Top 5 South Korean Movies

While most people recognize South Korea for its insanely popular television dramas, South Korean movies have been steadily improving over the past decade.  Now, the peninsula country is the home of many of Asia’s finest films, and the Korean film industry is only getting better by the minute.

There’s a particular essence to Korean films that I feel like American movies lack.  Maybe it’s because regular citizens cannot carry guns, so directors need to conjure up much more creative ways for their characters to carry out those dastardly deeds.  As a result, action scenes ends up being so much more vicious and gritty, as it’s not just a simple pulling of the trigger.  Or maybe it’s just because I’m South Korean, so I feel a certain connection to watching characters on screen that look like me.  Who knows?  But what I do know is I’ve managed to make a list of my top 5 South Korean films of all time.  And because I’m Korean, know that my list is the end-all, be-all of all opinions on Korean movies, and as a result the upcoming list is 100% accurate.

5. The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Taking direct inspiration from the classics of Sergio Leone, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is set in the barren desert of 1930’s Manchuria and is chock full of old western tropes that you’ve come to know and love.  Train robberies, Mexican standoffs, and six shooters are abound in this wildly entertaining romp.  The three titular characters are all on a quest to find a glorious hidden treasure buried in the desert, and will do anything to get their greedy hands on the illustrious prize.  But what really makes this movie memorable for me is The Weird character.  His hilarious antics will have you chuckling at his silliness, but you’ll realize there’s more than meets this eye to his character as the movie delves into his back story more deeply.  All in all, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is a great movie filled with both masterful gunplay and some hearty laughs.

I absolutely love that bomber hat.

4. Memories of Murder

Based on a true story, Memories of Murder is a police drama that revolves around a series of serial murders that occurred in a rural area of South Korea during the late 1980s.  The film focuses on two main investigators: Detective Park, who is trapped in tradition and uses outdated, ineffective methods in his police work, and Detective Seo, who is a big city detective from Seoul and is ostensibly much more efficient.  They must combine their efforts in order to find a seemingly sadistic serial killer who is targeting innocent women in an otherwise peaceful town.  Of course, there are plenty of twists and turns along the way, and the eventual climax will no doubt leave viewers with a bated breath.  This is a movie that truly is more about the journey than the destination.

Shown is Detective Park and Detective Seo. I’ll let you guess which one is which.

3. The Chaser

The Chaser is one of the most unflinchingly brutal movies I have ever seen.  The main character is an ex-cop who now makes his living as a pimp.  One night, he realizes that couple of his girls have gone missing, and decides to do a little investigating to see what happened to them.  I really don’t want to say much more about the plot, as I came into this film knowing next to nothing about it, and I believe the experience was that much better as a result.  It’s such a savage and uncompromising movie that you can’t help but keep your eyes glued to the screen, and it ends up devolving into a sick and twisted tale that really is unlike any other movie in recent memory.  If you’re game for a hard hitting, R-rated crime flick, then look no further than The Chaser.

Folks with a light stomach might want to think twice before watching this movie.

2. Taegukgi

Taegukgi is war movie centered on the Korean War between North and South Korea.  Two brothers living in South Korea are thrust into the army and forced to fight in this harsh battle, and the film does a fantastic job at portraying the horrors of war.  But the heart of this film lies in the tale of the two brothers.  They have a very close relationship, but their differing personalities create some tension and drama that make this one of the most touching and stirring war movies I’ve ever seen.  This film had special resonance with me because I too have an older brother.  Being that we’re very close, it was hard not to feel additional emotional attachment to the characters on screen, and I believe that is one of the main reasons why Taegukgi ended up being one of my favorite South Korean movies.

Even if you’re not a Korean dude with an older brother, you should still watch this movie.

1. Oldboy

There are revenge flicks, and then there’s Oldboy.  Oldboy takes the concept of revenge and flips it upside down, throws it in a blender, and kicks it around once more just for good measure.  The story is about a man named Oh Dae Su who is taken captive for apparently no reason.  He doesn’t know who his abductors are, where he is, or why this has happened to him.  He’s stuck in a small room and fed the same meal every day for 15 long, excruciating years until he’s abruptly set free.  Given only a cell phone and some cryptic hints, Oh Dae Su must find out why he’s been imprisoned, and in the process enact vengeance on those that have wronged him.

Although this may set the stage for a seemingly run-of-the-mill revenge story, Oldboy is nothing but.  The narrative slowly morphs into something totally unexpected, and the plot twist in Oldboy might be one of my favorites of all time.  The performance of Oh Dae Su by Min Sink Choi is simply excellent to boot.  He plays the role of a haggard, rugged middle aged man down to a tee, and his superb acting is one of the main reasons Oldboy works so well.   Throw in some gritty fight sequences in there, and you’ve got an oustanding thriller that is both creative and entertaining.

Anyone who is just a fan of great cinema should go watch Oldboy.

An American remake of Oldboy is set to release in October of this year.  Directed by Spike Lee, Josh Brolin will star as the protagonist, with Elizabeth Olsen and Samuel L. Jackson also set to be in the cast.  I am eagerly anticipating this movie, and can’t wait to see how Spike Lee puts his own spin on this film to present to American audiences.  I have only one bit of advice for Mr. Lee: Don’t muck it up!

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