10 Best Korean movies you should really watch

Writer: Casey Chong

Some of the must-watch South Korean movies!

Ever since "Train To Busan" made its debut at South Korean cinemas in July, the country's first zombie blockbuster has attracted favourable reception both critically and financially.

The movie even broke the South Korean domestic box-office record with more than 10 million viewers in South Korea alone. "Train To Busan" proved to be so popular that Hollywood immediately took notice and is looking to seal a deal for a big-studio remake.

The critical success of "Train To Busan" has continuously proven that South Korean cinema remains a force to be reckoned with. Thus we have handpicked 10 best acclaimed Korean movies from different genres that you should put on your watchlist.
(Note: the list is according to the year of release in chronological order).

1. "My Sassy Girl" (2001)

Cha Tae-Hyun and Jeon Ji-Hyun share a moment in "My Sassy Girl".

Based on the real-life blog by Kim Ho-Sik, "My Sassy Girl" details the relationship between an unlucky twenty-something college student (Cha Tae-Hyun) and a mysterious pretty girl (Jeon Ji-Hyun).

An enormous hit in South Korea back in 2001, the movie has everything that you can come to expect from a successful romantic comedy formula. But what really makes "My Sassy Girl" such an above-average effort is the irresistible chemistry between Cha Tae-Hyun and Jeon Ji-Hyun. Jeon Ji-Hyun, in particular, is the main glue that holds the movie together with her multilayered performance as "The Girl". The movie also benefits from Kwak Jae-Yong's skilful direction filled with a snappy combination of laugh-out-loud moments and a heartwarming love story all beautifully rolled into one package.

2. "A Tale Of Two Sisters" (2003)

"A Tale Of Two Sisters" is not for the faint hearted.

Director Kim Jee-Woon is no stranger to handling different genres throughout his illustrious career. Among the variety of movies he has made include a sports comedy (2000's "The Foul King"), gangster drama (2005's "A Bittersweet Life"), western adventure (2008's "The Good, The Bad, The Weird") and revenge thriller (2010's "I Saw The Devil"). Then somewhere in between, Kim Jee-Woon tried his hand on a psychological horror called "A Tale Of Two Sisters".

This well-made Korean horror movie tells a story about two sisters (Im Soo-Jung and Moon Geun-Young) returning home after a lengthy stay in a psychiatric hospital. Soon, they are haunted by a series of disturbing events within their family. Kim Jee-Woon knows well enough what makes the horror genre tick. Blessed with creepy atmosphere and some well-timed frightening moments, "A Tale Of Two Sisters" is a gripping horror movie not to be missed.

3. "Memories Of Murder" (2003)

A scene from "Memories Of Murder".

Based on the true story of South Korea's first documented serial killings between 1986 and 1991, Bong Joon-Ho's "Memories Of Murder" centres on two police detectives, Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-Ho) and Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyung) investigating the grisly death of beautiful women in the rural province of Gyeonggi.

A huge critical success in South Korea as well as various international film festivals, "Memories Of Murder" is more than just your standard-issue police procedural. The way Bong handles the escalating murder mystery and the killer's identity is meticulously directed with a genre know-how approach. The ambiguous finale, which shows a close-up shot of Park's bewildered expression staring directly at the screen, is one of the most powerful endings ever seen in South Korean cinema. Bong also successfully infuses his unique brand of pitch-black humour surrounding Park and his fellow kick-happy partner Cho Yong-Koo's (Kim Roi-Ha) incompetent method to force their suspects to confess by torturing and beating them up. What's even more interesting here is the striking contrast between Park's eccentric local cop role and Seo's more cerebral approach to a city cop's attitude. Both Song Kang-Ho and Kim Sang-Kyung deliver great performances. If you're a fan of a murder mystery or psychological thrillers in general, "Memories Of Murder" is a South Korean genre masterpiece worth checking out.

4. "Oldboy" (2003)

Choi Min-Sik and Kang Hye-Jung in "Oldboy".

This award-winning movie, which helps populate the revenge-thriller genre in South Korean cinema, tells a story of a loser named Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik) who was imprisoned in a windowless hotel room for 15 years for a reason unknown. When he is finally released out of the blue, he begins his quest to locate those who are responsible for catching him in the first place.

From the infamous live squid eating scene to the violent fistfight along the narrow corridor filmed in an unbroken take, "Oldboy" succeeds as a remarkably thrilling piece of work. But what makes this movie such a genre classic is Park Chan-Wook's keen eyes for arresting visuals alongside Choi Min-Sik's truly committed performance as the vengeful protagonist. Then there is the unexpected yet shocking twist towards the end. Mind you, it's the kind of twist that is bound to provoke you once the truth rears its ugly head.

5. "The Host" (2006)

The monster attack in "The Host".

Following his huge success of "Memories Of Murder" three years ago, director Bong Joon-Ho continues to prove himself as a versatile filmmaker as he switches gears from the land of psychological-thriller territory to a monster movie in his follow-up, "The Host". A hit in its native country as well as various film festivals around the world, "The Host" centres on a desperate family man (Song Kang-Ho) trying to save his daughter who is kidnapped by a mysterious monster from Seoul's Han River.

As a monster movie, "The Host" is top-notch. This is especially true during the tense opening sequence when the monster starts to attack people. But as proven in "Memories Of Murder", Bong isn't interested in doing a straightforward genre movie. In "The Host", the acclaimed director successfully blends the monster movie inside out with satirical social commentary ranging from the South Korean political and cultural climate to a then-timely Asian health crisis surrounding the bird flu epidemic. Song Kang-Ho, who reunites with Bong after their successful collaboration in "Memories Of Murder", gives a wonderfully multi-layered performance as the doofus but caring father.

6. "The Chaser" (2008)

Kim Yun-Seok in "The Chaser".

"The Chaser" marks the directorial debut of Na Hong-Jin in which the story deals with a former Task Force detective-turned-pimp (Kim Yun-Seok), trying to locate two of his missing girls.

As a debutant, Na Hong-Jin directs his first feature-length feature like a seasoned pro. He understands the fundamental rules of a thriller genre. Blessed with a breathless pace from minute one till the end, "The Chaser" is packed with elaborately-staged tension and suspense. Not to mention the movie successfully make the viewers root for the unlikely lead protagonist, which turns out to be a former cop-turned-pimp. Of course, this wouldn't have worked if not for Kim Yun-Seok's tour de force performance who manages to turn his generally unlikable character into a sympathetic role with a surprisingly human conscience. Ha Jung-Woo, in turn, delivers a suitably creepy performance playing the serial killer.

7. "Thirst" (2009)

Song Kang-Ho in "Thirst".

"Thirst" marks a radical departure from Park Chan-Wook's usual revenge-thriller territory famously seen in his "Vengeance" trilogy ("Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance", "Oldboy" and "Lady Vengeance"). Instead, it's a horror movie about Sang-Hyun (Song Kang-Ho), a Catholic priest who finds himself contracted to a deadly virus that turns him into a vampire.

Despite the familiarity of the genre, this is not your average vampire movie. Park cleverly subverts the genre with a mix of darkly comic approach and melancholy take surrounding the ugly fate living as a vampire. "Thirst" is clearly for not everyone. Even die-hard horror fans might find the movie a bit too eccentric. But "Thirst", which won the Jury Prize at 2009 Cannes Film Festival, is the kind of unique horror movie you don't see every day.

8. "I Saw The Devil" (2010)

Lee Byung-Hun and Choi Min-Sik in one of the torture scenes from "I Saw The Devil".

Ever since Park Chan-Wook's "Vengeance" trilogy (particularly, "Oldboy") made the revenge-thriller genre enormously popular in South Korean cinema, there have been many other filmmakers jumping on the bandwagon as well. If there is one revenge movie that is worth ranking alongside "Oldboy", it would be Kim Jee-Woon's "I Saw The Devil". The premise itself is captivating enough to satisfy both genre fans and movie enthusiasts in general: A National Intelligence Service agent (Lee Byung-Hun) seeks vengeance against the serial killer (Choi Min-Sik) for brutally murdering his fiancee (Oh San-Ha)... through an unorthodox method by catching and torturing him in every way imaginable before releasing him again and vice versa.

Certainly not for the weak stomach, "I Saw The Devil" is shockingly graphic in the way Kim Jee-Woon depicted the act of gore and violence. In fact, the movie is so tense that it originally obtained a rare 19+ (the most restrictive rating in South Korean cinema) and was forced to re-edit for a total of seven cuts to escape the ban for theatrical release. If you must know, the most glaring omission not found in the theatrical release (in South Korea, of course) is the dinner scene that deals with cannibalism. Even with some of the cuts, the movie remains disturbing enough. As for the cast, Lee Byung-Hun and Choi Min-Sik each give their committed performances to their respective roles.

9. "The Man From Nowhere" (2010)

A bloodied Won Bin in an action scene from "The Man From Nowhere".

Won Bin plays Tae-Sik, a former government assassin who is now living a quiet life as a pawnshop owner. Soon, he befriends a young girl next door named So-Mi (Kim Sae-Ron). When So-Mi is kidnapped by a ruthless mob involved in a drug and organ trafficking ring, Tae-Sik is forced to use his expertise and save his only friend at all cost.

"The Man From Nowhere" was the highest-grossing South Korean movie of 2010, and it's easy to see why. Won Bin's transition from a teen heartthrob from his early days in TV's "Autumn In My Heart" to a masculine action star is downright convincing. Lee Jeong-Beom has a great eye for staging visceral thrills and action sequences. This is particularly evident during the memorable climactic finale where Tae-Sik single-handedly takes down a gang of armed mobs with his nifty fighting and weaponry skill. One highlight, which involves Tae-Sik encountering a vicious bodyguard named Ramrowan (Thai actor Thanayong Wongtrakul) during a violent knife duel, is a must-see for every action fan.

10. "The Wailing" (2016)

Kwak Do-Won in "The Wailing".

"Train To Busan" may have dominated South Korean cinema in 2016, but let's not forget about "The Wailing". This genre-bending horror movie, which combines murder mystery and supernatural elements, tells a story about a local policeman (Kwak Do-Won) investigating a series of violent deaths caused by an unexplained illness that has spread among the people of the small village in Goksung (also the Korean title of the movie).

Directed by Na Hong-Jin, a talented filmmaker who already became an overnight sensation following his two acclaimed hits in "The Chaser" and "The Yellow Sea", his third feature marks a refreshing change of pace from his usual thriller territory. What makes "The Wailing" so unique is the way Hong-Jin twists his movie inside out with multiple blends of genres and keeps pulling off surprises after surprises until the very end. It can be mind-boggling at times, but "The Wailing" is a one-of-its-kind cinematic experience that also happens to be one of the best Korean movies ever made in recent memory.

"Train To Busan" opens in cinemas nationwide on 1 September 2016.

Cinema Online, 29 August 2016

Related Movies:
Train To Busan (Korean) (01 Sep 2016)

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