Originally published by Jenny Leung. Last updated by Jen Paolini.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that in recent years, K-pop and Korean culture has quite literally taken over Hong Kong, and the rest of the world by storm. From crazy dance moves that most of us can only dream about mastering to all the tasty Korean cuisine that keeps us going back for more, the country has plenty to offer, to say the least. But if you want to know more about Korea, beyond just bibimbap and BTS, a great film will certainly do the trick. So without further ado, here is a list of some of the best Korean films you need to add to your must-watch list (don’t worry, no spoilers!).
If you’re not familiar with anything Korea-related, My Sassy Girl is a great option to start with. Funny and light-hearted, the story follows Gyeon-woo, a dimwit engineering college student, and his relationship with “her” (the film never mentions her name), a beautiful girl who, on the outside, appears to be everyone’s dream girl—until you meet the short-tempered side of her.
As one of South Korea’s highest-grossing comedies of all times, My Sassy Girl is just like your typical rom-com, but with real, genuine laugh-out-loud moments.
As one of the most talked-about Korean films that ever screened in Hong Kong, Train to Busan provides a mixture of drama, gore, and intensity that will have you on the edge of your seat. A short while after Seok-woo, a workaholic fund manager, boarded a train to Busan with his young daughter Su-an, the train became infested with a zombie-turning virus. The two, along with other passengers, have to work together and fight their way through to reach the quarantine zone—but what happens when not everyone wants to cooperate?
We know what you’re thinking—“Sounds like just another zombie flick”—but trust us when we say it is so much more. From all the heart-stopping jump scares to tearful moments, Train to Busan is one of those films that’s worth watching over and over again.
Love yourself a good Tarantino film? Then you’ll love this one. Based on the Japanese manga of the same name, Oldboy tells the story of Oh Dae-su, a frequent drunk who one day got kidnapped and was held captive in a sealed hotel room with nothing but a TV. After 15 long years, Dae-su was released and he sets out on a rampage to take revenge on his captors. As the truth starts to unveil on who his captors are and what really happened, Dae-su is not so sure if he wants to know anymore... We’ll stop here to avoid any spoilers, but all we can say is, you’re going to need a strong stomach for this.
Oldboy has also been reproduced by American film director Spike Lee, starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, and Samuel L. Jackson. So if you’re not so sure about taking on such a heavy storyline in a foreign language, you can give this Hollywood remake a try (but we definitely still recommend watching the Korean version!).
They say the best way to learn about a culture is from its history, but why hit the books when you can watch films, right? Based on the famous Battle of Myeongyang, the film is pivoted around one of the most legendary and courageous admirals of the Joseon dynasty, Yi Sun-sin. Threatened by an invading Japanese fleet, Sun-sin fought against all odds and led his men into victory, despite being vastly outnumbered by their enemies. As of May 2019, The Admiral: Roaring Currents is still the most-watched and highest-grossing film of all time in South Korea, even after five years of its release date.
Released in 2013, Miracle in Cell No.7 is a comedy-melodrama about a mentally challenged man, Lee Yong-gu, who was wrongfully imprisoned for killing a police commissioner’s daughter. As he slowly befriends his cellmates in prison, they help him smuggle his daughter, Ye-seung, to their cell, who instantly charmed them with her wit and innocence. Though not long after, things began to take a serious turn as Yong-gu comes face-to-face with a dilemma—justice or family? Filled with thigh-slapping moments and heartbreaking scenes, Miracle in Cell No.7 will have you laughing and crying all at the same time.
What would you do if a group of drug dealing gangsters are hunting you down, trying to accuse you of murder, and your best friend gets kidnapped?
For Cha Tae-sik, a pawnshop owner with a mysterious past, the only answer for him was to do whatever it took to fight for his and his best friend’s lives. In this case, his best (and only) friend was So-mi, a little girl who lived in the same neighbourhood with her heroin-addicted mother. Going to extreme measures to find her again, Tae-sik eventually finds himself with nowhere left to run.
Starring Won Bin, one of South Korea’s most well-respected actors, The Man from Nowhere was the highest-grossing film in 2010 and was also released in the United States and Canada later that year. With countless awards under its title, this is a straightforward, no-nonsense production that’s perfect for all action film fans.
Based on Korea’s first serial murders in history and a crime that shook the whole country, Memories of Murder is a true crime story depicting the Hwaseong serial murders that took place from 1986 to 1991.
Following local Hwaseong detective, Park Doo-man, and a detective from Seoul, Seo Tae-yoon, the two work together in search of a serial killer who was responsible for killing and raping women in the area. As they started to piece everything together, they realise that the killer only targeted women who wore red on a rainy day. However, every time they come remotely close to finding the real murderer, a new piece of evidence or report would appear, proving them otherwise.
It was estimated that for the actual murders, over 20,000 suspects were questioned, with hundreds and thousands of DNA samples collected. Many have compared the Hwaseong serial murders to the Zodiac killer in Northern California, where both of these cases still remain unsolved to this day.
What do you get when you gather some of the biggest names in the film industry together, add in some grim-reaping fantasy, and pack it with some heavy tear-jerking moments? One of South Korea’s highest gross-selling films, that’s what!
Adapted from a popular online comic, Along with the Gods tells the story of Kim Ja-hong, an ordinary firefighter who died on the job, and the three grim reapers who try to save him from eternal punishment. As more events unfold, Ja-hong begins to question why the trio are so fixated on helping him.
If this sounds right up your alley, then you’ll be thrilled to know that there is also a sequel called Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, as well as two other sequels that have been scheduled for filming in 2019.
Last but never least, one of the best films of 2019, hands down. Director Bong Joon-ho of Snowpiercer and Okja fame swept up the highest honours at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with Parasite, the first Korean film to receive the award.
Black comedy-thriller Parasite centres around the story of the Kims, a down-on-their-luck and unemployed family of four living in shabby conditions. Their fortunes turn when the son, Ki-woo, is presented with the opportunity to become an English tutor for the Parks, a wealthy family. The Kim clan then mastermind a scheme to secure the entire family with jobs within the Park household by getting others fired, and all goes well until they discover a dark secret hidden in the basement of the Park mansion.
With Parasite, Bong Joon-ho revisits the themes of class discrimination and greed set in a modern-day upstairs-downstairs scenario, exploring the precarious relationship between the affluent Parks and the destitute Kims. Filled with dark humour and surprising twists, the only spoiler we’ll share is that the film’s Palme D’or award is well-deserved.