We at Fanboy Confidential are huge fans of Asian cinema (check out our recent podcast on the subject for proof), and though all the Asian territories have aspects of filmmaking that they excel in, it is South Korea that is blazing the most trails.
Visually as slick as anything coming out of Hollywood, the majority of South Korean cinema easily trumps Hong Kong movies in their writing and Japanese movies with their digital FX work, while remaining their equal (and in some cases, superior) with such things as action choreography, cinematography, controversial subject matters, edgy narratives and so forth. But what South Korea has over the rest of the world in its film output is sheer unpredictability.
South Korean filmmakers, for the most part, have an uncanny knack for shedding what is expected or what is cliché with well-explored subjects, and serving us up with treats in which the climaxes aren’t obvious; in fact we are not even sure what the status quo will be from one scene to the next.
For the uninitiated the following recommendations should illustrate this point perfectly; so watch, enjoy and prepare to have your mind blown… And just a heads up, they don’t all end nicely.
Oldboy: After inexplicably being kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years, a man wakes up on a rooftop with a pocketful of cash, a mobile phone and a challenge to find his jailer and the reason for his incarceration, a challenge he intends to accept, no matter who stands in his way.
From the controversial director Park Chan-wook (Sympathy For Mister Vengeance, Lady Vengeance) Oldboy, alongside creature feature The Host, is probably the best known of South Korea’s films. As well it should be, with an addictively intriguing premise and story twists that will have you reeling in disbelief, Oldboy regularly features the kind of violence that is at once shockingly brutal but so over the top that it doesn’t become uncomfortable (unlike the director’s more realistic works)
The Crying Fist: Two downtrodden boxers, at their absolute lowest, have their sights set on winning an amateur championship, which could bring them redemption and change their lives for the better. But a boxing match can only have one winner.
The Crying Fist has one of those premises that, on reflection, is so obvious that you can’t understand why it hasn’t been done before; a boxing film that gives equal screen time to each contender, so come the final conflict you genuinely don’t know who to root for. This aside, it is also a tremendously well-written film whose flawed characters will earn your disgust and sympathies as the story progresses.
71 – Into the Fire: 71 student volunteers in the Korean War are asked to man a battalion HQ while the soldiers go to the frontline. Unbeknownst to them all an enemy unit is ascending on the HQ, leaving a squad of young, untrained men to hold fast until back-up can arrive.
The South Koreans especially excel in making war films. They’re as good as the best war films that come out of Hollywood and as such they are largely traditional in their approach, and by extension there are quite a lot of them produced. 71 stands out from the crowd because of its fresh narrative and a cast of characters that are as far from gung-ho soldiers as you can get. Not your average war film, but just as epic.
The City of Violence: A big city detective returns to his hometown for the funeral of a childhood friend. After a reunion with his old gang the detective investigates the odd circumstances of his buddy’s death, which will inevitably set him against old friends.
The second recommendation from director Ryoo Seung-wan (The Crying Fist, Arahan), The City of Violence, starts off as a gritty crime thriller a la Reservoir Dogs, but suddenly, and without preamble, escalates into a martial arts flick of epic proportions. The choreography is brutal yet stylised and very impressive, and in no uncertain terms outdoes much of Hong Kong’s contemporary output in a big way. The climactic battle sequence constitutes nearly a third of film’s running time, ‘nuff said.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring: Deep in a beautiful valley, a tiny monastery floats on a lake, housing a Buddhist monk and his young charge. Here we observe the titular seasons plucked from various times in the monks’ lives, as they learn the most important lessons, and progress to enlightenment.
Quite a departure from the other (frankly, violent) recommendations on this list, Spring, Summer… is an exquisitely beautiful meditation on life. Some may take exception to its sparse dialogue or its general ‘arty’ feel and presentation, but if you can get past those things there is no better, heart achingly glorious or rewarding film out there.
So there you have it, and maybe some of you aficionados are wondering why a few more well known titles have been excluded, to which I can only answer that it is simply a matter of tastes. You may also notice that none of the works of Kim Jee-woon are featured. This, selfishly, is because said director is one of my favourite filmmakers and will most certainly get his very own Five to Watch… Watch this space.