I promised myself that if Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar, I’d run this listicle of the best Korean films I’ve seen since the turn of the millennium, so here’s a supplement to my beginner’s guide to the movies of that country. I was wrong when I stated that I had never seen a Korean film directed by a woman; Kim So-yong and Eom Yo-na are both women. I’m using the Academy’s rules that the film has to be at least half in the Korean language to count as a Korean film, which regrettably means that I have to axe Snowpiercer. Also, since Kim Sang-jin’s Attack the Gas Station! was never theatrically released in this country, I can’t consider it, either. Even so, there is an embarrassment of riches here, especially if you like action thrillers, so kick back with a cold glass of soju and watch.
1. The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook intended this film to be a straight-up adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith set in Victorian England, but changed his mind when he found out the BBC had already done one. The resulting film improved on both the book and the TV serial by being set at a time when Koreans were second-class citizens in their own country. That gives even more sharpness to this dangerous and oh so very sexy lesbian romance.
2. Secret Sunshine
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t mention this in my Korean cinema article, but this drama about a widowed mother who’s put through an almighty wringer is a devastating experience like few others. Director Lee Chang-dong (formerly South Korea’s Minister of Culture) views her plight in an unsentimental fashion and lead actress Jeon Do-yeon (who won the best actress prize at Cannes) delivers a crushing performance.
In South Korea, Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar victories are being taken less as a national triumph and more as an “oh, you finally noticed us” moment. Still, the Oscar telecast in that country was punctuated by commentator Lee Dong-jin’s scream of disbelief over the Best Picture announcement, and South Korea’s political conservatives (longtime enemies of Bong) are now proposing to build a statue of him. The cause of this list deserves a place high up on it.
Given the tensions between South Korea and Japan (currently at a high point because of trade), the Koreans will take some delight in having produced a better Haruki Murakami adaptation than any Japanese filmmaker. What makes this insidiously good is how Lee Chang-dong plays with our perceptions: We think the rich Korean-American dude (a creepy Steven Yeun) might be a serial killer, but the movie sticks so closely to the viewpoint of its mentally ill protagonist (Yoo Ah-in) that we can’t be sure.
5. The Host
This is a science-fiction movie by Bong Joon-ho, but do not confuse it with the Saoirse Ronan sci-fi thriller by the same name, which came out around the same time and is terrible. This played at AMC Grapevine Mills back in 2007, and it was the first Korean movie that made me think, “Oh, damn!” Also, the prologue with a U.S. Army scientist (Scott Wilson) dumping hazardous chemicals into the Han River? That actually happened.
6. Lady Vengeance
This is a minority viewpoint, but I think this is the best of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. It’s certainly the only one from a woman’s point of view, as Lee Yeong-ae plays an ex-convict who goes free from prison and swears revenge on the people who put her there. You won’t soon forget the scene where she forces Choi Min-sik’s killer to translate her message for her daughter into English.
7. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring
As with Roman Polanski, you have to admit Kim Ki-duk’s directing chops even while taking in the fact that he’s likely a perverted individual. This Buddhist allegory is his best film, commenting on the changing of the seasons as a monk returns to a sparsely populated monastery at different stages of his life and reflects on the passage of time.
I’m not as high on this one as most other Korean movie fans are, but Park Chan-wook’s ultraviolent thriller still has the famous scene with Choi Min-sik killing all those mobsters with a hammer, not to mention how his revenge plot ends up recoiling upon himself. Take this over Spike Lee’s English-language remake.
9. Extreme Job
I’ve already spent a ton of this awards season raving about this fried-chicken cop thriller, so I won’t add too much.
10. A Tale of Two Sisters
Kim Ji-woon’s best film is this hair-raising horror film based on an ancient Korean folk tale about two children dealing with a beautiful but evil stepmother (Yeom Jung-ah). She cuts a terrifying figure as she says, “I think you girls need to be taught a lesson.” The scene with the thing under the refrigerator will spawn nightmares, too. Hollywood remade this as The Uninvited with Elizabeth Banks, but stay away from that in favor of the original.
Yet another movie by Bong. This one about a mother whose son is accused of murder includes dance numbers, karaoke, lawyers and cops being unbelievably bad at their jobs, and a testament to how a mother’s love for her child can lead to the most horrible things.
Yoo Ah-in stars in Burning, but he shows his range in this thriller as a spoiled billionaire who cripples a nationally ranked MMA fighter in the octagon. The climactic fight between him and the antihero cop (Hwang Jung-min) earns marks for sheer brutality, as the two combatants use car doors and a fire hydrant as weapons.
13. The Wailing
Because when your little girl becomes possessed by a demon, you want an exorcist wearing a man bun and a spotless Nike tracksuit rolling up to your house in a brand-new Ford F-150. Na Hong-jin’s epic-length horror film comes with bits of humor, commentary on anti-Japanism in Korea, and an exorcism that involves a percussion group, dancing, the slaughter of a live goat, and the shaman throwing spices in the girl’s face while she curses at him. I would, too.
14. The Villainess
This action-thriller would make the list purely on the basis of the opening scene, shot from the antiheroine’s point of view as she kills an entire dojo full of martial-arts students with knives, her bare hands, and a 15-pound free weight. The rest of Jeong Byeong-gil’s near-incomprehensible film has action sequences that are a showcase for leading lady Kim Ok-vin.
15. The Admiral: Roaring Currents
This war film is a little square, but there’s a great deal to be said for the skill with which director Kim Han-min tells the story of this real-life Korean historical battle against invading Japanese, similar to a naval version of Thermopylae. The clarity of the combat sequences is a main reason why this was one of the biggest hits in South Korean history.
Not that long ago, you could find restaurants in South Korea that served dog meat. It makes sense that a filmmaker from that country would make a hilarious comedy asking why we consider some animals as food and others as pets. The film asks hard questions of everyone who isn’t vegan and doesn’t eat dog. It also has funny performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, and Paul Dano.
Train to Busan (see below) was the big hit that broke new ground for special effects in South Korean movies, but I find Kim Sung-hoon’s zombie film to be the better one, with fleeter pacing and better developed characters, not to mention a setting in the Joseon Dynasty that makes the movie more interesting to look at.
18. The Good, the Bad, the Weird
Call this a kimchee Western. This Sergio Leone-inspired film takes place on the barren deserts of Manchuria in the 1940s, as two outlaws and a bounty hunter fight each other (plus the Chinese and the Japanese) for possession of a treasure map. The story is really just an excuse for Kim Ji-woon’s directorial flourishes amid all the shootouts and horseback chases.
19. The Man From Nowhere
Won Bin plays an ex-mobster who tries to lay low, but when organ traffickers kidnap the 12-year-old girl who lives next door, he goes around inflicting caveman levels of violence on the gangsters. The Thai villain (Thanayong Wongtrakul) is a fascinating bad guy, too, a sharp dresser who’s fluent in both Korean and English, can filet someone with a knife, and gives good advice that his Korean bosses don’t heed.
20. Tazza: One-Eyed Jack
This is the third film in a series about gambling cheats and cardsharps trying to score big and stay alive. This is the only movie in the series that I’ve had the chance to see, and its deglamorized atmosphere and double-crosses and betrayals make me eager to find the others.
Pansori is an ancient form of Korean musical theater with one man accompanying himself while singing an epic tale. The story of this film, about a beautiful girl who refuses to betray her husband with the governor even under torture, is a centuries-old story that has been made into more than 15 films. Im Kwon-taek’s highly pictorial 2001 version is the one that brings pansori to a global audience.
22. The Berlin File
Ryoo Seung-wan managed to piss off both the Israelis and the Palestinians with this spy thriller about a Korean agent in Germany who foils an Arab terrorist plot while also blackmailing a Mossad agent with a video that would torch Israel’s relationship with America. Say what you want to about his politics, the climactic shootout between the hero and the terrorists is aces.
23. JSA (Joint Security Area)
The breakthrough in Park Chan-wook’s thriller is its depiction of North Koreans not as villains but rather as victims of the insane dictatorships that they’ve lived under. In addition to turns by future stars like Lee Byung-hun and Song Kang-ho, the film also points out a flaw in the otherwise admirable humanitarian records of Sweden and Switzerland.
24. The Attorney
Think of this like a Korean version of Erin Brockovich or Michael Clayton. Song Kang-ho (that man again!) plays a greedy tax lawyer who discovers his conscience when he stumbles on evidence of torture and murder under South Korea’s military dictatorship. Rather than gaudy special effects or a new way of seeing the world, this legal thriller soars on the strength of its great lead performance.
25. The President’s Last Bang
Here’s how you know history has a low opinion of you: You become president of your country, you get assassinated, someone makes a film about it, and it’s a comedy. Im Sang-soo’s satire caused an uproar in South Korea by depicting real-life former President Park Chung-hee as a drunk who throws wild parties in office, gropes women, and, worst of all, reveres Japanese culture. A lot of the humor here is specific to Korean culture, but this does show you how subversive Korean film can be.
26. Treeless Mountain
Kim So-yong is an American filmmaker who specializes in quiet lyricism (see: her English-language lesbian romance Lovesong), but she made this little jewel in her native country about two sisters who are shuttled among aunts and grandparents while their parents try and fail to support them from afar.
27. I Saw the Devil
They say that if you spend all your time chasing monsters, you eventually become one. That is what happens to Lee Byung-hun’s federal agent in this thriller, who is so hellbent on taking revenge on the serial killer (Choi Min-sik) who murdered his wife that he’s willing to sacrifice his job and his remaining family members to engineer a Grand Guignol retribution on the killer. This is lurid and sensationalistic, and director Kim Ji-woon makes it hard to look away.
28. Right Now, Wrong Then
Hong Sang-soo’s movies aren’t the most accessible, but it’s easier if you think of this film as a version of Sliding Doors, with a famous film director (Jung Jae-young) coming to a festival in a small Korean town and having a chance meeting with a young woman (Kim Min-hee) come to both disaster and bliss.
One of the more disgusting food movies you’ll ever see, Park Chul-soo’s film is about the twisted platonic romance that develops between a chef (Bang Eun-jin) and an anorexic (Hwang Shin-hye) who live in adjoining apartments. Feminist scholars will have a field day with the way this film ties these women’s psychological traumas with their eating habits.
30. The Divine Fury
I’m including Kim Joo-hwan’s supernatural thriller only because it’s about a Catholic priest and an MMA champion with stigmata who team up to defeat a demon prince. The movie climaxes with the hero engaging the demon in an epic taekwondo battle, and I wonder why American Christian films don’t end like this. The insane mash-up of genres and subjects is a very Korean thing, and a good place to end this list.
Honorable mention: Park Chan-wook’s Shiri, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, Jang Hun’s A Taxi Driver, Im Kwon-taek’s Chi-hwa-seon: Painted Fire, Lee Seok-hoon’s The Pirates, Eom Yeo-na’s Malmoe: The Secret Mission, Chang Yoon-hyun’s Tell Me Something, Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron, Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis, Park Dae-min’s Private Eye, Shin Tae-ra’s My Girlfriend Is an Agent, Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, Yoon Je-kyoon’s Ode to My Father, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives.