Between Squid Game, which now reserves the title of Netflix’s most-watched series to date, and the success of 2019’s Parasite—one of only three films to win both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture—Korean cinema is garnering more attention stateside than ever before. It doesn’t hurt that Americans seem to have finally warmed up to the idea of reading subtitles (it’s no secret that dubbing destroys the foreign film-viewing experience). Or perhaps, our stomach for films not necessarily wrapped-up neatly with a bow has evolved over the years.
What makes Korean films so fascinating is their unwillingness to play by Hollywood rules. All bets are off. Happy endings are never a given, and the hero is not guaranteed survival. And simply put, they are substantially less tight-assed when it comes to things like nudity and violence.
Despite the recent attention, the fact is that Korea has been pumping out quality films for at least three decades, most of which have been vastly overlooked by American audiences. Below, check out six of our favorites. Warning: Not the for the faint of heart.
MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003)
Academy-award winning director of Parasite Bong Joon-ho leads us through an investigation based on Korea’s first confirmed serial murders. Taking place between 1986-1991 in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, the Hawaseong Murders have only recently been solved; Lee Choon-Jae is currently in prison serving a life sentence. The film follows a pair of detectives, played by Song Kang-Ho and Kim Sang-kyung, contending with their clashing approach as they rush to find answers and solve the case with the little evidence and limited technology available at the time—as the bodies continue to pile up. 30 nominations later, it is still known as one of the best South Korean films ever made.
LADY VENGEANCE (2005)
Everyone has seen or at least heard of 2003’s Oldboy (which was unnecessarily remade by Hollywood a decade later), but the second and third films in director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Triology: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance have both been mostly overlooked by Americans and both more than worthy your time. For the sake of this list, we went with the third and final installment if for no other reason than the absolute savagery of its leading lady, played mercilessly by Lee Young-ae. A psychological thriller about a woman just released from prison for murders she didn’t commit and the vengeance that ensues as she chases the real murderer.
Bong Joon-ho directs yet another critically-acclaimed South Korean thriller—this time about a mother and her troubled son, Yoon Do-joon as they navigate his intellectual disability. When Do-joon ends up in prison after getting involved with a sketchy thug, the widow is unable to come to terms with her son’s fate, and tirelessly tries to prove his innocence. But is he innocent?
This horror film focuses on the life of a Catholic priest-turned-vampire, Sang-hyun, who comes to his fate as a result of a failed medical experiment. Directed by Park Chan-wook, the film was nominated for a Palme d’Or, while Chan-wook became highly-regarded as one of the most successful horror film directors of his time.
I SAW THE DEVIL (2010)
This action thriller revolves around the quest for revenge of one man, Dae-su Oh (played by Korean legend and star of Oldboy, Choi Min-sik) following the brutal murder of his fiancée by a psychopathic serial killer. The violence doesn’t end there. Endless assaults, murders, dismemberments, rapes, and even acts of cannibalism ensue.
THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (2010)
As South Korea’s highest-grossing film in 2010, The Man from Nowhere follows a quiet pawnshop keeper with a violent past who takes on a drug-and-organ trafficking ring in hope of saving the child who is his only friend.