Arang (Korea) 2006

One of the reasons that Asian ghost stories work far better than western ones is that ghosts are explicitly part of so many Asian cultures. The Thais crank out ghost stories by the week it seems and with the exception of China where that sort of this is banned by the production code, every Asian country has their share and some of the Japanese ghost stories are just brilliant movies.

“Arang” is a ghost story with ghosts and it’s based -- or so they say -- on a 400-year-old legend. It involves a female police detective who has been assigned the burnt corpse in the salt house and it soon becomes apparent that a 10-year-old prior murder is part of the motive. There is a kicker at the end that is priceless. The film veers into melodrama in a few spots but this is a solid and intelligent film that doesn't go for cheap pop-up scares. Another thing I really love about Korean films is that they rarely use pop tunes as background. These films are scored. Do you remember what that was like?

Treeless Mountain (Korea) 2008

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times called “Treeless Mountain” a “realist” work. Maybe, maybe not. One thing is certain in my mind and that is that “Treeless Mountain” is one of the best films that I've seen to come out of Korea and it would be a damn good film coming out of anywhere. The story is of two sisters Jin – a six-year-old – and Bin, her younger sister. They live with their mother in a city in Korea. The mother needs to go and find her husband and leaves the girls with her alcoholic sister-in-law. There's more and this film doesn't rely on plot as much as it relies on characters.

Directed by So Yong Kim, who now lives in Brooklyn and whose first film, “In Between Day" was shot in North American, doesn't tolerate sentimentality for a moment in this flick and there are no “good” and “bad” people. Before I saw this film I'd never heard of it so at the end I googled because I didn't think it could go unnoticed. It hasn't. This flick is a real winner. Just a small story of small people and I generally can't stand movies about kids.

Lady Vengeance (Korea) 2005

Also known as “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” and directed by Park Chan-wook, it’s the last leg of the vengeance trilogy (“Sympathy for Mr Vengeance,” “Old Boy”) and a very strange film. The gist is that Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) has just been released from prison for the murder of a young boy when she was a teenager. She earned a reduced sentence for her apparent spiritual transformation and when greeted by the religious groups who helped spring her, she tells them to “fuck off.”

She didn’t do it and is intent on reclaiming her daughter and settling some scores with the man who did do the crime. Don’t for a moment confuse this with “Lady Snowblood” as the comparisons are superficial. Yet, it is a revenge film and a very bizarre one at that. The story has a beginning and an end in the right places but the narrative isn’t always chronological and her dream state comes and goes.

The trilogy is best seen in order even though all of the films work as stand-alones.

Welcome to Dongmakgol (Korea) 2005

A fun antiwar film of sorts from Korea and it’s nothing more and nothing less. There’s a firefight between North and South forces. A US P-47 pilot is forced down by a flock of butterflies and lands near a remote village that hasn’t modernized in generations. Not only do they not know a war is going on, they’ve never seen a gun before. The pilot is saved by the local “crazy” girl and then the village has to deal with the stragglers from the battle – from both sides – who face off in the town and only manage to blow up the village’s food stocks.

One interesting historical note is that in this film the North Koreans are portrayed not only as human but also as heroes. In 1955, “Piagol” – a film about communist guerillas – also portrayed the North Koreans as humans and was banned for some time. As with many Korean films, “Dongmakgol” can go from comedic to brutally violent in a heartbeat. Directed by Park Kwang-hyun and starring Sang-ho Choi, Jin Jang, Tae-seong Jeong and Sang-yong Ji, among others, it was South Korea’s entry for the foreign language Academy Awards in 2005.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Korea) 2003

One of the reasons – there are many – that Asian horror films are so much better than those in the US is because in the Asian films, for the most part, the audience isn't treated as if they were sugar-crazed adolescents. This film is a perfect example. Directed by Kim Ji-woon and based on an ancient folktale, the story occurs within a house and within a family. It is creepy and scary and even better, the ending is somewhat unresolved. Not as a tease for a sequel, but as a clue that what you think you've just seen may not be what you saw.

(A lackluster Hollywood remake was released in 2009. Technically this film is a remake as the film has Korean versions made in 1924, 1936, 1956, 1962, and 1972.)

The soundtrack is brilliant and the acting – not overblown characterizations – is right where it should be. The two sisters are really good. Horror done right.


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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.