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


Haemoo (AKA Sea Fog) (해무) – ★★★★☆

Sea Fog (해무)

Sea Fog (해무)

Haemoo (aka Sea Fog) (해무) is an exquisitely shot, beautifully melancholic tour de force and a welcome return to form for Korean thrillers by director Sim Seong-bo, here making his feature debut. Co-written by director Shim and film maestro Bong Joon-ho – who also takes a producer credit – Haemoo is a riveting account of a sea expedition gone wrong, and the depths to which humanity can sink when faced with calamity. While the story is a compelling drama for the most part, Haemoo wobbles in the final stages by slipping into traditional genre fare, with the tying up of loose narrative ends feeling somewhat tacked on. That said, Haemoo is still one of the most provocative and gripping films of 2014 so far.

What remains to be seen is how Korean audiences will react to the film. With the Sewol ferry tragedy still very much a sensitive issue within the social consciousness, Haemoo – with its story about macabre events at sea – may very well turn cinema-goers off which is understandable, although a great shame indeed. Foreign audiences will undoubtedly embrace the film however, particularly with the hype it’s receiving for its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

The crew work hard in fraught conditions, but camaraderie prevails

The crew work hard in fraught conditions, but camaraderie prevails

After a long and laborious expedition at sea, the crew of a small fishing vessel return to port with a frustratingly meagre haul. As the men take a well deserved rest on land, Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석) is provided with an opportunity to make some serious cash – by transporting illegal immigrants from China into Korea. Hastily agreeing, Captain Cheol-joo gathers his crew, including young deck-hand Dong-sik (Park Yoochun (박유천), and set sail for open waters once more where they dock with a ship to acquire their human cargo. Following a near-death experience with pretty migrant Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri (한예리), the vessel begins the voyage home yet weather and the authorities seem to conspire against them, leading to a tragic event that sees their very humanity tested.

Haemoo opens with a wonderful montage featuring the crew toiling at sea, capturing the backbreaking labour and arduous conditions of life on the waves with tremendous vision. The attention to detail is absolutely superb – from the grimy, rundown equipment and rusting, dilapidated boat to the tattered old clothes and sweaty brows of the crew – as each scene conveys the daily routine of a fishing boat with confident authenticity.

The same deft technical precision is applied within the ship. The mise-en-scene in each location is constructed with such meticulous consideration that each arena becomes akin to a different realm, whether it be the hellish steampunk engine room or the cluttered yet cosy sleeping quarters, providing distinct interiors within which the action takes place.

Cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo (who previously worked on Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer) exploits the opportunities afforded by such locations with absolute relish, with his compositions continually stunning and one of the great highlights of Haemoo. Space would initially seem to be an issue with a film largely set in the confines of a small fishing vessel, yet his uncanny ability to capture arenas in alternative fashions never ceases to be visually striking.

The composition within Haemoo is continually striking, both within the ship and without

The composition within Haemoo is continually striking, both within the ship and without

While it may sound bleak, the camaraderie between the crew quickly makes for endearing viewing as they smile and tease while undertaking their grinding tasks, portraying the rugged ensemble as an unlikely family of sorts. That is, until tragic events occur that serve to generate incredible tension between them replacing the humorous juvenile antics with well-paced suspense that builds into abject terror. The cast are excellent in conveying the range of emotions required by the harrowing story and understandably so as Haemoo contains some of Korea’s most experienced supporting actors in the form of Moon Seong-geun (National Security), Kim Sang-ho (Moss), Yoo Seung-mok (Han Gong-ju) and Kim Yeong-woong (How To Use Guys With Secret Tips). Acting powerhouse Kim Yoon-seok (The Thieves, Chaser) headlines the talent on display and gives a respectable, competent performance although as he has been playing these kinds of roles for quite some time, Kim is never really pushed into new territory. Haemoo notably serves as a great showcase for new talent in the form of Han Ye-ri (Dear Dolphin) and Park Yoochun (Kpop’s JYJ). The duo, particularly Han, are remarkable in capturing the awkward relationship that arises between them and form the emotional center of the film, which is an impressive achievement considering the wealth of talent on display.

Where Haemoo falters however is in the final act. After a wonderful set-up followed by a compelling crisis, the story descends into standard genre territory in order to wrap up all the narrative loose ends. That is not to say that Haemoo’s finale isn’t exciting as director Sim displays great prowess in creating an effective thriller, but given the quality of what’s gone before, it’s something of a disappointment. This is particularly the case with the epilogue scenes which feel tacked on and offer very little to the story. Yet even with such criticism, Haemoo is still head and shoulders above other Korean thrillers released this year, and is very much recommended viewing.

Han Ye-ri is the break out star as migrant Hong-mae, and forms the emotional heart of the film

Han Ye-ri is the break out star as migrant Hong-mae, forming the emotional heart of the film

Haemoo is a beautifully shot, extremely compelling film by first time director Sim Seong-bo, and is a welcome return to form for Korean thrillers. Based on a tragic true story, the film is a powerfully provocative exploration of morality pushed to the extreme, with the tense situations performed superbly by the experienced all star cast. Coupled with the gifted vision of cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo the story is consistently visually striking, and while it falters during the final act, Haemoo is undoubtedly one of the most gripping films of the year.


The 18th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2013: Gala Presentation, New Currents, and Open Cinema

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

With the 18th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) due to commence on October the 3rd, it’s high time to profile the Korean entries that are due to be screened.

Three of the big categories at BIFF – Gala Presentation, New Currents, and Open Cinema – showcase some of the incredible mainstream and independent films to emerge from the Korean film industry this year.

Gala Presentation focuses on a select group of important films from the Asian continent, and within this category are two Korean films – Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (설국열차) and Kim Jee-woon’s The X (더 엑스).

New Currents, meanwhile, explores some of the more powerful independent features to emerge from the continent. The manner in which the films within this category delve into social and cultural issues, often through experimentation of film form, make it one of the more fascinating areas. Three Korean films – 10 Minutes (10분), Steel Cold Winter (소녀) and Pascha (파스카) – appear, and receive their world premieres at BIFF 2013.

Rounding out the three, Open Cinema selects films to be presented on the Busan Cinema Center’s impressive outdoor screen. Two big thrillers from Korea are within the category – Cold Eyes (감시자들) and The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브).

Please see below for more in-depth coverage of each film.

Gala Presentation

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

Snowpiercer (설국열차) – Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호)

Bong Joon-ho’s science-fiction epic was released in Korea earlier this year, earning over nine million admissions and over $50 million at the box office. For many foreign visitors to BIFF 2013 this will be their first opportunity to see the film before it’s released in international markets, so it’s placement within the Gala Presentation category is quite deserved. Snowpiercer is also notable as (currently) the most expensive Korean film ever made, as well as having Hollywood behemoth The Weinstein Company on board producing. The film tells the story of the last survivors on Earth following a man-made ice age that covered the planet. The last remnants of humanity struggle to survive on a train called ‘Snowpiercer’ which circumnavigates the globe every year. Yet within the train an unfair class system has emerged, and a revolution begins between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ For the review of Snowpiercer, please click here.

The X (더 엑스)

The X (더 엑스)

The X (더 엑스) – Director Kim Jee-woon (김지운)

New camera technology allows for a more immersive experience

New camera technology allows for a more immersive experience

Screen X technology has been employed and experimented with in Kim Jee-woon’s latest film The X. Commissioned by cinema chain CGV, director Kim has used screen x – which allows for extra space on either side of the screen for a more immersive viewing experience – to produce this new 30 minute short action/thriller film. The X also features an all-star cast with Kang Dong-won, Shin Min-ah, and E Som in the lead roles which is guaranteed to arouse interest amongst their respective fan bases.

New Currents

10 Minutes (10분)

10 Minutes (10분)

10 Minutes (10분) – Director Lee Yong-seung (이용승)

10 Minutes is concerned with examining the notoriously harsh environment of the Korean workplace. The story follows a  young intern as he enters employment at a government facility, and is promised a full-time position that will guarantee financial stability. Yet when his boss promotes someone else into the position, the young man is forced to reevaluate his options. 10 Minutes is director Lee Yong-seung’s thesis film while at the Dankook Graduate School of Cinematic Content.

Steel Cold Winter (소녀)

Steel Cold Winter (소녀)

Steel Cold Winter (소녀) – Director Choi Jin-seong (최진성)

Steel Cold Winter is Choi Jin-seong’s first fiction film, after spending years helming successful documentaries. The film depcits the story of high schooler Yoon-soo who moves to the mountains in Gangwon Province following his friend’s suicide. Yet while he attempts to start a new life, he meets a mysterious girl called Hae-won and begins to fall in love. However Hae-won has a secret and when her father suddenly disappears, Yoon-soo’s suspicions become aroused.

Ga-eul's relationship with 17 year old Joseph is quite a scandal

Ga-eul’s relationship with 17 year old Joseph is quite a scandal

Pascha (파스카) – Director Ahn Seon-kyoung (안선경)

Director Ahn’s Pascha tells the story of a lonely 40 year old screenwriter and her 17 year old boyfriend. Their unconventional relationship, and penchant for adopting stray cats, is fine until some unexpected news forces the intervention of their families. The pressure exerted on the couple results in plenty of judgement and heartache, as they must try to find a way to stay together. Pascha could perhaps be an interesting and more feminist orientated companion piece with last year’s A Muse (은교), which explored similar themes with an older man and young girl.

Open Cinema

Rookie Yoon-jo must learn to observe and recall everything on a mission

Rookie Yoon-jo must learn to observe and recall everything on a mission

Cold Eyes (감시자들) – Directors Jo Eui-seok (조의석), Kim Byeong-seo (김병서)

A remake of Hong Kong thriller Eye in the Sky (2006), cat-and-mouse cop drama Cold Eyes performed very well upon its release over the summer. The film is a slick and high-tech thrill-ride, featuring an impressively futuristic rendition of Seoul as a government surveillance team works day and night to catch professional criminals. Cold Eyes depicts the story of talented rookie Yoon-joo (Han Hyo-joo) who joins a special division headed by Chief Hwang (Sol Kyeong-gu). Their mission is to apprehend a group of professional thieves and their mastermind ‘Shadow’ (Jeong Woo-seong). The A-list cast have all been superbly cast against the types of roles they usually portray, and the result is a highly engaging thriller.

Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

Exploiting the opportunity to become a news anchor, Yeong-hwa begins to regret his decision

The Terror Live (더 테러 라이브) – Director Kim Byeong-woo (김병우)

The Terror Live was one of the surprise hits of the summer, notably going toe-to-toe with Snowpiercer and still gaining a large proportion of the audience. The reasons are quite clear as the thriller is a well-crafted and suspense-filled, as well as striking a chord with Korean audiences due to governmental criticism within. Superstar Ha Jeong-woo plays disgraced TV anchor Yeong-hwa, who has been demoted to radio due to a scandal. When a terrorist calls the radio show threatening to blow up a bridge, his bluff is called, and shortly thereafter an explosion occurs. Set entirely within a newsroom, The Terror Live is one of the more interesting thrillers in recent memory. For the review of The Terror Live, please click here.

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013
Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

The Host (괴물) – ★★★★★

The Host (괴물)

The Host (괴물)

The introduction of Godzilla in 1954 was a masterstroke. The monster directly tapped into the fears and anxieties of the Japanese populace following the American atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the potential ramifications of the nuclear fallout. The popularity of the iconic character was instant, while the enduring legacy of Godzilla has remained due to the still underlying apprehension surrounding nuclear technology.

Ironically, a similar fate was to occur with neighbouring South Korea. In 2000, the American military dumped 20 gallons of formaldehyde into drains which flowed directly into the Han River, the source of drinking water for the entire population of Seoul. The enormity of the public outcry was such that the U.S. military gave it’s first public apology since the Korean War, yet it did little to assuage public opinion. Enter The Host (괴물), a film that – similar to Godzilla – uses the true story as a basis for a narrative which introduces a monster into the midst of Seoul, amalgamating the fears, angers and anxieties of the society into the monstrous beast. ‘괴물’ is translated as ‘monster’, the source of the horror. However, far more interesting (and multi-layered) is the English title ‘The Host’. ‘The Host’ refers to the Han River which harbours the monster, but is also symbolic of Korea for ‘hosting’ the U.S. military (arguably another source of ‘horror’ due to creating the monster and perceived imperialism). The multi-layered title is reflected within the narrative, and it is such complexity that makes The Host one of the best science-fiction films of all time.

The 'average' Seoulite family

The ‘average’ Seoulite family

The Host depicts the dysfunctional Park family, who are more a collection of individuals due to their differing personalities and interests. The slacker of the family, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho (송강호) works at a convenience store with his diligent father Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong (변희봉) on the banks of the Han River. Living with them is Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) a middle school student who dislikes her father’s laid-back attitude. One day whilst serving customers, a mutated amphibious fish monster emerges from the river wreaking havoc. Gang-du and an American soldier bravely try to stop the monster from eating people, but during the struggle the soldier is gravely injured as the monster tries to consume him. Wounded by Gang-du, the monster runs back to the safety of the Han River and snatches the unaware Hyun-seo on the way. With Hyun-seo believed dead, the Gang-du is joined by his salaryman brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il (박해일) and archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona (배두나) in mourning. However, the American soldier is reported in the media as having a new strain of disease due to contact with the monster, and the military immediately incarcerate and quarantine the entire Park family against their will. That night, Gang-du receives a phone call from Hyeon-seo who is trapped in the monster’s sewer lair, and as the military refuse to help, the Park family resolve to escape their imprisonment and find Hyeon-seo before it’s too late.

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호),  who also co-wrote the film with Ha Joon-won (하준원), Joo-byeol (주별) and Baek Cheol-hyeon (백철현), has crafted a magnificent and multi-layered film that examines an incredible array of socio-cultural anxieties within Korean society. The Park family are a microcosm for the disparate identities and labour forces within Korea. Grandfather Hee-bong represents the hard-working older generation; Gang-du exemplifies the manual labour force; Nam-il constitutes the university-students-turned-office workers; Nam-ju represents women in Korea, hesitant to display their power and talent; and Hyeon-seo embodies the innocence of the younger generations. As such the family unit is allegorical of Korea itself, emphasising that for the family/Korea to succeed in killing the monster and saving their daughter/youth, they must forgo their differences, come together and work as one. The ‘monster’ the family must defeat is somewhat ambiguous. The mutated animal is the most obvious example, yet the media is equally as monstrous in inspiring panic throughout the citizens of Seoul, reports which are ultimately lies. Behind those lies are the American government and military who use the panic to their advantage, expanding American influence/imperialism and releasing ‘Agent Yellow’ (a not-so-subtle reference to toxic Agent Orange) into the atmosphere, which does little except to add further poison to the atmosphere. Korean society is also interrogated by depicting bribery and the traitorous actions of office workers due to their escalating debt. Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호) continually references the multitudinous ‘monsters’ the family confront through a variety of representational devices, serving to add astonishing political and socio-cultural depth within the narrative.

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster’s lair

The blending, and subversion, of genres is seamless. Most science-fiction films tend to refrain from fully revealing their antagonist until the final acts, surrounded by darkness to both convey suspense and hide the limitations of CGI. Not so in The Host, which has one of the most staggering introduction sequences ever constructed for a monster, all during the bright daylight hours. The rampage is truly astounding, and Bong Joon-ho employs a variety of techniques in capturing the the monster’s behaviour and the panic of the crowd. The actors are, as one would expect from such highly talented individuals, perfect in capturing the essence of their respective protagonists, conveying powerful performances that virtually command attention and empathy. With so many narrative devices included, it’s astonishing how each protagonist also manages to evolve throughout the film, leading to a socialist-esque finale in which they all overcome their flaws to fight as one with the proletariat landing the final blow.

Gang-du squares off against the monster

Gang-du squares off against the monster


The Host is an incredible film, and highlights the sheer talent and innovation of all involved. While it is unashamedly mainstream, the film never falls into cliche or parody as is often the case in the genre. Instead, The Host employs layers upon layers of political and socio-cultural subtext that adds phenomenal depth to an already highly entertaining premise, and cannot be recommended highly enough.