Mark Russell led the way with his fascinating list of films of the decade – in which the biggest shock was that there was no Park Chan-wook. GI Korea also has a list, which redresses the balance somewhat. So here is mine.
Over the years I’ve been reasonably diligent in giving marks out of 10 to the films I’ve watched, and so it was a simple task to pull off a list in descending order. But the resulting list looked unbalanced. Looking back at the films released in the noughties, there are films that I really want to watch again which are not in the initial top 10 list (after all, there’s a limit to the number of times you want to watch, say, Oldboy). So the list below is a hybrid list of my favourites and recommended viewing by genre. Some of the choices were easy. Others were more difficult.
(1) The outright winner
Bong Joon-ho: Memories of Murder (2003).
Sorry to be boring, but when asked the usual question “what’s your favourite Korean film” I’ve been reasonably consistent about this over the past couple of years, and this one is it. I very rarely feel like spontaneously applauding at the end of a film screening, but this was one occasion.
Of course, any of Bong’s films could easily end up in a top 10 list of this nature. The one that I most want to revisit, after Memories of Murder, is Barking Dogs Never Bite. But Mother and The Host also need to be watched again.
(2) – (5) Four other easy recommendations (in no particular order)
Lee Chang-dong: Oasis (2002)
A film that sticks in the mind long after you’ve watched it, even though it’s not a film which is designed particularly to entertain. This is a film that challenges you, and is a stark critique of Korean society’s attitude to the disabled.
Jang Jun-hwan: Save the Green Planet (2003)
Im Sang-soo: A Good Lawyers Wife (2003)
From Im Sang-soo’s so-called Modern History Trilogy, this is an enthralling film, in part about marital infidelity but actually about much more than that. Koreanfilm.org’s Kyu-hyun Kim said after watching it: “I was shaken like a rag doll”. That pretty much sums it up for me.
Kim Ji-woon: Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
A movie genre in which Korea seems to excel is the spooky horror film. The Whispering Corridors series probably reignited the genre for the modern era, with films such as Phone, Into the Mirror, R-Point, all finding a ready audience in the west. But the outstanding example of the genre is Kim Ji-woon’s Tale of Two Sisters.
(6) The tough choice – Which Park Chan-wook film?
Park Chan-wook: Oldboy (2003)
Then the problem. How, pace Mark Russell, can you have a top 10 list without a Park Chan-wook film? But which one? Thirst for many was a return to form after Cyborg, which has its own qualities but not ones which appeal to the Asia Extreme audience. Of the Vengeance Trilogy, Lady V is the most accessible, Oldboy is the film which caught everyone’s attention in the West, while Mister V is the most interesting (because it’s the least Western-friendly). And it was the huge success of JSA that gave Park the springboard to experiment with Mister V. In my unedited list, Lady Vengeance was the one which I rated highest, while Mister V is the one I most want to re-watch. But because Oldboy is the film which brought Park Chan-wook and Korean film in general to Jonathan Ross’s attention, that’s the one I’ve picked.
(7) A period masterpiece
Bae Chang-ho: Jeong (2000)
An overlooked film, and a title that’s difficult to translate. The official international title is My Heart. Maybe it’s because this was one of the first Korean films I watched and I’ve always retained a special fondness for it. The story of love, endurance, duty, and suffering over a long life is well worth digging out.
(8) – (10) The rest, including some guilty pleasures
The remainder of the top 10 list is a real struggle. If I were being honest, I’d put in some more Bong Joon-ho (Barking Dogs), Park Chan-wook (Lady V), Im Sang-soo (Old Garden) or, most likely of all, Lee Chang-dong (Milyang). But these directors already have a film in the top 10.
If I were being dishonest, I’d put in some Hong Sang-soo (Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors or On Remembering the Occasion of the Turning Gate being the most user-friendly that I have seen), but I never find myself gripped by his movies.
I wish I could bring myself to include an Im Kwon-taek in the list. If I had to, it would be his 100th, Beyond the Years, because of its association with Sopyonje, but I did find it rather hard going. Chunhyang is a deservedly admired film, but it’s not one I have a burning desire to re-watch, which is the main criterion for being included on this list.
Should I include a Kim Ki-duk? I quite enjoyed Four Seasons; The Isle is his film which I have watched most; and Address Unknown and Coastguard are the ones I currently most want to re-watch, for being more grounded in the real world than some of the others.
Should I include a modern history blockbuster? Silmido is popular in this genre, Taegugki is the most bludgeoning Korean film I have ever seen, but if forced to include a film of this genre, it would be Kim Ji-hoon’s May 18 (2007).
Martial arts: Kim Tae-gyun: Volcano High (2001)
Martial Arts is not a genre in which the Korean film industry excels. Getting the balance of fun and action just right is difficult. City of Violence was too grim; Bichunmoo, which tried to catch the wave of Crouching Tiger, was fun but hard to follow; while Arahan was a touch silly, and Ahn Sung-ki must regret his decision to appear in it. But Volcano High, which had some fun action scenes set in the framework of high school rivalries, was pure enjoyment.
Teen Rom-Com: Kim Gyeong-hyeong: My Tutor Friend (2003)
I know I’ve lost all credibility by including this popcorn flick, but one needs a bit of lightweight entertainment once in a while. Korea does the fish-out-of-water rom com well. My Sassy Girl is of course the one that springs to mind, and another secret favourite of mine is Love Bakery, but My Tutor Friend is one that has stuck in my mind for this genre, and is near the top of the pile of DVDs for re-watching.
Romantic melodrama: Kwak Jae-young: The Classic (2002)
After My Sassy Girl, director Kwak Jae-young had a carte blanche with his next film, and he chose a more grown up romance. The melodrama is a staple of Korean film, and this one is nicely done. Plot twists, flashbacks, voiceovers, intertwining narratives, lovers who can’t express their emotions… they’re all there. Plus some nice scenery. Maybe if I rewatch it I’ll hate it, in which case Byun Young-joo’s Ardor (2002) or Lee Eon-hee’s neglected …ing (2003) might make it onto the list.
In fact, reviewing the above list, it looks like 2003 was a pretty good year all round.