20 Korean modern classics
20. Sympathy for Mr. Vengance (2002)
The first installment of Park Chan Wook's Vengeance Trilogy is a revenge tragedy of blistering violence and peculiar twists that operates as an ideal showcase of Park's visual style.
Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf-mute man working in a factory, is trying to earn enough money for his sister's kidney transplant and decides to kidnap a wealthy man's daughter for the ransom money. Song Kang-ho offers up his standard screen brilliance as the father who hunts down his daughter's captor and as the plan escalates out of control, the father become the film's central focus.
Much of the film's tragedy, including its horrific finale, unfolds at a rural lake, the home of Ryu's happiest childhood memories, which contrasts with the bustling city-setting of the film's remaining action.
It is one of Park's most visually stunning works, which says something for arguably Korea's most stylish filmmaker, including some truly gruesome effects which leaves the violence feeling very real.
19. My Sassy Girl (2001)
This romantic comedy from Kwak Jae-yong captured the imaginations of audiences in Korea and overseas, becoming one of the country's most successful comedies of all time.
The film is a tale of love between engineering student Gyeon-woo (Cha Tae-hyun) and "The Girl", a character who remains unnamed, played by Jun Ji-hyun. Unlucky in love, Gyeon-woo is told to visit his aunt to meet a potential date. On his way there, at the train station he sees "The Girl" drunk and standing precariously close to the platform edge as the train approaches. He pulls her to safety in time and they both board the train where Gyeon-woo first finds himself embroiled in the girl's boorish behaviour, setting the scene for a series of such interactions with this girl's wild streak.
The film blends physical comedy with melodrama, managing to be both hilarious and contain a depth of emotions that few straight drama ever achieve. It was a key component in driving the international 'Korean Wave', with remakes in the US, Japan and India, but it is the light, breezy and genuinely funny original which will be revised for decades to come.
18. Peppermint Candy (1999)
Lee Chang-dong's second features opens with Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) committing suicide on a railway bridge with a speeding train hurtling towards him, except as he now shouts "I want to go back again!" The film then heads into reverse chronology as we discover what has bought our protagonist to this desperate point.
Key developments of his life, from a range of differing decades, highlighting the issues in his life, and indeed in wider society, which have driven him to this point. Yong-ho turns out to be a difficult character to tolerate, despite the sympathy we initially feel towards him. His treatment of others makes him a difficult watch, from hypocritical businessman to brutal police officer.
The events of Yong-ho's life mirror those of the incidents which have formed Korea's history. From the military government grip of the 1980s to the issues and impacts of masculinity in South Korean culture, the film is a stylized history of both Yong-ho's life and his country. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
17. Save the Green Planet! (2003)
A sci-fi comedy from Jang Joon-hwan, who originally conceived the film after watching US film Misery, which Jang liked by felt there was an emotional shallowness to the kidnapper and wanted to make a film from their perspective instead. After Jang saw a website accuse actor Leonardo DiCaprio of being an alien, he decided to marry the two concepts in Save the Green Planet!.
Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun) believes that aliens are about to attack the planet and he must prevent them, so enlisting the help of his circus-performer girlfriend, he kidnaps a powerful pharmaceutical executive that Byeong-gu believes to be a top ranking extraterrestrial able to contact the aliens' prince.
The film was a spectacular box office flop, taking just $15,000 for a $3m budget, but has since endured as a truly bizarre, off-beat and unpredictable which manages to balance its comedic elements with extreme violence. A series of manic performances sit perfectly with the strangeness of the film's narrative and overarching themes. Jang somehow keeps all of this together as what could collapse into mindless nonsense instead shines as berserk beauty.
16. Secret Sunshine (2007)
Made by Lee Chang-dong, a former Minister of Culture and novelist turned one of Korea's greatest ever directors, Secret Sunshine grapples with the notions of faith, madness and grief.
Titled Miryang in Korea after the city in the Gyeongsangnam-do Province where it is based, Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) and her only child move there just after her husband dies. Set on starting a new life after this tragedy, Shin-ae's car breaks down and she meets local mechanic Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), who despite their social differences strike an important bond which offers comfort to the pair. Shin-ae looks towards religion, routine and a return to studies to occupy her mind, but it seems that Miryang may just be another host location for a flood of real-world pain and problems.
Jeon Do-yeon is magnificent as the heartbroken widow looking for light in the dark of her life and she took home the Prix d'interprétation féminine (Best Actress) at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The film's emotional depth is almost bottomless and the range of thematic notions that pour through make it one of the most re-watchable on this list.
15. I Saw The Devil (2010)
Director Kim Jee-woon serves up a blood-soaked horror-thriller that had a hard time passing the Korea Media Rating Board, with cuts required to temper its violent content. You have to wonder what was cut considering what still made the screen edition.
Starring Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik, it follows National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent Kim Soo-hyun (Lee) who is launched into a revenge quest after his fiancée is brutally murdered. The hunt leads him to psychopathic serial killer Jang Kyung-chul (Choi), but rather than enact swift vengeance, Soo-hyun instead opts to insert a tracking device into Kyung-chul and hound the killer with a series of violent interventions before releasing him again. The cat and mouse torment continues to escalate as Soo-hyun tries to enact revenge in the most painstakingly drawn-out manner possible.
After its release in South Korea the film entered the film festival circuit, featuring at the likes of Sundance Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, ensuring international audience got a taste of Director Kim's trademark macabre brilliance.
14. 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.
After 200 bottles of formaldehyde are poured down the drain and flow straight into the Han River. In the following years, a large amphibious creature grows and after consuming the river's fish, jumps onto land to go human hunting instead. Meanwhile we meet Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), the slow-witted proprietor of a snack bar by the river which he runs with his father, Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong). We meet the whole family of Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), Gang-du's daughter, his national medalist archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona) and alcoholic college graduate brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il). When Hee-bong is grabbed by the creature and taken into the river, the family must escape the newly enforced government quarantine to save her.
In classic Bong style, it combined humour with horror to produce a perfect monster movie. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
13. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Considered one of Korea's greatest modern horrors, A Tale of Two Sisters is a psychologically-driven chill-fest that continues to twist and turn until its final frame.
In a mental institution, teenager Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) is being treated for psychosis before she is released home to her family's secluded rural estate with her father (Kim Kap-soo) and younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young). Here we meet stepmother, Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah), who exchanges frosty words with the sisters. Su-mi is beset by nightmares and after discovering bruises on her sister's arms angrily confronts Eun-joo about the abuse. From here the story descends into the reliving of painful memories and growing tension between the sisters and their stepmother.
The film spawned a US remake title The Uninvited and is loosely based on the Korean folktale Janghwa Hongryeon jeon, which features two daughters under the rule of a cruel and ugly stepmother. The folktale has had several Korean film adaptations, but in A Tale of Two Sisters the story is at its most lucid and shocking. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
12. Poetry (2010)
Some films have the ability to "follow you around". To leave you pondering for weeks and months what the film was trying to say, and what it meant to you. Poetry is just such a film. A melancholy outing that is drenched in sadness and reflections on life as it nears its end.
Yun Jung-hie plays 66-year old grandmother Mija, who lives with churlish 16-year-old grandson, Jong-wook (Lee David), with his divorced mother living in Busan instead. Reliant on government welfare which is supplemented with care work for an elderly man, Mija is diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's disease and she begins attending a weekly poetry reading sessions. What seems to be a story about the battle against her memory and a desire to write poetry takes a tragic turn as Mija become entwined with a much more serious incident.
The film won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, while Yun picked up a host of local and international accolades for her searing and heart-felt portrait of a grandmother struggling against the closing walls of her memory as Alzheimer's takes over instead.
11. Burning (2018)
A precursor to the Oscars success of Parasite, this off-key psychological drama became the first Korean picture to make the final nine-film shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2019 Academy Awards.
Based on the short story Barn Burning from The Elephant Vanishes by Japanese super-author Haruki Murakami, the film revolves around aspiring young novelist Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), his childhood neighbour Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and the well-off and confident Ben (Steven Yeun), who Hae-mi meets after being stranded at Nairobi Airport for three days after a nearby bombing. Jong-su grows jealous of the budding relationship between Hae-mi and Ben as he struggles to keep his life together.
The film addresses pressing social issues such as South Korea's extreme inequality and its impact on a younger generation weighted by economic despair, alongside unpacking notions around the role of modern masculinity. This is a slow-paced muse on three central characters that takes its time to paint their rage and desire over nearly two and a half hours. READ OUR FULL REVIEW