Shiri (1999)

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

Shiri (Swiri) by director Je-kyu Kang is one of the most recognizable South Korean movies from past decade. It was one of the first big budgeted blockbusters produced in South Korea in late 90's and immediate hit in box office, domestic and abroad. Borrowing production values from Hollywood and action from popular Hong Kong movies, it's a vigilant mix of both. A movie that dethroned Cameron's mighty Titanic from it's position of most viewed movie in Korea.

South Korean Intelligence agency comes into possession of information that North's spy's, sleeper agents, are trying to acquire recently discovered liquid explosive CTX. As CTX is undetectable by any known methods, South is afraid that it will be used in terror acts by North Korea to destabilize situation in region.

As two of top agents Jong Won Yu (Suk-kyu Han) and Jang-gil Lee (Kang-ho Song) are investigating this matter, it appears that the enemy is always one step ahead, and suspicions arouse among them of possible mole inside the agency.

Star filled superspy thriller in best traditions of it's time, spectacular firefights using tremendous weapon arsenal, spy intrigues, chases and SWAT teams. All of it on the screen, most of the time.

Director Je-kyu Kang like in his next, famous war movie Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War likes to hint at closeness of both Korean nations, even tho they are enemies, in short breaks between violent fighting, he adds a dramatic layer to it, showing that divide is artificial, and on human level, relationships are possible between the two. Moreover, the movie name itself, Shiri, strongly confirms directors opinions, in a monologue by one of the characters in the movie, it explains that Swiri is a fish, that lives in rivers that flow across the Korea, and the fish doesn't know of South or North, it just swims in a water.

If you judge the movies by cast, finest to this day actors Kang-ho Song and Min-sik Choi, beautiful Yunjin Kim, best known in west for her role in popular TV show Lost, will guarantee that you won't be dissapointed.

Splendid spy action thriller, that won't let you get bored. Good dose of action and drama. Recommended.

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The Client (2011)

Genre: Crime, Mystery, Thriller

The Client (Eui-roi-in) is South Korean variation on so called courtroom thriller genre directed by director Young-Sung Sohn.

Han Cheol-min (Hyuk Jang) returns home from a car ride on his wedding anniversary, holding bouquet of flowers for his wife he proceeds to apartment building, which is surrounded by crowd of curious bystanders. After he gets past them, stepping into apartment he meets several policeman who are investigating crime scene. A crime scene in his home. There's blood everywhere in bedroom, and his wife is missing. Immediately Han Cheol-min is arrested for murder of his wife.

Circumstances of crime are puzzling, and with inconclusive evidence, a legal battle in halls of justice begins between prosecutor Ahn Min-Ho (Hee-soon Park) and defense lawyer Kang Seong-Hee (Jung-woo Ha), each convinced of their own truth about Han Cheol-min. What will trial uncover?

While this movie can be labeled as courtroom thriller (and it's pitched as first one for South Korea, but I am not so sure about it, and with no way to verify, we'll leave it at that) as it involves everything that such films need, a crime, a defendant, and whole might of justice system, it is not strictly spent inside courtroom. The dose of mystery surrounding the crime, and investigations put in place by involved parties are in focus, trial is just what ties it together.

Good performance by actors, fine cinematography and intriguing crime mystery for a plot. A thriller in best traditions of Korean cinema. While fans of courtroom films won't be overly surprised by events in this film, it's a solid example of such genre. A proper thriller flick, worth checking out.

DVD from YesAsia

Cruel Winter Blues (2006)

Genre: Crime, Drama

Director Jeong-beom Lee took a huge bite out of Korean box office with his high octane action thriller The Man From Nowhere, but what about his earlier works? As it turns out he's made only one feature film prior to this, and his debut movie is called Cruel Winter Blues (Yeolhyeol-nama). Also a movie revolving around gangsters, but more tame and personal than his new blockbuster.

Seasoned, but still small time, gangster Jae-Mun (Kyung-gu Sol) takes gang's newcomer Chi-Guk (Han-seon Jo) under his authority and leaves for a small provincial town. There, soon set to arrive, attending his hometown's sporting event is influential businessman Dae-Sik (Je-mun Yun) who few years ago murdered Jae-Mun's friend. Unable to shake the guilt of his friends death, Jae-Mun in his own way is finally ready to settle this old matter once and for all.

While waiting, he befriends mother (played by Mun-hee Na) of Dae-Sik who is owner and sole worker of a small dining place. As she starts treating him like her own son, Jae-Mun who is abusive and disrespectful to his underling, captured by her influence slowly starts to enjoy quiet and leisure life that this, imperfect in it's own way, dusty and crumbling town provides. His will to vengeance slowly starts to fade away. Change is happening somewhere deep inside of him.

If you are expecting a gangster movie involving lot's of gunfire, fights, or other violent means of mutual destruction, this film is not for you. As opposite to The Man From Nowhere, which had plenty of aforementioned stuff,  this is much slower paced, personal drama. But still it's a gangster drama, obviously a popular sub-genre to explore in Korean movie circles, so there will be blood.

First class performances by all of main cast, great direction and cinematography. A great take on genre by Jeong-beom Lee. Engaging, heavy and personal story. Definitely worth a watch.

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A Bittersweet Life (2005)

 Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

One late autumn night, the disciple awoke crying. So the master asked the disciple, "Did you have a nightmare?" "No." "Did you have a sad dream?" "No," said the disciple. "I had a sweet dream." "Then why are you crying so sadly?" The disciple wiped his tears away and quietly answered, "Because the dream I had can't come true."

Before I write anything more about A Bittersweet Life (Dalkomhan insaeng) I have to say that it is one of my most favorite movie ever, not just from South Korean, but cinema in general. A masterpiece by Jee-woon Kim that made me fall in love with his work, and opened my eyes to many amazing films his countryman produce. It swept away awards from many Asian film festivals and got positive critical response from western audiences, but still remains unknown to most viewers that are unfamiliar with Asian cinema.

Sun-woo (Byung-hun Lee) is right hand Mr. Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim), who is a boss of major crime syndicate. For years he has served loyally and without a fault to his employer, and now he has high level hotel complex under his strict management.

During one meeting, Mr. Kang, reveals to him that he has a mistress, a young girl named Hee-soo (Min-a Shin), and while he goes on a trip, he asks for a favor from Sun-woo, to keep an eye on a girl, and see if she is cheating on him. A seemingly easy task that goes sour, when Sun-woo discovers that she is in fact unfaithful to Mr. Kang. Unsure what to do, as his loyalty starts to crumble, Sun-woo decides to keep his findings secret...

Movie so full of style and coolness factor, carried by it's star, brilliant and famous Korean actor Byung-hun Lee, yet it has so much substance beneath it all to think about when credits roll. Suspenseful crime thriller, with noirish undertones, featuring that type of lone protagonist, found in many great movies like Le Samurai with Alain Delon.

Director Jee-woon Kim doesn't just stop there, fantastic cinematography, amazing camera work, with many new takes on action scenes, that all feature brilliant choreographing. A memorable scenes, characters, and bit of directors trademark brutal violence to make it proper gangster movie. And to seal the deal, incredible soundtrack, that I find myself listening to quite often.

A gem of Korean cinema. Must see.

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Blu-ray (Directors Cut) from YesAsia

Once Upon a Time In High School (2004)

Genre: Drama

Just like with his piece A Dirty Carnival where he reminisces his troubled youth, poetic director Ha Yoo, takes viewers into another trip down memory lanes with his Once Upon a Time In High School (Maljukgeori janhoksa), as the obvious title suggest, this time revisiting strict, violent Korean high school environment of 1970's in nostalgia filled school drama.

Hyeon-su (Sang-woo Kwone) transfers to Jungmoon school, notorious for it's draconian teaching methods an violence among students. There he befriends Woo-shik (Jeong-jin Lee), a seasoned authority of this school. What helps to bond their friendship is shared passion for Bruce Lee's personality and his films.

One day Hyeon-su while on a bus ride, spots a cute girl, and instantly falls in love with her, and unfortunately for him, so does Woo-shik. Girls name is Eun-ju (Ga-in Han) and she is his senior from girls only school nearby. A one sided battle for her heart ensues among the friends.

As his friend Woo-shik, gets in trouble with schools student patrol captain, after being set up he eventually is expelled from school, and with no one to hold him accountable, Jong-hoon, said student captain, begins his reign of bullying. Hyeon-su no longer being able to bear this, with his cup of anger full, he is forced to face his foes and act, as his hero Bruce Lee would.

What many critics agree is that under the mask of this, seemingly simple high school drama, hides a more serious examination of Korean educational approach that was widely spread in these years, when violence was an acceptable method of handling the students.

Friendship, love affairs, bullying, likable (and not that likable) characters, everything you might expect from entertaining movie about high school.

Successfully made movie that won't disappoint or bore the viewers. Recommended.

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Mother (2009)

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

From star director of The Host and Memories of Murder, Joon-ho Bong, comes another masterpiece of Korean drama - Mother (Madeo). Multiple award winner, for best direction, best lead performance by veteran Korean actress Hye-ja Kim, and even official South Korean submission for Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards.

A mother (Hye-ja Kim) and her son (Bin Won) live in small Korean city. She's widow with no support left with her mentally challenged son who has severe aggression problems. Struggling to get by, she is illegally performing acupuncture procedures on local woman. One day a body of murdered local school girl is found on rooftop in the middle of town.

Local police in hurry, based on circumstantial evidence arrest her son, soon confession is forced out of him, and he is convicted of murder and faces to spend rest of his life in mental hospital. Mother however knows that her son couldn't perform such cruel act, and sets to find the real culprit on her own, causing quite a commotion in this ,as it appears, not so calm city. She is set to prove her son's innocence by any means necessary. 

As with Memories of Murder Joon-ho Bong takes another look into mentality of small towns. He skillfully plays with such forces as maternal love, commitment to the cause of family. Filled with mystery and tension this movie doesn't let it's grip till the moment credits roll.

If you have seen excellent crime thriller The Man from Nowhere you might (or might not) recognize young Korean superstar Bin Won, whose role there of hardened special forces agent is complete antithesis of his portrayal of Mother's son in this movie.

Currently director Joon-ho Bong is working on his Hollywood debut, science fiction thriller Snow Piercer, set to be released in October, 2013.

Powerful performance by lead actress, beautiful cinematography, exceptional directing, twists here and there, and long lasting emotional residue. What more is needed for great drama? Must see.

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Blu-ray | DVD (UK) from YesAsia

Attack the Gas Station (1999)

Genre: Comedy

Attack the Gas Station (Juyuso seubgyuksageun) is crime comedy from South Korea directed by Sang-Jin Kim. It is considered by many as one of the best comedies that have come out of Korea, not all will agree with this sentiment, yet undoubtedly this film has it's own charm.

For quite anarchistic youths are enjoying their evening meal, when suddenly an idea pops into their heads: "Lets rob a gas station!". So they just go and do that. However, stations manager, had been robbed before (coincidentally by the same group!) has taken precaution and stashed all the money away. When youngsters discover that cash register is almost empty, they decide to take over the station, disguise as workers, and keep it open, earning money the hard way. Of course to do so, they have to take stations workers as hostage.

When I watched this movie for the first time, at the beginning I was reluctant to keep on going, but thankfully I kept on watching and grew to love the setting and characters, and by the end I was rooting for characters like they were my friends.

A great dark humor comedy, with, I'd say, original plot. Strongest part of the movie, definitely are the characters of the bad guys. They are perfectly cast and each bring their own different elements to the table. Charismatic, energetic, always moving forward and most important funny all the way.

There is a sequel simply called Attack the Gas Station 2, directed by the same director, but I haven't seen it myself, so you might want to find it yourself if this one will be to your liking.

It's a long night at the gas station, for robbers, workers and the clients. Adventure worth seeing.

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Save The Green Planet (2003)

Genre: Action, Comedy, Drama, Sci-fi

Save The Green Planet (Jigureul jikyeora!) is a debut, and so far only feature movie by director and screenwriter Joon-Hwan Jang. It was nominated and won many awards across the globe, recognizing directors talent.

Lee Byeong-gu (Ha-kyun Shin) is ordinary white collar worker, but he has a secret, or rather he knows THE secret, the big conspiracy. Aliens are living among the humans and are to blame for all problems occurring in society and in his personal life. And what he knows for sure is that soon aliens are gonna make their final attack and destroy the earth. For Lee Byeong-gu it's understandable that he is the only one who can prevent it, to do so he has to get into contact with their leader, alien Prince. With help of his not so normal girlfriend, he kidnaps CEO of company he works for, whom he believes is high ranked alien disguised as human. He tortures him, trying to expose his alien nature and to force him to make a contact with Prince.

To call it really bizarre, is a light way of describing this work. Containing seemingly unbelievable mix of genres, such as comedy, drama, action, science fiction and even horror, or torture flick, this film makes all of it work together flawlessly in this one fine piece of cinema.

A movie that you probably haven't seen anything alike before. Highly recommended if you are in search of something... weird?

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DVD from YesAsia

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)

Genre: Action, Drama, War

In the end of 2003 Silmido, a movie about South and North relationships, shook the South Korean box office, but not giving it even a few month of rest, another bomb was dropped upon South Korean viewers in early 2004, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo), similarly themed film, directed by Je-kyu Kang of his Shiri fame, that beat all the prior set records. One third of South Korea population attended cinema to watch this film according to number of admissions.

It's 1950, two brothers, Jin-seok Lee (Bin Won) and eldest Jin-tae Lee (Dong-gun Jang) are spending ordinary time in streets of Seoul, living together with their mother and fiance of Jin-tae - Young-shin Kim (Eun-ju Lee). Peaceful life ends when North invades, and family is forced to leave their homes. Due to some unlucky circumstances both brothers found themselves on a train that's heading towards the battlefield. Cruel realities of war now become part of them.

Revisiting events set almost exactly 50 years in past, director managed to grab attention of Korean public with this epic war drama. Often called Korean Saving Private Ryan, and not without a reason, they both share that gruesome depiction of war, cruelty served by both sides and magnitude in which the scale of the war is portrayed, be it special effects or actor performances. Even the visual styles of the movie are really similar.
But most importantly they share similar, personal stories of the people involved. Comparable even in the way it is presented in the movie, starting with nowadays, showing survivors who share their memories and tell their stories, followed by dive in the past, where these memories are being replayed.

Films original Korean titles contains the names of flags of both neighboring countries, as a symbolic gesture towards their once shared unity.

Its should be mentioned that this movie is one of the final works of beautiful and talented actress Eun-ju Lee, who sadly committed suicide year after this film was released.

Overall, a powerful and emotionally lasting war drama. Highly recommended.

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Secret Sunshine (2007)

Genre: Drama

Secret Sunshine (Milyang) is yet another masterpiece from director Chang-dong Lee, who had served as South Korea's Minister of Culture and Tourism, and before had brought us such amazing drama as Oasis. This movie landed it's main star Do-yeon Jeon Best Actress Award a Cannes Film Festival in 2007, also it was South Korea's submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008.

Grieving widow Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon) with her son June moves to the hometown of her late husband in hopes of starting their life's anew with a clean sheet. In this small town, she opens up a Piano school and tries her best to fit in with others, but local residents are quite reluctant to her attempts. Local car mechanic Jong Chan (Kang-ho Song) that she first met on her way to the town when her car broke down, shows interest in her and helps to settle in. As the time goes on, and everything seems quietly to take turn for the best, another event that shakes her life occurs. Her son is kidnapped.

As Chang-dong Lee has previously shown, he masterfully plays with human emotions, in this work he portrays stricken and worn by grief woman, who seeks means and answers to deal with the tragedy that pursues and devastates her.

This movie strongly touches and explores impact of religion and church on people in their most vulnerable states, how and if faith can heal and provide shelter for the ones that suffer. Amazing performance by Do-yeon Jeon as she excels in providing insight into most dismal corners of the mind.

A must see, extraordinary drama.

Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon.
Criterion Collection Blu-ray | DVD from YesAsia.

Samaria (2004)

Genre: Drama

Samaria (or known as Samaritan Girl) is another outstanding work from director Ki-duk Kim. Filmed year after he gained international acclaim with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring and in the same year as his other masterpiece 3-Iron. This movie notably earned him Silver Bear award for Best Director in  Berlin International Film Festival 2004.

Two teenage girls dream about trip to Europe, and as the source of the money they engage in prostitution. Jae-yeong (Yeo-reum Han) is the one who sleeps with clients and Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) leads a role of improvised manager, a pimp, setting up "meetings", managing money and covering her friend while on job. One day she fails her duty and Jae-yeong finds herself amid police raid and in attempt to escape she hurts herself badly and soon after she dies in hospital. This turn of events leads Yeo-jin into guilt driven journey to pay back the money to past clients and sleeping with them in some kind of twisted redemption for her part in death of her friend. Her father, who is police detective, eventually learns about her doings and while unable to confront her, he instead takes his anger onto man with whom she slept.

Samaria is split into three chapters, Vasumitra, Samaria and Sonata, each trying to focus on different thematic aspects. Ki-duk Kim wanted to shed some light onto topic about prostitution of minors that is a big problem in Korea, but more important, being accomplished showing human nature in his works, to provide a closer look into relationships of people involved in such affairs. And he does it masterfully. A portray of tragedy that touches everyone around, it's full of believable sorrow and grief.

Another Korean drama where state of happiness is nowhere to be found, don't come looking for it here.

Interesting fact about the movie, similar to 3-Iron, is that it was filmed in about 11 days with tiny budget, a sign how skilled and crafty Ki-duk Kim and actors he worked with are, to be able to produces such quality film in such short time, showing that the budget and time don't play big roles in creative processes handled by someone talented and willing to create.

If Silver Bear is not convincing enough to watch it, I don't know what is. Highly recommended.

DVD from Amazon.

Sex is Zero (2002)

Genre: Comedy, Romance

And now for something completely different, or perhaps just a tiny bit lighter in the mood. Sex is Zero (Saekjeuk shigong). One of the highest grossing Korean comedies ever by director Je-gyun Yun.

Story follows 28 year old college student Eun-shik Jang (Chang Jung Lim). He is skilled in martial arts, has just finished mandatory army service, but he is completely socially awkward around others. Fortunately (or unfortunately for his serious learning pledge) he encounters fellow army man who had served in his division, and is persuaded to join student club of bodily fitness, where they try to make their bodies invulnerable. Soon, however, he falls in love with charming freshman student Eun-hyo Lee (Ji-won Ha), but he is given cold shoulder, as she fancies someone else. Will Eun-shik will be able to win her over?

Obvious Korean nod to American comedies, notably of very popular at that time American Pie. And it contains everything you could expect from such sex comedy. Dirty jokes, seemingly dumb main character that gets into inappropriate situations all the time and so on. However it wouldn't be Korean movie without strong flavor of drama mixed into it, for a brief time this crazy comedy show slows down and becomes earnest.

If you liked comedies such as mentioned American Pie, you will enjoy it, if you didn't, it's still worth to give a shot, as it still contains many Korean specific elements that you won't find elsewhere.

Entertaining, a bit vulgar but nonetheless fun comedy, definitely not for everyone, but it's impossible to please everybody :)

There is sequel released in 2007 simply called Sex is Zero 2, so it might be a good idea to check it out too, if you will enjoy this one.

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Memories of Murder (2003)

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery

Following his debut satire film Barking Dogs Never Bite and prior to gaining international fame after blockbuster The Host, director Joon-ho Bong shook Korean with his masterpiece revolving around serial killer Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok).

In rural province area, two bodies of women are found, ditched in country side outskirts, in fields of grain. Both brutally raped and killed in similar ways. Two incompetent and inexperienced with such big case cops are assigned the case, detective Park Doo-Man (Kang-ho Song) and his belligerent partner Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim). Thinking it's just domestic murders they try to work the case using methods that are popular at that time in Korean police, guess work and violence against suspects, but nothing comes out of it. Soon, detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Sang-kyung Kim) is sent from Seoul to assist local police. They are not fond of each other and their approach to investigation differs much, but eventually they start to work together and make some progress. But will it be enough to catch the killer?

Absolutely fantastic work, that is one of my favorites of all the movies I've ever seen. Stunningly beautiful cinematography, each scene is masterfully crafted, every character and dialogue appears to be so genuine. It's brutal and violent, but not on the screen (well, sometimes). It posses that grim undertones that curl through it, not stopping until characters and viewer himself feel powerlessness and despair.

When credits rolled I was left in that bad kind of mood that only good movies about dark side of humanity leave behind, a sign how involved you become with the world that is portrayed for you by director.

Notably this movie, like many others, is based on real events, first serial killer case that had happened in Korean history. Movies ending paralleled with these real life events make it so much more powerful.

It gets huge recommendation from me, definitely a must see.

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Blu-ray | DVD from YesAsia

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Genre: Action, Adventure, Western

You would not really expect a western movie from South Korea, especially a remake of one of the most famous Spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone, but here it is. The Good, The Bad, and The Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom) directed by talented Jee-woon Kim.

Set in Manchurian desert during 1930's, story as title suggests involves three central figures and a valuable map. The Good (Woo-sung Jung) bounty hunter is after The Bad (Byung-hun Lee), cold-hearted bandit and hitman, who is hired for a mission to steal a treasure map from Japaneses officials traveling by train, but after derailing the train, before he can get his hands on it, The Weird (Kang-ho Song) manages to snatch it and run off. Japanese Imperial Army is not happy and is on a mission to recover the map.

A good humored movie with plenty of epic shootouts and crazy chases across the desert, featuring motorcycles, horses, army vehicles and cannons. Everything can be found in this movie, almost non stop action full of  explosions, knife fights, machineguns and brawl fights and the iconic Mexican standoff saved for the end.

Director Jee-woon Kim has once again picked two his long time collaborators for lead roles, sharp and charismatic Byung-hun Lee as anti hero, Kang-ho Song who with his humorous facial expressions and behavior is perfectly matched to play the weird one. Woo-sung Jung chosen for the role of the bounty hunter manages to bring that sincere lawfulness and determination in his rendition of classic good guy, a good face among the bunch of thieves and murderers.

Big budgeted, exciting and stylish adventure that is highly entertaining and definitely a must see film from Korea.

Blu-ray | DVD from Amazon.
Blu-ray (UK) | DVD (R2 Collector's Box) from YesAsia.

Silmido (2003)

Genre: Drama, Thriller

After his blockbuster Public Enemy that was huge success, director Woo-Suk Kang got green lighted for another big project, Silmido. Yet another South Korean movie that draws it's plot from tensions between both neighbor Korea's, and sure enough it did well in box office. But common theme doesn't mean bad movie, definitely not in this case.

In 1968. group of North Korean special forces consisting of 31 man, infiltrated South Korea with mission to assassinate president Park Chung-hee. They failed. However this event shook South Korean intelligence agency to it's core, and decision was made to answer North using similar means.

On Silmido island a special force is being formed to accomplish this task. Under the name "Unit 684" 31 criminals, some from death row, have been recruited and begin their training to infiltrate North. In 1971, when unit is finally ready to commence their mission, there are changes in political climate in top layers of government, peace talks are priority, and decision is made to eliminate Unit 684. But before this order is carried out, there is revolt on island.

Movie is based on true story, and you can read more about it here, which is quite interesting piece of history, as existence of this unit and it's mission was kept secret until beginning of 90's.

After release, and huge popularity, South Korean government officials were vocal about how film depicts cruelty that government subjected it's soldiers. However it needs to be understood that this is a movie, and not documentary, and it's to be expect from director to make it more dramatic for the sake of entertainment.

Either way, this is really good thriller, that's worth a watch.

DVD from Amazon.
DVD (R2) from YesAsia.

Joint Security Area (2000)

Genre: Drama, Thriller, War

Before Vengeance trilogy for director Chan-wook Park, there was Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA), a movie that skyrocketed his career, and since then he has become one of the most accomplished and critically acclaimed directors in South Korea. Not to forget the cast of the movie, lead actors Byung-hun Lee and Kang-ho Song, while both had rich previous experience in acting, but nothing come close to success of Joint Security Area, which gained huge recognition and immediate status of superstars for them, guaranteeing successful career for next decade.

On border between South and North Korea's, known as Korean Demilitarized Zone, two North Korean border guards get shot. Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (Byung-hun Lee) is considered to be guilty in causing this event. Both countries give their own narrative of what happened, South states that he was abducted and killed his abductors while attempting to escape, while North says that he made a deliberate attack on their soldiers. To find the truth,  investigation by Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission is launched to discover what did occur during that fatal night.

A masterpiece thriller from Chan-wook Park that touches sensitive relationships between both, once united, countries. Forbidden friendship, political plots and secrets from the past come into play. Suspenseful story of separation by senseless ideology, ideology that hides actual human beings so deep underneath.

One of the best movies that had come out of Korea in my opinion. Recommended to everyone.

DVD from Amazon.
DVD from YesAsia.

Failan (2001)

Genre: Drama

Film by director Hae-sung Song, whom lately is known for his 2010 remake of John Woo's 1986 action movie A Better Tommorow. However Failan is his career's magnum opus, which he hasn't been able to top since, and that's for a good reason, as it's a masterpiece of a movie. This drama is adaptation of Japanese novel by Jiro Asada.

A young chinese girl Failan (Cecilia Cheung) after death of her parents travels to South Korea to find her relatives. Upon arrival she learns that they have moved away to another country, and left no contact information. Not wanting to go back, poor and lonely, she hopes to be able to live in this new country. To obtain staying permission she gets involved with local crime ring and accepts sham marriage. To pay back debt she is being forced to work in brothel, however due to her illness, she is unfit for that kind of duty, and gets to work as helper in small laundry in country side. This new life is better and more peaceful. Holding onto single photo of her husband, whom she'd never met before, she falls in love and thanks him for the life he has given her.

Enter Kang-jae (Min-sik Choi), a small time aging crook, lonely and forsaken man, whose dream is to own a fishing boat and travel back to his hometown. He is the one on the photo Failan has. In the middle of huge misfortune he is dealing with, he gets a message concerning well being of his wife. He travels to see her for the first time.

Astonishing drama about love of  two lonesome people, separated by distance, language, culture and lifestyles, connected only by small piece of paper. Missed opportunities, hopeless dreams and late realizations. It plays so well with emotions, that at some point it's guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.

Distinct performances by Min-sik Choi and Hong Kong's singer and actress Cecila Cheung.

One of the finest drama movies that I have ever seen. A must see.

DVD from Amazon.

The City of Violence (2006)

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

After his success of drama The Crying Fist, director Seung-wan Ryoo followed with this action packed crime drama The City of Violence (Jjakpae).

Four childhood friends meet up for the first time after a long time to attend a funeral of their friend Wang-jae (Kil-Kang Ahn), who has been murdered by a gang of street punks. They all have taken different roads in their lives, Tae-su (Doo-hong Jung) is a detective, Seok-hwan (played by director himself) is an ex-gangster, his brother Dong-hwan (Seok-yong Jeong) is a school teacher and Pil-ho (Beom-su Lee) is a big time mobster. Unsatisfied with official investigation results, Tae-su and Dong-hwan each investigate death of their friend. Soon clues lead them to land development project that both, Pi-ho and deceased Wang-jae had ties to, and now they have to confront their friend.

A really simple plot, that is explained and is quite obvious in early stages of movies, however you should not hold it against this movie, after all it's a great action film with some great martial arts demonstration in fights. Fights themselves are more like brawls, director never presents equal footing for main characters, they are always at disadvantage in numbers, and these numbers are huge.

Interesting camera work and more style than substance. Many are saying that Quentin Tarantino would approve of much that Seung-wan Ryoo is presenting, and I tend to agree, as there are many similarities.

If you like action movie with lot of fighting, driven by classic betrayal, that's not taking itself too seriously, it's right down you alley.

DVD from Amazon.
DVD (Ultimate Edition) from YesAsia.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003)

Genre: Drama

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom) is another masterpiece from director Ki-duk Kim (see 3-Iron). This time the theme he touches is about cycles of life, the passage of time, and emotions that accompany us during the journey. He does it brilliantly, with small cast and limited, yet picturesque set.

A small lake in mountains, a floating temple that calmly drifts in the middle, a monk who lives there. Soon a child appears, whom monk takes as his apprentice. Time passes and student grows up, he makes mistakes, gets punished by master, leaves, confronts the world outside, and comes back learned some harsh life lessons. But seasons don't stop, they go on and on...

This film is imbued by Buddhism themes, and can be easily viewed as one of the many Buddhist fables. It's slow and uneventful, yet it captivates by it's simplicity and sheer beauty, be it of nature or human.

Production of two countries, South Korea and Germany, with full creative control of Ki-duk Kim, whom himself makes a cameo, in a role of older monk towards the ending of the movie.

Movie definitely not for everyone, yet if it clicks, it's one of the joys that shows how powerful film can be in masterful hands.

DVD from Amazon.
DVD from YesAsia.

My Sassy Girl (2001)

Genre: Comedy, Romance

Movie goes who are not even familiar with Asian cinema had probably heard of My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo), perhaps due to not so good Hollywood remake, but even if you don't watch romantic movies, it's catchy name is floating out there in the air. And time has come to get to know it better, this romantic comedy that shook the east with it's popularity becoming icon of Korean cinema of early 2000's . Work of director Jae-young Kwak.

Plot is based on a series of true stories posted by Kim Ho Sik about relationships with his girlfriend, which gained huge attention in Korean internet community.

Kyun-woo (Tae-hyun Cha) is lonely college student, still unsure with what to do about his future. One day while on subway train he meets really drunk, wildly behaving girl (Gianna Jun), and due to circumstances commuters think he's her boyfriend. With no choice left but to help her, unsure what to, he decided to take her to local hotel to sleep off alcohol. Next day she calls her "savior" angry demanding to explain what happened previous night. They decide to meet and new friendship begins. With time Kyun-woo sees how crazy and silly his new friend can be, one moment hitting him like a punching bag, and next one crying upon his shoulder. Despite everything Kyun-woo is determined to help her overcome her problems and make her life happy.

Really sweet romance comedy. As movie is longer than 2 hours, with most of the screen time dedicated to these two, you could think that it will be boring rid, but the chemistry between them is striking, and with well thought plot, with lots of fun, romance, drama and even a bit of action, it's over before you even know it or want it to be.

Beside Hollywood, My Sassy Girl has been remade in Japan, India and China, which says lot about it's popularity.

Excellent lighthearted romance from Korean to watch with your other half, or alone :)

DVD from Amazon.