No. 5 – The Age of Shadows (밀정)
The first Korean-language film to be financed and distributed by Warner Bros., as well as director Kim Jee-woon‘s return following the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring The Last Stand, The Age of Shadows was a tentpole film of 2016.
Set in the 1930s during an era of spies, turncoats and half-truths, The Age of Shadows follows a band of Korean independence fighters as they rally to halt the machinations of Japanese imperialists. No stranger to genre film-making, director Kim employs film noir tropes alongside his action-orientated sensibilities to bring his tale of intrigue to life. The production values never cease to astonish – the adrenaline-pumping opening sequence in which an agent is pursued is a real highlight – while actor Song Kang-ho is once again in great form as a police captain with questionable interests.
As with many films dealing with such subject matter, it’s quite a patriotic affair as righteous Koreans battle villainous black-clad Japanese officers, which, combined with the impressive stylisation, won over Korean audiences to become one of the biggest hits of the year.
No. 4 – The Wailing (곡성)
When mysterious events begin plaguing the inhabitants of the southern countryside village of Gok-seong, the police force are at a loss to explain or halt the bizarre situation. As fears and tensions rise the community soon begins directing blame at a recent arrival – a Japanese man – despite the lack of evidence, while an enigmatic woman stalks macabre areas related to the investigation. Racing against time, the local police chief must find a way to stop the sinister events and save his family in the process.
From a technical perspective, director Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing is phenomenal. From the moment the film opens the cinematography, camerawork, and direction are continually impressive and combine to build a world fraught with terror, intrigue and suspense. Director Na focuses so much on these aspects as he attempts to keep audiences off-balance, and deserves credit for tackling the genre in a fresh and unique fashion.
No. 3 – Our Love Story (연애담)
Writer/director Lee Hyun-ju’s feature debut, Our Love Story depicts the life of aspiring artist Yoon-ju as she develops her graduation project at university. Through chance and circumstance she meets charismatic Ji-soo and, despite constant societal pressures to date a man, Yoon-ju finds herself indescribably drawn to the new woman in her life. As they enter into a relationship, Yoon-ju discovers a part of herself that she never knew existed.
Rarely do romance films feel as organic and genuine as the relationship conceived within Our Love Story. The emotions that develop between Yoon-ju and Ji-soo are captured with palpable affection as lingering gazes give way to emotional resonance and desire. Actress Lee Sang-hee was awarded at both the Baeksang Art Awards and Wildflower Film Awards for Best New Actress/Actor for her turn as shy art scholar Yoon-ju, a victory not only for the indie star but also for the LGBTQ+ community in Korea.
No. 2 – The World of Us (우리들)
Director Yoon Ga-eun previously charmed audiences with the wonderful short film Sprout, and in 2016 made the jump to feature film with beautifully tender debut The World of Us.
The story centers on two elementary school students who develop a close friendship, yet when outside influences involving other students and family members occur, their relationship becomes fraught with problems. While that description may not sound like the most exciting premise, helmer/scribe Yoon brilliantly captures how monumental such relationship strife is during the formative years, also utilising contemporary Korean social issues – the wealth gap, bullying, academic pressure, and so on – to convey additional stress children experience.
The World of Us is a compassionate and thoroughly engaging independent film, earning writer/helmer Yoon Best New Director at the Blue Dragon Awards, Best Screenplay at the Baeksang Arts Awards, the Grand Prize at the Wildflower Film Awards, amongst many, many others.