Samaritan Girl (Korea) 2004

Two teenage girls -– Jae-yeong (Han Yeo-reum) and Yeo-jin (Kwak Ji-min) – are saving up their hard-earned cash to take a trip. One turns tricks, the other sets up the clients and acts as security by keeping an eye out for police. The twist of the plot is that Yeo-jin’s father (Lee Eol) is a police detective.

If you think you know where this film is going, think again. Directed by one of Korea’s more idiosyncratic directors – Kim Ki-duk, who also wrote it – this isn’t an exercise in plotting. As with many Korean films, the story seems to come from the characters instead of the other way around. And the central characters here are the father and daughter in a story that is as riveting as it is disturbing.

Cinematography by Sun Sang-Jae and Sang-jae Seon.

Mother (Korea) 2008

The innocent man who needs the proof to free himself from the charge of murder is a constant theme in crime films. In Hitchcock, the man escapes from the cops and proves it himself. In other films proxies take up the cause. It’s been done to death.

In Bong Joon-Ho’s film it’s the mother of the accused – a simpleton 27-year-old who lives at home and shares a bed with his mom – who goes out after the truth. The mom (played by Kim Hye-Ja in a wonderful performance) is sure that the son's friend did the murder and framed her son. After that theory washes out, she finds another. And another.

What she ends up finding and doing is what makes this flick way different. A boy’s best friend is indeed his mother. Typical of Korean films – and especially crime films – the tone of a scene can change from comic to violent and back again or in another direction seemingly by whim. Joon-Ho uses this quality better than most other Korean directors and the film shifts in ways that might seem haphazard. Joon-Ho has everything under control and this is a Bong hit worth taking as it isn't an exercise in genre but in imaginative filmmaking.

With Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon. Music by Lee Byung-woo and cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo.

The Isle (Korea) 2000

This is a twisted love story and it sure ain’t “My Sassy Girl.” While far from ultra-violent flicks such as “Irreversible” or numerous Hong Kong Category III films, “The Isle” has built a reputation as a flick not for the squeamish. That much is true. It’s also an amazingly beautiful and human look at love between two damaged souls. “The Isle” became the breakout film for Kim Ki-duk (“Real Fiction,” “Bad Guy,” “Spring Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring,” “Samaritan Girl,” “Breath,” and “Dream”) and it remains, for me, his most successful.

Good stuff if you can handle some disturbing scenes.

Desert Dream (Mongolia / Korea) 2006

A family is living in near isolation on land that is slowly turning to desert. Nothing seems to happen as everything changes. The wife and daughter go to Ulan Bator for a medical operation and other people arrive. Things become clouded, things become clear. I’m a sucker for films that say so much with so little.

A Bittersweet Life (Korea) 2003

This is an ultra-violent crime film that starts off with a premise where you think you know where it’s going and then it explodes the notion and ends up a meditation on violence, loyalty and nihilism.

It also – typical of violent Korean films – has its comic scenes and these are not played broadly and end up as disturbing as they are funny. Good, solid action thriller with an edge.

Written and directed by Kim Ji-woon. With Lee Byung-hun, Kim Yeong-cheol, Shin Min-ah, Hwang Jung-min, Kim Roe-ha and Lee Gi-yeong. Cinematography by Kim Ji-yong and music by Jang Yeong-gyu and Dalparan.


Pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

© 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.