Friday, 8 July 2016

Five Great South Korean Films

It doesn't really matter what your preferred genre, or style, of film is - if you're actually willing to take the time to look, you're bound to be able to find great films made in countries all over the world.

Like the five films listed below, for example - five great films from South Korea that are each well worth your time if you consider yourself to be a lover of film.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Sure, the 'Western' genre may be intimately tied to American history (for obvious reasons), but that doesn't mean that other countries can't get in on the action. All you really need is an appropriate location. If you can find yourself a time and place known for a similar brand of violent lawlessness to serve as your setting, then you pretty much have all you need to make a 'Western'. In the case of The Good, the Bad, the Weird, that setting is Manchuria in the 1930s.

Here, we have three man, each exiled from Korea for different reasons and each looking to make a name for themselves in this lawless land. Park Do-wan ('The Good') is a bounty hunter, Park Chang-yi ('The Bad') is a ruthless hit-man, and Yoon Tae-goo ('The Weird') is an eccentric, and seemingly inept, bandit. After the three men cross paths during a train robbery, they find themselves competing for possession of a map which promises to lead to a hidden fortune.

While the film does share some basic plot elements with the class Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (and the title is obviously intended to bring Sergio Leone's classic to mind), it doesn't quite reach the point of straight-forward adaptation. Part homage and part parody, it replaces the sombre seriousness of Sergio Leone's film with some fantastically over-the-top action sequences, and some genuinely entertaining comedy.

It's not a classic - but, then, it's not really trying to be. It's just a hell of a lot of fun.

I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK

I can appreciate the romantic elements of a story as much as anyone - but, at the same time, I have to admit that there has always been something about the 'romantic comedy', as a genre, that just doesn't appeal to me. They often strike me as being a bit bland, for one thing. They often seem to take an incredibly simplistic approach to the whole idea of love and relationships. And, worse of all, so many of them just seem to feature characters who are incredibly difficult to like.

Honestly, some of the worst movies I've ever forced myself to sit through have been romantic comedies. But, taking a step back, I also have to admit that there is absolutely nothing about the genre, in itself, that suggests that each and every film of its type should inevitably turn out to be pure garbage.

I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK, for example, happens to be a pretty great romantic comedy. It's setting is a mental institution somewhere in Korea, and its cast features a young woman convinced that she is actually a highly sophisticated cyborg and a young man who believes that he is capable of stealing over people's souls. It may not be the strangest film ever made, sure - but, it certainly seems to be making an effort.

It's a film that manages to be genuinely funny without feeling the need to mock any of its cast of eccentric, and clearly damaged, characters. And, it is also a film which manages to be genuinely touching, at times - thanks to a cast of characters who you can actually sympathize with (particularly, the film's two leads)

So, does a romantic comedy have to be this blatantly bizarre in order to appeal to me? Well, no, I suppose not. But, in this case, it really didn't hurt.

The Man From Nowhere

Violent, and occasionally unlikable, anti-heroes setting off on a blood-soaked rampage of revenge is nothing new (It seems to be what Liam Neeson has based much of his recent career on, after all). But, if you want to see how another country approaches this oddly specific sub-genre, then The Man From Nowhere may be the film for you.

Cha Tae-sik is a burned-out, and clearly broken, man. Once a highly trained operative in the Korean military, whose activities are still classified, he is now content to run a small pawn shop in a run-down neighborhood. So-mi, on the other hand, is a young girl who has been practically abandoned by a drug-addicted mother. In spite of Tae-sik's clear desire to simply be left alone, an odd sort of friendship gradually develops between the two. So, when So-mi is kidnapped by a local gang Tae-sik is, essentially, forced out of retirement in a desperate race to get her back.

The parallels between this film and others of its type are pretty obvious (an American remake would probably be entirely superfluous, since we already have films like Taken). But, that doesn't stop The Man From Nowhere from being genuinely entertaining, in its own right. The action is violent, bloody, and occasionally genuinely uncomfortable - but, most importantly, there is a genuine emotional core to the film which makes it much more compelling than it might have been, otherwise.

Memories of Murder

A desperate investigation to uncover the identity of an active serial killer, and to bring an end to a string of horrible murders, has been the basis for many great films over the years (and, some not so great ones, to be fair). It seems like its a fairly popular premise for film - and, the reason why should be fairly obvious. There's always going to be an element of unpleasant reality to the whole thing, after all - since, unlike with so many other classic 'movie monsters', serial killers actually do exist. Memories of Murder, for example, is a film based on events surrounding the very real case of Korea's first reported serial killer.

It begins with the discovery of a young woman's body, left laying in a ditch - in what, at first, is taken to be a fairly routine, if still tragic, murder. Soon enough, though, another body is found in a similar situation. Now, with clear evidence of a common thread connecting all of these murders, it falls to two detectives, Park Doo-man and Seo Tae-yoon, to track down the killer. But, with very limited resources at their disposal, the detective's efforts seem to be constantly hampered.

Early on, the ineptness of the police is played so strongly that the entire film begins to feel more like a black comedy than the serious crime drama it actually is. Of course, the fact that this is all based on true events (a series of murders that took place in Korea throughout the late 1980s and into the early 90s, which were never solved) is also never likely to be far from the audience's thoughts.

It's an odd blend of serious drama, black comedy, and social satire all bound together by the simple fact that it's all based on true events - and, it's fascinating.

The Host

Seven years after the staff at an American military base carelessly poor chemicals down drain which leads into the Han river, a strange creature emerges from that same river. The monster goes on a rampage (as monsters do), and people panic (as people would). In the midst of all of this a young girl, Hyun-seo, is snatched up and taken when the strange creature eventually flees.

Convinced that the youngest member of their eccentric clan could still be alive, her family are understandably desperate to get help in rescuing her. But, finding themselves caught up in government red-tape and an attempted cover up, they realize that they are on their own. If they have any hope of finding Hyun-seo, then they are going to need to set out to hunt down the creature and rescue her, themselves.

The Host is a film which successfully manages to blend elements of horror, comedy, action, family drama, and political satire. The film is clearly quite happy to throw in a bit of everything - most impressively, though, is the fact that it actually works rather well.

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