Like everybody else I really like to kick back and enjoy a good film. However, what I tend to find is that films that are being churned out by Hollywood are more or less the same format…the ending inevitably involves some form of happy triumphant hero or underdog with some sort of weak romance to tie it together. When you want to switch your brain off this is great, but for REAL entertainment it falls short by a mile.
Fortunately, there are other film industries around the world that offer different content, which doesn’t tend to follow the Hollywood formula. Bollywood and Japan are big players, but the Koreans really do have a talent for creating exciting, action packed and thoughtful movies. On a side note Hollywood has taken some of these Korean films and destroyed them in a re-make, Oldboy is a great example of this.
If I want to be entertained I always search out a Korean film, and have yet to be disappointed. Over the years I have watched a good few Korean films and have outlined below what I consider to be the best. I would however be ecstatic to find some other gems, so if I missed anything please let me know in the comments!
One thing you should note about Korean films, and especially before you watch the videos below is that they can be quite violent and graphic. Therefore if you are younger than 18 and/or do not like graphic violence, some of the films below are not for you!
The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae)  – IMDb 7.4
A unique film set in a unique place. This film is set in Yanji City a region that sits between North Korea, China and Russia, which I think you might agree sounds like an interesting place!
The film is about a taxi driver whose wife travelled to Korea to work, and has not returned for over six months. He racks up debts gambling, and is offered a way to find his wife and write off his debts with a single condition. He must carry out a hit.
You just don’t get stuff of this quality in Hollywood…
A Dirty Carnival (Biyeolhan Geori)  – IMDb 7.5
This is an excellent gangster film. It portrays the life and struggles of a young, middle ranking gangster, who effectively is just trying to make ends meet.
It details the “nitty gritty” side of gangster life in the lower ranks. There is also a great deal of mistrust, as would be expected in a criminal organisation, which adds to the confusion and makes sure you never quite know what is coming.
A Bitterweet Life (Dalkomhan Insaeng)  – IMDb 7.7
A Bittersweet Life is a gangster film that is filled to the brim with action. As you would expect with a gangster film there is plenty of violence, and the associated level of gore that comes with Korean films of this type.
The main character is a cold and calculating young guy who acts as an enforcer for the mob. His robotic nature of following the demands of his boss are softened with the appearance of a young woman, and from that point both his enemies and his own side are out to get him, which leads to some interesting situations, and adds to the confusion.
New World (Sin-se-gae)  – IMDb 7.6
This film is pretty easy to describe. There is a cop who infiltrates a criminal organisation undercover, and the film details his rise through the organisation and the conflicts he has between loyalty to his job as a cop and loyalty to his new criminal “family”. I can think of a few films that run along these lines in Hollywood, but none of them come close to the action and “on the edge of your seat” feeling that is achieved here. If want a gritty gangster film, this ticks all the boxes.
I Saw The Devil (Ang-ma-reul bo-at-da)  – IMDb 7.8
I Saw The Devil is the story of a deranged but cunning serial killer who rapes, tortures and even eats his victims. The serial killer has, until this point, been able to outwit the police until he makes the mistake of murdering the daughter of an ex-police chief, who is also the fiance of a top secret agent. From that point on it is a battle of the wits of the young secret agent and the serial killer, one trying to stay one step ahead, and the other chasing.
This is a hell of a film, violent yes, but the characters and the situations they end up in constantly keeps you on the edge.
The Chaser (Chugyeogja)  – IMDb 7.9
This film tells the story of a serial killer with a penchant for prostitutes. Rather than the typical police serial killer setup, the main “good guy” is not really all that good. He is in fact a pimp, who is wondering where his girls are disappearing to. As he digs deeper, using his previous experience as a police detective, he starts to home in on what is really going on.
This film has the typical level of graphic violence that you would expect from a Korean film of this genre, but yet again it is entertaining in the extreme.
Oldboy (Oldeuboi)  – IMDb 8.4
Well, if there is one film that you have probably heard of with regard to Korean cinema, this is it. There is of course a reason for that. It is a tour de force, and unique.
Oldboy is a difficult film to describe, as it really is a little bit strange. The basic story is of a guy who has been imprisoned in a shabby cell for 15 years, he is then released with money, new clothes and a mobile phone. He then sets out to get revenge and find out why he has been imprisoned.
I don’t want to say more than that as this really is a unique film to watch, and will also give you a good idea of how strange and entertaining Korean cinema can be. You will not have seen anything like this from Hollywood.
On a side note PLEASE BE CAREFUL that you don’t watch the American re-make of this as it is really, really, really terrible.
Memories Of Murder (Salinui Chueok)  – IMDb 8.1
This film is really exceptional and very entertaining. In general you will notice quite a few detective/murder mystery films on this list, but this is the best of them all. It is not just a typical cop/criminal showdown.
The basic story starts with the discovery of a young woman who has been raped and murdered. The pair of local cops that take up the case are incompetent and inexperienced. A detective from Seoul is sent in to assist, but comes up against a lot of resistance and bad practises. The detective struggles to counteract the local police incompetence whilst also trying to track down a killer.
The film contains amusing moments, frustration, despair, and everything inbetween. It is a great watch, and will keep you thinking all the way through.
Brotherhood (Taegukgi Hwinalrimyeo)  – IMDb 8.1
I have to admit that I generally have a soft spot for war films, and this is probably the best I have ever seen.
The story is of two Korean brothers who get caught up in the Korean War. The film starts out as brothers sticking together to protect each other as they are forced to fight on the front line, but as the war continues the psychological effects of the conflict take their toll on the brothers in differing ways.
War films are generally one and the same to some degree (with the exception of a few), but this really is unique and refreshing.
Castaway On The Moon (Kimssi Pyoryugi)  – IMDb 8.2
This film is one of the most enjoyable films I think I have ever watched. The basic story is of a guy who fails an attempt at suicide and ends up stranded on an island in the centre of a large river next to a big city; his ensuing struggle and his relationship with an equally isolated young woman.
I am aware the concept of the film may sound simple and boring, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a semi-romance story to this film, but with a strange oriental twist (read: not a soppy Hollywood romance that bores you to tears).
The concept is unique, the story is interesting and touches on many interesting themes, it is acted well, it is amusing, it is sad… I am aware that I have probably not done this film justice in my description, but this really is a must watch!
On a slightly different note, I just wanted mention to Min-Sik Choi. You will see him in many of the films above, and he is consistently the standout character in the films he is in. His acting is exemplary, and his ability to portray different characters is very impressive. Watch out for him!
What great Korean films have you seen recently? Any suggestions for the list? Let me know down in the comments.
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