Top 10 Korean Films of 2019

For Korean cinema, 2019 was a year that saw the continuation of trends that have been readily apparent for the past several years – an increasing number of big blockbuster/commercially-orientated films with high production values, and the decreasing quality of creative, engaging, and memorable stories.

That is not to say the talent has disappeared of course. There are a plethora of wildly talented filmmakers in both the mainstream and independent film realms in Korea, but clearly the focus on producing commercialised products over allowing such creators to express their voices is coming at a cost. This appears to be something that mainstream audiences are becoming increasingly aware of judging by box office numbers, and it was touch-and-go as to whether Korean films would surpass foreign films this year in terms of market share, a feat that was ultimately achieved via the releases of Ashfall (백두산), Forbidden Dream (천문:하늘에 묻는다) and Start-up (시동) in December.

The big news of the year came from one of the few filmmakers impervious to such issues, as director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (기생충) not only won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but also became an international phenomenon. With critics worldwide championing the black-comedy drama, Parasite is sure to continue gathering nominations and awards for quite some time. Ironically the film proved somewhat divisive among local audiences as while Parasite was certainly an acclaimed commercial hit, certain sections felt uncomfortable and ashamed that the wealth gap in Korea was garnering so much international attention, much like with director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters in Japan last year. That said, look for Parasite to break even more ground in 2020 and set new records for Korean cinema.

The year’s other big film story was the furore surrounding feminist film Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982 (82년생 김지영). Bizarrely feeling that their masculine identity were somehow under threat due to the release, misogynists crawled out of the woodwork to enact ‘ratings terror’ which involved angrily bashing the film online. Audiences didn’t listen, and Kim Ji-young went on to become one of the most financially successful films of the year as well as sparking further debates about women’s rights in contemporary Korea. Interestingly the misogynists seemed largely oblivious to the array of other feminist-orientated films that were released throughout the year, from indie darling House of Hummingbird (벌새), mainstream action comedy Miss and Mrs. Cops (걸캅스), to queer story Moonlit Winter (윤희에게) among others, which speaks volumes.

Here is the top 10, with the number 1 spot likely coming as no surprise. Here’s hoping that 2020 is a return to form for K-cinema~

1 – Parasite (기생충)

A wonderfully dark comedic takedown of capitalism and wealth disparity, Parasite is not only the best Korean film of 2019 but also one of the best international releases. The cinematography is exquisite throughout, accompanied by an incredible ensemble cast and a thrilling story that highlights the horrors of capitalism in an altogether different manner from the other works in his filmography. 2020 is undoubtedly going to see Parasite honoured further on the international stage, with a black and white version soon to be released and attention so great that retrospectives on director Bong Joon-ho’s filmography are already being scheduled. Be sure to catch it on the big screen if you haven’t already.

2 – Way Back Home (비밀의 정원)

Quietly premiering at Busan Film Festival, Way Back Home is arguably the most sincere Korean film of 2019 and an impressive debut by director Park Sunjoo (박선주). The story focuses on a woman who receives a phone call from the police letting her know that the man who assaulted her 10 years prior has been caught, bringing up painful memories she had sought to suppress. It’s a challenging role and one that actress Han Wooyun (한우연) makes her own, expressing years of hidden pain through subtle glances, far away stares, and palpable frustration at the world. Thought-provoking and poignant, Way Back Home is the hidden gem of K-cinema in 2019.

3 – Move the Grave (이장)

Move the Grave is delightful drama from director Jeong Seung-o (정승오), that follows a family as they’re forced to come together and agree on the details in moving their father’s grave due to redeveloped. The conflicts that arise between the sisters – each of whom embodies different problems modern Korean women face – their loser brother, and their fiercely patriarchal uncle convey a wealth of feminist and familial issues that convey how frustrating, and often how funny, such clashes are.

4 – Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982 (82년생 김지영)

Adapting the best-selling book, which charts the sexism Kim Ji-young experiences throughout her entire lifetime, into a commercial film is not an easy feat yet debut director/writer Kim Do-young (김도영) does an admirable job. While other films exploring women’s lives had inequality and rights issues as part of the narrative, in Kim Ji-young such issues are the narrative and this where the story contains power and relevance as it forces focus back onto female protagonists after years of being largely written out of the mainstream.

5 – Innocent Witness (증인)

Director Lee Han (이한) has proven his abilities on powerful dramas including Thread of Lies and does it again with Innocent Witness, a courtroom mystery-drama where the one key witness to a murder has autism. Actor Jung Woo-song is as charismatic as ever as the conflicted prosector, while Kim Hyang-gi excels in playing the autistic witness and has been shockingly overlooked for awards nominations. Innocent Witness is also quite progressive in the representation of modern relationships especially when compared to other K-films. A charming, heart-warming drama.

6 – Moonlit Winter (윤희에게)


Closing the Busan Film Festival this year was Moonlit Winter, the latest from Merry Christmas Mr. Mo director, Lim Dae-hyung (임대형). Actress Kim Hee-ae is establishing herself as one a particularly versatile performer, following up her excellent turn in Herstory with portraying lovelorn single mother Eun-hee who holds a deep secret. Locations in Korea and Hokkaido are wonderfully used to express loneliness as well as romance, while the supporting cast who help Eun-hee escape her sadness are especially endearing.

7 – Birthday (생일)

Honouring the victims and families of the Sewol disaster is a challenging prospect, and writer/director Lee Jong-un sensitively approaches the subject by focusing on the community gathering to celebrate a victim’s birthday. With actors Jeon Do-yeon and Sol Kyung-gu onboard as the victim’s estranged parents the performances are, of course, especially high although it’s their daughter played by youngster Kim Bo-min who often steals the screen with her natural charm. Thankfully avoiding melodrama, Birthday is an especially emotional film. Prepare tissues in advance.

8 – The Breathing of the Fire (불숨)

Building on her previous wonderful documentary Breathing Underwater, director Koh Heeyoung returns with The Breathing of the Fire. The film was part of the 2019 Jeonju Cinema Project, and follows an elderly potter who has spent much of his life attempting to craft the perfect bowl with techniques that have been passed down for generations, crafting raging fires in which to create a masterpiece. A fascinating insight into a dying cultural tradition.

9 – Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳

The latest from director Kim Jong-kwan (김종관) is also a Jeonju Cinema Project, and highlights once again that he is master of filming simple conversations in a manner that is captivating and thought-provoking. Shades of the Heart follows writer Chang-seok who returns to Seoul after his marriage falls apart, meeting a variety of interesting characters on his journey of self-discovery. What is left un-said is often as powerful as the dialogue itself.

10 – Rivercide: The Secret Six (삽질)

Independent Korean documentaries have rapidly evolved over the past few years, and the investigative journalism that has been applied in crafting Rivercide is testament to such efforts. The film examines the controversial subject of the four rivers project, using years of footage and investigation in their attempts to expose governmental corruption and the pollution of Korea’s rivers. Tensions around this film have been so high that at the Q&A for Riverside the filmmakers revealed they have received death threats, emphasising even more how such documentaries are vital.

Top 10 Korean Films of 2018 / Top 10 Korean Films of 2017

Top 10 Korean Films of 2016 / Top 10 Korean Films of 2015 

Top 10 Korean Films of 2014 / Top 10 Korean Films of 2013


Top 10 Korean Films of 2018

hy 2018.0012018 was quite a bizarre year for Korean cinema.

The year began much like any other. The first few months of the year were typically dedicated to family-friendly fare. News of Korean films that were invited to Cannes Film Festival arose. And then…well, everything seemed to fall flat.

One by one, the big tentpole films of the year arrived in cinemas and were greeted by less than stellar reviews and even less interested audiences. This was particularly surprising given how high profile many of the projects and talents involved were, but the negative word of mouth that seemingly accompanied each release was quick to spread and in Korea, the power of WOM has no equal. That said, such movies still generally performed well at the box office, thanks in no small part to the screen quota they occupied.

It fell to the mid-sized and independent films to bolster the year and as always there were some welcome additions that enjoyed healthy box office success. Prioritizing story and character over the luxurious production values of their blockbuster counterparts is a common feature but was even more apparent this year, and it was largely these films that captured the attention of cinemagoers.

While not the strongest of years, there are still some highlights to look out for. Here are Hanguk Yeonghwa’s top ten Korean films of 2018.

No. 10 – Between the Seasons (계절과 계절 사이)

betweenOne of the most surprising discoveries at Busan Film Festival was director Kim Junsik’s charming LGBTQ story Between the Seasons. The story follows cafe owner Hae-soo, a woman running from a difficult past, who becomes friends with creative high schooler Ye-jin. Through their burgeoning relationship the story explores gender, sexuality and love in contemporary Korea with real sincerity while never succumbing to trite melodrama. Oh Ha-nee in particular provides a moving performance as adolescent Hae-soo. Between the Seasons is a delicate and thoughtful story about tolerance and identity.

No. 9 – Intimate Strangers (완벽한 타인)

intimateIntimate Strangers follows a group of old friends who gather for a dinner party and decide to play a dangerous game – throughout the night, everyone’s phone calls and messages must be available for all to hear. Based on the 2016 Italian film Perfect Strangers, Intimate Strangers flits between comedy and drama as more and more secrets emerge, as the fascinating premise forces everyone to question their relationships, shared histories, and beliefs. Actor Yoo Hae-jin once again shines as a bad husband who slowly begins to change as revelations arise.

No. 8 – Be With You (지금 만나러 갑니다)

beA delightfully entertaining melodrama, director Lee Jang-hoon’s Be With You is certainly one of the most endearing tales of the year. Adapted from the Japanese film and novel of the same name, the influence of J-cultural storytelling is clear throughout yet is filled with Korean charm. Son Ye-jin is in typically great form as a wife/mother who has lost her memory, while the romantic backstory and family dynamic are especially alluring. Although Be With You doesn’t reinvent the genre in any way, the film is a lovingly made melodrama that pulls the heartstrings in all the right ways.

No. 7 – Dark Figure of Crime (암수살인)

darkBased on the shocking true story of unsolved murders in Busan, Dark Figure of Crime is a fascinating tale both for the onscreen shocks and the complicated production history. The film follows a detective who investigates cold cases, but the criminal responsible – although confessing to everything – is especially unreliable and as such, discovering the victims proves an arduous task. The police too dislike their old cases being investigated, and the apathy towards the high numbers of people missing and/or murdered is one of the real shocks of the film.

No. 6 – Believer (독전)

believerDirector Lee Hae-young’s Believer puts a stylish Korean spin on this remake/reimagining of Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s Drug War. Excess is the name of the game, as the story features wild narrative twists and flamboyant characters as the cat-and-mouse crime caper escalates. Production values are particularly lavish (as with the director’s previous film The Silenced), while the suspense-filled confrontations are real highlights. Solidly entertaining throughout, Believer is certainly 2018’s most enjoyable gangster movie.

No. 5 – Little Forest <리틀 포레스트>

littleOne of the surprise hits of the year was undoubtedly director Yim Soon-rye’s Little Forest. Adapted from the Japanese original, the film sees a university student become frustrated with city life and return to her hometown where she rediscovers a passion for cooking using her mother’s recipes. Little Forest became particularly popular among young Koreans (who themselves deal with extraordinary stress due to academic pressure and unemployment anxieties), and it’s easy to see why – the tale is a quietly understated expression of self-discovery and friendship, with the ever-charismatic Kim Tae-ri and perfectly presented national dishes beguiling audiences.

No. 4 – Herstory <허스토리>

herstoryThe tragic story of Korean ‘comfort women’ – Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops – is a poignant subject that often appears on screens big and small. The latest is Herstory, based on the true events of a group of women from Busan who sought to take the Japanese government to court for their role in the atrocities. Helmed by director Min Kyu-dong, Herstory is a powerful testament to the strength and resilience of the women who refused to give up despite overwhelming pressure both at home and abroad. The film also boasts a powerhouse performance by the almost unrecognisable Kim Hee-ae who is wonderfully charismatic as a no-nonsense businesswoman determined to see Japan publicly acknowledge war crimes, and whose determination drives the events forward.

No. 3 – House of Hummingbird <벌새>

houseA delightful discovery this year was House of Hummingbird, the stand-out film at the Busan International Film Festival. Director Kim Bo-ra’s debut feature is the coming-of-age story of youngster Eun-hee, who struggles with identity issues while also attempting to navigate the confusing relationships that exist around her, notably within her dysfunctional family. Told with acute sensitivity and a keen feminist eye, director Kim has constructed a quiet yet assured story of adolescence that emphasises the difficulty in connecting with others and the frustrating discrimination young women experience.

House of Hummingbird will next appear at Berlinale in 2019 in a newly edited form and will likely hit the festival circuit throughout the year, and is certainly one to watch out for.

No. 2 – The Spy Gone North <공작>

spyPremiering Out of Competition at Cannes and based on real life events, The Spy Gone North is a taught espionage thriller by director Yoon Jong-bin. Boasting exquisite production design throughout, Spy generates suspense via impressive dialogue scenes and narrative twists rather than action-orientated fare, with the appearance of certain (in)famous individuals and historical situations adding significant tension to the proceedings. Amazingly, while the running time is over 2 hours Spy is consistently engaging while also offering a fascinating insight into the complex political corruption on the peninsula.

No. 1 – Burning <버닝>

burningDirector Lee Chang-dong made a triumphant return to cinemas after an 8 year hiatus with Burning, a powerful and resonating drama-thriller about disaffected Korean youths.  As with most of director Lee’s films, multiple viewings are required to unlock the sheer majesty and depths within the story as the narrative is so focused on metaphor and irony, as well as providing keen social commentary. This is arguably why Burning has proved somewhat divisive amongst audiences, as the aesthetics require serious engagement. Performances are phenomenal throughout with Yoo Ah-in providing a career-best highlight, Steven Yeun masterful in conveying the entitlement and boredom of Gangnam’s elite, and newcomer Jeon Jong-seo excelling as the innocent-yet-rebellious Hae-mi.

Aside from premiering In Competition at Cannes, Burning has also has the distinction of appearing on the shortlist for Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, the closest any Korean film has come to an Oscar nomination. Rightly so – Burning is the closest Korean cinema has come to producing a modern classic for quite some time, and is wholly deserving of the attention.

Top 10 Korean Films of 2017 

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


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>


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


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


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.


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.


Villainess Deok-gi lusts for power


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.




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.


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.


As politicians spin narratives, public outrage and peaceful protests increase


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.




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


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.



4th Place (4등) – ★★☆☆☆

4th Place (4등)

4th Place (4등)

Youngster Joon-ho (Yoo Jae-sang (유재상) loves to be in the water and has a real talent for swimming, yet for some reason he always places fourth in competitions. Furious at her son’s lack of improvement despite her constant scolding, Joon-ho’s mother (Lee Hang-na (이항나) seeks out a renowned swimming coach with terrible reputation – former olympic hopeful Gwang-soo (Park Hae-joon (박해준). As Joon-ho’s training commences, coach Gwang-soo’s methods become increasingly violent, revealing the extremes taken and endured in such a competitive culture.

Joon-ho adores swimming and is mesmirised by the nature of light and water

Joon-ho adores swimming and is mesmirised by the nature of light and water

Produced in conjunction with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 4th Place is a potent exploration of the extremely competitive education culture that exists within Asia. Studies routinely reveal that Korean children are amongst the unhappiest in the world with shocking levels of suicide, due the incredible stress heaped upon them by strict parents and teachers, and as such director Jeong Ji-woo deserves respect merely for broaching the issue on film.

Director Jeong examines the issue through Joon-ho, a youngster who deeply enjoys swimming yet is incessantly berated and belittled by his shrill mother for not taking the sport more competitively. The manner in which she psychologically torments her son is equal parts horrifying and infuriating to behold, as she manipulates Joon-ho into equating his lack of success as a lack of love for her, initiating deep internalised guilt. Through her machinations at church – which director Jeong subtly insinuates as a place of corruption – she finds a coach for Joon-ho, one who verbally and physically abuses the youngster. Parallels are clear with the exceptional drama Whiplash, and while 4th Place never reaches those heights it deserves commendation for tackling such a vital societal issue.

Joon-ho's training often includes bouts of violence and verbal abuse by the coach

Joon-ho’s training often includes bouts of violence and verbal abuse by the coach

Visually, 4th Place is beautifully shot during the swimming scenes. The lighting and lenses used serve to create a world of majesty and elegance under the water, a place where Joon-ho can escape and find enjoyment in solitude. Such sequences wonderfully convey the youngster’s love of swimming and the freedom it brings, as he gracefully glides through the water as if it’s his natural state of being. Yet such cinematic stylisation rarely extends beyond the arena of the pool however, with director Jeong’s more sophisticated dramatic techniques as employed in prior films Eungyo (A Muse) and Happy End sadly missing during scenes of family conflict.

The dramatic tension is also undermined by the lack of a central figure. Whiplash is a phenomenal film largely due to Miles Teller’s central performance from a mild-mannered to psychologically unhinged student, yet in 4th Place acting duties are generally shared equally among the cast resulting in a lack of singular perspective and characters that are largely one-dimensional. Perhaps worryingly, the most developed member of the film is the violent coach due to (an overly long) prelude that simultaneously infers the circular nature of corporal punishment and generates sympathy for him – arguably more so than young victim Joon-ho. In more adept hands the emotional complexity of the mother and coach could shine through despite the script’s shortcomings, though Lee Hang-na and Park Hae-joon are unfortunately not up to the task as they over-exaggerate their respective performances.

Nevertheless the story is a timely and important one, with the film’s finale one of the most creative and enjoyable sequences witnessed in Korean independent cinema in quite some time.

Follwing physical abuse and family strife, Joon-ho must decide his future

Follwing physical abuse and family strife, Joon-ho must decide his future


Co-produced with the Korean Human Rights Commission, 4th Place is a powerful reminder of the brutal nature of Korea’s competitive educational system, and the inordinate abuse applied by authority figures toward students. Director Jeong Ji-woo explores the issue well and is particularly impressive during swimming sequences, resulting in a timely film that deserves commendation for tackling important and challenging subject matter.


Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Reach for the SKY (공부의 나라) – ★★★★☆

Reach for the SKY (공부의 나라)

Reach for the SKY (공부의 나라)

Every year, Korean high school students undertake the infamous ‘Suneung’ exam – a gruelling series of college scholastic ability tests that will  determine which university they can attend, the status of which in turn will dictate potential opportunities that will arise in later life. The most prestigious and highly sought after institutions are Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei universities which form the an acronym SKY, respectively, with students often resorting to extreme measures in order to achieve enrolment. Documentary Reach for the SKY follows a selection of students on their quest to be in the top percentile and fulfil their ambitions.

Students attempt to cope with their stressful ordeal with humour

Students attempt to cope with their stressful ordeal with humour

One of the most well-received Korean independent films at Busan Film Festival earlier this year, documentary Reach for the SKY is an engrossing exploration of the inordinate amount of pressure caused by the infamous Suneung exam as well as the cultural phenomena that has spawned in its wake. Directors Steven Dhoedt and Choi Woo-young wisely avoid taking a stance on the issue yet emphasise the burdens, profiteering and fervour with impressively subtle irony, which will likely mean little to native Koreans but will resonate strongly with audiences unfamiliar with the country’s harsh education system.

Filmed over the course of four years, Reach for the SKY follows a well-chosen selection of students at various stages in their academic careers as they attempt to pass Suneung exam, and through their experiences directors Dhoedt and Choi reveal an array of startling cultural facets with keen insight. Whether the subjects are taking or re-taking the infamous test, the co-helmers broaden the perspective to capture the unique contexts within which the students operate, and in doing so the pressures from parents, teachers and wider society are revealed to fascinating effect.

The pressures of the Suneung exam have spawned wealthy celebrity teachers

The pressures of the Suneung exam have spawned wealthy celebrity teachers

Of these, the individuals and institutions that profit from the anxieties surrounding the exam are given focus, notably the celebrity teachers and boarding schools that have arisen as a result. The directors brilliantly capture the startling quasi-pop star status of a teacher as he lectures on stage to a sold out auditorium full of eager teens before driving home in his BMW, scenes which are effectively juxtaposed with a boarding school more akin to a juvenile offender prison than an academic organisation, and religious institutions that depict the fervour of acolytes as they speak in tongues.

In each case, directors Dhoedt and Choi lace the images with a wonderfully cheeky sense of comedic irony that helps to offset the rather astonishing nature of such scenes. The instances where the wealthy celeb-teacher actually fails to speak/write English correctly particularly resonates, while the poor English signs at the boarding school, the mean parents/teachers who receive angry disapproving looks from students, the annoyed Buddhist monk who is handed a list of hundreds of students to pray for, all combine to underscore gentle and playful criticisms of the education system.

Arguably the most potent form of critique is the manner Reach for the SKY intermittently incorporates quotations from the Analects of Confucius, an ideology which still holds powerful relevance in contemporary Korean society. Through citing such Confucian texts, followed by sequences revealing how the education system has evolved in an alternative direction, the implication is clear – teens are studying not to be enlighten but to be assessed, and their suffering is very real.

Every year thousands of students sit the stress-inducing Suneung exam

Every year thousands of students sit the stress-inducing Suneung exam


Reach for the Sky is an impressive documentary exploring the infamous Suneung exam. Directors Steven Dhoedt and Choi Woo-young insightfully capture the stresses endured by students generated by the harsh education system and wider socio-cultural facets, often with wonderfully cheeky irony that serves to gently critique the entire phenomenon to fascinating effect.


Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

The Priests (검은 사제들) – ★★★☆☆

The Priests (검은 사제들)

The Priests (검은 사제들)

When Catholic student Yeong-shin (Park So-dam (박소담) is involved in a hit-and-run incident, she begins to develop peculiar maladies that doctors are at a loss to explain. Upon visiting the distraught youngster, Priest Kim (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석) becomes convinced she’s possessed and prepares to exorcise the demon within, despite the church ‘s refusal to sanction the ritual. Yet Kim cannot perform the ceremony alone, and employs the help of Deacon Choi (Kang Dong-won (강동원). Together, they may just have a chance at saving Yeong-shin’s life…or perhaps Kim really is as crazy as the allegations against him claim to be.

Yeong-shin begins to develop bizarre symptoms following her accident

Yeong-shin begins to develop bizarre symptoms following her accident

One of the surprise sleeper hits of 2015, writer/director Jang Jae-hyeon’s exorcism drama The Priests is far more fun and entertaining than it has any right to be. While religious mystery-horrors are quite a rarity in Korean cinema, Jang popularises the risky prospect by imbuing the film with an unexpected amount of wit and charisma which, alongside impressively constructed exorcism scenes, are enough to overlook the various narrative shortcomings.

Adapting his well-received 2014 short film 12th Assistant Deacon – which notably won the Best Director Prize at Jeonju International Film Festival – into feature length format was no easy feat, but director Jang succeeds much more than he fails.

The Priests is an enjoyable affair chiefly due the characterisation and resulting conflict between stoic Father Kim and lackadaisical Deacon Choi who, as polar opposites, play off each other well throughout the film in ways both comedic and entertaining. The narrative unveils predominantly through Choi’s perspective as he is asked to join Kim for the exorcism ritual, while never really quite sure of the reality of the situation. Kang Dong-won is somewhat miscast in the role as the naive Deacon but he infuses the role with a palpable likability while the approach is a good one, introducing the concept to unfamiliar Korean audiences while also addressing the cynicism such tales evoke.

Deacon Choi joins Father Kim as they prepare for the ritual

Deacon Choi joins Father Kim as they prepare for the ritual

The humour and mystery involved in preparing for the exorcism is entertaining enough to distract audiences from the fact that there are plot holes and unresolved tangents galore as well as the curious absence of an emotional core. In the original 1973 horror classic The Exorcist director William Friedkin spent much of the first act developing Regan prior to her possession in order to heighten audience empathy with her situation; in The Priests no such effort is made with Yeong-shin and as a result her ordeal is difficult to invest in despite the shock value. That said, however, Park So-dam embodies the role of the traumatised teen brilliantly and works wonders with the little material she has, flitting between innocence and raving lunacy seemingly at ease to make sequences particularly disturbing.

Much of the first half of the film, while enjoyable, is mostly filler prior to the actual exorcism itself, where The Priests ultimately unveils its unique aesthetic. Taking cues from previous films involving exorcism whilst incorporating a distinctly Korean take on the material, director Jang and the production crew are to be commended for constructing a startlingly effective sequence of macabre events as the ritual unfolds. The set design alongside impressive practical effects create scenes of supernatural horror that are thoroughly engaging, and offers one of the more unique cinematic experiences from the Korean film industry.

Father Kim dedicates himself to exorcising the demon within Yeong-shin

Father Kim dedicates himself to exorcising the demon within Yeong-shin


The Priests is quite a rarity in Korean cinema, with writer/director Jang Jae-hyeon’s take on exorcism subject matter far more entertaining than it has any right to be. The comedic and mysterious undertones help to mask plot holes and the lack of an emotional core, yet the drama comes into it’s own during an engaging final act and as a result is one of the more surprisingly enjoyable films of 2015.



Assassination (암살) – ★★★☆☆

Assassination (암살)

Assassination (암살)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, independence fighters wage war against the regime. However complicating matters significantly are the native Koreans who offer support to the invaders, turning traitor for wealth and power. One such turncoat, Kang In-gook (Lee Kyeong-yeong), is selected as the next assassination target with sniper Ahn Ok-yoon (Jeon Ji-hyeon), bruiser ‘Big Gun’ (Jo Jin-woong) and explosives expert Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon) recruited for the task by independence captain Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jeong-jae). However unbeknownst to the trio, contract killers Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jeong-woo) and Old Man (Oh Dal-soo) have been hired to stop them before they can fulfil the mission.

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Liberation fighter Yeom gathers together a team for a daring task

Deserving credit for producing blockbuster fare in the Korean film industry – as well as for touching on the extremely sensitive issue of Japanese collaboration – director Choi Dong-hoon has once again crafted solid entertainment in the form of Assassination. While boasting a talented ensemble cast and and production values most other directors could only dream of, Choi’s latest still, as with prior film The Thieves, suffers from an overly-long and convoluted narrative that is tonally inconsistent. Alongside poor characterisation and lack of depth, Assassination is ultimately eye-candy cinema that is fun while it lasts but difficult to truly invest in.

Assassination begins in explosive fashion, as the fraught political period is brought to life through an adrenaline-inducing opening sequence that sees resistance fighter Yeom attempt to take out a high-profile Japanese target. It’s an engrossing and brilliantly executed introduction, with director Choi effortlessly generating thrills while setting up momentum for events to come. It also, ironically, contains much of what the film is about – glorious production values and camerawork, and talented performers wrangling with thread-bare characterisation.

The film’s reported $16 million budget is clearly visible in every frame as Assassination is truly a visual treat. The production, set and costume design are consistently impressive from beginning to end and it’s a genuine shame that the talented teams behind these areas have not been more widely celebrated for their work, for Assassination is worth watching largely for the visual finesse within.

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Trio Big Gun, Ok-yoon and Deok-sam are recruited to assassinate a conspirator

Director Choi has always managed to attract an impressive ensemble cast featuring some of the best talent within the industry for his projects, and Assassination is no exception. The manner in which such disparate characters are weaved together is arguably more organic than Choi’s previous work, and there is great entertainment value to be had during the film’s first half as alliances are forged and events set up. Yet at the half way mark the narrative takes a turn for the worse, veering into a wealth of convoluted and contrived plot points while taking initially promising characters and reducing them to one-dimensional stereotypes.

While the film’s stars perform their roles competently, unfortunately the characterisation issues effect them greatly. Jeon Ji-hyeon is promising as an empowered captain of the indolence who defies authority, only to be later reduced to her image in the film’s second act and never really shows her range. Ha Jeong-woo does what he can in the role of Hawaii Pistol though it quickly becomes apparent that both he and sidekick Oh Dal-soo never really belong in a story of Korean independence, seemingly remnants from a comedy-western that are shoe-horned in for light relief. Lee Jeong-jae performs the role of resistance leader Yeom with confident ease and is arguably the most charismatic presence, although the actor is in real danger of becoming typecast which undermines the tension.

While consistently entertaining, perhaps the biggest issue with Assassination is that the narrative itself is simply vapid. Director Choi bravely employs the extremely sensitive topic of Koreans collaborating with their oppressors during the era, but never explores nor takes a stance on the issue. It’s only in the film’s dying moments when one such traitor is allowed to twist history into portraying himself as a patriot that the film’s message takes a disturbingly conservative tone, and as such the underutilisation of a key feature of Korean history is sadly wasted.

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim

Team leader and sniper Ok-yoon takes aim


One of the big tentpole films of 2015, blockbuster Assassination is an entertaining affair. Director Choi Dong-hoon once again proves his ability to command a talented ensemble cast and enormous budget. Top marks however instead go to the production crew who’ve crafted Assassination into a visual treat, making it possible to withstand the overly-long convoluted narrative and thread-bare characterisation that so often threatens to derail the proceedings.


Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Reviews