Monday, December 24, 2018

Top 15 Korean Films of 2018

By Pierce Conran

Thanks to Lee Chang-dong and a few late year surprises, 2018 saw the Korean film industry churn out enough quality product to merit a strong Top 15 once again, but the truth is that, for the commercial industry at least, the past 12 months have raised a lot of questions regarding the sustainability of the current marketplace.

This year welcomed a record number of big-budget (over 10 billion won, roughly $9 million) projects (without exact figures I would guess just over a dozen), but most of these struggled badly on the charts and studios will have to be more cautious about greenlighting pricey tentpoles in future. Though to be fair, recent legal changes relating to staff wages have caused an overall surge in budgets.

The good news is that a larger than usual amount of mid- or low-budget projects turned into sleeper hits. Big films splashed on stars and effects and gambled with high-concept stories, but it was the smaller works with tighter scripts that really caught the imagination of the public. After years of being largely maligned in the local film scene, horror (Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum), romance (On Your Wedding Day) and family drama (Be With You) proved to be alive and well in 2018. Adding to the mid-level hits were several well calibrated remakes such as Intimate Strangers and Door Lock.

Yet perhaps the most exciting thing about this year's list is that three newcomers made the cut and they were all women. In fact four women directors made the list this year overall, which doubles our previous record. Of course these debuts were all indie films but it goes to show that when you start giving everyone a voice, you end up with more original films. I look forward to the year (hopefully very soon) when half or more of our annual roundup comes from women directors.

Meanwhile, Lee Chang-dong made history with his Cannes competition entry Burning, which became the first ever Korean film to land on the shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award (we'll know on January 22 if it makes the final five contenders).

As in previous years, feature-length films made in Korea and screened for the first time in 2018 (whether for a theatrical release or at a film festival) were considered. The following list was whittled down from about 90 films seen throughout the year, which was a little less than usual, but I'm confident I managed to see most of the important films.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know below.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from MKC!

1. Burning

It took eight years for Lee Chang-dong to return but boy was it worth the wait. Taking Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’ and exploding it into a two and a half hour slowburn fever dream of simmering paranoia, dark desire and wicked secrets, Lee has returned with the masterful Burning. Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun do career-best work in a film that almost demands repeat viewings to tread deeper into its unfathomable secrets, while newcomer Jun Jong-seo is sensational in an indescribable debut performance. 

MKC Review

2. House of Hummingbird

This epic, understated coming-of-age saga of a young teenage girl in Seoul circa 1994 announces an extraordinary new talent in the form of director Kim Bora. One of the most impressive Korean indie debuts in years, House of Hummingbird anchors its tale of confusing adolescent urges in the context of a complex time in Korean history - newly democratized, but scarred by its past and unsure of how to come to terms with its newfound liberties.

3. Swing Kids

Korean cinema’s ultimate crowdpleaser, Kang Hyoung-cheol has crafted some of the country’s most exuberant films, notably 2011’s Sunny. This winter he returned with his most ambitious work and while only time will tell if the masses feel the same way (it’s off to a slow start at the box office, not unusual for a music-driven film but potentially a death knell in a market that demands quick results), Swing Kids was without a doubt the best theatrical experience I had all year. Infectiously rhythmic, this Korean War POW camp tap dance extravaganza will have you yearning for old-school Hollywood showmanship and begging for more when the curtain falls.

4. Hotel by the River
(강변 호텔)

The extraordinarily prolific Hong Sangsoo continued his assault on the international festival circuit with two films this year. Both were shot in black and white and feature Kim Min-hee in a lead role but the most impressive of the pair was the elegiac Hotel by the River, for which Ki Joo-bong deservedly picked up the Best Actor prize at the Locarno International Film Festival for his vivid and achingly yearning performance as an aging poet trying to reconnect with his sons, his life and his past.

5. Door Lock

Following his wonderfully offbeat horror-romcom My Ordinary Love Story, which was unjustly overlooked in 2014, Lee Kwon has finally gotten some of the recognition he deserves for his third film, the taught, claustrophobic and socially-driven mystery-thriller Door Lock. This remake of Jaume Balagueró’s Sleep Tight completely reworks the story (even switching the main character) and provides another compelling showcase for Gong Hyo-jin. Unusually focused for a commercial Korean thriller, the film employs precise mise-en-scene that heightens a tale teeming with compelling and contemporary social edge.

6. Our Body

Another very impressive debut this year was Han Ga-ram’s Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) graduation project Our Body. We’ve seen many low-budget tales of youth suffocated by Korean society but Han’s work gives its protagonist purpose through the simple but effective motif of a hobby, in this case running. Moon Choi (aka Choi Hee-seo) is remarkable as the reticent lead who crafts a sense of self through her growing interest in exercise and her friendship with a fellow runner.

7. Believer

Johnnie To’s Drug War gets a stylish Korean revamp in Lee Hae-young’s lean action-thriller Believer. Bursting at the seems with glorious scenery chewing turns by the likes of Kim Joo-hyuk (in his final role prior to his untimely passing last year), Jin Seo-yeon, Park Hae-joon and Cha Seung-won, Believer is a slick actors’ showcase that embraces eccentricity. 

MKC Review

8. The Spy Gone North

Yoon Jong-bin pulled off quite a gamble with his ambitious fifth film. Despite its big budget and stars, this North Korea-themed espionage yarn was light on action and very heavy on dense geopolitical double-talk. Yet this rich and evocative tale was deservedly invited to Cannes (though I still don’t think Midnight was the right place for it). Providing a complex assessment of the relationship between the Koreas, The Spy Gone North strikes emotional resonance in the most surprising of places.

9. Herstory

The harrowing plight of Korean comfort woman, who were subjected to sexual slavery at the hands of the Japanese Empire’s military during and prior to World War II, has been captured several times on screen in a parade of mawkish and manipulative works such as I Can Speak and Spirits' Homecoming. Veteran director Min Kyu-dong reversed that trend this year with the (relatively) restrained and powerful Herstory. Kim Hee-ae and Kim Hae-sook lead a phenomenal cast in this story of strength in the face of adversity.

10. Little Forest
(리틀 포레스트)

Yim Soon-rye returned with her eighth film this year, an adaption of the Japanese comic (already produced as a two-part Japanese film) Little Forest. Kim Tae-ri leads this youth drama that speaks to a generation of people suffocated by society and in need of a break. Beautifully filmed throughout, this delectable tale is the perfect antidote to urban fatigue.

11. Grass

This first of Hong Sangsoo’s 2018 titles (it debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival), Grass pits Kim Min-hee at the center of breezy collection of conversations in an out-of-the-way cafe in the director’s beloved Bukcheon neighborhood. This short and immensely watchable affair is studded with an array of delightful performances from Hong regular stable of performers.

12. A Good Business

The surprise of this year’s Jeonju International Film Festival was Lee Hark-joon’s unusual Jeonju Cinema Project, the North Korean defector documentary A Good Business. Focusing on a minister who runs a business getting defectors out of North Korea, the film presents a very frank view of its central character, who is presented as doing charitable work for potentially for very selfish reasons.

13. Ode to the Goose
(군산: 거위를 노래하다)

Zhang Lu’s most playful and accessible film to date, Ode to the Goose is a witty tale consumed by questions of national identity. Intriguing tidbits of history loom around every corner, while a terrific cast (including a brilliant turn by Moon So-ri) keep the story rooted in the present.

14. The Great Battle

It could easily have been a big-budget dud, but period siege action-drama The Great Battle proved to be one of the year’s greatest surprises. Energetic and epic, Kim Kwang-sik’s film for the most part sidesteps nationalist fervor and the dour political wrangling that mars most of Korea’s period films. Think Korean The Two Towers without orcs or elves.

15. The Return

Providing an intimate look at the journey that Korean adoptees go through when they return to their motherland to find their parents, Malene Choi’s work provides rare insight into a difficult and complex set of themes centered around identity and belonging. As the film echoes the director's own experiences, The Return feels both raw and innocent during a search that is at turns frustrating, uplifting and sometimes rather strange.

Honorable Mentions

Adulthood (어른도감)
Army (군대)
Be With You (지금 만나러 갑니다)
Clean Up (호흡)
Dark Figure of Crime (암수살인)
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암)
Graduation (졸업)
Intimate Strangers (완벽한 타인)
On Your Wedding Day (너의 결혼식)
Winter's Night (겨울밤에)

Top 10 Lists

Year  2019 - 2018 - 2017 - 2016 - 2015 - 2014 - 2013 - 2012 - 2011 - 2010
2010s (Top 50) - All Time (Top 25)

Genre   Gangster - Revenge


  1. In my country(Hungary) we had a chance to see Burning only .I can't compare it to the other movies on this list, but I think it really deserves an Oscar.

  2. Yes to BURNING. It's the best movie of this year!

  3. What’s the nane of the pic with the girls at the top?

  4. Where can I watch House of Hummingbird

    1. It will have its first international screening at the Berlin International Film Festival next month. Hopefully it will make the rounds after that, but as an indie film it is unlikely to become available everywhere.

  5. Thanks for the "to watch list"
    Just like last year and the years before, I gotta wait until they become available in dvd/br format or streaming.
    As for the Oscars... well, who cares :)

  6. I'd love to watch all of these, but it's not like they're going to be aired on cinemas abroad (barely in Korea, as I understand it ...). The "illegal" options aren't too many either. I wouldn't mind paying for quality Korean movies, but is there anywhere I can do that? When I've tried Netflix and other services like it, there's basically nothing (which I don't really understand, I can't imagine Korean low-budget movies being very expensive to acquire). I'd be very happy for your suggestions!

    1. A number of these are recent release are still early on their festival runs, but it's true that the indie particularly may hard to track down. Although with streaming options beginning to cast a wider (beyond Netflix) I hope some of these smaller titles may find a home in the near future.

    2. This works with a VPN -

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  8. Do not forget to ask your kids about what's on TV or in cable schedule for the day. You would be updated with the latest shows that they may or may not watch while you are movies online stream on

  9. Finally been able to watch Burning.
    As you have mentioned in your review; it's an absolutely wonderful film. A thought-provoking film as all this directors films are. Could he have made the end as non violent and mysterious as the rest of film... Maybe
    The scenes are beautiful and here you'll see the true talent of these actors without the usual Korean stereotypes
    It's a piece of art

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