Get us in your inbox

Parasite
Photograph: Courtesy Neon Parasite

The best Korean movies of all time

Loved Parasite? Dig deeper into Hallyuwood’s awesome back catalogue

Written by James BalmontContributors
Phil de Semlyen
&
Matthew Singer
Advertising

Contrary to believe in some corners of the west, South Korean cinema existed long before Parasite and Squid Game. Sure, Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Oscar-winner might represent the pinnacle of the country’s movie industry – and the massive success of Netflix’s Squid Game confirmed it as a worldwide player in streaming too – but its history runs much deeper. For decades, Korean filmmakers have been producing thrilling, imaginative work with a distinctive vision, subverting genre conventions along the way.

Entering its renaissance era in the early 2000s, charged by films like Park Chan-wook’s
Oldboy and Joon-ho’s The Host, Korean movies became known for their ultraviolence and political invective, but dig into the canon and you’ll find a wide range of complex emotions expressed in many different ways. Where to start? Well, here: with some of the best Korean movies ever made.

Recommended:

🌍 The 50 best foreign films of all-time
🇫🇷 The 100 best French movies of all-time
🇭🇰 The 100 best Hong Kong movies of all-time
🥋 The 20 best martial arts movies of all-time

Best Korean movies

  • Film

Director: Kim Ki-young

A favourite of Bong Joon ho, this crime flick is a strong shout for being Korea’s greatest ever film. Director Kim Ki-young’s own inspiration came from flicking through a newspaper and stumbling on the story of a family thrown into chaos by the arrival of a domestic helper. The housemaid, played with a mix of coolness and heat by Lee Eun-shim, is the agent of chaos in his take on the tale: an intoxicating watch that tackles class, sexual allure and family dynamics in a way that will be very familiar to Parasite fans. Im Sang-soo (The President’s Last Bang) made a more than decent fist of remaking it in 2010, but the original is where to start.

The Wailing (2016)
  • Film
  • Horror

Director: Na Hong-jin

A masterpiece of atmospheric horror, The Wailing is long, intense and ambitious, but it never feels like a slog. It also borrows elements from across the landscape of horror - from zombies to demons to creepy kids - but never turns into a messy patchwork. The story, centering on a police officer racing to save a village from a mysterious virus before it can claim his daughter, unfolds gradually enough that it all seems natural, allowing the sense of dread to envelop you like a fog.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Bong Joon-ho

A landmark in world cinema, Parasite is the highest-grossing Korean movie in several countries, the first non-English production to win a Best Picture Oscar and universally regarded as one of the best films of the 21st century. All those things are well and good, but Bong Joon-ho’s true achievement was bringing the film’s biting capitalist critique to a global audience. The message isn’t exactly subtle: a destitute family living in the slums of Seoul attaches itself to a wealthy one, to the point of clandestinely living in their house, until the social order inevitably corrects itself. But within that is a thrilling, funny, often disturbing piece of entertainment that left Hollywood’s oblivious elites with no choice but to stand up and cheer. Knowledgeable film fans already awaited every Joon-ho project with breathless anticipation. Now, the world waits with them. 

  • Film
  • Horror

Director: Kim Jee-woon

This atmospheric horror fable, adapted from a folk story and released on what was a watershed year for Korean cinema (Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy were released just a few months either side of A Tale of Two Sisters), echoes The Shining in both its intricate setting (a gothic mansion full of looming corridors and William Morris wallpaper) and its chilling atmosphere. But it’s elevated even further by Kim Jee-woon’s expert direction and Lee Byung-woo’s Hitchcockian score; the end result is a masterwork of psychological horror from one of Korea’s finest filmmakers.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Just as Weimar cinema was powered by weltschmerz, and Ingmar Bergman brings a uniquely Scandinavian mood to his masterpieces, so Korean cinema is often fuelled by han – a sense of anger and frustration that’s core to the Korean identity. It runs like a river through Bong Joon-ho’s serial-killer flick, one of the finest crime procedurals ever made, where the odd-couple cops on the case are positively high on the stuff. Bong’s haunting, mercurial crime masterpiece seems to suggest that his country is so desensitised to violence, so corrupted and corrosive, that it’s not just the killer’s female victims that are perishing, justice is too.

  • Film
  • Comedy

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Screenwriter Lee Chang-dong’s directorial debut begins with a dishevelled man throwing himself in front of a train. Working backward through his life, the movie shows what led him to that point, in the process tracing 20 years of Korean political history, from Asian financial crisis of the late ‘90s to the 1980 clash between citizens and police known as the Gwangju Massacre. It’s a powerful melodrama with an elegiac tone and a heartbreaking endnote.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Comedy

Director: Jang Joon-hwan

In this zany, genre-bending comedy-fantasy a paranoid beekeeper (Shin Ha-kyun from Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) has kidnapped the CEO of a pharmaceuticals company (Baek Yoon-sik, The President’s Last Bang), convinced that he’s an alien from the planet Andromeda. Inspired in part by Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990), this offbeat cult classic also recalls the sci-fi tinged works of Terry Gilliam in its visuals. A US remake was announced back in 2020. Can it possibly be this delirious and giddy?

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Park Ki-hyung

South Korean films were subject to heavy censorship during the ’70s, thanks to the country’s authoritarian regime. When the regime fell, it was game on for filmmakers like Park Ki-hyung
who’d been forced to sit on their edgier ideas and could ride a new wave of creativity that supercharged Korean cinema. This K-horror, the first in a very loosely connected five-part Whispering Corridors series, is exactly the kind of a movie that would have previously been banned: a chewy indictment on the country’s education system that executes seriously gnarly payback on abusive teachers via a supernatural force.

Advertising
  • Film

Director: Park Chan-wook

This captivating DMZ mystery – the country’s highest-grossing film of all time when it came out, and one of the first to portray North Korean characters in a sympathetic light – was a breakthrough for director Park Chan-wook. There are echoes of The Silence of the Lambs in its gripping procedural narrative, as an army major (Lady Vengeance’s Lee Young-ae) investigates a fatal incident involving opposing guards on the border. They’re played by Hallyu heavyweights Song Kang-ho (the dad in Parasite), I Saw The Devil’s Lee Byung-hun, and Shin Ha-kyun, who bring a real sense of depth and humanity to their militant roles. 

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (2019)
Photograph: Kiwi Media Group

10. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (2019)

Director: Won-Tae Lee

A violent cop and a criminal kingpin – the latter played by Eternals’s Ma Dong-seok – join forces to catch a serial killer on the loose in Seoul. As with the best Korean genre pictures, Won-Tae Lee takes a cookie cutter story and ups the style to such dazzling heights that the clichés warp into something unrecognisable. Full of insane car chases, brutal fistfights and a lot of awesome suits, Sylvester Stallone bought the rights to a potential American remake, which gives you some indication of the class it’s in.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Lee Chang-dong

A master craftsman adept whose filmmaking is underpinned by a total command of mood, Lee Chang-dong is at his formidable best in a slow-burn thriller based on a Haruki Murakami short story, which features a Murakami-esque blend of missing women, lovelorn men, hungry cats and jazz. The alchemy between Lee and the Japanese author’s work seems obvious in retrospect – both love to bend their stories in unpredictable, ambiguous directions. But Lee adds very specific Korean concerns around class divisions, as well as the north-south divide, as a farm boy-turned-wannabe writer falls in with a mysterious playboy with some sinister hobbies.

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Park Hoon-jung

I Saw The Devil screenwriter Park Hoon-jung’s violent gangster epic feels like a familiar blend of The Godfather and Infernal Affairs. But what it lacks in narrative originality it makes up for in flawless execution. The intricate story of a power struggle within a crime syndicate is brought to life by magnetic performances from Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae, Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik, and Hwang Jung-min of The Wailing. Its rich visual signature, meanwhile, is provided by cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, who recently shot Last Night in Soho and Disney’s Obi-Wan Kenobi series. 

Advertising
Silenced (2011)
Photograph: CJ Entertainment

13. Silenced (2011)

Director: Hwang Dong-hyuk

After Squid Game’s massive global success, Netflix added a bunch of director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s films to its platform. This powerful courtroom drama starring Gong Yoo (Train to Busan) is the highlight. It’s based on shocking true events that took place at the Gwangju Inhwa School for the hearing-impaired, in which deaf students were systematically abused by staff members. Despite its heavy subject matter, over four million South Koreans flocked to see it at the cinema. A criminal investigation was also re-opened in the aftermath, leading to law changes aimed at protecting minors.

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Park Chan-wook

…Or how a few post-work drinks can lead to a 15-year hangover. Violent revenge is the order of the day as businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is locked in a room for a decade and a half, emerging hungry for payback. This standout middle part of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy is a film enveloped in mystery and splattered with blood; a mosaic of shocking moments that will live in your brain rent-free forever (the hammer! The octopus! The ending!). Oldboy also established Choi Min-sik’s face as one of the most recognisable and coolest faces in Korean cinema. It’s all the more horrifying after two years of lockdown. 

Advertising
Right Now, Wrong Then (2013)
  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Hong Sang-soo

A prolific auteur who specialises in funny, self-reflexive films about movie directors learning awkward life lessons,  Hong Sang-soo may sound like a Korean Woody Allen on paper but has a much more formally playful streak. It’s showcased in this entertaining and radically structured story about a male movie director who falls for a painter he meets while passing the time at a film festival in Suwon. We see their day together once; then we see it all over again, only with slight differences. This cinematic spot-the-difference device not only commands your undivided attention, but gets you thinking about the butterfly effect of tiny details on major moments in life.

Io Island (1977)
Photograph: Korean Film Archive

16. Io Island (1977)

Director: Kim Ki-young

Not as well know internationally as The Housemaid, Kim Ki-young’s later murder-mystery has champions including Bong Joon ho and well worth seeking out. There’s something Antonioni-esque about its languid set-up: a rocky outcrop inhabited almost entirely by women divers, where the men are absent. A journalist goes missing, possibly via foul means, and a travel promoter finds himself needing to clear his name. Quickly, the plot leads into folk horror terrain to take in shamanism and the supernatural to offer a penetrating look at Korean male insecurity and a satisfyingly murky viewing experience.

Advertising
The Chaser (2008)
  • Film

Director: Na Hong-jin

Who you got: the disgraced cop turned pimp or the prostitute-murdering serial killer? Na Hong-jin’s debut feature is a morally ambiguous procedural with no true heroes, but it’s taut and engrossing in a way few American thrillers of the period ever achieved. While clearly indebted to the Park Chan-wook films that invigorated Korean cinema at the start of the decade, the violence is less stylised, resulting in a gritty, realistic actioner which, attitudinally, throws back to the crime dramas of the 1970s.

The Handmaiden (2016)
  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook turns Sarah Waters’ crime novel ‘Fingersmith’ into a byzantine and extremely thirsty mystery-thriller that will tie the unfocused in knots. The setting switches from the Victorian London of the book to Japanese-occupied Korea, a change that requires a whole new cargo of cultural specificity that Park delivers in three elegant, sensual parts. It’s a deeply heady tale of conmen, picketpockets, sex, revenge, double and triples crosses – and it may just be Park’s masterpiece. 

Advertising
Aimless Bullet (1960)
Photograph: Korean Film Company

19. Aimless Bullet (1960)

Director: Yu Hyun-mok

A pioneering breakthrough for Korean cinema, this downbeat drama about a veteran searching for meaning (and a living wage) in postwar Seoul shook authorities enough that it was banned upon release in 1960. In the years since, the film has come to be seen as a neo-realist triumph. Shot on a meagre budget, amid the rubble of a city still digging itself out from conflict, it tells the story of a depressed soldier trying to make ends meet on an administrative salary so paltry it prohibits him from going to see a dentist about a nagging toothache. It paints a bleak picture of life in post-armistice Korea – abetted by the grimy black-and-white cinematography – while offering just enough hope to keep you from sinking into total despair. 

Train to Busan (2016)
  • Film
  • Horror

Director: Yeon Sang-ho

Korea’s answer to 28 Days Later, this hyper-kinetic zombie flick is all set aboard a morning commuter train. Does that make it a lose-lose for the characters? Get bitten and they’re zombified; escape and they have to go to work. But Train to Busan is no satire on wage slavery in the spirit of Shaun of the Dead, despite Squid Game’s Gong Yoo initially being glued to his phone as a workaholic fund manager too busy to engage with his young daughter (Kim Su-an). Instead, it’s a thrill ride that challenges its trapped characters to come up with inventive ways to stay alive as the undead claw at their carriage doors.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Ryoo Seung-wan

Its Somali characters are paper thin – if that – but this ever-more amped-up action-thriller delivers in nearly every other area as it recounts the true-ish story of North and South Korean diplomats teaming up to escape Mogadishu as it falls into violent revolution in 1991. Director Ryoo Seung-wan lays bare just how hard it for these kinda-compatriots to span that ideological chasm, even with gangs of AK-47-wielding guerillas on their tails, but he really pins his ears back with a climactic car chase packed with ludicrous camera moves.

Midnight (2021)
Photograph: CJ Entertainment

22. Midnight (2021)

Director: Kwon Oh-seung

Kwon Oh-seung’s debut could be Korea’s finest serial killer thriller since The Chaser and I Saw The Devil. This urban and energetic stalker drama is no rehash, though – it’s a clever spin on a classic formula. The would-be victim of Midnight is deaf, which means her navigation of the neon-soaked surroundings depends on an entirely different set of skills to her able-bodied pursuer (portrayed menacingly by Squid Game actor Wi Ha-jun).

Advertising
  • Film

Director: Kim Ki-duk

In an isolated fishing village, a mute part-time prostitute takes a liking to a mysterious visitor with a troubled past. If that sounds like the setup for a staid emotional drama, well, that’s before the fish hooks get involved. The Isle caused fainting and walkouts when it premiered on the festival circuit, but Kim Ki-Duk’s aim isn’t empty provocation. Gorgeously shot, it’s poetic as it is painful, and if you make it all the way through, its meditation on jealousy and obsession will leave a mark.

Shiri (1999)
  • Film

Director: Kang Je-gyu

Effectively the first major blockbuster of the New Korean Cinema era, this high-octane thriller follows a team of North Korean terrorists (led by Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik) bent on Seoul’s destruction, and the Southern intelligence agents (Parasite’s Song Kang-ho and Tell Me Something’s Han Suk-kyu) attempting to foil them. It’s full of dizzying camerawork, sidewalk shootouts, ticking time-bombs and massive explosions, and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with ’90s classics like Mission: Impossible and The Rock.

Advertising
Mother (2009)
  • Film

Director: Bong Joon-ho

A precursor, in some ways, to the genre-blurring style he’d later employ in Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s fourth film is perhaps his strangest, a mash-up of psychological drama, black comedy and murder mystery, with an elderly matriarch at its centre. Kim Hye-ja plays the titular unnamed single mother who attempts to clear her mentally disabled son’s name after he’s accused of killing a young girl. It sounds relatively straightforward, but the odd tone and plot twists mark it as an utterly individual work from a director incapable of doing anything boilerplate.

  • Film

Director: Im Sang-soo

Filmmaker Im Sang-soo is often described as Korea’s controversy magnet, with erotically-charged tales of sexual deviance among the aristocracy (see: The Housemaid and The Taste of Money) the source of his reputation. The President’s Last Bang was no less provocative; this satirical take on the real-life assassination of Korean President Park Chung-hee in 1979 landed its director in court and resulted in four minutes of the film being excised. Nonetheless, this entertaining interpretation remains superior to Woo Min-ho’s much straighter 2021 version of events, The Man Standing Next

Advertising
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Kim Jee-Woon

After breaking through with the gripping psychological horror story A Tale of Two Sisters, Kim Jee-woon turned his eye for balletic violence toward the action-thriller genre with this John Woo homage. A hitman (Lee Byung-hun) is ordered to keep an eye on his boss’s mistress and execute her if it turns out she’s cheating on him. When he refuses to do the job, the crime lord turns his aggression toward him. A simple setup, but the ensuing shootouts are expertly orchestrated, but Byung-hun’s portrayal of a killer with a conscience is remarkably soulful.

I Saw the Devil (2010)
  • Film
  • Horror

Director: Kim Jee-woon

The futility of revenge is a common theme in South Korean cinema, but it’s never been rendered more kinetically – or violently – than in Kim Jee-woon’s nightmarish thriller. (And if you’ve seen any of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, you know that’s saying something.) An intelligence agent, devastated by the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, goes rogue in the search for the killer, ensuring he doesn’t get off with something so easy as prison. To call it ‘gruesome’ is an understatement, but it’s beautiful, too: a ballet of blood to rival anything in the Nicolas Winding Refn playbook. 

Advertising
  • Film

Director: Kim Ki-duk

A gloriously framed rumination on life and the passing of time, an American version of Kim Ki-duk’s gentle parable would almost certainly be directed by Terrence Malick. A Buddhist monk grows up in a floating temple on a remote lake. Each phase of life is backdropped by a different season – we get two goes at spring, because who doesn’t love spring? – but despite its contemplative nature, Kim’s masterpiece still finds a way to confront its tougher, seemier side too. It was filmed at Jusanji Pond in Juwangsan National Park, where trees emerge from the surface of the man-made lake and serenity is guaranteed. The temple itself, alas, was built for the film. 

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director: Chang Yoon-hyun

A depraved serial killer is on the loose in Seoul in this brilliantly gloomy, blood-drenched Korean neo-noir. The kicker? The dismembered limbs found at each crime scene don’t all belong to the same victim. Influenced by David Fincher’s Seven, Tell Me Something was a major hit in Korea when it came out and it still stands up. The film’s soundtrack, meanwhile, helped the film build a rep overseas – with moody cuts from Enya, Nick Cave and Placebo providing a solid ’90s nostalgia hit

Advertising
The Quiet Family (1998)
Photograph: MUBI

31. The Quiet Family (1998)

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Kim Jee-woon’s (A Tale of Two Sisters) debut follows an eccentric family who run a sleepy hotel in the countryside. But things get out of hand at the Misty Inn after a lonely drifter stabs himself to death with his room key – and successive guests are soon ending up dead. Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike added zombies and musical showpieces in his 2003 remake, The Happiness of the Katakuris. But Kim’s darkly comic original remains a singular joy, not least for an outstanding cast that boasts Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik and Parasite’s Song Kang-ho.

Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising