Did you count down the waning minutes until 2016?
If you did, you were definitely not alone. From parties and fireworks celebrations to news coverage, people are eager to move onto 2016. But before we fully transition to the new year, we look back in Korean cinema of 2015.
The theme in Korean films of 2015 were the big blockbuster domestic hits, as Korean films are strong in the mainland. Heck, a Korean film released during Star Wars mania, Himalayas, actually outsold Star Wars: A Force Awakens on opening week.
One positive trend of this year’s Korean cinema is diversity. This year had a healthy mix of blockbusters, documentaries, indie films, and film festival movies to see.
Yet, if you wanted to see the big directors this year, you’d be out of luck. Many of the big directors — Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Na Hong-jin, Kim Jee-woon — all stayed on the sidelines this year in preparation for 2016.
But some of the films released in 2015 were incredible, especially in the top 5. Two of the films on the list also made it on the top 10 highest grossing Korean movies.
Knowing that, 2015 can’t be that bad, even with the big name directors sitting out, no?
Of course, we couldn’t see every film Korea had to offer in 2015. But like in our favorite Japanese films of 2015, we tried our best in seeing as many as we could.
Before unveiling our top 10 favorites, here’s two honorable mentions.
Honorable Mention: The Silenced
Taking place in 1938 in Korea occupied Japan, a young girl Joo-ran (Park Bo-young) is admitted to a boarding school. The school is run by a strict principal (Eom Ji-won) in a remote area.
Upon arriving, Joo-ran meets the other girls in the school, sees the bullying taking place inside the building, and meets a new friend, Yeon-deok. Nothing too usual at this school yet.
However, Joo-ran soon discovers the boarding school has a mystery of its own. Girls start disappearing. Creepy occurrences randomly happen inside the school. Hallucinations are seen.
Joo-ran finds out that the previous girl who she’s replacing had the same name as her. As she starts taking medicine to get over an illness, she starts to slowly uncover the school’s creepy secret.
While The Silenced could be taken as a horror film at first glance, it fits more into the mystery genre. What’s refreshing about the film is that unlike the usual plot of horror / mystery films, tales of revenge and cheap scares, the movie goes outside the box.
A special mention should be made to the actresses Park Bo-young and Eom Ji-won. The two actresses’ both deliver a great performance, especially Park’s acting in the end of the film.
Honorable Mention: The Throne
Another film that could have made this list is The Throne. Staring Yoon Ah-in, the film shows the story of Crown Prince Sado during the mid-1700s. It’s a touching, tragic drama depicting his life and succession to the Joseon dynasty.
With the honorable mentions out of the way, let’s take a look at our favorite 10 Korean films that we’ve seen that left us with the biggest impression.
10. The Office
As many of you can attest, the workplace can be filled with petty politics, backstabbing, and stress. The gore-thriller, The Office, shows this dark side of working for the “man/woman”.
When salaryman Kim Byung-guk (Bae Seong-Woo) comes back home, his family does not notice anything unusual at first. As he pulls out a hammer, they notice it’s a bit odd, but not really a big deal.
Until he slaughters his entire family, including his disabled son.
In turn, the police immediately start looking for him.
Detective Choi Jung-hoon (Park Sung-woong) and his team check into Cheil, a food company, to question Byung-guk’s co-workers at Sales Team 2. Choi rose through the ranks and became one of the managers in his section.
At first, his co-workers agree to tell the police as little as possible. His co-workers all vouch that Choi was a dependable and hard-worker. Yet, Detective Choi soon catches on that he was not well-liked within his division.
As the film delves deeper into what happened, the viewer witness the nastiness of office politics, gossip, overwork, and bullying behind the scenes, the very things that drove Choi into madness.
9. Coin Locker Girl
The film opens with a mother holding a bloody knife to her daughter’s throat, Il-young. The viewer immediately wonders “what the hell is going on”?
Going back in time to 1996, a beggar finds a newborn girl in a subway coin locker in Incheon. The beggar names the girl Il-young, after the locker number “10” that she was found in.
She lives with the homeless community until she is eight, yet is soon picked up by a corrupt cop named Taek. The cop passes Il-young to her adoptive mother, whom everyone calls “mom”.
Her new adoptive mom is not just any mom with a kind heart and room for one more. She’s actually a female mob boss. Sensing potential in her new daughter, “mom” teaches the innocent Il-young the tools of being a crime lord. She learns how to beg convincingly, loan shark, forging ID cards, and making debtors pay up, which includes murder if need be.
Yet, when Il-young meets a son of a debtor, Seok-hyun, she soon has a change of heart to kill his father to collect his debt.
8. 4th Place
A former Asian Games record breaker and Olympic tryout, Kim Gwang-su, endures beatings, abuse, and constant ridicule from his swimming coach. To justify this abusive behavior, his coach constantly reminded Gwang-su, “this is for your own good!”
After all, to his coach, if you’re not winning gold, you’ve failing miserably. Kim soon turns a blind eye towards swimming and turns to gambling and drinking after his swimming career.
Sixteen years later, Kim is washed up, with his glory swimming days well-behind him. One day, a mother visit his aquarium and asks Kim to become his son’s coach. His mother knew about Kim’s swimming feats 16 years earlier and thought he could replicate his success onto her son. The mother’s son, Jin-ho, had a pattern of always placing 4th in his swimming matches.
While Jin-ho improves rapidly at first, he soon becomes trapped into an inescapable pattern of abuse, torments, beats, and “this is for your own good” reminders. Kim soon realizes that the abusive pattern set by his coach onto him is now carried over from him to Jin-ho.
Yet, Kim does not know any other way to coach and faces an uphill battle to stop his destructive coaching habits.
7. The Chronicles of Evil
Detective Choi Chang-sik’s (Son Hyun-joo) career is on the rise. About to be promoted to captain, he just attended an award ceremony that makes his promotion a foregone conclusion.
Life looks good for detective Choi until one fateful night.
During his celebration party, he has some drinks with his team. Seeing how it’s getting late, he hails a taxi to go home to his family.
Yet, he soon realizes that the taxi driver is not taking him home. After telling the taxi driver to stop, the driver instead takes him to a secluded mountain.
Once the car stops, the cab driver takes out a knife and attempts to kill Detective Choi. After a life-and-death struggle, Choi kills the taxi driver in self-defense.
However, Choi knows that being involved in a murder, even in self-defense, would seriously damage his career. As he flees the scene without reporting his fight to the police, someone was watching the entire scene unfold.
To add to Choi’s troubles, the taxi driver’s body is found attached to a crane in Seoul the next day. With this new murder case being the talk of the nation, Choi knows he’s in trouble.
Just from one night, Choi’s life is turned upside down.
He is now confronted with a life-changing decision. Does he tell the truth to his own team? Or does he cover up the very crime scene he was involved in?
6. Gangnam Blues
During the 1970s, two orphans, Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho) and Yong-gi (Kim Rae-won) sell trash found on the street to get by. They soon find themselves freezing, as they cannot afford heating.
When a gang offers the two kids a job, they immediately jump on it. Yet, during one of their jobs, they become separated when trying to break up a political demonstration.
Three years later, they meet up as rivals from different gangs. Their gangs are fighting over the farmland south of the Han River known today as the ritzy Gangnam area. Their friendship will soon be severely tested against their gang loyalties.
One of the lead stars, Lee Min-ho, is mega-popular within Asia. While it is easy to dismiss him as “just another pretty boy”, he does a convincing job as a gangster on the rise. Veteran Kim Rae-won also does a great job selling the rivalry and becoming a gangster to be reckoned with.
5. Reach for the SKY
Ever thought there’s one moment in life that can change your entire life?
To many young Koreans, the suneung — Korean SATs taken in high school — is that moment. Do well on the suneung and they can attend one of the three golden universities in Korea, SKY (Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University) while setting themselves up with a good career for life.
Co-directed by Choi Woo-young and Belgium’s Steven Dhoedt, “Reach for the SKY” tackles a subject that is hits home to Koreans. The film follows three teenagers and a teacher throughout the suneung experience during the last year of high school.
The preparation, stress, late night studying, and lack of sleep are all detailed in the film. The movie also answers the “what if I fail the test” question. These students have to repeat the test next year.
As co-director Choi says about Korean education, “I wanted to show this reality in which less than one percent of teenagers can be winners and the rest call themselves miserable losers.”
4. Inside Men
Dealing with the dark, corrupt media manipulation, Inside Men reveals a story of various politicians fighting for power and ego.
When Ahn Sang-goo (Lee Byung-hun) uses his media connections to help a conservative newspaper editor and congressman in a presidential campaign, he secretly makes a deal. By helping the two, he would pocket the money of the newspaper’s largest sponsor.
Yet, someone is onto Ahn. Woo Jang-hoo, an ambitious prosecutor, sees something fishy with Ang. Knowing that exposing this scandal could make him rise to the top fast, he investigates Sang-goo’s relationship with the editor and congressman.
However, Ahn won’t go down so easily. He is already plotting revenge against the budding prosecutor. The battle lines between the various parties for power, revenge, and success are soon drawn.
Set in 1933 during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, an order is given to assassinate two high-profile targets. One of the targets is Kawaguchi Mamoru, the Japanese garrison governor in Gyeongseong, and Kang In-gook, a pro-Japanese Korean business tycoon.
To carry out this mission, a small group of pro-Korean independence leaders in hiding carry out this daunting task. In turn, these commanders choose three assassins to do the job. Explosives specialist Hwang Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon); Chu Sang-ok (Cho Jin-woong), a graduate from the Independence Military School; and Ahn Ok-yun (Jun Ji-hyun), a deadly sniper are assigned to the mission.
However, among the group is a traitor that is secretly working for the Japanese. This unknown agent secretly hired two mercenaries to kill off the assassins and foil the plan.
Assassination represents one of the big blockbusters in 2015 and rightfully so. With well-known stars, such as Jun Ji-hyun, Cheon Song-yi, and Lee Jung-jae, a high production value, and a compelling narrative, the film presents the 1930s beautifully.
The planning and strategy will make the viewer wonder “will they actually pull off the assassinations despite heavy Japanese security”? The action scenes are also well-shot, with gun battles, explosives, and car chases all sharing screen time.
Two knocks on the film are its length and over dramatic style in some scenes. The film could have been a good 10 to 15 minutes less and be more streamlined. The extra melodrama that usually appear in Korean movies also rears its head in Assassination as well, for better or worse.
However, even with these two knocks, the film still holds up as a great movie to watch.
Assassination, like it’s 2015 brethren, The Veteran, surpassed the prestigious 10 million tickets sold mark. The film is currently (as of April 2016) the 7th highest grossing movie in Korean film history.
Assassination brings back the 1930s in grand style and gives a glimpse what it was like during this era.
2. Right Now, Wrong Then
A romantic story directed by Hong Sang-soo Right Now, Wrong Then is a twist on the Groundhog Day-deja vu scenario.
It plays to the question of “what if I did this instead.” In fact, the movie is split into two halves, each half representing a different decision.
In the first half of the film, arthouse film director Chun-Soo (Jung Jae-Young) arrives in Suwon to give a special lecture. Since he arrives one day earlier, he decides to visit the Hwaseong Palace. He meets a painter, Hee-Jung (Kim Min-Hee), who recognizes him, but has never seen any of his films. They spend the rest of the day together, seeing her paintings, eating sushi, and attending Hee-Jung’s friend’s party at night.
Yet, before sunrise the next day, Chun-Soo reveals something unexpected to Hee-Jung. This harsh confession kills their connection immediately and destroys their newfound relationship. But perhaps another choice can be made.
The second half of the film is aptly named Right Then, Wrong Now and in true Groundhog Day fashion, repeats the same day. Starting from when Chun-Soo arrives in Suwon, he makes different choices to hopefully avoid the disastrous bad ending in the first half.
In the end, the viewer will wonder “was Chun-Soo’s decision better during the first or second half of the film”?
Taking a break from the more serious films on this list is Veteran, a crime-comedy film.
The film starts off with cheerful Seoul police detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min) on a mission to bust a gang of car smugglers. But while investigating this high-profile case, Seo finds out that someone is pulling the strings.
He soon finds out that an arrogant young millionaire Jo Tae-oh from the powerful Sinjin company is using his connections, wealth, and power. However, no matter how rigorously Seo’s team pursues him, Jo is one step ahead of the police and evades Seo’s team.
Yet, when a violent incident happens in Jo’s very own office, Seo knows that Jo is hiding something.
The film does a great job in building up the veteran cop, Seo, as a hot-headed, yet officer who fights for justice. Viewers will instantly root for Seo, as he attempts to take down Tae-oh, who plays his role as a shady, rude, and off-putting influencer.
Unlike many other crime thrillers or police films, Veteran is laced with comedy and gags. Self-mockery is shown, jokes are plenty, and banter add liveliness and breaks up the seriousness of a police movie.
Women are also shown kicking ass, as Seo’s teammate, Miss Bong (Jang Yoon-ju), takes out the criminals with her Taekwondo kicks. The detective’s wife is also no slouch, shrugging off a bribe and verbally destroying the offender in the process.
Veteran became an instant hit, surpassing the prestigious 10 million tickets sold mark. The film is currently (as of April 2016) the 3rd highest grossing movie in Korean film history.
If the film doesn’t impress you enough, Veteran’s final fight scene is also pretty epic and will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat.
What’s your favorite Korean films of 2015?
To recap, here are our picks:
10. The Office
9. Coin Locker Girl
8. 4th Place
7. The Chronicles of Evil
6. Gangnam Blues
5. Reach for the SKY
4. Inside Men
2. Right Now, Wrong Then
Making a best movies of the year list is never easy. Honestly, our top 3 could have been in any order and I wouldn’t have any objections. Assassination, Right Now, Wrong Then, and Veteran are that good.
But now, it’s over to you.
What do you think? What are your favorite Korean films of 2015? Let us know in the comments below!