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


Jan 2016 – K-Film Preview

January 7th

Don't Forget Me (나를 잊지 말아요)

Remember You (나를 잊지 말아요)

Remember You (나를 잊지 말아요)

Director: Lee Yoon-jung

Cast: Jeong Woo-sung, Kim Ha-neul

Distributor: CJ Entertainment

Synopsis: When Seok-won loses the past 10 years of his memory due to an accident, he struggles to piece together his existence and discover the life he once had. However upon meeting Jin-young his memories start to return as love blossoms between them.

The Lowdown: Director Lee Yoon-jung developed Remember You from her celebrated short film Remember O Goddess, initially turning to kickstarter to generate funding before superstar Jeong Woo-sung – whom became friends with director Lee while she worked as a script supervisor on The Good, The Bad, The Weird – came on board as both producer and actor. After around two years of production, Remember You is finally being released alongside a significant advertising campaign from distributors CJ.

Catch Him to Survive (잡아야 산다)

Catch Him to Survive (잡아야 산다)

Catch Him to Survive (잡아야 산다)

Director: Oh In-chun

Cast: Kim Seung-woo, Kim Jeong-tae

Distributor: OPUS Pictures

Synopsis: When two friends – one a CEO and the other a police officer – have their phone and gun taken by a group of high school delinquents, they must work together to track down the thieves and recover their stolen goods.

The lowdown: Action-comedy Catch Him to Survive seems quite a departure for director Oh In-chun, who previously impressed with horror-drama Mourning Grave. Judging from the trailer (see below) the film looks set to be a madcap caper with promising chemistry from veteran leads Kim Seung-woo and Kim Jeong-tae (who, ironically, was originally cast in Remember You [see above] before leaving the project due to scheduling conflicts). Catch Him to Survive also marks the big screen debut for four young actors, including Hyuk from Kpop band VIXX.

January 14th

Mood of the Day (그날의 분위기)

Mood of the Day (그날의 분위기)

Mood of the Day (그날의 분위기)

Director: Jo Kyu-jang

Cast: Moon Chae-won, Yoo Yeon-seok

Distributor: Showbox

Synopsis: While on a business trip to Busan, Soo-jung meets lothario Jae-hyun and is instantly repulsed by his suggestion of spending the night together. However when the journey doesn’t go according to plan they are forced to travel together, and the duo find themselves becoming close.

The lowdown: Mood of the Day is another romantic outing for stars Moon Chae-won and Yoo Yeon-seok, who dabbled with the genre in last year’s Love Forecast and Beauty Inside, respectively. Their collaboration appears to be quite a comical take on modern relationships, and it will be interesting to see if director Jo Kyu-jang can avoid the cliches and offer something fresh for audiences.


Robot, Sori (로봇, 소리)

Robot, Sori (로봇, 소리)

Robot, Sori (로봇, 소리)

Director: Lee Ho-jae

Cast: Lee Sung-min, Lee Hee-joon, Lee Honey, Chae Soo-bin

Distributor: Lotte Entertainment

Synopsis: Tragically, Hae-gwan lost his daughter 10 years ago although he refuses to give up on finding the youngster again. Unbeknownst to the distraught father is that an AI satellite with voice-recognition capabilities is circling the globe, and upon crash landing in Korea, helps Hae-gwan to be reunited with his daughter.

The lowdown: With a narrative that is particularly reminiscent of animated tale Satellite Girl and Milk Cow, Robot Sori looks set to be a heart-warming family sci-fi drama. Lee Sung-min has starred in a staggering number of films and TV drama series since his debut, though his star power increased dramatically following his turn in hit TV show Missing, resulting in his lead role in Robot Sori.

A Melody to Remember (오빠 생각)

A Melody to Remember (오빠 생각)

A Melody to Remember (오빠 생각)

Director: Lee Han

Cast: Siwan, Ko Ah-sung

Distributor: Next World Entertainment

Synopsis: As war ravages Korea during the early 1950s, Second Lieutenant Han Sang-Yeol discovers a village while leading his platoon. Moved by the children of the village who have lost everything, Sang-yeol vows to protect them.

The lowdown: Director Lee Han is back in cinemas after helming impressive family dramas Punch and Thread of Lies, though this outing sees the filmmaker tackling war as a major component. Featuring Siwan, whose star power is steadily rising following roles in The Attorney and TV drama Misaeng, A Melody to Remember – or more literally translated as Thinking of my Older Brother – looks to be a war-era tear-jerker.

Film News

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – ★★★★☆

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Life is good for single mother Hyeon-sook (Kim Hee-ae (김희애) and her two teenage daughters Man-ji (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) and Cheon-ji (Kim Hyang-ki (김향기). Despite the financial hardships of living in a single parent household, the three are like any other typical family. That is, until the day Cheon-ji commits suicide. Devastated by the loss, Hyeon-sook and Man-ji move to a new home and attempt to start afresh. Yet as Man-ji begins to think more and more about her younger sister’s death, as well as the lack of a suicide note, she becomes driven to find the cause behind Cheon-ji’s suffering. As she  questions those close to Cheon-ji, including best friends Hwa-yeon (Kim Yoo-jeong (김유정) and Mi-ran (Yoo Yeon-mi (유연미), Man-ji starts to unravel the elegant lies involved and begins to understand that she may not have known her younger sister as well as she previously thought.

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – or directly translated as ‘Elegant Lies’ – is a powerfully compelling and tender family drama by director Lee Han (이한) and screenwriter Lee Sook-yeon (이숙연). It is a well-documented fact that the suicide rate in Korea is the highest amongst the countries in the OECD – and in particular it’s the leading cause of death amid the younger generations – yet while several films have explored the issue from the perspective of those suffering from depression, Thread of Lies approaches the topic quite differently. By exploring the situation from the view of a family struggling to come to terms with loss, the film effectively captures not only the trauma and guilt generated by losing a loved one to suicide but notably how it’s possible to live with someone and not truly know who they are. Director Lee beautifully conveys the complexity of emotions and relationships in the aftermath of loss with acute sincerity, while also subtly intertwining a critique on the notion of pretense in Korean society. Falsity is presented through a heartbreaking scene in which Cheon-ji arrives late to a birthday party and is bullied on kakao messenger service, within her view and by people claiming to be her friends, and is superbly contrasted with a scene depicting her mother being forced to practice customer service and etiquette at a supermarket. Thread of Lies examines the various ways in which people in contemporary Korea are forced to subsume their true emotions for socially acceptable ones, yet director Lee also superbly manages to balance such weighty material with tasteful light-hearted comedy, infusing the story with positivity and hope as well as tender poignancy .

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

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

Thread of Lies is in many ways an examination of guilt, and the lies told in order to assuage it. Older sister Man-ji is cool to the point of arrogant, yet in her quest to discover Cheon-ji’s motivations she uncovers a web of depression, pain, and half-truths that fundamentally change her, and as such her development into a more mature and aware young woman is a deeply affecting journey. The conversations Man-ji has with Cheon-ji’s classmates Hwa-yeon and Mi-ran are incredibly illuminating, as the young girls reveal a history of bullying and psychological abuse yet desperately remove any notion of their role in the lead up to the suicide. Their interactions are brilliantly contrasted with the truth via flashback scenes depicting the events as they occurred, revealing the full impact of wrongdoing on the young and sensitive Cheon-ji. Director Lee effectively employs such moments to reveal that blame lies not with one singular person, but with a large number of people who are all culpable in the build-up to suicide as they thoughtlessly mistreat those around them. As such, Thread of Lies is a socially-conscious, poignant and sincere examination of a timely issue, and is an exemplary piece of filmmaking.

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth


Thread of Lies is a powerful and compelling family drama that deals with the aftermath of suicide. Director Lee Han captures the complex emotional and relationship issues within Lee Sook-yeon’s script with sincerity and tenderness, as Man-ji attempts to understand her younger sister’s death. Featuring an exemplary examination of the guilt and lies associated with suicide, and cultural existence of pretense within contemporary Korean society, Thread of Lies is a fascinating and empowering exploration of a timely issue.


Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Punch (완득이) – ★★★☆☆

Punch (완득이)

Punch (완득이)

The representation of those outside of ‘mainstream’ culture is often problematic within cinema. While their daily struggles against prejudice and other such conflicts are incredibly compelling, it is easy for protagonists to fall into the ‘pitiable’ category and thus undermine their accomplishments.

Punch (완득이) deftly sidesteps such narrative pitfalls with a wonderfully moving and charming story about those on the fringes of society, one that never patronizes those within and instead focuses on the three-dimensional features and ironies of their lives. In a culture – and national cinema – where physical appearance and financial stability are highly regarded, Punch is a refreshing and comical perspective on oft-ignored contemporary issues.

Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in (유아인) lives a troubled existence, failing at school and perpetually involved in fights. His father (Park Soo-young (박수영), a hunchback, is ridiculed for his appearance yet supports them as a dancer and entertainer with mentally ill ‘uncle’ Min-goo (Kim Yeong-jae (김영재). Yet the real bane of Wan-deuk’s life is his teacher Dong-joo (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석), who takes an active interest in the young man and encourages him to stretch and develop in ways unwanted. But when Wan-deuk’s estranged Filipino mother (Jasmine Lee (이쟈스민) arrives requesting time together, the young man is forced to mature and understand the complexities of those closest to him.

Wan-deuk and his family live a meagre existence

Wan-deuk and his family live a meagre existence

Punch – an odd title considering the original is the lead protagonist’s name – succinctly and organically explores an array of societal issues without foregrounding any one in particular, nor ramming any ideological message into the audience. Instead, Punch eloquently depicts the story of a young man at the head of a makeshift and dysfunctional family, suffering from the idiosyncrasies of life on the poverty line with charismatic sincerity. Kim Dong-woo (김동우) has crafted a wonderfully character-driven script that makes it virtually impossible not to empathize with Wan-deuk and his coming-of-age story, which director Lee Han (이한) competently brings to life.

What makes Punch such an interesting and unique offering are the variety of characters within and the ways in which they strive to turn what mainstream society considers to be weaknesses into strengths. Wan-deuk is an incredibly conflicted young man; as a young boy he idolized his hunchback father for his dancing ability alongside his mentally ill ‘uncle’, tragically ignorant to the reality of the entertainment being provided. Without a mother figure in his life, Wan-deuk, his hero-turned-ridiculed father and his kind ‘uncle’ form a makeshift family, relying on the charity of others to live. Wan-deuk’s inner turmoil is wonderfully conveyed through his apathetic stance towards life, simultaneously a class clown and violently entering in fights even when outnumbered, making him likable and engaging. Wan-deuk’s teacher, Dong-joo, is a highly charismatic character with his own conflicts yet strives to find and encourage the potential within everyone around him, an unsung hero in a deprived community. Yet the characters only truly align with the introduction of Wan-deuk’s estranged mother, shocking him with her Filipino nationality and desire to reconnect. The cultural problem of importing wives from developing Asian countries has been slowly encroaching Korean national cinema for the past few years, yet none are as three-dimensional, nor approach the situation from the perspective of the women themselves, as within Punch. The focus on such disparate characters, and the humanity they exhibit and discover as they come together, is undoubtedly what makes the film is so entertaining and life-affirming.

Teacher Dong-joo seemingly enjoys making Wan-deuk's life more difficult

Teacher Dong-joo seemingly enjoys making Wan-deuk’s life more difficult

Yoo Ah-in gives a restrained performance as Wan-deuk, making the character likable with his irregular combination of dumb-struck apathy and belligerence. In lesser hands the role could have disintegrated into melodrama or portray his frustrations as disdainful, yet Yoo Ah-in balances the characterization well.

Yet by far the most engaging, comedic, and heart-warming protagonist is that of teacher Dong-joo, played by Kim Yoon-seok. The actor is wonderful in portraying the modest educator, doing so with sincerity, conviction, and with a great sense of comedic timing. His unorthodox style of teaching and encouraging students is humorous as well as unconventional, prompting his students to expand when others have given up. As such, Kim Yoon-seok forges his role into the soul of the film, with each layer of information revealed making him increasingly more charismatic and interesting.

If Dong-joo is the heart of the film then Wan-deuk’s mother, performed by Jasmine Lee, is the heart. Her introduction within the narrative is the catalyst for the disparate characters to bond together, and Jasmine Lee is excellent in conveying the sincerity of a mother wishing to reconnect with the son she abandoned. The actress performs the role with sincerity and integrity, forging sympathy with audiences yet never descends into pity, and her modesty and plight acutely reflects the difficulties faced by imported wives.

Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing


Punch is a charming and heart-warming film about those on outside of ‘mainstream’ society and culture, made compelling by the wonderful characterization within. While the film may not push boundaries, the character-driven script features such an array of protagonists, issues and comedic idiosyncrasies that Punch becomes unique in its alternative perspective on a familial drama, and is highly entertaining.