The Chaser (Korea) 2009

Flat out the best crime film I’ve seen from Korea. It’s the story of an ex-cop — bounced from the force for taking bribes — who is now a pimp and looking for the same thing as the police: a hooker kidnapped by a man suspected of numerous killings. To the hero, she’s one of his girls and he wants her back. To the police she’s a potential victim. Be warned — if you get a chance to see this film — it’s violent, a child is involved and there’s no room for redemption in Korean crime films.

And that's one of the reasons that this film is so good. There really is no resolution to crimes of this type: no kiss kiss makes the bang bang go away. It is one down and dirty crime flick and not recommended for those made squeamish by graphic violence. (Not Cat III-type violence. Just crime film violence.)

Memories of Murder (Korea) 2003

Directed by Bong Joon-ho – “The Host,” “Mother” – the film tells the story of a series of murders. A detective from Seoul is sent to the boondocks to help out the locals and while that may sound like a traditional police story premise, that’s where any predictability ends. For one thing, Korea is under military dictatorship at the time although that reality only plays around the edges of the film.

Based on real-life events, this isn’t a revisionist view of a famous case. What the film becomes is another example of how the Koreans are spinning a tired genre into exciting new films.

Paju (Korea) 2009

Paju is a city north of Seoul that had been a military installation and is now a city in transition. In that city is a young girl named Choi Eun-mo (Seo Woo) whose sister, Choi Eun-soo (Shim Yi-young) is married to Lee Sun-gyun (Kim Joong-shik). Or, more exactly, was married before she died in a suspicious fire.

A complex and intriguing film that slips back and forth in time, by one of Korea’s female directors.

Secret Sunshine (Korea) 2007

After the death of her husband, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) moves with her young son to the husband’s hometown of Milyang (translated as “secret sunshine”). She is befriended by the first person she meets, a tow-truck driver, Jong Chan (Kang-ho Song), who develops an almost pathetic affection for her.

Far from being the beginning of a new life, and after another tragedy, Shin-ae ends up on the border of grief and madness.

Directed and written (based on Chong-jun Yi’s novel, Milyang) by Chong-dong Lee, this is another brilliant film by the director of “Oasis,” “Poetry” and “Peppermint Candy.”

The Yellow Sea (Korea) 2010

The follow-up film to Na Hong-jin’s “The Chaser” — with the same cinematographer and editor — and just as devastating. This is a crime film that slowly builds into a flat-out, edge-of-your-seat, mind-blowing, stab-‘em-up action thriller. Violent? Remember, never bring a knife to an axe fight and if you do, there's always a thug with a huge bone to crush skulls with waiting behind a door.

The gist is that the films starts slowly in China with the story of a cab driver in debt to the mob via gambling debts and whose wife has left to find work in Seoul, Korea. The mob makes an offer he can't refuse: Go to Seoul, do this one job and not only will all be forgiven, but there's a hefty pay-off as well. This may sound like familiar territory and while it is, Na Hong-jin and a great cast turn it over and inside-out. Plus one great chase scene. Of course, everything goes wrong and what follows is that everything old is new again.

One caveat is that there are some geographic and cultural references that can be confusing to someone not versed in Korean history. It really doesn't stop anyone from appreciating the movie. What a great flick.


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© 2012 William Ahearn

When I first began to put a list of Korean films together, I began chronologically and soon after gave up. Instead, I just remembered or referred to my write-ups and tossed favorite films in until I had 25 and then I stopped. Ever since the Korean Film Archive began streaming films on Youtube, I’ve been overwhelmed trying to keep up, and between the archive and my leftover favorites, another 25 will soon follow.