South Korean cinema, and particularly the mainstream part, has been developing at an uncanny pace since the beginning of the New Wave, which started during the last years of the 90s, and resulted in the renewed interest of local audiences for local movies. “Shiri” (1999) kickstarted the phenomenon by becoming the first film in South Korean history to sell more than two million tickets in Seoul alone. The success continued with a number of other blockbusters while by the 2000s, and particularly after “Old Boy”, the country’s cinema started to attract significant international attention. The “trend” continued during the next years, and currently, S. Korean film industry is considered among the top in the world, with directors that have shot movies in Hollywood (Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho) actors that have become international stars (Bae Doona, Lee Byung-hun) and awards from most of the top festivals in the world (Lee Chan-dong for “Burning” and Bong Joon-ho for “Parasite”)
However, in terms of inspiration and actual context, the roots of this trend can be traced in the 80s, when the end of the long period of dictatorship resulted in the release of almost two decades of compressed creativity, in another surge that continued until the beginning of the 90s.
Further back, the Golden Age of S. Korean cinema is placed between 1955 and 1972, when a number of films that are considered still among the best (“The Housemaid”, “Aimless Bullet”) were released.
With all that in mind, and on the occasion of the anniversary of 100 years of Korean cinema, we decided to list 100+1 S. Korean films that we believe are among the most notable the local industry has ever produced.
Thankfully, the Korean Film Archive has given us the opportunity to watch a number of films that were produced before the New Wave, dating back to the 1930, thus expanding our view of Korean cinema quite significantly. Unfortunately, we have not managed to watch movies that were produced before the split, and thus, this list is by no means complete regarding the whole history of Korean cinema. Furthermore, 101 is not an adequate number to present every noteworthy film since the 50s and thus, a number of excellent productions were not included (we will not tell you which).
In our effort, we included films not only for their sheer cinematic quality but also for their significance, while a number of titles were included just because we like them (they call it personal taste, I think). At some degree, we also tried to have diversity in the selection, both in terms of directors and context.
Without further ado, here are 101 films that we believe every cinephile should watch.
1. Hand of Destiny (Han Hyeong-mo, 1954)
Margaret (Jeong-ae, Yoon In-ja), a North Korean spy and madam of a cabaret, saves Sin Yeong-cheol (Lee Hyang), who is on the run as a thief under suspicion. In-Ja, who loves him, helps him escape after caring for him and giving him food. One day Margaret happens to meet Yeong-cheol, who works as a manual laborer on the wharf. She buys him clothes and shoes and confesses her love for him. Later they are happy as lovers, but she is uncomfortable remembering herself as a spy. One night after they had made love, she happens to see his ID card which identifies him as an anti-espionage lieutenant. Shocked, she then tries to avoid him and he is heartbroken.
2. Piagol (Lee Kang-cheon, 1955)
A group of communist guerillas encounter jealousy and rivalry among themselves because of the presence of the female compatriot while one of their members plots to desert their band
3. Madame Freedom (Han Hyung-mo, 1956)
Oh Seon-Yeong accepts a job as a cosmetics store manager to supplement her husband’s small income as a professor. Their next door neighbor frequently professes his attraction to her, and she allows him to teach her dancing and introduce her to alcohol. Her boss’ husband also begins a flirtation with her which escalates to the point of being found by his wife as they are about to consummate their “dating.” Meanwhile, her husband faces a strong attraction to a pretty woman in a grammar class he teaches for secretaries, frequently staying out late walking with her, though he resists her request to take matters further. Her neglect of their son, coupled with anonymous warnings her husband receives about her behavior, result in her being thrown out of the home – the film closes with her weeping outside the gate. The son begs to see her one last time, forcing the father to reluctantly allow him to say goodbye to his mother before she is left on the streets.
4. The Flower in Hell (Shin Sang-ok, 1958)
Living in a whores’ village Yeong-sik (Kim Hak) and his company rob US military warehouses of goods and sell them on the black market. His younger brother Dong-sik (Jo Hae-won) comes up to Seoul to look for him. Running into his brother at a market, Yeong-sik takes him into the village. Dong-sik asks Yeong-sik to go down to their hometown where their mother awaits them, but Yeong-sik tells him to go ahead on his own. Yeong-sik proposes to Sonya (Choi Eun-hee) to go home with him and marry him once he had made his fortune. Meanwhile Sonya seduces Dong-sik one night at a dance party while Yeong-sik and his company are stealing goods. Sonya and Dong-sik have a good time by the riverside. Seeing them, Yeong-sik goes off to rob US delivery trucks of goods. In order to run away with Dong-sik, Sonya reports this to the Military Police. They chase him and Yeong-sik is under fire, but he escapes narrowly when a truck turns over. Yeong-sik stabs Sonya and asks Dong-sik to take care of their mother before he shoots himself. Dong-sik goes home with a prostitute Judy (Kang Seon-hee), who wishes to marry him.
5. The Housemaid (Kim Ki-young, 1960)
“The Housemaid” was first released on 1960/11/03, The digital restored version of the 1960 erotic thriller by Kim Ki-young was invited by Martin Scorsese to the Cannes Film Festival. It is about an alluring young woman who becomes involved in an illicit sexual relationship while working for a middle-class couple.
6. Aimless Bullet (Yu Hyun-mok, 1961)
Through an indigent family living a destitute life, he reveals the difficulties of postwar Korean society. Accountant clerk Cheol-ho, his disabled vet brother and the rest of the family tries to cope with harsh reality only to see them fail, losing the direction of which they’re heading in the process.
7. The Seashore Village (Kim Soo-yong, 1965)
A woman in a fishing village is widowed when her husband dies in a fishing boat. She has a liaison with a mainland man who is drafted. She goes insane and waits on a mountain for the return of her husband. Based on a novel.
8. The General’s Mustache (Lee Song-gu, 1966)
One day, a photographer Kim Cheol-hoon is found dead. To solve the mysteries of this sudden death, the crafty detective Park (Kim Seung-ho) begins an investigation with a young and smart detective (Kim Seong-ok) and interviews people related to Kim Chul-hoon. He meets Kim’s landlord and his younger sister without success. Then the detectives meet a novelist Han Jung-woo who sent a letter to Chul-woon and hears about 『The General’s Mustache』 , a novel Kim wrote after meeting the novelist Han. It’s a story about every person in the country growing a mustache to follow the general who played a crucial role in the independence of the country except for the main character who disagreed. Eventually, the main character becomes a lonely and isolated person. Hearing the plot of the novel doesn’t lead detectives anywhere. Next, they hear more in detail about Kim Chul-hoon from Shin-hye (Yoon Jeong-hee), a former dancer who used to be Kim’s lover. According to Shin-hye’s story, Kim was a romantic man but had trouble adapting to reality. Shin-hye was attracted to the romantic air that Kim had but eventually leaves him. Kim’s death takes place after their parting. Detectives conclude Kim’s death was a suicide.
9. Early Rain (Jung Jin-woo, 1966)
One rainy day, a car mechanic Cheol (Kang-Shin Sung-il) coincidentally meets Yeong-hee (Moon Hee) who is a housemaid at the French ambassador’s house. Cheol was a man with great passion for success and introduces himself as the son of a rich businessman and acts as if the luxury sedan belongs to him. Attracted to Cheol, Yeong-hee introduces herself as the daughter of the French ambassador. They make a promise to date only on rainy days when Yeong-hee could wear an expensive French raincoat and hide her true identity. However, as the romantic dates on rainy days continue, they fall more deeply in love. At the same time, Yeong-hee is conscious-stricken by her lies. Finally, she decides to confess everything to Cheol. However, Cheol could not hide his anger and disappointment as his passion and expectation for social success and advancement crumbles into dust. In the end, he decides to leave Yeong-hee.
10. A Water Mill (Lee Man-hee, 1966)
There is a poor farmer couple. The landowner, an old man, covetous of the tenant’s wife, tries to seduce her and sometimes threatens her. The wife spends every night with the old man at the water mill. Her husband, hearing the news, runs to the water mill and witnesses them together. He picks up the sickle that was placed near and kills his wife. The landowner escapes and the farmer gets arrested by a Japanese policeman.
11. Flame in the Valley (Kim Soo-yong, 1967)
In this melodrama, a man in a village in Jirisan hides a Communist soldier who has sneaked into the area. A widow, finding the soldier in the bamboo grove, visits him and carries on a sexual relationship with him. When she discovers she is pregnant, she commits suicide. When the villagers burn the woods to drive out remaining Communist guerillas, the man who has hidden the soldier perishes in an attempt to rescue him. The drama is based on a novel.
12. Woman on Fire (Kim Ki-young, 1971)
Dong-sik and Myeong-ja are found dead near a poultry farm, with twelve stab wounds. The police, assuming that this is a robbery case, start investigation. One day Myeong-ja, comes to work for free at the farm, in order to marry well. Dong-sik, a songwriter, becomes close to Hye-suk who wants to be a singer. However Myeong-ja comes in between them, and gets pregnant with Dong-sik’s child. When Dong-sik’s wife Jeong-sook finds out about it, she forces her to have an abortion. Myeong-ja, in turn, poisons Dong-sik’s son Chang-sun. Jeong-sook tries to kill Myeong-ja with rat poison, but is trapped by Myeong-ja and cornered.
13. Insect Woman (Kim Ki-young, 1972)
A schoolgirl goes from braids to bouffant when her mother makes her a bar hostess/prostitute. She cures impotence for Professor Lee and becomes his concubine. His entrepreneurial wife is initially shocked but soon accepts the arrangement and even gives the girl and allowance.
14. The Road to Sampo (Lee Man-hee, 1975)
Going through a jail and a site of construction, a young laborer Yeong-dal meets middle aged Mr. Jeong on his way to his hometown Sampo after ten years’ absence. They become to know a waitress Baek-hwa who runs away from a restaurant and then, they travel together. Arriving at the destination Kangcheon Station, Mr. Jeong is disappointed at the changes of the old village by building a hotel. Yeong-dal and Mr. Jeong stay at Sampo not as the hometown but as the site of living. Baek-hwa leaves Sampo with a ticket Yeong-dal buys her with his last money.
15. The March of Fools (Ha Gil-jong, 1975)
Majoring in Philosophy at college, Byeong-tae gets acquainted with Yeong-ja who majors in French literature, through a group meeting. With the influence of rapidly propagated Western culture, these youngsters with the styles of 1970’s are in the agonies of families, schools and jobs. Though this agony has the color of humor and self-scorn, it grows up for the bright and merry future. There is no promise of love between Byeong-tae and Yeong-ja. They just meet and talk. On the day when Byeong-tae enters the military service, Yeong-ja kisses Byeong-tae through the troop train window.
16. Io Island (Kim Ki-young, 1977)
When a man from an island ruled by women disappears, the man suspected of killing him investigates his past.
17. The Last Witness (Lee Doo-Yong, 1980)
Ji-hye, the daughter of an army captain, receives a treasure map from her father just hours before he is killed by communist guerillas in the mountains near their home. While the communists are defeated, several escape the battle and begin a quest to track down the map and make its secrets their own.
18. A Fine, Windy Day (Lee Jang-ho, 1980)
Three friends, Duk-bae, Chun-sik, and Kil-nam, work each at a suburban Chinese restaurant, a barbershop, and a motel. The three friends are clueless about their future. They just share the drinks and love stories. Kil-nam is in love with Jin-ok working at a hair salon and Chun-sik is after Yu who also works at the barbershop. Naive Duk-bae’s mind is torn between Chun-sun who works at a factory and an uptown girl Myung-hi. Their daily lives are never quiet. Chun-sik goes to jail for assault and Kil-nam departs to serve in the military. Three of them part with a promise that they will never give in to the hardships of life.
19. People in the Slum (Bae Chang-ho, 1982)
In the poor district of town, there lived a woman known as the Black Glove. Taking her young son, she remarries a man named Tae-seop whom nobody knows anything about. Tae-seop has an enormous secret. He relies on the Black Glove to support him. One day, Joo-seok, her ex-husband shows up. He’s been released from jail and is now a cabbie. The almost ruined Kil-ja yearns for the neighborhood minister, Gong. The Black Glove decides to give up her ex-husband and her son. An innocent widow who has lost her husband shows up and reveals Tae-seop’s secret. Tae-seop had committed murder but the stature of limitations is almost over on the crime. Tae-seop changes due to the widow’s compassion. The Black Glove and her son leave the district.
20. Village of Haze (Im Kwon-taek, 1982)
Soo-ok’s first post is at an elementary school at a mountain village. In tattered rags, Kkae-cheol stands at the village entrance with a strange glint in his eyes. There is something frightening about him. Kkae-cheol is a stranger in the village. One day, Hwa-chun beats Kkae-cheol up saying that he’s rape his wife. All the villagers say that Kkae-cheol is impotent. Soo-ok goes to greet her fiancee one day. When he doesn’t come, Soo-ok returns disheartened. She goes into an oil warehouse to escape the rain. There, Soo-ok is drawn to Kkae-cheol and they make love. The villagers completely ignore Kkae-cheol and his presence is hardly felt in the village. The day Soo-ok leaves, a newly appointed female teacher arrives, seeing the brightly lit eyes of Kkae-cheol.