When he accepted the Golden Globe for his movie Parasite (2019), director Bong Joon-Ho told the audience: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” South Korea’s film industry has increasingly garnered international attention for powerful films, many of which address class, corruption and life on the margins of society.
1. OLDBOY, 2003, directed by Park Chan-wook
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, this film tells the story of a man mysteriously imprisoned for 15 years in a dingy room. After discovering he’s been accused of killing his wife, and when he’s eventually set free, he is bent on revenge. If you’re a fan of Greek tragedy, you’ll enjoy Oldboy, since it draws inspiration from and has many parallels to the story of Oedipus the King.
2. THE CHASER, 2008, directed by Na Hong-jin
The Chaser follows the story of a former police officer, now working as a pimp, who suspects a client has been kidnapping his girls. Renowned as a masterpiece of Korean thriller cinema, this film has even been compared to the likes of those made by suspense-film mastermind Alfred Hitchcock.
3. THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG, 2005, directed by Im Sang-soo
This black comedy tells the story of President Park Chung-hee, who served as president of South Korea from 1963, following a military coup, until his death in 1979. His assassination by his director of intelligence is the focus of this film, which blends satire with true crime. The film was so controversial that the South Korean government censored both the national and international theatrical runs of the film in 2005.
4. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, 2003, directed by Kim Jee-woon
Two sisters are forced to deal not just with their cruel stepmother, but with living in a home that is now haunted. Packed with deep family drama and horror, this film is a must for fans of films like The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Uninvited (2009).
5. THE HANDMAIDEN, 2016, directed by Park Chan-wook
Evoking eerily similar Gothic thriller themes, as seen in films like Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1941) and Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011), The Handmaiden blends romance and psychological thriller into 2 hours and 25 minutes of pulsing drama. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, the film follows the story of a girl hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but she is secretly involved in a plot to rob the heiress of her fortune.
6. EXTREME JOB, 2019, Lee Byeong-heon
In this gag-filled comedy action film, failing drug cops go undercover in a fried chicken restaurant to catch a gang of organized criminals. However, during what’s supposed to be a gang bust, their recipe for a marinade transforms the failing diner into the hottest food spot in town. As the second-most viewed film in Korean history, Extreme Job surpassed 10 million ticket sales in South Korea in under two weeks.
7. THE MAN FROM NOWHERE, 2010, directed by Lee Jeong-beom
The Man from Nowhere follows a retired special agent who now works in a pawnshop and befriends a young girl, who he attempts to rescue when gangsters associated with her drug-addicted mother come calling. Described as a “glossy thriller” by Russell Edwards in Variety, the film earned over $40 million in revenue 2010, making it the highest-grossing flick of the year in South Korea.
8. THE HOST, 2006, directed by Bong Joon-Ho
Not to be confused with the 2013 American film which shares the same title, Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host is about a young girl who is snatched from the Han River by a monster and her family’s determination to get her back. Acclaimed as the director of Parasite (2019), Bong Joon-Ho weaves a slimy and fantastic horror story, filled with social criticisms that partner those of his most recent film.
9. BURNING, 2018, directed by Lee Chang-dong
A slow-burn thriller, Burning illustrates the extreme class divides in Korean society with a mysterious twist. The film follows Jong-su, an aspiring writer, whose old friend asks him to look after her cat while she’s abroad. When she returns, she’s accompanied by a wealthy man, and the writer’s jealousy toward this stranger ends with lethal consequences.