So, here it is. December 24th, 2020. Christmas Eve. I’m finally living in Seoul, I’ve left Paju, it’s a year and change since I left the United States and the entire world is ENTIRELY DIFFERENT.
I don’t want to dwell on the pandemic too much- after all, this is supposed to be movie talk- but here I am sitting in my apartment, the yacht rock station playing (shuddup, it’s better for writing background music), thinking about friends all over the world. All over the US.
For those of you who know me, you know I’ve loved Korean cinema for well over a decade. Once, I even participated in a Korean Blogathon to get over an intensely bad break-up. FTR, it totally worked!
In this last year, my interest in Korean cinema intensified into something more than what it had been. That was sorta to be expected, right? I live here and all.
What shook me was how deeply and completely I fell in love with…Classic Korean cinema. This is beyond all other kinds of cinemas I’ve ever studied, watched, consumed. It’s devilishly specific and I cannot get enough of it. I am ridiculously addicted to it and my career/training as an archivist only makes this situation more painful: much of it is no longer available, has deteriorated, or is, in some fashion, lost or unaccessible.
There was a link that people were passing around like popcorn before I left for Korea about the Korean Film Archive and their YouTube channel. While I will pursue a more archives-and access-centered piece on the specific topic of the YouTube Channel itself at a later date, I want y’all to know that EVERY. SINGLE. THING. I recommend to you here I watched on that channel. They have been putting films up there for almost 10 years, I think, and they constantly add new things. If something I recommend is no longer on there, it was likely taken down due to a Blu-ray release or something of that sort. And the BR releases are just amazing 😱
I have been thinking & planning this list for a while. Some bits of it are clipped from personal emails I have sent to people but the rest…is totally new. I’ve had a lot of people asking me for my selections. I will tell you, flat out, every movie here is one I will BACK 100%.
These films changed me.
LAST VERY IMPORTANT POINT:
Know that classic Korean films are long but they are WORTH IT.
Do not let their running time deter you from watching them. They are like NOTHING you have ever seen or ever will see again.
And now, without, further ado, my holiday gift to you….
I will be listing some films under directors w/bio info & some just as films.
Some I have done a LOT of research into and some I have not. Obvs, you will be able to tell my successes & failures.
Be kind. Also, just watch the movies. They’re just omfgsogreat!
Also? In Korea, many of these are age-restricted because they are, uh, well…you’ll see. So the links I have here go straight to the YouTube channel where they should play fine. Let me know/leave me a message if you have ANY problems….
김기영/ KIM Ki-Young
I’m going to start with KIM Ki-young. He was nicknamed Mr. Monster. He’s 100% my favorite favorite favorite. Most people call him a cult director or a horror film guy. His most famous film is The Housemaid/하녀 (1960) which has been classified as a noir also but I strongly disagree with that classification as well. As you can tell, he is very difficult to classify which is why he is amazing. He was an independent genre filmmaker during a time when that just didn’t happen & was deeply influenced by playwrights like Ibsen & O’Neill. His shit is off the hook & not simple “cult” or “horror” cinema.
First film: Woman of Fire 화녀 (1971)
Second Film: Insect Woman 충녀 (1972) this one is KILLER for visuals!! I mean, all his stuff is but…sex and colors and total lunacy…mmmm….
Third Film: Woman of Fire ’82 화녀 82 (1982) yes, it’s like the first WOF. Which is kinda like The Housemaid. Yes, he liked this narrative. But I would argue that the repetition of this narrative in different eras, houses, and with different class discussions really works well.
김수용/ KIM Soo-yong
So this is the second director KIM in my list, but HFS. I just started watching his films the other day and I’m pretty sure that I haven’t recovered. I had watched a few of his films when I first got to Korea, but then I decided to watch a few more and I was in awe.
KIM Soo-yong was born in 1929 and he’s still alive, by the way. He has made a lot of commercial films and seems to have played nice throughout all the chaos and censorship that made the Korean film industry not…the most pleasant place to work at all times. More than 100 movies under his belt and, so far, he made a few that were so striking in how they dealt with gender and sexuality. These films are no bullshit films and I am still in awe that they were made in the 60s and 70s and earlier. I’ve never seen anything like these and I hope you watch them.
First film: The Seashore Village 갯마을 (1965) QUEER representation, sexual desire & more. Wow!
Second Film: Burning Mountain (1967) Politics, sex, war, desire, masculinity deconstruction…unbelievable film. I still struggle with the fact that this film exists. Does it?
Third Film: Starting Point 시발점 (1969)- it is highly doubtful that anyone other than me will recommend this to you. I was going to put one of Director Kim’s other films that people really adore but this is one that rocked me. Visually spectacular w/a great story, I hope it thrills you like it did me. I was floored.
The 80s/early 90s
I’m going to recommend a few different films from the 80s that I think are dynamite and should be seen at all costs. Korean cinema in the 80s was a different monster than the 60s or the 70s and definitely different than the late 90s. MANY of the filmmakers who had been working in the 60s and 70s were still making movies in this period and made stunning work during this period. It’s almost as if the word “flop” didn’t exist in their vocabulary. Or maybe those films got lost? Who the hell knows. Watch these movies, y’all.
Whale Watching 고래사냥 (Bae Chang-ho, 1984)- This is an anti-road road movie loosely about shitty crushes and how it is hard to be young. But that’s a VAST oversimplification. It stars one of my very favorite Korean actors 안성기 Ahn Sung-ki and if you watch a lot of Korean films, you’ll know him cuz he’s been in almost 200 films and started acting when he was a kid. Just watch it. It’s not like any road movie or feel-good youth crap you’re used to. And if you like it, look up the director. He’s fabulous.
Our Twisted Hero 우리들의 일그러진 영웅 (Park Jong-won, 1992)- I wanted to include this one because honestly? I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it. The poster for it is the background for my Kakao profile. It’s based on a very well-respected and famous book in Korea that many kids still have to read in school, I believe. When my ex-boyfriend saw my Kakao page, he super freaked out. He was like, “That movie is amazing! How do you know that movie?” Again, I just found it on the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) Classic Film Youtube channel and watched it. It’s definitely got some history in there and it’s not a light film. Josh Ethier, if you’re reading this, I thought of you when I first watched it, so it may be your cuppa. I highly recommend this film but it’s definitely a rough watch. I love it though. God, I love it.
FUN FACT: everyone’s favorite Oldboy star Choi Min-sik is in this film as a very young, very good looking teacher!
The Age of Success 성공시대 (Jang Sun-woo, 1988) – My feelings will actually probably get a little hurt if you watch this film and do not like it or at least have some very strong feelings about it. This film was one of the first films that really wooed me into the Classic Korean Cinema bedroom. After 성공시대, I think I was a goner. Centered on advertising and scheming/slimy sales reps obsessed with power & climbing the ranks, this stars my fave dude, Ahn Sang-ki. If you like Mad Men, American Psycho and watching wonderfully surreal 80s landscapes & perfectly horrible people like I do, THIS IS YOUR FILM.
Other thing to think about: this came out one year after Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.
Ticket 티켓(Im Kwon-taek, 1986)- In general, film history has not been a huge thing here in Korea. And their own film culture has not been platformed in a positive way up until, well, LAST YEAR tbh. So when I tell people I’m obsessed with classic film, they don’t really respond to most of the names I say except one: Im Kwon-taek. He’s been a widely recognized Korean filmmaker and is highly respected on a global scale. He’s made a lot of excellent films. I haven’t seen most of them but those that I have seen I’ve liked. This one? I LOVED. Ticket is a brilliant work that explores the lives of bar hostesses on a very intimate scale. Hostess films are an entire Korean film genre and I am quite taken by them. There is a lot to unpack there. And I think you will find that there is a lot to unpack in this film. Let me know what you think. The actress who plays the bar manager, Kim Ji-mee, is excellent and has done over 300 films (!!).
I could keep talking about these films, performers, themes and historical points for ages. But my food delivery just arrived and I actually want to watch a movie. So I’m going to give you a few last ones and then feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you liked, hated, etc and I can maybe make another post if I’ve got time.
The Marines Who Never Returned 돌아오지 않는 해병 (Lee Man-hee, 1963) –
LEE MAN-HEE IS ONE OF THE BEST FILMMAKERS EVER TO HAVE LIVED AND HE DIED TOO EARLY. I said it and I damn well meant it. Everything he did (depressingly not much) was perfection. This war film was released in the US in 1966 under the title Marine Battleground but it got director Lee a best director award at the Grand Bell awards in 1964. Watch this movie. You’ve never seen anything like it. Then buy the Blu-ray of the The Evil Stairs from 1964, one of the best (if not THE best) horror noirs I’ve ever watched in my whole life. Watch everything you can from him. But here’s a taste:
A Bloodthirsty Killer/A Devilish Homicide 살인마 (Lee Yong-min, 1965) – From the title it sounds like an action film but it’s actually a really great horror revenge film…with lots of cat stuff! Meowwwww!
The Body Confession 육체의 고백(Jo Keung-ha, 1964) – Technically this is somewhere between melodrama and hostess film but it defies all that. This film is a massive work and discussion on the damage that the US did to Korea and Korean women. Be forewarned: there is some dialogue that has racial slurs and it’s definitely…wow. I had to really think about it for a while. It’s a very complicated film with complicated characters in a landscape of high trauma.
The women in this film are some of the most badass women I’ve ever come across. The madam of the nightclub – you meet her almost right away- is played by Hwang Jung-seun. You might recognize her from Seashore Village and Burning Mountain and I HIGHLY recommend you seek out her performance in the MINDBLOWING & EARTH SHATTERING film, Rainy Days, linked there. Heheheheh. Had to sneak ONE more link in before this final link…
All right, y’all. I’m gonna go eat. You take care and enjoy these films. Let me know what you think.