Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ten Most Influential Korean Movies

Dear Korean,

What are the ten most influential Korean movies?

Sam J.

This highly worthy question has been languishing for years in the Korean's inbox for one simple reason: the Korean is not a big movie person. Sure, he likes movies, and Korean movies. But he cannot write about Korean movies in a way that he could write about, say, Korean pop music.

When in doubt, call in the experts. Pierce Conran, with his blog Modern Korean Cinema, has been providing an excellent resource for devotees of Korean movies abroad, with movie reviews, box office figures and discussions about contemporary issues in Korean movies. And he graciously agreed to enlighten the readers with his top 10 list.

So without further ado, here is Mr. Conran's top 10 most influential Korean movies, after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

I’m often asked what my top 10 favorite Korean films are but when The Korean asked me to write on the top 10 most influential Korean films, it immediately piqued my interest. Many of us love Korean cinema, but are the films that paved the way for the modern industry?

The list that follows is not a "best of" list, though some of my favorites are sprinkled throughout. A few of the films are older and may not be very well known while others are modern classics, but all have had a seismic impact on the evolution of Korean film. I’ve slanted a little in favor of more modern films, preferring not to offer a list of films you will be very difficult to find.
Here are ten films that I think have had a major role in shaping today’s Korean film industry:

The Housemaid [하녀] (1960)

Kim Ki-young’s 1960 masterpiece is slowly but rightfully taking its place among the pantheon of great international classics. Filmmakers like Park Chan-wook have admitted to being influenced by his ferociously original and uncompromising body of work. Reveling in the macabre and anchored by a sophisticated and progressive use of mise-en-scene, The Housemaid turned a lot of heads upon its release 53 years ago and continues to do so today. It’s many fans include Martin Scorsese, who had a hand in re-mastering the film in 2007.

Declaration of Idiot [바보선언] (1983)
For the sheer force of its social critique during the height of Korea’s military regime under Chun Doo-hwan, Lee Jang-ho’s Declaration of Idiot has to make it onto this list. Gutsy, audacious and damning, it’s remarkable that the film saw the light of day at all. Without it, it’s hard to imagine any of the subsequent social films of Korean New Wave that would follow, such as Park Kwang-su’s Chilsu and Mansu [칠수와 만수] (1988) and A Single Spark [아름다운 청년 전태일] (1995) or Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal [꽃잎] (1996), not to mention the prevalent thread of social consciousness seen in today’s Korean films.

Declaration of Idiot was also revolutionary for its formal experimentation in a time when the industry had lost its bite, as formerly great filmmakers were relegated to producing cheap quota ‘quickies’.

The Road to the Racetrack [경마장 가는 길] (1991) / Resurrection of the Little Match Girl [성냥팔이 소녀의 재림] (2002)

A filmmaker that is less well known to today’s Korean film fans but should be a priority, Jang Sun-woo was a maverick in the late 1980s and 90s who reinvented himself which each film that he made. Though all his films have been influential, I’ll single out two in particular.

Road to the Racetrack is essentially the blueprint that led to the work of Hong Sangsoo and then all of his subsequent imitators. Featuring members of the upper crust grappling with existential malaise and selfishly pursuing their individual desires in the most prosaic banal fashion, Jang’s off-the-cuff and intimate style is style de rigueur in indie Korean cinema.

Jang’s final work, Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, is easily his most derided. I’m also not terribly fond of it, so why include it here? Jang’s film was a cataclysmic failure that has made every producer since think twice about given an auteur free reign on a project. Jang has never been able to make a film since and commercial cinema was also never the same again.

Sopyonje [서편제] (1993)

You could probably add a number of Im Kwon-taek’s 101 films to this list but far away the most well-remembered of his films is his 1993 masterpiece Sopyonje, about a family of traveling traditional Pansori performers on the road. A lyrical drama with an arthouse aesthetic, it nevertheless became the first Korean feature to cross one million admissions in Seoul and is considered by some to be Korea’s greatest work committed to the medium.

Whispering Corridors [여고괴담] (1998)

This may not be the greatest K-Horror out there. Hell, it’s not even the best in the Whispering Corridors series: that honor would have to go the excellent Memento Mori [여고괴담 두번째 이야기]. But Whispering Corridors has spawned dozens of imitators. To this day, every summer we are subjected to the year’s crop of increasingly lackluster horror offerings, most of which feature long dark-haired ghostly teenage girls that skulk around dark corridors and the hidden recesses of playgrounds, music practice rooms and the like. 

These may not be to everyone’s taste but over the past 15 years they have figured prominently in the Korean films that has found their way overseas. They somewhat misrepresent all that Korean film is capable of but one can’t deny their hand in raising the visibility of Korean cinema overseas. That said, Whispering Corridors is actually one of the better offerings of the genre, as it cleverly highlights some of the country’s societal ills, such as its excessive approach to education.

Shiri [쉬리] (1999)
Korea’s first major blockbuster, Shiri combined a sleek script with explosive action, high drama and fraught North-South tensions to deliver the country’s first across-the-board hit. Featuring a lot of future stars of the industry, such as Choi Min-sik, Kim Yun-jin and Song Kang-ho and the already established Han Suk-kyu, Shiri proved to Korean producers that the nation’s filmmakers were ready to play in the big league. Subsequently, budgets suddenly got bigger and more tent poles began to appear on summer schedules. Shiri may not be everyone’s favorite Korean film, it certainly feels very dated to me, but without it the industry may never have grown bold enough for us to know about it.

My Sassy Girl [엽기적인 그녀] (2001)
One of the most important Korean film genres is the romantic comedy. Even if those aren’t your cup of tea, you may be surprised by how much you will like some of the country’s better rom-com examples. Though not the first, the riotous, fresh and brilliant My Sassy Girl, which teamed the dopey Cha Tae-hyun with the beautiful but very tomboyish Jeon Ji-hyeon, made the genre a sensation in Korea. Though sentimental at times, the film was earnest and endearing. It became a huge hit when it was released in Korea (almost five million viewers went to see it) and throughout Asia, launched its young actors into stardom and has been copied ever since, with varying level of success. Just don’t watch the American remake…
Memories of Murder [살인의 추억] (2003)
2003 was a big year for Korean cinema, as a number of works by the likes of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Kim Ki-duk (A Tale of Two Sisters [장화/홍련]), Im Sang-soo (A Good Lawyer’s Wife [바람난 가족]) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) demonstrated the kind of quality commercial film making that Korean movie industry was capable of. These were the works that set off the ‘Well-Made Film’ trend in Korean cinema.

Memories of Murder happens to be my favorite Korean film. In addition to being a masterpiece and ‘Well-Made film’, it also informed all the dark thrillers that would follow it. Every year it seems like dozens of foreboding works featuring rape/kidnap/murder/etc. are unleashed on the market in Korea--yet few come close to the effortless and unnerving skill demonstrated by Bong with Memories. Recent examples include the Confession of Murder [내가 살인범이다] (which references it heavily) and the current hit Montage [몽타주] (which features actor Kim Sang-gyun in a similar serious and thwarted detective mode.)

Oldboy (2003)

Easily the most famous Korean film abroad, it would be impossible to make such a list without mention Park Chan-wook’s wildly successful cult hit Oldboy. Revenge films are synonymous with Korea and this one certainly prompted a lot of filmmakers to follow suit. Park’s detailed mise-en-scene, in particular his obsession with patterns, has seeped into all corners of Korean cinema, as in subsequent years production values rose across the board.

Lee Chang-dong (All Films)

Whenever I interview a Korean filmmaker, my sign-off question is always the same: “What are your favorite Korean films?” Aside from a few outliers, almost everyone answers with Lee Chang-dong's movies. It’s hard to overstate how towering a figure he is in the industry. His debut Green Fish [초록 물고기] (1997) put him on the map, but it was his follow-up Peppermint Candy [박하사탕] (1999) that cemented him as truly gifted filmmaker. Each of his subsequent films--Oasis [오아시스] (2002), Secret Sunshine [밀양] (2007), and Poetry [시] (2010)--have met with the same response, unequivocal adulation. Throw in the fact that he was the Minister of Culture and Tourism for a few years and that he has launched the careers of a number of other filmmakers, such as Park Jeong-beom (The Journals of Musan [무산일기]) and it’s easy to see why members of the local industry revere him so much.

Pierce Conran is the editor of
Modern Korean Cinema.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Dear Korean,

    Thanks so much for posting this list and to Pierce for putting it together. Some of my absolute favourites are on here and there are also a few that I definitely must check out.

  2. Awesome, more movies to go watch. I think Park Chan-wook has better movies than Old-Boy. "Thirst" is the ultimate vampire movie, while "Lady Vengeance" is my favorite revenge movie of his.

  3. Correction -- A Tale of Two Sisters was directed by Kim Ji Woon, not Kim Ki Duk.

    1. I love Lee Chang Dong's films as well. Although he do not have a long list of work, his has an impressive small list of great films. Quality over quantity!

      Yes, agree: A Tale of Two Sisters was directed by Kim Ji Woon, not Kim Ki Duk. Sisters is just not very Kim Ki Duk-ish.

  4. Is it strange that 오발탄 (The Aimless Bullet) didn't make the list? Maybe that's because it's more like a respected (as opposed to influential or popular) movie: sort of like how nearly any movie by Terence Malick may be plenty respected, but is usually neither influential nor popular? I don't know the answer; I'm asking someone else who does.

    I do notice that 오발탄 is supposedly cited as a great Korean movie by some board of Korean film scholars, but nearly no actual Korean person with whom I have spoken has ever heard of it. Something about that seems strange to me.

    1. I think Obaltan is a fantastic movie, but its direct influence on modern Korean cinema, both in filmmaking and reception isn't obviously visible, especially considering that the film's neo-realist style has fallen out of common use following the country's economic prosperity.

  5. The Korean version of My Sassy Girl is one of my most despised films of all time. The girl in that movie is a complete cunt who we never have any reason to want to see the main character end up with. In reality, there's no reason he shouldn't have said "Fuck you. You have no right to treat me this way" and walked away early on in the film. And the bullshit reason for why she acts the way she does doesn't come close to justifying her behavior. Seriously, it's one of those movies I get mad just thinking about.

    I've only seen the trailer for the American remake and it seems as if the girl is only clumsy/weird instead of an abusive monster. While generic, it looks nowhere near as bad.

  6. Bob - could not agree more about My Sassy Girl.
    Except for the "c" word - that's kind of nasty, don't use words like that. Everything else - yes, the whole movie is a failure. I don't even know why is it so popular.
    But let me assure you - the American remake is not much better.

    1. Like I said, solely judging by the trailers, she looks like your typical manic pixie dream girl in the American remake. Now we've seen that in a billion movies so it seems like it's just a forgettable, generic romcom. However, I can't imagine it being worse than the Korean version. The original is such an ugly, mean spirited film. We've seen the bitchy girlfriend/weak submissive boyfriend dynamic before (School of Rock, The Hangover, etc), but in those cases, we're supposed to hate the girlfriend and want to see the guy stand up for himself which he usually does in the end. That's why the film fails. It wants us to like its characters.

    2. I am against exploiting an "abuse" issue in movies. The girl is a bully and is also abusive, you just want to slap her. Which is also a form of abuse. If a director wants to depict "abuse" it has to be done for a specific artistic purpose, and this movie just does not cut it.

  7. Comments on My Sassy Girl really interest me.

    It looks like the actress Jeon did a really good job at conveying the sassy girl character in the movie; thus, satisfying one of criteria for a good movie.

    By the way, TK
    I absolutely love the linked site, MKC. Thanks.

    1. She's a fine actress, but the writing is what lets her down. Calling her sassy is like calling Travis Bickle quirky.

    2. The Korean title more directly translates to "Bizarre She", so the English "sassy" title never really caught the right sentiment.

      Regardless of whether or not the film is good, its place on this list is justified by its impact on the romantic comedy genre in Korean cinema.

  8. My favorite thing, and the reason I became interested in Korean culture was film. I think it's a little strange that the author would get Kim Ji Woon and Kim Ki Duk mixed up, certainly he knows better. I'm sure this list is accurate I wouldn't presume to argue with the author of Modern Korean Cinema about influence. However, if you aren't a cinephile this list might not be a good jumping off point for exploring Korean film. I would also hate for anyone to make My Sassy Girl their first Korean romcom. Although it is a good example of how bad movies can become box office hits.

  9. I'm late to this party as usual, and slightly off-topic as well, but the 1926 film 아리랑 was hugely important ( The most commonly heard version of the song 아리랑 was popularized by this film, and it was important as well for the resistance movement. Considering the content, it's amazing that it was allowed to be shown.


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