Thursday, December 31, 2020

Top 10 Korean Films of 2020

By Pierce Conran

Korean cinema reached its peak in 2020, but, as it turned out, it did so far too early, and the rest of the year… well, I suppose we’ll have to put a big asterisk over it.

Parasite (2019) made history as the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but that now feels like a lifetime ago, as just a fortnight later the Korean film industry almost ground to a halt, with the rest of the world not far behind. The last 10 months have been a slow, never-ending grind, with a global pandemic lapping up against the peninsula in consecutive waves.

Cinemas, thankfully, have stayed open, but audiences have hit record lows. Very few major films were released, which has caused a major backlog of unreleased content. With so much uncertainty as to when things will get back to normal, and even if the film industry can ever be the same, few new projects have been greenlit, and among those that have, several have experienced temporary shutdowns owing to public health concerns.

This is normally the place where I explore the various themes and trends of Korean film over the course of the year that was, but since Covid has decimated the release calendar, it’s difficult to analyse the industry’s output this year.

Many local pundits have highlighted all the female-centric content that’s emerged this year, but I’m a little more pessimistic. It’s true that women directors are making their presence felt in the indie scene, but while more women directors are making commercial films than ever before, the fact the films directed by women or which are largely about women were very evident in theaters means only one thing to me. Investors still don’t trust women directors or films aimed at women, abandoned what they thought would be losing content in a fallow year, and saved all their male-heavy big guns for greener post-Covid pastures.

One thing’s for certain though, the move to streaming has only accelerated. Several films that were supposed to have theatrical releases (Time to Hunt, The Call, Space Sweepers) were instead picked up by Netlfix and with investment options drying up, top film directors are being picked up by streamers in large numbers.

So on to the list. Despite 2020’s myriad challenges, I still managed to see 65 feature films this year, though sadly almost nothing from the Jeonju International Film Festival, which press couldn’t get access to this year. I also haven’t seen Night in Paradise, Park Hoon-jung’s film which debuted at the Venice International Film Festival this year. Besides that I think I’ve pretty much covered everything and as usual this list only includes films that screened for the first time in 2020. So indie favourites such as Moving On, which previously debuted at festivals, counted toward last year’s list.

Without further ado, here are my 10 best Korean films of 2020, with a few honourable mentions underneath.

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

Happy New Year from MKC and here's looking to a better year ahead! Please stay safe out there.

1. Josée

One of the most consistently rewarding voices on the Korean indie film circuit is Kim Jong-kwan, a director who has brought a unique sensibility and beautiful turns of phrase to films like Worst Woman (2016) and The Table (2016), works that frequently find two characters in lengthy but captivating conversations. Despite what might be described as their ‘talky’ nature, his films are carefully staged, evoking an ethereal quality that elevates Kim’s gorgeous dialogue and the wonderful performances he directs.

This year (this month in fact), Kim finally unveiled his first commercial film, the romantic drama Josée, a remake of the modern Japanese classic Josee, the Tiger and the Fish (2003). A sublime and achingly rendered adaptation, it boasts a tactility and texture that is rare in modern cinema. Though extremely different films, the specificness and sensory uniqueness of Josée reminded me in some ways of last year’s The Lighthouse. As this was the last ever local film distributed by Warner Bros Korea and released near the peak of the pandemic here, Josée was robbed of a domestic audience, but I dearly hope it will reach the audience it deserves in the near future.

2. The Woman Who Ran
(도망친 여자)

Prolific auteur Hong Sang-soo received one of his most illustrious prizes this year, earning the Silver Bear for Best Director for his latest work The Woman Who Ran. His most female-centric work to date, and a wonderful showcase for his cast, it was a deserving winner of the prize. Hong’s works have always been very controlled, but while his new film is no exception, its effortless tone has perhaps made it seem slight to some. Yet it is anything but, and if anything sees him move more aggressively into new territory than he has for a while.

It’s a confessional (under the surface) once more, with all the men seen or referenced in the film clearly coming off as narcissistic or even downright creepy, while the women, each trying to escape in their own way, are extremely nuanced. Kim Min-hee, working for the seventh time with Hong, is a delight, as are her main co-stars Seo Young-hwa, Song Sun-mi and Kim Sae-byeok.

3. Self-Portrait 2020
(셀프-포트레이트 2020)

I’ll admit that I put Self-portrait 2020 pretty low on my watchlist for this year’s Busan International Film Festival, but who knew that this almost three-hour document of a garrulous drunk’s perambulations in Central Seoul would become my favourite film of BIFF this year?

Director Lee Dong-woo meets a vagrant who drunkenly rambles about whatever strikes his fancy and follows him for several years. To his shock, it turns out that the man made a short film which was invited to compete at both the prestigious Venice International Film Festival and the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival two decades earlier. This riveting documentary introduces us to a fascinating character as it explores an unseen and unseemly side of Seoul.

4. The Call

A breathless, stylish and deliciously demented remake of the Puerto Rican film The Caller, The Call is the debut from bright new talent Lee Chung-hyun, who has been impressing people in the industry with his short film work. This wicked little thriler features Park Shin-hye and Jun Jong-seo (fresh from her sensational debut in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning) battling across time in a deliriously fun ride that only falters slightly in a relentless climax. It’s the freshest addition to the flagging Korean thriller genre since 2018’s Door Lock.

5. Steel Rain 2: Summit
(강철비 2: 정상회담)

While I didn’t dislike Steel Rain (2017), I certainly wasn’t looking forward to its in-name-only sequel, which drops Jung Woo-sung and Kwak Do-won as new characters into another geopolitical action quagmire on the Korean peninsula.

I was gleefully surprised to find out that my preconceived antipathy for the project was wildly misplaced, as Steel Rain 2: Summit was the summer blockbuster that had it all. Action beats, tense thrills, surprise heroes to root for and, best of all, the most on point comic sensibility of the year. Angus MacFayden is a riot as the Trumpesque US leader, while Shim Jung-geun almost steals the film from under everyone as the reliable submarine commander.

6. Festival

Winner of four awards at this year Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (full disclosure, I was on that jury), Festival is a marvellous calling card for new director Kim Lok-kyung. It begins as a somewhat turgid funeral drama as a poor brother and sister don’t know who to pay for the funeral of their father who has just died, but it suddenly turns into a bright and life-affirming comedy when the brother leaves the funeral to make a few bucks on a gig in the countryside. Ha Jun is terrific in the lead, but the film boasts a tremendous cast of ace supporting actors.

7. Me and Me
(사라진 시간)

Veteran actor Jung Jin-young (you may remember him as King Yeonsan in The King and the Clown) tried his hand at directing this year with the thoroughly intriguing mystery-thriller Me and Me. Cho Jin-woong plays a detective investigating the mysterious fire that claimed the life of a teacher and his wife. One day he wakes up and finds that he has become the teacher.

The first part of the film, in which Bae Soo-bin plays the teacher, is a magnetic showcase of cinematic mystery. The rest of the story, which can a little hard to follow, doesn’t quite live up to that early promise, but Me and Me remains a convincing showcase of Jung’s capabilities as a director.

8. Young Adult Matters
(어른들은 몰라요)

I was less than enthused with Park Hwa-young (2017), the debut of director Lee Hwan which bowed at the Busan International Film Festival, but his sophomore film Young Adult Matters, despite exploring similar subject matter with an equally abrasive approach, proved to be a gigantic improvement. A manic and magnetic central performance from Lee Yoo-mi carries this stylish and propulsive dive into the violent and chaotic world of youths trying to survive on the fringes of Seoul.

9. The Man Standing Next
(남산의 부장들)

It’s no Inside Men (2015), but the second team-up between director Woo Min-ho and star Lee Byung-hun is not something to be taken lightly. A rich and taut telling of one of Korea’s most important historical incidents, The Man Standing Next explores the days leading up the assassination of president Park Chung-hee in 1979, with Lee playing the man holding the smoking gun. Lee is of course terrific, especially when he handles the turn in his character, and the climax is a belter, but the film occasionally doesn’t add up to its many strong elements. Like the flawed The Drug King (2018) he made before this, Woo seems keen to show off his star and his crew’s technical dazzle dazzle, without quite getting at the heart of his story.

10. Zombie Crush in Heyri
(좀비크러쉬: 헤이리)

After the delightful coffee prohibition indie drama-thriller Coffee Noir: Black Brown (2017), director Jang Hyun-sang brings us his take on the undead with the winningly twee horror-comedy Zombie Crush in Heyri. Lee Min-ji, Park So-jin and Gong Min-jung are a terrific trio as three friends who have to fight off a zombie plague that strikes their neighbourhood. Not everything lands, but when there’s so much originally on display it’s hard not to won over by this charming twist on a well-worn genre.

Honourable Mentions

Beast Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들)
Deliver us from Evil (다만 악에서 수하소서)
A Leave (휴가)
Limecrime (란임크라임)
Snowball (최선의 삶)
Spiritwalker (유체이탈자)
Three Sisters (세자매)
Vestige (달이 지는 밤)

Top 10 Lists

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

2010s (Top 50) - All Time (Top 25)



  1. Korean title for "The Call" is incorrect. It is just 콜. 남매의 여름밤 is a completely different film.

    1. Oops! Thanks for catching that. It was carried over from last year's list (남매의 여름밤 was #4 for 2019).

  2. Are you and the site still active Mr Conran?

    1. I wish I had time to maintain it properly, but yes it's still active! At the very least I will keep doing the end of year lists, and occasionally a few other pieces when I find the time...

  3. Thanks for the list of movies Pierce. I'm looking forward to more recommendations.