2015 was another great year for South Korean cinema, with its financial and artistic growth and being witnessed globally, since South Korean films are getting screened and distributed in a large number of festivals and countries around the world, netting a plethora of awards and grossing enormous sums.
Three titles included here made the top 10 list of the highest-grossing films in South Korea, earning the second, the third and the seventh position on the table, in a trend that also showed that local productions are presently holding the interest of South Koreans, instead of Hollywood productions, as is the rule in other Asian countries.
Due to the delay of some of the titles’ screening in the west, the list took the liberty of incorporating “Ode to my Father”, that was actually screened in December 2014 in Korea, but in 2015 everywhere else.
10. The Beauty Inside (Baik)
Based on the homonymous American film, “The Beauty Inside” tells the story of Woo Jin, a furniture designer who, since his eighteenth birthday, has woken up in a different body every day. Those bodies differ in age, sex and even nationality, thus resulting in Woo Jin’s frustration and subsequent solitude, having only one real friend who knows his secret, Sang Baek.
Eventually he meets a girl named Hong Eun Soo and falls in love with her. The film then takes a turn towards the melodramatic, particularly after he reveals his secret to the girl.
Baik had a chance to direct something spectacular, both by using the 21 actors that play the protagonist’s role and by answering questions regarding sexual orientation and racism. However, he chose to create an easygoing film, whose primary characteristic is the fact that it does not take any chances.
Nevertheless, the film is a highly entertaining romantic-fantasy comedy that benefits the most from the appearance of a number of accomplished actors (Kim Sang Ho, Lee Beom Soo, Park Shin Hye, etc) and the acting of Han Hyo Joo, who plays Eun Soo.
9. Collective Invention (Kwon Oh Kwang)
Sang Won is an idealistic journalist who is assigned to investigate an incident that initially seems like an urban legend: the existence of a man who turned into a fish after participating in medical experiments. Eventually she discovers the creature, named Park Gu, and learns his story.
The aforementioned was an actor who agreed at one point to participate in a clinical test from a pharmaceutical company, due to the money promised him. However, the experiment’s results were disastrous, since his upper body became that of a fish.
After the discovery, Sang Won submits a video with Park Gu to her channel, and upon its broadcast, a chain reaction is initiated throughout the country, with a number of individuals wanting to exploit the creature for their own benefits, others blaming the company for its practices, and others supporting it due to the results. Nevertheless, the only thing Park Gu wants is to return to his former self, although nobody seems keen to let him do that.
Kwon Oh Kwang directed a black comedy that is actually an allegory regarding popular culture and the way it functions within society. The film is well paced and quite entertaining; however, its script suffers at points and the answers to the critical questions presented are never adequately revealed.
8. Shoot Me in the Heart (Mun Che Yong)
Based on the homonymous, awarded novel by Jeong Yu Jeong, “Shoot Me in the Heart” is set at a psychiatric hospital and tells the story of two quite opposite characters who end up there for radically different reasons, eventually becoming best friends.
Soo Myung has been institutionalized since he was 19 due to a traumatic experience he had at the time and has a fear of scissors. Seung Min belongs to a rich family, but used to have pyromaniac tendencies as a teenager. However, that is not the actual reason he is held at the hospital.
The two of them strike up a peculiar friendship, among gleeful and violent nurses and a number of patients, including one who uses the rest as horses, an alcoholic who wants to become a social worker, and one who seems to know everything about the institution.
Mun Che Yong directed a violent movie, chiefly due to the frequency of brutal scenes rather than their depiction. The comedy and the drama appear in equal proportion, as is the case with the various flashbacks that slowly disclose the true story of the two patients, in an evident though successful attempt to use as many Korean favorite themes and notions possible.
In that fashion, there are two main nurses, one evil and one moral, with the former getting what he deserves in a plethora of times, and the latter proving repeatedly how just and compassionate he actually is. Furthermore, the film entails great cinematography, particularly in the scenes shot outside the hospital.
Both the protagonists, Lee Min Ki as Seung Min and Yeo Jin Goo as Soo Myunga, are wonderful in their parts, with the former having a more demanding role.
7. Assassination (Choi Dong Hoon)
Another action blockbuster, “Assassination” was the highest grossing film in 2015 and the eighth all-time highest grossing film in Korean cinema.
The film is set during the Japanese occupation of the country in the 1930s and tells the tale of a team of resistance fighters. A sniper named Ahn Ok Yun, a gun smuggler and a graduate of the Independence Military School named Chu Sang Ok, and explosives specialist Hwang Deok Sam are tasked with the assassination of the governor of Gyeongseong and a Korean mogul who is pro-Japanese. However, treachery lurks inside the resistance lines.
Choi Dong Hoon directed a film that moves quite rapidly, occasionally looking like a music video, and entailed a number of the genres’ favorite techniques and notions, including women fighters, unexpected humor, martial arts, impressive action scenes, and a number of flashbacks.
Furthermore, he presented a clear dilemma between patriotism and profit, building upon it in most of his script. However, the movie becomes naive and unreal at points, a fact that nevertheless hides well beneath the impressive action.
Technically, “Assassination” is a true masterpiece, with the cinematography, the set design and the action choreography being utterly magnificent.
6. Coin Locker Girl (Han Ju Hee)
Ma Il Young was found in a coin locker, raised by beggars, kidnapped and sold to a crime ring when she was a little girl. Mother is the notorious leader of the ring that is based in Chinatown in Incheon and is involved with fake IDs, loan-sharking and organ trafficking.
By the time the girl reaches 18, she has become a cruel and fierce bouncer and Mother’s right hand, in a gang additionally including a boy her age, a girl with pink hair and a mentally handicapped boy. However, during one of her missions with Suk Hyun, the son of a debtor, she falls in love with him and tries to escape her crime life, in an action that causes a number of chain reactions in the crime world.
Han Ju Hee directs a violent action thriller about the Korean underworld, although he also entails a number of social subjects, chiefly through the relationship of Mother with her “children”.
Both the leading female actresses portray quite interesting characters with Ma Il Young’s obvious need to become a regular teenage girl and Mother’s feelings, which she never lets out, trying to appear cruel and strong, and succeeding to the fullest.
Kim Go Eun is excellent as Ma Il Young, although the one who steals the show is Kim Hye Soo, who is sublime as Mother, portraying a truly intimidating character in astonishing fashion.
5. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang Soo)
One of the most acclaimed Korean films outside the country, “Right Now, Wrong Then”, won top awards from both the Locarno International Film Festival and the Gijon International Film Festival.
The film tells the same romantic story twice, with different outcomes. Chun Su, a director, has traveled to Suwon for a festival screening of his latest film. Due to an error made by the organizers, he has some free time and decides to visit an ancient palace in the area. While there, he meets a beautiful and shy painter named Hee Jung and eventually the two of them decide to spend the day together.
Their excursion involves drinking coffee and eating sushi while telling life stories and philosophizing, and a party held by a poet friend of Chun Su, where the film’s turning point takes place.
Hong Sang Soo directed a naturalistic film, a fact stressed by the magnificent performances of the two protagonists, Jung Jae Young as Chun Su and Kim Min Hee as Yoon Hee Jung.
His usual cinematographic style, including long takes interrupted by sudden zooms is also evident here, as is his unique and unexpected sense of humor. His message is quite clear: the little choices we embrace everyday can alter the course of our whole life.
4. The Throne (Lee Joon Ik)
Quite an impressive period drama, “The Throne” was the official Korean selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, although it was not nominated.
King Yeongjo was a famous Joseon king who led the dynasty to its apogee. However, he also suffered from an inferiority complex because he was the son of the previous king’s concubine, who was not of noble birth.
Due to this fact, he spent his life constantly trying to achieve perfection, both in his practices and his behavior. Furthermore, he demanded the same from his son, Prince Sado, who did not seem to share his inclinations, being interested instead in martial arts and painting. The continuous conflict between father and son eventually resulted in the former locking the latter in a wooden rice chest, leaving him there to die.
Lee Joon Ik focused the film around two axes, equally tragic: the life story of prince Sado and the relationship between father and son that resulted in the aforementioned tragedy.
According to the actual story, the prince was held for eight days in the chest before he eventually died and Lee showed each day, including a number of flashbacks regarding Sado’s life, in a prototypical type of narration that manages to include 56 years of the royal family’s story.
Both the protagonists, Song Kang Ho as King Yeongjo and Yoo Ah In as Prince Sado, are magnificent in their respective roles, in a film that had an overall wonderful cast.
3. Madonna (Shin Su Won)
Hae Rim, a woman in her mid-30s, is hired from a hospital as an assistant nurse and is appointed to the VIP ward, looking after rich patients.
Among her patients is an elderly mogul named Kim Cheol Oh, who is also one of the hospital’s biggest benefactors. Cheol Ho is in a state that should have been already fatal; however, due to his spoiled and greedy son, Sang Woo, who wants to continue living off of his father’s money, he is kept alive largely through a series of heart transplants.
Eventually, a comatose woman named Jang Mi Na is abandoned in the hospital and Sang Woo pays Hae Rim to discover her relatives, in order to sign an organ donation consent form.
She agrees because to the money promised and she begins delving into the woman’s past, eventually revealing a number of onerous incidents in her life.
Shin Su Won used one of the latest trends in Korean cinema, the depiction of institutions as corrupt and dangerous places, which additionally mirrors the corruption of the government and its various authorities, and the effect that fact has on common people. Moreover, through the tragic story of Mi Na, she presents a genuine anti-heroine, whose torments seem as much a result of her social environment as of her own character.
Seo Young Hee is wonderful as Hae Rim; nevertheless, the one who actually steals the show is Kwon So Hyun, who is sublime in the title role.
2. Veteran (Ryoo Seung Wan)
The winner of the Blue Dragon Award for Best Direction and currently the third highest grossing film in South Korean cinema history, “Veteran” is probably the most entertaining film of the list, in the fashion of the Hong Kong action comedies of the 80s.
The film starts with a rather “goofy” mood as it introduces a police team that hassles a grand theft auto gang, an attempt that results in their arrest after the in-field leader of the team and the film’s protagonist, Detective Seol Do Cheol, beats them up to a pulp, while extracting a confession from their leader.
Subsequently, and after the arrest of a Russian gang, the film takes a turn to the dramatic, as it presents the story of Bae, a truck driver who becomes the victim of a violent and ruthless heir of a large conglomerate, in an incident that results in his alleged suicide and his treatment in a hospital while comatose.
From that point on, the film becomes a confrontation between Seol and the aforementioned heir, named Cho Tae Ho, a truly despicable human being who even his own father despises.
Ryoo Seung Wan directed a sublime action film, incorporating artfully depicted elements of all the themes and motives this kind of movie should entail, including very fast pace, martial arts, car and human chasing, comedy, and a clear distinction between good and evil. Moreover, he incorporated the most popular theme in Korea nowadays, the corruption of the richest and its effect on public institutions, as the Police Force and the Judiciary.
The action choreographer, Jung Doo Hong did an astonishing job in a plethora of scenes, particularly the ending one, which is utterly impressive. Hwang Jung Ming is great as Seol Do Cheol and Yoo Ahn In portrays impressively a truly onerous character as Cho Tae Ho. Of equal quality is also the performance by Oh Dal Su as Team Leader Oh, who represents the comical element in the film.
1. Ode to My Father (JK Youn)
This particular movie sold more than 14 million tickets, thus becoming the second highest-grossing film in the history of Korean cinema. Moreover, it netted 10 awards at the 52nd Grand Bell Awards, including those for Best Movie, Best Director and Best Leading Actors.
The script portrays the most touching episodes in contemporary Korean history, through the life of a man named Yoon Deok Soo, explaining the various reasons for his life choices.
In that fashion, the film begins with the Hungnam evacuation of 1950 during the Korean War, and continues with the massive migration of Koreans to Germany in the 60s in order to find work, and the war in Vietnam in the 70s. It concludes in 1983, when the major broadcast stations in South Korea held TV programs with the purpose of rejoining family members that had been split during the partition of the Korean peninsula.
Respectively, Deok Soo loses his sister, his father becomes a victim of racism and bullying, he works as a miner in Germany and falls in love, joins the Korean Forces in Vietnam, buys his aunt’s shop from his drunken uncle, and finally discovers one of his lost relatives.
The film entails a plethora of dramatic scenes that resonated with the Koreans’ love for melodrama, thus resulting in the film’s commercial success. Furthermore, the movie included wonderful performances by its protagonists, Hwang Jung Min as Yoon Deok Soo, Oh Dal Su as his best friend, who also represents the comic element in the film, and the always gorgeous and sublime Yunjin Kim as his wife.
“Ode to My Father” is a wonderful blockbuster, in the fashion that made “Forrest Gump” an international sensation.