Parasite made history by becoming the first Non-English film to win the Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards. Bong-Joon Ho won the Best Director and Best Original Screenplay awards. I have been a fan and an advocate of Korean movies since I started watching them in 2007. I hope this new limelight will make people watch more Korean movies. So, where would you start if you want to watch Korean movies? I thought it would be interesting to list down the 15 Best Korean films of the decade. I also have a never-ending essential Korean movie list (Post millennium) that you can follow on IMDB.
Sylvianism's Essential Korean Movie List - IMDb
This is the best set of Korean movies according to me and I have watched all these movies personally. Loved it and I am…
- The list is based on personal preferences, but I have also listed the international acclaims of each movie.
- The list is in chronological order and if you want me to choose one movie of the decade — it would be Parasite (2019).
- I have tried to list where the movies are available legally in India and the UK.
1. I Saw the Devil (2010) (Akmareul boatda)
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Starring: Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-Sik
Revenge movies aren’t new in Korean cinema. Park Chan Wook has created an entire Vengeance series that would shock any movie watcher. But I Saw the Devil from Kim-Jee Woon (previously known for A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life), had a different take on vengeance. A police officer’s (Lee Byung-hun) fiancee is brutally raped and killed. He is on a quest to find the murderer. But, what is unexpected is the way he reacts after finding the killer (in the first act itself). Park doesn’t foreshadow the violence that he methodically unveils in the movie, and in the final act, you end up with a philosophical question of who is the real Devil. A film that might make you introspect but a weak-hearted might have to watch it with occasional covers to your eyes.
The movie was copied in India as Ek Villain (2014) which they didn’t acknowledge.
Available for Rent on Amazon Prime and YouTube Movies
2. The Crucible (or Silenced) (Dogani, 2011)
Director: Lee Hae-young
Starring: Park Bo-young, Uhm Ji-won and Park So-dam
The Silenced was based on a novel by the name The Crucible written by Gong Ji-Young. It was based on the real-life events that took place at the Gwangju Inhwa School for the hearing impaired. In 2005, through a series of investigations, decades of systemic child abuse of children by the Principal and various teachers were discovered. The case didn’t get much of media attention at that time, and the perpetrators were left out due to statute of limitations (South Korea had that for child abuse cases) and legal corruption led the acquittal of other perpetrators with just a fine. In fact, four of the teachers were reinstated.
In 2009, Gong Ji -Young wrote a book on her own investigations and the movie was made in 2011 that depicted the brutality of the sexual violence against minors and the legal manipulation of authorities along with perpetrators. The movie’s success and the massive public outcry made the police to reopen the case in 2011. The perpetrators pleaded guilty, and they were sentenced to rigorous imprisonments. In October 2011, the South Korean parliament enacted the ‘Dogani Bill’ (The Crucible Bill) that eliminated the statute of limitations for Child abuse cases and extended the maximum punishment to life imprisonment.
The Silenced, along with the book, changed the law in Korea and it’s such a crucial movie in their history. The film is well made with some powerful performances from Gong Yoo and Jung Yu-Mi. A must watch.
(Side Note: Tamil actor Vijay’s upcoming film, Master, is rumoured to be an inspiration of this movie)
3. Unbowed (2011) (Bureojin Hwasal)
Director: Chung Ji-young
Starring: Ahn Sung-ki and Park Won-sang
Unbowed was directed by veteran director Chung Ji-young after a 13-year hiatus. Chung Ji-young was known for his hard-hitting social commentary movies of the 1990s like North Korean Partisan in South Korea (1990) and White Badge (1992) etc. Unbowed was based on a real-life story of a mathematics professor who shot a crossbow at a judge during a wrongful dismissal trial. In South Korea, attacking a judge in the courtroom is considered to be a severe offence.
Eloquently played by Ann Sung-Ki, Unbowed is an honest criticism of the legal system of South Korea and brought out a lot of issues that were prevalent in their justice system. But even as a movie (without getting into the social aspects) is one of the best courtroom drama that you can see because of the way it unravels. The movie received a 13-minute standing ovation at the Busan Film Festival.
4. Pieta (2012)
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Starring: Lee Jung-jin & Jo Min-su
Kim Ki-Duk is one of the important directors in the Korean movie industry’s renaissance in the late 90s and early 2000s. He primarily made art-house cinema that took the Korean movies to the film festivals across the world. Known for his controversial storylines and minimalistic yet violent filmmaking, he pushed it further with Pieta.
Kang-Do, a young heartless loan shark falls for a lonely middle-aged woman who claims to be his mother. He cripples people to recover their money and one day, his mother/lover disappears. He starts searching every person he crippled, suspecting that they might have kidnapped her. Like many of his movies, Kim explored the moral ambiguity and raw human emotions in the film. Pieta is extremely violent and overtly sexual mixed with Christian Symbolism as it explored Hamlet and Oedipus complex. It was so visceral that it evoked a mixed response at the 69th Venice Film Festival. Still, it also received 10-minute standing ovation at the premiere. Kim-Ki Duk won the Best Director award that year, and the movie was the official selection of Korea to the Oscars.
India: Tubi TV
UK: Available for rent on Amazon
5. As one (2013)(Koria)
Director: Moon Hyun-sung
Starring: Ha Ji-won and Bae Doona
United Korea is a dream that has been in the minds of Korean people since their division after the World War. The political differences might not change, but every now and then, there have been efforts to have joint diplomacy between the two nations (North and South), especially in sports.
In 1991, both North and South decided to field a unified Table Tennis Team at the World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan. After 22 rounds of diplomatic talks, they fielded a united team and participated under the Korean Unification Flag and used Arirang as the anthem.
As One (Koria) traces the success of the unified Korean Women’s Table Tennis team that won the team championship by beating the formidable Chinese Women’s Team. But the movie can’t be reduced to just another sports movie as it’s more about the friendship of two women players, Hyun Jung-Hwa portrayed by Ha Ji-won (from the South) and Li Bun-Hui by Bae Doona (from the North). It’s also about how they overcome their differences, unify their team and win against all the odds, including external political differences.
The movie is predictable and has all the stereotypical sporting movie moments. But where it shines is the way the lead characters portray human emotions and the poignant moments that struck a chord with the audience. Despite releasing along with The Avengers, it had an unbeaten run in Korea. The movie has some excellent Table Tennis games with beautiful cinematography. It is an excellent example of how to shoot a sports movie. I am pretty sure you will shed some tears at the final scene.
And don’t miss this K Pop Song from the movie sung by Lee Jung Ah :)
6. Snowpiercer (2013) (Seolgungnyeolcha)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton & Jamie Bell
Apart from Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, if I had liked all the movies of a director, it would be Bong Joon Ho. Snowpiercer is a dystopian thriller based on a French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob & Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the only survivors are in a long train that runs on a perpetual-motion engine. Like many other Bong’s movies, Snowpiercer is a movie about class conflicts and compelling human drama. The film is a spectacle with amazing visuals and wonderfully choreographed stunt sequences. And it was accentuated by some powerful performances from Song Kang-ho, Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton (I still think her character was inspired by Ayn Rand) and Jamie Bell.
Bong Joon-ho had a bad experience with his producer Harvey Weinstein because his final cut wasn’t accepted. The movie was only given a limited release which did affect its popularity, but now the film has a cult following among movie lovers.
Available on: Amazon
7. Sea Fog (2014) (Haemoo)
Director: Shim Sung-bo
Starring: Kim Yoon-seok & Park Yoo-chun
Korean movie directors are quite good at dramatising real-life stories. Sea Fog is the heart-wrenching portrayal of the Taechangho disaster in which 25 Korean-Chinese refugees suffocated to death. When a big fishing vessel Jeojinho fails to catch required fish, the shipping crew decides to smuggle 30 illegal immigrants from China to Korea for a hefty sum of money. The ship encounters a massive storm and fog while South Korean Maritime Police are chasing them. To save themselves, the Captain orders the crew to deposit the immigrants inside a fishing tank. The movie also has a beautiful love track when young are member falls in love with a female migrant. Sea Fog was the first movie directed by Shim Sung-bo (who is the co-writer of Memories of Murder) and Bong-Joon Ho co-produced Sea Fog to launch his friend’s directorial career.
Sea Fog dramatised a tragedy to show social inequality, and the adversity people go through to have a better life which is also uncertain. The production design and the camera work were lauded because you might end up feeling claustrophobic while watching the movie. Sea Fog was the official selection from South Korea for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 87th Academy Awards.
8. Ode to my Father (2014)
Director: Yoon Je-kyoon
Starring: Hwang Jung-min & Yunjin Kim
It might be a surprise that I chose Ode to My Father, but when a movie captured the fascination of an entire generation, you have to acknowledge it. Ode to My Father is an audacious attempt to reminisce the various historical events of Korea through the life of Yoon Duk Soo (Hwang Jung Min). Instead of focusing on the macro issues, the film portrays the impact of those events on the life of a man and his family.
Directed by Youn Je-kyun (Sex is Zero, Tidal Wave), Ode to my Father was criticised by both sides of the political fence but enjoyed a fantastic run in the theatres. The movie had a huge fan following especially from the older generation because of the nostalgic moments it provided. The film was adapted in India as Bharat (2019) with Salman Khan in the lead.
9. The Throne (2015) (Sado)
Director: Lee Joon-ik
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Yoo Ah-in & Moon Geun-young
The Throne was awarded the Best Film in the Annual Korean Critics Awards and also the official selection for the Best Foreign Film Oscar from South Korea. That itself qualifies the movie for this list, but the Throne is undoubtedly one of the best movies of this year. It is based on the real-life story of Prince Sado (played by Yoo Ah-Hin) who was condemned to death by his own father King Yeongjo (played Song Kang-Ho — no introduction needed). Prince Sado was put inside a rice chest and died after suffering for 8 days inside without water, food, and air.
It has been said that the story has been visited in different versions but what makes Throne perfect is the characters are not black and white. The ambivalent depiction and the unravelling of the relationship between Father and Son during Sado’s last eight days make the movie perfect. Of course, Song Kang-Ho and Yoo Ah-Hin are brilliant with their performances. They depict the ideological divide so very well, and the movie actually makes you sympathetic towards the lives of Kings and Princes much like the lives of politicians these days.
10. The Handmaiden (2016) (Agassi)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Kim Min-hee & Kim Tae-ri
Although Stoker (2013) had decent critical acclaim, Park Chan Wook didn’t make a movie until 2016. When he chose to adapt, Fingersmith, a Welsh Novel by Sarah Waters, set in the Victorian era, there were doubts about how he was going to adapt it into the Korean setting.
Park Chan Wook chose to set the story in the era when Korea was under the Japanese imperialism. What he came up with is a visually stunning dark tale that absorbs you through its quirks and elaborate plot setting. The sexual tension and the chemistry between the two lead protagonists Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) and Sook Hee (Kim Tae-ri) are amazingly portrayed, but they were also criticised heavily.
The Handmaiden competed for the Palm De’ Or that year but didn’t win, and it won the BAFTA for the Best Non-English Film for that year. The Guardian listed it as one of the best movies of the 21st century.
Available on: Chili (UK)
11. The Wailing (2016) (Gokseong)
Director: Na Hong-jin
Starring: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min & Chun Woo-hee
I didn’t want to end the list without a horror movie, and The Wailing is the best Korean horror of the decade. A mysterious disease engulfs a suburban village near Seoul, and there is a spate of murders because of that. While the media suspects wild mushrooms, Jong-Goo (played by Do Wan Kwak), a rational detective who suspects an elderly Japanese who has arrived recently to the village. Jong-Goo’s daughter seems to be affected by the same disease, and he tries to save her while the family believes that she is possessed by a daemon.
The movie is a slow-burning horror, but the director Na Hong-Jin (The Chaser, The Yellow Sea) shocks you with the astonishingly unbelievable climax. Ok, I will let you a secret, the movie is terrifying because the director never allows you to understand what you should be scared about. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has an approval rating of 99%, and if you are a horror movie lover, you should watch this movie.
Available on Netflix
12. Okja (2017)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Ahn Seo-hyun & Byun Hee-bong
Okja is Bong Joon-Ho’s previous attempt at the Palme De Or before ultimately winning it through Parasite. Okja satirical action film that critiqued the processed meat industry. Mirando Corporation develops a new genetically modified super pig species that would be the source for food and at the same environmentally sustainable. As a marketing gimmick, 26 super pigs sent around the world for farmers to raise them and the best one will win a prize. One of them is sent to a remote farm in Korea, and Mija young girl grows up with this super pig and develops a beautiful friendship. When Mija finds out that her pig has been raised for meat, she tries to save the pig from the corporation.
What makes Okja unique is that you can’t put it into a genre box like many of Bong-Joon’s movies. You should understand that the film is not about vegetarianism (because Bong-Joon Ho is a barbecue lover), but it’s a criticism of “sustainability capitalism”. The movie is quite crazy, and you might laugh at the most unexpected moments but at the same time will make you introspect about the various issues. Above all, Okja is a fantastic, heartwarming movie about the friendship of an animal and a small girl.
Available on Netflix
13. A Taxi Driver (2017) (Taeksi Unjeonsa)
Director: Jang Hoon
Starring: Song Kang-ho & Thomas Kretschmann
Post-independence, South Korea was never politically stable and was marred by authoritarian regimes. After the assassination of Park Chung-Hee (an authoritarian, who controlled the media and military) in 1979, another military commander took over. But the students took to the streets and South Korea was ready for the final struggle of Democracy. The turning point in the struggle was the Gwangju uprising from May 18–27, 1980. To save the students who were raped and killed by the Korean Military, the locals in Gwangju took arms. The students’ movement got international support because of the work of a German journalist, Jürgen Hinzpeter. He covertly entered Gwangju and shot a series of videos of government atrocities that he smuggled out defying the Korean military and the authorities. Most videos available on the uprising were shot by Hinzpeter.
Hinzpeter was helped by a Korean Taxi driver, who he knew as Kim Man-Seob. A Taxi driver traces these events and the intense emotional friendship between the taxi driver (wonderfully played by Song Kang Ho) and Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann). The sincere representation of the uprising, the relationship between the leads and some excellent acting makes this movie, a must-watch. It will also help you to understand why Song Kang — Ho is one of the best actors in the world.
The ban on making movies on the democratic protests was recently lifted, and A Taxi driver was one of the first movies on it. The film was the official selection for the 90th Academy Awards. After the movie release, they found the real-life taxi driver through his son (as Kim had given a fake name to Hinzpeter).
14. Burning (2018) (Beoning)
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun & Jeon Jong-seo
When a veteran director like Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Secret Sunshine, Hawaii: The Monster Boy) chose to adopt a Haruki Murakami short story, you get a slow-burning thriller that will give you chills in the third act. The movie follows the storyline of the short story, but the final act is different. Jong-Su (Yoo Ah-In) falls in love with his childhood sweetheart Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), but she gets attached to a sophisticated, rich guy Ben (Steven Yuen) when she goes for a trip. While Ben takes over the life of Hae-mi, Jong-su tries to fight for his love, but because of his social status, he consistently fails in his attempt. If you haven’t watched the movie, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Burning is not just a psychological thriller but a commentary on social conflicts that are prevalent in South Korea.
Burning won a lot of awards in the film festival circuit. It was the official selection of South Korea for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 91st Academy Awards.
15. Parasite (2019) (Gisaengchung)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun & Chang Hyae-jin
The movie that sparked this list is also the last but also the best South Korean movie of the decade. I wrote about it on the 10 Best South Korean Movies of 2019 list and I am quoting it here.
Parasite is the best example of sociological storytelling and a surrealist commentary on the current consumerist society that we live in. For me, the protagonists of the movie are the houses that the two families live and not the human characters in the film. The houses depict the social inequality between the families, and at the same time, the end shows a stark reality of how there is no alternative to the uncontrollable capitalism of the world. This movie will make you think and at the same time laugh at our own plight.