Memories of Murder
Photograph: CJ Entertainment

The best Korean movies of all time

Love Squid Game and Parasite? Dig deeper into Hallyuwood’s awesome back catalogue

James Balmont
Advertising

If you were lucky enough to grow up pre-Y2K, you would have likely known little about Korea beyond the conflict in the back pages of your school history book. But that all changed when, in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the country doubled down on funding exportable pop culture in an attempt to rebrand the country on the world stage. The gambit, part designed to attract big business and tourism, was a wild success – and now we have K-Pop, K-dramas and kimchi pouring out of our ears.

One of the biggest proponents of the ‘hallyu’ wave, though, has always been filmmaking – with Hollywood-style action blockbuster Shiri; brutal revenge thriller Oldboy; and Academy Awards triumph Parasite among the most resounding victories of a national cinema revitalised from the brink of anonymity. We simply can’t get enough of it today. And for good reason: South Korea is a goldmine of original ideas and storytelling talents who show no signs of taking their feet off the gas as the industry thrives. So why not huff on the metaphorical fumes? Our list of the best Korean movies of all time billows below.

Recommended:

🇫🇷 The 100 best French movies of all-time
🇯🇵 The 50 best Japanese movies of all-time
🇭🇰 The 100 best Hong Kong movies of all-time
🇮🇹 The best Italian movies of all time: from Bicycle Thieves to The Great Beauty

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.

  • Film
  • Horror
The Wailing (2016)
The Wailing (2016)

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

There are many contenders for the best movie in the Bong Joon-ho filmography, but until Parasite dropped, this thriller was the consensus high watermark. Even now, there are many fans – Quentin Tarantino among them – who’d argue it’s still his finest moment. Revolving around a series of real-life murders that shocked a small town in the ’80s, Memories of Murder twists the police procedural into a potent indictment of a society unequipped to deal with such violence and death. As is his signature, Bong injects healthy amounts of black humour into the proceedings, as a pair of ill-prepared rural cops team with a big city investigator (Kim Sang-kyung) to bring the killer to justice. But as the body count continues to rise and the trail of clues grows maddeningly indistinct, the cloud of melancholy that hangs over the film becomes increasingly dark and intense. Every twist is delivered with a master’s touch that it’d take the broader world a few more years to recognise.     

  • 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

Park Chan-wook’s breakthrough doesn’t have the kinetic energy nor the bloodlust of his later films, but this mashed-up murder mystery-cum-police procedural-cum-political thriller is equally stunning and just as gut-wrenching. After a shooting within the heavily militarised DMZ between North and South Korean leaves a North Korean soldier dead, an army major (Lee Young-ae, later the star of Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance) is brought in to investigate, and discovers that just about everyone involved is lying, though not for reasons that are immediately obvious. Seizing upon the omnipresent tension between North and South Korea to convey the toll the conflict takes on citizens of both nations, Joint Security Area was, for a time, the highest-grossing film in the country’s history.     

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

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

In Korean cinema, there is Before Oldboy and After Oldboy. It’s the movie that drew international attention to the revolution happening in the country’s film industry, and with good reason, and the middle instalment of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy is an experience completely of its own genre. When the movie starts, the protagonist (Choi Min-sik) is being kept in a small room against his will by unseen captors for reasons that have never been explained. His situation only worsens after he is released 15 years later. Framed for wife’s murder, he sets out to find who stole the last decade of his life from him – and get revenge. The actual plot machinations are admittedly convoluted, but the intensity of the filmmaking explodes all shreds of disbelief. 

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

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.

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
  • Film
The Chaser (2008)
The Chaser (2008)

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.

  • Film
  • Drama
The Handmaiden (2016)
The Handmaiden (2016)

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

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. 

  • Film
  • Horror

Director: Yeon Sang-ho

Everyone has felt a bit zombiefied during their morning commute at one time or another, but Korea’s contribution to the undead canon takes that idea to its literal extreme. Writer-director Yeon Sang-ho’s splatterfest doesn’t necessarily reinvent the genre, and its ‘braineaters on a train’ conceit is stunningly simple. But the charismatic cast – led by Squid Game’s Gong Yoo – and high-energy direction have earned justified comparisons to 28 Days Later, and not just because of the fast-moving zombies. 

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.

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.

  • Film
Shiri (1999)
Shiri (1999)

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
  • Film
Mother (2009)
Mother (2009)

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.

26. Bad Movie (1997)

Director: Jang Sun-woo 

This extroverted, transgressive pseudo-doc – depicting the violent and hedonistic lives of Seoul’s delinquent youths during the mid-’90s economic crisis – feels like the missing link between Japanese new wave classic Funeral Parade of Roses and ’90s NYC cult controversy Kids. As piles of trash burn and neon signs glimmer in the streets, homeless drunks and teens drag race on motorbikes, perform fellatio in public toilets, and shoplift at convenience stores over a series of uncompromising vignettes. It’s relentlessly avant-garde, from its shaky, sped-up 16mm footage to the kaleidoscopic end credits, and was clearly too ahead of its time for the Korean Ethics Committee, who chopped 20 minutes of ‘objectionable material’ out for its local release in 1997.

Advertising
  • 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

  • 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.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Horror
I Saw the Devil (2010)
I Saw the Devil (2010)

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. 

  • 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. 

Advertising
  • 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

32. 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.

Advertising
  • Film

Director: Hur Jin-ho

This touching romantic drama, about a terminally ill bachelor who rides a red scooter (Shiris Han Suk-kyu) and the parking attendant who frequents his Seoul photo studio (Shim Eun-ha), cemented itself in Korean pop culture after smash box-office success in 1998. It deserves more appreciation overseas. Because whereas broader Korean cinema is too often (for Western tastes) guilty of heavy melodrama, Christmas in August excels thanks to its resistance to sentimental tricks. Partly inspired by the gentle dramas of Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu, its power lies in simple, meaningful storytelling, gentle pacing, bright colours, and one of the all-time nicest blokes as the main character. The ending is no less devastating for it.

  • Film

Director: Lee Chang-dong

A man with learning difficulties is released from prison after serving a sentence for involuntary manslaughter. His victim’s daughter, who suffers from cerebral palsy, lives alone in a tiny apartment. As the two outcasts become involved, their respective families do their best to wash their hands of them in this uncompromising drama, built around two staggering performances from Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri. An indisputably powerful viewing experience, Oasis won a quartet of prizes at Venice 2002 — including the Silver Lion for Best Director for the superlative Lee Chang-dong.

Advertising

35. My Sassy Girl (2001)

Director: Kwak Jae-yong

This quirky romcom – about a dopey student who dreams of meeting a girl ‘like the ones in the romantic comic books’, and the confrontational drunkard he saves from teetering off a train platform – has no right being as good as it is. Based on a true story shared via a series of online blog posts, My Sassy Girl was a blockbuster hit all over Asia, and a key instigator of the original ‘Korean wave’ overseas, prompting unnecessary remakes in Japan, India, and the US.

Recommended
    You may also like
    You may also like
    Advertising