Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Top 10 Korean Films of 2015

By Pierce Conran

Sales have been impressive as box office admissions reached a new peak and local films maintained a +50% market share, but looking at the quality of what was on offer, it must be said that 2015 was not the best year for Korean cinema. Big budgeted, maudlin affairs dominated the charts, though there were a few bright spots (such as Veteran), and the year's best commercial films were mostly not rewarded with healthy box office returns (The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo comes to mind).

However, more troubling was the relatively weak showing of independent films this year. A few films did surprisingly well on the charts (including 2014 festival titles A Midsummer's Fantasia and Socialphobia) but the new festival titles, save for a pair of very strong works (Right Now, Wrong Then and Madonna) didn't grab the kind of attention that films like Han Gong-ju (2013) or The Journals of Musan (2011) have in recent years. However, Busan still provided three films on this list and Jeonju added another (with two more in the 'best of the rest' list).

That said, the industry's biggest guns were mostly absent this year as they prepare films for 2016 (Park Chan-wook, Na Hong-jin, Kim Jee-woon) or 2017 (Bong Joon-ho), so there's plenty of very exciting things on the way and no need to start worrying about Korean film just yet. Check back early next month, and we'll put together our most anticipated films for next year!

The following films are boiled down from about 150 Korean titles that screened for the first time this year, either at a festival or directly in theaters.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

=10. Island

The most singular film on this list (yet perhaps also the most uneven), the black and white mystery Island, from the Jeonju International Film Festival, evokes a terrific air nostalgia and uncertainty with some stunning camerawork, not to mention some very deliberate editing. Admittedly, the film can come off as pretentious and certainly on the slow side, but seen as an arthouse film with a little oomph, it’s absolutely worth the detour. 

=10. Steel Flower

The third film from BIFF on this list, Steel Flower is the second work by Park Suk-young, following last year’s Wild Flowers (also from BIFF). Just as gritty, but more focused with its look at just one teenage protagonist, the film leaves most of the heavy lifting in the hands of its terrific young lead Jeong Ha-dam, and its piercing foley work, from the clatter of suitcases wheels or tap-dance shoes against pavement to the crashing of waves, which track the lead’s mental progression.

9. Coin Locker Girl

Another gangster film, but refreshingly led by a pair of strong actresses, Coin Locker Girl was an impressive debut from Han Jun-hee. Full of subtle but effective tricks that lift its admittedly simple narrative, the surprise Cannes invitee turned out to be one of the year’s best commercial films. But make no mistake about it, the film works because of its leads, particularly the transformed Kim Hye-su as a grizzled criminal Queenpin.

8. Gangnam Blues

Considering that Yoo Ha’s A Dirty Carnival may well be the very best Korean gangster film out there and that the genre has yielded recent gems Nameless Gangster (2012) and New World (2013), Yoo’s latest film Gangnam Blues had a lot going for it. Though praised for its extraordinary aesthetic, not everyone was bowled over by the film’s familiar tale of brothers entering crime before being torn apart, but its hard not to get sucked in by its period setting and the fascinating look it provides at the less than salutary beginnings of Seoul’s most famous neighborhood. 

7. The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo

Media manipulation features once more in the unfortunately name The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo. Featuring plenty of chaotic humour (the kind you may remember from Bong Joon-ho’s films) yet presenting plenty of its own ideas and novelties, the film is a compelling sophomore outing for Very Ordinary Couple (2013) director Roh Deok. It didn’t do well in Korea, but that may have had more to do with the poor streak of its distributor Lotte Entertainment as reviews and viewer responses were mostly positive.

6. Inside Men

The year’s biggest commercial surprise comes from Woo Min-ho, previously at the helm of The Spies (one of our Top 5 worst Korean films in 2012). Inside Men features Lee Byung-hun doing what he does best, as a charismatic political fixer in a dark tale of corporate corruption and media manipulation. Tapping into a vein of discontent in Korean society, the film was a deserved hit for all involved, but its terrific mise-en-scene makes it a no-brainer for foreign viewers as well.

5. Reach for the SKY

The year’s best Korean documentary, and another BIFF gem, Reach for the SKY takes aim at the country’s exceptionally competitive education system, specifically the draining trials to prepare for the college entrance exam. Compelling from start to finish and oozing a quiet menace with its thriller-like editing, this Korea-Belgium co-production, from directors Choi Woo-young and Steven Dhoedt, provides ample context and detail, allows us to peer into the mindsets of its youthful characters and lingers long after the credits.

4. Alone

Indies didn’t shine they way they have in the past at the Busan Film Festival this year, yet some gems were still evident, and best among them was Alone, the second film from Park Hong-min (A Fish, 2011). Dealing with gentrification and modern masculinity in a confused urban landscape, the film’s main protagonist finds himself waking up, again and again, from increasingly bizarre nightmares, always trying to escape his neighborhood yet each time twisting back to his starting point. Park follows him with an eery, gliding camera, and the result is infectious and unsettling.

3. Madonna

Pluto (2012) director Shin Su-won returned with her darkest and strongest work to date earlier this year, when Madonna debuted in the Un Certain Regard competition of the Cannes Film Festival. A work harboring a number of difficult themes, Shin’s latest is a masterful balancing act which also introduces us to the wonderful new actress Kwon So-hyun, who takes on one of the most challenging roles of the year in her film debut. Enthralling and deeply felt, the assured Madonna proves once again that Korea's low-budget filmmakers can outbat the majors.

2. Veteran

Already one of the most vital filmmakers in the country, ‘action kid’ Ryoo Seung-wan delivers his most mature work to date with Veteran, a dazzling slice of entertainment led by a magnetic Hwang Jung-min. Ostensibly an action-thriller, this tale of working policeman versus nefarious rich kid is actually the funniest Korean film to come out in years. Loud middle-aged men are nothing new in the nation’s cinema, but buttressed by a punchy mise-en-scene and jazzy soundtrack, the exasperated manoeuvres of Hwang and co-star Oh Dal-su brings this to an entirely different level. The film became the year’s biggest hit (and is now third all time), partly due to its in vogue criticism of Korean chaebols (corporations) 

1. Right Now, Wrong Then

20 years into his career, Hong Sangsoo delivers one of his most compelling works to date. Right Now, Wrong Then, recipient of the Golden Leopard prize at the Locarno International Film Festival and several acting prizes for Jung Jae-young, mixes the narrative mirroring of Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000) with the seeming levity of his later output, such as Our Sunhi (2013). Richer than some of his recent works (though I love them all), the film sees HONG on top form, but more so than usual, it’s the performances that carry this one. JUNG rightfully deserves his Best Actor accolades (from Locarno, Gijon, Asia Pacific Screen Awards and Korean Association of Film Critics, to date), but co-lead Kim Min-hee has been overlooked in those competitions for a far less showy but just as compelling performance. A must for Hong fans and if anyone is still on the fence about the auteur, this just might be the film to sway them.

Best of the Rest

It's always hard to pick only 10 films (or 11 in this case) so here are a few more that almost made the cut, unranked:

4th Place
A Copy of My Mind
The Piper
The Silenced
The Tiger
The Unfair
Unwanted Brother
With or Without You

Top 10 Lists

Year  20202019 - 2018 - 2017 - 2016
2015 - 2014 - 2013 - 2012 - 2011 - 2010

2010s (Top 50) - All Time (Top 25)


1 comment:

  1. The Assassination was the only exceptionally big budget film to hit the charts this year, and Northern Limit Line was the only one that could really be called maudlin. Ode to My Father fills both categories but given that it's a 2014 film I'm not really sure it counts.

    Four noteworthy independent films is pretty impressive by my count, given how usually none of them make box office bank. Not that it matters- most independent movies recover their budget through digital streaming rather than actual theaters.

    This was in fact a much better year for Korean film than possibly was ever seen before- a healthy domestic market is represented better by genre depth than percentages. There was cop action, political thrills, historical meditation, war, exorcism...and that's not even getting to the true independent productions. No real silver bullets, but I'll take a dozen decently good movies over a couple of great ones any day.