From the origins of Korean cinema in the 1920s, to the current slew of critically and commercially successful movies that define the current Korean New Wave, South Korea has an incredible stake in film history. While the country has released its own films for decades, the last 20 or so years have been particularly fruitful. With just a handful of titles to define this list of the best South Korean movies, the 2000s and 2010s alone have numerous films that are worthy of consideration. South Korean horror movies make up a long list of contenders for the best, as well.
So, while we can’t reach all the way back to Korea’s initial efforts, with their first feature being released in 1923, we can highlight why South Korean films are more popular with worldwide audiences than ever. That doesn’t just apply to horror films. With stories that can create an experience that is unique to the country itself, yet imminently relatable to the rest of us on one level or another, cinema from South Korea is finding larger and larger audiences around the world.
New to the country’s film output? This chronological list of the best movies from South Korea is a primer for what their filmmakers, actors, writers, and other artists have to offer. This list won’t cover everything. Hopefully, it will emphasize their releases nationwide and abroad.
1960 is seemingly one of the more significant years in South Korean movie history. Of course, you can find examples of notable films in virtually any given decade. The dawn of the 60s certainly seems now like the point in which South Korean films shifted to make sense of a rapidly changing world.
Obaltan, a sorrowful story of fear, combined with the frantic energy of a man (Kim Jin-kyu) who is forced by his surroundings to constantly up the stakes, has commentary and human drama for days. It remains one of the boldest examples of neorealism at this particular point in time.
Ultimately, although our protagonist is not perfect, it is impossible not to at least wish he could be dealt a better hand. Some things are just out of our control.
Watch if: You’re looking for a drama about a cog in a machine that never, ever, ever stops. Avoid if: You’re not up for anything where you feel like you can already guess how it’s going to go.
2. The Housemaid (1960)
Director: Kim Ki-young
The first in a trilogy, and then remade in 2010, The Housemaid is feverish, to put it mildly. The film, written, produced, and directed by Kim Ki-young, is essentially a horror movie. The story is immersed in such surreal touches. They start as soon as this seemingly simple store begins, in which a husband (Kim Jin-kyu) and wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) hire a housemaid (Lee Eun-shim) to help them with their day-to-day lives. You can guess where this is going. To a certain extent, you’re right.
Don’t get too emotionally attached to your guesses. The Housemaid, one of the first major films to come out of South Korea, will rattle you with its intensity and genuine surprises in how its characters behave, and how the psychological stakes reach dizzying heights, and then goes even further. The ending is a fascinating kick in the stomach.
Watch if: You want to see one of South Korea’s most influential, and exciting, films. Avoid if: You hate those psychological character studies that make you feel really icky afterwards.
3. Chilsu and Mansu (1988)
Director: Park Kwang-su
Appreciating the context of where South Korea was as a nation in the 1980s can certainly help to better understand Park Kwang-su’s breakout feature. However, if you don’t have time for that, Chilsu and Mansu still offers a captivating blend of rich characters with a powerful story.
Park Joong-hoon and Ahn Sung-ki create a pair of young men whose unlikely friendship serves as the foundation for the film’s larger themes and ideas. This is a fearless movie. This is particularly true in how Park Kwang-su allows the actors in the film to define virtually everything this movie has to offer.
Again, even if you don’t know a lot about South Korea in the 80s, the film’s ideals of determination and hope will almost certainly resonate with you regardless.
Watch if: You want to see a defining film in South Korea’s movie history. Avoid if: You dislike hard-earned optimism.
4. The Power of Kangwon Province (1998)
Director: Hong Sang-soo
A fascinating article, which was invaluable when researching my own list of the best South Korean movies, compares director Hong Sang-soo to names such as Eric Rohmer and Yasujirō Ozu. This film is noted as a very specific example of that thought. I couldn’t agree more. While filmmakers who pour over the minutiae of the lives of their characters isn’t for everyone, it can be riveting under the right circumstances.
The best thing to do with a film like The Power of Kangwon Province, in which a man and woman decide to bring their affair to an end, is simply be patient. The movie’s 108 minute running time runs slow, to be sure, but it’s a character study that rewards patience with a quietly spectacular conclusion.
Watch if: You want to see an intriguing portrayal of a man and woman trying to make sense of things. Avoid if: You struggle with movies that take their time.
5. Peppermint Candy (1999)
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Fair warning: 1999’s Peppermint Candy, one of the most viscerally intense movies about the human condition you will ever see, opens with the suicide of its protagonist (powerfully portrayed by Sol Kyung-gu).
We go backwards from there, watching a life desperate for meaning and fulfillment. The human soul dies very slowly, and very painfully, under the conditions of a cruel world. Our hero does his best, flaws and all, but he cannot keep up with the emptiness that shuffles him from one experience in life after another.
Peppermint Candy is brutal, depressing stuff. There is also joy in this story, and other qualities we associate with life and living, but the film is still a bleak one. Even so, you can’t stop watching.
Watch if: You want to see a movie that shows the suffering inherent in yearning, and without flinching in that depiction. Avoid if: You’re not a big fan of movies that feature suicide in any form or fashion.
The Best South Korean Movies: The 2000s
6. My Sassy Girl (2001)
Director: Kwak Jae-yong
The films of South Korea have more to offer than just horror, vengeance, or the death of the human soul. These themes are fun, and they figure prominently into many South Korean movies. At the same time, the country’s film output is as diverse as the country itself. Romantic comedies are a staple of South Korean cinema. My Sassy Girl remains one of the most charming examples of their output.
My Sassy Girl has a plot that’s simple enough. An earnest young man (Tae-hyun Chia) meets a selfish young woman (Ji-hyun Jun). She treats him like garbage. He remains optimistic. There’s an obvious sadness to that, but there is also something sweet that will take you aback more than once. Kwak Jae-yong, who directed, also puts a lot of faith in the chemistry between the leads. That faith pays off repeatedly.
Watch if: You want a romantic comedy that strays beautifully from your assumptions. Avoid if: No matter which country they come from, romantic comedies are just not something you can stand.
Although perhaps not quite as memorable as the other movies in this series, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a staggering one-two punch of human depths with overwhelming, singular style.
As we explore the lengths two men (Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun) will reach to destroy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance doesn’t have to belabor its point. We understand. In a shocking finale, we understand all too well.
Watch if: You want to see a masterwork of the art of escalation. Avoid if: You prefer to think people are basically and generally good. Whether or not they really are, this movie will put a dent in that.
8. Save the Green Planet! (2003)
Director: Jang Joon-hwan
Save the Green Planet! is about as crazy as it gets with South Korean movies. The temptation with the film, and its story of a young man (Shin Ha-gyun) who kidnaps a man (Yun-shik Baek) he believes to be an alien from another world, is to call it a comedy.
There is unquestionably some wacky stuff going on in a movie whose universe seems defined by spiritual slapstick and genuine, constant danger. The notion of the fragility of life is just one of the many themes to be found here. It is explored in a way that mixes horror, comedy, and other genres with an appreciation for chaos that deserves to be experienced.
Save the Green Planet is one of the most brazenly strange entities to make our list of the best South Korean movies. It is also a good example of how scary a comedy can really get.
Watch if: You want to see a crazed mutant of a movie, created from several different genres. Avoid if: You prefer science fiction and horror to maintain a grim tone.
9. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Director: Kim Jee-woon
This was the first Korean horror film I ever saw. Over 15 years later, it still resonates with me. In particular, this film from writer/director Kim Jee-woon connects me to the very real fear that nothing is ever quite as it seems.
A Tale of Two Sisters is indeed a story about two sisters (Im Soo-jung and Moon Geun-young). One has just been released from a mental institution. Both of them love their father (Kim Kap-soo) and neither care much for their new stepmother (Yum Jung-ah). It gets weird and aggressively dark from that point.
A Tale of Two Sisters works so well because it forces us to go headfirst into its offbeat idea of madness. You will stick around just to see what happens next. Beyond great performances, particularly from the girls who play these sisters, the film offers an array of shocking twists. Just when you think you’ve seen it all from these characters and story, the movie knocks you back to the ground. One of the scariest movies of the 2000s.
Watch if: You want a horror story as supernatural as it is psychological. Avoid if: Slow-paced madness isn’t something you’re up for.
10. Oldboy (2003)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Oldboy is quite possibly the most popular entry in Park Chan-wook’s trilogy. Part of that comes from a sequence in which our protagonist Dae-Su (an iconic performance by Choi Min-sik) fights his way through a hallway filled with malevolent human enemies. It is one of the most breathless action sequences in movie history.
The other part of Oldboy’s is the mystery it presents. Dae-Su is seemingly just a drunk, who seemingly winds up in a jail cell that looks like a hotel for some fifteen years. Once again, this is another example of the idea that nothing is as it seems. Oldboy is a harrowing vision of the consequences of vengeance. It is also a potent, intoxicating mystery. The conclusion of which, quite frankly, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Watch if: You want a deeply complex story of revenge. Avoid if: You want an ending that will satisfy your need to see the characters get what they deserve.
11. Lady Vengeance (2005)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Back-to-back entries by Park Chan-wook should only serve to emphasize how much this writer and director has contributed to the worldwide standing of his native country in cinematic output.
The final part of his trilogy, beginning with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, is as vastly engaging and stylishly dedicated to depicting those who are haunted in some form or fashion by vengeance as the other two films in the series.
However, Lady Vengeance, anchored by a perfect performance by Lee Yeong-ae, is not simply a retread of ideas. In its own way, the film uniquely explores the paths that are left open, when one makes the decision to destroy someone’s life. At the same time, it thematically connects to the other two in the series.
Enjoy this on its own, but it’s even better as the third and final chapter in one of modern film’s best trilogies.
Watch if: You’re always in the mood for some vengeance.
Avoid if: You still prefer your stories of revenge neat.
12. The Host (2006)
Director: Bong Joon Ho
One of the most famous films from South Korea, outside of its native country, The Host is also one of the best monster movies in recent memory. On top of all of that, the movie is also one of South Korea’s greatest movies to date.
It is a feat of cinematic juggling, particularly in how well it tells a rampaging monster movie story against the backdrop of a much deeper family story. One element is not more important than the other. Each component is brilliantly paced and carried out by exceptional editing, memorable creature effects, and powerful performances (especially Go Ah-sung, Byun Hee-bong, and Song Kang-ho). The Host is one of the most exciting movies you will ever see.
It is also one of the most satisfying. This is true of the ending. However, The Host is going to make you work for it.
Watch if: You’re ready for one of the best giant monster movies ever made. Avoid if: You don’t like to see children suffer.
13. A Dirty Carnival (2006)
Director: Yoo Ha
Neo-noir essentially means taking the dark, often disconcertingly mysterious essentials of noir, and taking them to an even bleaker place. There can also be a blending of other genres.
A Dirty Carnival is a story of corruption and conviction, but it sets those things within a script so fast-paced, despite a running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours, the noir elements move as a single breathless blur.
Yoo Ha’s movies seem to be defined by protagonists who are eager, perhaps too eager, to rise above the station we find them with at the top of the movie. Ambition can get you killed. It can at least put you though the wringer, which is exactly how we feel by the time this thrilling, far-reaching crime drama is over.
Watch if: You want one of the strongest gangster movie entries of the 2000s. Avoid if: You have a hard time with movies that reward questionable decisions.
The Best South Korean Movies: The 2010s
14. I Saw the Devil (2010)
Director: Kim Jee-woon
You could probably make an argument that vengeance is a big recurring theme in many of the top South Korean movies. It’s a subject we can all get behind. At the same time, the intensity and shock of how many South Korean films delve into the topic is unique to that country.
I Saw the Devil depicts a secret service agent (Lee Byung-hun) seeking a very dark approach to revenge against the serial killer (Choi Min-sik) who murders his fiancé. The agent elects to take his time. So does the movie, which consistently hits us with one stunning, often violent development after another.
Everything is a pitch-perfect build to one of the most shocking conclusions you will ever see.
Watch if: You want to see the lengths someone will go to in order to bring suffering to someone they hate. Avoid if: It’s hard for you to imagine someone wanting to toy with a serial killer.
15. Train to Busan (2016)
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Bringing fresh perspective (no pun intended) to the exhausted zombie genre, Train to Busan makes it abundantly clear that these perceptions and social placements are just as dangerous, mindlessly destructive, and overwhelming as any threat of the undead. When you bring these things together, the nightmare becomes something that will destroy everything it touches—sooner or later.
Is there hope?
Train to Busan makes you work harder for that answer than most movies. It also pounds you with one of the most intense zombie movies in recent history. But it does give its best examples of humanity the chance to suggest, through brilliant performances, that we are perhaps redeemable.
You’ll think about this, as you twist your head back into place, during the end credits.
Watch if: You’re in the mood for an exciting, engaging take on the zombie hellscape scenario. Avoid if: You just can’t get into zombie movies anymore.
16. Burning (2018)
Director: Lee Chang-dong
2018’s juggernaut of the darkest sides of human nature, Burning is very loosely based on a Haruki Murakami short story. Both stories deal in a young man (played in the film by Yoo Ah-in) whose chance encounter with a former classmate (Jeon Jong-seo) takes him to the depths of everything he stands for and believes in.
Things get weird when the former classmate, who our protagonist falls in love with, disappears and then returns with a boyfriend (one of the Steven Yeun’s best performances to date). The boyfriend? He likes to burn barns. He’s disconcertingly specific, detached-yet-passionate, and doesn’t seem to think it’s interesting to anyone but himself.
Obviously, that’s wrong. That’s just one way Burning quietly messes with you. It is one of the best psychological thrillers to be released in quite some time.
Watch if: You want a mystery that values the journey over the destination. Avoid if: It’s hard for you to imagine getting excited about a 2 ½ hour slow-burn character study.
17. Parasite (2019)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
For the time being, Oscar winner Parasite might be the most globally famous South Korean movie in film history. Only three films have ever won both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Picture. This kind of attention puts Parasite as quite possibly the most famous Asian movie in history, as well.
While hype and awards don’t inherently mean anything, it is a testament to the furious, wholly unique dark comedy tones of Parasite that it has become so successful. A searing, believable class warfare story that captures the sentiments of most of the people who have seen it, Parasite is also a gently surreal family drama. It is a story of the dullness that can blanket you when life beats you down day, after day, after day, and on through what seems like eternity.
Parasite forces us to deal with complex characterizations and twists to its plot. As it does this, it also remains incredibly entertaining throughout.
I can’t speak for Parasite’s true place in history. None of us can. What I can say are two things. This is, at the very least, one of the best movies period of the 2010s. Two, it is a rounded, memorable indication of just how many electrifying movie experiences are waiting for those who want to know what South Korean cinema has to offer.
Watch if: You’re up for a war of the social classes with a scorched-earth approach to storytelling. Avoid if: Too much buzz makes it impossible for you to just watch a movie on its own terms.
South Korean movies offer a rich variety for those tired of the same old thing from Hollywood. The best movies from South Korea have something to offer everyone. We can’t celebrate that entire library here, but we can add a couple runners-up to the list, if you’re finished with the classics mentioned above.
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