Over the past year or so I've gotten a lot of opportunities to watch some older Korean movies. While I know Park Chan Wook's movies, like 'Oldboy' and various action movies such as 'The Host' have become international sensations, personally, I'm into more lighthearted films. I've compiled a list of the top five comedies that I've seen recently, most of which are older, never really hit the international scene and are not very well known. They may not be the easiest to track down, but if you can find them, they will be well worth watching!
웰컴 투 동막골: Welcome to Dongmakgol
Directed by : 박광현 Park Kwang Hyeon
Actors: 정재영 (Jeong Jae-Yeong), 신하균 (Sin Ha-Gyoon), 강혜정(Kang Hye-Jeong)
Rewind to the Korean war. While war rages on around the Korean peninsula, one idyllic town in the mountains still remains untouched and oblivious to the chaos that surrounds them. That is, until a mysterious machine (an airplane) drops from the sky, carrying a strange man with blue eyes and blonde hair (an American GI). The townfolk are baffled by this mysterious man and his odd metal contraption, but soon the war is brought to them when two South Korean soldiers and three North Korean soldiers wander in and create a stand off in the middle of the village. In the end, the only victim of the stand-off is the village's food supply which was accidentally blown up by a grenade.
Feeling responsible (and trapped with allied forces closing in on all sides), the North Korean solders offer to stay and help the villagers to restock their food supply, and the South Korean solders are also guilted into helping as well. As one would expect, comedy ensues. However, the little magic spell that has been cast over this town seems to take hold of the soldiers as well and allow for reconciliation.
I really love this movie. It reminds us that North Koreans and South Koreans are just humans after all. They are enemies because of what their governments have told them. In this little idyllic town of Dongmakgol, those problems between them cease to matter and the soldiers just become human beings again.
나의 결혼원정기: Wedding Campaign
Directed by: Hwang Byung-kook
Actors: 수애 (Soo Ae), 정재영 (Jeong Jae-young), 유준상 (Yoo Jun-Sang)
This comedy, which premiered in 2006, lightheartedly touches upon some really serious issues in Korea today. The story revolves around two men from the country who are in their late 30's and come to the realization that they still aren't married. Parents and grandparents are starting to put pressure on them to find someone to help run their house. Some other folks in town have started to bring home wives from a country they can't pronounce, but sounds something like Uz-u-be-ku. They can't find it on a map, but they decide that they will go there to find a young, pretty bride to bring home.
The country is in fact Uzbekistan, and on upon arriving, they find themselves amidst a corrupt buisness of selling Uzbek brides to South Korean men. It takes them a while to realize it, too, but their translator is a North Korean defector who has adopted a South Korean accent and is trapped in her miserable job until she can afford to buy fake South Korean passports from her boss so she can finally stop running from the law.
This is really a hidden gem of a movie. It touches on many current issues; such as North Korean defectors, wedding culture in South Korea and the issue of international marriages; in a comedic way.
영어완전정복: Please Teach Me English
Directed By: 김성수 (Kim Seong-Su)
Actors: 장혁 (Jang Hyeok), 이나영 (Lee Na Young)
This is the story of a man and woman who sign up for a class at an English hagwon (language institute) in Seoul. The girl, whose English name is "Candy" works in a government office and often needs to deal with foreigners who have problems. The man, called "Elvis" in English, will soon meet his sister who was put up for adoption as a baby and grew up in America. Both want to speak English badly, but both struggle something terrible with the language. Their native speaker teacher isn't much help to them either and quickly gets frustrated with their lack of progress.
Elvis is a bit obsessed with the beautiful English teacher, but Candy has eyes only for Elvis. Unfortunately, Candy is a very awkward, geeky gal with no coordination or tact... her every effort to catch the attention of Elvis goes unrewarded. However, they become friends and the two of them try to learn English and deal with their personal problems together.
This movie is an oldie but goodie. It's worth tracking down and watching if you can. If you've got some basic Korean skills, you may not even need subtitles since the characters spend most of the movie trying to speak English (however, sometimes being able to read the Korean subtitles is useful to figure out what they are trying to say). Anyone who has taught English in Korea will definitely relate to this story and probably get a good kick out of this movie.
육혈포 강도단: Revolver Gangsters' Gang
Directed by: 강효진 (Kang Hyo-Jin)
Actors: 나문희 (Na Moon-Hee), 김수미 (Kim Soo-Mi), 김혜옥 (Kim Hye-Ok)
Three halmonis (grandmothers) are fed up with their life of just meerly scraping by and making ends meat. They decide to have one last adventure in their life and take a VIP trip to Hawaii. The halmonis work together to save their money in some very creative but not very legal ways. Finally, after years of scrimping and saving their money they have finally saved up the exact amount of money required for three VIP all-inclusive tours to Hawaii. They try to pay in cash, but, well, this is Korea. It's got to be sent through a bank wire. When they bring their hard-earned money to the bank, disaster strikes. The bank is robbed and their money is taken before it could be deposited into the bank.
The three halmonis don't take lightly to this offense and track down the robber and demand their money back. He doesn't have it, but he does offer to train them to rob the bank again themselves and get their money back. Comedy ensues as the halmonis try their hardest to rob a bank and get the vacation they feel they deserve.
This is a great movie for many reasons. For those who have lived in Korea and seen the strength of many older Korean women, it's not entirely unbelievable that three halmonis actually could rob a bank in revenge for the money that they lost. While the story is fairly predictable, there are enough plot twists and turns to keep you interested until the end. These three are definitely not your scarf-knitting, rocking-chair-loving grandmas!
김씨 표류기: Castaway on the Moon
Directed by: 이해준 Lee Hae-Jun
Actors: 정재영 (Jeong Jae-Young), 정려원 (Jeong Ryeo-Won)
Somewhat along the same lines as the Hollywood movie, Castaway (2000), Castaway on the Moon (2009) is a Korean take on being castaway on a deserted island. However, don't let this turn you off, this Korean adaptation is pure genius.
Mr. Kim, giving up on life after many failures, decides to take his own life by jumping off a bridge into the Han River in Seoul. However, his attempt at taking his on life fails, and he finds himself washed up on a "무인도" (literally "no person island") in the middle of the Han River. As one would expect, he tries with all his might to escape... at first. But after many failed attempts, he finally comes to enjoy his new freedom. He starts to make full use of all the trash that has accumulated on the island to make himself at home.
No one knows he is there, save for one person: a neurotic shut-in girl in her early twenties who has an obsession with taking close up photos of the moon. From her apartment window across the river, she only allows herself to look at the moon with her telephoto lens camera, but one night she accidentally scans her camera past the island where she sees a message: HELP. In English. She becomes intrigued, and rather than taking photos of the moon, she changes her focus to following the life of Mr. Kim.
This Korean take on Castaway is, in my humble opinion, better than the Hollywood version. The plot is intriguing and the irony that he is alone in the middle of a metropolis is what makes this movie great. He learns to survive using the trash that we think nothing of. This plot line by itself would make for an interesting enough story, but then, the intrigue of the second character, a castaway of a different sort, holed up in her bedroom, afraid of being seen by the rest of the world really makes this movie. The idea that wanting to escape from the world can actually bring two people together is quite moving. Don't worry though, this is no tearjerker, the irony of the entire situation is enough to keep you chuckling throughout the entire movie.
Watching this with subtitles is, of course, best for those who don't speak Korean, but there is very little dialogue since both characters are alone in their own worlds. So, if you happen to pass this while flipping through channels, it may be worth watching even without subtitles. Most situations are pretty self explanatory, especially on the island, and so you may be able to follow the movie quite easily if you have just basic Korean skills.
How to watch:
For those who are in Korea and who have the correct region DVD player, I highly recommend shopping for used DVDs. Why? Well, it tends to be hard to find new DVDs in this city that aren't pirated, but generally used DVDs are actually legitimate copies. Perhaps you don't care about buying pirated DVDs, but the great thing about legitimate DVDs is that they generally come with English subtitles! The best places to shop for used DVDs are in the Technomart in Gangbyeon, or any used flea market.
For those who are outside of Korea, it should be easy to find subtitled videos to stream online by a simple Google search. However, most of the sites are blocked in Korea.
How do you get access to Korean movies?