As Asian films ride a wave of new-found popularity in the west, streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have begun catering more to eastern cinema. Maybe it’s due to these streaming services providing Asian features that has driven the public’s awareness to them, or perhaps it’s just the fact that there are some really fantastic features coming from the east that are hard to ignore. Whatever the reason, Korea has been proving time and time again over the last decade how much of a filmmaking powerhouse they are and why you should be paying attention.
Although Korea produces their fair share of “fluff” — just like the rest of the world — films such as Oldboy, New World, I Saw the Devil, and The Admiral have shown that Korean filmmakers are currently at the top of their game and are consistently creating some of the most original, admirable, and stunning features the world of cinema currently has to offer.
Poetry (시 — 2010)
When a seasoned, extraordinary actress like Yoon Jeong-hee comes out of a 15-year retirement for a film, the public pays close attention to her next move. For an actress with the caliber of Yoon’s, who’s married to a Julliard-trained pianist and has been living in Paris since the mid-90s, it’s rare to see them ever return to the big screen — let alone with their frequent co-star at their side. However, when a filmmaker like Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine, Peppermint Candy) comes knocking on your door, you answer.
Poetry tells the story of grandmother Yang Mi-ja, a 66-year-old woman who has decided to take up poetry amid her struggle to make ends meet, care for her disrespectful grandson, Jong-wook, and learning she has Alzheimer’s. But when a recent tragedy hits home, Yang is forced to grapple with her sense of morality while battling her disease.
Poetry is an absolutely remarkable, riveting, and human film. Rarely ever do pictures come along that linger and affect you so deeply as this does, leaving the viewer feeling they’ve just experienced something profound. Arguably, the film’s greatest asset comes way by Yoon Jeong-hee’s flawless acting ability and astounding range. An actress who so poignantly conveys her emotional turmoil while debating her morality in complete silence impeccably. Yoon is a remarkably gifted actress who so perfectly utilizes her entire body to act that she ultimately leaves the viewer completely captivated and focused on her, and almost completely her, throughout the entire performance.
However, it would do the film a great disservice if we didn’t commend each performance, giving the film a natural and relatable tone due to nearly every actor’s outstanding ability. Not often are films as superbly cast as this, and it’s remarkable to witness. In the end, performances like these don’t come from a bland script or talentless director, compelling us to give a great deal of repute to Poetry‘s writer / director, Lee Chang-dong, who has really quite outdone himself.
Marathon (말아톤 — 2005)
Based on the true story of autistic marathon runner Bae Hyeong-jin, 2005’s Marathon addresses a mother’s struggle with caring for an autistic child and striving to help them achieve a “normal” life. As one of the many films on this list guaranteed to have you reaching for the tissue, this uplifting and emotional rollercoaster hits extraordinarily close to home for those of us caring for special needs family members.
As a child, Cho-won, the marathon runner, exhibited limited verbal communication, frequent tantrums and biting — a common trait for autistic children. But with his mother’s persistent determination in the face on constant hardship, Cho-won learns how to communicate and develop into his own independent person. So when Cho-won gains an enthusiasm for running, his mother enlists a reluctant alcoholic / ex-marathon champion to train and develop her son to properly channel his passion.
Debatably, Marathon‘s impeccable casting and on-point writing weren’t this film’s crowning achievement, but how its popularity finally garnered positive public recognition of the condition and popularized its term in South Korea. In the end, Marathon attempted to remove at least a small layer of Korean’s stigma towards autism, and, in a way, they succeeded. But, of course, the country still has a long way to go.
Looking for more movies based on a true story? Try A Barefoot Dream.
Welcome to Dongmakgol (웰컴 투 동막골 — 2005)
If you’ve ever traversed the world of Korean cinema before, you’ll know there’s a plethora of North / South Korean movies to be seen. Although it’s an extremely real and prevalent fear for South Korean’s, most features released are trite action flicks reminiscent of the US’s love with Russia vs USA movies of the ’80s. But when you dig through the pile of tired spy titles, you’ll find a few truly heartfelt and poignant ones scattered about in the mix. Case in point: Welcome to Dongmakgol.
In a tiny village completely oblivious of the current hysterics brought about by the Korean War, 3 North Korean soldiers, 2 South Korean soldiers, and 1 U.S. Navy pilot converge. Injured, stranded and defenseless, the villagers kindly care for the at odds soldiers as they struggle to find a way back to the front lines.
With its all-star cast, superlative writing and gorgeously shot visuals, Welcome to Dongmakgol is absolutely captivating from beginning to end. For fans of 2003’s Oldboy, Kang Hye-jung, Oldboy’s “friend”, steals the show in her role as Yeo-il, showcasing her prowess and range as an actress impressively.
My Girl & I (파랑 주의보 — 2005)
We’re pretty sure that if Nicholas Sparks has ever or will ever watch My Girl & I, he’d be seething with jealousy that he hadn’t come up with the idea himself — or contacting his legal team. Don’t worry, we didn’t really give anything away that wasn’t completely laid out in the first 5 minutes of the film anyways.
Su-ho is a pretty normal teenager, almost to a bland degree, so when the prettiest girl in the school, Su-eun, decides spontaneously that they’re a couple now, it’s no surprise when everyone he knows is left in a state of disbelief. Their young love blossoms before the two are faced with a heavily foreshadowed tragedy — like foreshadowed in nearly every scene kind of foreshadow.
A remake of the Japanese movie Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World, which is based on the novel Socrates in Love by Kyoichi Katayama, My Girl & I may not leave you feeling stunned by originality, but it will be a great watch for that date night in you’ve been planning or that solo pajama and ice cream extravaganza.
Kundo: Age of the Rampant (군도: 민란의 시대 — 2014)
Sometimes you just don’t care about “emotional”, “uplifting”, or “powerful” movies. Sometimes you just want to turn your brain off and watch a really awesome action flick. Although Kundo might not be the most awe-inspiring film on this list, it maintains solid action entertainment all the way through — and sometimes that’s absolutely the best.
Set during the Joseon period, the darling era used most often in historic Korean TV and film, Kundo follows the impoverished butcher, an occupation that was the lowest of the low, Dolmuchi. After making a deal with the illegitimate son of a corrupt governor, Dolmuchi decides he can’t go through with his end and ultimately pays a steep price for his viewed betrayal. In a clichéd nothing-left-to-lose move, Dolmuchi joins forces with Kundo, a band of oppressed fighters, in an attempt to suppress an abhorrent and all-too-common group of tyrannous government officials — think Korean Robin Hood.
This heavily Taratino-influenced, pseudo-spaghetti-western might not be the most memorable feature on the list, but it does deliver an exhilarating and engaging story on top of some of the most thrilling action sequences made in a long time.
Looking for more action spaghetti-westerns? Try The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.
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