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


The Royal Tailor (상의원) – ★★★☆☆

The Royal Tailor (상의원)

The Royal Tailor (상의원)

Three years have passed since the death of the king, and with the mourning period now officially over the new monarch (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석) commissions a special new dragon robe from royal tailor Jo Dol-seok (Han Seok-Kyu (한석규). Having crafted royal attire for 30 years, commoner Dol-seok is on the verge of becoming a nobleman, the reward for a lifetime of service. Yet the abrupt arrival of new and highly sought after tailor Gong-jin (Ko Soo (고수), with his fancy contemporary designs and custom-made fittings, place Dol-seok’s position in jeopardy. Animosity between the two arises when the queen (Park Shin-hye (박신혜) announces her need for a tailor and Gong-jin is presented with the task, however the young upstarts disregard for the Confucian rules of the time may well spell trouble.

Dol-seok has crafted royal attire for 30 years and is finally on the verge of nobility

Dol-seok has crafted royal attire for 30 years and is finally on the verge of nobility

The Royal Tailor is a vibrant and unique addition to the Korean period drama canon, one that is consistently visually stimulating and bustling with ideas yet one which is also often directionless.

Director Lee Won-seok (이원석) and cinematographer Kim Ji-young deserve praise for crafting such a distinctive and striking film. The beautiful assortments of colour that permeate scenes featuring tailory are truly gorgeous, often combining with a keen sense of symmetry that makes The Royal Tailor a real treat for the eyes. The variation of such impressive colours and designs applied to hanbok also make the drama a fitting tribute to the traditional attire, revering it both as iconic as well as a symbol of cultural elegance.

One of the great strengths of The Royal Tailor, and one that makes it so entertaining, is the progressive attitude laced throughout the narrative which is often expressed through hanbok itself. Through the distinctly Korean conflict between traditionalist Dol-seok and the actions of rebellious contemporary Gong-jin, the period tale seeks to poke fun at the Confucian ideals of the era, employing fashion and feminist issues to push the boundaries of oppression. Rather controversially for a film set in such an era, director Lee provocatively conveys that strict adherence to tradition halts development even at the most basic level – a scene in which actor Ma Dong-seok parades like a peacock in his latest hanbok while his sleeves are too long to pour and consume beverages is frankly hilarious – and conveys the playfully nature in which he mocks and scrutinises the rigidity of the time.

Through colourful stylish hanbok, rebellious tailor Gong-jin pushes Confucian boundaries

Through colourful stylish hanbok, rebellious tailor Gong-jin pushes Confucian boundaries

Director Lee infuses The Royal Tailor with an energetic flamboyance reminiscent of his excellent prior rom-com How To Use Guys With Secret Tips, yet perhaps due to Secret Tips‘ modest returns and/or the conventions of the period film, he appears to lack the confidence to fully commit to his whimsically comedic vision here. Instead he injects his unique flair through a handful of select scenes which are hit-and-miss, as the film flits between typical genre fare and more surrealist postmodern sensibilities, resulting in a film which has something of an identity crisis. This is a quite unfortunate as director Lee is one of the more unique talents to emerge from the industry in recent years, and seeing his aesthetics restrained is a real shame.

The drama also suffers in a narrative sense due to the lack of characterisation and the absence of a strong trajectory. The protagonists, and the story, tends to meander and while the situations and debates that arise are entertaining, the film feels directionless and in need of a more defined central plot. As such the actors are under-utilised, particularly Park Shin-hye who suffers the most in this regard as there is little for her to do other than appear sad and pretty.

Yet The Royal Tailor ends with a surprisingly potent finale, one which directly challenges the very concept of history and leaves a particularly lasting impression. In forcing audiences to question the very foundations of their national and cultural identity, director Lee makes a bold statement that the past and the truth are not always the same.

In the conflict between traditional and progressive, how is history created?

In the conflict between traditional and progressive, how is history created?


The Royal Tailor is a unique and vibrant period drama by director Lee Won-Seok who comedically uses the fashion of the era to mock and push the oppressive boundaries of Confucian norms. While the use of colour is a visual treat and the film is infused with a handful of wonderfully whimsical scenes, The Royal Tailor is often directionless due to issues with the narrative and characterisation. Yet the drama ends on a high note that examines the concept of history and as such The Royal Tailor leaves a lasting impression.