Friday, December 27, 2019

Top 10 Korean Films of 2019

By Pierce Conran

You won't find any big surprise at the top of this list, but beyond the obvious choice for best film of the year, the sad truth of the matter is that 2019 was a very poor year for Korean cinema overall. As the industry has tried to course-correct from the blockbuster-heavy lineup of the last year or two, a great number of very watchable but not altogether memorable mid-level films have emerged. It's the same story within the indie industry which has grown stale with a great many competent films appearing at festivals that cycle through the same social themes but precious few among them generating genuine excitement.

I've cut this list back down to 10 after a few years of managing to squeeze out 15 worthy recommendations but honestly I considered cutting it down to a Top 5 as there were less than a handful of great Korean films this year, though of course others may feel very differently. As such, I've also cut down the honourable mentions list.

What was encouraging in 2019 is that we're finally starting to see more representation for women on screen. Only a few women-centered works really broke out (Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, Miss and Mrs. Cops) but most of the best films were specifically about or made by women, or at least had balanced ensemble casts.

That said, while things are slowly starting to move in the right direction, we're also seeing a regression of sorts with an explosion of middle-aged bromance films and a number of aggressively macho films that occasionally seem designed to placate or at least appeal to the feminist-bashing keyboard warriors that dominate so much of today's ugly online discussions. Now a number of these films were good (The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil) or decent (The Divine Move 2: The Wrathful) but by aiming themselves towards what may be a shrinking audience at the expense of other demographics, in the long run these films may be shooting themselves in the foot.

With that, I'll leave you with MKC's Top 10 Korean films of the year, which were chosen among the 85 films I've seen this year (lower than usual, but I think I've covered most of the essentials). Only feature-length films screened for the first time anywhere in 2019 were considered.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know below.

Also check back in a few days' time when we'll publish MKC's Top 50 Films of 2010s!

A belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from MKC!

1. Parasite

Forget best Korean film of 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is cementing its position as one of the greatest films of all time. It’s already made history several times over as the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or, first to score Golden Globe nominations, and it will probably be the first to be nominated for and win something at the Academy Awards.

A signature work from one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, Parasite effortlessly crosses the divide between art and commerce as it weaves a gripping web of dread, elation and surprise between the levels of our society. With a stellar cast, led by the great Song Kang-ho and featuring standouts such as Lee Jung-eun’s delightful and surprising housekeeper, along with some of the best production design, cinematography and editing of any film this year, Parasite is truly a sight to behold.

2. Kim Ji-young, Born 1982
(82년생 김지영)

The year’s most divisive film in Korea but possibly also its most important was Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Based of Cho Nam-ju’s sensational book of the same name, the film drove a massive wedge in the country’s gender gap when it opened as women flocked to see it for weeks while a very vocal segment of the country’s whined and wailed like giant man babies, labelling the film feminist trash, which only served to reinforce the story’s timely themes.

Aside from the necessary issues that the film raises, I’m very happy to say that Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is a wonderful adaptation that manages to avoid the kind of histrionics that often mar similar social issue films in Korea (although the pathetic man babies will surely argue the opposite). Jung Yu-mi is splendid in the title role and debut director Kim Do-young (a veteran actress) wrings subtle and powerful drama from the source text.

3. Another Child

Superstar Kim Yun-seok (The Chaser, The Thieves) finally jumped into the director’s chair this year (for years he’s been rumoured to be a vocal contributor on set) and the result, the stage adaptation Another Child, is an acting masterclass for all involved and, outside of Parasite, probably the most tightly scripted film of the year.

This unusual affair/family drama is full of heart, empathy and levity and foregrounds a quartet of brilliant actresses (Yum Jung-ah as the wife, Kim Hye-jun as the daughter, Kim So-jin as the mistress and Park Se-jin as the mistress’ daughter), while Kim Yun-seok appears in the background as the cad on the run.

4. Moving On
(남매의 여름밤)

The big discovery from the Busan International Film Festival this year, though admittedly there were many good but almost no great new finds there this year, Moving On is the impressive debut of director Yoon Dan-bi. Divorce is becoming a more prominent theme in Korean cinema and three well-received new indie films focused on the children of divorce cropped up this year. Personally I was disappointed by Yoon Ga-eun’s new film The House of Us and have yet to see the Jeonju Grand Prize winner Scattered Night but Yoon Dan-bi combines adult themes with child perspectives and confusion to great effect in this small but moving tale.

5. Innocent Witness

Director Lee Han, known for Punch and Thread of Lies, returned with yet another fine drama in 2019. The story of a murder trial hanging on the testimony of an autistic teenager could easily have gotten very maudlin very quickly but in Lee’s steady hands and with an empathetic performance from Jung Woo-sung as the lawyer and an effective turn from Kim Hyang-gi as the teenager, it becomes an engrossing combination of the trial film, the family drama and the social drama.

6. Forbidden Dream
(천문: 하늘에 묻는다)

After the disappointment of the very similar The King’s Letters this summer, I’d almost written off the year’s final wide release, which also focuses on a close friendship between King Sejong and an inventor/scholar. As it turns out, Forbidden Dream may be the best film the celebrated melodrama expert Hur Jin-ho has made since One Fine Spring Day (2001) as it smoothly segues from a breezy and somewhat sappy first half to a powerful conclusion. Han Suk-kyu and Choi Min-sik are both ace in what is easily the best Korean bromance of the year.

7. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil

The serial killer thriller and the gangster drama are slammed together in the brawling and explosive The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, one of the most enjoyable commercial offerings of the year, though it may also be one of its most uneven. Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee) is on fine form as the gang captain who teams up with Kim Mu-yeol’s tenacious detective to track down a serial killer. That’s about all there is to it, but it’s enough to keep it going to the finish.

8. Moonlit Winter

Following his Chaplin-esque debut Merry Christmas Mr. Mo, director Lim Dae-hyung closed the Busan International Film Festival this year with his new film Moonlit Winter. Playing out over winter and split between barren countryside exteriors in Korea and a snowswept small town in Northern Japan, Moonlit Winter is an understated and keenly observed follow-up that affirms Lim’s skill as a dramatist who knows where to place a camera. Though I do hope he’ll tackle something a little more consequential for his next project.

9. Extreme Job

The box office sensation of the year, Extreme Job employs a very clever concept (detectives go undercover as the staff of a fried chicken joint that becomes an unexpected success) and a game cast as it delivers infectious laughter and action throughout most of its running time. However, as breathlessly enjoyable as the first half is, the film encounters several narrative roadblocks later on, and never quite manages to regain its footing.

10. The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale
(기묘한 가족)

One of the most unheralded commercial films of the year, though it was invited to a number of foreign film festivals, this rural zombie comedy kicks off with the speed of the undead but when it eventually finds its bite it becomes a winning deadpan comedy with shades of writer-director Jang Jin’s best work. Jung Jae-young is in familiar territory but the whole cast rises to the occasion as the film finally but firmly finds its feet.

Honourable Mentions

Birthday (생일)
Crazy Romance (가장 보통의 연애)
Exit (엑시트)
Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳)
Svaha: The Sixth Finger (사바하)

Top 10 Lists

Year  20192018 - 2017 - 2016 - 2015 - 2014 - 2013 - 2012 - 2011 - 2010
2010s (Top 50) - All Time (Top 25)

Genre   Gangster - Revenge


  1. I don't have a clue what you're talking about in regard to aggressively macho films designed to appeal to feminist haters. The only two movies I can think of that even come close to that are the ones you specifically listed as exceptions. Yet you somehow spend twice as much time describing this nonexistent trend than you do discussing women's film.

    This is especially irritating because women's films were in fact a strong recurring trend this year. You make it sound like a minor blip. But then that's not so surprising given that from the very first paragraph you take a dismissive attitude toward mid-level films, which is where the vast majority of this representation took place.

    Most of those films don't appear on this list. Whether it's because you didn't see these films or just weren't paying attention to them is unclear. You somehow completely failed to notice that Moonlit Winter was about lesbians struggling with the past trauma of their forced separation. At least that's how I'm choosing to interpret your dig about the movie not being particularly consequential, the alternative speaking far more poorly to your moral character.

    This year saw movies like A Resistance, No Mercy, House of Hummingbird, Warm Bodies, and Maggie among others. But the only woman-centered movie you saw fit to name was a racist buddy cop flick where the cast and crew specifically tried to downplay feminist interpretations in the press.

    Parasite has created a golden opportunity for Korean films worldwide and what do people like you do? Make vague, unsourced, factually wrong assertions about the current state of the industry because the movies being made right now aren't specifically designed to appeal to a specific set of preconceptions about what South Korean films should be. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    1. Hang on, you come onto Pierce’s personal blog, criticise his personal film selections, before proclaiming that YOU don’t understand what the article is talking about, cite examples that actually came out last year, accuse HIM of making vague, unsourced statements, and then call into question his moral character?

      And you have the audacity to declare that it is Pierce who should be ashamed of himself?

      You have gatecrashed a civil, informal conversation about contemporary Korean Cinema and made a complete fool of yourself. Crawl back under your little rock, dude.

    2. I don't understand what the article is talking about because it is referencing trends that do not exist. Speaking in my personal capacity as someone who actually writes about Korean film professionally on a regular basis, instead of twice a year on a blog, the information presented as objectively accurate in this post is so blatantly false it would be unethical of me to pretend otherwise.

      Ironically enough I don't actually have much issue with his personal film selections. Pierce is entitled to his own opinions. He's not entitled to his own facts.

    3. I'm perplexed why a lofty professional such as yourself even bothers commenting on the occasional writings of someone you clearly consider to be nothing more than a fair weather hobbyist.

      Surely, if Pierce doesn't know what he is talking about, nobody reading this will take him or his words seriously anyway. You are merely wasting your clearly very valuable time here.

    4. Sadly there once was a time when Pierce was writing reviews more regularly. I didn't always agree with him but I appreciated the input and it helped with my own work. There's so little serious writing about modern Korean movies in English it's not that hard to keep up with all of it.

      Nevertheless, Modern Korean Cinema still has a reasonably strong Google ranking and I really don't like the idea of someone coming in here and getting the impression that South Korean film is ruined because the alt-right took it over. That's sloppier work than I expected from Pierce and frankly I'm more disappointed than anything else.

  2. I disagree with some of Pierce Conran's choices and arguments here, but your comments are truly odd. You seem to have just skimmed through the post, chosen to interpret it in your own special way, then flown off the handle.

    Conran IS saying that films centring on and/or made by woman are a major trend this year. He even says most of the year's best films are such films. This article certainly doesn't give me the impression of the phenomenon being a 'minor blip'. Moreover, I think you're exaggerating the prominence of women in the Korean film industry this year. As Conran points out, things have got better but a lot more needs to be done. I really cannot disagree with that.

    Even so, by no stretch of the imagination is Conran arguing that South Korean cinema is "ruined because the alt-right took it over". I do think he's exaggerating about "an explosion of middle-aged bromance films and a number of aggressively macho films", because as far I can see there haven't been any more than usual. But otherwise he is cautious to say that such films "SEEM designed to placate or at least appeal to the feminist-bashing keyboard warriors". And he doesn't say that the films are destroying the industry, he says they are "shooting themselves in the foot", and he might have a point because a number of them performed below expectations at the box office (eg Man of Men, Battle of Jangsari, Jo Pil-ho, The Divine Fury, The Dude In Me).

    Also: House of Hummingbird is not only from 2018, but included in Conran's Best of 2018 list. I've never heard of a Korean film called Warm Bodies - could you provide a link to it? No Mercy is a total cliche, and seems more exploitative than anything. I think Maggie is certainly worth consideration, but A Resistance's appeal to patriotic instincts might very well have over-ridden its protagonist's sex.

    Furthermore, Conran is hardly dismissive towards mid-level films. Firstly, he's clearly of the opinion that there should be more mid-level films and less emphasis on blockbusters. Secondly, he's not saying that all 2019's mid-level films are awful, just that many of them are "very watchable but not altogether memorable". Even though I think he's overstating the case, I don't think that's an unreasonable judgement to make. Thirdly, most of the films in his Best of 2019 list ARE mid-level films.

    Finally, Conran does NOT say that Moonlit Winter is "not particularly consequential". Hoping that Lim Dae-hyung's next film will be about something "a little more consequential" does suggest that relationships aren't very high on Conran's list of important themes, but what is objectively wrong with that? Lots of people think Sally Rooney's novels or Eric Rohmer's films are inconsequential. It's their opinion. To accuse Conran of homophobia just because he wants Lim to tackle what he believes are bigger themes is not only unfair, it smacks of virtue signalling.

  3. One last thing. You (W. Schwartz) say:

    "But the only woman-centered movie you saw fit to name was a racist buddy cop flick where the cast and crew specifically tried to downplay feminist interpretations in the press."

    Eh? I'm no fan of Mrs and Miss Cop myself, but at least half of the films on Conran's list are women-centred films, and he makes frequent reference to the women involved - eg the "quartet of brilliant actresses" foregrounded in no. 3; the director of no. 4; almost everything about no. 2. Even when he doesn't explicitly point out the partipation of women, anyone who has seen the films or even read their synopses will know that women are pretty central in no. 5, 8 and 10.