There are two types of people in the world, people who like Korean TV shows, aka K-Drama, and people like me who could care less. No, I haven’t seen Alchemy of Souls or Crash Landing on You, but that won’t stop me from admitting that Korean films are the best inventions since the first caveman decided to fry plantain.
Korean cinema has been delivering insane content long before and after 2019’s Parasite became a cultural phenomenon. If you’ve seen Parasite, and you’re looking for more Korean content to satisfy your craving, this list is for you. But if you’ve not seen any Korean films at all, then omo, I curated this list especially for you.
If there’s one film that captures the term slow burn to a “T”, it’s Burning. Featuring Steve Yeun, who you might recognise from Jordan Peele’s Nope or the Netflix road rage series, Beef, this unpredictable thriller starts simple but descends into chaos as it spirals towards its end. After all, what could go wrong in a story about a man, his childhood friend who asks him to look after her cat while she’s away, and the mysterious man she comes back with? Basic, right?
Few films have been able to stress me out the way Mother did. Mother is one of those films that stays with you long after the end credits hit the screen. The murder mystery places a single mother at the centre of its story as she embarks on a mission to clear her mentally ill son’s name after he’s accused of killing a young schoolgirl. Let me say that nothing, I repeat, nothing will prepare you for the final scene. Good luck, though.
The Handmaiden, 2016
The Handmaiden is a masterclass in delivering twist after twist and turning a story on its head countless times. When you think you know where the film is going, this iconic queer thriller throws another wrench that leaves your jaw on the floor. The Handmaiden follows the relationship between a wealthy-ass Japanese heiress, the handmaiden hired to look after her, the con man who hired the handmaiden to help scam the heiress and lots of steamy sex. The Handmaiden is one Korean film I wouldn’t advise you to watch with your family, dear.
Memories of Murder, 2003
Not to sound biased, but Memories of Murder is the greatest Korean murder mystery of all time, up there with David Fincher’s Se7en as one of the GOATs, period. Memories of Murder tells the story of a pair of local police officers whose lives are changed by a serial killer who targets young women and the big city investigator who comes to their village to help solve the case. Disturbing, hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time, the film is allegedly based on a true story, making it even more unsettling.
Train to Busan, 2016
Zombie apocalypse films have been done so many times (Resident Evil one to 100) that they don’t slap anymore. The characters don’t feel human, so just like the zombies, we start viewing them as disposable slabs of meat. Train to Busan, however, makes its audience connect and root for the humans as we follow a divorced dad, his daughter and several other colourful characters who try to survive a zombie attack on a moving train. It didn’t help that I watched this movie in 2020, right before the coronavirus gist started spreading.
Parasite is the most popular Korean film from the last decade, and for good reason. The first non-English film to win Best Picture at the Oscars in 2020, Parasite is a dark comedy that explores class differences through the eyes of two families, one rich and the other poor. A major achievement in filmmaking, Parasite will leave you all up in your feelings as you watch that “eat the rich” saying come to life right before you.
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The Wailing, 2016
Let me start by saying The Wailing is long and confusing AF. I’ve seen it twice, and honestly, I’m not sure I get the whole gist. This is not to say that The Wailing is bad; it’s just hard to grasp fully, but best believe you’ll feel like you’ve seen a masterpiece when you’re done. The horror film follows a police officer who embarks on a race against time to save his daughter and his village from a mysterious sickness that turns its victims into unhinged demons. You know a horror film means business when a child is involved.
Old Boy, 2003
Before Parasite became an international hit, Old Boy was arguably the biggest Korean film to hit the market in the early 2000s, inspiring a bland American remake with Elizabeth Olsen (of WandaVision). This intelligent and super violent thriller follows a man who, when freed from 15 years of confinement, is given five days to find and exact revenge on the people who stole over a decade of his life.
The Host, 2006
Monster films like Godzilla, Jurassic Park and co, tend to be major blockbusters people love more for the grand scale of production and CGI than the actual story (if there’s any, to be honest). However, with The Host, we see a monster movie whose social commentary isn’t drowned out by green screen visuals or cool tricks. The horror film follows a man who must save his daughter after she’s snatched up by an S-shaped monster created from chemicals dumped into the Han River.
Decision to Leave, 2022
If there’s one thing you’ll learn after watching Decision to Leave, it’s that sometimes, it’s good to mind the business that pays you and avoid trouble. This 2022 romantic thriller follows an insomniac detective who becomes infatuated with a widow suspected of killing her husband. Like, he heard she might be a murderer and still said, “Yes, baby. Off my pant.” In this life, fear men.
Based on the novel The Crucible by Gong Ji-young, and real-life events in a school in Korea, Silenced follows an art teacher who arrives at a school for hard-of-hearing children, only to discover that their teachers sexually and physically abuse the students. Silenced might be a hard watch, but it’s also a necessary one, as differently-abled people rarely get to have their stories told with such care and nuance.
I Saw the Devil, 2010
In this bloody Korean thriller, an intelligence agent’s pregnant fianceé is brutally murdered by a psychopathic serial killer, forcing the agent to go rogue in a bid to ensure that the killer ends up suffering for an extended period of time, and not in prison. While I support letting the law take charge when it comes to crime, I also support the protagonist here. Like the popular Stanley Okorie song goes, “In this life, you reap what you sow.”
You can find these films on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or any streaming service you use.