20 Korean modern classics
10. 3-Iron (2004)
Kim Ki-duk is a director with a fair measure of infamy which surrounds his work, especially the controversial The Isle (2000), which left audiences at Venice Film Festival fainting and vomiting. However, 3-Iron is the first of two Kim films in our top 10 as this moving romance is a slow-burn journey into an usual but engaging modern love story.
Handsome loner Tae-suk (Jae Hee) rides around on his motorbike looking for empty house to occupy for a few days. He repays the gift of the unwilling and unknowing absent hosts by contributing oddjobs around the houses. However, one night he is startled to be woken in bed by Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), an abused wife fresh from her husband's latest attack. Without a word spoken between the two, they fall in love and soon seek new houses to occupy.
This intoxicating romance, where our two leads almost assume the roles of ghosts, uses its long periods of silence to say more than a babble of words ever could.
9. The Wailing (2016)
A hapless comedy caper, turned child-possession exorcism drama, ending as a 'who is the demon?' mystery horror, The Wailing is a brilliantly original two hours and 36 minutes that is not easily forgotten.
Directed by Na Hong-jin, it tells the story of hapless rural police officer Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) who is investigating a series of murders in the wake of a mysterious disease which starts to spread among villagers, who enflame in rashes and burst into murderous hysteria, then stupor and finally death. Jong-goo directs his investigations towards a Japanese stranger who recently arrived to live in a secluded house in the forest and his involvement becomes increasingly personal as his daughter Hyo-jin becomes ill and her symptoms match those of the deceased.
In The Wailing Na Hong-jin has crafted a terror of prolonged measures within 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
8. A Girl at My Door (2014)
Jung Joo-ri is one of Korea's few widely known female directors and her low-budget high-impact debut feature manages to tackle a smorgasbord of social issues, prominently the contentiousness of LGBT rights in South Korea.
Police officer Lee Young-nam (Bae Doona) is moved from Seoul to take the role of chief in a small rural outpost by the sea in Yeosu after a personal scandal. She meets Sun Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron), a timid 14-year old who suffers at the hands of school bullies and her drunken stepfather Yong-ha and her equally drunk grandmother. After finding Do-hee battered and bruised, Young-nam takes the schoolgirl into her house to protect her over the vacation months. However, Young-nam's past comes back to haunt her and it is one not readily accepted by this small town's mentality.
With a limited budget of just US$300k, with 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 unpacked as Korea's moral appetite is laid bare. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
7. Mother (2009)
Kim Hye-ja is possibly Korea's most famous mother. Having played the archetypical mother for several years across a range of television shows, she takes the title role of Bong Joon-ho's noir thriller and produces a performance that is unmatched by any maternal figure before or after her.
She is the highly protective mother of Yoon Do-joon, the atypical teenage accused of murdering a local girl. After the local police piece together some circumstantial evidence and a forced confession, the teen is facing a lengthy prison sentence for murder. This simply sets 'mother' into action, doggedly defending her son's innocence and ruthlessly pursing his freedom.
Unmistakably the work of Director Bong, another mixing pot of genres sees us laugh one minute, drop our jaws in horror the next. Its tone jumps, loops and punches you in the face. A huge commercial hit, and coming in the wake of Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), it further established Bong as one of the filmmakers of his generation. Combined with that peerless Kim central performance, you have something truly unforgettable. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
6. Lady Vengance (2005)
The final installment of Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy provides a female protagonist, contributing to cinema's expansive women-out-for-revenge genre, with Lee Young-ae superb as the manipulative and bloodthirsty Lee Geum-ja.
Lee is released from prison as a reformed convict, sent away for 13 years over the murder of five-year-old schoolboy, Won-mo. A natural sensation due to her deceptive beauty and campaigning for prison reformation. However, the angelic looks and social justice motivations soon give way to revenge-lust as Lee seeks payback for the her framing and hunts Won-mo's real killer.
Lady Vengeance is the ideal conclusion to Director Park's trilogy, with the trademark style and violence of the first two (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy), but with a revenge tale which unpacks what it means to get revenge, include for those victims of crime that often go without a voice. DVD and Blu-ray special editions also have a 'Fade to Black and White version' worth watching, where the film's primary colours gradually melt into black and white as the film progresses. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
5. Memories of Murder (2003)
Bong Joon-ho's second film provides the framework for his characteristic style of blending genre and themes to provide a sometimes disorientating, but always entertaining, assault on the senses.
Song Kang Ho, so often Director Bong's leading man, is perfectly pitched to manage the film's duel moods of comedy and tragedy, excelling as hapless local detective Park Doo-man. After two women are found raped and murdered by a nearby field, Park faces his first case of this severity. This plays out with Park not gathering evidence correctly and deciding he can determine suspects by eye contact. Seo Tae-yoon, a detective from Seoul, is jettisoned in to help the under resourced (and largely hapless) outpost police force to work alongside Park and his violent partner Cho as they twist in the wind solving the cases of their lives.
The film is based on the true story of Korea's first serial murders, which took place between 1986 and 1991 in the Hwaseong region. It is retrospectively a classic piece of Director Bong filmmaking, with sweeping camera shots and violence intermixed with comedy. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
4. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring (2003)
Kim Ki-duk flexes his auteur muscles in his most mature outing in a broad filmography which has often used shock and awe to pulsate audiences.
Set on a Buddhist monastery that floats on a lake in a remote forest, the film follows a monk as he navigates through the seasons of his life, all the way from childhood to old age. The film is divided into five segments, the seasons the titles allude to, with each separated by 10-20 years. While the story flows in a steady and simple passage, as we witness the cause and effect of the characters' actions to the backdrop of Buddhist symbols and iconography.
"I intended to portray the joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure of our lives through four seasons and through the life of a monk who lives in a temple on Jusan Pond surrounded only by nature," says Kim. A film which matches the tranquil beauty of its real-life setting, the Jusanji Pond in Cheongsong County, North Gyeongsang Province in South Korea (the set was constructed for the film), and the wilderness beauty of its mountain surroundings. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
3. 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 see a young woman hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress living as a hermit in a countryside estate. The maid shields the secret that she is a pickpocket who is helping a fraudster seduce, rob and then ruin the heiress. This simple plan proves anything but that, as the film takes a serious of unexpected turns.
The film takes critical acclaim to a new level (at least before Parasite three years later) and finds a home on the best-of lists for many critics around the world. It landed the BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language at the 2018 awards and was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is safely one of the best films of the 21st Century and secures Director Park's position as one of Korea's greatest filmmakers. We would recommend the widely available director's cut of The Handmaiden to ensure you do not miss a minute of Park's vision. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
2. Parasite (2019)
Some films have it all. The punchy script, the dazzling set design, the frame-by-frame genius director, an ensemble cast which sparkles throughout, the pitch-perfect score, all wrapped up with some profound social commentary on our world. Parasite is such a film.
For those yet to watch Parasite, the less you know, the better. It is a dramatic organism that best crawls into you unprepared. The basic set-up is between the impoverished Kim family, who live in a semi-basement in the back streets of Seoul, where we see them folding pizza boxes for paltry pay. When an opportunity to tutor the daughter of the better-off Park family arises, the Kim son jumps at the chance. The Kims then find various roles across the Park household. Then to put it bluntly, all hell breaks loose.
When awards season came around, Parasite embarked on an international journey of accolade collecting, landing hundreds of global awards. This culminated with four Oscars, including the first ever foreign language Best Picture winner. Director Bong went from bedrock of Korean cinema genius to being one of the world's most revered filmmakers. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
1. Oldboy (2003)
While Oldboy is one of Korea's most successful and recognisable international hits, it is sometimes charted as a "cult classic". As more of a midnight movie of excessive violence rather than what it really is – a profoundly influential watershed contribution to modern Korean cinema. A film which provides a visceral stomach-churn of stylized action by a director at the top of his game and a lead actor born to bring our protagonist alive.
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. After he is suddenly released one day, he sets about learning why this fate befell him and to seek revenge on his captors. Along the way he meets Mi-do, a young sushi restaurant chef, who helps him on his quest and then has front-row seats for the twist that will change Dae-su's life forever.