15 Best Movies to Watch From Korea

Staff & contributors

The 2016 outing of South-Korean auteur director Park Chan-wook (maker of Oldboy and Stoker) once again shifts attention to the dark side of what makes us human: betrayal, violence, and transgression. Based on the 2002 novel Fingersmith by British author Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden revolves around the love of two women and the greedy men around them. Park shifts the novel's plot from Victorian London to 1930s Korea, where an orphaned pickpocket is used by a con man to defraud an old Japanese woman. Routinely called a masterpiece with comparisons made to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, this is a stylish and meticulous psychological thriller that packs enough erotic tension to put a crack in your screen. If you love cinema, you can't miss this movie. You might even have to watch it twice.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Bae Il-hyuck, Cho Jin-woong, Choi Byung-mo, Choi Jong-ryul, Eun-hyung Jo, Ha Jung-woo, Ha Si-yeon, Hae-suk Kim, Han Ha-na, In-woo Kim, Jeong Ha-dam, Jeong In-kyeom, Jin-woong Jo, Jo Eun-Hyung, Jung In-gyeom, Jung-woo Ha, Kim Hae-sook, Kim Hae-suk, Kim In-woo, Kim Min-hee, Kim Si-eun, Kim Tae-ri, Kwak Eun-jin, Lee Dong-hwi, Lee Ji-ha, Lee Kyu-jung, Lee Yong-nyeo, Lim Han-bin, Min-hee Kim, Moon So-ri, O Man-seok, Oh Man-seok, Rina Takagi, So-ri Moon, Tae-ri Kim, Takashi Kakizawa, Tomomitsu Adachi

Director: Chan-wook Park, Park Chan-wook

Rating: Not Rated

, 2003

From Korean director Park Chan-wook, who also brought you the far quieter The Handmaiden, comes a movie that is positively terrifying. Its premise alone is enough for any sentient human being to shudder. On his daughter's birthday, the good-for-nothing Oh Dae-su (played by Choic Min-sik) gets drunk and is arrested by the police. A friend eventually bails him out and, while he is making a phone call, Oh Dae-su disappears. Not knowing why, he is held in the same room for 15 years for no apparent reason. Until, one day, he is released. That's all that can be revealed about this winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004 without giving away too much. All we can add here is the way we recommend Oldboy to people admitting to not having seen it yet: “Watch Oldboy. You're welcome. We're sorry.” A crazy, twisted film that goes to extremes. A cult classic and a statement.

Genre: Action, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Byeong-ok Kim, Choi Min-sik, Dae-han Ji, Dae-yeon Lee, Han Jae-duk, Hye-jeong Kang, Ji Dae-han, Ji-tae Yu, Jin-Seo Yoon, Jin-seo Yun, Kang Hye-jeong, Kang Hye-jung, Kim Byeong-Ok, Kim Byung-ok, Kim Su-hyun, Kwang-rok Oh, Lee Dae-yeon, Lee Seung-shin, Lee Young-hee, Min-sik Choi, Oh Dal-su, Oh Gwang-rok, Oh Kwang-rok, Oh Tae-kyung, Park Jae-Woong, Park Myung-shin, Seo Myeong-Seok, Seung-Shin Lee, Syd Lim, Yoo Il-han, Yoo Ji-tae, Yoo Yeon-seok, Yoon Jin-seo, Yoon Jin-yul

Director: Chan-wook Park, Park Chan-wook

Rating: R

A zombie virus breaks out and catches up with a father as he is taking his daughter from Seoul to Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. Watch them trying to survive to reach their destination, a purported safe zone.

The acting is spot-on; the set pieces are particularly well choreographed. You’ll care about the characters. You’ll feel for the father as he struggles to keep his humanity in the bleakest of scenarios.

It’s a refreshingly thrilling disaster movie, a perfect specimen of the genre.

Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller

Actor: Ahn So-hee, An So-hee, Baek Seung-hwan, Cha Chung-hwa, Chang-hwan Kim, Choi Gwi-hwa, Choi Woo-shik, Choi Woo-sung, Dong-seok Ma, Eui-sung Kim, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-eun, Han Sung-soo, Jang Hyuk-jin, Jeon Ye-eun, Jeong Seok-yong, Jung Seok-yong, Jung Young-ki, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Chang-hwan, Kim Eui-sung, Kim Jae-rok, Kim Joo-heon, Kim Joo-hun, Kim Ju-hun, Kim Keum-soon, Kim Soo-ahn, Kim Soo-an, Kim Su-an, Kim Won-Jin, Kim Woon, Lee Joo-sil, Lee Joong-ok, Lee Jung-ok, Ma Dong-seok, Ok Joo-ri, Park Myung-shin, Sang-ho Yeon, Seok-yong Jeong, Shim Eun-kyung, Sohee, Soo-an Kim, Soo-jung Ye, Terri Doty, Woo Do-im, Woo-sik Choi, Ye Soo-jung, Ye Su-jeong, Yeon Sang-ho, Yoo Gong, Yu-mi Jeong, Yu-mi Jung

Director: Sang-ho Yeon, Yeon Sang-ho

Rating: Not Rated

, 2017

Director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) does something quite amazing with the $50 million budget Netflix gave him: he makes a simplistic movie. But man, is it good. Okja tells the story of a “super pig” experiment that sends genetically modified pigs to top farmers around the world. In Korea, a farmer’s granddaughter forms a special relationship with one of these super pigs (Okja). When the company who originally ran the experiment want their pig back (performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton) – the two find an ally in an animal advocacy group led by Jay (Paul Dano). This is a straightforward movie, but nevertheless it is entertaining and full of thought-provoking themes and performances from an excellent cast.

Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction

Actor: Adam Auslander, Ahn Seo-hyun, Ahn Seong-bong, Amber Snow, An Seo Hyun, Andreas Fronk, Ann Evans, Barbara Wallace, Bettina Skye, Boyd Ferguson, Byun Hee-bong, Byun Heebong, Carl Montoya, Cho Wan-ki, Choi Hee-seo, Choi Woo-shik, Colm Hill, Cory Gruter-Andrew, Daniel Henshall, David Bloom, Devon Bostick, Eha Urbsalu, Erik De Boer, Faith Logan, Giancarlo Esposito, Han Yi-jin, J. C. Williams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamar Greene, Jason Scott Nelson, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Kim Chul-moo, Kim Moon-hak, Kim Woo-hyeon, Kristoffe Brodeur, Kwak Jin-seok, Kyul Hwi, Lee Bong-ryeon, Lee Jung-eun, Lena Avgust, Lily Collins, Luis Javier, Lynn Marocola, Martin Lo Rimorin, Michael D. Joseph, Michael Mitton, Milo Shandel, Myles Humphus, Nancy Amelia Bell, Niall Cunningham, Park Jeong-gi, Park Ji-hoon, Park Keun-rok, Paul Dano, Pavla Tan, Phillip Garcia, Rebecca Husain, Rickland Powell, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Sheena Kamal, Shirley Henderson, Steven Garr, Steven Yeun, Tilda Swinton, Waris Ahluwalia, Woo Shik Choi, Yoon Je Moon, Yoon Kyung-ho

Director: Bong Joon-ho, Joon-ho Bong

Rating: TV-MA

Snowpiercer is an under-the-rader post-apocalyptic thriller that offers the grittiness that many times only Asian cinema may achieve. South Korean director Joon-ho Bong forces audiences to forget that Chris Evans was ever a Marvel superhero, as he leads a revolt of his fellow “low-class” citizens against the self-appointed gentry in a train that contains all remaining members of the planet. With immersive environments and a layered script, this film melds together social commentary and moral discourse in a visually arresting and vastly entertaining package.

Genre: Action, Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction

Actor: Adnan Haskovic, Alison Pill, Chris Evans, Clark Middleton, Dana Green, Ed Harris, Emma Levie, Ewen Bremner, Go A-sung, Go Ah-sung, Griffin Seymour, Jamie Bell, Jim High, John Hurt, Joseph Bertót, Kendrick Roger Ong, Kenny Doughty, Ko A-sung, Ko Asung, Luke Pasqualino, Luna Sophia Bar-Cohen, Magda Weigertová, Marcanthonee Reis, Octavia Spencer, Parry Shen, Paul Lazar, Peter Hallin, Robert Russell, Sean Connor Renwick, Seisuke Tsukahara, Song Kang-ho, Stephen Park, Steve Park, Tilda Swinton, Tomáš Dianiška, Tómas Lemarquis, Tyler John Williams, Vlad Ivanov

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Rating: R

Vague statement alert: Burning is not a movie that you “get”; it’s a movie you experience. Based on a short story by Murakami, it’s dark and bleak in a way that comes out more in the atmosphere of the movie rather than what happens in the story. Working in the capital Seoul, a young guy from a poor town near the North Korean border runs into a girl from his village. As he starts falling for her, she makes an unlikely acquaintance with one of Seoul’s wealthy youth (played by Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, pictured above.) This new character is mysterious in a way that’s all-too-common in South Korea: young people who have access to money no one knows where it came from, and who are difficult to predict or go against. Two worlds clash, poor and rich, in a movie that’s really three movies combined into one - a character-study, a romance, and a revenge thriller.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Ah-in Yoo, Ban Hye-ra, Cha Mi-Kyung, ChoI Seung-ho, Jang Won-hyung, Jeon Jong-seo, Jeon Seok-chan, Jeong Da-yi, Jong-seo Jun, Jun Jong-seo, Kim Shin-rock, Kim Shin-rok, Kim Sin-rock, Kim Soo-kyung, Lee Bong-ryeon, Lee Joong-ok, Lee Soo-jeong, Min Bok-gi, Moon Sung-keun, Ok Ja-yeon, Song Duk-ho, Soo-Kyung Kim, Steven Yeun, Yoo Ah-in

Director: Chang-dong Lee, Lee Chang-dong

Rating: Not Rated

Twinsters is a documentary about a young Asian American actress, Samantha Futerman (also co-director), who is contacted over the internet by a young French-Asian woman, Anaïs Bordier, who has been shown a video of Samantha on the internet — and cannot believe their remarkably similar physical appearance. After initial perplexity and uncertainty, Samantha and Anaïs are soon embroiled in excited correspondence and travel to meet one another in their respective countries — eventually confirming via DNA testing that they are in fact long-lost twin sisters given up for adoption 25 years earlier in South Korea. A remarkable true story with a wonderfully beating heart, Twinsters does a lovely job of not just spelling out the amazing story of the sisters’ unlikely connection, but also finding and exploring the growing love and affection between both the two girls, as well as their extended families and groups of friends. A truly touching and humanistic film-viewing experience.

Genre: Documentary, Family

Actor: Anaïs Bordier, Kanoa Goo, Samantha Futerman

Director: Ryan Miyamoto, Samantha Futerman

Rating: PG-13

In rural Korea a policeman starts to investigate peculiar and violent events that most of the people in his village attribute to the arrival of a new Japanese resident. As the occurrences keep multiplying, and different perspectives in the film are shown, you start to lose touch with reality in the face of what can only be described as genius film-making. As critic Jada Yuan puts it, the film operates on a level “that makes most American cinema seem clunky and unimaginative”. For this reason, and while The Wailing is a true horror flick with a great premise, it’s also more than just that: it boosts a mind-boggling, interesting plot that will have you thinking about it long after the credits roll. Protip: grab the person next to you and make them watch this movie with you so you can have someone to discuss it with after!

Genre: Horror, Mystery

Actor: Bae Yong-geun, Cho Han-cheul, Chun Woo-hee, Do-won Kwak, Han-Cheol Jo, Heo Jin, Hur Jin, Hwang Jung-min, Hwang Seok-jeong, Hwang Suk-jung, Jang So-yeon, Jeon Bae-soo, Jeong-min Hwang, Jo Han-chul, Jo Yeon-hee, Jun Kunimura, Jung-min Hwang, Kim Do-yoon, Kim Hwan-hee, Kim Ki-cheon, Kim Ki-chun, Kwak Do-won, Lee Jung-eun, Lee Seon-hee, Lee Sun-hee, Lee Yong-nyeo, Moon Chang-gil, Park Seong-yeon, Park Sung-yeon, So-yeon Jang, Son Kang-gook, Sung-yeon Park, Woo-hee Chun, Yoo Soon-woong, 赵汉哲

Director: Hong-jin Na, Na Hong-jin

Rating: Not Rated, TV-MA

I Saw the Devil is a South Korean psychological thriller/horror film. IT IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART!!! It has a lot of blood and gore that could make even the strongest stomachs turn. A young woman is kidnapped from her car while waiting for a tow truck and the kidnapper murders her far from her car and scatters her body parts around. Her fiancé, a secret service agent of the National Intelligence Service, sets out to track down her murders and exact his revenge. If you're looking for a thrill ride, look no further- but don't say we didn't warn you.

Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Byung-hun Lee, Cheon Ho-jin, Choi Jin-ho, Choi Min-sik, Choi Moo-seong, Choi Moo-sung, Gook-hwan Jeon, Han Se-joo, Ho-jin Cheon, Ho-jin Chun, In-seo Kim, Jeon Kuk-hwan, Jo Deok-jae, Jo Myeong-yeon, Kim Dae-hye, Kim Gab-soo, Kim In-seo, Kim Jae-Geon, Kim Kang-il, Kim Kap-soo, Kim Yoon-seo, Lee Byung-hun, Lee Jun-hyuk, Lee Seol-gu, Lee Seol‑gu, Min-sik Choi, Moo-Seong Choi, Nam Bo-ra, Oh San-ha, Park Jeong-gi, Park Ji-yeon, Park Seo-Yeon, San-ha Oh, Seol Chang-hee, Son Young-soon, Uhm Tae-goo, Um Tae-goo, Yoon Byung-hee, Yoon Chae-yeong, Yoon-seo Kim

Director: Jee-Woon Kim, Kim Jee-woon

Rating: Not Rated

I didn't know anything about the movie before watching it (this was my husband's pick for 'one of us picks something that the other knows nothing about' night). It is Korean, sweet, funny, touching, unique, odd, poignant. I think the fact I knew nothing about the movie when I watched made it even more enjoyable so I hesitate to write more details in this review! Since watching it I have read that an American remake may be in the works, so I would recommend watching it before there is too much info out there about what is destined to be a less charming and successful version

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Jae-yeong Jeong, Jae-young Jeong, Jang Nam-yeol, Jang So-yeon, Jung Jae-young, Jung Ryeo-won, Koo Kyo-hwan, Lee Kyoo-hyung, Lee Kyung-joon, Lee Sang-hun, Mi-kyeong Yang, Min Kyung-jin, Park Young-seo, Ryeowon Jung, Yang Mi-kyung, Yeong-seo Park

Director: Hae-jun Lee, Lee Hae-jun

Rating: PG-13, Unrated

A doorway opens at the beginning of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, and through this doorway you are brought into the movie's world. Explanations or plot transitions rarely exist, and dialogue is kept at a minimum level. And yet this movie remains an incredibly simple film. Following a Buddhist master and his apprentice, it is a fable very much in the 'cycle of life' form, offering gentle complexity in the timeless and sole framework of a floating Buddhist monastery. That's all I can say without saying too much. If you are into aesthetically pleasing films, go watch this.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Choe Min, Ha Yeo-jin, Ji Dae-han, Jong-ho Kim, Ki-duk Kim, Kim Jong-ho, Kim Jung-young, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Young-min, Oh Yeong-su, Oh Young-soo, Park Ji-a, Park Zia, Seo Jae-kyeong, Yeong-su Oh

Director: Ki-duk Kim, Kim Ki-duk

Rating: R

Sometimes it's hard to relate to foreign movies because of the different cultures, languages and actors. But Miracle in Cell No. 7 transcended the language barriers for me and delivered one of the most touching stories I have ever seen. It's a Korean film about the intricate yet simple love story between a mentally challenged father and his daughter. When the father is wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit and is sent to prison, his personable character eventually causes the prisoners around him to help reunite him with his daughter in prison. Warning: many tissues will be needed.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Family

Actor: Choi Ro-woon, Dal-su Oh, Gal So-won, Han Yi-jin, Im Jae-min, Jeong Man-sik, Jin-young Jung, Jo Deok-hyeon, Jo Jae-yoon, Jo Jae-yun, Jung Han-bi, Jung Hee-tae, Jung Jin-young, Jung Man-sik, Jung-tae Kim, Kal So-won, Kang Seung-wan, Kang Ye-seo, Kim Jung-tae, Kim Ki-cheon, Kim Ki-chun, Kim Se-dong, Kyul Hwi, Lee Seung-yeon, Lee Yoon-hee, Man-shik Jeong, Man-sik Jeong, No Kang-min, Oh Chang-kyung, Oh Dal-su, Park Gil-su, Park Kil-soo, Park Sang-myeon, Park Shin-hye, Park Won-sang, Ryu Seung-ryong, Seung-ryong Ryu, Shin-Hye Park, So Won Kal, Song Lee-woo, Won-sang Park, Yeo Moo-yeong, Yoon Sun-Woo

Director: Hwan-kyung Lee, Lee Hwan-kyung

Rating: N/A, Not Rated

Boon Joon-Ho's 'Memories of murder', which was recently re-released is not too dissimilar from many of the crime-dramas that have come out of South Korea over the past two decades. Two very different detectives have to come together to solve what is turning out to be a series of murders that are all linked. The movie is based on the true story of South Korea's first ever recorded serial murderer, who raped and then killed  young girls in the late 80's. In the hands of probably the foremost South Korean director after Park Chan-Wook, this movie takes you through all ranges of emotions.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Baek Bong-ki, Byun Hee-bong, Byun Heebong, Choi Jong-ryul, Go Seo-hee, Hae-il Park, Hie-bong Byeon, Jae-ho Song, Jeon Mi-seon, Jo Deok-jae, Jo Moon-ee, Jong-ryol Choi, Jung In-sun, Kang-ho Song, Kim Joo-ryoung, Kim Joo-ryung, Kim Roe-ha, Kim Roi-ha, Kim Sang-kyung, Ko Seo-hie, Kwon Byung-gil, Kwon Hyeok-Pung, Lee Da-il, Lee Dong-yong, Lee Jae-eung, Lee Kang-san, No-shik Park, Oh Yong, Park Hae-il, Park Hyun-young, Park Jin-woo, Park No-shik, Park Tae-kyeong, Roe-ha Kim, Ryu Tae-ho, Sang-kyung Kim, Seo Young-hwa, Seo-hie Ko, Shim Sung-bo, Shin Hyeon-jong, Shin Hyun-jong, Shin Un-seop, Shin Woon-seob, Son Jin-ho, Son Jin-hwan, Son Kang-gook, Song Jae-ho, Song Kang-ho, Woo Go-na, Yeom Hye-ran, Yoo Seung-mok, Yoon Ga-hyun

Director: Bong Joon-ho, Joon-ho Bong

Rating: Not Rated

A cynical down-on-his-luck Seoul taxi driver is hired by a German journalist to go to another town called Gwangju. What seemed like an easy and overcompensated journey at first takes him into the heart of a city under siege by the military. This is in fact the student uprising that will be a very important event in South Korean history, known as 1980 Guangju Democratic Uprising. Both the journalist and the taxi driver confront life-threatening situations as they find themselves at the center of the movement. A true-story-based movie, it's a heartfelt and entertaining political drama about one of the bleakest chapters of modern Korean history. In 2018 it was the country's official submission to the Oscars.

Genre: Action, Drama, History

Actor: Cha Soon-bae, Choi Guy-hwa, Choi Gwi-hwa, Daniel Joey Albright, Hae-jin Yoo, Han Sa-myeong, Han Sa-myung, Han Yi-jin, Heo Jeong-do, Heo Jung-do, Jeon Hye-jin, Jeong Seok-yong, Jin-young Jung, Joey Albright, Jun-yeol Ryu, Jung Jin-young, Kang-ho Song, Ko Chang-seok, Kyul Hwi, Lee Bong-ryeon, Lee Ho-chul, Lee Jung-eun, Lee Sae-byeol, Lee Yong-i, Lee Yong-yi, Park Hyeok-kwon, Park Hyuk-kwon, Ryu Jun-yeol, Ryu Sung-hyun, Ryu Tae-ho, Seo Hyun-woo, Seok-yong Jeong, Song Kang-ho, Thomas Kretschmann, Uhm Tae-goo, Um Tae-goo, Yoo Hae-jin, Yoo Hai-jin, 许政度

Director: Hun Jang, Jang Hoon, Jang Hun

Rating: Not Rated