Navigating through the audio-visual waves of K-culture can be bloody-hard work. Once you’ve stuck it out through the revenge binge (list coming soon) there is still a good plough through commercial comedies and dramas for as far as the eye can see. It really is backbreaking work; but having survived such a journey (and now examining the extent of my trolling skills), I present you with a small sample of films that leave blood where it belongs, and only tamper with its pulse, direction, and/or flow.
There are a lot of quality romances to be found within Korea’s exciting movie culture. The country’s T.V. dramas (aka “K-drama”—K-film’s precocious little sister), for example, are hot exports and a major slice of that export pie when it comes to K-culture and its consumption overseas. What I’ve selected here (from the depths of my K-film memory bank) are films that rushed to my lips when my psychoanalyst agreed to help me with this article (or rather turned a blind eye when he caught me fumbling with his free-association flashcards). Anyway, there are some of the expected and popular films here, but there are also some stragglers and gypsies shadowing my choices. Enjoy the list, watch them if you can, and be prepared to love in ways you’ve dreamed of, feared, dreaded, hidden, forgotten, that disgust you, hoped for, or perhaps still hold on to:
1. “Sunny” – 2011 – Dir. Kang Hyoung-chul
“Sunny”, like so many of the films here, really surprized me. This soulful drama tells of seven women being reunited through tragedy as they recall their childhood trials and friendships. When themes of love are paired with issues of time the outcome is seemingly predisposed to tragedy. I would say this pairing is the thread that can be sutured through many of the films on my list here, exposing my slightly cynical, but not at all not romantic, sense of criticism. So the first film on this list is “Sunny” then: a wholesome, heartfelt, and surprisingly very universal piece of storytelling.
2. “Architecture 101” – 2012 – Dir. Lee Yong-ju
This one had some wonderful emotive themes running through it and again past, present, and future are riddles for love to figure out or forget. Back in college, successful architect Seung-min was in love with a girl in his class, but nothing was ever said about it. Now, as young adults, they serendipitously collide and are soon designing and building a beautiful house together by the sea. Dreamy stuff.
Similar to “Sunny”, this film contains elements of a kind of ‘remembered love’; by this I mean that the difference between “Sunny” and “Architecture 101” can be understood by looking at the time difference between the characters’ past and present. In “Sunny” that gap is great (schoolgirls ~ adults), here though it’s quite short (college ~ young professional). In both movies strong emotions have been fished from the past and the question we ask is whether or not they will survive (or suffocate) in this new space-time To prevent myself from taking this any further for now, let me just say that “Architecture 101” is a mature and elegant retrospective of love—one with only but a streak of romantic cynicism to consider.
3. “Late Blossom” – 2011 – Dir. Choo Chang-min
Choo Chang-min’s “Late Blossom” is an absolute gem of feature. The film follows two elder couples as they both demonstrate the power of love to still burn deep (perhaps deeper) and true the older we get. In the film, the characters’ love are shown to have been both carried gracefully into those later years, and also shows that even if you didn’t bring love into your old age, there is always a winter evenings chance of real magic.
4. “The Servant” – 2010 – Dir. Kim Dae-woo
Kim Dae-woo’s contemporary re-telling of the popular Korean pansori of “Chunhyangga” is a sexually charged and adventurous affair. In addition to containing (in at least this listmaker’s opinion) one of the steamiest/scandalous sex scenes around, the “The Servant” goes deep and delivers a strong commentary on love and perseverance—the very same star-crossed relationship I mentioned earlier. The dramatic thrills start from the first scene, and from there it’s a wickedly pleasing spiral to the film’s thrilling and heart-warming climax. It’s one of my favourites but I will still recommend watching Im Kwon-taek’s 2000 version “Chunhyang”, it is considered to be more authentic and more in tune with the original pansori and its means – Im’s adaptation here is nothing short of masterful.
5. “Bad Guy” – 2002 – Dir. Kim Ki-duk
This was actually the first film by Kim Ki-duk that I saw, perhaps that’s why this twisted and sadistic love story never left me. If you are looking for a great date movie—move on, this is not the film for you. In it, a young woman in debt is forced to working the red light district in Seoul. She becomes consumed by her captor and gets beaten down by her, understandably, horrible situation. It’s a dramatic journey that turns love on its head and asks it to look at itself very closely in the mirror.
6. “A Muse” – A Muse (aka “Eungyo”) – Dir. Jung Ji-woo
“A Muse” (aka “Eungyo”) managed to do something very tricky. The film presents an intoxicatingly sympathetic view on what is a very inappropriate relationship between a renowned old poet and his 17-year old follower. There is an member in this complicated love triangle, and with it director Jung Ji-won creates an erotic hypotenuse between the two furthest points. Hypnotic and uncomfortably pleasurable, go watch!
7. “A Frozen Flower” – 2008 – Dir. Yoo Ha
I am slowly coming to realise that I can be quite the sucker for Korean period pieces. Set in Goryeo era, “A Frozen Flower” is a royal drama the showcases love within the upper echelons of the current King’s court. There are all sorts of scandalous and corrupting little secrets being played out here, and the film also tackles different sexualities (which is not very common for Korean cinema). If you enjoy Korean period dramas this one is a no-brainer.
8. “Hello Ghost” – 2010—Dir. Kim Toung-tak
Ahh, Kim Toung-tak, we meet again. This film should have come with a warning of some sort. I got halfway into “Hello Ghost” before realising that if I blink I might just start sobbing. This was largely due to personal reasons but this “Happy Comedy 2010” (as it says on the poster) may come disguised as friendly light-heart film, but what it doesn’t say is just how potent its message and themes are. It was the perfect example of the old bait-and-switch, right out of the old persuasion handbook. I was a complete sucker for it and I still hold it in my memory banks with both love and fear in equal measure.
– C.J. Wheeler (@KoreaOnTheCouch)