Top Ten Korean Films I've Seen

Dec 21, 2000

I know this title is generating some “I haven’t even seen ONE Korean film” comments. Well, another one of the blessings of living in the San Francisco Bay Area are the movies that are shown at independent arthouses and film festivals. Each year, I’ve had the privilege to see 5-7 Korean films, bringing my total to around 25. Like every country, Korea has it’s krap. (Whatever you do, don’t see Pyon Ji, The Letter. It’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, regardless of country of origin.) But 75% of what I’ve seen has impressed me enough that I will always go see whatever Korean film is brought to town.

This Top Ten is derived from those movies I’ve seen translated at film festivals or The Four Star Theater on 23rd/Clement. For each one, I’ve also gone to my local Korean video store, Chung Um Bee Dee Oh (Chung Um Video) at 4050 Geary in between 4th and 5th Street owned by a Mrs. Kim, to rent and re-watch the movies before writing their respective review. This results in my watching the films for this Epinion un-translated. To the credit of the directors, actors/actresses, and all those involved in these films, I still found myself engrossed in the stories despite my ignorance of the Korean language. For those of you who don’t know Korean and don’t have the privilege I do to see these translated and would like to stretch yourself and check them out un-translated at your local Korean video store, I’ve included romanizations of the Korean titles and Korean actors’ and actresses‘ names, most of which are courtesy of

If you’re wondering why I haven’t been posting on Epinions as often lately, this Epinion is why. This has taken a while to compile.

So here it is, perhaps the first Korean Film Top Ten you’ve seen, at least in English.


#10) Nowhere To Hide [Injang Sajong Polkot Opta];

Directed by LEE Myung-Se

If there’s any Korean film where not knowing Korean doesn’t matter, it’s this one. Rent it for the first ten minutes alone and it will be well worth the $1.50/$2.00 you’ll be paying for it from a Korean video store. The fact that it’s a cops-and-robbers joint will allow you to fill in where you don’t understand. I believe, as evidenced by the Western reception of John Woo’s and Beat Takeshi’s films, that this one has the best chance of opening the West’s eyes to what we have to learn about film from Korea. [And it appears Landmark Theatres agrees because they bought the rights to release this film in the States. For those of you in San Francisco, it will be showing at the Lumiere Theatre on California/Polk beginning December 30th.]

The first ten minutes introduce us to the three main characters, consisting of two cops, PARK Joong-Hoon and JANG Dong-Kun, and one robber, AHN Sung-Kee, who, in my opinion, is Korea’s greatest actor. In ten short minutes, these characters are well developed through a visual melange of black/white, comic-booky, still flashes; slow-mo to chopped up editing; and the slow glorious colors of Autumn. The rest of the film can’t possibly live up to what’s displayed in the first ten minutes, but this film will definitely keep your interest. The elusive Ahn is sought after by Park and Jang through back alleys and various miscreants, ending in a wonderful showdown of fists over guns in a furious downpour. You will see this imitated.

#9 Choruk Mulgogi (Green Fish); 1997
Directed by LEE Chang-Dong

The Gangster Genre is as popular in Korea as it is in many other countries. And it’s as cliched in Korea as in other countries. However, again, like other countries, a standout often emerges that shows that every genre is capable of original, powerful story-telling. Green Fish introduces us to a young man, played by MOON Sung-Keun, as he re-introduces himself to his family and neighborhood following his time in the military, Korea being one of the world’s nations that requires all men of a certain age to serve. We intermittently see Moon get his a$$ kicked by random thugs. Eventually, he’s taken in by a particular group of thugs, becoming the sub-gang leader’s class pet. We see Moon slowly grow into his own, finding a sense of purpose in this underworld. However, his loyalty to the group leads him down a road better left not taken, and this is wonderfully played out at the end of the film.

From Falwell to Lieberman, movies are often cited for not presenting the consequences of one’s violent actions. Green Fish challenges that cliched criticism. Unlike Nowhere To Hide where the fight scenes are escalated to balletic proportions, Green Fish shows the trauma of such altercations, specifically the near final scene.

The director LEE Chang-Dong had said in a talk following a film festival showing that part of what he was addressing was the Seoul-ing of Korea, the rush to modernization and who was left behind. The end of the film provides a meditative juxtaposition of those two worlds that shakily exist in all “modern” countries. Lee has pushed the Gangster genre to grow up in Korea.

#8 JEON Tae-Il (Although the Korean title of the film is a
proper name, both times I’ve seen it shown in the U.S., the
chosen English title has been A Single Spark. But Mrs.
Kim did not know it by that name, but by JEON Tae-Il);

Directed by PARK Kwang-Su

The history and impact of labor unions in Korea is as fascinating as that anywhere else. PARK Kwang-Su directs this real-life tale of JEON Tae-Il, a labor activist who through his self education, researches government labor law, organizes textile workers, and befriends reporters who expose the atrocities. His final protest provides the more startling images within this film. Along with Jeon, played in the film by HONG Kyoung-In, we follow the author of a book about Jeon. Played by MOON Sung-Keun, the author has to avoid the intimidation and possible imprisonment by President PARK Chung-Hee’s regime for merely thinking of writing this book. This provides for some secret-agent-man-type tactics, the most touching of which involves a secret rendezvous between the author and his pregnant lover, each sitting on opposite tracks so he can catch a brief loving glance, towards and back, before he jumps on the oncoming train to avoid detection by the police.

The film goes from color, when with the author, to black and white, when with Jeon. This enhances the parallels in their lives, particularly with the concerns about harassment from authorities. Park, one of Korea’s most respected directors, the first to show that a film with underlying politics could be entertaining and successful in Korea, shows us through the coupling of the author and the activist, that things haven’t changed. That is, we always have need for change.

#7 Song-O (Rainbow Trout); 1999
Directed by PARK Chong-Won

The City/Country dichotomy has been a popular motif for many a film. Korea’s quite dazzling rush to Modernization provides an interesting exploration of this topic. This film begins at a toll booth out of Seoul where a group of friends, whose friendships are a result of college connections, travel out to the country to meet up with another college friend who chose vocation at a trout farm rather than the bustling city of Seoul. The fish out of water experience of the cityfolk in the country becomes quickly apparent. The stereotypes they hold regarding countryfolk are well portrayed as transference of their own internal demons. The use of the behavior of river trout when frightened as metaphor gives this movie a depth that only subtle allusion can provide. The point isn’t thrown in your face unlike so many movies that dumbdown and cut up the meat of a movie for the audience. We watch people struggle with that which they don’t like about themselves and see them make choices that bring us to cringe knowing fully what’s really going on. There is no acting standout here, everyone contributes equally in a challenging discussion about the effects of the either/or-ness Modernism encourages.

#6 Neo-e-ge Narul Bonenda (To You I’m Sending Myself;
I’ve also seen it translated as To You From Me); 1994
Woomuk-Baemi Ui Sarang (Lovers in Woomuk-Baemi);

Directed by JANG Sun-Woo

A Korean Film Top Ten would not be complete without including one by Korea’s Bad Boy, JANG Sun-Woo. But is that only because he’s “controversial,” willing to tackle political and sexual taboos that other directors are not? I mean, after a stint in prison on politically trumped up charges, the guy’s first film was entitled Seoul Jesus. He went on to create a film about one of the most taboo topics in Korea, the Kwangju Massacre, (entitled A Petal). He gives the Korean censor boards a headache with each new release. When I asked for Jang’s KIDS-like film, Nappun Yeonghwa (Bad Movie) at a different Korean video store than the one I frequent now, I was loudly told “No!” and was given an indignant facial expression in response to my request as if I had just asked the owner if I could have sex with their daughter. So am I giving Jang more credit than he’s due simply because he’s willing to address such topics as domestic violence in Korea or willing to show a couple engaged in cunnilingu$? Maybe, I’m not sure. I know that other critics have commented on his importance. He was asked by the British Film Institute to oversee Korea’s segment for their Century of Cinema series. So I’m not parting ways here from the film world by including him. But what film to include?

Unable to decide, I chose two. Neo-e-ge Narul Bonenda is a story about a fictitious writer, (played by MOON Sung-Keun), who after receiving fame through his first book, now struggles with writer’s block. A young woman, (played by CHUNG Kyung-Soon), enters his life and tries to help him out of his creative stalemate but eventually realizes he doesn’t want to be helped. He distracts himself from his blocks and depression by having a lot of sex with her. Initially encouraging of this hyper-sexuality, later merely obliging, she eventually cuts herself off from him sexually.

I have not seen this film for over 4 years and the dialogue is of utmost importance, so watching it un-translated much of the underlying tensions were missed. Interestingly, however, the copy I rented from Chung Um Video was censored. (Mrs. Kim says she didn’t censor it but that the copy came that way.) Whereas rape scenes were left in tact, a scene involving consensual sex was not. I would argue censoring this particular act disrupts the film’s narrative because the act was meant to accentuate Moon’s character’s willingness to humiliate himself. It brings up the question of why violence is more acceptable than sex, which I think is part of Jang’s point.

Often more fascinating than this couple’s dysfunctionality is YEO Kyung-Dong’s character who is obsessed with the movie Bonnie and Clyde, longs to get high off banana skins, and struggles with impotence. Jang has thrown a lot at us in this film.

In many ways, this film was simply an exhibition match for Jang. Neo-e-ge Narul Bonenda was simply practice for Gojitmal (Lies), which I have yet to see but am told is as graphic in its discussion and display of sexuality as In The Realm Of The Senses by Japan’s Bad Boy, OSHIMA Nagisa. (For those of you in San Francisco, Lies will be showing at the Lumiere the week of January 6th. I beg you, if graphic displays of sexuality and explorations of boundaries around sexuality, that is, good touches and bad touches, disturb you, do yourself and favor and forgo viewing this flick. But if you want to be exposed to one of the most experimental filmmakers in the world today, I would recommend giving it a go.)

A less graphic film that displays Jang’s importance is Woomuk-Baemi Ui Sarang (Lovers in Woomuk-Baemi). Here we have a couple, Bae and his “wife“, played by PARK Joong-Hoon and YU Hae-Ri, who met in a brothel, never officially married, but choose to have a son and cohabitate. Bae’s “wife” spews a great deal of emotional abuse upon Bae and he is often seen accepting the abuse with shoulders slumped. Bae meets a woman involved in a physically abusive relationship, Min, played by CHOI Myung-Gil. They proceed to begin an affair, complicated by the tight social nexus of the community within which they live. Each character is tremendously well acted, displaying the sexual, emotional, and cultural tensions involved. The scene where Bae’s “wife” drags Bae by the testicles back to his parent’s home so everyone can slap him and every neighbor can witness his humiliation is comical and disconcerting all at once, like real life. And it is Jang’s willingness to tackle real-life issues that so many have avoided that allows greater freedom for the future wave of Korean filmmakers.

#5 Christmas in August (Palwol ui Ku-Ri-Su-Mas);

Directed by HUR Jin-Ho

This is the only film on the list that I saw first un-translated then later saw translated. I was as moved by this film then as I am now, crying at the same parts during each viewing. HUR Jin-Ho has created for us an absolutely precious love story with wonderfully subtle acting by HAHN Suk-Kyu, (my vote for second best actor from Korea), and SHIM Eun-Ha. Hahn is a man on the edge of his thirties who we are indirectly informed has been diagnosed with a nameless, but fatal, disease. Soon after this diagnosis, he meets Shim. A paced, playful romance transpires and the indirect communication between them is beautifully orchestrated. I found my Western mind urging them to ‘Just Kiss Each Other!’ But these two choose a different way to express their feelings for one another. Hur provides a present day context for the age old mystery of how to tell the object of your affections why you’re interested yet hesitant at the same time.

Hahn’s character’s role as owner of a Photo Shop adds to the tale as he photographs others at significant points in their lives and reflects on his past and his limited future. The scenes with his family and his friends are just as poignant as those with Shim. For those of you familiar with the manic melodrama of Korean soap operas, this film shows Hur has a gift for toning done the histrionics to get at the root of a touching story of two people stumbling towards a time-limited romance.

#4 Areumdawoon Sheejul (Spring In My Hometown);

Directed by LEE Kwangmo

Understandably, many of Korea’s films deal with the topic of the Korean War. Without the money available for special effects, some films choose to focus on different aspects of war. This one chooses to show how the war has affected the citizens of a small village. We follow the escapades of two boys (LEE In, KIM Jung-Woo) and their friends whose favorite activity appears to be scavenging for precious artifacts American soldiers have left in their village after the soldiers have engaged in their “activities.” These “activities”, more specifically, involve soldiers coming to this little town to have sex with Korean women pimped by a local Korean man which provides the pivotal moment of this film.

What we’re shown are the psychological effects of war outside of the carnage. The two boys, one (Lee) from a family capitalizing on wartime economics, (his mother does the laundry for the soldiers, his sister entertains at a USO-like institution where the sex comes much later, and his father (my man, AHN Sung-Kee) works in the black market), and the other boy (Kim) is cared for by only his mother, who has had a difficult time finding her inroad to the economic spoils of war. We watch these boys deal with the joys and disappointments of youth within a context of war, never really understanding what‘s going on around them other than that they and their family and friends are hurting.

#3 Sibaji (The Surrogate Mother); 1986
Directed by The Great IM Kwon-Taek

After seeing Sibaji with me, one of my Korean-American friends voiced her gut-reaction when leaving the theater. “I am so proud of Korea,” she said. Much is said in Asian cultures about how one must be cautious of their actions, for they reflect more on ones family than ones self. If such is so, Koreans do have a lot to be proud of in IM Kwon-Taek. And Sibaji is one of many reasons why.

The film is a period piece, taking place during the Yi Dynasty. Aristocrats Shin (LEE Goo-Soon) and his wife Yoon (HAN Eun-Jin) are unable to conceive any child, let alone the obligatory male heir. So they seek a Sibaji, that is, a Surrogate Mother, to bare them a male. The overseer of the choosing of the sibaji selects a young spirited daughter, Ok-Nyo, played by KANG Soo-Yeon, of an older sibaji rather than sibajis that have “proven” their ability to conceive male heirs. As are all things that are forced into being, it isn’t that simple.

Ok-Nyo and Shin in their daily attempts at conception grow to care about each other and both regret the decision made. Rituals abound in this film and are displayed in all their horror. Having the benefits of modern science and knowing a male child is determined by the man’s sperm rather than the woman’s egg make scenes depicting torturous rituals to coax conception of a male heir out of the woman all the more difficult to watch. Kang’s ability to convey her emotions with each breath carries the film to its climax. The year this film was featured at the Venice Film Festival, Kang won the Best Actress award and it is easy to see why. Every glance, every word, every movement are those of a great actress. This is, amongst many other issues, Im’s critical look at the desire for a male heir and the rationalizations that arise from such a distorted quest. Im’s direction, Kang’s performance and a well chosen score force reflection on the modern day rituals in which we engage that may be just as misguided as those displayed in Sibaji.

#2 (The Power of Kangwon Province); 1998
Directed by HONG Sang-Soo

Sadly, Chung Um Video was unable to obtain a copy of this film soon enough for me. I visited other Korean video stores and they didn’t have it either. The owner of Hanguk Bee Dee Oh (Korean Video) on Laguna in between Post/Geary, (from whom I rented Sibaji because another customer of Mrs. Kim’s had rented her sole copy), told me the film has yet to be released on video. Eventually, Mrs. Kim was able to locate a copy for me, but she wouldn’t be able to acquire it until January 2001. Unfortunately, I couldn’t wait any longer to post this Top Ten so what I write here may tell you more about my memory than the movie. When I’m able to watch it again, I’ll edit this section.

The Power of Kangwon Province follows the anti-narrative of Indie narratives. We accompany a man and a young woman, Misun (IM Sun-Young) and Jaewon (CHUN Jae-Hyun), as they take separate respites from their lives in the hills of Kangwon Province, a popular outdoorsy destination for Koreans, similar in its draw as Yosemite is for Northern Californians. In each characters’ escape to nature, we find that they still engage in old habits and routines. Returning to Nature does not hold the mythical transcendence or rebirth for these characters that other films have cliched Nature to provide. A slow-paced film of intimacy between both characters’ groups of friends, we eventually learn why it is we followed the outdoor excursions of these two characters. We’re lead to wonder about the connection we may have with that person who just brushed up against us on the wooded path of a nature trail or cemented path on our way to/from work. What is it each of us is trying to escape from only to be forced to face up to eventually? Or could what we’re escaping from be escaping with us?

#1 Sopyonje (Well, Sopyonje); 1993
Directed by The Great IM Kwon-Taek

This is Im’s masterpiece. It broke Korea’s box office records when released. It is the most awarded Korean film ever. And it started a Pansori revival, Pansori being a Korean folk singing tradition, similar to American Blues in how it is sung and its expression of intense suffering within the lyrics. It is a form of harmony and singing that may appear dissonant to Western ears, similar to how Chinese Opera may sound. Although no film has taught me how to appreciate Chinese Opera, Sopyonje, through it’s brilliant direction, beautiful score, and superb acting, quickly and fully introduced me to the importance of this artform and its possibilities towards transcendence.

We are introduced early on to Dong-Ho (KIM Kyu-Chul), who is in search of the orphan he grew up with, Song-Hwa (OH Jung-Hae). They were both tutored by a master Pansori-teacher, Yu-Bong (KIM Myung-Gon), who encouraged them to suffer for their art. The film primarily consists of re-telling Dong-Ho and Song-Hwa’s young lives with Yu-Bong as traveling minstrels selling their art while attempting to maintain the authenticity of their art on Yu-Bong’s terms.

As is the case with every masterpiece, there are more stories than just the one concerning Pansori. It is about tradition in the face of modernization. It is about family; who they are as much as when we stay, when we leave, and when we return with/from/to family. It is about honing a skill, a craft, an art. It is about suffering, the unavoidable and the unnecessary. It is a truly touching story, beautifully acted by equally beautiful leads. The emotions conveyed by the strain and muscle control in the face of Oh as she performs her songs, especially the final scene, translates the Korean for all of us.

Sopyonje is cinema at its best.


For those of you in the Bay Area interested in checking out these films, which, if you don‘t know Korean, will mostly have to be done un-translated, I recommend Chung Um Video. Mrs Kim has always been helpful and kind when I’ve asked about certain movies. Even when my translations were not the ones she’d choose, she has been patient with me in trying to find the film I’m looking for, humoring me in my weak a$$ attempts at speaking Korean.

You’ll notice, most of the films I’ve chosen were made in the 90’s. Mrs. Kim is a big fan of the older flicks and recommends two films by YU Hyun-Mok, Obalt‘an (Stray Bullet) and Ing Yaw In Gahn (Unnecessary People) and one by SHIN Sang-Okk called Bahng Aw Ree SAHM Yong-Ee (Deaf SAHM Yong-Ee). [I could not find the latter two films on, though I could find the directors.] These films recommended by Mrs. Kim would definitely be better suited to watching with your Ah-Ma-Ni, more than say, a film by JANG Sun-Woo.

If any of the films here have peaked your interest, take a chance and walk into your local Korean Video store. More so, if your local art theater or film festival brings a Korean film to your area, make a night of it and check it out. You shouldn’t be disappointed.

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