Korean films have come to the attention of Western audiences over the last few years, mainly for psychological thrillers and horrors that have impressed with their originality. However, for new-comers to Korean film, finding a film that suits can be a matter of trial and error. Here are five of the best Korean films that I have seen over the last couple of years, covering a variety of genres so that most people will find one that suits. Don’t be put off by the fact that the films are subtitled – it is amazing how easy it is to follow a story even when it is being told in another language.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Two young sisters return home from a mental hospital where they spent time recovering from the shock of their mother’s death. However, it is soon apparent that there is something very wrong in the house – could it be that the sisters’ mental health is deteriorating again? Or is there a supernatural force in the house that is beyond its inhabitants control?
The two actresses that play the sisters – Im Soo-Jung and Moon Geun-young – are superb as young girls confused by the death of their mother and the appearance of a stepmother. However, it is the beauty of the cinematography and the use of colour that make this film so outstanding, particularly when combined with the horror and goriness of the story. This is a taut psychological thriller that, in my opinion, is head and shoulders above most Hollywood equivalents.
The Harmonium in My Memory
A young man fresh out of Teacher Training College is sent to the middle of the countryside to teach a group of teenagers just approaching puberty. His kindness to Hong-yeon, who is bullied by her mother because she is not male, leads to her developing a crush on him. But he is in love with another teacher. Is Hong-yeon’s heart destined to be broken?
Do-yeon Jeon gives a remarkable performance as Hong-yeon in what was one of her first film roles and has since won awards for her acting. Byung-hun Lee is also excellent as her teacher. The cinematography is simple, yet effective – set in the countryside, watching the changing of the seasons is a real pleasure. This is a coming-of-age story, simply, yet beautifully told and should appeal to anyone who enjoys a good drama.
Christmas in August
Jung-won is dying and just wants to live out his days in peace. His family is aware of his illness, although he is determined to keep it a secret from his friends. Then he meets a beautiful traffic warden, with whom he quickly falls in love. Will he share his illness with her? Or will he cut all ties with her to protect her?
Suk-kyu Han gives a very understated performance as Jung-won, but this is exactly what the role calls for and so he turns the film into something truly special. The cinematography is nothing out of the ordinary – in fact, the set is quite drab, which helps to highlight the fact that Jung-won is the centrepiece of the film. This is not an overly tragic story, despite the subject matter, but is a rather noble way of dealing with death.
Oh Dae-su is in prison, but this is no ordinary prison – he has no idea why he is there or who is responsible for his incarceration. After fifteen years, he is finally released with a wallet full of money and a mobile phone. Slowly, he begins to piece together the reasons for his imprisonment and realises that the woman he loves is in danger of dying because of his misdeeds. Can he put things right before it is too late?
Min-Shik Choi is exceptional as Oh Dae-su – I found his performance so mesmerizing and convincing that I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for the entire film. The director, Chan-wook Park, has done a great job of creating clever camera angles that help develop the creepy, doom-ridden atmosphere of the film. There are also some very violent fight scenes, which may not appeal to everyone. Oldboy is one of a trilogy of psychological thrillers – the other two are called Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, but as each film is a stand-alone story, it isn’t necessary to watch them in order.
A Bittersweet Life
Sun-woo works for a hotel, but is far from being a regular hotel employee – he is an enforcer and deals with any problems the hotel owner, Mr Kang, comes up against. Then Mr Kang asks him to follow his girlfriend, Hee-soo, whom he suspects of having an affair. Sun-woo does as he is asked, but soon falls in love with her and decides not to tell Mr Kang of her affair. When Mr Kang finds out, he is furious and wants revenge on Sun-woo. Will Sun-woo manage to come out alive?
Byung-hun Lee gives the performance of a lifetime as Sun-woo. This is very much an action film and as such Sun-woo has little to say, yet manages to convey a whole range of feelings convincingly and naturally. Director Ji-woon Kim uses a lot of black and white and light and dark, which complements the simplicity of the story. There are no hidden twists to this film, yet it never becomes boring – partly because of the fight scenes, which, although violent, are also very balletically executed.