Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen List
Oasis aka 오아시스
dir. Lee Chang Dong scr. Lee Chang Dong cin. Choi Young-taek with Sol Kyung-gu, Moon So-ri, Ahn Nae-sang, Son Byong-ho
In 100 words: Oasis is perhaps the movie on this list that comes closest to being completely terrible had it been written and directed by someone with less talent or hackneyed sense of direction. Consider the difficulty of depicting a romance between a woman with cerebral palsy and a vaguely autistic man just out from prison, it may end up like a movie-of-the-week TV special. In Lee’s hands, it becomes something deeper and more potent: he blends a naturalistic and humanistic aesthetic with flashes of hopeful fantasy to portray an unconventional but deeply romantic love, while functioning as a trenchant social critique. Exquisite.
Other Movies for Context: Lee Chang Dong is my favorite of all Korean directors working now and has produced some of the best social dramas that depict Korean society’s worst and best instincts. My personal favorite from his small but formidable filmography is Secret Sunshine (2007), a maternal melodrama about small town dynamics, grief, and religion that hinges on Jeon Do-yeon’s magnificent performance in a tricky role. Poetry (2011) focuses on an elderly woman suffering from dementia just as she opens her mind for more learning. His most crucial work, I think, however, is Peppermint Candy (1997), a stunning historical drama that basically charts the history of Korea as it transitioned post-dictatorship.
Part of the 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.
The Housemaid, aka Hanyeo or 하녀
dir. Kim Ki-young scr. Kim Ki-young cin. Kim Deok-jin with Kim Jin-kyu, Joo Jeung-ryu, Lee Eun-shim
In 100 words: A darkly comic and biting satire reflecting on Korea’s rapid modernization and the rising middle class, Housemaid eschews conventional melodrama by refusing to make one character even remotely likable while simultaneously making everyone a villain. Each character acts on their basest instincts, not unlike animals cornered. Everything about the movie is excessive: actors give breathy line readings, Kim designed the home like a horror mansion and uses diegetic music to chilling effect, yet nothing about it feels overdone. At its best, the movie’s a delirious fever dream—heightened, lurid, and even rancid, but with a self-awareness that keeps it grounded.
Other Movies for Context: Kim Ki-young remade this film twice. The one I saw, Woman of Fire (1971), is gross even by this film’s standards, although Kim’s imagery is still wonderful. Kim’s style is also a major influence on the work of major world-class Korean filmmakers today. Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Im Sang-soo all owe some of their styles to Kim. Im Sang-soo remade this movie into his 2011 film, starring Jeon Do-yeon.
Part of the 100 Greatest Films I’ve Ever Seen list.
Sopyonje aka 서편제
dir. Im Kwon-Taek (1993) scr. Kim Myung-gon cin. Jeong Il-Seong with Oh Jeong-hae, Kim Myung-gon, Kim Kyu-chul
In 100 words: In a national cinema that has confronted its turbulent past, none wrestle with history quite as achingly as Sopyonje, a moving allegory of a transitioning country. Part musical, part family drama, and part history lesson, the film’s powerful emotional expressions revolve around the rawness of pansori. At the same time, the film’s visual and sound designs suggest a director mourning a vanishing world: they capture the inherent tension between past and present that foregrounds Korea’s rapid modernization, as his itinerant performers are slowly becoming obsolete, along with the culture and values that once represented the soul of the Korean people.
Other Movies for Context: Im Kwon Taek has made so many films, some of which depict the tension between the past and present. Among the ones I’ve seen, several are fitting companions to Sopyonje: His film Chi-hwa-seon (2001) won him the Best Director award at Cannes, and portrays a painter who has gone insane. Chunhyang (2000) visualizes a traditional pansori song while using the artform’s recitation as narration. And Festival (1996) portrays Korean traditions as viewed from a modern lens.