December 31, 2010

The Best Korean Movies of 2010 (Sort of)

Most year-end "best of" lists reflect the vibe of the year. Not this one. My top ten is composed of Korean movies seen this year regardless of release date, and because of that, reflects my own current preoccupations more than the world at large. The common thread this time? Revenge. In short: If you crossed me in 2010, watch out in 2011.

1. Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard (2009): Fantasy isn't generally my cup of tea but Choi Dong-hun's sorcerer's tale about righting wrongs is a bubbly glass of champagne. The director's crime pic Tazza: The High Rollers almost made my list but ended up in the eleventh slot.

2. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000): Bong Joon-ho's portrait of a bitter, vengeful, petty academic (Lee Sung-jae) is evidence that genius is apparent at the start of some careers. (Bong's first film also memorably features Bae Du-na whom he cast later in The Host.)

3. A Frozen Flower (2008): Not for those who blush easily, Yu Ha's sexed-up melodrama finds King (Ju Jin-mo) and Queen (Song Ji-hyo) feuding over Hot Bodyguard (Jo In-seong). Many scenes with humping. Many scenes with suspense.

4. Secret Sunshine (2007): This character portrait by Lee Chang-dong isn't as good as his Oasis but what is, really? The movie concerns a woman who loses her son then spirals into an evangelical Christian support system that's a bit troubling. This time, don't praise Jesus. Praise Lee.

5. Old Partner (2008): The one documentary on this year's list tells the story of a very old farmer and his very old ox. Very moving. If you think animals are people in a way, you'll love it.

6. Antique Bakery (2008): This one looks like it's going to be a lighthearted gay romantic comedy but ends up a murder mystery in which the gay man isn't the victim or the killer. He's simply a patissier with demonic powers of attraction. Now that's novel!

7. Arahan: Urban Martial Arts Action (2004): Usually my guilty pleasures go in the number nine or ten slot but this action pic -- basically The Tao according to Marvel Comics -- is so adorkable I couldn't demote it further than seven.

8. Black House (2007): This horror flick creeped me out big time. As a female Hannibal Lecter, Yu Seon gives a performance to send shivers up your spine. As the male Jodie Foster seeking justice, actor Hwang Jeong-min is somewhat unlikable which makes the conflict even more interesting.

9. The Secret Reunion (2010): The one film actually from 2010 is also a major blockbuster and stars Song Kang-ho (who also gives a memorable performance in Secret Sunshine) and Kang Dong-won (who's even better in Jeon Woochi).

10. Green Fish (1997): Another really polished work from Lee Chang-dong (see slot 4), this directorial debut is most notable for the exceptional performances by Han Suk-kyu (as a late-blooming thug) and Shim Hye-jin (as a down-on-her-luck-forever nightclub singer).


  1. I might have to adopt your approach to a 'best of the year' as 2010 didn't appear to be a very good year for East Asian film releases in general, let alone South Korean in particular. I like the notion of "reflect[ing] my own current preoccupations more than the world at large." 2010 for me, for example, was the year I discovered Hirokazu Koreeda.

    Good writing here.

  2. sitenoise, thanks for the comments. what can you tell me about koreeda?

  3. My first was "Air Doll", regarded by many as his most 'commercial' film. It's rather melancholy and I thought if it was considered commercial for him he might be my kind of director. Turns out he is. A very 'painterly' director, great visual sense and sort of a poetic storyteller. He mostly explores loss, death, and memory.

    "Maborosi" is a slow, dark masterpiece. If you like films like that it has some of most beautiful visuals I've seen on film. "After Life", a great idea for a film he made for his father is touching, sad, and heartwarming. "Still Walking" is in the tradition of Japanese family drama. All great films.

    "Distance" and "Nobody Knows" have more external concerns and appealed to me less. Have yet to see "Hana", an Edo period piece.

    Another thing that solidified my interest in him is he made a film about a Japanese singer I like very much--Cocco. Seemed like a perfect fit. I'll probably never get the chance to see it but knowing that he made it impresses me.