The late 90s were a turning point for Korean cinema. In fact, there were already signals of change. Kim Ki-duk signaled this change with his debut feature Crocodile (1996). But, it wasn’t until the 2000s that this new brand of Korean cinema was recognized by international movie lovers. On one hand, the Korean film industry saw the rise of profound artists like Kim Ki-duk, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong, etc. On the other, there was the ascension of genre-deconstructing or transforming masters like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-hoo, Kim Jee-woon, etc. With the recent international success of films like The Handmaiden and Train to Busan, Korean cinema remains one of world’s vital contemporary film industries. Here’s what I consider the best Korean movies since the 2000s (in chronological order).
1. J.S.A. (2000)
Director Park Chan-wook, before delivering cult hits like Oldboy, led the Korean New Wave with a straightforward thriller titled J.S.A. The title indicates the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Lee Byung-hun plays South Korean soldier who is accused of killing two North Korean soldiers. South Koreans accuse a North Korean soldier (played by Song Kang-ho) for kidnapping Lee. Lee is alleged to have killed the North Koreans to escape. A neutral investigator is called in to find the truth. Park’s humanist touches and two terrific central performances make this a fascinating murder/mystery.
2. Failan (2001)
Choi Min-Sik, the magnificent performer, plays the role of washed-up, third-rate gangster named Kang-jae in Failan. Kang’s status, over the years, has diminished among the fellow thugs. A young Chinese woman named Failan arrives to Korea to live with her relatives after her parents’ demise. But, Failan, whose relatives have immigrated to Canada, is now compelled to marry a stranger, to stay. The narrative of this atypical romance moves in a non-linear fashion brilliantly revealing the faint love, Kang and Failan shared before the tragedy.
3. My Sassy Girl (2001)
Kwak Jae-yong’s endlessly charming romantic comedy subverted all the clichés of the genre, and with a simple plot line. It’s a boy-meets-girl story, but the silly, unconventional scenarios the romantic pair drums up are beyond words. The chemistry between the lead pair Cha Tae-hyun and Jun Ji-hyun is incredibly amazing. They make up for the minor flaws and clichés in the narrative. The first half is a little scattershot with great moments of slapstick comedy. The second half of the film boasts strong emotional element and is slightly melodramatic. Despite a series of unbelievable coincidences in the latter half, the performances move us nonetheless.
4. Painted Fire (2002)
Im Kwon-Taek’s visually and thematically rich Painted Fire chronicles the life of a celebrated artist Jang Seung-ub. The illustrious artistic fire of Jang paved way to powerful paintings. However, the fire within also turned him into a restless individual. Popular Korean actor Choi Min-sik plays Jang. He possesses an incredible ability to bring out the character’s inner agony and primal instincts. Director Im goes beyond creating a mere hagiography. He profoundly explores the self-doubting existence of a genius artist.
5. Turning Gate (2002)
The works of Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo may not be instantly likeable, but the more we reflect on it the more insightful it is. All Hong’s films have a limited setting: cold climate, café, bars, and may be a tourist spot. The characters are mostly young men and women. They smoke, talk a lot, embarrass themselves, and gradually drift apart. Turning Gate takes place in a popular vacation area called Kangwon province. This 4th feature from Hong realistically deals with a romantic relationship that’s marked by desire as well as rejection. Like all Hong’s films, Turning Gate is aesthetically satisfying and withholds the director’s trademark theme of reincarnation.
6. Oasis (2002)
In Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis, an ex-convict falls in love with a woman, affected by cerebral palsy. They both are abandoned by their respective families. The heartfelt love between the two main characters never strays from dealing with taboo subjects, fearing viewers’ reactions. There is one unsettling scene, which might scare away the conventional romantic cinema lovers. The two lead actors brilliantly tackle the challenges of the flawed roles. Eventually, it’s a realistic love story that forces us to consider our preconceptions and prejudices about societal misfits.
7. The Way Home (2002)
Lee Jeong-hyang’s sweet, sentimental tale is set in a tiny mountain village. An unruly 7-year old city boy is dumped by his workaholic mother in his mute grandmother’s home. The slow days of the serene village entwines the kid with feelings of genuine love and trust. There are no big dramatic turns in the narrative, yet it’s filled with immensely charming small moments. The director does a wonderful job capturing the simple activities of rural life. In the vein of neo-realist films, the director takes a unique social backdrop and employs non-professional actors to tackle universal themes.
8. Vengeance Trilogy (2002, 2003, 2005)
Park Chan-wook’s internationally acclaimed films – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance – have the common thread of vengeance motif, even though they tell three different stories. Oldboy is the most haunting among the three. It captures an act of revenge in its most primeval form. Park’s formalist designs compliment Choi Min-sik’s raging performance. Lady Vengeance is the most slick and thematically heavy feature in the trilogy. Park’s trilogy stands apart from other revenge flicks, in the way it makes the vital act so unsettling. Unlike American movies, the bloodbath doesn’t bestow a cathartic experience for the viewers.
9. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Kim Jee-woon’s profound horror mystery has the premise of a fairy tale. Two adolescent aged sisters return home from hospital after an extended mysterious illness. The girls’ father and step mother want them to be a happy family unit. But the sisters are intent on exposing the mother’s evil nature and free their father. The film offers a bewildering experience, largely due to the labyrinthine narrative approach. It’s a very subtle study of a disturbed mind and holds up very well in repeat viewings. The horror element is infused through dark sense of dread than using jumpscares.
Recommended: 50 Greatest Horror Films Of All Time
10. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter……….and Spring (2003)
Kim Ki-duk’s brilliant meditation on the cycle of life and death is blessed with a magical atmosphere – a floating temple in the middle of a lake. A wise old man and a young student are the inhabitants of the temple. Each season denotes complex life stages of the boy. From carrying burden on the heart after tying rocks to triumvirate of forest creatures to the awkward sexual awakening and the eventual accomplishment of spiritual enlightenment, the film unravels with zen-like calmness. Despite a bare plot structure, director Kim thickly lays meaningful symbols, provoking great range of interpretations.