11. Memories of Murder (2003)
Fritz Lang’s M & Immamura’s Vengeance is Mine are rare, profound crime films that tackle the subject of serial killings to deftly look into the moral squalor of the modern society. Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder belongs to that small list of crime masterpieces. It is based on the series of unsolved sex murders that happened between 1986 and 1991 in the mid-western region of Korea. The foremost surprise of this thriller is the characterization of incompetent detective protagonist. Bong’s subtle visual compositions demand repeat viewings to fully contemplate the thematic complexities. Memories of Murder could also be seen as a mesmerizing study of chaos constantly winning over the order.
12. 3-Iron (2004)
Kim Ki-duk’s unusual romantic drama revolves around an oppressed woman and a young drifter. The woman is caught in an unhappy marriage. The young guy freely breaks into houses of vacationing residents and lives there for few days. The fascinating aspect of their relationship is they don’t necessarily need words to communicate. Although the film could be divided into three acts, it’s not plot-centered. 3-Iron’s hypnotic power and idiosyncratic characters often remind me of Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang’s films. Kim and Tsai frequently offer transcendent film experience, however inconsequential their storylines are.
13. Samaritan Girl (2004)
Samaritan Girl didn’t receive much acclaim compared to Kim ki-duk’s Spring Summer…., The Isle, 3-Iron, etc. But it’s a highly contemplative feature on the controversial subject of teen prostitution. Unlike some of Kim ki-duk’s deliberately shocking features, Samaritan Girl is profoundly substantial at its core. The story revolves around two adolescent students from a middle-class family, who wish to travel to Europe. To fulfill their dream, one girl works as a prostitute, while the other sets up the clients. Director Kim follows a set narrative, although he invites interpretations on the psychology behind each character’s behavior. Kim also makes us care about the existential pain of these doomed characters.
14. A Moment to Remember (2004)
John H. Lee’s tear-jerking love story is about a 27-year old fashion designer Kim Su-Jin afflicted by a rare form of Alzheimer’s. Kim’s husband (Chul-Soo), pained over his wife’s ordeal, tries to find a perfect and lasting moment of their love. The film has quite a lot of emotionally manipulative scenes. Yet, it doesn’t fail to ask haunting questions about feelings of love, in the absence of memories. Director John meticulously builds his two central characters for the viewers to constantly empathise and fret over the young couple’s fate.
15. The President’s Last Bang (2005)
Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang is a satirical account of the 1979 assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The director does a great job establishing the political atmosphere of the time. The politics are easily understandable even for those with zero knowledge about Korean history. The frenetic pace and editing of the film pays tribute to classic genre works like Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate. The mordant humor and bloody explosions in the latter half may not work for all. Nevertheless, it’s a swiftly entertaining study of the volatility of the powerful individuals.
16. Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005)
Park Kwang-hyun’s charming war drama is set during the 1950 Korean War, right after the landing of UN Allied Forces. North Korean soldiers, who have survived an ambush and a couple of isolated South Korean soldiers, wander through the same woods. They stumble upon a tiny mountainous village called Dongmakgol. The good-hearted villagers aren’t even aware about the war. They cheerfully welcome soldiers of both sides – a wounded American pilot already resides in their hut. To the villagers, the warring soldiers’ ideological rift and authoritative behavior looks plainly ridiculous. Of course, the nasty outsiders pose a threat to this paradise. The movie doesn’t make a subtle commentary on war and politics, yet it is undeniably charming with plenty of funny situations.
17. A Bittersweet Life (2005)
Kim Jee-woon takes a simple gangland story and transforms it with arresting imagery and emotional depth. Lee Byung-hun plays the calm but efficient mob enforcer Kim Sun-woo. The boss asks Kim to keep tabs on his young girlfriend. He finds himself fall under her spell and soon his allies turn out be the worst enemies. Director Kim’s film-form blends together John Woo’s frenzied display of violence and Jean-Pierre Melville’s introspective character work. Bittersweet Life lacks emotional development in the latter half, yet its exploration of themes like desire and fate remains interesting.
18. The Host (2006)
Bong Joon-ho’s reinvigorated monster movie is much more complex than effects-heavy escapist Hollywood features. Even the familiar conventions of the genre are shot with a formidable style. Song Kang-ho plays the dim-witted protagonist, whose beloved teenage daughter is carried off by a giant mutant, dwelling in the polluted Han River. The family’s misfits come together to rescue the 13-year old girl. They also have to fight the incompetent, arrogant bureaucrats in protective suits. The Host is part family comedy and part political satire. Director Bong astoundingly balances absurd humor with genuinely scary situations.
19. Secret Sunshine (2007)
Lee Chang-dong is one of the best contemporary filmmaker to intimately address the internal conflicts of grieved individuals. Secret Sunshine tells the tale of Shin-ae, a widow who has moved to a small town Milyang with her young son. She attempts to forge a fresh start after the death of her beloved husband and all looks well as she strikes a friendship with a local mechanic. However, an incident opens up a void within her and burgeoning grief envelops Shin-ae. Director Lee’s lyrical visual language examines the widow’s torment with stirring details. Jeon Do-yeon’s majestic performance in the central role is another big plus to the drama.
20. Breathless (2008)
Yan Ik-june has directed, written and played the central role Sang-hoon in the unsettling gangland flick Breathless. Sang-hoon is a petty gangster who works for a loan shark, beating people to pulp. The violence has fully taken control of his self that even a simple gesture of love has ferocious edge to it. The possible salvation for Sang-hoon arrives in the form of a compassionate young girl. Although Breathless looks like a simple slice-of-life drama, it’s impeccably written and directed. The emotional backdrop and the gritty visual language make it stand apart from run-of-the-mill gangster movies. It’s a meticulous examination of the cyclical nature of violence.