Top 10 Korean Films of 2017

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 9.55.52 AMWhile the films released throughout any particular year are indicative of a country’s identity, for Korean cinema in 2017 the exploration of political and social issues were especially revealing of the cultural shift that has arisen in the wake of Park Geun-hye’s presidency.

The political upheaval was echoed through several historical films/documentaries focused on past atrocities, democratization, and the relationship with North Korea. This in turn has inspired considerable – and often heated – debate between the right and left, as well as resulting in plenty of tears at the multiplex.

In truth, 2017 was not an especially strong year for K-cinema (and when compared with 2016 this seems even more the case), yet there were a number of releases that were bold, provocative and pulled at the heart strings. The titles contained in this list are from films that were seen for the first time either through nationwide release or at film festivals throughout the year.

No. 10 – The King <더 킹>

The King

Released way back on January 18th, The King stylishly depicts the dark underbelly of corrupt politicians and law-makers, and their collusion with gangsters to achieve power. Director Han Jae-rim (The Face Reader, The Show Must Go On) conducts all the power-grabs, betrayals and violence with a playful relish that is consistently entertaining, crafting likeable anti-heroes in the mould of gangster epics such as Goodfellas in his peak-behind-the-curtains tale of corruption.

No. 9 – The Battleship Island: Director’s Cut <군함도: 감독판>

BattleshipThe Battleship Island was intended as the big blockbuster of 2017, yet as soon as the theatrical cut was released it proved particularly divisive. The Director’s Cut, which appeared at the Busan Film Festival in October, improves things. It’s a big entertaining blockbuster high on production values and spectacle, with director Ryoo Seung-wan (Veteran, The Berlin File) bombastically helming the tragic story with confidence. Battleship Island: Director’s Cut is also notable for depicting some Koreans as pro-Japanese during the war, something that would have been unthinkable until recently.

No. 8 – Midnight Runners <청년경찰>

Midnight

Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Midnight Runners was easily one of the most fun K-films of the year. Frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, director Kim Joo-hwan’s story of two socially inept police cadets who stumble onto organised crime is far more fun than it has any right to be. The gags come thick and fast while the kinetic action set pieces are greatly entertaining, yet the film also has real heart as the bonds of friendship and the injustices suffered by runaways are depicted.

No. 7 – The Outlaws <범죄도시>

OutlawsAll hail Ma Dong-seok. Another hugely entertaining action-comedy that came out of left field, action-comedy The Outlaws sees the incredibly charismatic Mr. Ma as a tough cop battling against Chinese gangsters. Director Kang Yoon-sung’s impressive debut was a surprise hit upon release thanks to strong word of mouth, earning just over $52.7 million at the box office (KoBiz). Featuring great humour, adrenaline-pumping action and high stakes, The Outlaws cements Ma Dong-seok’s credentials not only as an action star but as leading man material.

No. 6 – Blue Butterfly Effect <파란나비효과>

BlueWinner of the Documentary Award at Jeonju Film Festival, director Park Moon-chil’s Blue Butterfly Effect follows the escalation of tension as the THADD missile system is forcibly positioned within a small farming community. The film brilliantly captures not only the political strife surrounding the issue but also the manner in which the protest movement is formed from grass roots through to a force to be reckoned with. Criminally under appreciated upon release, Blue Butterfly Effect offers great insight into the nature of Korean political unrest.

Top 10 Films of 2017 – No. 5~1

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Top 10 Korean Films of 2016

Top 10 Korean Films of 2015

Top 10 Korean Films of 2014 – Most Memorable Moments of 2014

Top 10 Korean Films of 2013 – Most Memorable Moments of 2013

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Memories of the Sword (협녀, 칼의 기억) – ★★☆☆☆

Memories of the SwordMany years ago, a peasant uprising led by the legendary 3 Swords goes awry when Deok-gi (Lee Byung-hun) betrays the band of warriors by aligning with the corrupt king and murdering Poong-chun (Bae Soo-Bin). Distraught, Seol-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) flees with Poong-chan’s infant daughter Hong-yi, vowing revenge. 18 years later, Hong-yi (Kim Go-eun) has become a master swordsman thanks to the tutelage of the now-blind Seol-rang, and upon learning of her tragic history embarks on a quest to avenge her father.

Hong-yi prepares to test her skills

Hong-yi tests her skills against the military’s finest warrior

Memories of the Sword is perhaps best described as a Korean attempt at the wuxia sub-genre, a particularly bold undertaking by writer/director Park Heung-sik considering the its very Chinese origins and the quality of titles to emerge. To his credit, Memories of the Sword is a handsomely shot film and often features beautifully composed sequences as characters interact with stunning natural landscapes. The film owes a huge debt of gratitude to cinematographer Kim Byeong-seo as he employs wuxia traits to make a visually engaging and stylised piece of work that is rare in K-cinema.

Yet Memories of the Sword falls apart due to its highly convoluted plot and poor narrative structure. Attempts to create melodrama and intrigue between characters quickly become tedious as the relationships and shared histories presented are laborious to endure, while big reveals that could have injected tension into the story are haphazardly divulged. As such, it’s often difficult to tell whether Memories of the Sword is a reverential wuxi undertaking or a parody of the genre.

MotS

Blind master Seol-rang perfects her swordplay

Both Jeon Do-yeon and Lee Byung-hun are without a doubt two of the most talented actors in Korean cinema, and it’s a genuine delight to see them interact on screen together. Jeon Do-yeon in particular stands out in Memories of the Sword as she injects a passionate intensity and humanity into Seol-rang, an impressive feat given the character is so thread-bare. Kim Go-eun is also a great talent as witnessed in A Muse, yet here she appears to be in completely different film to her co-stars as she overacts her way through scenes with youthful glee.

In terms of action, no one fairs especially well when it comes to the martial arts sequences and wire-work essential to the film. The choreography is competent but generally uninspired, failing to generate the required investment to make the thrills riveting viewing. While watching it’s impossible to not recall superior examples of the genre – notably Hero and House of Flying Daggers, from which Memories of the Sword appears to take so much influence – and wish to be watching them instead.

MotS1

Villainess Deok-gi lusts for power

Verdict:

Memories of the Sword is visually impressive Korean attempt at the wuxia sub-genre, yet aside from a selection of beautifully composed scenes the martial arts adventure falls flat.

★★☆☆☆

 

Reviews

21st Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival to Honour Jeon Do-yeon

Poster for 'Contact, JEON Do-yeon' presented by the 21st BIFANAcclaimed actress Jeon Do-yeon is to be honoured at the 21st Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) this year, in celebration of her 20 year career that began with Contact back in 1997.

Entitled ‘Contact, Jeon Do-yeon,’ the special program is dedicated to the revered actress and will feature highlights from her incredible filmography, including Secret Sunshine – for which she won ‘Best Actress’ at Cannes Film Festival – tense drama The Housemaid, gangster/action film No Blood, No Tears, time-travel drama My Mother, The Mermaid, period-actioner Memories of the Sword, thrillers Countdown and The Shameless, and more to be announced.

In addition, BiFan will also hold a press conference, a special Q&A between Jeon Do-yeon and the audience, an exhibition of the posters in which she starred alongside stills of the famed actress, and an exclusive collectors book for fans.

Jeon Do-yeon is undoubtedly one of the most talented – and internationally celebrated – artists in Korean cinematic history, and as such the program is a great boon for audiences and the festival alike, allowing fans old and new to revisit her extraordinary filmography.

BiFan will run from July 13th ~ 23rd.

Official Poster of the 21st Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival

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Blue Butterfly Effect (파란나비효과) – ★★★★☆

Blue Butterfly Effect

When the Korean and American governments announce that the military THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system is to be located in the rural county of Seongju, residents quickly become alarmed. As the local citizens begin researching the issue further they become increasingly politically aware, ultimately organising protests against THADD that continue to grow in strength and number. Blue Butterfly Effect (파란나비효과) documents the protests against THADD, from its grass-roots origins through to the nationwide coverage the issue generated.

BBE

The protests grow throughout the province

Director Park Moon-chil, who debuted with the wonderfully sensitive and empowering My Place (2013), returns with an inspiring tale of protest in Blue Butterfly Effect and in doing so cements his status as one of the best documentary filmmakers currently working in Korean cinema.

Blue Butterfly Effect proves to be so engaging largely due to the central subjects at the core of the story, as housewives, farmers, seamstresses et al from the community come together to explain how they became aware of THADD, detailing the passion and outrage it generated that ultimately led to forming a protest movement. Such scenes are brilliantly executed, providing not only an informative piece on the nature of the issue but also an insightful commentary on protest culture within contemporary Korea.

Director Park wisely goes beyond purely representing their opinions of THADD however, as he delves into the subjects’ voting habits, regional identity, and the increasing political and historical awareness each member experiences, unveiling acute character development. No matter how big the challenges over THADD become, the film never loses focus of the personal dimensions of the conflict, making the story an intimate portrait of nationwide debate and virtually demands audience investment.

In documenting the manner in which the THADD protests and responses escalate, director Park goes where few filmmakers dare to tread in depicting the ‘dirty tricks’ employed by those in favour of the military technology. In presenting the ways local politicians change stance and ‘spin’ alternative narratives, the collusion between the government and big business, as well as featuring elitist prejudice – misogynistic comments, and the head of the Education Ministry’s comment that 99% of Koreans are “like dogs and pigs” – combine to produce a startling portrait of modern politics, one that taps into the zeitgeist of anti-conservatism sweeping the country following President Moon Jae-in’s inauguration.

BBE4

As politicians spin narratives, public outrage and peaceful protests increase

Verdict:

Blue Butterfly Effect is a powerful testament to the spirit of Korean people and the power of protest, as well as an important cultural text in its own right. Director Park Moon-chil again proves his talent as a documentarian to watch, for Blue Butterfly Effect is a film that, for current and future generations, and those interested in the politics of the peninsula, demands to be seen.

 ★★★★☆

 

Reviews

Yourself and Yours (당신자신과 당신의 것) – ★★★☆☆

Yourself and Yours (당신자신과 당신의 것)

Synopsis: When aspiring artist Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuck) discusses his intention to marry Min-jung (Lee You-young), the idea is laughed at by a close friend (Kim Eui-sung). Clearly offended, Young-soo demands answers – and hears of the rumours that Min-jung has been meeting and drinking with different men around the neighbourhood. Deeply hurt, Young-soo confronts Min-jung about the rumours – all of which she denies – and following the fight she decides to leave. Young-soo desperately wants to make things right with Min-jung – but what is the truth?

Young-soo hears rumours his girlfriend is meeting other men

Notions of truth, jealousy and trust are playfully explored through director Hong Sang-soo‘s Yourself and Yours, with the film navigating such potentially dramatic material with the charismatic whimsy audiences have come to expect from the celebrated auteur. Whereas director Hong’s previous film Right Now Wrong Then explored the ramifications of truthfulness in a relationship, Yourself and Yours takes a markedly different approach. While Young-soo’s suspicions initially drive the couple apart, Min-jung is presented in the sequences that follow in completely different personas, seemingly not recognising past acquaintances and behaving erratically.

The film doesn’t provide any simple answers for the situations that arise – perhaps Min-jung has a disorder; perhaps the sequences are purely from Young-soo’s jealous mind – but that’s seemingly not particularly important as audiences are swept along the journey due to the quirky interactions and comedically awkward moments. What the narrative does appear to embrace is that control within a relationship is folly and that compromise is a necessity, while identity is a fluid construct that alters depending on how a person wishes to present themselves. Traditional answers are not the ultimate goal of Yourself and Yours, rather, it’s a charismatic journey of discovery and one that fans of director Hong will undoubtedly appreciate.

Min-jung meets writer Jaeyoung at a cafe, yet her behaviour is erratic

Verdict:

Yourself and Yours is a whimsical exploration of identity and trust within modern relationships, featuring charismatic performances by all involved yet particularly by Lee You-young. Those unfamiliar with director Hong Sang-soo’s work might be a little perplexed, but for the converted Yourself and Yours is real treat.

★★★☆☆

Reviews

Hong Sang-soo Brings ‘The Day After’ and ‘Claire’s Camera’ to Cannes

Having a film selected to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival is an incredible achievement – having two is quite extraordinary. Yet that is precisely what director Hong Sang-soo has done, as The Day After (그 후) and Claire’s Camera (클레어의 카메라) are due to be screened, with both films starring actress Kim Min-hee.

Selected for the ‘In Competition’ category, The Day After will premiere on May 22nd.

Synopsis: “It is Areum’s first day of work at a small publisher. Her boss Bongwan loved and recently broke up with the woman who previously worked there. Today too, the married Bongwan leaves home in the dark morning and sets off to work. That day Bongwan’s wife finds a love note, bursts into the office, and mistakes Areum for the woman who left.”

Claire’s Camera is located within the ‘Special Screenings’ section, and will premiere on May 21st. The film was shot last year while the Cannes Film Festival was operating, and stars celebrated French actress Isabelle Huppert. This is the duo’s second film together following In Another Country (다른 나라에서) in 2012.

Synopsis: “On a business trip to the Cannes Film Festival, Manhee is accused of being dishonest, and fired. A teacher named Claire goes around taking photos with a Polaroid camera. She gets to know Manhee and sympathizes with her. Claire is like a person who can see Manhee’s possible future or past selves, through the mysterious power of the beach tunnel. Through taking photos, Claire has acquired the ability to look slowly at things, and to transform objects. Now, Claire goes with Manhee to the café where she was fired.”

Film News

‘The Villainess’ Receives Action-Packed Trailer Ahead of Cannes Debut

The Villainess (악녀) has received an explosive trailer in the run-up to its debut at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21st.

Appearing in the ‘Out of Competition – Midnight Projections’ program, writer/director Jung Byung-gil’s latest features Kim Ok-vin as ruthless assassin Sook-hee. When an assignment goes horribly wrong, Sook-hee finds herself at the mercy of Korea’s National Intelligence Service and is given a sadistic choice – work for the NIS for 10 years, or die.

Director Jung has experience with the genre having previously helmed action-orientated Confession of Murder and Action Boys, while Kim Ok-vin is a black belt in both hapkido and taekwondo. Their combined skill is clearly on display in the adrenaline-inducing trailer (below).

The Villainess screens nationwide in Korea from June 8.

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