One of the most exciting foreign markets for films right now is South Korea. Since the beginning of the 21st century, South Korea has been a constant source of amazing films in a wide variety of genres. Thanks largely to filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook and other innovative auteurs, South Korean cinema continues cross borders and gain fans internationally.
While these films found acclaim and popularity in North America, the causal movie-goer is still rarely exposed to many foreign films. But with films this good, it is worth it to viewers to seek them out and expose themselves to this new culture of film. So if you’re interested in South Korean films but don’t know where to start, here are some of the very best work the country has produced.
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10 I Saw The Devil
If there is one thing South Korean films have gained a reputation for, it’s brutal and bloody thrillers. The films of that country that seem to connect most with international audiences tend to be quite difficult to watch. Perhaps none are more intense than I Saw the Devil.
Kim Jee-woon’s revenge thriller centers on a special service agent who seeks retribution against a man who murdered his fiancee. What follows is a cat and mouse game where these two violent men fight for control over the other. The film is an unrelenting tale of vengeance that refuses to go easy on its audience.
Bong Joon-ho is an incredibly versatile filmmaker whose films all feel unique from one another. Here, he tackles perhaps his most tragic story. The film follows a middle-aged woman whose mentally challenged son is accused of murder. The matriarch then sets out on a quest to protect her son at all costs and find the real killer.
One of the great talents of Joon-ho as a filmmaker is his skill at balancing seemingly opposite tones to fantastic effect. The film manages to pull off being a family drama, a tense crime thriller and, at times, a hilarious satire. That’s no easy feat.
8 Train To Busan
There have been plenty of great horror films to come out of South Korea and the recent zombie epic Train to Busan is among the very best of the sub-genre.
As the country is overrun with a zombie outbreak, a group of desperate survivors board a train to Busan, the supposed last safe place in Korea. The movie takes the familiar genre and infuses it with thoughtful commentary, unbearable suspense, and some amazing action sequences. And as with many films on the films, the genre film also finds some surprising heart among the mayhem.
Like Train to Busan, Thirst takes a rather familiar horror film genre and breathes new life into it. In this film, Park Chan-wook tries his hand at the vampire film world and, as expected, creates an entry with a totally unique perspective.
The film follows a Catholic priest who is turned into a vampire while also battling his feelings for his friend’s wife. It may sound like an awfully melodramatic vampire love story, but the film has plenty of blood and thrills to satisfy horror fans while offering a very different story.
6 The Chaser
Serial killer tales always seem to fascinate the public, but for a film on this subject to be worthwhile, it needs to give us something unexpected. Such is the case with The Chaser.
The film follows an ex-cop turned pimp who believes the girls in his service are being taken and sold by a frequent client. The reality is that the client is a sadistic murderer preying on these girls. However, the film constantly plays with our expectations as the developments and encounters we’d expect in the third act of the film happen in the first act. This helps keep audiences on their toes, unable to see the next twist coming.
5 The Host
It’s rare for a monster movie to gain the sort of acclaim to call it a masterpiece. But that’s what you get when you have a filmmaker like Bong Joon-ho taking on the monster genre. The brilliant auteur mashes genres together making something that feels absolutely unique.
On the surface, the plot is pretty standard. It centers on a family who come together to rescue their young daughter after she is taken by a monster. The movie avoids cliche by having a truly unusual group of heroes at its center and infusing the whole movie with an unexpected dose of humor.
4 The Handmaiden
Yet another brilliant entry from Park Chan-wook. This erotic thriller is set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s and follows a young woman who is hired to be a handmaiden for a Japanese heiress. From there she enters a tense and paranoid world of lust and betrayal.
The film does great work in exploring gender roles and constantly uses that perspective to subvert audiences’ expectations. It is filled with wild twists and just enough melodrama to make this a highly compelling thriller.
The most recent film on this list has already cemented its place as one of the best films to ever come out of South Korea. While most films on this list feature significant violence, Burning achieves the same kind of tension from the unknown.
The complex and compelling story follows a young man who is forced to take over his family farm when his father is sent to prison. He reunites and becomes infatuated with a girl from his past, but things are complicated when she introduces her wealthy friend who holds a dark secret.
The film is a brilliant examination of truth and unanswered questions anchored by a bone-chilling performance from The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun.
2 Old Boy
Oldboy is probably the most famous movie on this list and its popularity is well-earned. While the ill-advised American remake was a flop, the original remains a disturbing action-thriller masterpiece.
Based on a Japanese manga, the film follows a man who is kept in captivity for several years only to be released without explanation, sending him on a vengeful quest. This is the second installment in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. Full of dark twists and the iconic single-take hammer fight, the movie is a thrill for all those who can stomach its brutality.
1 Memories Of Murder
Bong Joon-ho is not only one of the most exciting Korean filmmakers working right now, he’s one of the most exciting filmmakers, period. As evidenced by the amount of times he’s appeared on this list, he is a true master at the craft. And while he still continues to make excellent films, this might just be his masterpiece.
This police procedural is based on the real-life murders that took place in Korea in the 1980s. The film follows the desperate and frustrating investigation into the crimes never shying away from the ineptitude and brutality of the police. As with many of Joon-ho’s films, it is filled with dark humor that slowly fades away as more bodies appear. One of the greatest murder mysteries of all-time.