No. 10 – The Bacchus Lady (죽여주는 여자)
When a BBC news report entitled, “Korean Grandmothers Who Sell Sex” emerged in 2014, it highlighted multiple societal issues plaguing the older generations in contemporary Korea as well as leaving many in government red-faced.
Director E J-yong has, rather bravely, dared to explore the complexity of elderly prostitution through The Bacchus Lady (Bacchus is a health drink in Korea, and used to initiate conversation with potential clients). Premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, The Bacchus Lady stars the phenomenally-talented Yoon Yeo-jeong in the titular role as she plies her trade while attempting to avoid the police and pay the rent on time, however things change when a regular client asks for a special request.
The Bacchus Lady is an illuminating film, one that generally attempts to explore such an array of social problems that it threatens to become submerged beneath them, yet Yoon Yeo-jeong’s charismatic performance expertly captures the tenacity, sensitivity, and courage of the character to make the film one of the year’s best.
No. 9 – Merry Christmas Mr. Mo (메리크리스마스 미스터 모)
One of 2016’s most enjoyable surprises, Merry Christmas Mr. Mo rather quietly premiered at the Busan International Film Festival yet very quickly gained a reputation as one of the most charming discoveries of the year.
Writer/director Lim Dae-hyung’s feature debut, Merry Christmas Mr. Mo tells the tale of an elderly barber who, upon discovering he has a terminal illness, reaches out to his estranged son in order to make a Chaplin-esque short film together before he passes. Along the way their relationship is tested and their history explored, bringing the two very different gentlemen closer.
Often in Korean cinema, films with such a premise become overly-sentimental tear-jerkers – not so with Mr. Mo, which displays a wonderfully cheeky sense of humour throughout and genuine sincerity when depicting relationship strife. Quirky, offbeat and with a beating heart at its center, Mr. Mo is a real treat.
No. 8 – Breathing Underwater (물숨)
The Jeonju International Film Festival has increased the number of documentaries it screens in competition over the past few years, yet in 2016 nothing came close to the beauty captured within the majestic Breathing Underwater.
Shot over the course of six years, director Ko Hee-young documents the lives of Jeju Island’s illustrious ‘haenyeo’ – female divers who, without oxygen tanks, dive to the ocean floor to harvest various types of seafood. Known to be very private people, Breathing Underwater nonetheless gains unprecedented access to the lives of the incredible women who have created their own social hierarchy and risk their safety each day.
Beautifully constructed and never failing to convey a deep sense of respect and admiration for its subjects, the documentary emphasizes the importance of Jeju culture and the need for UNESCO recognition. Breathing Underwater is a genuine testament to Korean culture.
No. 7 – Train to Busan (부산행)
When a virus breaks out and starts turning the populace of Seoul into zombies, the lucky few passengers onboard the KTX high speed train manage to escape the chaos in the capital. The eclectic group quickly come to realise that true safety lies in Busan, yet getting there without being bitten is easier said than done.
Director Yeon Sang-ho’s first foray into live action filmmaking is greatly entertaining popcorn cinema, providing all the thrills and scares (and fun) of a horror zombie flick in conjunction overt references to recent scandals in Korea – notably the disastrous response to the MERS outbreak, and the Sewol tragedy. Although Gong Yoo is the star, ultimately Ma Dong-seok’s charisma makes him the real highlight as he owns every second he’s onscreen. Train to Busan is a great thrill ride – so much so, that a sequel has already been announced as in development.
No. 6 – The Truth Beneath (비밀은 없다)
Delightfully macabre and full of suspense, writer/director Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath is a potent thriller with narrative twists and turns galore. Actress Son Ye-jin has received an enormous amount of praise for her turn in her other 2016 film The Last Princess, but in fact it’s within The Truth Beneath that the celebrated artist gives a career best performance.
Just as an election campaign is due to commence, a politician and his wife discover that their daughter is missing. Taking it upon herself to find the missing girl, the mother begins looking for clues and is horrified to discover that the daughter she thought she knew is very different in reality.
In any other year, The Truth Beneath would have likely been much higher on audience’s radars (and this list), yet 2016 had such an abundance of high quality thrillers that it was somewhat overlooked. That’s really unfortunate as The Truth Beneath has some great ideas, executed highly effectively by director Lee who stages the thrills and builds suspense with skill.