1. Memories of Murder
This movie is, quite simply, the complete package -- a story that is at once accessible but also full of meaning and symbolism. It looks great (thanks in part to Ryu Seong-hee's production design). Wonderful acting. Easily the best Korean film of the modern era.
2. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors
Hong Sang-soo's best movie, with a solid mix of wit, insight, and creativity. The story of a young woman and her two suitors unfolds in two parts, with Hong's trademark mirrored story structure (back when it was fresh), and does so in a way that adds to the story, is not just a gimmick. At first, you watch the film and at times wonder "What's the point?" (after all, it is a Hong Sang-soo film). But as the story unfolds for the second time, it gains a richness that is really fascinating. The black-and-white really does help you concentrate on the characters and the story and not get distracted.
Best of all, you can still find many of the restaurants and locations from the movie and have drinks there with your friends. At least for now (I am sure all those locations will all be torn down soon enough, though).
3. The President's Last Bang
I can still remember going to the press screening for The President's Last Bang. Obviously Im Sang-soo's historical perspective was what it was (shall we say controversial?). But despite that, I was blown away by the film. I thought it was funny, smart, beautiful looking, darkly humorous and an all-round great movie. But as the lights came on, the journalist sitting close to me (a rather famous reporter) says to me, full of scorn: "I think that film is dangerous." No comment about the art or the story, just a purely political reaction. Very disappointing, but an all-too-common reaction by all-too-many people (perhaps moreso in Korea). Sad when people put politics ahead of art.
I remember watching this movie full of skepticism. I mean, the whole idea -- a Chinese bride and her gangster husband who fall in love despite never meeting -- sounded so cheesy. But by the end, I was crying. Yes, embarrassing to admit, but this story totally got to me. A delicate tale told just right.
Lee Chang-dong is Korea's smartest filmmaker, with movies that have the richness of novels (no surprise, since Lee started out as a novelist). This is Lee's best movie, featuring not just a smart story, but also two amazing acting performances, by Moon So-ri and Sol Kyung-gu.
FYI, here is my old story about Oasis in Newsweek, many moons ago.
This is the Im Kwon-taek movie that should have won at Cannes (not the silly and swollen Chihwaseon). Im's told the Chunhyangjeon traditional story through a retelling as a live pansori performance at the Jongdong Theater in downtown Seoul. As the story goes in and out, from the theater with the singer and audience, to the dramatic re-creation of the story, the artifice actually draws you in deeper and makes it more engrossing. Quite a feat.
7. Tale of Two Sisters
I have the same feeling about most of Kim Jee-woon's movies -- so close to excellence, but there is something fundamentally flawed about them. Tale of Two Sisters was the same, going on for 15 minutes too long, past its natural climax. That said, Tale of Two Sisters was a gorgeous film, with each scene leaping off the screen with color and dynamism (take that, James Cameron). And its psychological horror was genuinely creepy in a smarter, deeper way than most horror films.
It is a huge surprise for me to have this film here (along with anything by Jang Sun-woo), but I re-watched the film earlier in 2009 and quite liked it. The story (from a novel by Jang Jung-il that got the author imprisoned for six months) of a high school girl who gets into a torrid affair with an older artist, Lies could have easily descended into soft-porn silliness, but somehow Jang (well, "Jangs") kept the film smarter than that.
(Okay, technically Lies was 1999, but it was released in Korea on Jan. 8, 2000, so I am putting it in my list).
9. Take Care of My Cat
Such a light, little film, about four young women from Incheon, their friendship coming apart due to the trials of entering adulthood. But the characters were rich and intriguing, and the whole added up to much more than the sum of its parts. Possible depressing lesson of the film: The only way to break free of the bonds of daily life is to get out of the country.
10. The Isle
Like Lies, this is another film I am really surprised to have in my top 10. Certainly no one is more surprised than I am to have a Kim Ki-duk film anywhere on this list. Generally I quite dislike his movies (especially the Orientalist silliness he seems to have fallen into since Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring). But the more I thought about it, the more important The Isle seemed to me, and the better it fared in my memory. Many filmmakers have tried to go "shocking" (like Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance trilogy, or, in the West, films like Saw), but, really, none of them can compare to Kim Ki-duk and his infamous fishhooks.
Telling how old all those films are. Even my Honorable Mention list (if I had written one) would have concentrated on older films. What did I like from the past five years? Mother, The Host, Woman on the Beach, Like You Know It All, The Chaser, The Good the Bad the Weird, Secret Sunshine, Tazza... and a few others. But there were rather few really exciting films compared to how many Korea was producing from the last 1990s until 2004-ish.
Of course, there are plenty of other really good films that did not make my list. One of the most memorable and wacky movies of the last decade was Save the Green Planet. I quite liked Lee Sung-gang's My Beautiful Girl Mari. Park Chan-wook's