Welcome to my list of South Korean film reviews! I haven’t seen that many yet, but every film I’ve seen has been very memorable, so I thought I’d make a tab for it. Let me know if you have any recommendations! :)
Based on the Japanese anime Antique Bakery (see here for my thoughts on the anime), this is a movie about four guys, some of whom are gay, who work in a bakery. The film is fast-paced and very fun, with excellent acting and a murder mystery subplot there that was really well done. I totally love the gorgeous Kim Jaewook’s character here.
In this collection of three short films, the end of the world arrives in various fashions. In the first, “Brave New World” by director Pil-sung Yim, the zombie apocalypse comes from a very mundane origin in Seoul, with a bonus love story. This story is actually very funny at times, and some of the news reports and scenes of chaos had me laughing hysterically. In the second, “Heavenly Creature” by director Kim Jiwoon, things get dramatic when a robot gains Buddhist enlightenment in a heavily robot-populated future. This one raises interesting philosophical questions about what it means to be alive and human, but I wanted to see more of the world outside the monastery that we were given a few tantalizing glimpses of. In the third, “Happy Birthday,” again by director Pil-sung Yim (with director Kim Jiwoon assisting), a little girl inadvertently sends an unusual meteor hurtling toward earth. Like the zombie one, this story has some very, very funny moments even though it’s about the end of the world. It also features actress Doona Bae, who was great in Cloud Atlas and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
A Frozen Flower
A period drama about a king (played by Joo Jinmo) who is under a lot of pressure to make his queen (played by Song Jihyo) pregnant, so he charges his chief bodyguard (played by Jo Insung) with the task instead. Unfortunately, though, the king is also in love with his bodyguard. Extreme angst and drama and swordfights ensue! The story is rather tragic but still very interesting.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK
Park Chanwook directs this quirky romance starring Lim Sujeong and Rain (!!) about a girl who is convinced she is a cyborg and sent to a mental institution, where she meets a host of unconventional characters. Unfortunately, being a cyborg means that she only licks batteries instead of eating actual food, which increasingly becomes an issue. The tone of this film varies pretty wildly, as some things that happen are just cute, others are actually heartbreaking, and still others are rather gruesome, but I found it rewarding, particularly for Lim Sujeong’s performance. She’s fantastic. I like the matter-of-fact way each of the characters deals with the eccentricities of the other patients.
The King and the Clown
In this period drama set in the 14th century, two performing comedians/acrobats are arrested for making fun of the king and his concubine but get the chance to make him laugh in order to stay their execution. One of the two (played by Lee Junki) is so gorgeous that he captures the king’s attention. But the king is increasingly unstable and homicidal, and their situation becomes desperate. I can honestly say this is one of my favorite movies ever. I found the focus on the arts as well as how dangerous it was to live under the rule of such a tyrannical king totally fascinating, and I was very impressed by the gay thematic undertones. The deep friendship between the two “clowns,” played by Kam Wooseong and Lee Junki, drove the piece for me. (Several Kpop groups have parodied this movie!)
The third in the thematic “Vengeance Trilogy” directed by Park Chanwook. Lee Geum-ja spends thirteen years in a women’s prison for a crime she didn’t commit (kidnapping and murdering a young boy), and upon her release she comes up with a master plan to catch and punish the actual murderer. Visually beautiful and surprising with some lovely imagery, like Geum-ja’s blood-red eyeshadow. I particularly loved the incredibly tense Korean-to-English translation scene between three important characters. Lee Young-ae is amazing as Geum-ja, and it’s fun to recognize the other actors from different Park Chanwook films.
An intriguing mystery-thriller about a mother who is dedicated to her mentally handicapped son. When the justice system fails them and he is arrested for a horrific murder and tricked into confessing, she takes it upon herself to investigate and uncover the truth. Both Kim Hye-ja (the mother) and Bin Won (the son) are compelling, though I found the plot a bit confusing at times.
The second in the thematic “Vengeance Trilogy” directed by Chanwook Park. Oh Daesu (played by Choi Minsik) is captured and kept locked in a hotel room with only the television for company—for fifteen years. Upon his release, he dedicates his life to discovering who put him there and why, aided by his new friend, Mido (played by Kang Hyejong). Holy crap. This is one of the most intricately plotted and fascinating and brutal mystery-thrillers ever, keeping me riveted the entire time. A must-see, if you can handle lots of gore.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
The first in the thematic “Vengeance Trilogy” directed by Chanwook Park. A deaf man, Ryu, whose sister needs a kidney transplant, decides to deal with shady people in order to get her the organ. When the deal goes sour and he needs money, he kidnaps the young daughter of a rich businessman, and both the men declare vengeance. Plotty and interesting. I love the scene where both the men (played by Shin Hakyun and Song Kangho) are stuck waiting for one another without knowing it. Doona Bae (from Cloud Atlas!) is also really good as Ryu’s anarchist girlfriend.
Taegukgi: the Brotherhood of War
An epic and complex film about two brothers in the Korean War, starting in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. The older brother (played by Jang Dong-gun) has dedicated his life to protecting his younger brother (played by Won Bin), which continues when they are forced to enlist in the army, and beyond. In my opinion, this is a must-see for anybody interested in the Korean War.
A very unconventional and incredibly dark take on a vampire tale, directed by Chanwook Park. Song Kangho plays Sanghyun, a priest who contracts vampirism (which is not a romantic or attractive disease but something that causes horrible boils unless you drink blood) through a medical experiment. After a night of majong, Sanghyun falls in love with his friend’s wife, Taeju (played amazingly by Kim Ok-bin), who lives with her sickly husband and domineering mother-in-law. Sanghyun and Taeju being an illicit and passionate affair that is complicated by his disease. A very unusual take on the vampire genre, this one almost reminded me of the Swedish Let the Right One In with its dark tone and exploration of conflicted ethics. Kim Ok-bin’s character totally stole the show for me as a bored housewife whose life is rejuvenated by Sanghyun’s arrival.
A collection of three shorter horror films from China (“Dumplings” by director Fruit Chan), South Korea (“Cut” by director Park Chan-wook), and Japan (“Box” by director Takashi Miike). Various themes run through the three stories (like love gone wrong/cheating/incest, the creepy crunching/stretching/creaking noise), but they each stand alone. “Dumplings” is about a woman who seeks an nontraditional remedy to aging and has more of a squick factor than anything scary, per se. “Cut” is about a psychopathic film extra who is obsessed with his director and is very gory. “Box” is the most enigmatic of the stories, about a novelist with a very creepy past history regarding her sister and father.