Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cagle's Top Five Korean Films

Today, Robert Cagle from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recommends five Korean films not yet available in the US:

I've always found it difficult to name one single favorite film (or even a top five) because I like so many movies for widely differing reasons. Because many of your readers are most likely already familiar with some of the most famous recent Korean films — Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2003); JSA (Park Chan-wook,2000); Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003); A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Ji-woon, 2003); and The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), for example — I'd like to mention a handful of works that I consider well worth watching, but unfortunately that, at present, have not yet secured a North American release.

Maeumi… (a.k.a. Heart is…; a.k.a Hearty Paws) (Oh Dal-gyoon, 2007) A devastatingly poignant film about two abandoned children and the tan Labrador retriever dog they raise together. To borrow the tagline used to market a popular Japanese film (Helen the Baby Fox), "If you don't cry after watching this movie, you have no soul."

Our Happy Time (Song Hae-seong, 2007) Saddled with the ridiculously
unsuitable English title, Maundy Thursday, which in no way communicates the ambivalence — both a heartfelt sincerity and a bitter irony — of the original title, this film is an adaptation of a novel by noted South Korean writer Gong Ji-young. The film tells the story of a chronically depressed young woman (played superbly by Lee Na-young), forced to pay regular visits to a young man on death row (Kang Dong-won) as punishment for her repeated attempts at suicide.

Miracle on First Street (Yoon Je-jyoon, 2006) Like Yoon's 2002 film Sex is Zero, Miracle on First Street also pairs Ha Ji-won and Im Chang-jeong, and offers an unsettling but highly effective combination of broad, even vulgar comedy, and moments of tender pathos. Make no mistake, though: Despite its decidedly scatological approach to humor, this film is no Farrelly-brothers movie; it is a stirring commentary on Korean politics and society.

The Crescent Moon (Jang Kil-soo, 2002) Of all the Korean films that I have watched, none has had such a profound effect on me as The Crescent Moon has. The film, an independent and deeply personal project funded by the Korean Film Council, seamlessly blends gritty social realism with elements of the fairy tale to challenge viewers in creative ways. It is a work that truly deserves to be called "beautiful." The final sequence, which features the crescent moon of the title, is strikingly simple and extremely touching. Although this one may be hard to find — it's unlikely that American video shops will carry it as a rental — it is readily available for purchase from online vendors such as,, and

Princess Aurora (Pang Eun-jin, 2005) First-time director Pang Eun-jin is better known to audiences as an actress, especially after having appeared in such landmark films as The Taebaek Mountains (Im Kwon-taek, 1994); 30 1/302(Park Cheol-su, 1995); and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001). This film, described by the director as a "dark melodrama," starts out looking a lot like a serial killer film, and ends up in art house territory. With apparent nods to such international classics as Truffaut's classic The Bride Wore Black (France, 1968), Pang's film traces the breakdown of a young woman (Eom Jeong-hwa) driven mad by a horrific tragedy. The film's turning point features a dazzling flashback sequence that reenacts a series of events leading up to a dreadful and unavoidable conclusion that has already been revealed. The sequence is brutal, and offers what is certainly one of the most stinging critiques of Korean society's under-valuation of children. With this spectacular work, Pang reveals herself to be just as talented a director as she is an actress. I am very much looking forward to her next work.

I've just realized, looking back over my list of favorite films, that all of the titles I've chosen feature child actors in key roles. This would most certainly not be the case with American films, as for the most part, the cloyingly practiced, faux-innocent juvenile performers that populate Hollywood fare make late career Shelley Winters look like an ingĂ©nue. The youngsters in South Korean films, though, are never so coarse, so artificial, as to strike the viewer as performers, but come off, instead, as real children—the type one might see anywhere. The same is true, despite their incredible beauty, of all of the adult actors as well. Their naturalistic performances lend a strangely incongruous air of believability to the highly unlikely narratives, filled with the standard plot twists, coincidences, and shocking conclusions characteristic of the melodrama. Perhaps it is simply that—the ability to make us believe in the unbelievable — that has made South Korean films and television so immensely popular.

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