And The Oscar Goes To..

One way to explore the culture of a country is to read its great literature, understand its history, speak its language etc., but another is just to settle down into your couch, popcorn in hand, and watch what a country's movie industry has to offer.    I've not been able to do TaeKwonDo or Wushu recently because of a little back injury and lots of laziness, but thanks to the minor miracle of Korea's DVD rooms, I've been able to watch some homegrown Korean movies, with the comfort of english subtitles.   

I was going to present my Top 10 korean movies, but actually, so far, I've only seen 11!   So a Top 10 becomes an All Time 11 Korean Movies. :-o    Here they are:

  1. Shiri
  2. Joint Security Area (JSA)
  3. Hi Dharma
  4. My Gangster Wife
  5. Friend
  6. 2009: Lost Memories
  7. Painted Fire
  8. The Way Home
  9. Oasis
  10. My Sassy Girl
  11. Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

English Name: Shiri
Korean Name: Shiri (it's a type of fish)
Genre: Action
Review: This is the very first Korean movie I'd ever seen, and I was really looking forward to it.    Shiri has a bit of a reputation in Korea as the homegrown little movie that managed to sink the Titanic.    It's an action flick that features a North Korean special forces team infiltrating the South, and the two South Korean investigators trying to catch them.    That's all you need to know about the movie really.   
By and large it's the Korean version of Rambo after that.    The exception is the "twist", that if you're even half-awake you'll be able to see coming a million miles away.    This sorta spoils an otherwise OK action movie, killing the suspense, and almost sending you to sleep... if it didn't end so well you'd consign it to the dustbin of regional movies that Hollywood has outdone a hundred times.   

For me the redeeming feature of it though was the opening training sequence in the North Koreans special forces camp.    It's total propaganda.    At one point two trainees are racing to assemble their guns - whoever gets the pieces together first will shoot the loser.    Now it's just possible that they do indeed decide to kill half their recruits in North Korea.. but it seems a little unlikely.    What unnerved me about the whole thing though was the thought of my schoolkids seeing this movie and thinking that this was what the North Koreans are like.    If you think Rambo was hard on the Viet Cong, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Cultural Complexity: North = Evil, and South = Good.
Best Line: But when I DREAM....
For The Unification!
Overall Rating: 4/10


English Name: JSA - Joint Security Area
Korean Name: Gongdong Gyeongbi Guyeok
Genre: Action
Review: So my first outing at a Korean Movie was somewhat less than successful, but I decided to give it another go with the movie that beat the records previously set by Shiri    Another action flick, another case of South Koreans fighting North Koreans, and me wandering in to the DVD room not entirely optimistic of a better outcome.    Maybe it was exactly because of those low expectations, but this movie had me hooked from the first scene to the last.    In the extremely sensitive Joint Security Area on the 38th Parallel, 16 shots are fired and two soldiers (one North and one South Korean) are dead...

It opens with the rescue of a South Korean soldier, who was kidnapped by the North.    Or at least that's what the South say.    On the other hand, the communists say a southerner snuck over and began a shooting spree on their side of the DMZ .    So it's up to an investigating officer from a neutral country to find out what really happened - or just to rubber-stamp the conflicting statements...    From that point on the story is largely told in flashbacks, with each sequence revealing just a little more of what really happened.

This is a fantastic action-drama.    For me at least, it's everything Shiri could have been but just wasn't.    The dialogue between the army officers, the brinksmanship in Panmunjeom (the Truce Village in the DMZ), and the glimpses you get at Korean friendship and Korean humour... it's a wonderful movie.    Suspense from start to finish, great action, and yet deep characters that have you hooked.    If you want to see your first Korean movie, then JSA is the one I'd recommend.    Hell, even if you've no interest in Korean movies, this is still well worth checking out.

Cultural Complexity: Added tension because the Koreans see each other as bitter enemies and blood brothers at the same time, and that conflict is at the heart of the film.    Once you understand that you should have no problems with this movie.    All you really need is a knack for remembering reasonably similar-looking Koreans.
Best Line:
My dream is that someday, our glorious Republic will make the best Choco-Pies on this peninsula!
Overall Rating: 9/10
Minus a point for the clumsy Swiss english scenes.


English Name: Hi, Dharma
Korean Name:
Dal ma ya nul ja (Let's Play Dharma)
After two action movies, I was ready for a change, and a spot of light-hearted comedy was just the ticket.    It's the story of a bunch of gangsters on the run from a rival faction, and from the cops.    They need to get out of the way, somewhere where no one will find them - and they hit upon the idea of lying low for a while by joining a monestary, and pretending to be buddhist monks.    Or in other words:    Have you ever seen Sister Act?    This is pretty much the Korean version of the same thing.    Bald-headed mountain-dwelling monks instead of Nuns in habits, and a whole team of hiding gangsters to replace Whoopi Goldberg, but after that it's pretty much the same.    And that's fine.   

This is a really fun little movie, not something that will change the world, be rememberd for ever afterwards, or win any awards - it's just fun to watch.    Predictably enough, the Gangsters become more like the Monks, and vice versa as an initially fractious relationship blossoms into friendship.    Seen it all before?    Yeah, you probably have, but there's no harm in watching it again, and if Temple Stay Korea is a little too rigorous for you, well here's a way to see the life inside a monestary from the comfort of your armchair.

Cultural Complexity: Buddhist temples tend to be in out of the way places!
Best Line:
You clapped at 400!
3 out of 5 - it's the Buddhist way.
Overall Rating:
6/10 - but more if I'd never seen Sister Act


English Name: My Gangster Wife
Korean Name: Jo Pok Ma No La
Genre: Action-Comedy
This movie stole two hours of my short life.    This was the fourth Korean movie I saw, and it was dire, dire beyond belief.    If it had a redeeming feature, it'd be that at least it's over quickly.

It was another "Gangsters Do The Funniest Things" movie, just like " Let's Play Dharma ", and I was rather looking forward to a feel-good film.    A high-kicking hard-living gangster girl, Cha, tries to fulfill her dying sister's wish by getting married, and having children to continue the family line.    The tough-as-nails mob girl tries to lure a man, and hilarity ensues.

For an action movie it lacks the polish and style of something like The Matrix, and has no trace of the elegant martial arts that makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon such a great movie.    As for comedy, forget it.    I think I laughed once, and even then it was just a sneer at a would-be lover quoting a passage from The Brigdes Of Madison Country :-)

This movie is dire.    Avoid it like you'd avoid CNN during a War.

Cultural Complexity: Tatoos = Gangsters
Oh, and just my personal opinion, but hey, a girl with her body covered in a dragon tatoo?    Nothing at all wrong with that.    No sir.
Best Line: Where is it written that she should be called 'Boss', but I should just be 'Bitch'?
Overall Rating:
0/10 - lots of other people do seem to like it though, so maybe...


English Name: Friend
Korean Name: Chin Gu
Genre: Gangster-Action
Another Gangster movie, had I lost my mind?    No.    First there was Shiri , which broke the box-office records here.    Then came JSA to smash Shiri - and then Chingu beat down JSA.    Let's go take a look and see what all the fuss is about.

Once upon a time in Korea, around 1976 in fact, four little boys are growing up in the neighbourhoods of Busan, South Korea.    The movie follows them through about twenty years of their lives, mostly set when they are young adults -

  • Jeong-suk, the son of a gangster, is at the top of the food chain in high-school.
  • Dong-su is his kissass loyal sidekick.
  • Jeong-ho (Jeong Un-taek) the class clown, and
  • Sang-taek, the scholar - in this case, the director telling his semi-autobiographical story.   

It's classic gangster movie stuff.    Tragic heroes who are sensitized to the consequences of their own actions, creating a state of moral contradiction with no easy solution.    Friendship and loyalty pull you in one direction, and the reality of the world brings you into conflict with your inner feelings.   

For me what makes this movie worth seeing is not just the beautiful camera work, but the way it's all just an essay on the nature of friendship.    If you want to understand the true nature of (Korean) Friendship, this is the one to see.    Even if you don't, the ending is just nicely open-ended, so you argue 'til your blue in the face about what really happened - with very little supporting evidence except your own inner sense of human nature and the value of true friends.

Cultural Complexity: This one was too much for me I'm afraid.    I enjoyed the movie, but part of the reason one Korean friend of mine lists it as his favourite film is that the characters come from my region of the country and speak the Gyeongsannam-do dialect of Korean - so much so that the movie played with subtitles in Seoul!    It's still a good movie if you don't get the linguistic tricks, but I guess it loses some of the charm I felt seeing movies like ' The Commitments ' or ' The Snapper ', and recognising 'my' language in them.

Best Line: The tail buys the tickets!
He's a friend?    What am I?    Your servant?
(in 1976): A VCR?    A TV-recording machine?    That's impossible.    The broadcasters will all go out of business when everyone starts recording everything!
Overall Rating: 8/10 - if only I could have understood the linguistic tricks in there, or if only the subtitles had had a bit of imagination.


English Name: 2009 Lost Memories
Korean Name:
2009 Lost Memories (just say it with your best Korean accent)
Science Fiction
A "What if...." movie.    This time it's 'What if Japan had been on the US side in WWII?'    Through a little tampering with the universe's timeline, this is exactly what happens.    Japan invaded and occupied Korea from 1910 onwards (fact), but was driven out after their defeat by the weapons-of-mass-destruction wielding Americans nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki.    In this movie though, the Japanese Empire was alligned with the Allies, Berlin was nuked instead, Japan is a full-time member of the UN Security Council and Japan completed the cultural genocide it had started on the Korean peninsula - and now it's the year 2009.    The Koreans are all living and speaking as Japanese citizens, and no one knows the truth of what happened, what changed, or why.

Like most flicks involving the theme of alternate time dimensions, this won't impress those with an obsessive compulsion for scrutinizing story lines.    SciFi plots have a tendency to fall apart when put under electron microscopes, and you go in knowing that, and making a little agreement with yourself to disregard any plot holes, and just enjoy the movie.

The opening shots of the altered timeline grab your attention, after the first couple of correct events, your brain suddenly clicks that at some point they're telling you about things that never actually happened.. until you arrive at the opening scene in a Seoul City Centre plastered with Japanese rather than Korean signs everywhere.    This movie is slick, high-budget and record breaking (20,000 rounds of ammo fired?).    It's set in the very near future, so you don't get much of a SciFi feel from it, but the shock of seeing a Japanese Korea will be enough for most viewers.    Imagine seeing Texans with British accents having tea and scones for elevenses, and offering toasts to Her Majesty the Queen! :-)    What really interested me about this movie were two things:
First, beneath all the fancy timeline slicing and misguided futures it's really just another version of Chingu - an essay on Frienship, and it's power to endure hardships.    Chingu was the big festival winning art house movie though, and 2009 is just a commercial bums-on-seats SF movie, yet they both explore the same issue against different backdrops.    And depending on you attitude to the ending of Chingu, they both say very different things about the reality of friendship.    It was only coincidence that I watched these movies one after the other, but you can't help noting the similarities.

Secondly, and most shockingly, it forced me to think about my own attitude to Korea and Japan.    Japan has always been the famous one, and Korea the poor relation.    People in the west know that Japan = Cool, and what do we know about Korea?    Pretty much nothing beyond the 38th Parallel, the 88 Olympics and the 2002 World Cup - so there's an inherent assumption that Japan is a cultural mecca, and Korea a backwater.    Certainly I came here with that view.    Japanese people have style, class, elegance, and the Koreans just never will.    Or so I thought... at this stage though I was shocked at how utterly protective I felt about 'my' independent Korea, 'my' Korea that's been erased from history in this movie.    Japan Vs Korea - maybe I'be been indoctrinated, or maybe I just side with the udnerdog, or come from a former colony myself, but I'm just screaming inside at the wrongness of what Japan did here! (and continued to do in the movie)

Cultural Complexity: This one's pretty tough going actually.    It'll really help if you know what the real history of Korea is, and if you can distinguish between spoken and written Korean and Japanese the movie will start to make a lot more sense.    If not, I'd probably give this one a pretty wide bearth if I was you.    I loved it, and anyone who's lived in Korea would be fine with it, but it's not for the average bear.

Best Line: Sakamoto, I've never even thought of you as Korean!
Overall Rating:


English Name: Painted Fire
Korean Name:
Chi Hwa Seon
Historical Drama
Like Chingu , or Oasis , this is an 'arty' Korean movie, but this one has the distinction of actually being about art as well.    It's set in the 19th century as the Korean Chosun Dynasty is beginning to disintegrate, and Korea is being torn apart by Chinese and Japanese forces.    That's just the historical backdrop though - really the film is a based-on-a-true-story movie showing us the life of Jang Seung-up, one of Korea's most renowned artists.   

Like most movies based on a 'tortured genius', you get a lot more out of it if you're already at least a little bit aware of who the person was, and what he did that was so fantastic.    I'm sure it's possible to watch flims about Da Vinchi, or Oscar Wilde without ever having heard of them before, but really, you're not getting the same emotional reaction to seeing them on screen, so maybe what's the point in watching at all?    In the case of this movie there are several reasons -

  • The acting is fantastic.    The tortured relationship between the artist and his hostess-prostitute (think Japanese Geisha here) is the highlight of the movie for me.
  • You get a chance to see how beautiful Korea really is, away from the lego-land apartment blocks.
  • You'll see Korean traditional culture at its height, before the Japanese occupation.

So yes it's an award-winning movie, and very high-brow and worthy, but that's not why I liked it.    In Korea, painting was a great artform, producing works totally unlike those developed in the Renaissance or the West generally.    But despite it's lofty heights, originally in Korea painting was just something to do with the ink you had left over from writing caligraphy!    I studied caligraphy for a few months here, and so much of what I saw in that movie reminded me of those torturous classes.    Not holding the brush right, not mixing the paint correctly, not doing the strokes in the right order - it all went wrong, and here I get to watch the artist as a young man, making all the same mistakes I did.    It's a good movie anyway, but this is what really made it for me.

Cultural Complexity: Another movie where it'll help a little if you know some history of Korea, and a litle bit of culture.    What's a giseang?
Where do artists and giseang fit into a social hierarchy?
If you're willing to join the dots for yourself you'll be just fine, but this movie doesn't hold your hand - so be warned.

Best Line: These pornographic picture-books are what people are intersted in, not 'art'!
Overall Rating:


English Name: The Way Home
Korean Name:
Chip Ue Ro
The film begins with an underloved child terror, Sang-woo, being dropped off at the ridiculously rural hovel of his deaf-and-mute grandmother.    Sang-woo's single mother dumps him there so she can find work back in the big city where she lives, unfettered by a kid she has no time to look after while hunting for a job.    The city-slicker boy arrives kicking and screaming, along with a sack-load of snack foods to keep him calm, and a gameboy to keep him entertained... until the batteries run out.   

What follows is a simple and satisfying drama about the healing power of love.    Throughout all the taunts, tricks, and temper tantrums, Sang-Woo's grandmother keeps reaching out to the young boy and never once puts him out of her heart.    This unconditional love is something he is unfamiliar with and eventually it begins to soften his hard heart.    She, in turn, is a living embodiment of the spiritual practice of hospitality, always putting the needs of her guest above her own.    The Way Home is a wonderful tutorial in the miracles that can be wrought by unconditional love.

Are you ready to vomit after reading that?    Don't worry, it's not as cutsie and 1950s-perfect as it sounds!    It is really heartwarming and touching though, for anyone who's not a a black-hearted cynic!    Plus, it's just a funny, feel-good movie that'll have you smiling along with it in no time.    Like " Let's Play Dharma " it sure isn't going to be remembered as an important movie, but as a slice of long-lost life in rural Korea, and as something to entertain and amuse you harmlessly for a little while, I highly recommend it.

Cultural Complexity: This is a difficult one to pin down.    Korean friends of mine told me that although I loved the movie, I'd have appreciated it a lot more if I understood Korean culture, yet they were a little vague on what exactly I might have missed.    I think you're fine even if you've never even heard of Korea before this movie.

What really makes the movie sad though is what you find out about it from talking to friends afterwards.    The old grandmother is not a movie star.    She's just some aged old granny from some anonymous isolated hamlet where they made a movie.    She's never acted before or since, she's just a regular old lady - or at least that's how it should have turned out.    The director tried to keep her location and identity a secret, but in the end the media weasled it out, and now she's famous.    Her undisturbed house became a tourist attraction and the media camped out in the mud-brick village where the movie was set, pretty much destroying the old woman's happiness and the village's way of life.    Now watch the moive and tell me you don't find it touching!

Best Line: Kentucky chicken! Kentucky chicken! Kentucky chicken!
Overall Rating:


English Name: Oasis
Korean Name:
O a si sue
Love story, socio-docudrama, I dunno.
After a couple of lighthearted movies, I wanted to go 'arty' again - and this movie had won the Director's prize at the Venice Film Festival, and the Best Young Actor prize also, so it was just the ticket.

So it's a love story, but no danger of Meg Ryan appearing in this one.    It's the tale of an unorthodox love affair that delicately treads the line between social realism and full-blown melodrama.    Sul is an ex-convict of limited intelligence, who once out of prison, pops around to the family of the man he killed to say he's sorry.    By way of apology, he meets and attempts to rape the daughter of the family - a woman crippled by severe cerebal palsy.    Despite this less than auspicious start, romance somehow blossoms between the pair of social outcasts, and needless to say, their love affair is met with more than a little disapproval and hostility by their families, and ultimately the authorities.

It sounds like it's just begging to hit you over the head with its social realism amd its message for our times, right?    And I think it could easily have been like that.    Rapists get short shrift anywhere, and (apparently) in Korea it's not unknown for the disabled to be refused entry to bars and restaurants, which don't want to spoil their customers meals by forcing them to look at criples and retards.    Yet despite this, the social realism is just the backdrop, and what you'll really remember from this movie is the touching love that develops between these two very broken people.    It was about half-way through before I realised that I was actually watching a romance, but there it is - complete with 'Romen And Juliet' balcony scene and everything!

This is a Korean movie, with some uniquely korean touches, but if you are at all into sensitive film-making, and arthouse movies, this is a beautiful piece of storytelling.

Cultural Complexity: I think this could be in any country pretty much - just be aware that disability is a bit taboo in Korea, and age counts between younger and older brothers.
Best Line:
You were the one who suggested it in the first place...
Overall Rating:


English Name: My Sassy Girl
Korean Name:
Yap Ki Jeok In Kue Nyeo    (My Bizzare Honey)
Teen comedy, romance
I never thought anything could beat " Before Sunrise " out of the top-slot in my favourite Love Stories, but this is probably my favourite romance ever!    If you go to see only one light hearted Korean movie, make it this one!    In fact, it's the only Korean movie that I've been to see twice.

The plot is almost nothing.    Boy meets girl, they fall in love.    Shock shock, horror horror!    However, the story's based on an on-line serial written by Kim Ho-sik that detailed his relationship with his off-the-wall college girlfriend.    This was eventually compiled into a best-selling book and eventually a movie.   

The story kicks off with college student Kyun-woo crossing paths with a drunk girl on a late-night subway.    Just before she passes out, the girl looks at Kyun-woo and calls him 'honey'.    The other passengers, assuming him to be the hapless girl's boyfriend, demand that Kyun-woo look after her.    After carrying her on his back for what seems to be miles, Kyun-woo drops the girl off at a yeogwon (cheap motel).    But instead of leaving her and getting on his way, Kyun-woo finds himself intrigued by the nameless girl and vows to do whatever he can to heal her sorrow.

She's having none of that sissy crap though and her dramatic mood swings are outmatched only by her penchant for sociopathic behaviour.    Plus she quickly manages to wrap our wimp hero around her little finger, and finds ways to torment him as their quirky friendship and romance grows.

The movie is a real two-parter. ( a fact that's shoved in your face by big bright annoucnments at the start of each half! )    The first half is gut-grabbingly funny teen comedy.    Lots of drunkenness, vomiting, and unlikely situations - enough to make me think I was going to hate it to start with, but it never quite reaches the "American Pie" level of gross humour.    Pretty much stuff that you'd see in any teen comedy, but it's the romance and the chemistry between the two that sets this apart from any other teen comedy I've seen.    Then the second half is the development of the love story.    You just love the characters so much from the first half though that you can never think of their feelings as melodrama.    The dialogue is wonderfully clever, and sometimes she has him squirming with a pertinent question or outrageous outburst and you look at his constipated face and simultaneously sympathise with envy any guy caught up a girl like that.    Best of all for a love story, there's none of that kissing nonsense!   

Frankly, if you come out of this movie not humming either "My Girl", or Pachelbel's Canon in D (MIDI file, 30k) - well as far as I'm concerned, you've no romantic soul in you at all and you're probably emotionally brain-dead!    Watch it, love it, or jugulae? ;-)

Cultural Complexity: I loved that I knew where Bupyung Station was in relation to Incheon Station and Seoul City Centre, but apart from that? (and maybe the importance of age)    If there's any deep cultural baggage in this movie, I'm blissfully unaware of it!
Best Line:
Bloody hell, but by the end I'd be willing to say that anything the actress Jeon Ju Hyun says is a good line, but most espeically:
Do you know why the sky is blue?   
Isn't it to do with the way sunlight is .. reflected .. and...
   No.    It's to make me happy.
... and of course her trademark phrase...
Y'wanna die?
Overall Rating: 10/10.
But now that I've built the movie up and set your expectations too high, please feel free to go out and hate the film before you even see it, and then be disappointed with it afterwards, I know it's what I'd do. :-)


English Name: Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance
Korean Name: Bok sun eun Naui Geot
Genre: Psychodrama
Review: This is the story of two men.    A young man named Ryu, a deaf-mute since birth who works himself to death in a dead-end factory job vainly trying to earn enough money to pay his dying sister's medical costs.    I'm sure that one day in your life you had one of those days where nothing goes well, even if you try very hard, it just doesn't work and everything you have planned gets fucked up beyond all recognition?    Well, for Ryu, his whole life is like one of those snafu'ed days - sad, dark, coldly violent, depressive and fascinating.

After getting fired from his job, not having the money to pay for his sister's potentially lifesaving operation and losing a kidney to black-market organ dealers, he's pretty desperate.    The only thing he can think to do is kidnap and ransom the daughter of his previous employer.

That's Dong-Jin, a self-made businessman, who's worked pretty hard to get where he is, and is now trying to cope with financial troubles of his own and the loss of his wife, as he tries to raise his young daughter alone.    Neither of these characters are lovable to begin with, but both are the anti-heroes of the piece.

What follows is a technically superb piece of filmmaking that'll have cinematographers smiling and the rest of us feeling shock and awe.    There are also a lot of surprises; I mean bad surprises during the movie. A lot of things that you never expect to happen will occur and even if you saw them coming, it always happens in the worst way imaginable.

One of the things that makes this movie really work with your feelings is that the characters are impressively natural and believable.    Not necessarily attaching because sometimes you are really questioning the actions of the characters but you cant just not sympathize with them, because at heart you know that they just trying their best.    All this really makes it hard on the viewer because there's no evil side in the movie but two characters that have their own very good reason to commit the terrible acts they do.    Because of how the story evolves this movie is not for the sensitive heart.    If you feel a bit depressed before watching this movie, I suggest you skip it or wait for another time because your morale will go out of the window for sure.    The movie starts with a very sad tone and it gets worse with the progression of the story until the very end credits, when you just feel like shit.

That's not a fault - that was intention, but just be warned.    This has got to be the Feel Bad Movie Of The Year, and my favourite Korean Movie so far.

Cultural Complexity: I don't think that there's anything specifically Korean in this movie, apart from the idea that Communism isn't 100% popular in South Korea. ;)
Best Line: ( ...bearing in mind that one of the two central characters is a deaf-mute... )
Down With The Conglomerates!
Overall Rating: 10/10 - so long as you promise to go see a Feel Good movie like
My Sassy Girl afterwards.



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