It has been a monumental year for Korean cinema. The quality has been exceptionally high, admissions to Korean films have surpassed 100 million for the fifth consecutive year, and on the international stage Korean films have attracted widespread attention.
Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” has received numerous awards from various critic circles in the U.S. for Best Foreign Film, along with other accolades including Best Screenplay, Cinematography and Production Design.
The high concept zombie thriller “Train to Busan” meanwhile became a gargantuan box office hit, not just in Korea, but also in parts of Asia such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore where it secured more ticket sales than any other Korean film in history.
Then there is “The Wailing” and “The Age of Shadows,” which were both produced by Hollywood studios, and became critical and commercial hits.
Top ten lists are inevitably subjective, and this one is no exception. The fact that it has been the most challenging one I have put together since arriving in Korea six years ago reflects what a strong year it has been for both commercial and independent cinema.
I have been to a number of press screenings, but this one was the first where I physically became so hot I thought I was coming down with a fever. The sheer intensity of Na Hong-jin’s third feature sent shivers down my spine. Being a critic, I naturally went back for a second viewing to confirm what I thought: this was the best Korean film in years. It has its detractors, of course, but the manner in which Na subverts audiences’ expectations, delves into shamanism and satanic themes, mixes genres, and not to mention its outstanding visual aesthetic, is the work of a cinematic genius.
The Age of Shadows
|A scene from “The Age of Shadows”
/ Courtesy of Warner Bros. Korea
One of the reasons this year has been so fruitful for Korean cinema is because it has seen the return of Korea’s most famous auteurs on top form. Kim Jee-woon who is one of Korea’s most renowned genre filmmakers brings his stylistic flare to a Japanese colonial period setting but refusing to allow set-pieces to fuel the narrative. Sharing similarities to Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Kim’s intelligent use of pacing through a layered but coherent narrative about espionage was in some ways a courageous move. It paid off. The film was a box office hit accumulating more than 7 million admissions.
Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet
|A scene from “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet”
/ Courtesy of Megabox Plus. M
Also set in the colonial period is Lee Joon-ik’s low-budget hit about the famous poet Yun Dong-ju scribed by director and screenwriter Shin Yeon-shick. Beautifully shot, written and performed by its leads Kang Ha-nuel and Park Jung-min, it is a complex film, especially for those unfamiliar with the poet and history. Yet, looking back at this year’s films, “Dong-ju” continues to resonate demanding further viewings.
The World of Us
|A scene from “The World of Us”
/ Courtesy of Filament Pictures & AtNine Film
2016 has also been a notable year for Korean female filmmakers. Yoon Ga-eun’s “The World of Us” that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival is a rare film because it focuses on the life and struggles both inside and outside the classroom of two young students told from their perspective. Refusing to let the narrative boil over, Yoon utilizes her storytelling talents along with her proven ability to work with young actresses bringing out natural performances from the excellent leads Choi Soo-in and Seol Hye-jin.
The Truth Beneath
|A scene from “The Truth Beneath”
/Courtesy of CJ Entertainment
Also directed by a female filmmaker, Lee Kyoung-mi’s “The Truth Beneath” is bold and brilliant in its depiction of the dark side of Korean politics. But unlike political thriller “Inside Men” the film focuses on a female lead played by the superb Son Ye-jin as she searches for her missing daughter shedding light on the impact political ambition has on one’s family leading to catastrophic consequences.
|A scene from “The Handmaiden”
/ Courtesy of CJ Entertainment
Park Chan-wook returns to form in his riveting and twisted tale of love in the lesbian thriller “The Handmaiden” set in the colonial era inspired by Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith.” His strongest film since the Vengeance trilogy, Park displays both visual and thematic mastery, while the cast, especially the two female leads Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-hee, are sublime.
Our Love Story
|A scene from “Our Love Story”
/ Courtesy of Indieplug
Premiering at the Jeonju International Film Festival, which also had an excellent year; Lee Hyun-ju’s “Our Love Story” does not dwell on the prejudices of homosexuality in Korea as it follows two young women who fall in love. Instead, this engrossing feature focuses on their relationship that is beautifully crafted.
|A scene from “Worst Woman”
/ Courtesy of CGV Arthouse & Indiestory
Also bowing in Jeonju in May was “Worst Woman” directed by Kim Jong-kwan, an emerging talent in the local film industry. Reminiscent of Hong Sang-soo but in somewhat less of a formal approach, it centers on an actress who meets three different men. Whimsical and endearing, it stars Han Ye-ri on top form despite having to deliver many lines in English.
Yourself and Yours
|A scene from “Yourself and Yours”
/ Courtesy of Jeonwonsa Film Co.
Although not at his best, Hong Sang-soo’s “Yourself and Yours” continues to explore relationships over conversations and alcohol about a couple who have a fight and the woman played by Lee You-young then disappears. It feels less like a narrative puzzle, especially compared to “Right Now, Wrong Then” but the film’s optimistic denouement is a surprise and welcome departure from his earlier work.
Train to Busan
|A scene from “Train to Busan”
/ Courtesy of NEW
Smart in its simplicity, “Train to Busan” was an easy film to market, but beneath the surface, its critique of society and politics paints a more complex picture of a society fractured by social and political division sharing much in common with Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” and “The Host.” Weakened by some poor acting, it nevertheless is a fun ride and this year’s biggest box office hit.
Other notable films released this year that couldn’t quite make it on the list but deserve a mention are Kim Dae-hwan’s understated melodrama “End of Winter”, Jung Ji-woo’s engaging drama about Korea’s competitive society “Fourth Place”, Kim Seong-hun’s disaster film “Tunnel”, Kim Sung-soo’s gritty crime noir “Asura: The City of Madness”, KoHee-young’s documentary “Breathing Underwater”, Choi Seung-ho’s political documentary “Spy Nation” and Zhang Lu’s whimsical “A Quiet Dream.”