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2012/01/14 Source

Each year I assemble my top 10 list out of the Korean films that have been released in theaters over the previous 12 months. The small independent films that I catch at the Busan or Jeonju film festivals may not be released by December, but they generally do get a small commercial release within a year or two, so I can include them in a later list.This year, however, I came across a great film that may end up not getting a commercial release, so I squeezed it in where #10 would normally go. I was racking my brain over that #10 slot anyway.

1. ""The Day He Arrives", dir, Hong Sang-soo

2. "The Journals of Musan", dir. Park Jung-bum

3. "ARIRANG - Movie", dir. Kim Ki-duk

4. ""Sunny - 2010"", dir. Kang Hyeong-cheol

5. "Come Rain Come Shine", dir. Lee Yoon-ki

6. "Animal Town", dir. Jeon Kyu-hwan

7. "Bleak Night", dir. Yoon Sung-hyun

8. "Punch", dir. Lee Han

9. "Re-encounter", dir. Min Yong-keun

+ "Out Of the Cave", dir. Ahn Kearn-Hyung

Looking over my list, I see that I've gone totally low-budget this year. If you take out ""Sunny - 2010"" and "Punch" -- which themselves are only mid-sized commercial works -- the combined production budgets of the remaining eight films probably amounts to less than So Ji-sub's acting fee for "Always". I mean that quite literally.

Hong Sang-soo has never made a bad film, but I think "The Day He Arrives" is going to remain a highlight of his filmography for me. I hear many of the director's ardent fans saying similar things. It's not that he's developed some totally new approach or anything, but this film feels like such a finely tuned expression of all that makes him interesting as a filmmaker. It's concise, gorgeously shot in black-and-white, and its mysteries beckon not as puzzles to be solved, but as patterns to be admired in themselves.

Park Jung-bum's "The Journals of Musan" has received something like 18 awards from festivals around the world, and it's not hard to understand why. A former assistant director under Lee Chang-dong, Park has demonstrated that he has real talent, and many people will be watching to see if he can emerge as a major director.

I'm not sure if the screenings of "ARIRANG - Movie" at Cinecube in December qualify as a commercial release, but anyway... this is my favorite Kim Ki-duk film. Although I sympathize with the viewer at Cannes who described it as "listening to a drunk guy in a bar talk about how he used to be famous, and how all his former friends are assholes", I think if you actually listen to what the drunk guy is saying, he touches on many of filmmaking's essential dilemmas. It's not that I believe everything that Kim is saying or staging in this film, but the work as a whole is jolting in its originality and worth being taken seriously.

""Sunny - 2010"" gets extra points for being so much fun, and for taking a story about ordinary women's lives and turning it into a 7 million ticket hit. Very few directors could have accomplished what Kang Hyeong-cheol has done in his first two films (the other being his debut Scandal Makers).

I can hear the groans at my choice for #5, Lee Yoon-ki's painfully introspective "Come Rain Come Shine", starring Hyun Bin and Lim Soo-jung. I'm willing to posit that the reason this film has stuck so firmly in my memory is because of some particular aspect of my own personal neuroses. But in the end, all criticism is personal, and there's something in the relationship portrayed here that I've never found in any other film.

"Animal Town" I think is Jeon Kyu-hwan's best film to date, and what makes it stand out is not the structure of its narrative or the clever twist at the end, but an elemental, driving energy in the portrayal of its lead characters. It's hard to describe, but many people end up articulating it in similar ways.

"Bleak Night" is another outstanding debut film -- a work that has been particularly embraced in Korea, while many international viewers seem to prefer "The Journals of Musan". No matter... there is room for two great debuts in 2011. "Punch" ("Wandeuk-i") actually could have used a bit more "Punch" in the resolution of its story, but its characters are unforgettable and it well deserves all of the 5 million+ admissions that it has recorded. Finally, "Re-encounter" ("Hyehwa, dong") achieves a great sense of intimacy and drama in its small-scale narrative, and it has bequeathed the Korean film industry a great new talent in young actress Yoo Da-in.

The "other" film on my list is the documentary "Out Of the Cave", and I'm happy to be including it on this list because it seems that there is a burgeoning creative energy among Korean documentarians. Director Ahn Kearn-Hyung shot the film at his apartment complex; most of it consists of shots of homeless cats and interviews with his sister. But what makes the film stand out is Ahn's own narration, more like an essay than the commentary you find on most documentaries. Although it begins as a thoughtful consideration of his efforts to feed the cats and make sense of his family's issues, his questions and musings become ever more abstract as we move to the latter half of the film. If this sounds frustrating or boring, it's actually pretty engaging.

Other films that almost made the list... "Dooman River": it probably should be on the list, but at times Zhang Lu's directorial decisions intrude awkwardly into the film. "Moby Dick": an involving and creatively staged thriller. "Late Autumn - 2010": its high points really soar. "Penny Pinchers": it's "just a romantic comedy", but it's a rather charming one.

By Darcy Paquet (

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