Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Top 50 Korean Films of the 2010s


By Pierce Conran

With a few hours left in 2019, it’s time to look back at the decade that was for Korean cinema. The industry really came into its own in the late 1990s and most of the names the world is familiar with now first gained notice in the 2000s, but it soared to new heights in the 2010s, becoming one of the largest film industries on the planet, responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed films of the decade.

2019, which happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Korean film industry, is ending on the highest note ever for the local exhibition sector, which is set to reach a record 227 million admissions. This translates as a staggering 4.4 tickets per citizen over the course of the year. Korean films accounted for 51% of that figure, achieving a majority once again.

As the decade kicked off it was a markedly different story as the industry was only just starting to recover from a downturn. Overall admissions were just under 148 million, with Korean films accounting for about 46% of that. When the initial boom of the millennium led to too much production, things started to go off the rails after 2006 but the industry that surfaced in the 2010s was a very different beast.

A slick and dependable filmmaking powerhouse emerged, led by investors who had turned into veterans, rather than the producers who had paved the way for today’s industry. The result was that while production values continued to rise and compete with Hollywood, in tandem with soaring box office returns, spontaneous creativity came to be in shorter supply in the commercial arena. Proven critical and commercial masters had relatively free rein, while others had to fight to get their visions realised, often with enormous compromise as studio interference in all stages of production has become par for the course for commercial films.

The flipside is that the 2010s ushered in a gigantic wave of indie cinema, aided greatly by cheaper digital equipment and film schools that were developing quality feature films from new filmmakers with the help of veteran mentors, such as the Korean Academy of Film Arts and Dankook University.

While these indie works have conquered festivals around the world, they are generally made for minuscule budgets, which the vast majority of them have no hope of ever making back in a brutal exhibition system that is still partly vertically integrated.

But enough about the mechanics of the sprawling contemporary Korean film industry, what were the best films from the last ten years? I was lucky enough to see about 1100 features produced during that time and whittling this list down to just 50 was extremely difficult. I have added a rather long honourable mentions list at the bottom of the page, but even that doesn’t cover all the films I loved over the past decade.

A few statistical takeaways from the Top 50 - indie films accounted for almost half of the total (20-22, depending on what your bar is), women directed 9 of them (3 in the top 10), 2016 led the way with 8 titles (2013 was close with 7) and 2019 was the weakest year with just 2 entries.

I should also note that since moving to Korea in 2012 I’ve grown close to a number of filmmakers and this list naturally features many films by people I’m become friendly with. There are also films from people that I’ve worked with (no. 46) and even the person I married (no. 7), but nothing I myself worked on in any capacity, beyond recommending films to festivals.

Agree? Disagree? Did I miss anything? Please sound off in the comments below!

Happy New Year from MKC and here's looking forward to another decade of cinema from the most vibrant film industry in the world.


50. Young Gun in the Time (영건 탐정사무소)
(Oh Young-doo, 2012)


Oh Young-doo’s deliriously kitschy and wonderfully entertaining Young Gun in the Time is a film few have heard of and even less have had a chance to see, which is a real shame as this lo-fi sci-fi private eye slice of B-movie fun was one of the most refreshing Korean films of the decade.



49. Karaoke Crazies (중독노래방)
(Kim Sang-chan, 2016)


A absurdly entertaining little chamber piece that blends of drama, comedy, thriller and then some within the walls of an endearingly tacky karaoke joint in the countryside.



48. Hide and Seek (숨바꼭질)
(Huh Jung, 2013)


Huh Jung’s debut thriller explores consumerism and hierarchy in modern Korea through a wickedly clever concept that utilises the country’s fascinating and terrifying obsession with high-rise apartment living.



47. Super Virgin (숫호구)
(Baek Seung-kee, 2012)


Possibly the most earnest Korean film out there, Baek Seung-kee's no-budget marvel Super Virgin fills a ridiculous sci-fi romcom premise with endearingly silly sets and a big, over-flowing heart.



46. Barbie (바비)
(Lee Sang-woo, 2011)


Director Lee Sang-woo (who I started working with as a producer in 2014) has made many wickedly dark and grimy indie social dramas, and with Barbie he perfected his blend of uncompromising darkness and unexpected tenderness, anchored by Kim Sae-ron, a year after her breakout turn in The Man from Nowhere.


45. Door Lock (도어락)
(Lee Kwon, 2018)


Lee Kwon completely reimagines the Spanish thriller Sleep Tight in his terrific thriller Door Lock, which shifts the focus to the women’s perspective, through the eyes of lead Kong Hyo-jin. It’s a tensely wound narrative that effectively mines urban fears.


44. Madonna (마돈나)
(Shin Su-won, 2015)


Scoring a Cannes invite with her third feature, Shin Su-won’s wickedly dark Madonna is a scabrous tale of moral decay which foregrounds some of the horrors experienced by women in Korena society. A powerful but occasionally difficult watch.



43. How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)
(Lee Won-suk, 2013)


Director Lee Won-suk’s flamboyant and riotous romcom How to Use Gus with Secret Tips has steadily turned into a cult film thanks to its anarchic and bombastic sense of humour, which remains grounded with a tangible sense of compassion.

42. Very Ordinary Couple (연애의 온도)
(Roh Deok, 2013)


The modern Korean romcom is quite different from what the genre used to look like when My Sassy Girl and its ilk were dominating the charts. The mature Korean romcoms seen today may well have kicked off thanks to Roh Deok’s terrific workplace romance Very Ordinary Couple, a contemporary and realistic story featuring strong performances from Kim Min-hee and Lee Min-ki.




41. Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (82년생 김지영)
(Kim Do-young, 2019)


The cultural sensation of 2019, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 highlights a variety of pressing feminist themes. Despite what an unfortunate section of society has claimed, the film paints a fairly balanced and believable portrait of some of the societal pressures foisted on Korean women.


40. Alone (혼자)
(Park Hong-min, 2015)


Park Hong-min explores gentrification, masculinity and memory in his electric second film Alone, an artful thriller filled with suspense, tension, mystery and hypnotic gliding tracking shots through a hillside Seoul neighbourhood.



39. Confession (좋은 친구들)
(Lee Do-yun, 2014)


One of the most impressive mid-size commercial works of the decade, which has sadly been all but forgotten after a poor box office run, Confession takes a fairly conventional premise but with a sincere approach and solid genre credentials, not to mention a winning leading trio, including Ju Ji-hoon, it adds up to a memorable experience.


38. Night Flight (야간비행)
(Leesong Hee-il, 2014)


Already Korea’s preeminent queer filmmaker, with the indie hit No Regret and White Night, Leesong Hee-il surpassed himself with Night Flight, his epic and beautifully photographed tale of forbidden high school romance. The film touches on a number of social subjects which intersect with the central romance in lyrical ways.



37. Helpless (화차)
(Byun Young-joo, 2012)


The film that proved Kim Min-hee's status as a beguiling and mysterious lead, Helpless is one of the most unique Korean thrillers of the decade with a great sense of pacing and control from director Byun Young-joo.


36. The Fake (사이비)
(Yeon Sang-ho, 2013)


Following his brutal debut The King of Pigs, Yeon Sang-ho didn’t hold back with his next animation, which dives headlong into the cesspool of humanity. Exploring fake religions, small-mindedness, child prostitution, alcoholism and so much more, The Fake can be a bitter pill to swallow but somehow never goes overboard.



35. On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자)
(Hong Sangsoo, 2017)


Featuring Kim Min-hee’s standout performance for Hong Sangsoo to date, which earned her a Silver Bear for Best Actress from the Berlin International Film Festival (a first for a Korean performer), On the Beach at Night Alone is among the director’s most piercing and personal films. Along with the same year’s also terrific The Day After, the film offers brutally honest and complex look at relationships, but never quite comes across as a confessional.



34. Sunny (써니)
(Kang Hyoung-cheol, 2011)


Kang Hyoung-cheol’s infectious period youth drama Sunny was the ultimate sleeper hit of the decade, opening small and sticking around near the top of the charts for months. It’s hardly a surprise, with a compelling Shim Eun-kyoung leading a colourful ensemble cast through several striking set pieces.



33. Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno (밤섬해적단 서울불바다)
(Jung Yoon-suk, 2017)


Following his brilliant debut Non-Fiction Diary (which barely missed the cut for this list), Jung Yoon-suk didn’t miss a beat with his incendiary Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno, a film that appears like a punk band documentary but cuts deeply into modern Korean malaise with artful and kinetic asides.



32. The Spy Gone North (공작)
(Yoon Jong-bin, 2017)


Yoon Jong-bin’s complex and ambitious period spy yarn The Spy Gone North is very much Korea’s answer to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The result is gorgeously realised and surprisingly poignant with its unexpected North-South Korea central bromance, between the terrific leads Hwang Jung-min and Lee Sung-min.



31. Microhabitat (소공녀)
(Jeon Go-woon, 2017)


Jeon Go-woon, a member of the eclectic Gwanghwamun Cinema collective of filmmakers, debuted with the charming and lively Microhabitat. Esom is terrific as the listless lead in a film that clearly separated itself from the run of the mill indie films that had become so common.



30. Train to Busan (부산행)
(Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)


The little train that went right around the world, the zombie smash Train to Busan saw animator Yeon Sang-ho make an exceedingly successful transition to live-action cinema. It’s a terrific premise that’s extremely well-executed and brought to life by a great cast.



29. Bleak Night (파수꾼)
(Yoon Sung-hyung, 2010)


A wickedly dark and scathing high school-set debut from Yoon Sung-hyun. The film has had many imitators since and launched the careers of a couple of future superstars, Lee Je-hoon and Park Jung-min.



28. The Unjust (부당거래)
(Ryoo Seung-wan, 2010)


A terrific and explosively paced thriller in which characters face off with words the way they might with their fists if this was any other film by action maestro Ryoo Seung-wan. Hwang Jung-min, Ryoo Seung-bom and Yoo Hae-jin are a terrific triple threat as the leads.



27. A Midsummer's Fantasia (한여름의 판타지아)
(Jang Kun-jae, 2014)


A lyrical and understated work from Jang Kun-jae, A Midsummer’s Fantasia packs a quiet punch by the time its mirrored duel narratives, after gliding through the streets of the sleepy Japanese town Nara, reaches its moving conclusion.



26. Okja (옥자)
(Bong Joon-ho, 2017)


Another bold gamble from Bong Joon-ho, the Netflix-backed Okja is an irreverent and wildly colourful eco-adventure film stuffed with eccentric characters and a handful of dazzling sequences.



25. The Fortress (남한산성)
(Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2017)


One of the most difficult films on this list for anyone not intimately versed in Korean politics, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s sublime period siege drama The Fortress is a powerful political allegory that is rapturously shot and features scintillating performances from Lee Byung-hun and Kim Yun-seok.



24. Haemoo (해무)
(Shim Sung-bo, 2014)


Though the film was apparently plagued with several problems on set, Haemoo, the debut film by Memories of Murder scribe Shim Sung-bo and produced by Bong Joon-ho, is a rousing naval morality play and a terrific technical achievement. Think Korean 'Moby Dick'.



23. Stoker (스토커)
(Park Chan-wook, 2013)


Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut may have its faults but it's also a stunningly rendered and richly evocative gothic yarn whose images linger long after the curtains come up.



22. A Dream of Iron (철의 꿈)
(Kelvin Kyung-kun Park, 2014)


Kelvin Kyung-kun Park’s breathtaking tableaux bring us into the heart of Korea’s biggest industries. It’s a hypnotic and quasi-religious experience.



21. The Day He Arrives (북촌방향)
(Hong Sangsoo, 2011)


One of Hong Sangsoo's most irreverent outings, The Day He Arrives is luminously shot in black and white and makes terrific use of his beloved Bukcheon neighborhood.

20. Snowpiercer (설국열차)
(Bong Joon-ho, 2013)


Bong Joon-ho's first international project, the deliriously ambitious sci-fi opus Snowpiercer assembled one of the most impressive casts of the year in a film full of dazzling surprises and carefully mounting tension. A gripping and rip-roaring spectacle.



19. The World of Us (우리들)
(Yoon Ga-eun, 2016)


After making several delightful and evocative short films Yoon Ga-eun debuted as a feature filmmaker to instant acclaim with the tender The World of Us, a film that shows us the world of adults through children’s eyes, and is all the more profound for it.



18. Veteran (베테랑)
(Ryoo Seung-wan, 2015)


After the boldly ambitious spy yarn The Berlin File, Ryoo Seung-wan toned things down considerably for his next outing, the sleek, wily and uproarious Veteran, his very best film.



17. Han Gong-ju (한공주)
(Lee Su-jin, 2013)


A breakout hit that quietly premiered in the Vision section of the Busan International Film Festival to stunned audiences, Han Gong-ju is a confidently crafted social drama than unleashes powerful emotions in a devastating, if admittedly somewhat manipulative second half.



16. Swing Kids (스웡키즈)
(Kang Hyoung-cheol, 2018)


Kang Hyoung-cheol’s infectious Korean War tap dance extravaganza Swing Kids features some of the most dazzling sequences put the film this decade and it’s easily the most rhythmic Korean film ever made.


15. Bedevilled (김복님 살인사건 전말)
(Jang Cheol-soo, 2010)


Jang Cheol-soo’s sun-scorched debut is a glorious slowburn that simply and effectively spins its island revenge drama. Seo Young-hee is ace as the vengeful core of the film and what a finish.



14. The Yellow Sea (황해)
(Na Hong-jin, 2010)


Following his huge breakout out with The Chaser, Na Hong-jin delivered the breathless chase epic The Yellow Sea. It starts out slow and grimy and snowballs into a ferocious boulder of kinetic action.



13. Sleepless Night (잘 못 드는 밤)
(Jang Kun-jae, 2012)



Possibly the smallest film on this list, the achingly sincere and winsome Sleepless Night simply chronicles an endearing couple’s long hot summer. Jang Kun-jae’s second film is one of the very best Korean indie films out there, yet sadly one that received precious little attention.



12. I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다)
(Kim Jee-woon, 2010)


Ruthlessly efficient and almost nihilistic in its construction, Kim Jee-woon’s roaring revenge thriller I Saw the Devil pits Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik in an unforgettable and spoutingly crimson death chase.



11. 1987: When the Day Comes (1987)
(Jang Joon-hwan, 2017)


Save the Green Planet director Jang Joon-hwan finally scored a major box office hit with his third film, the altogether different 1987: When the Day Comes. This rich ensemble piece is exceptionally well paced and easily the most powerful on-screen treatment of the political tribulations of modern Korea’s darkest decade.



10. House of Hummingbird (벌새)
(Kim Bora, 2018)


Kim Bora exploded onto the indie scene with her barnstorming debut House of Hummingbird, an understated but finely crafted and enormously ambitious tale of youthful longing and confusion. We can surely expect great things from her in the future.


9. A Girl at My Door (도희야)
(July Jung, 2014)


A hugely impressive debut from July Jung, though she no doubt had help from producer Lee Chang-dong, whose influence is unmistakable, A Girl at My Door is an artful and immensely engaging drama starring a nuanced and mature Doona Bae in her best ever role.



8. Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다)
(Hong Sangsoo, 2015)


The first collaboration between Hong Sangsoo and Kim Min-hee is a breezy and deceptively complex film that for me stands as the best film in the prolific indie auteur’s body of work. I would also say it might be his most accessible work if anyone is looking for an entry point.



7. The Truth Beneath (비밀은 없다)
(Lee Kyoung-mi, 2016)


Well, given that I married the director of this film last year you may choose to take this ranking with a pinch of salt. But, if you can trust my words, I will say that The Truth Beneath didn’t merely prove that Crush and Blush director Lee Kyoung-mi was no one-trick pony, but that she is one of the most naturally gifted filmmakers in the country. Son Ye-jin has never been better and the film also features one of the late Kim Joo-hyuk’s very best roles.



6. The Handmaiden (아가씨)
(Park Chan-wook, 2016)


A sumptuous and sensual adaptation of Sarah Watars’ 'Fingersmith', The Handmaiden is a heady tale of intrigue and perversion and ranks as one of Park Chan-wook’s very best films. Kim Min-hee is outstanding and the film also introduced us to the wonderful new actress Kim Tae-ri, who has since firmly established herself as one of Korea’s biggest stars.



5. The Age of Shadows (밀정)
(Kim Jee-woon, 2016)


Following the middling reception of his Hollywood debut The Last Stand, Kim Jee-woon returned with his one of his best ever films, the thrilling period spy yarn The Age of Shadows. Dynamic, tense and beautifully mounted, it’s a modern day Melville-esque masterstroke.



4. Burning (버닝)
(Lee Chang-dong, 2018)


Eight years after Poetry, Lee Chang-dong returned with a film that saw him explore youth themes through a story that was part mystery, part thriller and all poetic dread. Now 6/6, we await with bated breath to see where the master will take us next.



3. The Wailing (곡성)
(Na Hong-jin, 2016)


It took quite a long time for Na Hong-jin to write, shoot and edit his third film but boy was it worth the wait as The Wailing is the most nerve-wracking Korean film of the decade and an utterly singular experience.



2. Poetry ()
(Lee Chang-dong, 2010)


An exceptionally mature and, naturally, poetic film from a master of cinema who can seemingly do no wrong. Getting Yoon Jong-hee out of retirement was a brilliant coup as her performance breathlessly elevates an already superlative script.


1. Parasite (기생충)
(Bong Joon-ho, 2019)


Pretty much everything you could ask for from a film. Bong Joon-ho surpassed his already lofty prior achievements and this time the whole word took notice. I’m not sure I’m ready to remove Memories of Murder from the top rank of my all-time favourites, but thankfully this is only a list for this decade, so I can leave that difficulty decision for another day.


Honourable Mentions


Alive (산다, 2014)
Another Child (미성년, 2019)
Ash Flower (재꽃, 2016)
The Avian Kind (조류인간, 2014)
Believer (독전, 2018)
The Day After (그후, 2017)
Factory Complex (위로공단, 2014)
Fatal (가시꽃, 2012)
The First Lap (초행, 2017)
Futureless Things (이것이 우리의 끝이다, 2014)
Gyeongju (경주, 2014)
HaHaHa (하하하, 2010)
A Hard Day (끝까지 간다, 2014)
Hotel by the River (강변호텔, 2018)
Inside Men (내부자들, 2016)
Jane (꿈의 제인, 2016)
The Journals of Musan (무산일기, 2010)
Juvenile Offender (범죄소년, 2012)
The King of Pigs (돼지의 왕, 2011)
The Man From Nowhere (아저씨, 2010)
A Matter of Interpretation (꿈보다 해몽, 2014)
The Merciless (불한당, 2017)
Merry Christmas Mr. Mo (메리 크리스마스 미스터 모, 2016)
Midnight Runners (청년경찰, 2017)
My Ordinary Love Story (내 연애의 기억, 2014)
National Security (남영동1985, 2012)
New World (신세계, 2013)
Non-Fiction Diary (논픽션 다이어리, 2013)
Oki's Movie (옥희의 영화, 2010)
Our Body (아워 바디, 2018)
Our Sunhi (우리 선희, 2013)
The Outlaws (범죄도시, 2017)
Pascha (파스카, 2014)
Pluto (명왕성, 2012)
Re-encounter (혜화,동, 2010)
Romance Joe (로맨스 조, 2011)
The Servant (방자전, 2010)
A Taxi Driver (택시운전사, 2017)
Unbowed (부러진 화살, 2011)
Worst Woman (최악의 하루, 2016)



Top 10 Lists

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

Genre   Gangster - Revenge

21 comments:

  1. Where's The Villainess/악녀?

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  2. The Man from Nowhere is the only good Korean film.

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  3. very good list.
    bookmarked for reference later

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  4. How about Tiny Forest? I thought it was a sweet movie. It made me want to go live on a farm and make makkeolli.

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  5. Thank you for this list, really enjoyed this site last couple of years. Really enjoying Korean cinema, and I'm little surprised that A taxi driver didn't get into the list🙂 But I have indeed seen a lot of great movies thanks to this site. Really appreciate your efforts, keep up with the great work. Best wishes from Norway

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  6. I thought you were joking about marrying the director but you guys are actually married LOL

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  7. I am surprised new world is not there

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  8. Miracle in Cell#9????

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  9. Why can't all these be in Netflix. Netflix only has Korean Dramas nothing more. :/

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