[PICK] From Thrilling Action to Brutal Thriller: Korean Historical Movies

Edited by Hong Hyun Jung
Translated by Kim Hoyeun

Recently, fusion historical dramas have been doing well in the small screen. The best examples will be Mr. Queen and Royal Secret Agent. Though there are some regrets left about the overall quality and controversy over historical distortion, both dramas successfully shook off the “traditional historical” genre and captivated viewers with modern taste and jovialness. In addition to these two works, River Where the Moon Rises and Joseon Exorcist that highlight romance and mystery fantasy, respectively, are gearing up to greet the viewers. Not that many fusion historical films are produced due to challenging conditions such as high cost and the need for historical research, but works that have borrowed real historical backgrounds have always received much love in the big screen.


The Pirates (2014)

Credit: Lotte Entertainment

It is a factual-fusion historical film inspired by the historical fact that there was no great seal for more than a decade at the beginning of the founding of the Joseon Dynasty. Surrounding an unprecedented incident in which the great seal disappeared from a whale attack about 15 days before the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, the film captured the battle between pirates, bandits, and founding forces seeking the seal with pleasant laughter and awesome spectacle. Son Ye Jin showed eye-catching action scenes as a female captain of pirates, while Kim Nam Gil showed off his deft performance as an overzealous leader of the bandits. On top of that, Yoo Hae Jin, Kim Won Hae, Park Chul Min and Do Dal Hwan joined the project, perfecting the comical energy.


Seondal: The Man who Sells the River (2015)

Credit: CJ Entertainment

It’s a movie that recreated “Kim Seon Dal,” a character from an old folktale who committed extraordinary fraud against powerful aristocrats and wealthy merchants, in a modern style. By adding cinematic imagination to the folktale of selling the Daedong River, the film features abundant attractions such as disguise and chase-action of Kim Seon Dal and his crew as they pull off the biggest scam against the wealthiest man Sung Dae Ryeon. Yoo Seung Ho, Go Chang Suk, Ra Mi Ran and Xiumin turned into Kim Seon Dal and his fraudulent crew that shook the entire Joseon nation.


Blood Rain (2005)

Credit: Cinema Service

Against the backdrop of the late 19th century Joseon Dynasty, the film captures the chaos and fear sparked from a series of murders on a remote island developed through a paper-manufacturing business. The story focuses on human greed causing a terrible tragedy, while the cruel portrayal of gore is certainly characterized. Cha Seung Won, who mostly showcased a comical performance at the time, challenged a new look as Won Gyu, an investigator with cold charisma, and Park Yong Woo and Ji Sung added chilling mystery as In Kwon, who conflicts with Won Gyu, and mysterious figure Doo Ho, respectively.


Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow (2011)

Credit: Showbox

This movie can be considered the Joseon version of “Sherlock Holmes.” It’s a film adaptation of author Kim Tak Hwan’s Secret of Yeollyeomun and comically captures the performance of a famous detective with sharp intuition, reasoning ability, and contrasting sloppiness. The movie might lack precision in problem-solving, but the pleasant atmosphere radiated from the sloppy and deft character is the film’s biggest charm. With the box office success, two sequels were produced: Secret of the lost island in 2014 and Secret of the Living Dead in 2017.


The Princess and the Matchmaker (2018)

Credit: CJ Entertainment

It’s the second project of the epidemiology three-part film project, following The Face Reader and Fengshui. This cheerful historical film combines the concept of “saju” that states that a person’s fate is determined by the time he/she is born with the royal wedding story that will determine the fate of the country. Shim Eun Kyung plays Princess Song Hwa, who has a history of being refused an offer of marriage because of her “bad saju,” and worked with Lee Seung Gi, Joseon’s best fortune-teller. In addition, Kang Min Hyuk appeared as Lee Seung Gi’s younger brother, while Choi Woo Shik doubled the vitality as one of the candidates for Shim Eun Kyung’s husband.


Untold Scandal (2003)

Credit: CJ Entertainment

This film blended Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos with the upper society of Joseon in the 18th century. It tells the story of Joseon’s best playboy trying to seduce a young woman who lived as a widow for 9 years. Bae Yong Joon played Jo Won, an accomplished scholar and fighter whose real passion is seducing women, while Jeon Do Yeon took the role of Lady Jung, who cherishes fidelity more than her own life, and Lee Mi Seok turned into Madam Cho, Jo Won’s first love and his secret partner in their secretive game. Director Lee Jae Yong helmed the project, completing an elegant yet sensual romance film.


War of the Arrows (2011)

Credit: Lotte Entertainment

It unravels the Qing invasion of Joseon with cinematic imagination. The story follows Nam Yi as he, the best archer in Korea, walks into the heart of 100,000 troops of the Qing Dynasty with only his demonly skills to save his younger sister, and the vibrant and speedy development is undoubtedly the key charm. The action based on archery is full of entertainment pleasure. Park Hae Il took on the role of Nam Yi, thanks to his friendship with director Kim Han Min, and digested dynamic action sequences, while Ryu Seung Ryong perfectly pulled off a pigtail as Jyuushinta, the great commander of the Qing army, and left a strong impression with his bold transformation.


KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (2014)

Credit: Showbox

It is a delightful action play that combines Western and martial arts. Against the backdrop of the 13th year of King Cheoljong’s reign, when the exploitation of corrupt aristocrats and officials peaked, the film tells the story of righteous bandits representing the suffering grassroots trying to change the world. Ha Jung Woo made a surprising transformation into a bald man and played Dol Moo Chi, who learns martial arts for his revenge. He goes up against Jo Yoon, a cold-blooded villain with unfortunate personal history, played by Gang Dong Won. On top of that, Lee Sung Min, Cho Jin Woong, Ma Dong Seok, Yoon Ji Hye, Kim Sung Kyun and Jung Man Shik play the right characters at the right place and time, further enlivening the story.


Edited Hong Hyun Jung: K-content guide who publishes various articles for people to enjoy Korean movies and dramas deeper and richer. I’ll introduce you to the works that you can laugh, cry and sympathize with.

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