Thursday, December 14, 2017

Top 15 Korean Films of 2017

By Pierce Conran

Following what turned out to be one of the all-time best years of Korean cinema, 2017 had its work cut out for it, and, sure enough, it fell well short of 2016’s benchmark. Yet what could have been a placeholder year was saved but an array of important titles that signaled a changing current in the industry, particularly the mainstream.

The last 12 months in Korea have been tumultuous to say the least and this has absolutely been reflected in the country's cinema, as it has never put out such an incendiary lineup of films. With several bold and politically-tinged hits storming the box office, what 2016 taught us was that Korean filmmakers are no longer afraid to tackle sensitive subjects and clearly these are the stories that audiences want to see.

Outside of that trend, a couple of big directors (Bong Joon-ho, Hong Sangsoo) had landmark years, but overall 2016 was one of few standouts. Instead, it featured a large amount of above average films, including a broad array of impressive independent titles. Perhaps not the most compelling argument, but I found it to hard to list just 10 films this year, so I’ve once again stretched it to 15.

As in previous years, feature-length films made in Korea and screened for the first time in 2017 (whether for a theatrical release or at a film festival) were considered. The following list was whittled down from about 120 films seen throughout the year.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know below.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from MKC!

1. Okja

Coming as no surprise, this year’s best Korean film was of course Bong Joon-ho’s ambitious and zany fantasy-eco-drama Okja. Truth be told, it doesn’t technically count as a Korean film, as it was fully backed by Netflix, but with its extensive use of Korean language, locations, crew and cast, it easily passes our admittedly unscientific requirements.

Okja may not be Bong’s best, but with free reign, a big budget and an exciting global cast, he’s crafted something with a unique emotional palate and some of the most striking images of the year. It may not be an action film, but for my money’s worth it’s Seoul-set chase scene was the most thrilling action sequence of the year.

2. Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno
(밤섬해적단 서울불바다)

Non-Fiction Diary, far and away the best Korean documentary of 2013, was a hard act to follow for Jung Yoon-suk, which makes his completely different follow-up, the anarchic Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno, all that more surprising. Teeming with energy but suffused with purpose and a quiet voice that speaks for a generation without seeming to say anything at all, Jung’s work is hard to describe (both music doc and political commentary, yet neither) but this unique non-fiction work deserves to be seen and remembered.

=3. A Taxi Driver

The Gwangju Massacre is a heavy subject to tackle at the best of times and there was always a danger that A Taxi Driver would go the way of the cloying May 18, but with a sensational script, a terrific Song Kang-ho and probably the best performance by a foreigner in a Korean film courtesy of Thomas Kretschmann, Jang Hoon’s film was an entertaining and poignant snapshot of the darkest week in Korea’s modern history that handily became the year’s most successful Korean film in the process.

=3. 1987: When the Day Comes

Even more risky to commit to film than Gwangju is the June Democratic Uprising, yet the year’s biggest cast came together for the last major release of 2017, the kinetic and powerful political drama 1987: When the Day Comes. With so many moving pieces and so much heavy subtext, it takes a while for this new film by Save the Green Planet director Jang Joon-hwan to come together, but once it does, it fires towards a heart-reaching and cathartic finale that will hard to forget.

5. The First Lap

Following his strong debut End of Winter, a New Currents award winner at the Busan International Film Festival in 2014, director Kim Dae-hwan returned with an even more accomplished follow-up, the Jeonju Cinema Project The First Lap. Winner of the Best Emerging Director Prize in Locarno and Best Screenplay in Mar Del Plata, the film follows a long-standing but unmarried couple who visit their parents in a Seoul suburb and then the countryside. An extraordinary acting showcase for indie darling Kim Sae-byeok (also in Hong Sangsoo’s The Day After this year) and new face Cho Hyun-chul (Oh Dal-su’s lackey in Tunnel), as well as the equally impressive supporting cast.

6. On the Beach at Night Alone
(밤의 해변에서 혼자)

The first of three Hong Sangsoo films this year, On the Beach at Night Alone was also the best effort in what has turned out to be the auteur’s busiest year. Following months of speculation, Hong and his lead actress Kim Min-hee admitted to an ongoing affair around the film’s release and appeared together at the Berlin International Film Festival (where Kim earned the Silver Bear for Best Actress). Much media scrutiny ensued in Korea which took away from the film itself, a confrontational and lyrical work that ranks as one of the most intriguing films in the filmmaker’s ever-growing filmography.

7. Microhabitat

The Gwanghwamun Cinema Collective has been churning out films on an almost annual basis since The Sunshine Boys and Microhabitat, the first women-directed film from the group (by Jeon Go-woon), may well be their best yet. Esom is a refreshing presence as a uniquely diligent urban drifter in a story with lots of character and filmmaking pizzazz to match, despite its low budget. The year’s most impressive debut and a standout from this year’s Busan International Film Festival.

8. Midnight Runners

I adored Jason Kim’s delightful indie Koala, a film so small it never even screened at a festival outside Korea, but even I was dubious about his commercial debut, a youth cop comedy at a big studio that has had trouble churning out hits in recent years. All my fears proved unfounded as Midnight Runners was the most unabashedly entertaining Korean film of the year. A fun and sharply designed nighttime romp through the streets of Seoul with belly laughs and gutsy action combining at every turn.

9. The Fortress

I’ll admit it took me two viewings to reach my current judgement, but the austere period siege drama The Fortress will go down as one of most resonant commercial releases of the year. Echoing the shady politics of the country’s power players, this slow film is thatched together with deep musings on the fabric of power structures in Korean society, which are made to resonate through excellent performances (Lee Byung-hun, Kim Yun-seok, Park Hae-il and more), Kim Ji-yong’s sublime cinematography and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s moving score.

10. Ecology in Concrete
(아파트 생태계)

Jeong Jae-eun made a long-awaited return to fiction filmmaking this year (the Korea-Japan co-pro Butterfly Sleep), but her best film was the smaller documentary Ecology in Concrete. Her third non-fiction work exploring architecture, the film examines the short history of Seoul’s unique urban planning. While it may prove daunting for people not familiar with the capital, this poetic and fascinating work is strongly recommended for anyone whose ever wondered about the city’s sprawling skyline.

11. The Outlaws

If anyone felt that the burly Ma Dong-seok should have been the lead of Train to Busan, then The Outlaws is definitely the film for you. This surprise Chuseok holiday hit gives him his most convincing lead role yet, with a gruff and effortlessly comic detective, while the film knows how to turn up the pressure, pitting him against the year’s most vicious on-screen gang. Film ends with one of the very best fight scenes ever captured in a Korean film.

12. The Merciless
(불한당: 나쁜 놈들의 세상)

An unexceptional tale of an undercover cop getting too close to his market gets a very slick treatment is the immensely enjoyable Cannes Midnighter The Merciless. Sol Kyung-gu delivers one of his best roles in years as he chews up the scenery with his brash and charismatic gangster while director Byun Sung-hyun, previously know for the romcom Watcha Wearin’, proves formidable at setting a scene.

13. Behind the Dark Knight
(어둔 밤)

A mockumentary of the heart-on-its-sleeve variety, about a troupe of young and inexperienced filmmakers, Behind the Dark Knight has buckets of charm, which helped it win the Best Korean Film Award at this year’ Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan). It also ends with a glorious ‘sweded’ ode to its cinematic superheroes. Debut director Shim Chan-yang proves adept at handling tone and emotion and we’ll be curious to see where he goes next.

14. Coffee Noir: Black Brown
(커피 느와르 블랙 브라운)

A coffee prohibition serves as the delightful and sly premise for Jang Hyun-sang’s third film, which marks a major improvement on his previous works. Jo Soo-hyang makes for a terrific lead as the unwavering manager of a coffee speakeasy while Jang’s dry and witty script throws plenty of welcome curveballs in its engaging blend of indie comedy and social commentary.

15. Real

If many worst of lists for 2017 emerge in Korea, than the absurd and counterintuitively magnetic action-noir Real is likely to find itself lording over most of them, but ridicule be damned, I’m compelled to include it among my top films of the year. A vanity project for superstar Kim Soo-hyun, directed by his cousin Love Lee (no joke), Real falls well short of ‘good’ (or even passable) by most metrics but in an industry dominated by increasingly familiar material, this misguided opus might be the only truly unique film to emerge from a Korean studio this year.

Honorable Mentions

After My Death (죄 많은 소녀)
Criminal Conspiracy (공범자들)
The Day After (그 후)
Heart Blackened (침묵)
I'll Just Live in Bando (반도에 살어리랏다)
The King (더 킹)
A Single Rider (싱글 라이더)
A Tiger in Winter (호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님)
The Villainess (악녀)

Top 10 Lists

Year  2017 - 20162015 - 2014 - 2013 - 2012 - 2011 - 2010
All Time (Top 25)

Genre   Gangster - Revenge


  1. “The King” was my favorite this year.

  2. REAL is definitely my favourite. The film is good, the director have high ideals , Kim Soo Hyun acting is impeccable .
    Unique and stand out

    1. I do appreciate Kim Soo Hyun‘s acting! He is incredible!

  3. I love REAL. It's so dark and maybe impactive for people to watch. However, I'm addicted to the process of understanding the film. I really appreciate the sincerity and courage of Kim Soo Hyun and the director.

  4. I love midnight runners. I havnt watch taxi driver yet but it definitely top my list at present.the duodynamic was superb.

  5. It's unfortunate that most people like me won't be able to watch all these movies until well into the Q3 of 2018 :)