21. The Chaser (2008)
Na Hong-jin’s directorial debut is a brilliant edge-of-the-seat thriller that transcends the police procedural motifs. The protagonist is a former detective-turned-pimp whose girls go missing before clearing their debts. All those girls seem to have met the same man before their disappearance. Things become a mess as the pimp decides to meet the client. Raw violence is one of the staple elements of Korean thrillers and the narrative set-up abounds with brutality. While The Chaser isn’t as multi-layered as Memories of Murder or Oldboy, it delivers a very chilling movie experience.
22. Castaway on the Moon (2009)
Mr. Kim, after judging that his situation in life is hopeless, throws himself into the Han River. Even suicide doesn’t go his way and he is washed up ashore. Alas, he washes up on a tiny piece of unpopulated land with no connection to the city, except for an unclimbable bridge pier. Kim can’t swim. He becomes a Robinson Crusoe-like figure gazing at the skyline of Seoul. A young woman (also named Kim) who has shut herself in her high-rise apartment accidentally glimpses at Kim through her telephoto lens. A distinct relationship blossoms between these two societal outcasts. Director Lee Hae-joon strikes a perfect balance between humorous and poignant moments. In this age of standardization, this film creatively examines the need to celebrate individuality.
23. Mother (2009)
There’s no greater love in this world than one between a mother and her child. Director Bong Joon-ho implants this simple idea in his violent, apathetic world to create a spellbinding murder mystery. As usual Mr. Bong strikes the right balance between dry comedy and suspense. The story revolves around a mentally challenged young guy Do-jun and his old, over-protective single mother. Do-jun is arrested in the murder case of a local school girl. The mother sets out to find the truth that may set her son free. Director Bong, in the vein of his crime masterpiece Memories of Murder, immaculately builds up a sense of dread. The other biggest force is Kim Hye-ja’s sensitive performance as the helpless mother.
24. Thirst (2009)
Park Chan-wook’s bloody horror mixes vampire mythology with the basic story of Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin. Emile Zola wrote about lust and the madness it provokes. Director Park also keen to explore tales of individuals losing themselves to lunacy, adds a touch of vampirism. The protagonist is a good-hearted priest who is afflicted with a grisly skin disease. He volunteers for a medical experiment, coughs up lot of blood, and dies. But miraculously the priest is born again. All he has to do is fulfil his appetite by feasting on blood. The priest’s morality begins to wane when he meets an oppressed young housewife. Although Thirst is way too long, it’s a lot fascinating than a standard vampire horror. Park’s Gothic atmosphere and pitch-black comedy offers wondrous moments.
25. The Yellow Sea (2010)
Na Hong-jin’s sophomore directorial effort is as viscerally thrilling as his debut feature The Chaser. The protagonist Gu Nam is a Joseon-jok, a name given by South Korean to millions of ethnic Korean people living outside the Korean peninsula (in China). Gu Nam works as a taxi driver squandering the little money he earns in gambling. It’s been six months since he last heard from his wife, who has gone to work in South Korea. Desperate for money, Gu Nam accepts the offer to murder a professor in Seoul. Yellow Sea is a mixture of two sub-genres: neo-noir and black comedy. It packs unbelievable coincidences and characters, driven by rage and vengeance. The only flaw is that it takes some time to figure out multiple layers and motives in the story.
26. Poetry (2010)
Lee Chang-dong’s sobering metaphysical work Poetry tells the tale of a lonely elderly woman, caught in a circle of guilt. The old woman develops fresh interest in poetry as she struggles with the onset of Alzheimer’s. Poetry becomes a device for her to enunciate the existential panic. And, there’s a woeful irony in this. A woman learning the language of poetry while forgetting basic words. The film is also a fine study of a rigid patriarchal system, where women’s words largely go unheard and compassion often unreciprocated. Veteran Yun Jung-hee offers a sublime central performance. Her unforgettable face equally overflows with disappointments of the past and hope for fresh possibilities.
27. I Saw the Devil (2010)
Kim Jee-woon’s revenge thriller is well known for its notorious violent sequences and murky moral engagement. A sadistic serial killer, who has long evaded the lawmen, brutally kills the fiancee of a special agent and daughter of a retired police chief. The special agent easily locates the serial killer. But his social experiment to inflict prolonged pain on the serial killer results in a murderous rampage. Kim Jee-woon brilliantly visualizes the cat-and-mouse scenarios. The film is more about the protagonist seeing the ‘devil’ within himself than encountering the monstrous killer. The mid-part of the film packs contemplative themes, which question the nature of revenge.
28. Silenced (2011)
Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Silenced leaves us speechless due to its haunting depiction of sexual, physical and corporal abuse, inflicted on the young, hearing-impaired students. The film draws from real-life events, depicted in the controversial online novel Dogani. Popular Korean actor Gong Yoo plays the central role of a teacher, who relocates to a small town. With the help of a human rights activist, he unearths sleazy crimes committed by a school’s headmaster and admin head. A prolonged legal battle ensues. And the judicial system seems as twisted as the pedophiles’ mind. Silenced is a painful experience. The only thing that bothers me about the film is the explicitly graphic depiction of child abuse.
29. The Wailing (2016)
Korean filmmakers have perfected their skills to create impeccable visual designs to portray disorder or chaos. Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing only proves that nobody can beat Korean filmmakers in that space. The film is an efficient mixture of horror and murder/mystery genre. It revolves around random killings in a small town and an inept police officer trying to solve the complex mystery. The Wailing has terrifying set-pieces and coated with layers of ambiguity. The bone-chilling visceral thrills perfectly compliment the thematic weight of the narrative. Altogether, a rare genre film that keenly explore the themes of doubt and fear.
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30. The Handmaiden (2016)
Park Chan-wook chose Sarah Waters’ provocative novel Fingersmith to return to the Korean movie industry after a 6-year hiatus. Handmaiden, like Park’s earlier masterworks, is filled with sumptuous imagery, while keeping its touch of humanistic core. He sets the narrative in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. It revolves around the forbidden love between Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) and crafty young girl (Kim Tae-ri). From a figurative and literal perspective, the narrative and its characters are spectacularly twisted. On the whole, The Handmaiden is an elegant Gothic masterpiece about oppression – masculine as well as colonial.
By Arun Kumar