Lost

My parents-in-law got lost.

 

They’ve been driving themselves to and from work for many months now. Like my wife when she first learnt how to drive, they’ve just adhered to the same route and I’ve helped them make some occasional navigation adjustments as roadwork disrupts that route. It was last week that they ran into some unexpected roadwork on the intersection of Sheridan Boulevard and Quincy Avenue, where they usually begin heading northbound. Up until now, they’ve done alright with this type of thing, but they weren’t so lucky this time. They wound up continuing eastbound down Quincy Avenue. Since there’s a giant cemetery preventing them from turning northbound and Quincy Avenue doesn’t connect directly to Federal Boulevard either, they became extremely lost.

 

By the time my wife got the call that my parents-in-law were hopelessly lost, they had somehow gone all the way to Denver’s Southern Hills neighborhood, where they finally parked after I told them to stop fucking driving. The real problem began when they couldn’t communicate where they were. They kept giving us a street name but couldn’t seem to comprehend that we need the names of two intersecting streets in order to have any idea where they are. There are streets so long they cross into other states. It must have taken a glacial twenty minutes for them to wrap their heads around this concept and my wife wanted to leave right away to go rescue her parents, but I literally had to pin her down and try to speak reason to her, asking her how she plans to find her parents when she doesn’t even know where her parents are.

 

What really perplexed me was my parents-in-law’s failure to grasp the concept of an intersection. It’s not exactly unique to the United States. Every country on the planet has intersections, including theirs. Twenty minutes later, they finally gave use two street names that actually made sense. Naturally, they spelled them out since they couldn’t possibly pronounce them. They were parked outside Slavens Elementary School on the corner of Dartmouth Avenue and Clayton Street. Finally, with two streets that made actual sense, my wife and I left, my wife having already called work to let them know she’d be late.

 

I wasn’t in a particularly good mood. My hair was in desperate need of a shampoo and I had hoped that my wife would have done a better job at preparing her parents for a scenario like this. Denver is basically the easiest city in the world to navigate. The Rocky Mountains are to the west, so you always know which way is west and, if you know which way is west, you also know which way is north, east, and south, making it virtually impossible to get lost. We live in the foothills of East Morrison, or about as far west as you can go without entering the Rocky Mountains, so it’s simply a matter of heading westbound until you see a familiar street name and you know you’ve gone too far west if you’re suddenly surrounded by mountains.

 

My parents-in-law’s solution to getting lost wasn’t to try to circle around until they saw something familiar, they just kept going farther and farther east, getting themselves increasingly lost in the process since they’re completely unfamiliar with anything east of Federal Boulevard. The real mystery was how they got all the way to essentially University Boulevard without noticing they had crossed Federal Boulevard. There is no way to get that far east without crossing Federal Boulevard, which indicated that they weren’t even paying any heed to the street signs, despite my mother-in-law’s habit of asking how to pronounce every stupid street that she’ll never need to know. None of it made any sense.

 

In any case, I drove out to Slavens Elementary School, where my parents-in-law were waiting like helpless infants at the corner. I dropped my wife off so she could drive them to work and I met her there to take her back home. My parents-in-law were about two hours late to work. Following the incident, it came as a mild relief to hear my wife explaining to her parents the cardinal directions, something with which the children of Slavens Elementary School are no doubt very familiar.

 

When I worked for Apollo English in Ho Chi Minh City, part of my teaching duties included leaving the Apollo campus to go provide English-language instruction at some elementary schools around the city. I would have preferred to just stay on campus at all times and teach the intermediate to advanced teenagers I taught in the evenings, but it was what it was and they paid me well enough. During that time, I got a real sense of the state of education in Vietnam. I know from firsthand experience how bad education is in the United States, but that pales in comparison to Vietnam. They just seemed to have this obsession with penmanship and Hồ Chí Minh. That’s all they seemed to teach these kids. My experiences in Vietnam taught me that almost no one can read a map, which I would rank up there among the most rudimentary life skills. There were times I had to simply scrap lesson plans because I realized my students didn’t have the basic skills necessary to complete the assignment.

 

On the plus side of this whole embarrassing situation, my wife finally demonstrated an understanding of the cardinal directions that I’ve been pounding into her head these last eight years. I used to ask her all the time as I was driving which direction we were headed and, for the longest time, her accuracy was maybe 50%. Now she’s almost always correct, even when I try to trick her with a road that gently curves eastbound to northbound as Hampden Avenue does when it becomes Havana Street.

 

 

My wife will give birth at a hospital not far from Slavens Elementary School. We need to prepare my parents-in-law to make that journey, should I not be able for some reason. When I learnt to drive, my instructor put me on the highway on day two. It’s about fucking time my parents in law got some highway experience because the only sensible route is to shoot straight down US 285. I think it would be best if we taught them before the return of winter driving conditions. I need to explore the parking situation over there anyway.

Korean Cinema 101: The 20 Essential Films

2008 Rough Cut2

We’ve been down this road before. In October of last year, I posted the first ten films of this list. In March of this year, I posted the second set of ten films. I’m not reinventing the wheel, I merely wanted to merge the full twenty films into one post and delete the older posts. That said, changes have also been made. Rough Cut (2008) got knocked out and we have a new addition in the form of last year’s Little Forest; furthermore, there have been a few promotions and demotions, as well a some general editing of the original text. The challenge of such posts is to block out popular opinion to the best of my ability and put these films in a hierarchy based as much as possible on my own personal tastes and the types of films I happen to enjoy most minus the corruption of outside influences.

 

For those who care, East Asian cinema has been my most enduring hobby. I began to develop a taste for it two decades ago, but, between Japanese cinema, Chinese cinema (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), and South Korean cinema, South Korean cinema is actually the newest to me in that I’ve only been following it for just under thirteen years. Unlike so many before and after me, my introduction was not Oldboy or some hyperviolent thriller, it was 200 Pounds Beauty (2006), which, while it’s not on this list, is still a great Korean film with its own merits.

 

I may have been later to the party with Korean cinema, but it ultimately became my specialty. Today, I remain firmly convinced that South Korea is making the best films in the world. The tragedy is that I live in a place where but a fraction of a percentage of people have seen even one film on this list. I want to share these incredible cinematic experiences with the world. I hope you’ll find something here that catches your eye and that you’ll take that giant leap of faith to actually watch it, broaden your horizons, and come to realize that there’s more to movies than superheroes.

 

Without further ado, let’s dive right in to the twenty most essential South Korean films…

 

 

20. Masquerade (2012)

Masquerade

Director: Choo Chang-min | Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Ryu Seung-ryong, Han Hyo-joo | Runtime: 131 minutes

Though it places his own life in danger, a lowly peasant (Lee Byung-Hun) masquerades as a poisoned king to save his country from descending into chaos.

 

At its core, Masquerade is a Prince and the Pauper story set in 17th-century Korea. One might even accuse it of being an attempt at remaking Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 masterpiece Kagemusha. I cannot comment as to how much—if any—influence Kagemusha may have had on Masquerade, given that Mark Twain’s novel preceded both films by a century or more, but what I can say is that, if director Choo Chang-min had any aspirations at adapting Kagemusha to a Korean setting, he did a shockingly competent job with Masquerade.

 

Believe it or not, the other films Masquerade reminds me of are 2013’s The Attorney and 2017’s A Taxi Driver because Ha-sun’s character arc and his political awakening is a lot like that of Song Kang-ho’s characters in both of those films. That’s the kind of thing I enjoy most in films: observing characters undergoing profound transformations as Lee Byung-hun’s character (i.e., one his his characters, as he plays the roles of both Ha-sun and King Gwanghae) does in Masquerade. My central criticism of the film, however, is that its occasional attempts at comic relief miss their mark and weren’t really appropriate in this film to begin with. The bits of comic relief do a lot of damage, though not enough to completely derail the film.

 

19. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)

2003 Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Director: Kim Ki-duk | Starring: Oh Yeong-su, Kim Young-min, Seo Jae-kyung, Kim Jong-ho, Ha Yeo-jin | Runtime: 103 minutes

A boy is raised by a Buddhist monk (Oh Yeong-su) on an isolated floating temple where the years pass like the seasons.

 

Ki-duk is known for films that dip into controversial topics (2001’s Bad Guy is every feminist’s worst nightmare and I promise your “woke” girlfriend will leave you if you ever make her watch it), but his best films are his least controversial. One such film and likely his most critically acclaimed is 2003’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring. None of that is to say Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring will not challenge you as Kim Ki-duk films are prone to do, but, if I had to choose a single word to encapsulate the experience that is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, it would be pensive. That said, Kim Ki-duk is a devout Buddhist and there are things in this film that will go over your head if you, like me, don’t know much about Buddhism; yet, I don’t think that detracts from the serene beauty of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.

 

18. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)

2008 The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Director: Kim Jee-woon | Starring: Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung | Runtime: 130 minutes

Two outlaws (Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun) and a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung) in 1940s Manchuria vie for possession of a treasure map while being pursued by the Japanese army and Chinese bandits.

 

A good antidote to Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (see above) can be found in The Good, the Bad, the Weird if you just want to sit down, chill out, and watch a fun flick that won’t make you think too much. Often described as a “kimchi Western,” The Good the Bad, the Weird is exactly what that sounds like and it rocks. There’s plenty of silliness to go around and the action never stops. It’s a hell of a ride. I just wish the ending didn’t drag on quite as long as it does. I feel that the editors should have done a better job at trimming the fat and that would have made The Good, the Bad, the Weird so much more impactful.

 

17. 3-Iron (2004)

3-Iron

Director: Kim Ki-duk | Starring: Jae Hee, Lee Seung-yeon | Runtime: 88 minutes

A battered housewife (Lee Seung-yeon) finds her soulmate in a mysterious young drifter (Jae Hee) who appears to be homeless by inclination as much as by necessity.

 

While idiosyncratic director Kim Ki-duk, whose work is often better received in the European arthouse scene than in his native Korea, is one of my favorite filmmakers and he makes great films, those films rarely rise to the masterpiece level. An exception would be the superb Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, but the Kim Ki-duk film that speaks to me the most is definitely 3-Iron. Like any Kim Ki-duk film, it demands some suspension of disbelief from the viewer and, for that, 3-Iron rewards you immensely.

 

3-Iron provides just one of countless examples of unconventional romances in South Korean cinema. In the case of 3-Iron, the young drifter played by Jae Hee and the older housewife played by Lee Seung-yeon never utter a word to each other; in fact, Jae Hee’s character never speaks a word to anyone throughout the film. Like so many Kim Ki-duk films, it relies on the strength of its performances and cinematography rather than bloated dialogue.

 

16. The Front Line (2011)

Front Line, The

Director: Jang Hoon | Starring: Shin Ha-kyun, Go Soo | Runtime: 133 minutes

When a South Korean commander is killed by a friendly bullet during a ceasefire, First Lieutenant Kang Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-kyun) is dispatched to a remote hill region on the eastern front line to investigate. There, a twenty-year-old and his small company seem to be fighting a different war.

 

2004’s Taegukgi is widely considered South Korea’s finest war film, but I find it derivative and sappy to the extreme. I think I’d be hunted down and dismembered by certain communities for speaking one ill word against it. Here’s what I’m going to do though: I’m going to provide you with an alternative and a war film that is far superior in every way, shape, and form to Taegukgi. That film is The Front Line, director Jang Hoon’s best film and South Korea’s actual finest war film. The Front Line makes for an outstanding companion piece to watch alongside 2000’s Joint Security Area, as the films share some thematic similarities.

 

I’m not usually a fan of modern war films because they’re often dripping with nationalist sentiment. The Front Line is a rare exception.

 

15. The Quiet Family (1998)

1998 The Quiet Family

Director: Kim Jee-woon | Starring: Park In-hwan, Na Moon-hee, Choi Min-sik, Song Kang-ho, Go Ho-kyung, Lee Yoon-seong | Runtime: 99 minutes

A family decides to buy a lodge in a remote hiking area. Their first customer commits suicide and the distraught family buries the body to avoid the bad publicity, but their luck gets worse, the bodies start piling up, and the family becomes frantic to rectify the situation.

 

The Quiet Family is an important film. Not only is is the directorial debut of Kim Jee-woon (A Bittersweet Life; The Good, the Bad, the Weird; I Saw the Devil), one of South Korea’s most celebrated filmmakers, it also stars both a pre-fame Choi Min-sik (ShiriHappy EndFailanPainted FireOldboyI Saw the Devil, New World) and a pre-fame Song Kang-ho (Shiri; Joint Security Area; The Good, the Bad, the Weird; Thirst). There’s more to The Quiet Family than its historical value, however. As it happens, it is one of the finest directorial debuts and, to this day, still ranks among Kim Jee-woon’s greatest films.

 

At its core, The Quiet Family is a short and sweet black comedy. In 2001, it was remade by Japanese director Takashi Miike as The Happiness of the Katakuris, which I have refused to watch because I cannot stand Takashi Miike or anything he touches. See the original. It doesn’t strive to make any profound statement, it’s just pure, unadulterated fun. For me, South Korea’s cinematic golden age began with The Quiet Family in 1998.

 

14. Little Forest (2018)

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Director: Yim Soon-rye | Starring: Kim Tae-ri, Ryu Jun-yeol, Moon So-ri, Jin Ki-joo | Runtime: 104 minutes

A young woman (Kim Tae-ri) grows tired of life in the city and returns to her hometown in the countryside.

 

Like so many remakes of movies based on manga, Little Forest is supposedly based on the original manga itself rather than the excellent Japanese Little Forest films, but we all know the truth. Let that not detract from what a beautiful film Little Forest is. At the same time, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons. The original Japanese version came in four parts spread out across a pair of two-hour films. This Korean interpretation is much more concise at 104 minutes in total, with slightly less focus on cooking and more focus on interpersonal relationships. Both the Japanese and Korean versions are essential viewing, but I’ve actually come to prefer the Korean Little Forest over the marathon Japanese version.

 

Lead actress Kim Tae-ri achieved fame with her performance in 2016’s smash hit The Handmaiden, but it was her performance here that sold me on her as an actress. Little Forest is such a breath of fresh air from all the madness and violence of South Korean thrillers. If I had to pick just one word to describe Little Forest, I’d have to go with tranquil. It’s just such a visual feast and I relate so strongly to the yearning for a simpler life that this film captures so perfectly.

 

13. Hope (2013)

Hope

Director: Lee Joon-ik | Starring: Sol Kyung-gu, Uhm Ji-won, Lee Re | Runtime: 122 minutes

Eight-year-old Im So-won (Lee Re) is abducted on her way to school and savagely raped at a construction site. Left with debilitating injuries and psychological trauma, So-won and her family attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives in the aftermath of the tragedy.

 

I took a stab at reviewing Hope (aka Wish) awhile back on this very blog and I think I failed miserably at doing this film the justice it deserves. There have been several films from South Korea that deal with some really gnarly stuff like the violent rape of children or the Miryang gang rape. In 2011, there was Silenced (aka The Crucible) and, in 2013, we got both Han Gong-ju and Hope. None of them are easy to watch, but, of the three of them, Hope was the only one I found to be a genuinely excellent film. Let me go one step further and say that Hope is easily one of the very greatest Korean films. It just demands a certain state of mind from its viewers because it is emotionally devastating in a way I cannot possibly overstate. It will rip the beating heart out of your chest and wring it like a wet dishrag.

 

What ultimately makes Hope so powerful is the ability of its actors to deliver what I would argue are some of the finest performances ever captured on film. Sol Kyung-gu, for his role in the film as So-won’s father, stayed in character for two months for the filming of Hope. Han Young-weok’s relatively minor role as Kim Do-yeob, a concerned classmate, had me in tears. Then there’s Lee Re, the star of the film in the role of Im So-won. The mere memory of her performance is causing my eyes to grow damp as I write this. Child actors and actresses in South Korea far outclass the most veteran acting talent in Hollywood and I fucking dare you to challenge me on that because I will make you watch Hope and, through your tears, you will be apologizing for ever doubting me.

 

Hope might even rank higher here were it not so difficult to watch. Definitely not a film I like to revisit too often. Also the only film on this list that I do not own in any physical format, as it has not up to now been released on physical media, though it was briefly on Netflix.

 

12. The Yellow Sea (2010)

Yellow Sea, The

Director: Na Hong-jin | Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Kim Yoon-seok | Runtime: 141 minutes

A desperate cab driver (Ha Jung-woo) from Yanji stumbles into a treacherous conspiracy after agreeing to perform an assassination in South Korea to pay off his gambling debts.

 

In 2010, promising new filmmaker Na Hong-jin delivered his highly anticipated second film following his explosive 2008 directorial debut with The Chaser. Since then, films like The Yellow Sea and 2016’s The Wailing have established a reputation for Na Hong-jin as one of South Korea’s premier filmmakers alongside such giants as Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and Bong Joon-ho (I’m personally not a fan of Bong Joon-ho at all), all of whom have been at this a lot longer than Na Hong-jin. I’ll be honest with you and tell you a little secret that would get my lynched in some circles: I hated The Wailing. For me, The Chaser and The Yellow Sea are where it’s at.

 

Now, The Yellow Sea, while an incredible thriller, never quite measured up to The Chaser in my mind, but that’s not to say it didn’t try. Na Hong-jin has a habit of trying to outdo himself. As such, The Yellow Sea is a wild and violent ride that sometimes doesn’t slow down enough to make sure the plot entirely makes sense to its viewers. To this day, there are things that leave me plain confused, but it sure as hell is fun to watch.

 

11. A Bittersweet Life (2005)

2005 A Bittersweet Life

Director: Kim Jee-woon | Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Kim Yeong-cheol, Shin Min-ah, Hwang Jung-min, Kim Roi-ha, Lee Ki-young | Runtime: 120 minutes

Things go wrong for a high-ranking mobster (Lee Byung-hun) when he doesn’t proceed by his boss’s orders.

 

Some of the greatest Korean masterpieces are films that required a second and sometimes even third viewing before I saw the light, but I can always recognize a film like that because, even if I don’t enjoy it as much during the initial viewing, I can never get it off my mind. A Bittersweet Life was, for me, one such film. One of A Bittersweet Life‘s strengths and what makes it one of the best mobster films ever made is its simplicity. At its core, it’s a simple story of betrayal and vengeance.

 

A Bittersweet Life also boasts one of the most bone-crunching fight scenes ever caught on film. There’s something about that poor man’s face being dragged across the cinder block wall that really speaks to me. It’s just one of countless unforgettable scenes. A Bittersweet Life is director Kim Jee-woon’s second greatest film and one of the most recognizable classics in modern South Korean cinema.

 

10. Joint Security Area (2000)

2000 Joint Security Area

Director: Park Chan-wook | Starring: Lee Young-ae, Lee Byung-hun, Song Kang-ho, Kang Tae-woo, Shin Ha-kyun | Runtime: 110 minutes

When a fatal shooting incident occurs in the DMZ separating North and South Korea, Swiss Army Major Sophie E. Jean (Lee Young-ae) is sent to investigate on behalf of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission.

 

Joint Security Area was director Park Chan-wook’s breakthrough film. Though not the director’s most famous work (see Oldboy), Joint Security Area is the film that nonetheless put Park Chan-wook on the map. As it happens, Joint Security Area makes masterful use of the Rashomon effect to deliver the story through the contradictory accounts of its characters on either side of the Korean DMZ, though, unlike Rashomon, it leaves a little less up for interpretation, which isn’t a critique, just an observation.

 

A huge genre in South Korean cinema is the spy thriller. These often involve North Korean agents infiltrating the South with some ill intention. Some of them, such as 1999’s Shiri, which also stars Song Kang-ho, can be quite entertaining, but the ones that I enjoy the most are films like Joint Security Area and 2011’s The Front Line that question the insanity of governments pitting people of the same flesh and blood against each other over bullshit political ideologies and a lust for power.

 

09. Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (2016)

2016 Vanishing TIme

Director: Um Tae-hwa | Starring: Shin Eun-soo, Gang Dong-won | Runtime: 129 minutes

Days after her friends disappear during an excursion to a mysterious cave in the mountains, a girl (Shin Eun-soo) is approached by a grown man (Gang Dong-won) claiming to be Sung-min, one of the missing boys.

 

Just as I was beginning to lose faith in South Korean cinema as its golden age appeared to have waned, Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned came out of nowhere and blew my mind wide open. The best film to come out of Korea in many years, it really gives me hope that South Korea has what it takes to pull itself out of this glacial slump and continue making the best films in the world.

 

South Korea has attempted fairy tale films in the past with, for example, 2007’s Hansel and Gretel, which, while visually impressive, was not a good film and, while original in some sense of the word, it wasn’t original in the way Vanishing Time is original; in fact, that’s the word to describe Vanishing Time: original. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and yet it manages to deliver everything I never realized I wanted in a fantasy film. Vanishing TIme comes as a much-welcomed breath of fresh air, as does its star, actress Shin Eun-soo, who delivers a remarkable debut performance in the role of Soo-rin.

 

08. New World (2013)

New World

Director: Park Hoon-jung | Starring: Lee Jung-jae, Choi Min-sik, Hwang Jung-min, Song Ji-hyo | Runtime: 135 minutes

After the head of Korea’s largest crime syndicate dies, undercover cop Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae), exhausted and conflicted by his lengthy assignment, is ordered by his potentially corrupt boss (Choi Min-sik) to help the number two man in the organization (Hwang Jung-min) become its leader.

 

Many fans of Korean cinema might object to New World being ranked higher than A Bittersweet Life. Yes, they’re both part of the crime genre, but the similarities end there and it just boils down to what kind of story appeals to you most. A Bittersweet Life is a classic Korean revenge film, whereas New World is a rags-to-riches story with a very Hong Kong vibe to it. I’m a sucker for rags-to-riches stories, so New World has a natural appeal to me.

 

New World stars my favorite Korean actor, Choi Min-sik in a supporting role, but its standout performance goes to Hwang Jung-min’s portrayal of Jung Chung. There are only a handful of performances in movies that really blow me away. Among a few others, there’s Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Kim Kkot-bi in Breathless, Daniel Wu in Shinjuku Incident (2009), Kim Ok-bin in Thirst, Xu Fan in Aftershock (2010), and there’s Hwang Jung-min in New World.

 

07. I Saw the Devil (2010)

I Saw the Devil

Director: Kim Jee-woon | Starring: Choi Min-sik, Lee Byung-hun | Runtime: 142 minutes

National Intelligence Service agent Kim Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) embarks on a quest of revenge when his fiancée (Oh San-ha) is brutally murdered by a psychopathic killer (Choi Min-sik).

 

Take one of Korean cinema’s greatest filmmakers, pair him with two of Korea’s greatest acting talents, make it the most insanely violent film possible, and you get I Saw the Devil. This is Korea’s darkest psychological thriller. The chemistry between Choi Min-sik (The Quiet FamilyShiriHappy EndFailanPainted FireOldboyNew World) and Lee Byung-hun (Joint Security AreaA Bittersweet LifeThe Good, the Bad, the WeirdMasquerade) in I Saw the Devil is what makes the movie. I’m not usually a fan of pretty boy actors, but Lee Byung-hun is a handsome man who can also act with the best of them, which is good because Choi Min-sik is literally the best of them. Like A Bittersweet Life, I found a second viewing necessary just to compute everything I had seen.

 

This is not a film for those of weak stomach. My wife has seen bits and pieces of I Saw the Devil when she happened to be in the same room as me and she thinks I am mad for watching it. It’s so much more than a mindless torture porn flick though, but you’ll have to watch it to draw your own conclusions. As a fan of director Kim Jee-woon, I consider I Saw the Devil his finest film.

 

I recommend the international cut of this one over the Korean cut. For a great companion piece, check out The Chaser.

 

06. Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy

Director: Park Chan-wook | Starring: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung | Runtime: 120 minutes

After being kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years without knowing the identity or his captor’s motives, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is finally released only to find himself trapped in a web of conspiracy and violence. His own quest for vengeance becomes tied in with romance when he falls in love with an attractive young female sushi chef (Kang Hye-jung).

 

For many, Oldboy is one of two things or both: their introduction to Korean cinema and/or their favorite Korean film. Oldboy has done more than any other film to put Korean cinema on the map for international audiences. While it wasn’t my first Korean film experience, it was one of the first. I don’t have a problem with that. Oldboy is an indisputable masterpiece and I am delighted that it gets the recognition it deserves, whereas some other films on this list linger in relative obscurity.

 

Like A Bittersweet Life and I Saw the DevilOldboy demanded a second viewing for me to fully compute everything and come to any real conclusions. There’s no mistaking what a mindfuck it is. For a long while, it was my own favorite Korean film. Without a doubt, it’s essential viewing. I just don’t think there is anything I can say about Oldboy that hasn’t been said a million times before except that my favorite scene is still the ant in the subway, brief though it may be.

 

05. The Chaser (2008)

Chaser

Director: Na Hong-jin | Starring: Kim Yoon-seok, Ha Jung-woo, Seo Young-hee | Runtime: 123 minutes

A cash-strapped pimp and former police detective (Kim Yoon-seok) draws upon the skills of his old job to track down his missing stable of prostitutes.

 

2008 was a year of outstanding directorial debuts, including Jang Hoon’s Rough Cut, Yang Ik-june’s Breathless, and, of course, Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser, which, despite some stiff competition from 2010’s masterful The Yellow Sea, remains Na Hong-jin’s greatest film to date. The Chaser is the film I so often point to when I wish to illustrate one of the key differences between Hollywood and South Korean cinema: South Korea isn’t afraid to show what’s in the box. That’s not to say that The Chaser is a better film than Se7en (1995), which happens to be one of my favorite films, it’s just to illustrate the different mentality.

 

I still enjoy The Chaser more than I Saw the Devil simply because the unrelenting violence of I Saw the Devil can sometimes be a bit over the top even for me. If you enjoy The Chaser, see The Yellow Sea makes for a great companion piece, as well as, of course, I Saw the Devil.

 

04. Breathless (2008)

Breathless

Director: Yang Ik-june | Starring: Yang Ik-june, Kim Kkot-bi | Runtime: 130 minutes

A bitter loan shark (Yang Ik-june) strikes a friendship with a troubled schoolgirl (Kim Kkot-bi) as he faces his own troubled past with his abusive father (Park Jung-sun).

 

An emotionally draining indie film, Breathless was written, directed, produced, and edited by Yang Ik-june, who also happens to play the film’s lead male role. I heard a rumor that Yang Ik-june even sold his house to fund this film. Mix equal parts Failan and 2001’s Bad Guy and Breathless is what you would get.

 

Breathless, its literal Korean title being Shitfly, strikes with the force of a ton of bricks as it explores the cycle of domestic violence through the eyes of a bitter loan shark and a troubled high school senior. I was moved to tears by its performances. I would venture to say Breathless boasts the most convincing performances of any Korean film outside of 2013’s Hope. So real are the characters that it doesn’t even feel like a film, with Kim Kkot-bi’s performance being particularly on point.

 

See Failan for an excellent companion piece.

 

03. Failan (2001)

Failan

Director: Song Hae-sung | Starring: Choi Min-sik, Cecilia Cheung | Runtime: 115 minutes

After losing her parents, Failan (Cecilia Cheung) immigrates to South Korea from China to seek her only remaining relatives only to find that they moved to Canada over a year ago. Desperate to stay and make a living in Korea, Failan is forced to seek a marriage through a matchmaking agency to a petty thug named Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik).

 

No other film has the power to make me reflect so mercilessly on my own shortcomings as a husband and as a human being. Failan is the saddest of all Korean films. There’s this pervading sense of loss and regret that will make your heart ache. Is it a gangster film? Not exactly. Is it a romance film? Not exactly. Failan exists in a category of its own making. If you’ve only seen Choi Min-sik in films like Oldboy and I Saw the Devil, you owe it to yourself to see Failan.

 

Failan will tear at your heartstrings. The scene at the pier makes me bawl like a baby every time. I suggest keeping a box of tissues handy if, that is, you’re able to find a copy of this wonderful film. I have to warn you though: I have yet to see a decent set of English-language subtitles for Failan. Reading through the atrocious subtitles that are available can detract from the film itself, but, for those of us who don’t speak Korean, there’s no way around it.

 

02. Thirst (2009)

Thirst

Director: Park Chan-wook | Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-bin, Kim Hae-sook, Shin Ha-kyun, Park In-hwan, Song Young-chang, Oh Dal-su | Runtime: 148 minutes

Through a failed medical experiment, a priest (Song Kang-ho) is stricken with vampirism and is forced to abandon his ascetic ways.

 

For me, the greatest Park Chan-wook film is not Oldboy, it’s Thirst, which came as a surprise even to me because I did not expect the greatest vampire film ever made to come out of South Korea or, for that matter, any Asian country, but here we are. It wouldn’t be a Korean film, however, if they didn’t add their own unique twist to the genre; ultimately, Thirst is less a horror film than it is a black comedy with a side order of fucked-up romance loosely based on the Émile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin. An antidote to all the watered-down vampire cinema we’ve had over the years, Luke Y. Thompson of E! Online described Thirst as “a vampire love story that’ll make Twilight fans wet their pants in terror before traumatizing them for life.”

 

I recommend the director’s cut if you can find it (it was only ever released on the first press limited edition Blu-ray, which I happen to own), but the theatrical cut is serviceable as well.

 

01. Castaway on the Moon (2009)

Castaway on the Moon

Director: Lee Hae-jun | Starring: Jung Jae-young, Jung Ryeo-won | Runtime: 116 minutes

A failed suicide attempt leads a heartbroken man (Jung Jae-young) to live a life in the wilderness.

 

Castaway on the Moon is a deeply profound film that explores social isolation in a way I had never seen before and, as someone who suffers from some crippling social issues, it spoke to me in a way no film had ever spoken to me before or since. After I saw Castaway on the Moon the first time, I watched so many times that I lost count. It never gets old. There are moments of heartbreak, moments of side-splitting laughter, and moments of triumph. It’s a real emotional roller coaster and a masterful melding of genres.

 

Every time I watched Castaway on the Moon, it shot further and further up my list until it topped the list of my all-time favorite Korean films and ranked among my top five favorite films of all time. For me, even among my top five, Castaway on the Moon is still the film closest to my heart in the way it speaks to my own personal life experiences and the issues I have wrestled with since time immemorial. Castaway on the Moon is truly the essential Korean film.

I remember when I was a kid preparing to go to Europe for the first time and my eldest brother, who had recently been, warned us to steer clear of the “watery” pizza. Well, with my mother and grandmother refusing to let me eat beef with mad cow disease going around at the time, I ended up getting a pizza anyway and it wasn’t all that deep into the trip. It was in Venice, actually, and my first European pizza is still the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life, though, oddly enough, I had one on Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands in 2010 that got pretty damn close.

 

Italy ruined pizza for me for the rest of my life, not to mention ice-cream and a great many other things. That, however, is not to say I never eat shitty American pizza. I like to order it because it usually leaves me with leftovers. I can make three meals out of a big enough pizza, which is one thing you cannot say about an Italian pizza due to how thin they are and how poorly they reheat in a microwave oven. Get an Italian pizza if you want good pizza. Get an American pizza if you just want a lot of food or some imitation thereof.

 

The secret to ordering pizza in the United States from one of the shitty pizza chains Americans like so much is to order it with light sauce; furthermore, while I’m more of a pizza Margherita guy abroad, a real pizza purist, the quality of American “mozzarella” is so bad as to make you question whether or not it’s even real cheese, so be sure to mask it with toppings. I cannot stress the light sauce bit enough. For some reason, Americans like to drown their pizzas in sauce and the sauce isn’t even good. They don’t seem to understand the importance of adding sugar to the sauce or using fresh tomatoes or of basil or olive oil or a wood-fired oven. They just don’t get it and the saddest thing is that so many of them live—if you can call that living—and die without ever having eaten a real pizza.

 

I ordered a pizza yesterday afternoon because I knew I’d appreciate the leftovers come midnight, as I had plans to watch GSL vs. the World. When I heard the knock at the door, I had to race against the sound of my mother-in-law’s footsteps pounding against the hardwood floor. My parents-in-law have this incomprehensible habit of rushing to answer the front door whenever there’s a knock or the doorbell rings and it drives me mad. The reason is doesn’t make any sense is because they cannot so much as count to ten in English. Now, tell me, what are the chances in my neighborhood that whoever the fuck is on my doorstep speaks Vietnamese? The answer is zero.

 

Why someone with no capacity to communicate is so eager to run to the door boggles the mind. My Vietnamese was pretty damn good when I lived in Vietnam and you still wouldn’t see me racing to greet someone at the gate unless literally no one else was around. In Vietnam though, there are hawkers who go through the narrow alleyways with wares on their bicycles but they don’t generally approach the gate. This is the United States. The overwhelming majority of people who come to my door at this time of year are trying to sell magazine subscriptions or roofing services. After two years in this country, they still just cannot wrap their heads around the idea that I do not want to talk to salespeople or that it’s an option to simply not answer the door. They run to the door, make themselves visible, and call me away from whatever I am doing to go talk with these people, leaving me no choice in the matter.

 

The Vietnamese, as obsessed with money as they are, don’t seem to quite grasp to concept of capitalism run amok. Both my wife and her parents were so confused by the mail situation in this country. Her parents still are. They all seemed under the impression that every piece of junk mail is some incredibly important document, no matter how painfully obvious to my American eyes it is that it’s an advertisement for insurance. They don’t have junk mail in Vietnam. They don’t even have mailboxes in Vietnam. Any mail they receive is delivered by hand and it’s usually something of import. In the United States, on the other hand, I am the lucky one who gets to sort through everyone’s mail and determine what is and is not junk. What isn’t junk I get to read because I’m the only person who can fucking understand any of it.

 

My wife speaks some English, but Americans are really bad at selecting their vocabulary when speaking to anyone whose first language is clearly not English. Whereas my listening skills far exceed my speaking skills in Vietnamese, my wife’s speaking skills actually exceed her listening skills. Every phone call for anything related to my parents-in-law’s healthcare, insurance, or legal issues gets sent to me and what you have to understand about that is that talking on the telephone is probably the thing I dread most in the whole world. The other thing you have to understand is that it’s often the case that the person on the other end won’t talk to me because I am not my parents-in-law, but my parents-in-law wouldn’t understand a word they’re saying.

 

It gets frustrating being the only person in the house who can speak and understand English worth a damn, especially when my wife has had eight years to improve her English. She is barely better than I was after living in Vietnam for two years and there remain some areas where my Vietnamese still surpasses her English. Just try to make some excuse for that.

 

I often tell my wife I don’t need a job because her parents are already a full time job for me.