2017 hasn’t been a strong year for Korean cinema, compared to the monumental projects of 2016 (The Wailing, The Handmaiden, Train to Busan, etc). Nevertheless, it has witnessed the release of many highly entertaining genre fares. As usual, there were quite a few films with strong sociopolitical messages. Generally speaking, all the lists are unavoidably subjective, and this one is no exception. Here are the finest Korean movies the year had to offer. (If I seemed to have missed out any major title, feel free to recommend it in the comments section).
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15. A Special Lady
Lee An-Kyu’s brutal gangland thriller revolves around a woman gang boss Na Hyun-jung. She is the number two in her crime organization, although her ascendancy creates jealousy among the male thugs. Hyun-jung also hopes to retire from the life of crime and reunite with her grown-up son. A Special Lady moves like a typical mob drama with a compelling performance from Kim Hye-su. The action sequences are well accomplished without overdoing the depiction of violence.
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14. Confidential Assignment
Kim Sung-hoon’s big-budget action blockbuster Confidential Assignment is not the least bit original, but delivers stylish popcorn entertainment. The film follows a stern North Korean investigator, tasked to travel to South Korea and hunt down a rogue North Korean military officer. He teams up with a goofy yet lovable South Korean detective. Despite warnings from both countries’ officials, the two officers form a personal bond over time. The plot is pretty generic and is full of heavy explosions and shooting, with women characters relegated to periphery. At the same time, it boasts enough charm within its by-the-numbers spy thriller narrative.
Soo-youn Lee’s psychological horror-thriller opens with the shot of a headless corpse floating in dethawed Han River. The corpse is hinted to be the latest victim of a serial killer. Amidst this situation, we see the colonoscopy specialist Seung-hoon moving to a small town. Divorced and financially broken, the doctor lives in a cramped apartment above a family-run butcher shop. One day, during colonoscopy, an old man — butcher’s father — under the clutches of an anaesthetic confesses a horrific secret. He blabbers about the efficient ways to scatter human parts. Seung-hoon, gripped by paranoia and unease, resolves to find solid evidence to prove the butcher family’s serial-killings.
Director Soo-youn’s diabolically framed visuals are the biggest strength of the narrative. However, unnecessarily complicated and illogical twists mar the effectiveness of these deeply unsettling visual flourishes. The unconvincing point-of-view shift in the narrative’s last half, therefore, leaves a bitter aftertaste.
12. Midnight Runners
Kim Joo-Hwan’s buddy cop thriller seems to be modeled after recent Hollywood films 21 Jump Street and Nice Guys. Not to mention, the film features K-drama heartthrobs — Park Seo-joon and Kang Ha-neul — in roles that are alternately heroic and childish. The duo become friends during the grueling training session at the Seoul Police Academy. Later, the unlikely pair witnesses a young woman’s abduction and race against the clock to nab the perpetrators. Midnight Runners mostly recycles buddy comedy tropes. Then again, there’s enough elan in Kim’s direction to elevate the unremarkable plot developments. It’s a commercial debut that successfully caters to a younger generation of viewers, while others may find it generic.
11. The Villainess
Jung Byung-gil’s energetic action thriller could be described as Nikita meets Shiri. Its inventive and slightly disorienting action sequences remind us of The Raid and Hardcore Henry. The film opens with a first-person-shooter mode as heroine Sook-hee barges into a building and starts killing gangsters. Few minutes later, she leaves a stack of corpses, in her crusade for vengeance against those who killed her husband. She nearly dies by the end of the fight but a mysterious organization saves her. As a matter of fact, it hopes to turn Sook-hee into a super-assassin. The film has a bit scattered and unnecessarily complicated narrative. Yet the slick direction offers enough savage pleasure in witnessing the protagonist’s breathtaking fighting skills. All in all, it’s a good treat for action movie lovers.
10. The Outlaws
Kang Yoon-sung’s gangster drama is a fictionalized version of Seoul police operation against the Chinese-Korean gangs. Ma Dong-seok of Train to Busan fame plays the protagonist, a physically intimidating Special Squad cop. He is a no-nonsense guy whose moral compass keeps thing under control in the Chinese neighborhood. But a crafty, knife-wielding gangster Jang Chen gets into a turf war and makes things tough for Ma. The narrative treads on familiar ground, but the director skillfully mixes action and humor. Moreover, there isn’t much melodrama to drag things down. Ma’s cool-headed restraint is another strong note. The Outlaws is yet another satisfying addition to the Korean gangster genre.
Byun Sung-hyun’s The Merciless looks like a Korean take on Infernal Affairs-esque story. An undercover cop goes to jail and positions himself under the wing of a charismatic gangster. He stays by the gangster after the release and ascends in the gang which is involved with bulk drug deals. Even though there’s nothing original about the story, the vigorous staging techniques boost the film’s quality. The well-detailed directorial hand keeps the action acute and entertaining throughout. As with most of the recent Korean action films, it wallows a lot in melodrama. Nevertheless, the well-paired male leads and smartly choreographed set-pieces keep the audience on their toes.
8. The King
Similar to Inside Men and Asura, Han Jae-rim’s The King is set around a political scandal and tries to mimic the frantic energy of a Scorsese film. It tells the story of a young prosecutor who quickly rises to power through his connection with ruthless men. Frozen Flower fame Cho In-sung plays the protagonist. His voice-over guides us through turbulent political transitions over a two-decade period. It serves as an anchor-point to the narrative, which showcases the extent of political and media influence. The narrative, at 157 minutes, fumbles with overly intertwined plot strands, but Han’s sleek visuals keep things lively throughout.
7. Anarchist from Colony
Lee Joon-ik’s fascination for visualizing distinct and complex history of Korea continues with Anarchist from Colony. While films King and the Clown and The Throne were set during the reign of Joseon dynasty, this one is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Loosely based on the lives of real people, Anarchist tells the story of Park Yeol and Kaneko Fumiko. Park, the Korean independent activist joins his Japanese partner Fumiko to form an anarchist organization. The organization’s main aim is to assassinate the Japanese emperor. But their grand plans are eventually thwarted.
Although the film has a captivating plot-line, it suffers from lack of character development. It presents the politics of the era in a flattened, oversimplified manner. Nevertheless, it’s a watchable historical biopic with a poignant love story at its core.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’