Some of the best films (certainly some of the best horror) have been coming out of South Korea for years now. With so many places you could start, how do you know you’ll jump in on the right note for you? Oldboy and The Vengeance Trilogy are often people’s introduction to South Korean cinema and it’s a great start but what if you’re in the mood for something you don’t even know exists yet? From dark comedy to ghosts and family drama there’s something for everyone.
Here are a few of the best South Korean films to enjoy, in no particular order.
My must-see on this list is definitely The Taxi Driver. I never thought a film about the terrible Gwangju uprising could be this funny. And it really is hilarious, until it very much isn’t. However, it makes this transition so seamlessly that you’re still laughing when you realise that those are tears in your eyes.
It’s heartbreaking towards the end, as any story about a massacre must be. But these characters, including a German journalist and a taxi driver who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, are very real and very heart-warming.
It’s based on a true story, but the tale of the driver himself is largely fabricated (after the dust settled on the uprising, nobody has ever been able to locate him).
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann | Directed by: Jang Hoon (Rough Cut, Secret Union).
We saw this film at a little indie cinema in Bristol, UK shortly before we left for Korea. There are so many twists in this that you’re still left reeling from the first before you’re quickly tumbled in to the next.
It’s also absolutely beautiful; the costumes, filming locations, and colours are breathtaking, and it’s some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in any film. It flits between a Gothic drama setting akin to Rebecca, a dark Dickensian underworld, and a modern twist on traditional Japanese aesthetics and pacing.
Set in Korea and Japan during the 1930s, The Handmaiden deals with some strong themes, namely the various abuses that women suffer at the hands of the patriarchy.
Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee and Jo Jin-woong | Directed by Park Chan-Ook (Oldboy).
This is one truly unsettling film, inspired by a Joeson dynasty folktale. To say too much would spoil things but it revolves around Su-mi, a girl who has recently been released from a mental institution and her subsequent life at home with her step-mother, father, and sister.
The camera work and the use of colour in this film are outstanding and uses one of the best of modern cinematic tropes: letting a scene carry on past the point of comfort, continuing on and on, turning the scare into a creeping dread. These moments of fright are downright cruel.
If you love psychological horror then this is its pinnacle, and it will leave you puzzling after the credits roll.
Starring: Kap-su Kim, Jung-ah Yum, Soo-jung Lim | Directed by: Kim Jee-woon (Age of Shadows, I Saw the Devil).
Set in a remote mountain region where a ghost, a demon, a shaman, and a zombie-like viral infection have invaded a small village, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a greatest hits of Korean horror. However, The Wailing is very much it’s own beast, the pacing and tone is constantly unsettling, the use of humour is genius, and the mountain scenes are equally gorgeous and terrifying.
Starring: Jun Kunimura, Jung-min Hwang, Do-won Kwak | Directed by: Na-Hong-Jin (Chaser, The Yellow Sea).
This was my introduction to Korean cinema. I was so annoyed I took the plane to Busan while in Korea but the plane was cheaper than the train.
As the name suggests it’s all set on a train journey to Busan, the last safe spot from a zombie onslaught. The fighting takes place as the characters move down the carriages, each carriage developing the story with new characters and situations.
It’s gruesome, it’s heartwarming, and it centres around a father and his daughter trying to survive. In typical Korean style, it’s also hilarious at times.
Starring: Yoo Gong, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho (Psychokenises, Seoul Station).
With beautiful set design and costume, The Age of Shadows is a spy-thriller loosely based on the 1923 bombing of Japanese police headquarters in Seoul. Focusing on the clandestine fight between South Korean resistance fighters and the country’s Japanese occupiers, you’re left guessing about who is on who’s side until the very end. This is one of my absolute favourites on this list despite not normally being a fan of the genre.
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Park Hee-soon | Director: Kim Jee-woon (The Last Stand, I Saw the Devil, Tale of Two Sisters)
A controversial film as its loosely based on true events, Silenced is set in a school of hearing-impaired children in Gwangju. The newly appointed teacher at the school soon realises something isn’t right. As he delves deeper, he finds that the school has been abusing the children. Teaming up with human-rights groups he finds discovers that the web covering up these awful events goes further than he anticipated. This is an intense film, expected given the subject matter, and the acting is fantastic throughout.
Starring: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi | Directed by: Hwang Dong-hyuk (Miss Granny)
Definitely one of the more fun additions to this list.
A young woman runs a popular fried chicken restaurant in a comfortable but shabby old South Korean neighbourhood. However, she and her neighbours must make way for urban demolition and new business development. Things spiral out of control into violence. In the meantime, her father who she hasn’t seen for ten years has recently found he is able to manipulate and move objects with his mind (of course).
Likened to films such as Hancock, this fun, campy new take on the superhero genre is a refreshing change from the Marvel series.
Starring: Ryu Seung-ryong, Shim Eun-kyung, Park Jung-min | Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho (Train to Busan, Seoul Station)