Top 10 Korean Films of 2005

Top 10 and Comments from Brian

1. Bittersweet Life

This has seemingly all been seen before - the gangster life with its strong doses of male bonding, betrayal, the surrounding violence, a beautiful woman who softens a hard heart and a John Woo finale - but I don't know if it’s been done much better than this. This is just simply brilliant - the mood is sleek and dangerous with a wonderful physical rhythm that is hypnotic and Lee Byung-heon as the coolest of gangsters in his designer suits and calm composure is in complete command until he shows one moment of humanity and his world falls out from under him in a heartbeat.

2. GIT

Korea had two great adult romantic films in 2005 and both tanked completely at the box office. This film and Green Chair. There is hardly a plot to write about in GIT - it’s a beautifully shot Zen like work of slow moments that will sneak up on you and drill to the center of your heart. A lonely film director goes to a small island in the off season in hopes that his ex-girlfriend of years ago will keep her 10-year old promise to show up. While waiting for her to come, he goes about his days and fills his time with simply living in the present. He chats with the sister of the hotel owner, stares out at the sea, takes walks - nothing much happens – yet it’s deliriously romantic. This is so refreshing - the director never looks down and plays to the audience with big emotional melodramatic scenes but just delivers a small slice of life story that felt so much larger.

3. Welcome to Dongmakgol

This was the second biggest box office film of the year and for a rarity its popularity is matched by the quality of the film. I went in expecting a soppy dim-witted Korean comedy and came away completely emotionally undone - this debut work from director Park Kwang-hyun is amazing. It’s kind of like Brigadoon meets the Korean War and whips back and forth between the magical, the comical, the brutal and the tragic to wonderful dizzying effect. In some ways the film goes just where you expect it to but while doing so it creates an emotional core that becomes devastating by the end.

4. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Park Chan-wook’s third and final piece in his trilogy of revenge films is so visually glorious and imaginative that one can easily be swept along like a swift rip tide. He seems to constantly play with his presentation – imagery that made me gulp like a school boy in love – an ever constant parade of changing colors, texture and camera angles with playful swirls and doodles as add-ons. It simply knocked me out. This isn’t quite enough to allow me to completely overlook the lack of a strong emotional core within this beautifully wrapped gift, but it’s often times comical overtones and stunning appearance made for a great viewing experience.

5. Green Chair

A lonely married woman in her thirties sleeps with a young man and goes to jail for this offense. She does her time and as soon as she is out she immediately jumps into bed and into a continuance of their torrid affair. It is incredibly sexy and passionate, but what I loved most about this film is it’s lack of being judgmental and an ending that didn’t make them pay for their “sin” against social morays – it basically says love and good sex is a higher calling than being polite and to go for it. A masterful work.

6. Crying Fist

Two boxers on the fringe of society are destined to meet in the ring looking for a little redemption in their lives and the viewer is left with an emotional conundrum – we want them both to win and in a sense they both do. Melodramatic and poignant, this tears at your heart with good intentions and two ferociously appealing performances.

7. Rules of Dating

Though this has all the packaging of yet another romantic comedy, if so it is certainly one of the most subversive ones I have come across. A teacher is assigned a female student teacher as his assistant and puts the moves on her immediately – then virtually rapes her – and then dates her – then falls in love with her. Part of me recoiled in horror that this was portrayed as a sort of romance, but part of me was fascinated by it as well. Repulsive and romantic, it is moored by a terrific performance from Gang Hye-jung as the student teacher.

8. April Snow

Director Hur Jin-ho gets wonderfully gentle performances from his actors (Christmas in August, One Fine Spring Day) and in a film industry that often seems to prize yelling and crying, his films are a lovely oasis of reflection and reticence. In an echo of “In the Mood for Love”, a man and a woman meet after their significant others are in an automobile accident and they discover that they were having an affair. As they wait for their recovery, they slowly drift into one themselves partly for revenge but also partly to fill a hole in their lives. It’s a lovely slow moving film that quietly explores desperate passion.

9. The President's Last Bang

A mocking irreverent rendering of the assassination of President Park in 1979 that is all the funnier because it is based on true events and because it so annoyed much of the Korean establishment. Everyone from the perpetrators to the government come across as idiots without a clue. After the killing is performed, the Three Stooges who carry it out flounder without a plan on what to do next – somewhat similar to a recent invasion of a foreign country – and always a good reminder that because people are in power doesn’t necessarily mean they are smart.

10. Red Shoes

Stunningly shot with deep colors, striking close-ups and fevered imagery, “Red Shoes” veers wildly between art film and genre film, but every frame is beautifully thought out and rendered. The film is cluttered emotionally with almost too much angst – paranoia, anger, jealousy, infidelity, obsession, madness, sexual desire and a suggested Electra Complex. All these tangled up emotions create a messy layered sense of psychosis that surrounds the basic horror elements of the story with unnerving effect. Assisting all this are isolated urban settings, eerie atmospherics, a jarring musical score and some terrific acting from Kim Hye-soo and Park Yeon-ah (who succeeds the little girl in “The Phone” as one more reason never to have children!).