Korean cinema is a popular topic these days. Owing to films such as Train to Busan and Parasite, South Korea in particular has become one of the most exciting countries for the current production of emotionally striking, visually unique, and entertaining movies. Korean cinema may be a trendy subject right now, or at least the nation’s cinematic output has been receiving increasing attention over the past several years, but Korea has had a long history with film and filmmaking.
Going back to the early 1900s and the first known screening of a film in Korea, there have been thousands of movies released across the span of the history of the medium. We’re not going to cover all of it, obviously, but we can give you some tremendous contemporary Korean movies that you can watch on Netflix right now. From deep-seated horror, to glorious action-adventure releases, to rom-coms that can be culturally surreal to the uninitiated, some of the best Korean movies on Netflix have plenty to intrigue.
If you want a crash course in what the cinema of Korea has to offer, Netflix isn’t a bad place for contemporary offerings.
The Best Korean Movies on Netflix
15. The Fortress (2017)
Director: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Despite being a little too dry and slow at times, The Fortress is a stunning historical action drama. Its characters are rich and compelling, and the attention to detail that makes a large-scale story such as this one come to life as more than just a history lesson is more often than not remarkable.
The Fortress doesn’t demand a lot of understanding of its characters or main points of interest taken from actual history. The Fortress, set during the Qing invasion of Joseon. Context is generally helpful in a historical drama, but The Fortress is easy enough to follow and certainly carries enough grandeur and intensity to be appreciated.
You may also want to keep in mind that The Fortress isn’t a pure action movie, in the sense of watching brutal combat scenes between a few or thousands of warriors. There is action here, but the movie ultimately leans more into political intrigue to really drive its story along.
14. Arahan (2004)
Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
It’s easy to see Arahan as essentially a superhero comedy,even if it’s sometimes a little overwhelmed with characters and side stories, but its overwhelming entertainment value cannot be denied.
Arahan brings together a sweet-but-kinda-dumb cop (Ryoo Seung-bum) and a dazzling martial arts warrior (Yoon So-yi) to defeat a powerful being (Jung Doo-hong) bent on achieving complete power and utter domination of the world. When the movie boils down to this basic main plot, the proceedings are a blast. The action and fantasy are visually exciting, and the movie gets a lot out of the chemistry of its two main characters.
Arahan keeps the emotional stakes for its story straightforward. We’re left with a film that looks great, while also benefiting from good performances against the movie’s more outlandish turns. If you’re looking for a stirring alternative to the normal comedy-action-fantasy blend, this could be it.
13. Wish You (2021)
Director: Seong Do-joon
An affecting and decidedly sweet love story, Wish You involves a singer-songwriter (Kang In-soo) and a keyboardist who also happens to work at a major record company (Lee Sang).
This is a series that has been condensed into a movie, so that perhaps explains the disjointed feel of the film, which isn’t going to really bother those who like their rom-coms to be so bright and sweet, it can be seen from outer space. Wish You fits that demand in pleasing terms.
Chemistry is everything in a romantic comedy, regardless of the country it comes from. You can forgive almost anything if we like the leads and like how they play off one another. Kang and Lee are a strong pair in Wish You. They’re easy characters to appreciate, and that should be enough for anyone who just wants to see a sweet, sincere LGBTQIA+ romance. Wish You plays quite well to its audience’s expectations.
12. The Reservoir Game (2017)
Director: Choi Jin-sung
If you’re interested in learning more about non-fiction narratives from Korean filmmakers, The Reservoir Game is going to be perfect.
The film concerns Lee Myung-bak, a former President of South Korea with questionable ties to slush fund money, secret deals, and a lot of other things we assume our politicians are getting up to. Lee was eventually convicted of a whole bunch of fun crimes, and The Reservoir Game focuses specifically on the money that was supposedly held by the embattled president. Along the way, the film builds masterfully a striking impression of not only the man himself, but the nature and context of the activities that would eventually land him in prison.
The Reservoir Game can be a thrilling experience for those who like to watch the dogged pursuit of corruption. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the work these filmmakers are doing, and to admire their exceptional approach to research.
11. The Call (2020)
Director: Lee Chung-hyeon
Actress Park Shin-hye is a name worth remembering for later. The star of both The Call and #Alive, Park has emerged in the 2020s as an emotionally grounded, relatable genre performer.
Playing a young girl who finds a phone that connects her to a woman (the equally powerful Jeon Jong-seo) living 20 years in the past, Park’s performance inThe Call is of character whose situation starts strange and only deteriorates further. Both characters are written with nuance and depth, with the friendship that develops early on taking us to a surprisingly different place than we might have expected initially. However, the offbeat sweetness doesn’t last for long.
When The Call plants itself firmly in horror territory, with the consequences of trying to change the past becoming horrific and suffocating in its totality, the shift is profound. The film has us deeply invested in the characters by the time the shocking twists begin to mount to a thoroughly effective climax.
10. Tune In for Love (2019)
Director: Jung Ji-woo
Horror and romance are seemingly two of the more popular genres coming out of Korean cinema right now. For fans of either genre, Netflix has a decent offering of titles like Tune in for Love, a touching romantic drama that shows a romance in its ups and downs over many years.
Beginning in the 90s, we meet two charming kids named Kim Mi-soo (Kim Go-eun) and Cha Hyun-woo (Jung Hae-in), and follow their relationship over the course of the next several years.
There really isn’t too much more to the film than that, but fans of this particular vein of movies are not going to complain. The film sets itself in motion with two exceptionally charismatic young actors who are tremendous together. It builds simply and gently on their appeal both separately and together, with the two-hour running time flying right by. This movie gives them plenty of heartbreak to contend with, and it’s easy to stay with them to the end.
9. The Bros (2017)
Director: Chang You-jeong
Two estranged brothers (Ma Dong-seok and Lee Dong-hwi) are forced to deal with each other for the sake of their father’s funeral.
Their relationship alone could fuel this extremely funny comedy about family, secrets, and the notion of coming together for the sake of a greater cause. However, The Bros is a far-reaching comedy about relationships and forgiveness. It draws on a wide range of characters surrounding the three main personalities that drive this film’s outlandish developments and comedic stake-building.
As they can’t even decide what should be done with a piece of land, the brothers change the trajectory of everything when an encounter with a woman (Lee Hanee) creates unexpected complications. The Bros isn’t afraid to go for broke on ridiculous comedy developments, but the movie finds ample time as well to build a very real relationship between Ma and Lee. There’s a strong and well-executed dramatic current to this film.
8. Psychokinesis (2018)
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
If you’re someone who thought the 2016 zombie thriller Train to Busan was an undisputed masterpiece of emotionally devastating horror, you’ll want to check out Psychokinesis.
Psychokinesis is a tremendously satisfying film that goes about its fantastical elements and straight comedy with a talent for both. The core of this film is that of a viable alternative to the current string of superhero movies. A hapless security guard (Ryu Seung-ryong) comes into contact with a meteorite that grants him telekinesis. We’ve seen this setup before, but Psychokinesis proves the right director, set design, special effects work, and casting can still create something unique and entertaining.
Psychokinesis keeps its hero grounded in his humanity and various failings. This remains consistent, informing his journey to not only save the city, but to also repair his relationship with his daughter (Shim Eun-kyung). Psychokinesis has an enthralling earnestness about everything it does. The movie can reach some ridiculous heights, but it never derails our enjoyment.
7. Forgotten (2017)
Director: Jang Hang-jun
A mysterious kidnapping begins and ends over 19 terrifying days. When Jin-seok (Kang Ha-neul) sees his brother Yee-seok (Kim Mu-yeol) returned to him, he becomes convinced that something has happened to his sibling. Jin-seok witnessed the kidnapping, as well, which naturally plays heavily on him, as things spiral into absolutely bonkers territory.
If you appreciated I Saw the Devil for taking a scary premise and managing to go completely over-the-top with it without losing just how frightening it all is, you’re going to love The Forgotten.
Our story starts with a compelling mystery, and then spends much of the rest of the film building on some outstanding psychological horror. The tension of simply collapsing into dust if things take even one more extreme turn becomes difficult to ignore.
Thankfully, Forgotten doesn’t squander its talented cast, distinctive set design, or darkening mystery. The build-up to the spectacular conclusion is worth sticking with, even as it gets rather bizarre.
6. Space Sweepers (2021)
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Space Sweepers depicts a future in which a near-dead Earth is now being slowly abandoned by the rich and powerful for an orbiting space station utopia.
It’s a good premise for a bleak story, but Space Sweepers finds unique touches of optimism and the best of what humanity can still do under even the grimmest of circumstances. Heartwarming may not be exactly the right word, but Space Sweepers has a pleasing story beneath its science fiction spectacular shell.
Space sweepers in the film represent low-income workers who have taken to removing chunks of space debris from earth’s orbit to survive. When they come across a young girl (Park Ye-rin) who is highly sought-after by the corporation building the utopia in outer space, the members of the space sweeper ship Victory must make a difficult decision.
Do they return her in the name of their self-interest, or do they protect her from a company getting rich on doomsday itself? Space Sweepers has a blast exploring that question.
5. Time to Hunt (2020)
Director: Yoon Sung-hyun
A dystopian heist film with ample action, suspense, and violence, Time to Hunt is a nasty customer. It’s one of the best action titles available on Netflix right now, and it’s certainly the kind of gem that deserves a wider audience.
In the near-future, economic devastation has left Korea in dire straits. A group of young outlaws, with a particularly strong performance from Parasite actor Choi Woo-shik, set upon a final plan to grab a big score, escape to paradise, and live out life with some notion of dignity. The simple act of watching them carry out the heist on the gambling house in question is dizzying enough. When a brutal contract killer targets them in the breathless aftermath, the story becomes a stylish and quite shocking at times cat and mouse game.
Time To Hunt is another action film from South Korea that manages to keep us completely on the rails, even as the plot twists and veers across its remarkable story.
4. Veteran (2015)
Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
Veteran puts a premium on fun in this action-comedy hybrid about a dedicated police detective (Hwang Jung-min) trying to bring down a young corporate criminal mastermind (Yoo
The film may prove to be a touch too lighthearted for some, but it seems more likely that you’re going to love these principles, the character-driven humor and the fact that everyone’s circumstances seem constantly prone to one outlandish development or another. Veteran is a good example of how deftly many Korean films are making their comedies stronger by paying serious attention to drama, surprise, and the visual strength of creative choreography and blistering editing.
Unless you’re particularly demanding that your crime stories stick to a serious tone, it’s not hyperbolic to say that Veteran really does have something for everyone. It’s never boring, although those who are new to Korean film in general may find the tonal shifts to be a little severe.
Just relax and let Veteran show you how to do brilliant action and comedy.
3. Love and Leashes (2022)
Director: Hyeon-jin Park
At least for the time being, Netflix seems steadfast in their commitment to offer a diverse library of new Korean films to most western subscribers.
Love and Leashes involves two coworkers (Seohyun and Lee Jun-young) who find themselves drawn together by two things. One is a natural attraction to one degree or another between them. The other is an unexpected desire to explore the world of BDSM. They elect to do this together, with one becoming the other’s master, setting in motion a remarkably funny, nuanced, and sympathetic portrayal of a lifestyle that can be incredibly fulfilling to those who are interested in it.
Love and Leashes doesn’t mock or sensationalize its subject. The natural qualities of our lead performances creates a film that focuses more on the uniqueness of their journey as they see it, and it’s this quality that Love and Leashes proves to be truly special.
2. Night in Paradise (2020)
Director: Park Hoon-jung
Night in Paradise is a love story that takes our lovers to some pretty harrowing places before it’s all done.
A mobster (Uhm Tae-goo) hiding out on the beautiful Jeju Island meets a young woman (Jeon Yeo-been) with little time left to live. His own story currently soaked in regret, the blood of his enemies, and the terror at knowing that more men from the crime syndicate are on their way, Park Tae-goo is an impressively tragic antihero. Jeon as Kim Jae-yeon is not simply a means for Park to find redemption under the direst situation possible. Considerable attention is paid to her motivations and history, and the larger story never slows down to make either of them mean something to us.
With scenic beauty and some truly moving moments between these characters, Night in Paradise as a film means something because the movie spends ample time on creating characters who do not simply exist for the other. It heightens the more violent aspects to a noticeable degree.
1. Okja (2017)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
The writer and director of such heavyweights of South Korean cinema as Snowpiercer and Parasite, Bong Joon-ho is not the only extraordinary filmmaker coming out of the country right now. But there is no question that he’s among the most famous, and certainly among the most talented.
His 2017 fantasy drama Okja, which features American actors Paul Dano and Tilda Swinton, is one of the best movies currently available on Netflix, period. Its story of a young girl (Ahn Seo-hyun) who takes to a dangerous world in search of her beloved genetically-engineered super pig Okja is one of hard-fought heroism. It’s a beautiful, moving, and exceptionally sweet story, but you better get ready for these characters to go through a bit of hell first.
A feverishly inventive combination of social commentary with an environmental story that truly finds a humanist heart at its surreal center, Okja is an unshakable, gorgeous viewing experience.
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