It takes a special type of film to get me genuinely emotionally invested, but if there's ever been a country whose films always manage to grab me by the feels and demand my tears, whether they end up being given or not, it's South Korea.
I'm not exactly sure what it is that draws me to these types of films. Sure, seeing the Avengers fight the good fight and watching Batman and Superman attempt to kill each other before becoming best buds is as entertaining as all-heck, but I often like films about real life and real people — films that elicit real emotion and feelings, films that leave an impression. I also enjoy seeing powerful performances, scenes of raw emotion — it's a testament to a performer's abilities and I love seeing that shine. These types of film just happen to offer a lot of that.
6. 'One Day' / '어느날' (2017)
Chun Woo-hee has got to be the gold standard of emotional performances. No other performer has made me react, whether it be emotional or just sitting back in awe, as consistently as Woo-hee, and she's probably my favorite actress because of it. I went into One Day knowing relatively little about it. I knew that it was about a woman in a coma starring Chun Woo-hee, and that was all I really needed to know.
By Lee Yoon-ki, One Day follows a newly widowed insurance investigator, Kang-soo (Kim Nam-gil) who takes up the case of a woman who goes into a coma following a car accident (Chun Woo-hee). Upon investigating her room and having a good peek around her belongings, she appears right next to him — apparently having woken up. It's soon revealed that she is a ghost, or perhaps more accurately, an out-of-body soul. She appears only when real-her is dreaming, and only Kang-soo can see her. It's arguable and perhaps even implied that she is just a figment of his grief-stricken imagination, but I suppose that's a decision for the viewer to make.
The two develop a friendship as she becomes a sort of comfort, helping Kang-soo to deal with the grief of losing his wife. It's, for the most part, a very grounded, human drama with some good laughs and a lot of tears. Perhaps turning too ambitious for it's own good towards the end with a drastic shift in tone that spirals into complete dark drama, #OneDay is an enjoyable film that definitely packs an emotional punch.
5. 'Way Back Home'/'집으로 가는 길' (2013)
#WayBackHome is a true story about a woman who was falsely accused of drug smuggling at a Paris airport. This happened because a friend of Jeong-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon) and her husband, Jong-bae (Go Soo), commits suicide after he is unable to repay his loans. As she is his guarantor, the debt falls onto Jeong-yeon. In her desperation to secure the sizable amount, she takes a job from a seedy acquaintance. Thinking that what she is delivering from Paris to Seoul are diamonds, it turns out to be 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of cocaine. This results in her being imprisoned on Martinique.
Director Bang Eun-jin doesn't miss a beat in presenting us with all the traits that would be expected in a story like this. Throughout most of the film, Jeong-yeon is unaware of where she is, predominantly due to the language barrier but also partly due to the prison staff generally being a-holes. Though Jeong-yeon is the one that made a stupid mistake that caused her to end up here (and is never painted as an innocent angel), the selfish and ruthless prison guards and uncaring public defenders are painted as the real villains. Emphasis is placed on her being a mother to a young girl throughout, which is no help to the feels.
Jeon Do-yeon is perhaps best known for her portrayal of a broken-down woman who has lost everything in Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (honorable mention), and so she has some experience in delivering powerful performances. Go Soo has perhaps less resources as the teary husband stuck in Korea, but gives an excellent performance as well. Way Back Home is frustratingly tragic. It will upset and anger you to the max, and it's excellent because of it.
4. 'Wedding Dress'/'웨딩드레스' (2010)
Wedding Dress is by Kwon Hyung-jin and takes place around Go-eun (Song Yoon-ah), a wedding dress designer and single mother with a limited number of days to live. She wants to be sure to do everything she can for her young daughter before she goes, including making her the perfect wedding dress for the future.
#WeddingDress isn't much different from other films of this type, but the emotion is the same. We watch Go-eun, who is generally feeling a little guilty over being a bit selfish through her life, attempting to make sure that her daughter knows how much she means to her. Obviously, she isn't willing to tell her what's actually happening, and that makes it even more heartbreaking.
Wedding Dress is a film of the inevitable, and so you aren't distracted by what could be the outcome. Instead, it allows you to focus on this beautiful mother-daughter relationship that only grows stronger as it drifts further away.
In addition to Song Yoon-ah, Kim Hyang-gi gives a powerful performance as young daughter, So-ra. Hyang-gi also starred as a suicide victim as a result of bullying in Thread of Lies (honorable mention). Perhaps the now 16-year-old is finding her niche in these types of characters.
3. 'Han Gong-Ju'/'한공주' (2013)
OK, so I've talked about this film before. A lot. Han Gong-ju is one of my favorites and just keeps managing to find its way into my discussions. It's the film that sparked my interest in South Korean cinema and the one that made me want to backtrack through Chun Woo-hee's filmography.
This multi award-winning film by Lee Su-jin is also based on a true story. I think it packs more of an emotional punch if you go in not knowing what it's really about, and so I won't be giving away details here.
In short, the film follows the titular character — played by Chun Woo-hee, in her first Blue Dragon-winning leading role — who is trying to move on with her life after a traumatizing event. Gong-ju has no real adult support, not even from her parents. It also really shines a light on how corrupt legal systems can be, and the whole cast does a phenomenal job.
Even Martin Scorsese, one of the finest filmmakers of our time, had this to say:
"'Han Gong-ju' is outstanding in Mise-en scene, image, sound, editing and performance. I have a lot to learn from this movie and I can’t wait to see Lee Su-jin’s next film.”
2. 'Hope'/'소원' (2013)
Damn this film. I love this film, but damn this film. I don't even know just how many emotions this put me through. It made me upset, angry and happy. It made me laugh and it made me question where this hidden bowl of onions was that made my eyes watery.
Also released as Wish ("hope" and "wish" are literal translations of the little girl character's name) and directed by Lee Joon-ik, Hope is based on the infamous Nayoung case of 2008, in which an 8-year-old girl was beaten and raped by a drunk 57-year-old man (who also had many prior convictions) while on her way to school.
The film is not about the event per se but about everything following it. Hope focuses on the family during the aftermath and how they deal with their grief. It also follows So-won's surgeries, recovery process, the psychological scarring that resulted, and the ongoing case of the culprit.
It's heartbreaking to see her in that state, but you soon find yourself becoming emotional in a good way as she progresses in her rehabilitation and starts to get back to her old, happy self. Something that particularly got to me was that she can't bear to be near her father because of the trauma. The only way her father can interact with his daughter is by wearing a ridiculously bulky and sweaty costume of her favorite cartoon character, Kokomong (who does actually exist!).
One sequence in particular shows various adults, including her mother, dress up as characters from the show and put on a performance inside her hospital room. It's the first time that we see So-won smile and is such a heartwarming and beautiful moment of pure happiness and bright colors in this otherwise grief-driven story.
Besides Lee Re as So-won, Sol Kyung-gu and Uhm Ji-won both give incredible performances as grief-stricken parents. I haven't even scratched the surface, but #Hope is one of the most tear-demanding films that I have ever seen, and one that I'll never forget.
1. 'Sunny'/'써니' (2011)
Grand Bell-winning and Blue Dragon-nominated #Sunny is directed by Kang Hyeong-cheol and centers around a group of former high school best friends who had a crew that they named "Sunny." Life sends them in different directions following their teens and they haven't seen each other for 25 years. As they find out that one of their former members is dying of cancer with just two months left to live, they decide to fulfill her dying wish of getting the gang back together one last time.
Now, I don't know about you, but I'm getting emotional already. Sunny is a beautiful tale of friendship and is relatable to anybody who has had friends drift away. It's an emotional roller coaster filled with tears and a lot of laughs. Sunny is heart-wrenching at times but when it lightens up, it is absolutely stomach-ache hilarious.
The film switches between the modern day and 1985, with each version of the characters being lovable in their own wonderful ways and equally compelling performances. Sunny has a great representation of a diverse group of friends. There's the shy one, the overly confident one, the emotional one, the pretty one and the crazy one. Their contrasting personalities come together in a bubbly little package as they form an inseparable bond, and when they come back together after two and a half decades, nothing's changed.
Additionally, Ms. Chun Woo-hee continues to prove that no matter how small a role she has, when she's on screen, she steals the whole damn show. She plays a different sort of role than usual here, and makes me question why she hasn't had more like it. The clip is absent of English subtitles so no major spoilers (unless you speak Korean, of course). There is a little one at the end, so be warned!
Honorable Mention: 'Don't Cry Mommy'/'돈 크라이 마미' (2012)
Kim Yong-han directs this tale of the rape of a teenage girl. It starts off relatively similar to films of shared themes, but goes on to spiral into territories of revenge and insanity. It was made as an attempt to raise awareness about sex crimes by charting "the tragic course of the lives of victims and their families as vividly as possible."
#DontCryMommy will anger you more than it will upset you, and even make you start to actually question your own morals as you root for Yoo-lim (Yoo Sun) and her sadistic measures.
Well, this has been rather emotional, I'm gonna go and watch something slightly more innocent like My Little Pony.
What are some films that got you emotional? Let us know!