Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Showtime: Korean movies

In spite of my obsession with Kdrama, I’ve never been very interested in Korean movies. For me, the most satisfying storytelling is done on a grand scale. I’d rather read a fat novel than a collection of short stories, and I’d rather watch a series than a movie.

The sixteen-episode running-time of most older Korean shows is perfect for my taste: there’s plenty of room for character development and expansive plotting, but the limited screen time still allows for the possibility of a satisfying, novelistic ending. But these short and sweet dramas are becoming increasingly rare as trends turn toward series that last for twenty episodes and beyond. To me, most of these super-sized shows just feel too long—they’re War and Peace when I want Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. No matter how good the show is, watching anything that lasts more than about twenty episodes starts to feel more like a pain than a pleasure.

This inspired me to give Korean movies a try. It’s a refreshing change to watch something I can finish in one sitting, to experience the beginning, middle, and end of a single overarching narrative in not much more time than it takes to watch a single episode of a drama.

Being a Chungmuro newbie reminds me of my early days of watching Kdrama: I may know more about Korean culture than I did back then, but the body of Korean film is still a complete mystery to me.

Unfortunately, the Internet hasn’t been as helpful with this as it was when I first started watching dramas. Kdrama has a true, unified fandom online, with lots of encyclopedic sources for information and insight. If you want to know what’s on the air Tuesday night at 10, you can find out on Dramabeans and then go watch it on Dramafever or Viki. This doesn’t seem to be the case for Korean movies, which lack a strong identity as a stand-alone brand. For example, take a look at the website for Asian Crush, a film distributor that has a presence on both Hulu and Netflix. It features movies from Thailand, Japan, and Korea—but there’s no way to search for specifically Korean films. In fact, the only way you can even tell a film’s country of origin is by looking at the language information, which isn’t even included in the Hulu descriptions of their offerings. Most of the movies Asian Crush carries are Korean, but the site certainly doesn’t advertise that fact.

Dramabeans and some of the other blogs I follow sometimes post about Korean movies, and Hancinema provides both reviews and box office updates. Tumblr is also home to some good sources of information—enticing gifs posted there have lured me into watching any number of Korean movies. Every once in a while a big Korean film will even get coverage in mainstream American media, like the 2009 vampire movie Thirst. But beyond that, there’s not that much information out there.

Korean movies are harder to find streaming than dramas are. Lots of movies are available in pirated versions on YouTube, but the video quality and subtitles can be pretty terrible. Netflix, Hulu, and Viki each carry a handful of films, but there don’t seem to be many other legitimate sources for Korean movies. Thee ones that do exist tend to have the same few options and to be pretty slow getting new things. I’d love to watch Covertly Grandly, which was released in Korea in June, but it’s only available streaming on illegal sites that don’t work very well. I guess I could buy it on DVD, but the price isn’t the only thing that’s prohibitive about that: it’s only available for region 3, while my DVD player is region 1.

Like its television programming, Korea’s movies seem to fall into a few key genres: romantic comedy, melodrama, thriller, and sageuk. I’m often surprised, though, by how differently Korean movies and television shows approach what are essentially the same stories.

From what I’ve seen, the movies usually feel more real world and gritty, and generally don’t include the kind of exaggerated acting that dramas do. In little ways, they also seem more Westernized—people in movies are less likely to sit on the floor, and uniquely Korean staples like soju and kimchi play a less central role in foodie scenes.

There’s another distinction between Korean movies and dramas: the movies are a heck of a lot less virginal. This is true everywhere, I guess—even in America, television shows aren’t able to include the same kind of explicitly sexual scenes that movies can. (Although for more on this topic, see this Entertainment Weekly article about the death of the movie sex scene. In contrast, sex is the exact opposite of an endangered species in Korean movies.) Kdramas may be known for their deer-in-headlights lip presses, but Korean movies are full of steamy, genuine kisses. Their characters not only engage in sex, they even enjoy it.

Take the 2004 movie My Little Bride, which was released just one month after the finale of the similarly themed drama Sweet 18. Both focus on a teenage girl marrying an older man. In the movie, it’s made perfectly clear from the beginning that sex is an aspect of the marriage everyone has considered. The mothers-in-law pull the new bride aside at the wedding and assure her that no funny business by her husband will be tolerated until she graduates from high school. Sex is the elephant in the room throughout the movie, and the male lead teases his new wife about consummating their relationship. In the drama, the possibility that a husband and wife might actually kiss doesn’t even occur to either the impossibly naive bride or groom until well after the wedding. And when the drama finally gets around to acknowledging the existence of bedtime activities, it treats them as a disembodied sacred duty necessary for the birthing of babies.

I can’t say whether this laissez faire attitude toward sex is really representative of Korean movies as a whole or an artifact of where I’m watching them. The online popularity of all things porn means that practically all the Korean films available streaming have names and cover images designed to entice people looking for naughty viewing. I’m all for on-screen sexytime now and again, but it’s actually so bad that I don’t like watching Korean movies on YouTube—as soon I start searching for them, the site populates my suggested video sidebar with naked people. (Maybe it’s because I watched Frozen Flower?)

Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve seen so far.

All the swoons and tears of a Kdrama melo distilled into a bite-sized movie. A lonely blind girl falls in love with a bad-boy professional boxer who vows to restore her sight, even if it means sacrificing himself to earn the money for her operation. Han Hyo Jo and So Ji Sub make the movie with their smoking chemistry and quiet intimacy. A-

Cyrano Agency
The fourth installment of tvN’s Flower Boy series is positioned as a prequel to this 2010 rom-com. A troupe of failed theater actors use the tricks of their trade to run a dating agency devoted to getting people together—for a price. Cute and funny with a likeable cast, but doesn’t have much more to offer. B-

Frozen Flower
This epic sageuk is lavish and gorgeous in every way. It’s also softcore porn—no way would a comparably big-budget Hollywood movie ever, ever feature so much graphic banging. It has a horrible ending but is worth watching just for the pretty. (As difficult as it may be to believe, Jo In Sung is even better looking out of clothes than he is in them.) Also notable for tiny, early-career appearances by both Song Joong Ki and Im Joo Hwan. B+

Heaven’s Postman
Even Jaejoong couldn’t keep me watching past the twenty-minute mark. Damn pretty, but so physically inert it feels like a badly adapted stage play. This movie is a treacly mess, and turns Han Hyo Jo into perhaps the single most annoying manic pixie dream girl in recorded history. Lethargic and Lame. dropped

Love Me Not
The inspiration for the 2012 drama That Winter the Wind Blows, Love Me Not showcases Moon Guen Young as a wealthy blind woman who’s at the mercy of her traitorous servants. When a conman shows up disguised as her long-lost brother and tries to woo away her money, it turns out that he’s the best thing that ever happened to her. The movie, unlike the drama, is not afraid to be gritty and dark. (Nothing beats the drama’s pervy fauxcest thrills, though.) B-

A sageuk about a performer who finds himself drafted as stand-in for an ailing king. Provides some good laughs, but mostly schmaltzy. C+

A Moment to Remember
This tear-jerker traces the burgeoning romance between a terse, unhappy carpenter and his boss’s forgetful daughter (hint, hint). Like the long-lost Endless Love drama, only shorter. And sexy. A-

My Little Bride
A fifteen-year-old girl is manipulated into marrying the much older son of family friends. More adorable than a roomful of puppies if you can get past its icky premise. B+

Naked Kitchen
Less naked and kitcheny than the title might lead you to believe, this light melodrama revolves around a pair of childhood sweethearts whose relationship is tested by infidelity. Shin Min Ah at her most gamine makes it easy to forgive her character’s (amazingly hot) dalliance with a handsome young stranger—even after he turns out to be her husband’s close friend and professional mentor. And did I mention that he moves in with them? B

Penny-Pinching Romance
A cute romantic comedy that revolves around a couple brought together by money: he’s a penniless playboy; she’s a scrappy Candy girl looking for ways to hide the fortune she’s amassed through years of hard work. Note that this will have to tide us over until Song Joong Ki finishes his military service, so don’t waste it. B+

Part lurid exploration of sexual abuse at a school for the deaf, part courtroom thriller, this movie is well-made but painful to watch. Not to be missed by Gong Yoo fangirls—he was instrumental in getting Silenced made and does some of his finest work as the case’s conflicted whistleblower. B+

A Werewolf Boy
Song Joong Ki’s spectacular performance anchors this wistful melodrama about a family that takes in a mysterious feral boy who just might be a werewolf. Lovely and tragic. A-

Whatcha Wearing
In this racy rom-com, a wrong number leads to phone sex with a stranger. Which leads to friendship. Which leads to love. Which leads to lots of boobs and butts. (And don’t forget the panties.) C

Are there any must-see movies out there that haven’t hit my radar yet?


  1. You should watch Sunny. It's one of the best movies I've ever watched!

    1. I second this comment! SUNNY is one of the best friendship films there is. A wonderful must-see. ^^

    2. Right Sunny. this movie is so interesting, especially the cursing war.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. There are lots of good or enjoyable Korean movies out there Amanda. Try and get your hands on (by whatever means) Ahjussi aka Man from nowhere, An affair, Ill Mare, Everybody has secrets, Jeon Woo Chi, I saw the devil, Taegukgi - the brotherhood of war, the chaser, the way home, War of the arrows, the thieves, etc

  3. I agree with Hira Mushtaq! Loved Sunny! Expect tears....

    Also Hulu Plus has Friend (the gangster movie) and it literally made me sob.... It was really good.

    Finding Mr. Destiny (netflix) was super cute and has Gong Yoo!!! That made it worth it for me. And I LOVEEED Jeon Woo Chi. Kong Dong Won was perfect in it. Also Quick was a lot of fun!! But I'm sort of obsessed with Lee Mink Ki... (bot on Netflix).

    Girl Scouts was funny/fun and has Kim Sun Ah, who I generally like. (neEeEtflix)

    The Thieves was a lot of action-y fun and I love ensemble casts. Quiz Show Scandal was enjoyable too but forgettable. (Netflix again)

    Some others that are REALLY good but a bit more separated from the Korean Drama world are Old Boy... The Good, The Bad and The Weird.... The Chaser... The Housemaid... (all on Netflix)

    I can spend a whole day just marathoning korean films...

    1. I second Finding Mr. Destiny. It was the movie that I randomly watched on Netflix that finally convinced me to watch Coffee Prince (and hence my kdrama addiction began). It's very fluffy, but Gong Yoo! Who can argue with that?

  4. 2 Faces of my girlfriend
    My Love
    Lady Daddy
    My Sassy Girl
    Too beautiful to lie
    Going by the book
    Love 911

  5. Korean movies are actually really good. Just like most of us, I started out with romcoms, but as I got more into Korean cinema I've tried to focus on darker genres and I've realized that I've been missing out. In these past few years, Hollywood films have been disappointing me a lot so it's kinda perfect that I have discovered Korean cinema for myself in the meantime.

    Your post actually reminds me that I've been really excited for the new movies Hwayi, Rough Play, The Face Reader and Commitment. Thank god that I've saved up bonus points at Asiatorrents.

    1. Interesting factoid, Martin Scorcese said that he watched A LOT of Korean movies before making Shutter Island. Watch that movie again, you can totally see the influence.

  6. Yeah for new viewing possibilities! I've had guilt because I would choose Korean films over dramas if I could only have one. I especially love the heat wrenching ones even though I can't watch kdrama melos. Maybe cause with film, I only have to suffer and cry for 2 hours. I think I sobbed through the last 15min of Hello Ghost. And I mean loud wailing, noise running sobbing! I need to ask you the name of a site you mentioned once that organized favorite dramas you've watched. I want it for Korean films. I have two envelopes completely covered in titles that I've seen these last two years. I think I've watched about 40. You're right that it's sadly hard to find good quality versions. I'm grateful at least for what I've been able to find so far.

  7. actually, The Winter That Wind Blows and Love Me Not are both adapted from the Japanese drama Ai Nante Irane Yo, Natsu.

    for something edgy and action-packed, try Joint Security Area, Shiri and Duelist. there's also Park Chan-wook's Vengeance trilogy, and Kim Ki-duk's more art-house offerings (i think 3 Iron is one of his more oft-mentioned works).

  8. I got into Korean TV dramas via Korean movies. There are some very good ones. The Recipe is a beautiful film, especially if you like cooking. Going By the Book is both funny and heartwarming. Secret Reunion is surprisingly upbeat given the subject matter. Musa-The Warriors is like a blood and guts Eastern/ Western. It reminded me of the 1930's John Wayne film, Stagecoach. Mother with Won Bin is very good but downbeat. I also love Castaway on the Moon.

    I am a big fan of the dark revenge genre. Nobody does this better than Korean filmmakers but they are not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. I Saw the Devil is an amazing film but dark, dark, dark. The Man from Nowhere, The Chaser, The Yellow Sea, Memories of Murder, A Better Tomorrow, Secret, the list goes on.

  9. Okay! Alright! This right here is my zone. My exposure to Korea did not begin with dramas, it began with movies. There are a few things to know when delving into Korean film.
    1. The fandom is largely a sausage-fest.
    Where women are the desired drama demographic, men are the big desired demographic for film. This is true in the U.S. as well, which is why so many movies have action sequences. These two guys have very informative websites dedicated to Korean film
    Pierce Conran runs http://www.modernkoreancinema.com
    He also writes film reviews and commentary for a major Korean newspaper.
    Darcy Paquet runs http://www.koreanfilm.org
    He's gotten chummy enough with some Korean directors to end up in their films.

    2. Korean film can get very, very buddhist. As in "Life is suffering".
    I'm speaking about Oscar (or Cannes) bait here. Obviously there are your fun, lighthearted comedies and action flicks. But when it comes to artistic endeavors, film can unleash where television has to hold back. There are some truly magnificent, cinematic classics that have come out of Korea (Oldboy being the most well known) but I always hesitate to recommend them to people without a disclaimer that this film is not for the weak of heart. Even films that aren't that violent can still be soul crushingly sad (I'm looking at you Poetry and Secret Sunshine.)

    3. Korean film is known for tonal shifts and intensity. This is seen most clearly in movies like "The Host". From one minute to another it goes from family drama, to monster movie, to comedy, to political statement film, to action, to tragedy, etc. etc. This is one film! The crazy thing about it is that it works.

    4. There are a lot of different kinds of Korean films.
    RomComs, action, drama, horror, tragedy, artsy-fartsy. My favorite Korean director is Hong Sang-soo. He's basically like a Korean Robert Altman (actually he's like the love child of Robert Altman and Eric Rohmer.) But his movies are basically all conversation, so he's not everyone's cup of tea. Other artsy-fartsy directors are Kim Ki-duk. His most well known is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring.

    For you I recommend Castaway on the Moon. I really think you'll enjoy it. It was available for streaming on Netflix for a long time, so check there, but I'm sure it's elsewhere too. It's about a guy who tries to kill himself by jumping off of a bridge into the Han River, but instead of dying gets stranded on one of those little wooded islands right in the middle of the river. No one can see he is there and he has no way off of the island. It's like Tom Hanks in Castaway, except that he's SURROUNDED by people. It's clever and fun.

  10. Korean Movies I have watched-

    My addiction to Gong Yoo: Superstar/Mr. Gam
    She's on Duty (with Kim Sun Ah)
    Spy Girl
    S Diary (again with Kim Sun Ah)
    Finding Mr. Destiny

    My Hyun Bin addiction: A Millionaires First Love
    Late Autumn
    Daddy Long Legs
    I am Happy
    Come Rain, Come Shine

    My Yoon Eun Hye addiction: My Black Mini Dress
    Escaping from Charisma/Legend of Seven Cutter

    Others at random:
    Chunhyang - in chanting form, no other dialogue
    The Bow - girl never spoke, bow music played throughout
    Samaritan Girl, very sad
    Special Investigation Unit - on return flight from South Korea, not subtitled
    After the Banquet - sort of Mamma Mia without it being a musical
    Mr. Wacky - Park Gun Hyung
    Innocent Steps - Park Gun Hyung and Moon Geun Young
    Seducing Mr. Perfect - Daniel Henessey
    My Girl and I - Song Hye Kyo
    A Frozen Flower - Jo In Sung (thanks Amanda for making me aware of this one!)

  11. Watching Korean movies was my gateway drug into dramas. lol Sunny is definitely my #1 with Castaway on the Moon being my #1. And yes, they're both #1 in my book. Best Korean movies ever. Sad Movie, Finding Mr. Destiny, Baby and Me, all good and all on Netflix. :D

    My Girlfriend is an Agent, Now and Forever, Perfect Couple = not too bad either. :D

  12. OMG just remembered one I watched recently and loved: A Company Man - fantastic!

    Oh right! and there's:

    Project Makeover = not bad, pretty cute.
    Traces of Love = dropped.
    My Scary Girl = uh...different. lol Not bad. :D
    I'm A Cyborg, But That's Ok was great but not on Netflix anymore.
    200 Pound Beauty = HATED.
    Secret = great drama.
    Almost Love = Loved!
    See You After School = Meh
    The Art of Seduction = it was okay
    Sophie's Revenge = Not technically Korean BUT does feature So Ji-sub
    Seducing Mr Perfect = No-no

    Andddddddddddd now I think I'm done...lol

  13. Speed Scandal, super cute + lots of heart!

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  15. Speedy Scandal - Cha Tae-hyun plays a has-been celebrity and current radio DJ with a sparkling clean image. One day, a young girl (Park Bo-young), with an even younger boy in tow, shows up claiming to be his daughter. Not only does our guy become an overnight dad, he's also now a grandfather. Adorable and touching, to say the least.

    Chilling Romance - Before there was Master's Sun, there was Chilling Romance (aka Spellbound). Son Ye-jin plays a reclusive woman who can see ghosts. Lee Min-ki plays a magician in search of his new magic act. The two meet and end up putting on a "horror magic show." As the title suggests, the film is both ghastly and sweet.

    My Sassy Girl - Quite possibly the break out roles for both Cha Tae-hyun and Jeon Ji-hyun. The movie is insanely long (having a Part 1, Part 2, and Overtime) but it does compellingly tell the story of a young man's chance meeting with a drunk girl on the train which changes his life.

  16. I have watched quite a bit of Korean movies and it is hit or miss and they can be quite deceptive and traumatizing, oh hey a comedy hahaha, wtf did that guy just die?
    Sunny is probably one of the best movies I've ever watched.
    Ajhussi-you will fall in love with the little girl before you realize, oh heck, that guy is hot, (oh, it's ONLY Won Bin)-it's on my favorite movies list.
    I'm a Cyborg but That's Okay is so off the wall it's fun.
    Perfect Couple is so funny and Lee Dong Wook, fabulous.
    Covertly Greatly, I loved it but a lot of people went into it with different expectations and hated it. If you watch it go over to my blog and read my post on it and tell me what you think.
    Almost Love is great.
    My Black Mini Dress.
    Sophies Revenge is a Chinese movie and a total hoot.
    Girl Scouts
    Going By The Book is dry deadpan humor that slays me.
    Do not watch I Saw the Devil unless you like, um, violent slasher movies. I do not even know how to describe it. I am still traumatized and it's been years. I watched it with two other people and they will never watch another Korean movie.
    Old Boy is considered a classic, but be forewarned, it goes off the rails.
    The Good the Bad and the Weird is pretty entertaining.
    Arahan is wuxia flavored.
    Romantic Island is fluffy fun.
    The King and the Clown was one of the most seen movies in Korea to my understanding.
    A friend of mine likes The Brotherhood of War.
    I do have to say I absolutely adore Heaven's Postman, the whole thing is like a dream state, that's why it feels weird. Beautiful beautiful movie.

  17. HI!
    What comes to my mind right now as suggestions are:

    -Kiss me, kill me
    -Why did you come to my house?
    -Very ordinary couple
    -Chillin romance
    -Castaway on the moon
    -How to use guys with secret tips

    And yes, I just loved A moment to remeber and Always, great chemistry between the leads.


  18. Ah, also:

    - Antique bakery
    - Rolling home with a bull
    - Love fiction
    - Oishii man

    Vale :))

  19. Here are some of the older rom-coms I remember...
    I second the classic My Sassy Girl. Fun film with lots and lots of heart.
    My Tutor Friend--it stars Kwon Sang Woo but Gong Yoo's there too, his first film
    100 Days with Mr. Arrogant
    Love, So Divine
    Almost Love

  20. great movie recs -you will be busy!
    I am a rom-com drama girl, but I LOVED "Man from Nowhere" and "War of the Arrows" Also the only Saeguek I was so impressed with "King and the Clown". (haven't seen that one mentioned yet)

  21. Amanda, this is not very relevant to this post, but do watch The Pursuit of Happiness! It's a taiwanese drama by the same team that produced In Time with You and I'd love to read your review on it!:) It's still airing right now though so I'm not sure if there are english subs available.

  22. Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy
    Memories of Murders
    The Quiet Family
    Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring again
    Bong Joon-ho's Mother
    Man from Nowhere
    Joint Security Area
    Park Chan-wook's Thirst
    I'm a Cyborg but That's OK!
    The Good, The Bad, and The Weird
    I Saw the Devil
    A Bittersweet Life

  23. I surprised you give A Werewolf Boy A- 'cause it's like a recycle version of Edward Scissorhands...

  24. The last time I looked on Netflix they still had Castaway on the Moon. This is not only my favorite Korean Movie but one of my favorite movies of all time. It's quirky and funny and touching with excellent acting.

    I'm a Cyborg but That's OK
    War of the Arrows (aka Bow the Ultimate Weapon)
    Man from Nowhere
    The Good the Bad and The Weird
    The Chaser
    Welcome to Dongmakgol
    Doomsday Book
    Introduction to Architecture
    A Better Tomorrow
    Chilling Romance

  25. I recommend that you should watch WINDSTRUCK first b4 watching My Sassy Girl. It's sort of a prequel :-)

    Others that I've seen
    Daisy - Not perfect but beautifully made
    King and the clown - you'll admire Lee Jun Ki more. It is somewhat more subtle and much better than frozen flower
    Baby and Me - cute Jang geun suk
    Love so divine - Ha ji won
    My Girlfriend is an agent - sizzling OTP Kang Ji Hwan, Kim Ha Neul
    100 days with Mr Arrogant - so-so
    A Millonaire's first Love
    Cat - horror

  26. Good Morning Mr. President
    More Than Blue
    Hello Ghost
    Cracked Egg and Noodles
    71 into The Fire

  27. So many to choose from! Korean movies are... special... when they want to be ^^

    Some films that were critically acclaimed:
    Taegeuki (aka The Brotherhood of War)
    Joint Security Area
    Secret Sunshine
    Peppermint Candy
    Welcome to Dongmakgol
    Nameless Gangster (aka War on Crime)
    The Vengeance Trilogy (I haven't had the courage to watch them, but everyone raves about them)

    Some that I enjoyed:
    Once Upon a Time
    The Good, the Bad, the Weird
    That Summer (aka Once in a Summer)
    The Face Reader
    The Sword with No Name
    Take Off (aka National Athlete)
    The Man from Nowhere (aka Ahjusshi)

    I could go on forever hahaahaaa! There's a LOT out there -- so excited for you to enjoy it all! :D
    So happy to finally have time to be online (for something besides academics) and read your lovely writing, Amanda :)) Merry Christmas!

    <3, pinkblossom

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