Back in December 2022, Sight and Sound released its updated list of The Greatest Films of All Time. This list, which was first presented in 1952, is prepared every ten years. For the first time, in this most recent iteration a Korean film made it into the top 100. There are no prizes for guessing which one. At number 93, it is the first foreign language movie to win the Oscar for best picture: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.
While everyone interested in Korean movies should watch Parasite if they haven’t already, I thought it would be of interest to look at the other Korean films that were voted for in the Sight and Sound poll, to see if there are any useful pointers for someone coming to Korean films afresh, or for someone who might want some recommendations for further watching.
First, before we launch into superlatives about how much more penetration Korean movies have achieved in this poll compared with the one ten years previously, really it’s a story of Parasite. In 2012, there were 7 Korean movies in the top 1000; this time there are 8. Not a huge leap forward. But perhaps there is a small achievement to be highlighted: last time only one film (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host) made it into the top 500; this time there are 3 (MUBI has a helpful listing of the 2012 poll here).
To give a bit of context, 2115 directors and critics participated in the 2022 poll. They were allowed to vote for 10 films each. Of these panelists, only 125 included a Korean movie in their top 10. One could do a whole series of articles on the voting patterns exhibited (do voters from a particular region prefer films from their region, for example?), but of course here we’ll focus just on the Korean movies and directors that feature in the panelists’ votes. To help in such analysis, BFI published a 21,000-row spreadsheet which records every single vote cast.
With a whole world of films to vote for, it comes as no surprise that most voters who included a Korean film in their top 10 only included one such film. But one voter included four, another included three, and four voters included two, perhaps indicating a specialism in the area. Only half of these specialists included Parasite in their top 10, and one of them didn’t include any Bong Joon-ho films at all. The other Bong movies to feature among these specialists were, understandably, Mother and Memories of Murder.
So, here’s a quick look at the top Korean movies in the poll:
|Table 1: Korean movies in Sight and Sound 2022 poll
(for brevity, only those movies with two or more votes are shown)
Table shows number of votes for the film and ranking of that film in the Sight and Sound list
|Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
|Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
|Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
|Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
|Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo, 2015)
|Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
|The Day He Arrived (Hong Sangsoo, 2011)
|Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)
|Secret Sunshine / Milyang (Lee Chang-dong, 2007)
|The Housemaid (Kim Ki-young, 1960)
|The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
|Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2002)
|Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 1999)
|Tale of Cinema (Hong Sangsoo, 2005)
|Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo, 2016)
|The Day After (Hong Sangsoo, 2017)
|Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)
|Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie (Jang Sun-woo, 1997)
|A Girl at My Door (July Jung, 2014)
|House of Hummingbird (Kim Bora, 2018)
Bong is clearly the darling of the voters. Even without Parasite, he would still have the top-rated film in the list with Memories of Murder (11 votes). Unsurprisingly, he is closely followed by Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (8 votes). This juxtaposition of these two great films from 2003 replicates the much smaller poll of polls we did for K-films of the noughties, in which those two movies came first and second respectively. Next comes Kim Ki-duk’s Spring Summer (another highly-regarded movie from 2003) and the first of many Hong Sang-soo films in the list. In fact, Hong is the second most voted-for director after Bong, coming above Lee Chang-dong who in turn pushes Park Chan-wook into fourth place.
Amongst the top four directors you wouldn’t go far wrong in watching any of their movies, whether included in the Sight and Sound list or not. With some of them, you wouldn’t go far wrong if you watched all their movies, though with Hong Sang-soo you’d rapidly end up with a sense of déjà vu – in fact it is telling that the votes for Hong are spread over so many (thirteen) of his films: there isn’t one which really stands out from the crowd.
So, now for a systematic step-through of the top seven directors – which I’m defining as those with at least three votes or two movies that register in the poll.
The top directors
Did the panel of experts pick the right movies from the top directors’ oeuvre? And which are the other contenders once you have watched those? Let’s take a look at the directors that feature in the poll and then think about what films the critics have chosen to highlight.:
|Table 2: Korean directors in Sight and Sound 2022 poll
(for brevity, only those directors with two or more votes are shown)
Table shows (L to R): number of films of that director voted for in the list; total number of votes for that director across all films; and ranking of that director in the list
|Bong Joon-ho (4)
|Hong Sangsoo (13)
|Lee Chang-dong (5)
|Park Chan-wook (4)
|Kim Ki-duk (2)
|Kim Ki-young (1)
|Im Kwon-taek (2)
|Jang Sun-woo (1)
|July Jung (1)
|Kim Bora (1)
When it comes to Bong Joon-ho, of course I’d recommend Parasite – for one thing you should be able to view it legally with relative ease. But while I enjoyed it I found the final quarter unnecessarily violent (not a criticism I normally level at a movie, but here it just felt out of place). I’d still place Memories of Murder top of the list of his best movies, closely followed by Mother and The Host – which in fact was the top-rated Korean movie (even outscoring Memories of Murder) in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, coming in at #498). And if you were turned off Bong as a director by Okja, give him another chance by exploring his other movies. It’s definitely not his finest hour and is one to be avoided.
With Park Chan-wook, sure, you have to watch Oldboy: it’s the classic Asia Extreme exhibit. But you should also, for contrast, watch his more recent Handmaiden and Decision to Leave. Lush visuals, great plot twists, and less gratuitous gore. After that, go back to explore Thirst, the quirky I’m a Cyborg and then the rest of the Vengeance trilogy (of which Oldboy is the second movie). But don’t prioritise Stoker.
As for Hong Sangsoo, well, toss a coin. You’d be fine starting with Right Now, Wrong Then – I quite enjoyed it when it screened at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival. If you’re a fan of Isabelle Huppert (and who isn’t?) you might out of curiosity want to try In Another Country or Claire’s Camera but I think it would be a mistake. When so much of Hong’s work relies on semi-improvised dialogue it places quite a burden on the Korean and French actors whose only shared language is English, with the result that the flow of conversation becomes overly stilted in both movies, and I can remember squirming in my seat in vicarious embarrassment for the actors concerned. I’d go for The Woman Who Ran next, (for a movie which involves no male leads, no soju drinking, and if I remember right no has-been movie director trying to reconnect with old lovers); or, from his earlier career, Turning Gate. Hong is a director who seems gradually to be getting more popular amongst non-specialists. in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll none of his movies got more than one vote, and so he had no movies in the top 1000. This time around, six of his movies get two or more votes, and two of his movies make it into the top 1000.
Lee Chang-dong possibly reached a wider western audience with his Burning (2018) than with previous movies, with a FIPRESCI award at Cannes 2018, and being the first Korean movie to be shortlisted for a foreign language Oscar, and it is therefore unsurprising that the movie scores well here. However, when LKL started preparing a poll of Korean film specialists of the best films of 2010-2019, Lee’s Poetry (2010 – which only gets one vote here) came out ahead of Burning, with one (male) critic commenting that without a strong female character in the ensemble (both Poetry and Secret Sunshine have strong, complex female leads, and Oasis has a strong partnership between male and female central character) the movie is too male-centric and not as interesting as some of his other work. But any of Lee’s movies is well worth watching, with Peppermint Candy being the one often picked by Korean film specialists as their favourite – though being heavily rooted in modern Korean history, in particular the 1980 Gwangju massacre, it may not be the best introduction to his work for a generalist viewer, for whom I’d recommend any of Oasis, Secret Sunshine or Poetry.
In a way, it’s a bit of a surprise to see Kim Ki-duk on the list: he has rather been filtered out of the Korean film scene following #MeToo, in which he was personally implicated, and many of his movies display scenes of violence against women which alienate many viewers. But Spring Summer, which is shot in some beautiful scenery and has a Buddhist theme, is a perennial favourite for western viewers, and was the second-highest-rated Korean movie in the Sight and Sound 2012 list (coming in at #548). 3 Iron, which also gets a vote in the latest poll, is another good-looking and recommendable movie, after which I’d recommend Coast Guard for its interesting commentary on life in the military.
Finally, two classic directors, and first, Im Kwon-taek, who has clocked up 102 features since his debut in 1962. His best-known films are those that look at Korean traditional culture: Chunhyang (2000 – which makes this list) and Seopyeonje (1993 – which doesn’t, though is well worth searching out) both deal with the pansori art of epic storytelling through song. Mandala, the other of his movies in the list with one solitary vote (it did better in the 2012 poll) deals with different approaches to Buddhism in a modern world. The Im film that most immediately appeals to me is Gilsoddeum, a sensitive look at the issue of families separated by the Korea War. The movie is not often shown but is available on the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.
And then Kim Ki-young, whose Housemaid (1960) regularly features in the lists of best ever Korean movies. It’s certainly at the top of Bong Joon-ho’s list, being the one Korean movie he included in his own top 10 for this Sight and Sound poll. Easily available on digital media and on YouTube, and highly recommended.
The Wild Cards
Now let’s take a look at some of the directors who only have one movie in the list, which apart from those in the bottom rows of the above table are the following: .
|Table 3: Korean movies with only one vote in Sight and Sound 2022 poll
(excluding movies by directors mentioned above)
|Dachimawa Lee (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2008)
|Mouth to Mouth (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, 1975)
|Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East (Bae Yong-kyun, 1989)
|Spider Forest (Song Il-gon, 2004)
|Crush and Blush (Lee Kyoungmi, 2008)
|Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)
|Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)
|Madame Freedom (Han Hyung-mo, 1956)
|Aimless Bullet (Yoo Hyeon-mok, 1961)
|Holiday (Lee Man-hee, 1968)
|Sanggyedong Olympics (Kim Dong-won, 1988)
From the above list, we move from the classic Kim Ki-young to more recent directors.
Eugene Kwon brings a smile to my face by including Ryu Seung-wan‘s Dachimawa Lee in his list. He cannot, I think, be serious. That 2008 movie has disappeared without trace and is impossible to find on DVD, though it once screened in London in 2011 as part of a Ryu Seung-wan retrospective. It is one of my guilty pleasures: a bonkers Austin-Powers-meets-the-Manchurian-Western affair that ends with a madcap scene on a Swiss ski-slope. Ryu Seung-wan is an action director who is usually well worth watching (though give Battleship Island a miss) and also usually generates good box office. The recently-published Ghiblioteque Film Korea includes his Veteran as one of its 30 films to focus on, and probably that’s the Ryu movie I’d recommend as a starting point too despite my affection of Dachimawa Lee.
Eugene Kwon also includes Kyoungmi Lee’s Crush and Blush in the list. By coincidence, in a Sight and Sound Korea Special which which was in the shops the same month that the poll results were released, that movie also gets a prestigious recommendation from Park Chan-wook (who produced the film). My recollection was that the movie, at the time, was rather under the radar – it didn’t generate much buzz. But it certainly has its supporters and Lee’s second movie, The Truth Beneath is one of the thirty picked for an in-depth look in the Ghiblioteque Film Korea.
And in fact there are some other interesting riffs between the 10-year poll and the special article from which that recommendation comes – whose full title is 30 Hidden Gems of New Korean Cinema, in which. Korean cinema specialists “pick great films from the past three decades that failed to get the attention they deserved in the UK.”
First, Anton Bitel includes Song Il-gon’s Spider Forest in his list for the 10-year poll. Bitel also contributes to the Hidden Gems list. While I wouldn’t put it in my list of top 10 films of all time, or even the top 10 Korean movies of all time, Bitel captures the atmosphere of this eerie movie well as an “uncanny psychological enigma”. Song Il-gon is not a mainstream director, but his output is well worth exploring, particularly Flower Island or Feathers in the Wind. The nearest analogue to Spider Forest I can think of is Kim Ji-woon’s Tale of Two Sisters – a well-regarded movie which often registers in people’s lists of must-see K-films.
Second, it’s nice to see someone put Bae Yong-gyun’s beautiful and enigmatic Why has Bodhidharma Left for the East in their list. It’s not a terribly well-known film by not a terribly well-known director, and probably is now only available illegally or second-hand. It was a movie to which I was introduced by Darcy Paquet’s Koreanfilm.org over 20 years ago and it was one of my first DVD purchases. But by some serendipity in the 30 Hidden Gems article critic Yoo Unseong brings Bae’s other movie, The People in White (1995), to our attention, calling it a “highly meditative film, deeply rooted in history and memory”. It’s a movie I hadn’t come across before but will definitely search it out (though I suspect it is impossible now to track down, like his earlier film).
Even more outré is Julian Ross’s recommendation of Theresa Hak-kyung Cha’s Mouth to Mouth. I hesitate to comment on a film I haven’t seen, but everything I have experienced from that multi-faceted artist, whether in written or video form, has been impenetrable. You’d be doing well to track down a legal copy of that particular film.
Now let’s take a quick look at the three directors at the bottom of Tables 1 and 2 above. First, July Jung, whose debut feature A Girl at my Door gets two votes: the movie was my favourite of 2014. Similarly, Kim Bora‘s House of Hummingbird also gets my endorsement, being one of my top three films screened in 2019. Both these films make it into the (as yet unpublished) LKL poll of top films 2010-2019. As for Jang Sun-woo‘s Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie I can’t comment as I’ve never seen it, but the choice is endorsed by the authors of the Ghiblioteque Film Korea book.
The remaining movies in Table 3 are recommendable in various ways: Train to Busan for launching a modern K-zombie genre; Minari as a thoughtful and representative movie of the Korean diaspora; Madame Freedom, Aimless Bullet and Holiday as classics from a different age; and finally Sanggyedong Olympics is an interesting documentary looking at the underprivileged neighbourhoods that where uprooted to make way for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Standing back from the above deep-dive into the BFI’s spreadsheet, are there any surprising omissions? Personally, for someone coming to Korean cinema for the first time I’d want to highlight, in addition to some of the big directors above, the output of:
- Kim Ji-woon (Tale of Two Sisters used to be in many people’s list of favourite Korean films)
- E J-yong (An Affair is one of my own personal favourites, but many of his other movies are worth looking at, particularly his mockumentaries Behind the Camera and Actresses)
- Im Sang-soo (A Good Lawyer’s Wife is another classic)
And a couple of other recommendations:
- Take Care of My Cat (dir Jeong Jae-eun, 2001) – an indie masterpiece following the lives of five young women in their first year out of high school
- Microhabitat (dir Jeon Go-woon, 2017) – a lovely study of a young woman trying to hold on to some of life’s pleasures in a cost of living crisis
- The Wailing (dir Na Hong-jin, 2015) – a supernatural thriller that will leave you reeling.
The detailed data underlying Sight and Sound poll contain a few eccentricities, but also provide a useful route in to Korean cinema for someone coming to it for the first time. As an adjunct to the above discussion, I’d highly recommend Film Korea: The Ghibliotheque guide to the wonderful world of Korean cinema – which has an excellent list of thirty movies (by thirty different directors) as a way in to Korean film. Again, I’d want to extend that list to at least 32 because they miss out two of my favourites, but others will no doubt have some different choices altogether.
Looking forward to the 2032 poll, it’s probably safe to say that the likes of Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook will continue to feature in the list, but what will be interesting is to see what new directors will be on the radar of the international critics.
- Sight and Sound magazine
- The Sight and Sound poll homepage
- Sight and Sound’s 30 Hidden Gems of New Korean Cinema listed out on MUBI
- Buy the Ghibliotheque Film Korea guide at Amazon