It has been a year of great debuts, be it in terms of format or first-time narrative feature helmers, coming from both the more established generation of filmmakers that emerged in the mid-1990s and those that represent the newest crop of interesting filmmakers to watch.
There were also surprising domestic box-office hits for small films this year. Not small in terms of output or inferiority, but rather in blockbuster terms: low-key works that unlocked just as many -- if not more -- emotional keys and engaged the spectator in subtle and surprising ways. You will not find The Front Line (2011) or My Way (2011) here. By sticking to their gut film instincts, these top ten films are more deserving of a place in the front line of regional/international cinema.
[in alphabetical order]
Arirang (2011, Kim Ki-duk)
Talk about the purest sense of "doing it my way," with all of the Frank Sinatra bravado and swagger that one can muster. Kim's documentary film Arirang managed to be simultaneously lauded at film festivals and abhorred by all walks of spectators in a short span of time. And it has not even been released yet in South Korea (if it will ever be released). I found this love-hate reaction particularly compelling -- so compelling as to subjugate myself to the viewing of Kim in this documentary, singing "Arirang" not once, not twice, but three times. Kim interviews himself in a rigorous, even psychoanalytic manner; Kim holes himself up in a tent in a cabin; Kim cries his eyes out while drinking soju; and Kim watches himself as he edits footage of his auto-interviews and makes fun of himself. Despite the fact that Arirang is a documentary and it is Kim's first film since 2008, all the elements of Kim's narrative cinema are there: self-/torture, testing the limits of spectatorship, and trauma. The difference is that Kim directs all of these things at himself. What results is a rather interesting and comical take on the autobiographical documentary and mockumentary -- or should I say an autobiographical mockumentary.
Bleak Night (2010, Yoon Sung-hyun)
In Asian cinema, high school is one of the most frequently used locations, revealing signs of power relations, history, and trauma across all genres. With so many films set in high school, it is difficult to welcome yet another one, but Yoon's debut is a surprising punch-in-the-gut film that revolves around a father seeking his late son's former best friends to perhaps understand the context of his son's suicide. Told in discontinuous flashbacks (with no voiceover) and shot documentary style in blues and greys, the film is a quiet and impactful look at how someone copes -- or does not cope -- with the incredibly turbulent period of life that is adolescence. We see how adolescence wreaks havoc with one's notion of friendship, interaction, power, and sense of self. Yoon is never judgmental of Gi-tae's bullying and implosion, or of anyone for that matter, reminiscent of director Iwai Shunji's approach to Hoshino and Hasumi's friendship in All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001). In fact, these two films have much in common, in terms of digging deep into adolescence's heart of darkness. Bleak Night's story concentrates on the friendship three characters, and Lee Je-hoon, Seo Jun-young and Park Jung-min are superb.
Influenza (2004, Bong Joon-ho)/ Night Fishing (2011, Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong)
Although Bong and Park are currently busy with their highly anticipated English-language debut productions, these two short films -- screened together at this year's San Diego Asian Film Festival -- are no less staggering within their respective filmographies. Bong's Influenza is a sadly little-seen, marvelous short film filmed with actual surveillance cameras across Seoul, and it was part of the annual digital omnibus film commissioned by the Jeonju International Film Festival. The Park brothers' Night Fishing is a much-hyped first film shot entirely with an Apple iPhone 4. One film makes dynamic use of the static visual aesthetic of CCTV black-and-white, while the other takes the crispness and black-and-white/color of mobile phone images and enhances them in a painterly, watercolor-like way. One is very much embedded in the banality of everyday life, following a man whose increasingly violent actions are captured by surveillance cameras over the course of five years. The other occupies a place between this world and the next and back again, involving a combination of water-based rituals -- one of which is night fishing, indeed -- and the body as the communicating vessel. Both are unsettling, grotesquely amusing and creative, and rise above their respective formats to be cinematic works in their own right.
Mother is a Whore (2009, Lee Sang-woo)
Though Lee's fourth feature film is dated 2009, it was theatrically released in South Korea only this year. Folks, forget Sono Shion for a while. At first glance, it looks merely like a titillating film provoked by the literalness of the title -- and the fact that the thirty-something son does pimp his mother. But slowly and more assuredly, it becomes a piercing portrait of a vicious cycle of sexual violence, the dark underbelly of familial relationships, and even a hint of religious fanaticism. The notions of a broken family and a reconstituted family here are pushed to absurd levels of degradation and depravity, and they invite a reading from the literal to the metaphorical. Sound too much like Kim Ki-duk's cinema? Well, yes, Lee is yet another one of Kim's very talented protégés that emerged in the second half of the 2000s. But with this film, Lee forges an identity all his own, not the least because he also plays the lead role of the aptly named Sang-woo. Yet another low-key, "small" film that nevertheless contains a lot of power. Though they are very different filmmakers, the all-in-one force of Lee through Mother is a Whore reminds me of that of Yang Ik-jun through his very personal debut film Breathless (2009).
Re-encounter (2010, Min Yong-geun)
Min's debut film is quite a surprising and worthwhile cinematic encounter, perhaps even more so than Yoon's Bleak Night, because of its distinct treatment of a rather hackneyed plot. Unlike the male-centered Bleak Night, Re-encounter centers on Hye-hwa, who is gradually confronted with her teenage past in the form of her ex-boyfriend and their child, whom the two discover is still alive, having been adopted by a family without their knowledge. Yoo Da-in is a solid and believable lead presence who does not need to yell, pout or cry profusely to get across whatever emotions necessary to her character and situation. The film itself thankfully refuses to wallow in its emotions. Quite the contrary, actually: Min keeps the camera close to Yoo throughout the film, not in a cloying, let-me-get-as-many-tears-inside-the-frame way, but rather in an almost defiant way, to draw out Hye-hwa -- because Hye-hwa the character is incredibly restrained with regards to her feelings and emotions. Min handles this narrative -- Hye-hwa's opportunity to get back the family that she had been denied -- with moral strings attached in an unassuming, minimalist, and affecting way to arrive at a subtle, tempered drama.
Sunny (2011, Kang Hyeong-cheol)
With the plethora of androcentric films in contemporary Korean cinema, Sunny is a vibrant, funny, and delightful gust of air, which perhaps accounts for the film becoming the sleeper hit for 2011 South Korean film releases. Above, I wrote that high school is often the place-sign of power relations, history, and trauma in Asian cinemas. Sunny is no exception, and in this way, it makes for a very interesting comparison with Bleak Night in terms of its representations of adolescence along gender lines, among other things. Though the film is set in the present and concerns forty-something women reuniting with each other to rally around one of the women who is currently battling cancer (making death a narrative trigger, as with Bleak Night), it is also set during these women's high school days in the 1980s, when they first became friends and constituted the group "Sunny." The group dynamic here is much more multilayered than Bleak Night, simply because the story has seven girls with very distinct personalities and life trajectories, and the film encompasses a longer period of time. In this way, the past-present dynamic is also more pronounced. The way drama and comedy are woven together is effortless, buoyed by the fabulous double cast of actresses and the absence of weepy, syrupy melodrama.
The Day He Arrives (2011, Hong Sang-soo)
All I can possibly say is that I am loving the place from which Hong is making films right now. But you may say, "Hasn't he been making films from the same place and just going around it in circles since the 1990s?" And I will say, "Sure, but a place does not remain static over time. It becomes weathered by the elements, reconstructed with new buildings, retailored to cater to a different demographic, or restored to enhance the history of cracks in the pavement here and old architectural flourishes there." Hong does all of the above with The Day He Arrives -- in gorgeous black-and-white, no less -- because such is Hong's cinema: the space, place, and architecture of parallel situations, self-loathing and attraction, merry-go-round encounters and trysts, repetitions, and romance. That Hong's next film is with the French actress Isabelle Huppert is certainly no accident: Hong picks up the mantle of Eric Rohmer's of travels, encounters, romance, and conversations, but does so in a style all of his own. Though not as comical as Hahaha (2010), The Day He Arrives is just as gloriously charming of a work by a filmmaker who knows exactly where he is going, again and again.
The Yellow Sea (2010, Na Hong-jin)
After his exhilarating debut film The Chaser (2008), Na had his work cut out for him to present an equally exhilarating but different follow-up work. Despite the fact that in Hong Kong, The Yellow Sea has been marketed under the reductive title The Chaser II (and some spectators would agree that this new film is nothing more than that reworked title), Na and The Yellow Sea take up the challenge of the sophomore effort in a big way, with the powerhouse actor duo of Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jeong-woo in company. In this film, there are chases, a lot of bloody violence, and Kim and Ha's characters also pursue each other, as in The Chaser, but the stakes are markedly different, the geographies covered more international, and the characters completely dissimilar. Perhaps what draws me to this film the most is its openness to allegory, beyond the trappings of an action thriller, of global capital (labor, bodies, and also in this case, killings), without hitting the spectator over the head. Though I do not want to push the allegorical reading too far either, the fact that the film explicitly addresses and presents the marginalized community of joseonjok/chosunjok, or ethnic Koreans in China, adds a whole other dynamic dimension to the film as a tight thriller.
*Honorable mentions: Blind (2011, Ahn Sang-hoon), above all for lead actress Kim Ha-neul's performance
**Films I did not get to see but want to and are therefore not on the list for no other reason: Boy (2011, Roh Hong-jin), Silenced/The Crucible (2011, Hwang Dong-hyeok), and The Journals of Musan (2011, Park Jeung-beum)