Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 10 Films of the Zeros

Okay, here is the least creative post idea in quite some time -- my list of the top 10 Korean movies of the past decade. But after a decade of so much great cinema, I thought it would be fun to organize my thoughts and try to put together a couple of comments about some of the best movies Korea produced. It certainly is amazing to look back and see how much has changed over the past 10 years in Korean film and culture. Anyhow, for what it is worth, here are my top 10:

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.

4. Failan
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.

5. Oasis
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.

6. Chunhyang
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.

8. Lies
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 Violence Vengeance Trilogy was certainly important in gaining international respect for Korean movies (and there is no denying Park's considerable talents as a director). But (at least for now), those are the 10 movies that I think were the best of the last 10 years.


The Sanity Inspector said...

Thanks, I'll have to search these out.

I saw Chaw on an international flight and enjoyed it muchly, despite my knowing no Korean. My Korean wife watched a few YouTube clips of it and laughed a lot, especially at the Barney Fife-ish police chief.

Mike said...

Park Chan-wook's trilogy are stories of Vengeance, not Violence... but topping those 3 is his most recent movie, "The Thirst" (AKA "The Bat") - not quite as shocking as his previous outings but more richly told and almost blatent anti-Catholic symbolism...

Matthew Smith said...

I just wanted to say thank you for including some well-deserving underdogs in the list.

On a totally unrelated note, I loved your book. Keep up the amazing work!

Mark Russell said...

Thanks, all, for the comments.

TSI - I hope you enjoy some of those films. I never saw Chaw, but really wanted to. It sounded pretty amusing.

Mike - I have made the change to Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy (embarrassing mistake... I blame my editor).

Matthew - Glad you enjoyed the book. Thank you much for writing about it on your blog.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Mark: Chaw is pirated on YouTube, in ten minute segments. You know, if you want to have an extended preview before you buy the dvd. ;)

tellos said...

I've watched Failan, it was a really nice movie, very sad. As usual with Korean movies.

The Chaser was one of my favorit movie of 2008.

Heckyeah said...

Nice reviews and I look forward to seeing them all. I put them in my queue on Netflix (a couple are Instant Watch). It's great to have some recommendations on foreign films! Thanks!

Joel said...

I think if you're using that logic to put Lies on your list you shouldn't neglect the possibility of adding Peppermint Candy as it to was released in January of 2000. It's one of the best Korean films out there.

Mark Russell said...

Actually, I quite dislike Peppermint Candy. Rather than a metaphor for Korea's development, it makes excuses. Rather than explaining the tragedy of modern history, it tries to deny personal responsibility.

Plus, the final scene, when Yong-ho was innocently smelling flowers, was so saccharine and cheesy. Blech.

Also, its structure is much less creative than some people think it is. Rather like Harold Pinter's Betrayal (which I seem to recall Lee saying as much in an interview a while ago).

Mark Russell said...

Hrm. Or perhaps Lee was thinking of the play Merrily We Roll Along? I cannot remember now.

London Korean Links said...

I agree about Lies. It's one I've gone back to more than once. But I confess I rather enjoyed his Match Girl - I think I'm in a minority there.

Failan: I really tried to like it, but failed I'm afraid!

The Isle: It's the Kim Ki-duk film I've watched more than any other. Beautiful.

AP said...

Like most people I despise lists like these but I think you made some excellent selections. I've seen all but a couple of these and they have stayed with me as well even though years have past since I've seen them. I think that is a true mark of a great film. I'm right there with you on Memories of Murder and I can't argue with any of these except maybe for Take Care and The Isle. I've heard all of the great things about it, gave it a try and for some reason Take Care fell flat for me like Failan did for the previous commenter. I'll give it another try though.

Also I think if I had to choose a Kim Ki-duk film for such a list I would have gone with Address Unknown instead. Almost 10 years later I can still feel the impact of that film and I haven't seen it since its release. The raw feelings of desperation and anger Kim tapped into still get to me. I also think that the subject matter concerning post-war Korea and the topic of discrimination are much more relevant for the purpose of extending the life of the film, at least by Kim Ki-duk standards. Most of his work is just too over the top to be taken seriously (Address Unknown included) but in that film I really felt like he had something meaningful to say and did an excellent job conveying it to film.

Pierce Conran said...

Great list, I really think Memories should go down as a masterpiece. My list:

1. Memories of Murder
2. Peppermint Candy (technically '99, but I can't bring myself to exclude it)
3. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
4. Save the Green Planet
5. My Sassy Girl
6. Mother
7. The Power of Kangwon Province
8. A Bittersweet Life
9. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring
10. Sad Movie

Honourable mentions:

Oasis, The Chaser, 3-Iron, The Host, Oldboy, Chunhyang, Public Enemy, The Coast Guard, Once Upon a Time in High School, A Moment to Remember, Friend, Failan.

Anonymous said...

Wow, so no one here has seen 'The Man From Nowhere' or 'Sunflower'? Cos i cant imagine them two not making the list.