100 Greatest Korean Films Ever (50-1)
50. Christmas in August (1998)
While blending a premature death with a romantic liaison may seem a melodramatic stable, Christmas in August manages to steer into far more interesting waters in a subtle and lyrical manner. It instead touches on that fury we can feel at facing an early death, something shown here in the more restrained outbursts of photo shop owner Jung-won who has just met young parking attendant Da-rim.
A simple film filled with depth. A bittersweet treatment of death and a romance that might never be, Christmas in August is a powerful reminder of immortality and the love we will eventually lose. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
49. A Single Spark (1995)
As we approach the summit of the list, master director Lee Chang-dong begins to dominate, but we have a Lee written film here. Jeon Tae-il holds an important place in the history of the workers’ right movement in Korea and Park Kwang-su’s second film on this list finds a tactful and respectful way to show his life and its tragic end in 1970. A suitably bleak but deeply powerful biopic of the 22-year old who protested for workers’ rights.
Financed largely by public subscription with the closing credits acknowledging nearly 5,000 names, it shows the sacrifice that workers’ right activists of the past suffered to secure today's protections. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
48. Madame Freedom (1956)
This classic melodrama charts a wife’s taste of independence during the backdrop of the increasing Westernisation of Korea. Seon-yeong is married to a surly professor and is given a chance at personal autonomy by taking a job selling French and American perfumes and cosmetics. Out in the world, Seon-yeong starts to turns head as she relishes being freed of her shackles.
Various strands come together in a drama-filled final act that outpaces the gradual story building that precedes it. A stunning snow-filled closing shot deserves special mention for its iconic imagery. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
47. Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989)
The first South Korean film to receive a US theatre release in 1993, the man behind the film, Dongguk University professor and painter Bae Yong-kyun, spent seven years making the film, editing it by hand to its completion. It centres on three Buddhist monks, orphan boy Hae-jin, young monk Ki-bong and Zen master Hye-gok. The film is more a mediation, an examination of Buddhism and the true path of fulfilment.
Bae manages to frame the beauty of the wilderness. It is hard not to ponder what Bae could have achieved if he produced more, but we can still be grateful to have a film of such enigmatic depth. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
46. Café Noir (2009)
Traversing well north of three hours in run time, Café Noir might seem to be the final manic project of a tortured directional genius in their twilight years. It is instead a lusciously shot billet-doux to Seoul. Music teacher Young-soo is left lovelorn after an affair he was having with a student’s mother, Mi-yeon, ends. The return of Mi-yeon's husband leaves Young-soo heartbroken with thoughts of revenge.
Despite its tumefied length, it manages to be a consistently challenging and stupefying. An arthouse project that got out-of-hand, but one packed with such philosophical musings it never feels wasteful. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
45. Little Forest (2018)
One of the figureheads of the emergence of several superb female filmmakers in Korea, Yim Soon-rye’s Little Forest is based on the manga series of the same name by Daisuke Igarashi. After failing her test to become a teacher, Hye-Won, turns her back on the busy city life in Seoul and moves to her hometown in the countryside to heal her emotional wounds with her long-time friends.
This is not a film of conflict, it is about how letting go can be the best way to set us free. There is lots of cooking, eating and talking, and it is all the better for it. A simple, warm hug of a film. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
44. Okja (2017)
The first Director Bong film on the list is this razor-sharp yet sweet satire on environmentalism, animal ethics and corporate avarice. A drove of genetically modified super pigs have been created by Mirando Corporation, including Okja who lives in South Korea with the young Mija. After 10 years, Okja has won the breeding prize and must travel to New York, leaving a heartbroken Mija.
As ever with Bong, the film is a mixed assortment of differing feels, managing to be funny and sad, sweet yet dark, profound but entertaining. A neat bundle of jollification and intelligence. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
43. The Villainess (2017)
Highly-stylised, vivacious action thriller boasts some inexplicably brilliant set pieces and outlandish stunt work. One of the more enjoyable side elements of watching The Villainess is attempting to fathom quite how they manage to achieve some of the action on display. Sook-hee has been trained as a killer from a young age and then coerced into being a sleeper agent for Korea’s intelligence agency.
Featuring one of the most breath-taking opening scenes in the history of Korean cinema, strap yourself in for enough high-octane action, wild stunts and ultra-violence to keep you going for weeks. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
42. New World (2013)
Sharp-suited, smart-mouthed and knife-wielding, New World provides a stylised addition to the gangster genre, combining the deep undercover cop trope with the crime organisation boss appointment arc. Undercover cop Lee Ja-Sung has infiltrated Goldmoon International, a vast corporate crime syndicate, who are left seeking a new leader when their boss dies in a suspicious car accident.
Starring Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) and Lee Jung-jae (The Housemaid), New World manages its various developments with pitch-perfect pacing, ensuring it is never flabby and always engaging. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
41. Pieta (2012)
Referencing the Italian language notion of piety and signifying the depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling the corpse of Jesus, Pieta mixes Christian iconography with brutal shock violence to craft an unsettling mix. Kang-do is a brutal loan shark debt enforcer devoid of empathy. Suddenly a middle-aged woman, Mi-son, starts to follow him everywhere claiming to be his long-lost mother.
Pondering the importance of a material figure, Pieta makes for an unnerving and engaging watch that still manages to develop in equally surprising and fascinating ways. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
40. A Girl At My Door (2014)
This low-budget high-impact debut feature manages to tackle a smorgasbord of social issues, prominently the contentiousness of LGBT rights in Korea. Police officer Lee Young-nam is moved from Seoul to a small rural outpost after a personal scandal. There she bonds with Sun Do-hee, a timid 14-year old who suffers at the hands of bullies and her drunken stepfather Yong-ha.
A limited budget and leading stars agreeing not to be paid, Jung carves out one of Korea's most important films, as LGBT discrimination, domestic violence and alcohol abuse issues are unpacked. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
39. The Man with Three Coffins (1987)
A visually stunning meditation on grief and its ability to follow us anywhere, this colour-filled road movie from Lee Jang-ho follows the fortunes of a widower as he travels to spread the ashes of his wife, but encounters jarring reminders of this loss in the process. On his journey, Sun-seok, meets three other women that look exactly like his wife and they each serve as painful reminders that are then laced with fresh tragedy.
Brimming with rich themes, alongside the colours and emotions blending on screen with genuine power, creates an evocative work on the painful memories of losing a loved one. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
38. Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)
Venomous, jaw-dropping battle scenes litter this often melodramatic war film. The battles display the true horror of war – brutal, loud, disorientating. Predominantly set in 1950, cobbler Jin-tae and his bright younger brother Jin-seok are close siblings in Seoul. When the Korean War breaks out both are enlisted to fight on the frontline, but their tight relationship is tested by the stresses of battle.
This is a profound anti-war film simply by demonstrating the blood-stained terror of fighting in one. It is one of the most immersive war films ever made, placing us in the trenches too. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
37. The Widow (1955)
Born in 1923, Park Nam-ok is considered Korea's first female director. Park had to battle a tough industry and gender discrimination to craft The Widow in 1955, a fine film that would prove to be her only feature. Widow Min-ja is one of many thousands of Korea War widows. She remains loyal to her husband’s memory, but has her head turned by a new love interest.
A screening at the first Women’s Film Festival in Seoul propelled the film into wider appreciation. To view The Widow is to gaze upon a genuine piece of historical film-making which remains important today.
36. Save The Green Planet! (2003)
Often disturbing, regularly hilarious and always beautifully crafted, this bizarro tale has a cult following but can be considered a genuine tour de force after landing at 36th on our list. Byeong-gu believes that aliens from the planet Andromeda are about to attack Earth, so alongside his girlfriend Su-ni, they kidnap the CEO of YooJae Chemical Company, Kang Man-shik, who they suspect of being a top-ranking extra-terrestrial.
A set-up so obscure it seems difficult to take seriously, but then it becomes a rift on mental health, torture ethics and the toll of suffering. From the lunacy rises something of genuine profoundness. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
35. Mandala (1981)
An important film in the reputation-building of the prolific Director Im at the time, this is a contemplative and lyrical work. It follows two monks that are vastly different in almost every aspect. Pob-un has left his university studies and embarked on a journey to better comprehend existence. He meets, Ji-san, an older monk that is more interested in earthly pleasures such as soju and women.
One of two works from Im that deals with Buddhism (the other being Come Come Come Upward, 1989), the film is poetic and thoughtful, unpacking religion but ultimately what it means to be alive.
34. Thirst (2009)
In the wake of his blood-splattered Vengeance Trilogy and romantic comedy I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay (No 62), Director Park opted to blend those elements together in the violent romance that is Thirst. Sang-hyun is a Catholic priest who is involved in a failed medical experiment leaving him with a vampire thirsting for blood. His moral framework is tested when he meets Tae-ju, the wife of a childhood friend.
It is, as ever with Park, a stylish and clever outing. It is also, as ever with Song Kang-ho, anchored with a brilliant lead performance. Together they produce an enthralling addition to the vampire canon. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
33. The March of Fools (1975)
Youthful gaiety gives way to existential angst in this coming-of-age classic set during Korea’s military dictatorship. Philosophy college students Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol chiefly focus on getting drunk and chasing girls. After attending a blind date evening with the French literature department they meet Yeong-ja and Sun-ja, with the foursome forming a friendship, but there are darker clouds on the horizon.
Today its legacy endures as a vital cultural signpost of the time that would be unrecognisable for some of Korea’s youth, but wholly relatable in other aspects as these youngsters try to make their way. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
32. Castaway on the Moon (2009)
Hilarious, touching and stunningly shot, an obscure set-up provides a surprising means to muster a masterpiece. Seong-geun becomes a castaway on a deserted island on the Han River. He is spotted by Jung-yeon, a young woman with a long-lens camera who is living as a hermit in her parents’ home. As Seong-geun tries to survive, Jung-yeon starts to fall for this strange castaway.
A film about human connections and their importance. The absurdity of the human condition and the toil of its modern incarnation wrapped up within this profound romantic tale. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
31. A Day Off (1968)
Both melancholy and beautiful, while also slipping into the outright surreal in some dream-like sequences. There is a vein of sadness which runs through the entire film. We meet an impoverished young man, Huh Wook, as he sets off to meet his pregnant girlfriend Ji-yeon, who desperately wants an abortion and needs the funds to facilitate it. Huh Wook then goes on the hunt to find the funds.
A Day Off is atmospheric and moody, capturing the view of the wider nation at the time. Due to such themes the film was originally banned for its gloomy outlook and had to wait until 2005 to be discovered and released.
30. The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)
In The Good, the Bad, the Weird, multi-genre directing Kim Jee-woon creates a Leone-inspired Spaghetti Western that borrows heavily from the classics while injecting a distinctly Korean feel. Set in the 1930s, bandit and hitman Park Chang-yi (the Bad) is hired to steal a treasure map when Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird), a petty thief, gets there first, and both draw the attention of bounty hunter Park Do-won (the Good).
A film of boundless fun and entertainment. A couple hours of Western action and visceral amusement. And further proof that Kim can turn his hand to any genre and instantly look an old hand. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
29. The Man from Nowhere (2010)
A tense and raw action thriller which stacks the revenge narrative with heart and emotional punch. Tae-sik (played superbly by the illusive Won Bin) is a quiet, recluse and his only friend is So-mi, a young girl who lives in the neighbourhood with her mother Hyo-jeong. When So-mi is kidnapped, Tae-sik evokes his more violent past in an attempt to track her down.
You care, deeply, about the fortunes of Tae-sik and So-mi. When everyone from an underground army of enforcers and the police are closing in, you will them to safety with every breath. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
28. Secret Sunshine (2007)
The master of the emotional drama, in Secret Sunshine the concept of grief offers Lee Chang-dong an expansive canvas to colour the shades of agony that loss provides. Shin-ae has upped-sticks from Seoul with her son Jun after the death of her husband in a car accident. Heading to Miryang, her husband’s birth town, the pair seek a fresh start from the memories of loss in Seoul, but tragedy seems intent on following her.
Jeon Do-yeon produces a career best performance, enough to make her the first and only Korean ever to win Best Actress at Cannes as the much-tortured Shin-ae in this devastatingly powerful film. READ THE FULL REVIEW
27. A Bittersweet Life (2005)
Director Kim has a varied career of playing with genre devices across a range of film types and he encapsulates the stylish crime caper perfectly here. Kim Sun-woo is a hushed but brutal enforcer at a hotel owned by Kang, who goes on a business trip and asks Sun-woo to look after his girlfriend Hee-soo. Sun-woo dutifully cares for her but he finds himself becoming enchanted by the girl.
Kim even makes the violence poetic and deep, combining Shakespearean tragedy with highly stylised, modern action, switching from the bloodstained action to the film’s more tender moments. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
26. Take Care of My Cat (2001)
This debut feature is an understated and deeply naturalistic portrait of the prickly transition from being a carefree gang of girls to inheriting the toil and insecurities of the grown-up world. Hae-joo is overworked at a brokerage firm in Seoul, Tae-hee is an unpaid worker at her family's sauna, Ji-young is struggling to find work, while twin sisters Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo sell handmade jewellery on the street.
It is a film we can all comprehend. That feeling of drifting from people we felt would form the fabric of our entire lives. Of seeing an unbreakable bond loosen as adult demands take priority. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
25. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
The first instalment of the Vengeance Trilogy is habitually startling and repeatedly horrific. Stylishly assembled, as always from Director Park, the resolve of the audience is tested in this blood-splattered offering. Ryu, a deaf mute, is laid off from his factory job. In desperate need to fund his sister’s kidney transplant, he plots the kidnapping of a young girl, bringing the girl’s father into this fraught situation.
There is plenty of Director Park mastery throughout, the stylish shots, the gory violence that is still elegiac and the twists of fortune which linger in every new scene. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
24. 3-Iron (2004)
An almost wordless cinematic sonnet and an intoxicating romance tale, 3-Iron has just 1,579 words of dialogue. Instead, everything is unpacked in looks and actions, themselves often silent, to show the coming together of two lost souls. Loner Tae-suk rides around on his motorbike looking for empty houses to occupy for a few days when he meets Sun-hwa and the pair form a close bond.
There is another sense that this is a ghost story without ghosts. With the very much alive Tae-suk and Sun-hwa moving like ghosts – silent, haunting houses as they go, living in the shadows. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
23. Lady Vengeance (2005)
The final instalment of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy further amplifies the stylised violence offering up a confronting, sometimes shocking, but wildly entertaining film. Lee Geum-ja is a reformed female prisoner after serving 13 years inside for the kidnap and murder of six-year-old schoolboy. In prison she became a role model for other inmates but on release she seeks the true culprit behind the crime which sent her away.
Geum-ja, coloured in that iconic red eye shadow, is fuelled by fury and is pursuing a revenge she must fulfil, even if it will offer her very scant personal fulfilment. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
22. I Saw the Devil (2010)
Jaw-droppingly violent, revenge is best served repeatedly in this unflinching and blood-lashed outing. It places two of modern Korean cinema’s finest actors – Lee Byung-hun (A Bittersweet Life) and Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) – face to face as an intelligence agent undertakes a relentless pursuit of the sadistic serial killer who had killed his pregnant fiancé.
We witness the vicious circle of attempting to gain redemption, and how unfulfilled this leaves our protagonist. A shock and awe project, where those who can handle shocks they will adore the awes. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
21. House of Hummingbird (2018)
This masterfully crafted and contemplative coming-of-age drama representing a startling debut outing for Kim Bora. Set in the 1990s, it follows Eun-hee, a restrained 14-year-old attempting to juggle young love, a demanding education system, and a cold and sometimes violent family home life. Eun-hee attempts to construct her sense of self and purpose in the rapidly changing Seoul.
Patient, perfectly pitched and able to present soul-stirring interactions with maximal confidence, it is not all doom and gloom either, there is a warm-heartedness to it. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
20. Seopyeonje (1993)
The highest ranked Director Im film on the list is a work of profound cultural importance, demonstrating the significance of Pansori and reactions to growing Japanese and Western musical influences. A family’s father, Yu-bong, is determined to pass down his Pansori skills to his adoptive children Song-hwa and Dong-ho, but his draconian teaching starts to tear the family apart.
The film does a superb job of demonstrating the power of Pansori, as the depth of the characters' sadness is realised when we hear and see their emotional performances. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
19. Snowpiercer (2013)
A startling madcap spin on the dystopian future yarn, Snowpiercer feels as if we have been jettisoned directly into Bong Joon-ho's own beauty and bizarre brain – some never-resting wild train ride. When a failed attempt to halt global warming instead descends the planet into a new ice age, humanity’s last survivors are left onboard a circumnavigating train called the Snowpiercer.
Mad, wild, tense, Bong’s genre-scrambling approach to story-telling mashes together a violent action film, an off-the-wall science fiction outing, alongside dollops of black humour and slices of horror. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
18. The Host (2006)
It is difficult to think of a better mixing pot than the genius of director Bong Joon-ho, a commentary on US-Korean relations, and a giant creature mutated by chemicals dumped in the Han River that hunts people at will. When formaldehyde finds its way into the river, a large amphibious creature grows and after consuming the river's fish, jumps onto land to go human hunting.
Boisterous, funny, action-packed and loaded with enough social commentary to keep a pub conversation going all night, The Host is a monster movie like no other from a director like no other. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
17. Joint Security Area (2000)
A touching buddy movie hidden in a military thriller, Park Chan-wook’s breakout hit has enough emotional depth to swallow a continent. At the demilitarized zone, two North Korean soldiers are killed at their border house. The incident fractures the delicate relationship between North and South, with a special investigation launched to discover what has happened to defuse the national tensions.
The highest-grossing film in Korean cinema history at the time, it established Director Park as the country’s new film-making superstar. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
16. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
An atmospheric, psychological horror which offers a subtle and dread-building reimagining of an often-told Korean folktale. Inside a mental institution, teenager Su-mi is being treated for shock and psychosis. She is then released, returning to her countryside family home to live with her younger sister Su-yeon, their father and their stepmother Eun-joo, where nightmares and ghosts arrive as family tensions rise.
A dark, unique and suffocating view of bereavement and woe, A Tale of Two Sisters was the highest-grossing Korean horror ever at the time, including a release in US cinemas. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
15. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)
The highest ranked Hong Sangsoo film on the list and his 12th overall, the most of any director, this is an intriguing examination of the fate of a potential couple’s romantic liaison over the course of a few soju-soaked hours. We follow arthouse director Ham Cheon-soo who has travelled to Suwon to screen one of his films. Killing time ahead of the next day’s screening, he spots the beautiful Hee-jung and starts a conversation.
We get this story twice, split in near equal measures across the film’s two hour run time, with various changes in the events in each day together, producing a contemplative work on human interactions. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
14. Oasis (2002)
The story of an impossible romance, a brave and powerful piece of breath-taking filmmaking from Lee Chang-dong. Released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter, Jong-do seeks out his family in Seoul. Jong-do also visits the family of the man he killed in a hit-and-run three years prior, meeting the man’s sister with cerebral palsy, Gong-ju. Soon Jong-do and Gong-ju form an increasingly close bond.
When Jong-do and Gong-ju connect, the way they have been marginalised by their own families matters less in each other’s company. A sad, powerful, profound and important piece of cinema. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
13. Train to Busan (2016)
While this action-horror mash-up is about rapid-hunt zombies terrorising desperate train passengers, it also provides a vast array of social commentary. On a train (to Busan!) there is a workaholic father, his daughter, a husband and his pregnant wife, and a baseball team. As the train departs, an infected woman jumps on, attacks a train attendant, and the infection is soon spreading through the carriages.
Social responsibility, rapid industrialisation, responsibilities towards the elderly and the social pressures applied to South Korea’s youth are all assessed as zombies sprint wild. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
12. The Wailing (2016)
Staggering, sublime and a journey of ever-increasing screw-turning tension. The light-hearted cop-capers of the first act, give way to a second act focused on exorcism, before the final act is a whodunit cliff hanger centered instead on a who-is-the-demon mystery. Hapless rural police officer Jong-goo investigates when a mysterious disease starts to spread among villagers as a stranger moves into the area.
Boasting a highly developed story that surprises throughout, the early sniggers of the film’s lighter-hearted opening seem a distance memory by the time The Wailing is through with you. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
11. Mother (2009)
Mother is deeply dark, but still funny and tender. A perfectly measured narrative, yet baffling surprising. A family drama, a murder mystery and a chilling thriller. Uncategorised by usual genre conventions and all the better for it. After Do-joon is accused of murdering a local girl, his extremely protective mother attempts to prove his innocence, stopping at nothing to clear his name.
A film about the monomaniacal love of a tenacious mother, it is one of Bong’s most emotionally raw and thrilling films, anchored by two superb lead performances by Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
10. Aimless Bullet (1961)
Hastily banned by the military government due to its bleak portrayal of post-war Korea, this is certainly a wretched affair. Pure disconsolateness in cellular form. We follow the forlorn fortunes of brothers Cheolho and his younger sibling Yeongho. Their mother is bed-ridden by trauma due to the war and their sister has turned to prostitution. These strands of desperation will force one of the brothers into an equally hopeless act.
The film, also titled Obaltan, is a perfect outing of realist cinema. As a message, it even more perfectly packages the collective anxiety of post-war Korea and delivers it full-force with no apology. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
9. Peppermint Candy (1999)
The first of three Lee Chang-dong films in the top 10, Peppermint Candy is a masterful reverse chronology plunge into the defining life events of a desperately broken man. We open on Yong-ho placing himself in front of a speeding train and from there we jump backwards, trying to understand what or who, drove him to this final act. These leaps back tie in with various importance historical events in Korea.
We journey from the financial crisis of the 1990s, to the military government and student protests of the 1980s. To these events, Yong-ho is a victim as his life is punctuated by his own country’s issues. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
8. Poetry (2010)
A melancholic view of aging and death, Director Lee challenges us and our notions of self in Poetry. Yun Jung-hie plays grandmother Mija, who lives with her churlish 16-year-old grandson, Jong-wook. Mija is diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's disease and she begins attending weekly poetry reading sessions. What seems to be a story about the battle against her memory and a desire to write poetry then takes a tragic turn.
The film is also deeply mysterious. It is — as with all of Lee’s work — stunningly beautiful, but there is an enigmatic notion to the film. Like a puzzle too sagacious to solve at the first attempt, Poetry must be consumed, considered and then consumed again and again. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
7. The Housemaid (1960)
The film which changed a nation’s cinema forever, Kim Ki-young's masterpiece on morality and lust is a filmmaking tour de force of festering threat. Composer Kim Dong-sik Kim decides to hire a housemaid to help his pregnant wife. He hires Myung-sook who behaves oddly from the outset, catching rats with her hands, spying on the composer, and trying to seduce him.
Hitchcockian, but in no sense derivatively so, it is a modern thriller in black-and-white classic robes. No comprehension of Korean cinema of any era is possible without its viewing. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
6. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003)
Tranquil beauty combines with a lingering sense of doom in this stunning portrait of human nature and the consequences of our actions. The film is split into five chapters, the title seasons, jumping several years each time to tell the life stories of our central characters, an apprentice Buddhist who we see grow older and his sage master who live on a tiny floating monastery.
The narrative of the film is about monks, but the life lessons and festering emotions are universally applicable to humans. Low-key but profound, a film as stunning as its Jusanji Pond location. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
5. The Handmaiden (2016)
Departing from the ultra-violence of the Vengeance Trilogy, Park Chan-wook instead uses a Victorian crime novel to loosely inspire a sexualised and visually absorbing masterpiece. Set in 1930s Korea, a period of Japanese occupation, the film is split into three parts. We first see a young woman hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress living as a hermit in a countryside estate.
Smart, sexy, stylish and surprising, almost every shot is as decadently created as the riches on screen. We witness Park’s ability to stylise every frame as the story twists and turns through our fingers. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
4. Oldboy (2003)
This twisted revenge tale brims with stylized action and offers a visceral stomach-churn of ultra-violence that leaves you utterly breathless. Oldboy a profoundly influential watershed contribution to modern Korean cinema. Oh Dae-su, played by the always-brilliant Choi Min-sik, wakes in a hotel-style prison room that will entrap him for the next 15 years. On his release, he sets upon his revenge path to find his captors.
It stunned audiences at Cannes, receiving an extended standing ovation and then propelling Korean cinema into a new stratosphere of global recognition. Things have not been the same since. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
3. Memories of Murder (2003)
A rural crime mystery focused on the obsession of the detectives and their fear of failure. Based on the real-life Hwaseong serial murders which took place between 1986 and 1991, rural detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) is instantly overwhelmed as the bodies of two women are found. Alongside his violent partner Cho, a competent detective from Seoul, Tae-yoon, joins them as they desperately scramble to catch the killer.
It is the trio of detectives that are the emotional core of the film. You feel Park’s envy at Seo’s proficient approach and as obsession grows to solve the case, such feelings of inadequacy fest and grow. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
2. Parasite (2019)
A dark satire which exposes Korea’s class divide and serves up a peerless cinematic experience, Parasite won nearly 200 international awards, including four Oscars and the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of two families at opposite ends of the capitalist spectrum, the struggling Kim family and the affluent Park clan, who see their worlds collide.
A perfect storm of a film. Superbly directed by a filmmaker at the peak of their powers, wonderfully acted by an ensemble cast, beautifully shot, while providing a punch of vital social commentary. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
1. Burning (2018)
The fifth Director Lee film on the list finds itself on the very summit, the greatest Korean film ever made according to our cohort of critics. Released the year before Parasite went on its unprecedented awards snaring expedition, Burning was the South Korean entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, but failed to be nominated. It now finds itself above Parasite in our poll.
It follows deliveryman Jong-su, his childhood friend Hae-mi and the enigmatic Ben. Jong-su grows suspicious that Hae-mi might be in danger in this chilling and potent mystery thriller masterpiece. READ OUR FULL REVIEW