Monday, January 1, 2024

Josh Parmer's Top 20 South Korean Films of 2023


This list is dedicated to Lee Sun-kyun (이선균).

20.) Honeysweet - 달짝지근해: 7510
Directed by Lee Han

A very sweet film that is acted with such a sense of sincerity that you will find yourself awash with a blissful smile. It's a simple but very effective romance tale that features people in their 40s finding true love in each other and most importantly, them being able to be appreciated for just being who they are, scars and all. Cinema doesn't always need to reinvent the wheel, but rather to be honest and that's what Honeysweet does so poignantly, it stays honest in its humanity on display. I found myself laughing and smiling a lot during this film, and when the sadder parts crept up, I was a mess. Director Lee is not always a hit with me, but this is easily one of his best to date.

19.) Devils - 악마들
Directed by Kim Jae-hoon

Devils is a fun serial killer crime thriller with a body swapping twist. Think a very dark and serious version of Freaky, for obvious reasons, but drop the high school element and add in hard-boiled cops. It's definitely my kind of flick and while maybe it doesn't rank among the giants of Korean thrillers, it's certainly one of the best I've seen in a while and I was gripped from the neon-soaked bloody opening all the way to the end, which while it feels sort of sudden, I do like the direction it all went. Great performances, a lot of blood and gruesome bits, and a whole lot of twisting and turning, which leads this film on a quick and demented path. Korea just gets thrillers and I cannot get enough!

18.) Toxic Parents - 독친
Directed by Kim Su-in

Kim Su-in's directorial debut is a brutally blunt portrayal of a shattered family and in particular the absurd expectations that children are faced with by many of their parents. Sure, this is definitely a universal topic, but one doesn't need much knowledge of Korean culture, particularly in education and in the case of this film, the entertainment realm, to see how much stress is put onto these children. It drives a lot of young ones to the darkest corners of their minds and often results in suicide tragically. Toxic Parents shies away from nothing and I absolutely admire it for that. There are a handful of films told with a similar premise as this, Bleak Night coming to mind as I type, but it's such a relevant issue unfortunately, that we need reminders of this in the form of some medium, and this movie delivers the message loud and clear. It's one of the best social commentaries on the lives of teenagers and poor family dynamics that I've seen in a very long time.

17.) Soulmate - 소울메이트
Directed by Min Yong-keun

Absolutely sublime filmmaking. A beautifully told tale of women afraid to embrace their hearts. It speaks a lot on identity and social expectations, and really hit hard for me in so many moments. I think my one issue is that the picture doesn't seem to know when to end. A lot is revealed in the end, and while I admired where things went and what ended up happening was dramatically impacting, I just couldn't help but feel it tried packing in too much in its final moments and just didn't flow as smoothly as the rest of this years long story. Other than that Soulmate is a wonderful little film, one that will stick with me and one that reminds me to seek out the original Chinese version from a handful of years back. I can't speak to that work, but this version works and does so well. This one will land in the hearts of a lot of viewers for years to come.

16.) Yellow Door: '90s Lo-fi Film Club - 노란문: 세기말 시네필 다이어리
Directed by Lee Hyuk-rae

The only Korean documentary I ended up seeing this year happened to be a very happy experience, as I got to reminisce with acclaimed director Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) and company as they talk about "Yellow Door", a film club that was born in the 90s when a wave of of cinema crazed superfans were born, and ultimately a lot of folks that came to work in the industry in some shape or form got their starts here. It is extremely well shot for a film that is primarily just interviews playing over various images and close-ups of the interviewees. The eye for framing is impeccable here, and ends up being some of the best cinematography seen all year. It's visually alluring and the story, while niche, will appeal to those who love Korean cinema of yesteryear, or just for admirers of Bong Joon-ho in general. He is sort of the central focal point, but others get a time to shine as well. We do get to see a peek at BJH's very first film, and it is glorious. A documentary filled to the brim with great memories and a ton of passion, making for a quick and wondrous trip down memory lane. 

15.) Cobweb - 거미집
Directed by Kim Jee-woon

Cobweb is a triumphant return to comedy for director Kim Jee-woon, which harkens back to his early days of film, with works such as A Quiet Family and The Foul King, while feeling modern with his years of expertise in crafting a technical powerhouse in filmmaking. This is clearly a love letter to the cinema and directors of the past, with Song's character obviously being inspired by Kim Ki-young (The Housemaid), and then the references to Lee Man-hee (A Day Off), and director Shin (Shin Sang-ok) being a cameo that's played hilariously by Jung Woo-sung. It feels like it is made for a certain crowd and may work better as a local piece than internationally speaking, but for those who admire Kim's works and those golden era classics of 1960s Korean cinema, this is going to be your jam. It's just a ton of fun and an overall great time.

14.) Someone You Loved - 어쩌면 우린 헤어졌는지 모른다
Directed by Hyung Seul-woo

A very realistic approach to a breakup film. We see both sides of the relationship as it splinters and fissures into the breaking point. Each character is flawed and very believable and we follow the months as they move on and try to pick up the pieces along the way. Jung Eun-chae (Nobody's Daughter, Haewon) is fantastic as always, here as the girlfriend who strives for success and just wants to see her partner succeed. She is frustrated and her disappointment is hard to watch her bare on her heart as things play out. The other half of the couple is played wonderfully by Lee Dong-hwi, who while really funny in this film, as he has this natural charming knack about him, there is this lingering for bettering himself and this pain that sits in his eyes that really impressed me. He's a great actor, but his performance here is just brilliant and I liked the multilayered emotions on display here. It's not grand or showy, but at times can feel intrusive because of the sheer brutal honesty on display. A real underrated gem of 2023.

13.) In Our Day - 우리의 하루
Directed by Hong Sang-soo

I really enjoyed In Our Day, which I'm sure surprises no one who knows how big of a Hong Sang-soo fan I am. This film started off, and honestly I wasn't sure I was feeling it, which has only happened a couple of times within his filmography, but once the poet started speaking with the young man and the documentarian and how the philosophy just slowly begins to veer into talks of soju and smoking, I just admired what it sort of set up. I guess it is technically spoilers, but in the end no matter how deeply one may feel, nothing can keep you sober but you. It all just spirals back to that green glass bottle. Hong Sang-soo and soju. A timeless combination.

12.) Love Reset - 30일
Directed by Nam Dae-joong

Really funny and genuinely sweet romcom that hit all the right notes for me. It's got the perfect couple, absurd but memorable characters (that nail a specific flavor of comedy), and then the more gentle and sweet but honest romance that a lot of Korean films get right. We also have absolutely beautiful cinematography to geek out over and a fun and fitting score that helps carry this quirky journey along. Also, the main couple just have such an excellent chemistry together, you believe their every up and down. This one plays out pretty broad, but it is loud and proud, and I was all for it. I genuinely had no expectations going in, but I adored this one. One of the highlights of the year for me. Love Reset will work extremely well for those that it does work with. An absolute blast!

11. The Devil's Deal - 대외비: 권력의 탄생
Directed by Lee Won-tae

Lee Won-tae has quickly become a favorite of mine. From his extraordinary debut, Man of Will, to his blistering The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee has proven that he knows how to craft and engaging and exciting film and his third effort, The Devil's Deal, follows this trend. What we get is a tale of corrupt politicians who know no ends to the limits they'll go to get what they want. It's the type of film that Korea does really quite well... dudes in suits beating each other to a pulp and being disgusting and charismatic in equal measure. These films are quite common from there, but I eat them up, especially when they are as well directed and intense as how director Lee makes them. It may go without saying, but Cho Jin-woong is a truly blessing to all movie goers. Here's to this incredibly versatile and always exciting actor! Political bloodbaths are boundless in this macho driven thriller.

10.) Rebound - 리바운드
Directed by Jang Hang-jun

Everything you want from a film like this is here: well executed sports action, a plethora of players to root for, and a very likable coach. It's a true underdog story from recent times in Korea, and it's just beautiful the way it is adapted. The lengths they went to for casting the right person to match their real life counterpart really impressed me during the end credits. I won't spoil it, for those unfamiliar with the team it is based on, but let's just say it'll make you laugh and cry in equal fashion. I truly loved this. You kinda know where it is leading, but the journey to get there is great. I feel like this is one of the best sports films that you could just throw on when you need a pick-me-up. The rebound metaphor and speech in the end, it's just aces. Rebound doesn't bring anything new to the genre, but sports fans are gonna eat this one up. If this one doesn't put a smile on your face, then get off the court.

9.) Hopeless - 화란
Directed by Kim Chang-hoon

Very bleak, down-trodden tale(s) of violence, both inflicted upon and towards others; the cycle of domestic abuse, and said abuse towards money, bloodlust, and alcoholism, all explored through broken characters who can never escape their daunting fates. It's a heavy film, and one that can be a tad predictable and even by-the-numbers at times, but it's the performances, the dialogue, then the mood piece feeling the cold cinematography and guitar and bass driven score that elevates this work into something truly great. The flaws present within Hopeless are easy to overlook when you view the overall picture and it's messages. I see that others aren't so won over by this one as I was, and that's okay. That's the beauty of cinema. We take away different things, and this one just happened to hit me like a ton of bricks.

8.) Noryang: Deadly Sea - 노량: 죽음의 바다
Directed by Kim Han-man

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it: Noryang is perhaps the best of the Admiral Yi Trilogy. It's got the emotion and melodrama that helped push the first film along and it takes the more war driven elements of Hansan and pushes the envelope even further. This is one brutal and sprawling conclusion to the epic naval battle journey of Yi as told by director Kim Han-min. It's been 9 years since the initial theatrical release of Roaring Currents, and the finale here is worth the wait. We are seeing a filmmaker completely in touch with his material and the passion on display is felt in every frame. The sense of scale, the thundering score, the visuals, everything just fires off on all cannons (pun intended). Noryang takes a nearly decade old franchise and pushed it into the stratosphere of great trilogies. This is the ultimate old guys yelling at each other on boats, then proceeding to shoot and stab each other film of all time.

7.) The Childe - 귀공자
Directed by Park Hoon-jung

Director Park returned with a straight scorcher after his fumble with The Witch Part 2. So glad to see him back in top form. This was a wild and entertaining as hell ride. Per usual there is just enough characterizations to get you interested in the lead and supporting characters, and everyone has a distinct and interesting persona they bring to the screen. The violence in this is brutal and oh so gleeful. Park has a formula and sticks to it, but the high octane action and his craft is nearly unmatched in Korea today. I was really nervous after his last outing, but he really brings the fire here and proves yet again that he is one of the greatest genre directors working today. If you love hyperviolent SK actioners, then The Childe will easily leave you satisfied. Best of the year material, no doubt.

6.) Sleep - 잠
Directed by Jason Yu

One of the most brilliant horror films I've seen in a long while. Harkens back to great Korean staples of early 2000s horror like Sorum. In fact, it's clear this film wants to bring back the chilly and slowly unnerving nature of that era's horror, and it works so well here. It feels cold, sterile, and again, slowly spirals into insanity, and I ate up every frame of it. The neat spool slowly falling away into a mess of threads, becoming forever entangled, which is exactly how this felt to me. The leads knocked it out of the park. Lee Sun-kyun is great and charismatic as always, carrying a more subtle performance than what he usually gives. Jung Yu-mi, however, just steals the show here. She is the core of the film, beyond the beautiful visuals and alluring score, she just carries this thing and she gives one of her very best performances to date. This film blew me away and made for one of the best horror / thriller experiences of the year.

5.) Next Sohee - 다음 소희
Directed by July Jung

A uniquely constructed film that is of two halves that harmoniously come together for an extremely impactful viewing experience yet again by July Jung, who made A Girl at My Door. I think this film is more stripped back and less loud in its emotions, and yet it is that subtly and those slow builds into expressive explosions that sat this work apart from her debut. I think she has such an honest way of exposing real world problems as is and not hesitating to really showcase the filthy and heinous ways in which our society can be against us, especially with her handling in the portrayal and exploration of mistreatment and injustices towards the youth. This is an important and bold piece of work that demand to be seen by a wider audience. Do yourself a favor and seek out July Jung's films. They speak volumes about the world, but aren't completely hopeless. It's cinema like this that can help change people for the better.

"It's good!" - John Na

4.) Killing Romance - 킬링 로맨스
Directed by Lee Won-suk

Such a bizarrely wonderful film. I absolutely fell in love with all of eccentricities that Killing Romance throws at you with every passing frame. This is a boldly made and completely fascinating work that may not sit well with everyone, but to those who give themselves over to its charms and abrasive comedic approach to storytelling and pacing, you too may fall in love with this slice of cinematic gold. John Na is the best villain character I've seen in any comedy. He is so absurd and absolutely detestable, but he is played so on the nose by Lee Sung-kyung (Parasite) that you can't help but laugh alongside his psychotic antics. Lee Honey (The Thieves) and Gong Myung (Extreme Job) are brilliant as the failing actress and ever loving fan respectively. They lend the film an emotional core and sincerity that helps to counterbalance all of the outlandish humor and chaotic nature. Comedy of the year for me, no doubt. I can't not mention the passing of Mr. Lee Sung-kyung. One of the finest actors to grace the screen, and the golden voice of Korea. He is and always will be missed. Cinema lost one of it's greatest contributors this year.

3.) Smugglers - 밀수
Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan

Probably the most old school Ryoo Seung-wan feeling film in a while. This reminded me of his early years, in particular No Blood, No Tears, but take the more grandiose nature of his recent works, and you have Smugglers. A gigantic and equally impressive ensemble and a plot that is full of many enjoyable twists and turns. The writing is snappy and the characters are great and very memorable. It's fairly light on action until the last act and then there are a couple of absolutely brilliant action setpieces that feature a plethora of stabbings, along with some brutal takedowns and fisticuffs and kicks aplenty. Those who enjoy the cinema of Ryoo Seung-wan are gonna have a lot to love here. As I mentioned, it reminds me of his early works, but definitely is a great popcorn flick and one of Korea's best offerings of the year. Not a ton to say here as the work really speaks for itself.

2.) Phantom - 유령
Directed by Lee Hae-young

Lee Hae-young is one of my favorite modern filmmakers and Phantom definitely takes that style that he is known for and ups it to astonishing levels. The film is just lushly lit and artistically framed with nearly every single shot. Occasionally it may lean into the case of style over substance here but I believe in most instances the style is the substance and it is absolute perfection. The film's genre goes from being a whodunit spy murder mystery to a full on bloody action revenge film and both halves help balance each other out fantastically. The cast is phenomenal and gives it that nice ensemble of familiar faces to enjoy as the tensions rise and they do rise quickly. Honestly it does burn rather slow initially but as soon as the characters end up in the gigantic mansion, you just have to buckle at that point, because it gets wild. This is one of those works I don't wish to spoil, but could easily go on and on about. Much like Smugglers, it builds a fresh and interesting world of characters that you find yourself getting lost in. I think this is Lee's finest hour thus far.

1.) Concrete Utopia - 콘크리트 유토피아
Directed by Um Tae-hwa

Concrete Utopia absolutely blew me away. My expectations for this film were mild, as most Korean blockbusters lately haven't quite hit me beyond an entertainment level, but this film truly got under my skin. Powerhouse performances all across the board, with extremely well written and nuanced characters. The drama gets loud at times, but given the post-apocalyptic scenario, it felt so real to me. I loved the score, and the special effects were some of the best I've seen out of any South Korean production and the cinematography in general is stunning. Some of the frames in this film are the most beautiful I've seen all year. This is how you do a blockbuster. Easily one of the best disaster films I've seen too. The genre is hit or miss for me, but this one absolutely nails it. Lee Byung-hun gives one of the best performances I've seen all year, and the rest of the cast are just on point here. This is one of those films that freaked me out, but also left me with so many emotions as the credits roll. For a big budget extravaganza, it really knows the perfect balance of artistic expression and general entertainment. It just doesn't get much better than this!

Written by Josh Parmer

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