Top 10 Korean Films of 2014

December 29, 2014
This is a scene from "A Girl at My Door" directed and written by July Jung, and stars Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron.  (Courtesy of CGV Movie Collage)

This is a scene from “A Girl at My Door” directed and written by July Jung, and stars Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron. (Courtesy of CGV Movie Collage)

By Jason Bechervaise

2014 has been yet another compelling year for Korean cinema. Audience numbers exceeded 100 million for the third consecutive year spearheaded by the success of the naval epic “Roaring Currents” that broke almost every record to become the most successful film of all time in the local box office.

Yet, the local market share has dropped to the current 48.9 percent compared to last year’s 58 percent, which is reflective of a strong year for Hollywood films including the unprecedented success of Disney’s “Frozen” and Christopher Nolan “Interstellar” that both amassed over 10 million admissions.

Nevertheless, this year has seen the release of a number of accomplished Korean films, though I would argue that commercial films, by in large, have been weaker compared to last year. But independent Korean cinema, especially documentaries are going through a particular exciting phase as evident in the top 10 films I’ve compiled for this year.

1. A Girl At My Door

Although it wasn’t a hit with audiences, and not all critics responded to it in the same way, it’s reminiscent of the very best contemporary Korean cinema has to offer. Directed by July Jung, her feature debut follows a police officer played by the magnificent Bae Doo-na as she is relocated to a remote fishing town to take on the role as the new police chief, and befriends a troubled young girl called Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron) who is being abused by her stepfather. Produced by the renowned auteur Lee Chang-dong, it shares his appetite for engrossing social critique, but the film’s delicate dark humor and its focus on female relationships differentiates it from his work.

2. A Dream of Iron

It’s been a golden year for documentaries, not least with the tremendous success of “My Love, Don’t Cross That River”, but “A Dream of Iron” is in a league of its own. Focusing on Korea’s ironworks and shipbuilding industries in the 1960s through to the present day, Kelvin Kyung Kun Park provides a fascinating and spiritual look at the country’s manufacturing industry through some extraordinary cinematography accompanied by a rich and hypnotic soundtrack.

3. Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits

Tackling the subject of shamanism in a very accessible and insightful manner, this documentary follows the life of Kim Keum-hwa, Korea’s most prolific living shaman. Directed by Park Chan-kyong, brother of Park Chan-wook, he mixes documentary footage with reconstructed scenes from her earlier life played by Kim Sae-ron, Ryu Hyun-kyung and Moon So-ri and expertly applies it to a historical and cultural framework.

4. Haemoo

Released not long after “Roaring Currents” “Haemoo” directed by Shim Sung-bo, unfortunately, struggled to find an audience, but it is far superior to Kim Han-min’s period navel epic. Co-written and produced by Bong Joon ho who worked with Shim on his masterpiece “Memories of Murder” (2003), it’s the strongest commercial film of the year owing to its terrific mise-en-scene, lighting and how it utilizes the limited space of a fishing vessel where, based on a true story, the captain and crew smuggle 25 illegal Korean-Chinese immigrants.

5. A Hard Day

Action-thrillers can often run out of steam, but “A Hard Day” is an enthralling viewing experience from start to finish. Kim Seong-hun’s witty and socially conscious script about a detective played by Lee Sun-kyun digging a hole for himself after a hit and run accident explores issues such as corruption has been well-received both home and abroad.

6. Futureless Things

One of the appealing characteristics of Korean cinema, especially lower budget films, is how they convey different areas of society and culture. This little seen film is an endearing example of what the independent industry is capable of delivering. Kim Kyung-mook’s enchanting and episodic narrative takes place in a convenience store painting a portrait of those who are part of contemporary Korean society.

7. Confession

This impressive debut by Lee Do-yun adds a stylistic flare to the conventional tale of friendship when a faked robbery goes awry and results in the death of a gambling arcade owner that puts the relationship between three close friends in jeopardy. Visually outstanding, and includes notable performances by the leads: Ji Sung, Ju Ji-hoon and Lee Kwang-soo.

8. Hill of Freedom

A genuine criticism of Hong Sang-soo is that he has become repetitive and so his strongest work tends to emerge when he does something different. In his latest feature, he masterfully uses English to his advantage playing with language and stereotypes in humorous and stimulating fashion as Ryo Kase plays a Japanese man who travels to Seoul in search for a woman (Seo Young-hwa) he still has feelings for.

9. Gyeongju

It’s slow-paced, but Zhang Lu’s story of a Beijing-based Korean professor (Park Hae-il) searching for a painting in a teahouse in the quaint city of Gyeongju is a thoroughly absorbing tale of nostalgia that shares much in common with Hong Sang-soo’s filmmaking tendencies. Also stars Shin Min-a on excellent form playing the teahouse proprietor who forms a connection with the professor.

10. My Place

The third and final documentary to feature in this top ten, “My Place” focuses on the rarely discussed topic of single motherhood in Korea. Directed by Park Moon-chil who follows his sister and parents as they adjust to the news that their daughter is to raise a child without a father, it’s a rare and insightful glimpse into the issues they face.