Korean DVDs

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 5:59 pm

I’m a sucker for Korean DVDs, as they offer unpredictable plots that are nothing like those found in Hollywood. The hero often dies or is left a broken individual, while the villain has a decent chance of escaping unharmed. That’s not always the case, of course, but it should illustrate that South Korean moviegoers are far more accepting of bizarre twists and downbeat endings than their mainstream American counterparts. Besides, there has to be some reason why South Korea is one of the few countries to prefer homegrown movies to imports.

In this article, I’ll be examining some of my favorite Korean DVDs, with a focus on the films released after the nation’s cinematic resurgence beginning in the late ‘90s. For those of you who would like to experience a different kind of filmmaking, I urge you to head on over to Netflix and sign up immediately. They carry all the films listed below, as well as a wide range of other unpredictable Asian motion pictures.

Memories of Murder (2003) – Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) directed this critically-acclaimed tale of the first real-life serial murderer to be active in South Korea. Kim Sang-kyung and Song Kang-ho play the police detectives who often use brutal methods to try and catch the killer, but the list of raped and murdered women keeps getting longer and longer. A success at numerous film festivals around the world, Memories of Murder would capture awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Song Kang-ho). If you’re experiencing the films of South Korea for the first time, don’t expect the usual Hollywood happy ending.

The President’s Last Bang (2005) – One of the most controversial Korean movies ever made, The President’s Last Bang details the assassination of real-life President Park Chung-hee (Song Jae-ho) by Kim Jae-kyu (Baek Yoon-sik), his friend and director of the Korean Intelligence Agency. Played as a black comedy, many South Koreans didn’t appreciate the depiction of their beloved President Park (credited with South Korea’s current economic prosperity) as a hedonist with an obsession for Japanese culture. But that shouldn’t matter to American audiences, as I’m willing to bet that 99.9% (myself included) couldn’t name one actual South Korean leader. Subversive and hilarious, it’s the kind of film that Oliver Stone would make if he were Korean.

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The Good, the Bad, & the Weird (2008) -Inspired by the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone (especially The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), this bizarre motion picture is set in Manchuria during the 1930s. A treasure map is up for grabs, and it’s being pursued by a hired killer (Lee Byung-hun as The Bad), a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung as The Good), a pistol-packing thief (Song Kang-ho as The Weird), and the Imperial Japanese Army. Chases sequences and shoot-outs abound, especially a lengthy scene near the climax where plenty of dynamite is employed. If you’re looking for a film that falls into the weird Western category, give this Korean DVD a try.

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004) – Following the success of Shiri, director Kang Je-gyu turned out this epic tale of two brothers trying to survive the brutal events of the Korean War. From the elder brother’s attempts to win South Korea’s highest honor and have his younger sibling sent back home, to the graphic depictions of life under communist rule, this war movie pulls no punches. Hailed by critics around the globe, it broke box-office records in South Korea and remains a favorite on the DVD market.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) – Park Chan-wook kicks off his Vengeance Trilogy with this powerhouse tale of Ryu, a deaf-mute factory worker (Shin Ha-kyun) trying to raise enough money for a kidney transplant for his ailing sister. Driven to the point of desperation and having already been robbed of money and a kidney by the black market, he and his terrorist girlfriend (Bae Doona) decide to kidnap the young daughter of a wealthy executive (the ubiquitous Song Kang-ho) and hold her for ransom. A fascinating tale filled with characters who are forced to follows courses of action they would otherwise find abhorrent.

Oldboy (2003) – Based on the manga of the same name, Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and has been named one of the best Asian movies ever made by a CNN poll. Oh Dae-Su (the wonderful Choi Min-sik) is a drunken businessman who finds himself abducted, locked in a hotel room for 15 years, then suddenly released back into the world and tasked with learning the identity of his captor. Live squid are devoured, grown men have their teeth pulled with a hammer, and there are plenty of other moments sure to have audiences squirming in their seats. But that’s what makes it so great, and, in my opinion, the best installment of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. Of all the South Korean movies I’ve ever seen, this one remains my favorite.

Click here to join Netflix and enjoy all these Korean DVDs.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) – Sent to prison for a murder she didn’t commit, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) is released back into society and promptly sets about pursuing vengeance on the man responsible (Choi Min-sik). Her kind-hearted and sometimes lethal behavior in prison is shown through flashbacks, and her later actions include opening a bakery, wearing red eyeshadow, and gathering together a group of similarly vengeance-minded individuals. A brutal revenge flick with a decidedly Asian bent, and the satisfying conclusion to director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy.

The Way Home (2002) – A tribute to grandmothers everywhere, The Way Home is a touching film about a young boy (Yu Seung-ho) from Seoul who goes to live temporarily with his mute grandmother (Kim Eul-boon) in a rural village. The boy is cruel at first, calling his grandmother “retard” and breaking her possessions. But as time goes by, he comes to realize how hard she works and how much she loves him. Winner of the Grand Bell Award (the South Korean equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Even non-Asians may find themselves choking back tears.

Thirst (2009) – Another film from director Park Chan-wook, this time starring (who else) Song Kang-ho as a Catholic priest who becomes a vampire due to a blood transfusion. But things get even more precarious when he falls for the unhappy wife (Kim Ok-bin) of a childhood friend. With a mixture of horror, black comedy, and plenty of gore, it’s definitely a different take on modern-day vampire movies. Kim and Song are especially effective as the star-crossed lovers, and director Park once again demonstrates why he’s one of the most inventive filmmakers working today.

Marathon (2005) – A feel-good Korean movie about a young autistic man (Jo Seung-woo) with a passion for running, the dedicated mother (Kim Mi-suk) who stands by him, and the alcoholic former marathon champ (Lee Gi-yeong) who helps him train. Winner of the 2005 Grand Bell Award for Best Picture.

While that concludes our look at Korean DVDs, keep in mind that Asia is just brimming with quality motion pictures. Trust me, you’re really doing yourself a disservice if you only stick to the big-budget Hollywood fare. Netflix carries Japanese movies, Thai movies, Chinese movies, and South Korean movies. You can click here to become a member of Netflix, and the small commission we receive will allow us to keep the doors of Only Good Movies open for a while longer.

If you’re still craving some quality films with an Asian flavor, be sure to check out the following articles:

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010 at 5:59 pm and is filed under Good Movies, New DVD Releases. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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