Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Top 10 Korean Films of 2014

2014 was an interesting year for Korean cinema. From a financial standpoint, the industry remained strong and produced its most successful film of all time (Roaring Currents), even if sales weren't quite able to reach the peaks of the preceding two years. However, from a qualitative angle, the picture was far less rosy. Early in the year, studio slates looked promising but many of the finished products, while undeniably polished, felt overworked and lacked originality. This speaks to growing concerns over corporate influence in the industry's current creative streak. Some feel that talented and especially younger filmmakers aren't being afforded the freedom they used to.

However, looking at Korea's independent scene tells a very different story. Though working with small budgets and often in difficult circumstances, indie filmmakers are largely making up for the commercial side's creative shortfall. Unsurprisingly, eight of my ten favorite Korean films this year came from the indie realm. This does mean that many will not immediately be available but I hope that each will receive a wider release and become something to look forward to in the near future. That said, there are a number of strong commercial films that almost made the cut, which you can see in the 'Best of the Rest' list below. Alas, all of those were commercial disappointments, which may speak to my different tastes as a foreigner.

The rules for this list are simple, only feature films that had their first public screening in 2014 (either at a film festival or on theatrical release) are considered. I saw 140 films fitting that criteria but there are two I couldn't consider, the films Dear Dictator and I Am Trash by Lee Sang-woo which I am listed as a producer on. I pretty much got my hands on everything I wanted to see last year, with the only exception being the Kim Ki-duk produced Made in China which premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October.

Scroll through the below gallery to discover my Top 10 Korean Films of 2014. Be sure to let us know if you agree or disagree!

10. A Matter of Interpretation

Romance Joe was one of my favorite films of 2012 (though it actually premiered in 2011) and director Lee Kwang-kuk proves he’s no fluke with his delightfully oddball follow-up A Matter of Interpretation. It still bears the mark of his mentor Hong Sangsoo, but his new film is anything but derivative. A playful deconstruction of narrative that worms its way through dreams, metaphors and faux-philosophizing, for me it brought to mind the head trips of David Lynch.

Unlike Lynch’s work however, I don’t think there’s any need to go back again and again to uncover the truth beneath the surface, as more than anything, Lee seems to be having a bit of fun. But what a wonderful ride he takes us on.

9. Futureless Things

Kim Kyung-mook went in a very different direction with his new film Futureless Things, which debuted at Jeonju last year. Featuring numerous overlapping stories that take place in a convenience store, its premise may not seem all that appealing, particularly given the prominence of omnibus films in Korean cinema, but with his latest, Kim mingles comedy, pathos and catharsis in equal measure.

Though not every section knocks it out of the park, each does feel part of a well thought out whole. Exposing the harshness of contemporary Korea while revelling in the small moments of beauty that nevertheless abound, Futureless Things captures the country in its present state, and as I’ve come to know it.

8. A Hard Day

One of only two commercial films to make the cut this year, Kim Seong-hun’s A Hard Day didn’t look like it was going to amount to much but after only a few minutes it becomes clear that this is not a normal Korean thriller. The premise is fun but it's the execution and pacing that really set it apart. The first act in particular is commercial Korean filmmaking at its finest, full of tension, noirish cool and a number of gut-busters.

It’s a wonderfully tight thriller in an industry that often lets things drag on for just a little too long. Cho Jin-woong is also an inspired choice for the villain. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t quite nail the landing, otherwise it may well have been one of the greats.

7. Alive

Park Jung-bum’s debut The Journals of Musan (2010) became one of the most successful Korean indies in years, earning a bevy of awards on the international film festival circuit. Rather than focus his energies for his follow up Alive, Park took the ambitious route by producing a grim three hour indie. Remarkably, he pulls it off, presenting a bleak but riveting portrait of one man’s tribulations as he toils away to keep a roof over his family’s head.

Though it has many qualities, perhaps most impressive of all is Park’s performance in the main role. A monument of reticence and tenacity, the nervous energy and mixture of confidence and desperation that drives him is unlike any other role this year.

6. The Avian Kind

A lushly filmed and entrancing mystery, The Avian Kind is one of the most unique Korean films of 2014, marking a high point for director Shin Yeong-shik, whose body of work has swelled in recent years. Very philosophical but also framed by engaging plot devices and the odd foray into genre territory, the film boasts a terrific cast and wonderful crew, particularly in the cinematography and music department, all of which are confidently put together under the keen eye of Shin.

Unfortunately, The Avian Kind hasn’t been widely screened and is in danger of falling off the radar. I’m sure Shin will continue to make great films but it would be a shame to see this gem drop into anonymity.

5. Night Flight

Previously known as a queer filmmaker, LeeSong Hee-il expanded his canvas last year with Night Flight, a layered high school film that speaks volumes to the malaise and alienation of Korean youth. Fitting in has hardly seemed so difficult in a film painted with soft strokes yet detailing sharp, hierarchical divides.

Queer themes remain in LeeSong’s new film but are only part of a sprawling narrative that cleverly uses locations, framing and all manner of tools available to tell a story that is at first familiar but ultimately deeper than one could expect. A superb follow up to the lyrical White Night (my 10th favourite Korean film of 2012), I hope Night Flight is a stepping stone to an even bigger fourth feature.

4. A Midsummer's Fantasia

Jang Kun-jae returned with his third feature in 2014, the Korea-Japan co-production A Midsummer’s Fantasia, which was commissioned by and shot near Kawase Naomi’s Nara International Film Festival. Much like his previous film Sleepless Night (my top pick of 2012), Jang’s latest is slow-moving and tinged by a light, bittersweet touch. Personal, introspective and surprisingly beautiful, Jang once again delivers an unassuming work that softly weaves its way around your heart.

As if Sleepless Night wasn’t proof enough, the serene A Midsummer’s Fantasia cements Jang as one of the top Korean directors working today.

3. A Dream of Iron

There were a lot of very good Korean documentaries in 2014, not to mention last year when Manshin and Non Fiction Diary made my list, but none hit me as hard as Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s A Dream of Iron. An art film that transfixes with its almost aggressive combination of visual imagery and eclectic soundtrack, Park’s film has the ability to move viewers in ways that are not easily defined.

Moving away from social realism, A Dream of Iron also strives for something different within the Korean non-fiction realm and one hopes that others will pick up the baton in future.

2. Haemoo

A devastating at-sea thriller with pedigree talent that was unfortunate to have come out at the wrong time, Haemoo is a dark and uncompromising film that is a chamber piece and a psychological drama just as much as it is a high stakes blockbuster (with a $10 million price tag). Alas, the recent Sewol disaster presented too many upsetting parallels and led to local viewers largely avoiding the film, yet for those that did venture out to see it, it left an impression.

Haemoo marks the directing debut of Memories of Murder (2003) scribe Shim Sung-bo, while Bong Joon-ho served as executive producer and co-writer. The latter’s influence is certainly evident yet it also overshadowed the rookie’s performance at the helm, much like another film on this list. With stunning cinematography, top drawer performances and some unforgettable set pieces, Haemoo was for me the best that commercial Korean cinema had to offer in 2014.

1. A Girl at My Door

For me, the year’s best Korean film, and a sentiment that seems to be shared with a number of other foreign Korean film critics, is the powerful debut A Girl at My Door by July Jung. Unfortunately, the film was met with something of a muted response in Korea, with many local critics feeling that executive producer Lee Chang-dong’s shadow looms too large over Jung’s film. While not a groundless accusation, it does a disservice to a rich film that delves into characters perhaps deeper than any other Korean film this year.

Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron are both terrific in a film that is a rarity in Korea, one with strong and unique female roles. Also revelatory is maladroit funny man Song Sae-byeok who shows a new side of himself as a terrifying and abusive father. To reiterate my original review of the film, A Girl at My Door is Korean cinema at its finest.

Best of the Rest

It's always hard to pick only 10 films when there's so much on offer so here are an other 15 that almost made the cut:

Man on High Heels
My Brilliant Life
My Dictator
Scarlet Innocence

The Rest

If you're curious to know what other films I had a chance to see in 2014, here they are:

18 - Eighteen Noir
A Dynamite Family
A Fresh Start
An Omnivirous Family's Dilemna
A Record of Sweet Murder
A Touch of Unseen
An American Friend
Big Match
Dad for Rent
Dear Dictator
Director's Cut
Fashion King
Fluid Boundaries
For the Emperor
Golden Chariot in the Sky
Heart of Snow, Heart of Blood
How to Steal a Dog
Innocent Thing
Late Spring
Love Never Fails
Kinda Famous Band We Believe
Mad Sad Bad
Man on the Chair
Miss the Train
My Love, Don't Cross that River
My Love, My Bride
Night of the Prophet
Nothing Lost
Ode to My Father
One for All, All for One
One Night Only
Pick Up Artist
Pohang Harbor
Red Carpet
Romance in Seoul
Santa Barbara
Set Me Free
Shadow Island
Slow Video
So Very Very
Strangers on the Field 
Tabloid Truth
Tazza: The Hidden Card
The Actress Is Too Much
The Cloudy Bridge
The Crimson Whale
The Divine Move
The Fair Wedding
The Hospice
The Liar
The Little Pond in Main Street
The Plan
The Poem of Sleeping Artist
The Road Called Life
The Road to School
The Suffered
The Tenor Lirico Spinto
The Threshold of Death
The Watchtower
The Wicked
The Youth
Thread of Lies
Tunnel 3D
Wake Up, Chun Ja!
We Are Brothers
Whale of a Documentary
Where Is My Seed?
Whistle Blower
Wild Dogs
Wind on the Moon
You Are My Vampire
Zombie School

Top 10 Lists

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2015 - 2014 - 2013 - 2012 - 2011 - 2010

2010s (Top 50) - All Time (Top 25)


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