The South Korean film Parasite made Hollywood history when it took home the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture, becoming the first non-English speaking film to win the show’s biggest award. (Belated, if you ask us.) South Korean movies and television used to be hard to find for English-speaking audiences, but much like streaming services like Netflix have made it easier to find thrillers, true crime, and soap operas from the U.K., Mexico, or South America, South Korean films are right at viewers’ fingertips. And they’re worth exploring, no matter what genre you’re into.
Parasite director Bong Joon-ho might have put it best when he explained at the 2020 Golden Globes, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” South Korean films are known for genre-bending so it’s worth checking out each and every one of these Korean hits even if you think it doesn’t look like something you would usually watch. Remember how Parasite seemed like one type of movie and then turned into something else altogether? The same goes for romantic Korean films or South Korean psychological thrillers — you have to stay on your toes. Ahead are some of the best picks to start your South Korean film buff journey.
1. Oldboy (2003)
If you had trouble with some of Parasite’s grittier aspects, this movie might not be the one for you. But if you like dark, twisted, neo-noir films with a little torture involved, by all means, dig right in. Roger Ebert said of the film, “In its sexuality and violence, this is the kind of movie that can no longer easily be made in the United States.” But, the critic points out, the violence isn’t gratuitous — it’s simply what the movie is about, overall.
2. Burning (2018)
This Lee Chang-dong vehicle is, much like Parasite, a deep look into the economic inequality and social anxiety that plagues modern South Korea. It’s a loose adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 1992 short story “Barn Burning,” as they are both about young men who fall in love with a woman who eventually is out of reach (and attached to someone else). Bonus: the lead is played by the Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun, so if you miss watching him onscreen, this is a great way to catch up with what he’s been doing with his career. (You know, besides starring in the Academy Award-winning Minari.)
3. The Handmaiden (2016)
The Handmaiden is a steamy erotic thriller, a great palette cleanser after some of the darker psychological or crime-focused films on the list. The movie is about an orphaned pickpocket who teams up with a con man to scam a wealthy man, all while posing as his housemaid. Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian of the movie, “This film’s addictive and outrageous sexiness might just create an international fad for filing down your lover’s crooked tooth in the bath with the finely serrated surface of a thimble. It’s a quasi blowjob scene that sounds bizarre in print. On screen, it was so extraordinary that I almost forgot to breathe.” Now that sounds good, right?
4. Extreme Job (2019)
Usually, most of the South Korean film exports to the U.S. are super dark and serious. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you want to round out your Korean movie viewing experience, try this film. It’s an action movie at heart but with its fair share of slapstick comedy. It’s also one of the highest-grossing South Korean films in the past couple of years, with it surpassing over 1 million viewers just days after release, so if you want to be a connoisseur of South Korean cinema, this has to go at the top of your watchlist.
5. House of the Hummingbird (2018)
This is another South Korean movie that breaks the mold when it comes to genre. The New York Times called this coming-of-age film “delicate,” and that’s really the only way to put it. The protagonist, Eun-hee, is 14 years old, trying to manage teenage life in 1994 Seoul. She has a boyfriend, complicated family dynamics, and overall, the movie is just about her day-to-day life. If you’re more into cinematography and quiet rumination than plot or action sequences, this is a good place to start.
6. Poetry (2010)
If you’re looking for a heartbreaking family drama, then director Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry is worth a watch. The movie is about a grandmother named Mija who is struggling to cope with a traumatic family event and also the onset of Alzheimer’s. She joins a poetry class to help her mental focus, but that doesn’t mean her mind doesn’t start to wander at vital moments, making the movie all the more dreamlike on the viewing end.
7. I Saw The Devil (2010)
A dangerous serial killer murders the fiance of a super secret agent. He vows to avenge his love, even if that means he has to stoop to the killer’s level to catch him. The serial killer has murdered countless women and children and has been on the police radar for years. I Saw The Devil has a John Wick feel, just without the dogs.
8. Minari (2020)
A Korean family migrates to a farm in Arkansas to fulfill their American dream. They face several challenges that help them become closer. They learn what it means to depend on one another and to be strong in a new country. Eventually, they make a home and overcome their obstacles together. It’s a sweet story about resilience, love, and family.
9. The Great Battle (2018)
If you’re looking for a war movie with great historical context, The Battle is the film for you. This movie follows the siege and takeover of the Ansi Fortress. The battle takes 88 days, during which we are immersed in the conflict and battle between Yang Man-Chun’s Goguryeo troops and 500,000 Tang dynasty soldiers.
More Korean Movies to Watch
- Memories of Murder
- My Sassy Girl
- Train To Busan
- The Call
- The Housemaid
- Whispering Corridors
- No Regret
- Right Now, Wrong Then
- Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring
- The Outlaws
- The Vengeance Trilogy
- Save The Green Planet
- Night in Paradise
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