Initially, I was not going to do a post about my favorite films of last year. I had returned from travelling after the new year had already begun and felt it was too late. ‘Best of’ posts are more usually seen immediately before or after January 1, not three weeks into the month. However, a friend suggested that I write my opinion on the films I liked from last year, so here it is. Actually, I liked many more films than are on this list.. These are just what I thought were the best.
10. White—I am starting the list with a choice that I need to defend. White is a horror film that as horror probably does not succeed. The ghost in the movie is painfully predictable even if there is a nice twist in the mystery surrounding her. There were very few, if any scares. However, I liked it as a commentary on the state of Korean pop-music and what singers have to do in order to succeed in that very competitive field. I also liked the way it depicted the public face of a singing group which we are often shown as being close friends and unified in all the bands decisions and the private, behind-the-scenes reality where there are rivalries and in-fighting.
9. Leafie: A Hen Into the Wild—When I first started writing this list, I left Leafie off and instead had War of the Arrows in this slot. But that latter film is maybe a little too slick for its own good and I remember there was some reliance on special effects that annoyed me while I watched it. I selected Leafie instead, one of two animated movies on this list. Leafie is the story of a hen who has escaped from a life of producing eggs on an assembly line to attempt survival in the wild. She comes to care for a duck hatchling and their tale, may remind some viewers of the classic movie/book Watership Downs. It has some childish aspects to keep children interested, but the story is strong and moving enough that adults will also enjoy it.
8. Late Blossoms—I am a little surprised that this film has not gotten more attention. I hope it is not because the cast is made up of actors and actresses in their senior years. If someone has been avoiding watching this movie because of that, they are missing out on one of the best films of 2011. It is the story of older two couple; one who are just beginning a new love relationship with each other and the other who have been in love with each other their whole lives. It is a very emotional film. The first couple struggles with economic hardships, the woman collects recyclables from the street and the man delivers milk but it is the second couple that won’t leave a dry eye in the house. Kim Soo-mi’s character is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is cared for by her hard-working and devoted husband.
7. Frontline—If you compare this film with Taegukgi, then it is going to come up a little short. But if you take Frontline for what it is, a tense, well-crafted war story, then you won’t be disappointed. In the movie, a ceasefire is fast approaching toward the end of the Korean War and the North and South armies jockey for position to determine where the new border will be drawn between the new nations. Shin Ha-gyun’s character is sent to the frontline to investigate one of the unit’s there whose commanding officer has been killed by ‘friendly fire.’ What he finds terrifies him—not simply because of the expected brutality of the war, but because of what the soldiers have become in order to cope with their daily horrors. Shin is always a joy to watch onscreen and his co-stars do an excellent job in this movie as well.
6. Dooman River— The Dooman River is a wide body of water separating North Korea from China. In the dead of winter, the river freezes solid and this enables the citizens of each country to walk back and forth between them. In the movie, we focus on a run-down little community that had sprung up on the banks of the river. During the winter, death surrounds them through starvation and freezing temperatures. As the winter progresses, more and more North Koreans cross the river. Some are trying to escape and start a new life in China or South Korea, but some are making raids for food to bring back to their families. The little village begins to suffer heavily through these actions as livestock disappears and food stores are raided. When these raids take a more personal note, one young boy in the village, powerless to stop what is happening to his family and neighbors, decides to take matters into his hands the only way he can.
5. Silenced—Never mind the minor indignation of the men’s groups when they protested the film You’re My Pet this year, Silenced is hand down the most controversial movie on 2011. It will leave you feeling frustrated and angry, which is exactly what it set out to do. The film is based on a novel which itself is based on actual events. (But as we were reminded each night on the news for about two weeks while this movie was screening, “based on a true story’ is not the same as ‘is a true story.’) The story is about a new teacher coming to work in a school for the hearing impaired and the abuse and corruption he finds there. The tension is high whether the scenes are taking place within the horrible conditions of the school or in the courthouse which takes up the latter half of the movie. This film led to a much wider understanding and awareness of what physically challenged members of society have had to endure and gave them a voice. Many demonstrations in support of people with physical and mental challenges sprung up in the wake of this movie.
4. Punch—There could have been a danger of this film being horribly gloomy or unbearably preachy given the subject matter, however it is neither. Instead, Punch is a lighthearted tale of a boy named Wan-deuk, his unusual family, and the teacher who takes an interest in his success. Wan-deuk’s father and ‘uncle’ are disabled. His mother, who had abandoned the family years ago but who has once again appeared, is a Filipina. His family is quite poor and his scores in school are not good at all and he is considered a troublemaker. The new teacher, who at first appears antagonistic to Wan-deuk and, as his neighbor, never leaves the boy alone even after school, understands Wan-deuk’s hardships completely as the two are quite similar. The teacher takes on the role of mentor for the boy and attempts to save him from the role society already seems to have picked out for him.
3. King of Pigs— A year or two ago, I had seen one of director Yoon Sang-ho’s short animations and, to this day, I cannot tell you if I liked it or not. It was violent and it was cruel but most of all, it was memorable. King of Pigs strikes me in the same way. I do not care for the themes of merciless bullying and the quest for revenge taken to extremes, but the film is extremely well done and is really unforgettable. The story is of two adults, one of whom has just brutally murdered his wife, trying to sort out where their lives went wrong. Their memories take us to their childhood and the middle school they attended which was divided into the ‘dogs’, popular, well-to-do boys who ruled the school and the ‘pigs’ who were the rest of the students, not financially well off and maybe a little quieter or more timid. Among the pigs, a hero eventually rises to put an end to the bullying in a violent manner that frankly removes all sympathy I had for them. This is a disturbing animated movie that will make you think and is as far removed from the other animated film on this list, Leafie, as you can get.
2. Journal of Musan— We often think that when someone from North Korea defects to the South, that they will have a better life. In fact, that is rarely the case. National identification numbers immediately show a defector’s status even if speech patterns do not and this negatively affects the chances of getting good employment. In fact, it may be easier to be an illegal immigrant in South Korea than it is to live as a North Korean refugee. The movie follows a man from the northern town of Musan, Seung-cheol, as he tries to create a new life for himself based on honesty and hard work only to be thwarted at every turn by the cruelty of others. He is considered a second-class citizen and stereotyped as lazy or a thief. The horrible treatment he endures is softened for his growing love of a woman who goes to his church and the companionship of his dog, but even these are uncomfortably unstable and could vanish from his life at any minute. The movie is based on the life of a friend of the director, a North Korean immigrant who passed away of stomach cancer at the age of 30. It is a wonderfully crafted film with a story that may leave the viewer feeling a little angry at the treatment the characters receive.
1. Sunny—Despite the fact that most of the films I really enjoyed have rather a heavy theme to them, the light, happy film of Sunny was my favorite film of 2011. Oh, it is not without its emotional ups and downs, but the film never becomes mired in sadness or even in the nostalgia which it depicts so well. When I first walked into the film I did not really have much in the way of expectations. The story was about a group of middle-aged women reflecting on the events in their childhood that cemented their friendship. I did not know if the movie was going to hold my interest. I should not have worried. As soon as you are transported into Sunny’s 1980s Korea, you will be captivated as I was. Her cheerful nature is contagious and her quirky friends are people whom you want to know. The film even touches on some of the historical events of the time such as rioting, but they do not take precedence in the movie which is told from a schoolgirl’s perspective. The battles and triumphs of herself and her friends are what is important to her and by extension, us. If you can only see one film from 2011, I think this should be it.
So there is my list of my favorite films from last year. How about my least favorite? Well, if I think something will be bad I won’t watch it. I suspect Super Monkey Returns would have been the worst film, but as I have not seen it, I cannot say for sure. Among the movies I saw last year, there was only one I really hated, Sector 7. I was tricked into seeing it by the cast, flashy trailers and the lure of it being a monster movie. I know eventually I will wind up with the DVD just because I wind up buying everything, but if I watch it again, it will be with the sound off….