What are the best Korean movies? The demand for content from Korea, and indeed the general popularity of Asian cinema as a whole, is currently on a massive upward trajectory, and we’ve got a list of all the best films from Korea you need to check out.
Thanks to Bong Joon-ho’s historic win at the Oscars with his twisted thriller movie Parasite, and the streaming service successes of Netflix series like Squid Game and All Of Us Are Dead, Western audiences are well and truly embracing the wide range of wonderful entertainment Korea has to offer. But, the truth is Korean cinema has always been great!
If you like grisly, violent movies full of jaw-dropping twists, stylish cinematography, and a sprinkle of dark humour, look no further than our list of the best Korean movies.
The best Korean movies:
- Train to Busan
- I Saw the Devil
- The Handmaiden
- Memories of Murder
- Decision to Leave
There’s not a lot you can say about Park Chan-wook’s brain-melting mystery-thriller Oldboy without walking a much-traversed film criticism path, and also without spoiling what is one of the most shocking narrative journeys of all time. But let’s attempt it anyway!
On the one hand, Oldboy is a hard-hitting action movie with incredible fight choreography that has inspired movies like The Batman, clever editing techniques, and bloody, graphic violence. But, underneath all the gruesome kills lies a brooding, enigmatic story of revenge and justice which will leave you speechless, just as it did me the first time I saw it.
Please, if you haven’t seen Oldboy before, and have no idea what happens in the movie, keep it that way until you watch it. The reward of going in blind to this foreign language hall-of-famer is absolutely huge! Just make sure you avoid the Americanised Spike Lee movie that failed to capture the magic of the original.
Here it is, the movie that started it all for the recent surge in popularity from curious Western cinema audiences. When Parasite, and its director Bong Joon-ho, took the Oscars by storm in 2020, it was more than just an achievement for one man and his film; Bong opened up a door for the whole world to dip a toe into Korean cinema.
On that fateful night, Bong said, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” And, the general moviegoer seems to have listened, as the phenomenal success of Squid Game can attest to.
Parasite is a sprawling, meticulous hybrid of so many different genres; with soap-opera levels of family drama, ingenious comedy elements, genuine moments of terror, and all the thrills of a high-octane car chase. Believe the hype, Parasite is legitimately one of the best movies of all time. Parasite is currently available on Prime Video.
Train to Busan (2016)
Most of the movies on this list are pretty dark, but none come close to the horror movie Train to Busan. A heart-pounding exploration of an apocalyptic world where a virus breaks out turning everyone into zombies might sound like your typical zombie movie, but this Korean offering delivers far more than most of its kind.
Train to Busan manages to bring together all the brilliant, trademark elements you find in much of Korean cinema; slick, stylish filmmaking, claustrophobic fight scenes, and a little bit of emotional trauma, as a treat. One minute you’re watching on in horror, the next, you’re weeping like a little baby, trust me!
Before Parasite’s success, Train to Busan managed to push open the door a little bit, and certainly found a high level of critical acclaim in the US. So much so, in fact, that a sequel was given the greenlight, and plans for an American remake continue to develop.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
A lot of Korean movies are violent, but I Saw the Devil potentially takes the crown as the most bloody, brutal, and graphic of them all. When a vicious serial killer mutilates his fiancée, Kim Soo-hyun makes it his mission to track down the sadistic murderer and make him pay in the most excruciating game of cat-and-mouse ever brought to the screen.
As long as you’re not averse to a bit of blood and bone-breaking, you may well find I Saw the Devil to be an oddly-satisfying experience. Not that we condone violence or anything, but seeing justice and revenge inflicted on the barbaric villain of this movie in such a meticulous fashion, is pretty damn cathartic.
As is the norm with Korean movies, I Saw the Devil has a fantastically sharp script, and the camera work is exceptional, using the juxtaposition of lights and shadows superbly to bring this chilling story to life in style.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Reader, this is by no means an ordinary love story. Park Chan-wook, who also directs the aforementioned Oldboy, decided to dabble in the romance movie genre in his own unique way, and the results are truly breathtaking.
The Handmaiden is a lesbian love story, and much like Oldboy, is full of unbelievable twists and turns, deceit and betrayals, and a healthy dose of crime and violence. Think of the craziest soap opera storyline of all time, amplify it by 100, and make it a sumptuous, expertly-crafted drama, and you have The Handmaiden.
Be warned, The Handmaiden is best described as an erotic thriller, with lots of scenes of a sexual nature. If that kind of thing doesn’t bother you though, you’re in for a treat, with what is one of the best examples of perfect storytelling in film you’re likely to find. You can find The Handmaiden on Netflix now.
Memories of Murder (2003)
It’s everybody’s favourite cinephile, Bong Joon-ho again! We couldn’t talk about Korean movies and only recognise Bong’s more recent work, so let’s look further back towards the start of his career with this epic detective movie.
The Oscar-winning director has been perfecting his craft for more than two decades now, and while he doesn’t like to talk about his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Bong’s sophomore effort, Memories of Murder, is a scintillating neo-noir detective movie.
As you may have guessed from the title, there is murder afoot, as seasoned Bong collaborator, Song Kang-ho and his colleagues track a mysterious serial killer. The gruesome murders are enough to rival the graphic nature of the aforementioned I Saw the Devil, and this epic crime story is packed with surprises that will keep you second-guessing right to the end.
We round out our list with something a little less violent, with Lee Chang-dong’s meditative, poetic drama movie Burning. Starring The Walking Dead alum Steven Yeun, alongside Yoo Ah-in and Jeon Jong-seo, Burning is a complicated story of mysterious strangers, messy relationships, and finding beauty in the chaos of the world.
Burning is a bit of a slow-burn movie (see what we did there?), but it’s all worth it in the end, when the pieces of this enigmatic puzzle begin to fit together. Not only does this film have a thought-provoking script, but it also quite possibly boasts the best cinematography of any film on this list, too.
You can watch Burning on Prime Video now, with a subscription to the streaming service.
Decision to Leave (2022)
Okay, you can have one more Park Chan-wook picture, as a treat. The guy really needs to give someone else a chance, to be honest. Decision to Leave was one of the best movies of 2022, and is just as intricate, stylish, and thrilling as the director’s previous work.
When Detective Jang Hae-jun (Hae il Park) falls for murder suspect Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a dangerous and sordid love affair begins that will threaten to tarnish his reputation forever.
We hope you can check out our Korean movie recommendations and enjoy what you find. If you want to explore more Asian-inspired content, check out our guide to the best anime movies of all time, or dive into our guide to the Squid Game season 2 release date.