The Best South Korean Films (Ultimate Revised List)

by ameenisapoohead | created - 08 Jan 2018 | updated - 03 Apr 2018 | Public

This list is currently incomplete and will remain so until I rank the films correctly.

The ranking is very approximate and shouldn't be taken as exact comparisons. Basic guidelines are:

1-11 are all films of the highest quality and are achievements as art

12-26 are all films of top quality production that are definitely worth viewing the same as the very top

27-29 are lacking just a bit too much to be considered "great films" but are still very good and worth watching but only after the others since they are a priority

I hope someone finds this useful somehow!

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1. Oldboy (2003)

R | 120 min | Action, Drama, Mystery

77 Metascore

After being kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years, Oh Dae-Su is released, only to find that he must find his captor in five days.

Director: Chan-wook Park | Stars: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang, Dae-han Ji

Votes: 464,898 | Gross: $0.71M

First viewing blew me away, second made me question hype, third consolidated my decision that this is easily worthy of being at the top of many lists and remains one of the most impactful and beautifully constructed films and stories ever put to screen. It does get REALLY dark though.

2. Memories of Murder (2003)

Not Rated | 132 min | Action, Crime, Drama

82 Metascore

In a small Korean province in 1986, three detectives struggle with the case of multiple young women being found raped and murdered by an unknown culprit.

Director: Joon-ho Bong | Stars: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim, Jae-ho Song

Votes: 103,559 | Gross: $0.01M

Some of the greatest writing and acting combined leads to a very grounded and gritty story that makes you shed tears of laughter, sorrow and fear all within the same scene. This detective thriller rivals the likes of Zodiac and is arguably a much more competent film all around. A story and film I shall definitely not forget any time soon.

3. The Handmaiden (2016)

Not Rated | 145 min | Drama, Romance, Thriller

84 Metascore

A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.

Director: Chan-wook Park | Stars: Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-Woong Cho, So-Ri Moon

Votes: 82,182 | Gross: $2.01M

Beauty on screen is the best way to describe this gem of a film. The sets, cinematography, costumes, story, script etc. are all constructed to such a high degree that every frame seems to take your breath away. Couple that fact with the incredibly emotional and engaging tale filled with many intelligent twists and turns, and the top quality cast that battle each other equally to rule the screen, and you have a milestone in cinema. This one can't be missed.

4. The Wailing (2016)

Not Rated | 156 min | Horror, Mystery, Thriller

81 Metascore

Soon after a stranger arrives in a little village, a mysterious sickness starts spreading. A policeman, drawn into the incident, is forced to solve the mystery in order to save his daughter.

Director: Hong-jin Na | Stars: Jun Kunimura, Jung-min Hwang, Do-won Kwak, Woo-hee Chun

Votes: 36,755

5. Thirst (2009)

R | 135 min | Drama, Horror, Romance

73 Metascore

Through a failed medical experiment, a priest is stricken with vampirism and is forced to abandon his ascetic ways.

Director: Chan-wook Park | Stars: Kang-ho Song, Ok-bin Kim, Hee-jin Choi, Dong-soo Seo

Votes: 38,320 | Gross: $0.30M

I can see why this is such a polarising film but I personally feel this is Park Chan-Wook's most underrated film. Both the lead stars give their careers best work (particularly Song Kang-ho) and help to immerse the viewer in one of the most beautifully told love stories in cinema even if it is depressing and slow at times. This tale of desire, passion and loss personifies precisely what a vampire's tale should be in my eyes and offers a very different perspective to what we see in western cinema. *cough* Twilight.

6. Joint Security Area (2000)

Not Rated | 110 min | Action, Drama, Thriller

58 Metascore

In the DMZ separating North and South Korea, two North Korean soldiers have been killed, supposedly by one South Korean soldier. But the 11 bullets found in the bodies, together with the 5 ... See full summary »

Director: Chan-wook Park | Stars: Yeong-ae Lee, Byung-Hun Lee, Kang-ho Song, Tae-woo Kim

Votes: 23,739

The whole plot revolves around a small group of soldiers on both sides of the DMZ on the Korean border. This film is both tragic and inspiring at once and shows the viewer an unbiased view, not of the politics of Korea or the war, but rather the humanity behind both nations and the heritage that both peoples ultimately share with one another. This was even given as a gift to Kim Jong-Il a few years ago which sums up how powerful it must be.

7. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

R | 129 min | Action, Drama, Thriller

56 Metascore

A recently laid off factory worker kidnaps his former boss' friend's daughter, hoping to use the ransom money to pay for his sister's kidney transplant.

Director: Chan-wook Park | Stars: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae, Ji-Eun Lim

Votes: 56,641 | Gross: $0.05M

Easily Park Chan-Wook's most misunderstood film. It's impossible to describe this one with such limited space but I guarantee that it's genuinely a LIFE CHANGER and I refuse to spoil any elements of the plot or characters. Just go experience this for yourself as there isn't really another film like this one. Despite this praise, I'd still say it lags just the slightest behind Oldboy but it comes down to preference with this one.

8. A Bittersweet Life (2005)

Not Rated | 120 min | Action, Drama

Things go wrong for a high ranking mobster when he doesn't proceed by his boss's orders.

Director: Jee-woon Kim | Stars: Byung-Hun Lee, Min-a Shin, Yeong-cheol Kim, Jung-min Hwang

Votes: 32,199

9. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

R | 115 min | Drama, Horror, Thriller

65 Metascore

A family is haunted by the tragedies of deaths within the family.

Director: Jee-woon Kim | Stars: Kap-su Kim, Jung-ah Yum, Soo-jung Lim, Geun-young Moon

Votes: 51,262

10. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003)

R | 103 min | Drama, Romance

85 Metascore

A boy is raised by a Buddhist monk on an isolated floating temple where the years pass like the seasons.

Director: Ki-duk Kim | Stars: Ki-duk Kim, Yeong-su Oh, Jong-ho Kim, Young-min Kim

Votes: 71,786 | Gross: $2.38M

11. Breathless (2008)

Not Rated | 130 min | Crime, Drama

A bitter loan shark strikes a friendship with a troubled schoolgirl as he faces his own troubled past with his abusive father.

Director: Ik-joon Yang | Stars: Kkobbi Kim, Hwan Lee, Ik-joon Yang, Jeong-soon Park

Votes: 4,447

This whole film is the vision and work of one man from writing, directing, producing, editing and starring in the lead role. This personal attachment definitely benefits Breathless at it follows an intimate tale of a gangster who forms an unlikely friendship of sorts and begins to change his outlook on himself, the people around him and life itself. Definitely not for the faint of heart because it's extremely dark, violent, depressing and ultimately life changing. It's not a perfect film but the rough edges don't hinder the emotions and the message.

12. The Man from Nowhere (2010)

R | 119 min | Action, Drama, Thriller

A quiet pawnshop keeper with a violent past takes on a drug-and-organ trafficking ring in hope of saving the child who is his only friend.

Director: Jeong-beom Lee | Stars: Won Bin, Sae-ron Kim, Tae-hoon Kim, Hee-won Kim

Votes: 55,957 | Gross: $0.01M

13. Masquerade (2012)

Not Rated | 131 min | Drama, History

A look-alike commoner is secretly hired to take the place of a poisoned king to save his country from falling into chaos.

Director: Chang-min Choo | Stars: Byung-Hun Lee, Seung-ryong Ryu, Hyo-Joo Han, In-kwon Kim

Votes: 5,254 | Gross: $0.92M

A mixed bag but the good kind. Every genre is here from comedy, action, drama, romance, politics, history with a bit of slightly over the top melodrama attached but the quality is by no means hindered. Easily my favourite comedy of all time because of the great lead performance from Lee Byung-hun, the surprisingly engaging story, excellent period costumes and sets (the palace is unbelievable), and of course the premise which follows a king who requires a body double to protect himself. Not the most original but definitely one of the best

14. Snowpiercer (2013)

R | 126 min | Action, Drama, Sci-Fi

84 Metascore

In a future where a failed climate-change experiment has killed all life except for the lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, a new class system emerges.

Director: Joon-ho Bong | Stars: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris

Votes: 244,699 | Gross: $4.56M

It's rare a film comes along that is both highly entertaining and tailored to casual audiences yet also hides a much deeper meaning that encourages cinephiles to analyse it to death. Great concept, great cast, great story and progression, great set design and an epic conclusion to satisfy those looking for something a bit more powerful or political than the usual. You're really challenged to ponder deeply after watching.

15. Lady Vengeance (2005)

R | 115 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller

75 Metascore

After being wrongfully imprisoned for thirteen years and having her child taken away from her, a woman seeks revenge through increasingly brutal means.

Director: Chan-wook Park | Stars: Yeong-ae Lee, Min-sik Choi, Shi-hoo Kim, Yea-young Kwon

Votes: 65,159 | Gross: $0.21M

While it is the weakest link in the Vengeance Trilogy, it's still an excellent film in nearly every aspect with gorgeous cinematography, a stellar cast and strong themes of revenge (obviously), feminism and moral justice. It is also Park Chan-Wook's most stylistic film of the trilogy with very unique costume, prop and editing choices.

16. The Host (2006)

R | 120 min | Action, Drama, Horror

85 Metascore

A monster emerges from Seoul's Han River and begins attacking people. One victim's loving family does what it can to rescue her from its clutches.

Director: Joon-ho Bong | Stars: Kang-ho Song, Hee-Bong Byun, Hae-il Park, Doona Bae

Votes: 86,344 | Gross: $2.20M

On the surface, this is just another monster film. Below that surface, this is actually an extremely complicated political and economical commentary on various issues within the South Korea sphere such as US intervention on the economy, pollution and general totalitarianism. Such a bold and important film is not to be missed. It also happens to be quite a hilariously entertaining film so don't be scared off by my description of what it's all about ;)

17. Mother (2009)

R | 129 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller

79 Metascore

A mother desperately searches for the killer who framed her son for a girl's horrific murder.

Director: Joon-ho Bong | Stars: Hye-ja Kim, Won Bin, Goo Jin, Je-mun Yun

Votes: 38,357 | Gross: $0.55M

No film could possibly show the intimate relationship between a mother and son better than Mother. This brutally tragic film shows just how far a mother can go to save a child who can only be innocent in her eyes. The end is one of those that really just works in every way possible and only makes the previous experience feel all the more valued and invites a re-watch. Another unique one that can't really be missed by cinephiles or replaced in cinema.

18. A Dirty Carnival (2006)

Not Rated | 141 min | Action, Crime, Drama

A small time thug collecting debts for the local triad is torn between his criminal aspirations and his devotion to family.

Director: Ha Yoo | Stars: In-sung Jo, Ho-jin Chun, Min Namkoong, Bo-young Lee

Votes: 7,194

19. The Age of Shadows (2016)

TV-MA | 140 min | Action, Drama, Thriller

78 Metascore

Korean resistance fighters smuggle explosives to destroy facilities controlled by Japanese forces in this period action thriller.

Director: Jee-woon Kim | Stars: Byung-Hun Lee, Kang-ho Song, Yoo Gong, Ji-min Han

Votes: 6,712 | Gross: $0.54M

I'm surprised that this slipped under many critics' and viewers' radars because it's up there at the top of the espionage thriller genre. Song Kang-ho gives a performance rivaling his own in Thirst and we're left to question the credibility of every single character as we never truly trust anyone. I never felt safe watching this and a particular scene on a train has been cemented in my mind for quite a while. Another one that really can't be missed if you enjoy thrillers and particularly plot twist filled spy espionage style films

20. I Saw the Devil (2010)

Not Rated | 142 min | Action, Crime, Thriller

67 Metascore

A secret agent exacts revenge on a serial killer through a series of captures and releases.

Director: Jee-woon Kim | Stars: Byung-Hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Joon-Hyuk Lee, Kap-su Kim

Votes: 95,427 | Gross: $0.13M

Violence isn't always a sign of mindlessness in film and this is a great example because I Saw the Devil makes you question the typical "hero" and "villain" structure and sees how far you can go before deciding revenge isn't always the best option. You might walk out still believing it is but the end leaves it open to your opinion and that's what matters. Excellent performances from veteran actors, decent cinematography, top quality gore effects and a memorable story leave you feeling glad you watched this one, even if you feel devoid of life afterwards...

21. The Yellow Sea (2010)

R | 136 min | Action, Drama, Thriller

70 Metascore

The attempt to carry out a hit on a professor goes terribly awry, triggering a series of violent events which force a taxi driver to run for his life.

Director: Hong-jin Na | Stars: Jung-woo Ha, Yoon-seok Kim, Sung-ha Jo, Seok-jeong Hwang

Votes: 16,488

22. The Admiral (2014)

Not Rated | 126 min | Action, Drama, History

Admiral Yi Sun-sin faces a tough challenge when he is forced to defend his nation with just 13 battleships against 300 Japanese enemy ships in the Battle of Myeongryang.

Director: Han-min Kim | Stars: Min-sik Choi, Seung-ryong Ryu, Jin-Woong Cho, Myung-gon Kim

Votes: 9,002 | Gross: $2.59M

Arguably the greatest battle in cinema occurs for majority of this film and not once does it feel repetitive or boring. The battle constantly develops along with the characters and stays surprisingly true to history (although not entirely) and even the moments leading up to the battle are suitably entertaining and help to effectively set up each major character so you care about them to some extent and therefore fear their deaths when it comes close. Choi Min-sik is unbelievable in the title role and makes bringing Korea's greatest historical figure to life a joy to experience. No Korean can miss this but neither should anyone else, especially those interested in history or naval conflict

23. The Good the Bad the Weird (2008)

R | 130 min | Action, Adventure, Western

69 Metascore

The story of two outlaws and a bounty hunter in 1940s Manchuria and their rivalry to possess a treasure map while being pursued by the Japanese army and Chinese bandits.

Director: Jee-woon Kim | Stars: Kang-ho Song, Byung-Hun Lee, Woo-sung Jung, Je-mun Yun

Votes: 30,985 | Gross: $0.13M

There's no point seriously reviewing this on an artistic level but in terms of solid film and entertainment, this is what you've come for. Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun in the same film was enough to convince Koreans to go see this one and they weren't disappointed. The action sequences are of the highest quality I've ever seen (specifically a chase scene in the final act), the soundtrack is pumping all throughout, the story is actually intriguing for an action focussed film and the biggest strength is that it's of this high quality and humour all the way through. I was never bored with this one and probably never will be even as I continue to re-watch it.

24. The Chaser (2008)

Not Rated | 125 min | Action, Crime, Thriller

64 Metascore

A disgraced ex-policeman who runs a small ring of prostitutes finds himself in a race against time when one of his women goes missing.

Director: Hong-jin Na | Stars: Yoon-seok Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Yeong-hie Seo, Yoo-Jeong Kim

Votes: 50,369

25. Train to Busan (2016)

Not Rated | 118 min | Action, Horror, Thriller

72 Metascore

While a zombie virus breaks out in South Korea, passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.

Director: Sang-ho Yeon | Stars: Yoo Gong, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma, Su-an Kim

Votes: 112,910 | Gross: $2.13M

26. New World (2013)

Not Rated | 134 min | Crime, Drama

58 Metascore

An undercover cop finds it difficult to play both a cop and a goon.

Director: Hoon-jung Park | Stars: Jung-jae Lee, Min-sik Choi, Jung-min Hwang, Sung-woong Park

Votes: 17,780 | Gross: $0.46M

The gangster world is obviously a brutal place and many South Korean films therefore focus on this underworld but New World definitely offers a fresh perspective with characters who don't just feel like standard "gangsters and cops" but more like people. Sadly, I feel this one is slightly overrated because despite the arc of the main character (which is amazing) a lot is left wasted in this film, particularly Choi Min-sik

27. The Throne (2015)

125 min | Drama, History

Set in 18th century Korea, long-ruling King Yeongjo's struggle with his son, Sado, sees the king take extreme measures in order to deal with his heir.

Director: Joon-ik Lee | Stars: Kang-ho Song, Ah-in Yoo, Geun-young Moon, Hae-sook Kim

Votes: 1,633

28. The Villainess (2017)

Not Rated | 129 min | Action, Drama

64 Metascore

A female assassin leaves a trail of bodies behind her as she seeks revenge.

Director: Byung-gil Jung | Stars: Ok-bin Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, Jun Sung, Seo-hyeong Kim

Votes: 9,569 | Gross: $0.03M

There's no doubt that a lot is absent in terms of story and character but what is present is some outstanding film making, fight choreography, and acting that definitely lifts the plot much further than you'd expect. An adrenaline rush almost the whole way through but does sag a bit towards the middle and leaves the viewer wanting a bit more by the end.

29. Confession of Murder (2012)

Not Rated | 119 min | Action, Thriller

Lee Du-seok publishes an autobiography describing murders he committed after the statute of limitations expires. A detective and one of the victim's mothers search for the author while another killer begins a spree of murders.

Director: Byung-gil Jung | Stars: Jae-yeong Jeong, Shi-hoo Park, Hae-Kyun Jung, Yeong-ae Kim

Votes: 7,242

Don't read anything about the plot AT ALL. Walk in with no spoilers and you'll be able to appreciate a fairly well crafted plot with some memorable twists but apart from that, the appeal does run admittedly thin... Not the best out there but not even close to the worst and is still highly enjoyable and worth your time.

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