Park Jung-woo’s nuclear energy-themed disaster drama perfectly mixes melodrama and political/corporate intrigue. The early scenes characterize the simple town populace. The quaint town, situated near the port city of Busan, depends on the nuclear power plant for stable employment. But one day, an unanticipated earthquake creates a catastrophic nuclear meltdown in the poorly-maintained plants. The government and plant management try to cover up and contain the problem. Pandora largely works due to the realistic depiction of people and government’s chaotic reaction after such disasters. Of course, it goes to ludicrous lengths to weave a cloyingly sentimental narrative. However, the film effectively visualises the disaster sequences, exaggerating our fears regarding this unbridled energy source. Overall, it’s thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking, compared to the obnoxious American movies in the same genre.
5. The Battleship Island
Ryoo Seung-wan’s historical action drama liberally fictionalizes a horrific event during World War II. The film revolves around a motley group of conscripted Korean laborers brought to Japan’s Nishima Island. The Island, shaped like a battleship, contains a coal mine. Koreans, Chinese and other Southeast Asian men are used as slave labors in the punishing coal mine. The film is modeled after classic WWII prison camp films like The Great Escape and Von Ryan’s Express. Director Ryoo’s staging techniques are mostly spectacular and the film wallows less in melodrama. Except for the heavy-handed ending, The Battleship Island boasts rich action set-pieces. The performances from Hwang Jung-min (Veteran) and the little girl Kim Su-an (Train to Busan) are nothing short of phenomenal.
4. A Taxi Driver
Hun Jang’s heartbreaking historical drama is set in Gwangju, 1980. The university students of the peaceful province start protesting against the imposition of martial law. The escalating protests cut off the city, made accessible only through military check posts. Popular Korean actor Song Kang-ho plays the titular character named Kim Man-seob. He is a naïve, good-natured widower, who spends hours behind the wheels for the sake of his 11 year-old daughter. To make ends meet, he agrees to drive a German journalist Peter, posing as a missionary, from Seoul to Gwangju. There, he witnesses the ruthless military crackdown.
Song, as usual, offers a phenomenal lead performance. He takes his character through an emotional arc that’s entirely convincing. Hun Jang’s direction falters a little towards the end as he infuses unnecessary popcorn-friendly car chases. But the film beautifully captures the intimate, emotional moments. Altogether, it’s an engaging story about unsung heroes filled with rich characters.
3. The Net
Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk’s latest film is a touching drama which reflects on extreme ideologies and hard-hearted bureaucracy. The Net is surprisingly talky and revolves around a subject specific to Korean politics. A poor North Korean fisherman leaves his wife and child in a ramshackle house and goes fishing. His net gets caught in the boat’s engine and a strong tide pushes him to South Korean waters. The fisherman, believed to be a spy, gets arrested and the border police subjects him to gruesome interrogation.
The Net is structured around captivating one-on-one interrogation sequences. These measured exchanges explore the themes of blinded nationalism and distorted identity. On a broader level, Kim Ki-duk uses the set-up to examine the dark consequences of having black and white views. The Net is one of the most accessible films of the iconoclastic filmmaker. Yet, he doesn’t sacrifice thematic profundity to cater to general audiences.
2. On the Beach at Night Alone
Prolific South Korean art-house filmmaker Hong Sang-soo turns a personal scandal to explore his pet themes of existential disquiet and futility of love. The narrative unfurls through the perspective of young actor Young-hee. Her affair with a renowned director has nearly ended her professional career. Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden) plays Young-hee. Her real-life affair with director Hong was much publicized in Korean tabloids. Thankfully, by choosing to set the narrative from Kim’s perspective, the film doesn’t come across as merely self-indulgent. Hong’s minimalist and fastidious style gracefully studies our myopia of love and the moral dimensions attached to it. From a formal point-of-view, Hong’s unglamorous and unobtrusive shots flawlessly zero in on the character’s isolation. The sad-looking yet beautiful Kim Min-hee offers a deeply affecting performance.
1. The Truth Beneath
Korean thrillers involving maternal figures continue to daringly expose the cruelties of a male-dominated society. Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath is one such accomplished genre film, much like Mother and Lady Vengeance. The plot revolves around the wife of a young politician, who is campaigning for the National Assembly elections. Unfortunately, the couples’ rebellious daughter Min Jin goes missing. The politician continues his campaign, and it is up to his wife Yeon Hong to deeply investigate the disappearance. The search for her daughter stumbles Yeon upon some nasty secrets.
Much like the recent Korean political thrillers Veteran and Inside Men, the film takes a disturbing look at the political dark alleys. The presence of a female protagonist lends thematic weight to the proceedings. Despite the pulpy mystery at its center, the narrative is suspenseful enough to keep us hooked. Kim Ju-hyeok is remarkable as the protagonist. Her perseverance and sorrow truly get under our skin.
Do you agree with my ranking? Which of these are your favourites? How would you rank them? And is there something I missed? I want to hear from you in the comments below.
By Arun Kumar
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