Listicle
23 Best Korean Films Of All Time
02 Aug 2021 | 5 MINS READ
Curzon

Korean cinema has grown in worldwide popularity over the past few years. With recent Oscar glory for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, South Korean movies are truly dominating the foreign box office and awards season alike. New feature film Beasts Clawing at Straws, a dark comedy crime thriller that sees the greed and desperation of a group of down-on-their-luck people chasing a bag of money play out, is considered to be one of 2021’s top Korean movies. To mark its release, we’ve collated our top 23 Korean films of all time. In no particular order, these remarkable Korean movies are ones to add to your watchlist.

1. The Housemaid (1960)

This black and white thriller tells the tale of a piano teacher (Jin-kyu) who hires a housemaid (Eun-shim) to help his pregnant wife (Jeung-nyeo) in their home. Containing themes of ambition, class and immorality, The Housemaid has been described by critics as one of the best Korean movies of all time. Noted by Bong Joon-ho as inspiration for his award-winning movie Parasite, The Housemaid also acknowledges topics of betrayal, obsession and revenge.

Directed by Kim Ki-young

Starring: Kim Jin-kyu, Lee Eun-shim, Ju Jeung-nyeo

2. Snowpiercer (2013)

Director Bong’s first film in the English language, this science-fiction action-adventure is the story of a class-based society living aboard a train in a post-apocalyptic world. Featuring dark themes relating to human behaviour, leadership, strength and money, Snowpiercer is based on a French graphic novel and inspired a TNT/Netflix television series of the same name.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer

Awards won: 

- Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography – South Korean Film Critics Awards 2013

- Best Director – Blue Dragon Film Awards 2013

- Best Director – Asia-Pacific Film Festival 2013

3. The Host (2006)

This excellent horror-come-action thriller-come-monster-movie, The Host focuses on a father’s attempt to track down his kidnapped daughter. Billed as Korea’s answer to Godzilla, The Host borders on themes of heroism, politics and social constructs to bring a fresh take on an often clichéd horror genre. Featuring elements of black comedy and family drama, The Host focuses on a character-driven plot rather than purely succumbing to visual effects.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Byun Hee-bong, Song Kang-ho, Park Hae-li, Bae Doona

Awards won: 

- Best Film – Korean Film Awards and Blue Dragon Film Awards 2006

4. Okja (2017)

Okja is about a young girl who fights to save her best friend, a beast named Okja, from being taken by a powerful corporation. Exploring corporate greed, veganism, genetically modified organisms and animal rights, this mystery thriller offers a mix of morality, coupled with the heart-warming tale of love for an animal.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho 

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong

5. The Wailing (2016)

A blend of subtle black comedy and horror makes The Wailing a must-watch Korean film. Following the outbreak of a mystery infection, the arrival of a stranger in a small village results in locals killing each other for seemingly no reason. An investigating policeman will stop at nothing to prevent his daughter from suffering the same fate. Combining aspects of religion, murder and identity, The Wailing offers a frightening look at the collapse of society.

Directed by Hong Sang-soo 

Starring: Kwak Do-won, Chun Woo-hee

Awards won: 

- Best Director, Best Supporting Actor – Blue Dragon Film Awards 2016

6. Minari (2021)

This semi-autobiographical film follows a South Korean family who moved to America in the 1980s in search of the American Dream. The head of the family (Yeun) has big dreams of turning his rural Arkansas farm into a flourishing Korean vegetable company. Loosely based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s own life, Minari explores themes of family, culture and heritage. This family drama was nominated for six Academy Awards, including a win for best supporting actress.

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung 

Starring: Steven Yeun, Alan Kim, Han Ye-ri, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung

Awards won: 

- Best Supporting Actress – Academy Awards 2021

- Best Foreign Language Film – Golden Globes 2021

7. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring (2003)

Following a young boy living on a lake with his Buddhist mentor, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring is a Korean drama featuring lust, sexuality, greed and humanity. Exploring the circle of life and how certain events can shape the course of life, this movie is a refreshing look at life through the different seasons.

Directed by Kim Ki-duk

Starring: Kim Young-min, Su Oh-yeong, Seo Jae-kyung

Awards won: 

- Best Film – Blue Dragon Film Awards 2003

8. The Man Standing Next (2020)

The Man Standing Next is a political drama following high-ranking officials in the days before the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. Expect a tale of tragedy and betrayal in this well-paced suspense film.

Directed by Woo Min-ho

Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Lee Sung-min

Awards won: 

- Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor – Buil Film Awards 2020

9. I Saw the Devil (2010)

An action-thriller/horror that showcases the story of a secret agent who set out for revenge against the serial killer who murdered his fiancé, I Saw the Devil is, by all means, an intense watch. Featuring bloody, brutal scenes, this movie is not for the faint-hearted. However, the sustained tension and brilliant acting make this a Korean classic you won't want to miss.

Directed by Kim Jee-woon

Starring: Choi Min-ski, Lee Byung-hun

Awards won: 

- Best Editor – Asian Film Awards 2011

- Best Cinematography – Blue Dragon Film Awards 2010

10. Train to Busan (2016)

A zombie movie that offers a fresh take on the genre, Train to Busan begins with a businessman boarding a train with his daughter. Just as the train is departing, a zombie climbs onboard, causing chaos amongst the passengers in this ‘fight to survive’ thriller. Symbolising the government’s inability to handle prevalent problems within society, this film is considered one of the best horrors of recent years.

Directed by Yeong Sang-ho  

Starring: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi

Awards won: 

- Audience Choice Award for Most Popular Film – Blue Dragon Film Awards 2016

11. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

The debut from Bong Joon-ho is a dark comedy about an unemployed professor who becomes frustrated by the barking dogs in his building, resulting in a kidnapping and killing spree. Presenting themes of corruption and society which can be seen in Joon-ho’s other work, Barking Dogs Never Bite may not be considered his finest work, but it certainly offers an interesting look at human behaviour.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Lee Sung-jae, Bae Doona

Awards won: 

- Best Actress – Blue Dragon Film Awards 2000

12. Mother (2009)

This story of a mother and her mentally disabled son – who is framed for the murder of a young girl – is at the centre of this mystery thriller. Vowing to track down the killer, the mother aims to have her son freed. Providing a fresh depiction of often cliched murder mysteries, Mother is a heart-breaking, unforgettable film with great performances all round. 

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin

Awards won: 

- Best Film – Blue Dragon Film Awards 2009

- Best Supporting Actor – Grand Bell Awards 2009

13. Poetry (2011)

This drama follows a sixty-something-year-old woman who is struggling with early Alzheimer’s. Given a newfound meaning of life, she joins a poetry class. However, she often finds herself in hopeless situations due to her wandering mind. An exploration of modern Korean society, Poetry offers a powerful yet emotional tale.

Directed by Lee Chang-dong

Starring: Yoon Jeong-hee

Awards won: 

- Best Screenplay –  Cannes Film Festival 2010

- Best Actress –  Blue Dragon Film Awards 2010

14. Moebius (2013)

This horror thriller with comedy elements features a Korean woman who castrates her son as revenge for her husband’s infidelity. With no spoken word, only occasional sound, Moebius is a fascinating look at masculinity, desire and arousal.

Directed by Kim Ki-duk

Starring: Cho Jae-hyun, Seo Yeong-ju

15. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)

A famous director meets a young artist in this Groundhog Day-style drama. Right Now, Wrong Then is a charming yet emotional love story, capturing human behaviour and chance. For those searching for a more light-hearted Korean movie, this is an excellent selection.

Directed by Hong Sang-soo

Starring: Kim Min-hee, Jung Jae-young

Awards won: 

- Best Actor – Locarno International Film Festival Gold Leopard 2015

16. Memories of Murder (2003)

This crime thriller is inspired by the real-life story of Korea’s first serial killings. Set in 1986, detectives Park and Seo aim to solve the mystery of a series of rape and murders in a small Korean province. Memories of Murder explores justice, powerlessness and crime. While the film focuses on the two detectives tracking down a serial killer, Joon-ho’s movie also delves into issues of female discrimination, politics and unsolved crimes, straying away from the traditional conclusions of similar crime thrillers.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho 

Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung

Awards won: 

- Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor – Korean Film Awards 2003

17. Burning (2019)

This mystery thriller is loosely based on the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami. When delivery driver Jong-su bumps into his childhood friend, Jae-mi, he is introduced to Ben, a very wealthy and charismatic man whom Jae-mi met while travelling. Jong-su grows suspicious of him and a relationship triangle between the three characters ensues. Exploring themes of inequality, anger, class and society, Burning is a complex movie that many critics have raved about. 

Directed by Lee Chang-dong 

Starring: Steven Yeun, Yooh Ah-in, Kim Soo-kyung, Jeon Jong-seo

Awards won: 

- Best Foreign Language Film – Los Angeles Film Critics Association 2018

- FIPRESCI Prize – Cannes Film Festival 2018

18. Parasite (2020)

A solid introduction for anyone wanting to investigate Korean cinema, Parasite is a comedy thriller about a poor family who plots to infiltrate a wealthy household by posing as expert employees in their field. Themes of greed, social inequality, class and wealth disparity pervade this film, along with clever use of symbolism. Dubbed by many as one of the best films of recent years, Parasite was the first foreign language film to win best picture at the Academy Awards. If you haven’t seen it by now, what are you waiting for?

Directed by Bong Joon-ho 

Starring: Song Kang-ho, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Sun-kyun, Choi Woo-sik

Awards won: 

- Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film – Academy Awards 2020

19. The Handmaiden (2016)

This psychological thriller was inspired by the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith and tells the story of a conman who devises a plan to seduce an heiress, stealing her inheritance and locking her away in an asylum. Along the way, he hires a handmaiden, Sook-hee, to work for the heiress and convince her to marry him. However, things start to fall apart when Sook-hee and the heiress begin to have feelings for one another. The Handmaiden is a tale of femininity, sexuality and rebellion is a classic tale of secrecy and romance.

Directed by Park Chan-wook  

Starring: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Tae-ri

Awards won: 

- Best Film Not In the English Language – British Academy Film Awards 2017

20. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

A young girl returns from a psychiatric hospital with her sister only to discover strange events between her stepmother and the supernatural world. This horror/thriller captures the relationship between two sisters, providing a tale of tragedy, pride and unlocked memories.

Directed by Kim Jee-woon

Starring: Im Soo-jung, Yum Jung-ah

Awards won: 

- Best Picture, Best Actress – Screamfest Horror Film Festival 2003

21-23. The Vengeance Trilogy – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005)

The Vengeance Trilogy is a collection of dark thrillers. Comprising the films Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, each movie focuses on the themes of revenge, violence, ethics and morality. While the films are connected through their thematic concerns, they are not linked via their narratives and can be enjoyed as individual films.

Directed by Park Chan-wook

Starring: Kang Ho-song, Lee Young-ae

Awards won: 

- Best Director – Asia Pacific Film Festival 2004 (for Oldboy)

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