her up from the airport, only to find her in the company of Ben, a young man who seems to be more than a friend.
To Jong-su’s surprise, the three of them start hanging out together, and is soon revealed that Ben is quite rich, living in a luxurious apartment and driving an expensive sports car, although the origin of his wealth is never revealed. Inevitably, and for all the aforementioned reasons, Jong-su is jealous of Ben, although his mysterious adversary seems to feel anything but. Eventually, the latter even opens up about his tendency to burn abandoned greenhouses. Soon after though, Hae-mi disappears and Jong-su starts “stalking” Ben.
Adapting Murakami’s novels on screen has never been an easy task, particularly due to their abstract nature, the inconclusive ending, and the many questions that never are answered. Lee Chang-dong, however, manages to do just that, by transcending the Japanese’s style and in the process creating an existential drama/thriller that seems much more his, than of Murakami’s. In that fashion, some details, like the never-appearing, supposedly autistic cat are definitely Murakami’s, but the progression of the story and the truly stocking finale seem to be Lee’s added elements.
The one sided antagonism between the two men, and the fact that Hae-mi does not seem to care or even acknowledge the fact, forms one of the basic axes of the film, although Lee uses this in order to make a rather harsh comment about human nature and the path obsession and assumption can lead someone.