47. “Oasis”, Lee Chang Dong (2002)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen List

Oasis

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.

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87. “The Housemaid”, Kim Ki-young (1960)

Part of the 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

The Housemaid

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.

95. “Sopyonje”, Im Kwon-Taek (1993)

Part of the 100 Greatest Films I’ve Ever Seen list.

Sopyone

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.

Summer Movie List: “Sad Movie” (2005) dir. Kwon Jong-Kwan

This isn’t on my final 100 list because I was watching the film while typing away at my laptop about the list.

When your movie is titled “Sad Movie,” it’s hard to really get invested without feeling like you’re being manipulated into feeling things before you can even see what’s happening. If you’re a fan of Korean entertainment, you’re in for a treat because of the many movie and TV stars that are in this film. Who do they have? Jung Woo Sung, Im Soo Jung, Cha Tae-hyun being adorable and cute like always, Son Tae-young, Yeom Jeong Ah, a very young Yeo Jin Goo (in his debut), Shin Min-ah, and Lee Ki Woo. I like most of the actors listed above and all of them work really hard to make this film special.

The film tells four different stories somehow interconnected with each other. It’s a formula that has stopped working in Hollywood with duds like Valentines’ Day or New Years’ Eve (but this film precedes those). Jin Woo (Jung Woo Sung) is a firefighter looking to propose to his girlfriend Soo Jung (Im Soo Jung), a sign language translator for the news, who is always afraid for his safety in the job. Her sister Soo-eun (Shin Min-ah) is a deaf girl with a facial scar, working as a mascot at a theme park, hiding her face behind a giant mask. She has a crush on a theme park artist Sanggyu (Lee Ki Woo), who is planning on studying abroad within a month. In another story, unemployed Jung Ha Seok (Cha Tae Hyun) gets dumped by his girlfriend Sukhyun (Son Taeyoung), a cashier at a grocery store, because he doesn’t have stable employment. He then got a job delivering break-up messages to people. Lastly, Yeom Joo Young (Yeom Jung Ah) is a busy mom who spends little time with her son Hee-chan (Yeo Jin Goo). But when a cancer diagnosis leaves her in the hospital, Jooyoung and her son reconnect.

The story is full of humor and a lot of sentimental moments that perfectly honors its title even if the director sometimes strains too hard for emotional effect. Each frame is flooded with light, seeping through windows, and giving the film an ethereal glow that makes the film like a scene in the afterlife. The soundtrack is light and peppy but juxtaposed against the sadder moments, it seems almost destined to make you cry. The best scenes in the film are the ones between Soo-eun and Sanggyu, who makes such a cute-looking couple, but is doubly funny because most of their scenes involve physical and visual humor.

What I don’t buy about the entire film is just how contrived each moment feels, which is a problem with films with overlapping stories in general. Nothing in each story really affects any other story but they all overlap in one way or another as if to say that they all exist in the same world. In other words, logic doesn’t really play into how the story is set-up but it’s designed for maximum star visibility.

But at the same time, those actors really make this film more enjoyable than it really should be. Cha Tae-hyun, even if I’ve seen him do this kind of acting a million times, is just so good at acting like a schlub but a lovable one. He nails his one dramatic scene but he’s just as good, if not better, in his lighter and funnier scenes. Yeom Jung Ah is a wonderful actress and she proves what a tremendous dramatic actor she is with the slow-burning reaction shots and the gentle but firm way she scolds her son. Lastly, Yeo Jin Goo’s debut performance promises such a bright future and I can see what makes him special in later films and TV shows here.

Ultimately, the film proves to be a good watch, even if it is disposable.

Rating: B-