It might seem that I am a couple of weeks early in writing about what I thought were the best Korean films of 2009, but I came to the USA for the Christmas and New Years holidays so I won’t be able to see anymore films in theaters for about three weeks. I started out making a ‘top-ten’ list but wound up with too many films for that. I sorted movies by giving them the Chaw Test ™. Basically, I held up a movie and tried to decide if I wanted to see it again or if I would rather re-watch Chaw. Movies that I wanted to see more than a giant pig made this list. This list is not ranked and there is no reason for the order that they appear in. (Graphics will be added either when I get back to Korea or when I can install Photoshop on the computer I am currently using)
Fly Penguin–No matter what criteria I used to decide on the best Korean films of 2009, this film by director Im Soon-rye would come out near the top. It is made as a well-connected omnibnus where all the characters are slightly linked to each other. It is also a social commentary that manages not to be preachy–such as when Im made The Weight of Her for the original If You Were Me collection. This debuted at the Jeonju International Film Festival and had a general realease in the fall. It has not yet been released on DVD but will be available in mid-January 2010.
Himalaya, Where the Wind Dwells–You would think that a film starring Choi Min-shik would be promoted more. But perhaps the decidedly art house nature of the film prevented that. If you require a lot of action in your films–or dialogue for that matter–you may want to avoid this film. However, if you like strong, character driven dramas set against a stark, beautiful background, then you will love this film. Available on DVD
Old Partner–This is a movie I wish everybody could see. Unfortunately, the company that has released it on DVD apparently does not agree with me because English subs were omitted.
Breathless– Just reading a blurb about the plot initially left me uninterested in this film. Yet another gangster who wants to get out of a life of crime? But it is so much more than that and has been winning awards from film festivals around the world. An excellent and surprising movie available now on DVD
Daytime Drinking–The ultimate Korean road movie is filled with realistically quirky characters and unusual but possible events that combine to make a bizarre, memorable journey for our sympathetic main character. Highly recommended and available on DVD.
Take Off–Even though this movie is hopelessly mainstream, I really enjoyed it. It succeeds in its task of making you feel the thrill, suspense and danger of ski-jumping while making each character interesting and their problems real. Like films such as Marathon, there is not deep, hidden meaning–it’s just fun. Available on DVD.
Haeundae–Well, I couldn’t mention Take Off without mentioning Haeundae. These two films dominated the summer box office. Haeundae is more than just a special effects spectacular. The acting is quite good and turns by some of the minor characters shine such as Lee Min-gi’s performance and this helps make up for some of the film’s shortfalls. DVD available from December 30.
The Story of Mr. Sorry–The last Korean-made animation I really enjoyed was Oseam but I have finally found another. Done in the style of The Fantastic Planet, this is movie is unique among Korean animations. Although the story sounds like it might be childish–a man shrinks to microscopic size to clean ears?–this film is definitely not for children especially after he discovers the doorway to the subconscious minds of his clients. Available as part of the KAFA box set collection.
Possessed–It is difficult for horror films to make it onto a best of the year list, but Possessed deserves it. Korean horror seems to have stagnated over the years resulting in 2009 giving us such films as Yoga Academy and the latest installment of Whispering Corridors–the former laughable, the latter forgettable. Possessed however is both terrifying and memorable. Available this month on DVD
Frozen Flower–Although the story of a love triangle is nothing special, it was surprising to see Jo In-seong in the role of the king’s homosexual lover. Although this is not the first Korean queer-themed film, nor is it the first to utilize top actors, it is the first to gain acceptance by mainstream viewers most likely because of Jo. More than that, this film has some of the most lavish sets and costumes I have seen. Available of DVD.
Mother–This film definetely benefited from a second-viewing—this time without the student I originally watched it with who complained the entire time about the mistakes made in acupuncture theory. (He is majoring in Oriental Medicine and swears that there is no place to stick a pin that will make you forget all bad things). Excellent acting by Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin. Available on DVD
Show Me The Money– an omnibus containing ten short films directed by ten different directors under the common theme of ‘money’. Some of the films are better than others, but there is only one in the collection I will not bother watching again–One out of nine is not bad and the other shorts more than make up for it. Available on DVD in late January 2010.
Treeless Mountain–This film almost didn’t make the list. That is mostly because it was not the film I was expecting it to be. I was going into thinking it would be something more akin to Daytime Drinking. However, this is NOT a comedy and I was left feeling a little depressed. It is not necessarily a sad film though–there is quite a bit of hope in the story of two children waiting for their mother to return as they are passed around by relatives. (I wrote a review of this and two other films on the flight over here which I will post soon). Not yet available on R3 DVD, but a Region 1 release is available.