2018 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)
One 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)
Intimate 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)
A 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)
Based 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)
Director 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>
One 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>
The 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>
A 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>
Premiering 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>
Director 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.