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.