I have been watching Korean movies for many years and enjoy the storylines that are often very different than what is typically seen in Hollywood movies. In an effort to help readers who may have not seen many Korean movies, the below list is my attempt to help identify the best ones to watch. I am sure there are other great movies that I have missed, please share your recommendations in the comments section.
1. The Taebaek Mountains (1994): This film directed by one of Korea’s most famous directors, Im Kwon-taek, skillfully shows how the differing ideologies before and during the Korean War impacted a small Korean village. This movie was released all the way back in 1994 and it is still the best movie about the Korean War and in the best Korean movie that I have seen yet.
2. Memories of Murder (2003): This movie is based on the true story about how a serial killer murdered young Korean women in the rural city of Hwaseong from 1986-1991. The movie follows a bumbling lead detective played by the famed Korean actor Song Kang-ho as he teams with an experienced Seoul detective to track down the killer. This movie is in my opinion the best crime and thriller movie ever released by South Korea.
3. The Man From Nowhere (2010): An ex-ROK Special Forces member is living a quiet life as a pawn shop owner in Seoul when a child he befriends is kidnapped by gangsters. The kidnapping unwittingly draws the man played by the popular young actor Won Bin into a conflict with the gangsters in this fast paced movie that is arguably Korea’s best action movie.
4. Castaway On The Mooon (2009): This movie is my favorite Korean comedy. It is about a suicidal man who decides to become a castaway on Bamseom island in the middle of the Han River that runs through Seoul. He ultimately ends up falling in love with an agoraphobic woman who is addicted to Cyworld, which is an early Korean version of Facebook.
5. Lady Vengeance (2005): This film directed by the famed Park Won-chook is part of his vengeance trilogy that includes another one of my favorite movies, Old Boy. Famed actress Lee Young-ae known for her sweet drama roles takes on a completely different character as a woman consumed with revenge after being jailed for 13-years for a murder she did not commit. I actually liked this film better than Old Boy, but both are fantastic movies.
6. Old Boy (2003): This thriller may be the most well known Korean movie with western audiences and for good reason due to its many plot turns that keeps people guessing. The movie directed by the famed Park Chan-wook, features a man being kidnapped and imprisoned in a hotel room cell for 15 years before being mysteriously released. After being released the man tries to figure out who imprisoned him and why? With all the plot turns, this is a movie that needs to be watched twice to really appreciate everything going on.
7. Seopyeonje (1993): This old movie is another classic film directed by Im Kwon-taek. The movie follows the lives of a family of traditional folk music singers known as “pansori” as they try to make a living in the modern world. The movie is beautifully filmed and heartbreaking to see the suffering that one woman goes through to become a great pansori singer.
8. Shiri (1999): This older action flick is arguably the first movie that caught the eye of western audiences. This was because Shiri was filmed with a Hollywood like budget and action style that western audience were familiar with. This fast paced movie is about an investigator trying to hunt down a female North Korean sleeper agent within South Korea. The hunt leads to exposing a massive terrorism plot that the investigator tries to stop.
9. My Sassy Girl (2001): This is one of the funniest South Korean comedies I have seen. It is about a boy who meets a drunken girl at a subway platform. The two eventually begin dating, but the girl’s bizarre behavior proves to be very challenging at keeping the relationship together.
10. JSA: Joint Security Agency (2000): Three of South Korea’s most well known movie stars, Lee Young-ae, Song Kang-ho, and Lee Byung-hun star in this tensioned filled movie about a Swiss military investigator sent to Panmunjom to investigate the killing of two North Korean soldiers by a ROK Army private stationed on Korea’s Demilitarized Zone.
11. Marathon(2005): South Korean movies are well known for being tear jerkers and this movie is one of the best. The movie is about the real life story of Bae Hyeong-jin, an autistic boy who’s odd behavior growing up was very challenging for his mother who never gave up on him. Bae would ultimately find solace in running. He became a good enough runner that his mom pushed him to meet the goal of running a marathon in under 3 hours.
12. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003): This movie is one of the most beautifully filmed Korean movies I have seen. The movie is about a Buddhist monk that lives in a monastery that floats on a lake. The film shows the seasons of life that the monk lived through from childhood to old age to reach the point in life where he found himself floating on a lake.
13. Tae Guk Gi – The Brotherhood of War (2004): This war movie is known as Korea’s “Saving Private Ryan”. Much of the filming techniques used in the movie are similar to Spielberg’s style. However, the plots of the two movies are very different since Taeguki follows the story of how two brothers end up fighting against each other during the Korean War.
14 Attack the Gas Station (1999): This older Korean comedy is about gang of unemployed young punks who out of boredom decide to rob a gas station and hold its owner and employees hostage after finding little money to steal. The inept punks decide they can make more money by selling people gas instead. As the thugs sell gas they meet many different types of customers, some good and some bad, but their ineptness running a gas station soon gets them into more trouble and a lot of laughs along the way.
15. Silmido (2003): Probably the most incredible thing about this Korean action film is that the events depicted in it actually happened. The movie depicts how a commando unit of ex-cons were brutally trained to infiltrate North Korea and kill Kim Il-sung. However, before they can be sent to execute their mission peace talks between the two countries begin and the commandoes are left imprisoned on Silmido island. Tired of being imprisoned they decide to escape their island prison and launch a battle through the streets of Seoul in 1971.
16. Northern Limit Line (2015): This movie shows the tragic events leading up to and during the 2nd Battle of Yeonpyeong where six ROK sailors were killed and 18 more wounded by an North Korean ambush across the maritime border between the two countries known as the Northern Limit Line. The movie does not get into the post-incident politics of this ambush which were nearly as disgraceful as the attack itself.
17. Chunhyang (2000): This is yet another Im Kwon-taek film on my list. This movie is based on an old Korean folk tale from 18th century Korea about a girl named Chunhyang who secretly marries the son of a regional governor. Her husband leaves for Seoul with his dad and the new governor wants Chunhyang for himself. She refuses his advances and is imprisoned and flogged by the governor. The movie is told through the traditional pansori folk music technique which really adds to the drama of the movie.
18. Silenced (2011): This is another movie based on real life events when students at the Gwangju Inhwa School for the hearing-impaired were victims of repeated sexual assaults by the faculty. The film depicts how the Korean court process victimized the abused children all over again. A disturbing movie made even more disturbing by the fact it really did happen.
19. Mother (2009): This movie is about how a Korean mother fights to prove that her mentally challenged son is innocent of murdering a young girl. The movie is very well acted and like many Korean movies of this genre it has a plot twist at the end.
20. The Chaser (2008): This thriller is loosely based on the real life Korean serial killer Yoo Young-chul. The movie follows how an ex-detective turned pimp tries to track down the person who has last seen his missing prostitutes. If anyone is wondering a group of pimps in real life really did track down the serial killer since the cops put little effort into the case. Note that this movie is extremely violent and bloody so it may not be for everyone.