Hanguk Yeonghwa’s 10 Most Memorable Moments of 2014

10 MEMOne of the great joys of Korean cinema are the unexpectedly fascinating twists and turns of plots; of startlingly powerful scenes examining issues of ‘han’ juxtaposed with quiet, intimate ones; of characters who endure the most difficult of circumstances in Korean society yet refuse to falter.

Here we celebrate 10 of the most memorable moments of Korean cinema from 2014.

The scenes discussed are featured in alphabetical order of the films they featured in, and mark the most emotionally resonating, the funniest, and most shocking moments of the year

To see what memorable moments made the list in 2013, please follow the link here.

******** BEWARE – SPOILERS ENSUE ********

The apology – Cart (카트)

Moon Jeong-hee is forced to get on her knees and beg forgiveness

Hye-mi is forced to give an unwarranted apology

Following a minor conflict with customers at the supermarket, Hye-mi ends her shift and prepares to leave…until those customers, headed by management, descend upon her demanding an unwarranted apology. However a mere apology isn’t enough for the spiteful patrons. In an unbearably humiliating scene, Hye-mi is forced to get on her knees and beg forgiveness for something that wasn’t her fault, with director Bo Ji-young impressively building the indignity and shame to anger-inducing levels. Actress Moon Jeong-hee is incredible throughout the scene, wonderfully conveying the soul-swallowing, abject shame she is forced to endure in order to keep her job.

Such economic arrogance certainly strikes a chord with Korean audiences as, ironically, only a couple of months after Cart‘s release, the Korean Air ‘nut rage’ scandal enraged the country and calls forth the exact same issues dealt with in the film.

The grandmother – The Fatal Encounter (역린)

King Jeongjo confronts his grandmother

King Jeongjo confronts his grandmother

The Fatal Encounter was certainly one of the most attractive Korean films released in 2014 and is a stunning debut showcase of director Lee Jae-gyoo’s prowess.

In one of the most intense scenes, King Jeongjo plans to visit his grandmother…yet rather than an old woman, he is confronted with stunningly beautiful actress Han Ji-min. During the encounter the sexual tension and danger of the situation is palpable, as the two engage in a battle of wits while the ‘grandmother’ seductively bares her perfect skin to the young king.

The scene wonderfully captures the danger and eroticism of the period with incredible tension, highlighting not only director Lee’s skill but also the acting abilities of Han Ji-min and Hyeon-bin.

The incrimination – A Girl At My Door (도희야)

Troubled Doo-hee goes to shocking extremes to change her life

Troubled Doo-hee goes to shocking extremes

When police officer Yeong-nam decides to act as guardian for troubled youth and domestic violence victim Doo-hee over the summer, neither of them could ever expect the end result. Incarcerated due to her sexuality, Yeong-nam’s life is effectively over, until Doo-hee takes matters into her own hands.

Plying her father with alcohol until he passes out, Doo-hee undresses and crawls into his bed before calling the police and, while the line is connected, shockingly fakes sexual abuse at his hands, incriminating him as the perpetrator of a horrific crime while also exonerating the innocent Yeong-nam.

Actress Kim Sae-ron is simply excellent throughout the disturbing sequence, conveying Doo-hee as vulnerable yet frighteningly manipulative.

The dismemberment – Haemoo (해무)

When the immigration plans go awry, the cutting begins

When the immigration plans go awry, the cutting begins

Agreeing to take illegal Chinese immigrants into Korea, captain Cheol-joo becomes increasingly nervous…particularly when the coastguard comes for a surprise inspection. The crew hurriedly force the newly acquired passengers into a special room in the hull until danger has passed, yet when they reopen the hatch they are horrified to discover the immigrants are all dead.

Not knowing what to do, the ruthless captain orders his men to grab a tool and begin cutting up the bodies and to throw the  limbs overboard. As the crew horrifically hack and slash their way through the innocent travelers the deck literally turns red with blood.

Director Sim Seong-bo brilliantly stages the terrifying scene with wonderfully composed shots and the dense, lingering fog within which the brutality takes place.

The  cellphone – A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

After working so hard to hide the body, a cellphone begins ringing

Detective Go’s hard work is undone

Detective Go genuinely has one of the most difficult days in his career. His mother has died. He is under investigation by internal affairs. And he kills a man in a shocking hit and run accident.

Desperate to get rid of the body, Go does the unthinkable and decides to put the body in the same coffin as his dead mother. Yet in order to do so, he must position his car perfectly, use his daughter’s toy to drag the body through an air vent, unscrew the nails in the coffin and replace the lid – all while avoiding CCTV cameras as well as the funeral parlour workers. Amazingly Go manages to succeed in his frantic quest and begins to relax….until the man’s cellphone begins ringing from inside the coffin.

Easily one of the most exciting, darkly hilarious moments of the year.

The termination – Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Abortion has become a controversial issue in recent times, but when can women's voices be heard?

One of the most powerful stories is the forced termination

Let’s Dance is a moving, insightful documentary on the topic of abortion in Korea. Director Jo Se-young expertly interviews a variety of women who have undergone the procedure – some who actively wanted it, some who were in a difficult situation and needed it, and one who was forced.

Listening to the woman’s story is heartbreaking as she describes her relationship with a selfish, manipulative boyfriend who refused any part of the situation and forced her to deal with it alone. As she explains her trepidation surrounding the issue and the resultant lateness in having the abortion, it’s impossible not to be deeply, fundamentally moved. The descriptions of her situation and psychologically at that time are incredibly powerful as well as illuminating, and poignantly highlight the need for support for women in challenging relationships and situations.

The  transformation – Miss Granny (수상한 그녀)

In the film's final moments, Mr. Kang reveals his younger self

In the film’s final moments, Mr. Park reveals his younger self

For much of the running time, Miss Granny is simply a mild-mannered comedy, one that induces the occasional giggle rather than laughter.

That all changes however during the film’s final few minutes as elderly Mr. Park, who had desperately tried to woo Mal-soon (and supported her younger self, Doo-ri), visits the same magical photography studio. He then visits the bus stop to meet Mal-soon, approaches her, and takes his helmet off to reveal…Kim Soo-hyeon.

Through this genius cameo, cinemas exploded as viewers screamed and whooped at Kim’s presence, and guaranteed that cinemagoers would leave the theater excited and spread positive word of mouth about the film. You can see Kim’s big reveal in the video below.

The washroom – Revivre (화장)

In an extremely emotional scene, Sang-mo washes his wife as her health increasingly deteriorates

In an extremely emotional scene, Sang-mo washes his wife

Revivre is a highly emotional film, largely due to the phenomenal acting prowess of Ahn Sung-gi.

In the film’s most powerful scene, Sang-mo’s (Ahn) terminally ill wife loses control of her bowel and soils herself, and as a dutiful husband he takes his wife to the bathroom and washes her. Yet the abject humiliation is too much to bear and she emotionally breaks down in tears, while Sang-mo tries to support her and remain strong. However what makes the scene so poignant is its depth. Sang-mo’s love for his wife has faded and he is merely being a responsible husband, which his wife is all too aware of. As such the intensity of her embarrassment and the emotional resonance of the situation are heightened beyond words.

A masterclass in acting ability by Ahn Sung-gi and Kim Ho-jeong.

The birthday party – Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class

As Korean unfortunately has one of the highest rates of suicide in the OECD, and one which is especially high amongst teenagers, naturally filmic narratives have sought to portray the issues youths face on a daily basis. Most films tend to focus on the teen suffering from abuse, yet Thread of Lies instead explores the lives of those effected by Cheon-ji’s suicide with flashbacks revealing her decent into depression and those responsible for it.

Modern bullying is distressingly articulated through the birthday party scene, in which Cheon-ji arrives at the event late after being told the wrong time. When she does enter, all the girls at the party begin using a social messenger application to spitefully criticise the distraught young girl right in front of her. Her loneliness and isolation are poignantly captured in this powerful scene, conveying that everyone in Cheon-ji’s life contributed to her depression and are accountable for her suicide.

The father – The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

A distraught father explains his anguish

A distraught father explains his anguish

Easily the most controversial film of the year, The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol examines the inept response following the disaster, with the investigative journalist style elevating the documentary heads and shoulders above other releases.

Yet the most emotionally harrowing scene comes in the film’s last few minutes, as director/journalist Lee Sang-ho joins a protest march as parents of the deceased demand action from the government. Asking a father about his feelings and regrets, the grieving man sobs as he states how he wishes he’d told his child to not listen to the officials, how he wished he’d said to run and escape, how his child is not alive today because of his poor advice. Director Lee desperately attempts to console the father despite his own free flowing tears…and audiences were right along with them.

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Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2014

2014 FinalWith the end of the year almost upon us, it’s time to revisit the films released over the past 12 months in order to discern the best offerings from the Korean film industry for 2014.

First, however, a quick review of the year is in order to chart the highs and lows from the peninsula, as it was a tumultuous time for Korean cinema indeed.

For those who cannot wait, please scroll down to find the top ten of 2014.

2014 – In Review

2014 was, by all accounts, a rather lacklustre year for Korean cinema.

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀)

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀)

The beginning of the year was undoubtedly dominated by Hollywood. While the release of several high profile Korean films including Plan Man, Man in Love, Hot Young Bloods and Venus Talk occurred, none of them performed particularly well, especially when faced with the gargantuan success of Disney’s Frozen. Things changed at the end of January with the release of Miss Granny, thanks largely to positive word of mouth. Starring Shim Eun-kyeong as an elderly woman transformed into twenties, the mild-mannered comedy was a fairly big success scoring over 8.6 million admissions. Controversial independent film Another Promise also performed impressively. Concerned with people stricken with cancer after working at a Samsung factory, the film was all but rejected from multiplexes causing outrage from critics as well as accusations of insider suppression, even prompting an article from UK outlet The Guardian.

For the next few months, Korean cinema continued to stagnate until things went from bad to worse in the wake of the tragic Sewol Ferry disaster on the 16th of April. With the entire nation reeling from the loss of so many lives – mostly high school students – cinemas, understandably, largely remained empty. For the next few months, with the population still in a collective state of mourning, attendance and revenue was considerably down compared to the year prior, with audiences also tending to stay away from violent films such as No Tears For The Dead and Man On High Heels.

Indie success came in the form of Han Gong-ju. Released in April, the film scored over 60,000 admissions during its first four days, and eventually surpassed 160,000 during its box office run to become one of the most successful independent films in the history of Korean cinema. Han Gong-ju was also an enormous hit on the international film festival circuit, achieving several top honours as well as acclaim from cinema maestro Martin Scorsese.

Internationally, good news also came in May as A Girl At My Door, A Hard Day, and The Target all gained invitations to the Cannes Film Festival.

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

The Admiral: Roaring Currents (명량)

Things turned around considerably in late July. Upon release, KUNDO: Age of the Rampant broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into the industry…until that record, and virtually every achievement in Korean cinema, was decimated by historical naval epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents. Shortly thereafter the final two tentpole summer films – The Pirates and Haemoo – also graced screens to moderate success. Fears that the blockbusters would fail due to narratives that contain deaths at sea, and thus touching on the still sensitive issue of the Sewol tragedy, luckily proved to be unfounded.

The next big news to hit the industry came in the form of controversial documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol. Premiering at the Busan International Film Festival, Sewol depicted the ineptitude of the government in failing to save so many lives during the disaster. Park Geun-hye’s administration responded by demanding the withdrawal of the film from the festival, as well as threats of funding cuts. BIFF refused, and it remains to be seen what ramifications the decision will have on subsequent festivals.

The year ended on a high note, particularly for independent cinema, as positive word of mouth led to documentary My Love, Don’t Cross That River (님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오) attracting over 1 million viewers and knocking Hollywood films Interstellar and Exodus from the top spots at the box office. It currently stands as the second most successful documentary in Korean cinema history.

The Best of 2014

Honourary Mention – Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Before beginning the top ten countdown, it would be impossible to exclude any discussion of Han Gong-ju. Rated in joint first place in last year’s ratings (due to its premiere at BIFF), director Lee Su-jin’s directorial debut is bold, powerful, and emotionally resonating. Featuring an outstanding performance by Chun Woo-hee – who won Best Actress at the Blue Dragon Film AwardsHan Gong-ju is based on the true story of a high school girl who is forced to relocate to a new area following an horrific event. As she attempts to rebuild her life, Gong-ju discovers that she cannot outrun her past however much she tries. Appearing at over 15 international film festivals and receiving acclaim from Martin Scorsese himself, Hang Gong-ju is not to be missed.

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2014

No. 10 – Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits is a beautifully stylised, wonderfully constructed documentary that is emblematic of the new artistic approach being employed to genre. Directed by artist/filmmaker Park Chan-kyong, Manshin presents the life and times of renowned shaman Kim Keum-hwa through a startling array of storytelling devices, all in the aesthetic of traditional Korean culture. Periods from shaman Kim’s life are gorgeously reconstructed featuring three prominent actresses – Kim Sae-ron, Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong and Moon So-ri – which, while interesting in itself, is also a story that explores the cultural identity of Korea in the rapid transition from one of the poorest nations in Asia to the economic powerhouse it is today.

No. 9 – Night Flight (야간비행)

Night Flight (야간비행)

Night Flight (야간비행)

Amalgamating several real life stories that have transpired over the years, Korea’s most prominent queer director, Lee Song Hee-il, released arguably his most compelling film to date in the form of Night Flight. Poignantly depicting the relationship of two teenage gay Seoulites and their desire to escape their oppressive environment, director Lee Song goes beyond focusing primarily on the romance by profoundly developing the world they inhabit. The harsh education system, the class divide, single parent families and social injustice all feature, and as such homosexuality is naturalized as simply another facet of identity that youths struggle with, resulting in an insightful and compelling drama.

No. 8 – Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Let's Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Let’s Dance (자, 이제 댄스타임)

Documentary Let’s Dance is concerned with the topic of abortion in Korea. Director Jo Se-young brilliantly interviews a variety a women who have undergone the procedure, inquiring about their thoughts, reasons and feelings about the controversial subject matter. Yet the film is far from bleak; in fact it’s quite the opposite. During the refreshingly frank conversations the women laugh, joke and cry about their experiences, while dramatic recreations of comical events are interlaced within, making the documentary a genuinely funny, enlightening, and empowering film. The film also hilariously pokes fun at male ignorance on the subject, including lack of awareness regarding contraception and even the length of pregnancy. Inspirational viewing.

No. 7 – Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

Director Boo Ji-young’s insightful second feature film Cart premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim, and for good reason. Based on the true story of unfairly dismissed supermarket employees who began strike action to be reinstated, Cart is a consistently impressive exploration of worker’s rights, women’s issues, and single parent families in contemporary Korea. The provocative drama explores each facet from several distinct perspectives and never fails to be engaging. It also has the distinction of being almost entirely female-centered to great effect, with acting duties from a host of incredibly talented actresses of all ages, combining to produce a moving, courageous and provocative socially-conscious drama.

No. 6 – Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

South Korea has the unfortunate distinction of having one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD. Thread of Lies tackles such difficult subject matter by exploring the lives of those effected in the aftermath of a young girl’s suicide, and is a powerfully provocative film in that the story not only depicts bullying and depression, but also delves into the problematic realm of accountability. Driven by the need for answers, Man-ji begins investigating her younger sister’s suicide, with the conclusions proving to be a painful experience. Thread of Lies is also notable for having a stellar all-female cast, a real rarity these days, with the array of talent combining to produce an understated yet deeply resonating examination of an important social issue.

No. 5 – The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨)

Easily the most controversial Korean film of the year, documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol premiered at the Busan International Film Festival to uproar. Under pressure from government officials and the mayor of Busan/Festival Chairman Seo Byung-soo himself to remove it from the schedule, BIFF ultimately refused and screened it anyway to reveal a highly emotional and courageously critical exploration of the administration’s disastrous rescue efforts following the Sewol tragedy. Through the investigative approach of director Ahn Hye-ryong and journalist/director Lee Sang-ho, the documentary is a powerful tribute to not only the victims of the event but also the ongoing debate of accountability, and the collusion between the state and mass media.

No. 4 – A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

If there’s one genre synonymous with Korea cinema, it’s the thriller. Yet over recent years thriller films have tended to fall a little flat, a result of over-saturation combined with a lack of ingenuity. Not so with director Kim Seong-hoon’s A Hard Day. Premiering at Cannes Film Festival, the action extravaganza is perpetually riveting entertainment and a wonderful example of great popcorn cinema, so much so that the 2 hour 30 minute running time simply flies by. Featuring an exciting array of set pieces throughout, A Hard Day is a constant mix of excitement and tension that serves to keep the audience guessing – due in no small part to the phenomenal editing – while the ironic dark humour laced within the story always hits the mark.

No. 3 – Haemoo (해무)

Haemoo (해무)

Haemoo (해무)

Nominated as Korea’s official entry for the Academy Awards, Haemoo – or Sea Fog – is based on the horrific true story of illegal immigration gone wrong. Director Shim Seong-bo’s directorial debut is a thrilling visual tour de force, expertly capturing the fraught claustrophobia of life on a small fishing vessel and the abject horrors that occur. Produced by Bong Joon-ho and featuring cinematography from Hong Kyeong-pyo (Snowpiercer), the drama expresses a profound and distinctive aesthetic throughout, as well as great performances from the stellar cast and particularly from up-and-comers Han Ye-ri and Kpop star Park Yoochun. As such, Haemoo is certainly one of the best Korean thrillers in recent years.

No. 2 – Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

After seemingly years of performing authoritarian cameo-esque roles, Ahn Sung-gi once again revealed why he’s considered one of the best in the business with an outstanding return to form in Revivre. Veteran director Im Kwon-taek‘s 102nd film, Revivre explores the life of a middle-aged vice president whose wife is stricken by a terminal illness, yet while he struggles to balance his responsibilities a beautiful new deputy manager begins working in the office who captivates him. What could easily be yet another typical male fantasy is given extraordinary emotional depth due to director Im’s and Ahn Sung-gi’s seasoned hands, both of whom combine to depict a man torn between duty and desire with striking sincerity.

No. 1 – A Girl At My Door (도희야)

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

Director July Jung’s directorial debut A Girl At My Door premiered to a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, which in itself states the incredible power of the film. Produced by famed brothers Lee Chang-dong and Lee Jun-dong, the drama beautifully explores the themes of alienation and discrimination in contemporary Korea, featuring phenomenally understated performances by Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron, as well as accompanied by some of the most exquisite cinematography seen all year. The sensitive and poignant story wonderfully captures the issues faced by those on the fringes of Korean society with incredible sincerity, and as such occupies the top spot in the list. Highly recommended and essential viewing.

Film News

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다) – ★★★★☆

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

A Hard Day (끝까지 간다)

When internal affairs unexpectedly show up at the precinct and begin to investigate, corrupt detective Go Geun-soo (Lee Seon-gyoon (이선균) is forced to make excuses at his late mother’s funeral and race back to prevent his guilt from being unearthed. Driving fast and stressed from his predicament, Go accidently hits and kills a passerby. Secretly disposing of the body and cunningly destroying evidence of his involvement, Go believes he’s in the clear…until he receives an anonymous phone call from a witness (Jo Jin-woong (조진웅) threatening to reveal his sordid crime. Unless Go complies with the demands his world will be over, beginning a frantic game of suspense as they battle to emerge victorious and unscathed.

Already under investigation, detective Go accidently kills a pedestrian and must hide his involvement

Already under investigation, detective Go accidently kills a pedestrian and must hide his involvement

From the moment it begins, A Hard Day is an exciting, captivating, and down right thrilling cinematic joyride. Writer/director Kim Seong-hoon (김성훈) has crafted an enthralling and suspense fuelled tale that constantly keeps the audience guessing, through the incorporation of a variety of inspired set-pieces that takes staples of the genre yet reinvents them enough to keep them fresh and appealing. Whether it be the initial hit-and-run incident, the disposal of the body, car chases or physical combat, director Kim builds tension brilliantly to consistently excite and entertain. Alongside editor Kim Chang-ju, who sutures the scenes to incredible effect, the duo have combined to create some of the most gratifying and well made action-thriller sequences in recent memory. Yet despite all the conflict and terrifying situations that arise, the film is never morbid due to the dark ironic humour laced throughout that adds genuine laugh-out-loud moments to the proceedings, a real rarity that serves to both inspire and rejuvenate a genre that has, of late, become quite stagnant. As such the 2 hour and 30 minute running time simply flies by, making A Hard Day one of the most entertaining filmic experiences of the year, and well deserving of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

Detective Go confronts his nemesis to surprising results

Detective Go confronts his nemesis to surprising results

Central to the enjoyment of A Hard Day are the wonderfully charismatic performances of Lee Seon-gyoon and Jo Jin-woong. Lee is great as corrupt detective Go, effectively conveying the anti-hero as selfish and unethical but also quite likable and ultimately sympathetic given the fraught circumstances that arise. Lee has an ‘everyman’ quality that he employs effortlessly throughout the film that generates an acute connection with the audience, so much so that it’s entirely possible to forgive Go for his dishonesty and actually root for him as the underdog victim. Jo, meanwhile, appears to absolutely relish the opportunity portraying the villainous blackmailer, to the point where despite his supporting actor status, he threatens to steal the film every time he appears on screen. He is a hulking pillar of evil, yet his comic timing and delivery are so comically entertaining that he’s impossible to dislike, adding a wonderfully fresh dimension to the relationship between the antagonists that is consistently fascinating to watch unfold.

The situation reaches breaking point as the two clash

The situation reaches breaking point as the two clash

Verdict:

A Hard Day is one of the most exciting and entertaining action-thrillers of the year. Director Kim Seong-hoon has crafted a thoroughly engaging, suspenseful and darkly humourous tale of corruption that consistently feels fresh through the reinvention of genre traits. Featuring highly charismatic performances from leads Lee Seon-gyoon and Jo Jin-woong, A Hard Day is a thrilling cinematic joyride from start to finish.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews