Over 100,000 of you from almost every country in the world voted for your pick of the best Korean films ever. Here's how they rank...
Words by Trevor Treharne
250. Hwayi: A Monster Boy (2013)
The first of three Jang Joon-hwan films on the list, Hwayi: A Monster Boy arrived a full decade after his cult sci-fi classic Save the Green Planet! After being kidnapped as a small child, Hwa-yi (Yeo Jin-goo) is raised by his five abductors. When he becomes a teenage he joins their life of crime and trains to be an assassin.
249. Failan (2001)
Two years before he reached international stardom in Oldboy (2003), Choi Min-sik starred in this touching adaptation of Japanese novel Love Letter by Jirō Asada. After losing both of her parents, Failan moves to Korea seeking her only remaining relatives. Discovering they are now in Canada, but desperate to stay in Korea, she considers an arranged marriage.
248. Ad-lib Night (2006)
Featuring a superb breakout performance from Han Hyo-joo, Lee Yoon-ki’s third film sees a young woman named Bo-kyung approached by two men men who believe her to be Myung-eun, a girl who left their village years ago and whose father is now dying. When they realise their mistake, they ask Bo-kyung to impersonate the girl to fulfil the father’s dying wish.
247. Thread of Lies (2013)
Based on the bestselling novel Elegant Lies by Kim Ryeo-ryeong, Lee Han followed up the successful Punch (2011) with this powerful exploration of bullying. It deals with the aftermath of a suicide by a 14-year-old girl and follows her mother and sister as they set-out to solves the circumstances around her death.
246. Seoul Station (2016)
Animated Train to Busan prequel provides high-action drama but in a sea of ravaging zombies the uninfected are the true monsters. Hye-sun has run away from her former life in a brothel, but is instead stuck with her good-for-nothing boyfriend Ki-woong as zombie infections are running through the largely homeless population of Seoul Station.
245. V.I.P. (2017)
Initially heavily criticised for its depiction of violence against women, this crime-action thriller has found itself landing on more popular footing long-term. The son of a high-ranking North Korean official is suspected of being an international serial killer, causing the North, South and Interpol to club together to stop him.
244. Money (2019)
A financial thriller, Il-Hyun is a young stock broker with big ambitions to strike it rich. When he meets a stock market scammer known as Beonhopyo, he sees an opportunity to fast-track his goals. With the Financial Supervisory Service already chasing Beonhopyo, they also start to become suspicious of Il-Hyun.
243. Gangnam Blues (2015)
Titled Gangnam 1970 in Korea, for the year it is set, this Yoo Ha action-crime outing is set against the backdrop of the turmoil-filled real estate development of Seoul's Gangnam district at the time. This ‘gangster noir’ follows childhood friends Jong-dae and Yong-ki as they struggle on and suffer at the hands of local thugs.
242. Master (2016)
Starring Lee Byung-hun, Gang Dong-won and Kim Woo-bin, the financial crime unit launch a manhunt to snare a conman after he assumes a new identity. This causes a cop to work with the conman’s mastermind partner, but their work leads to a nationwide financial fraud operation which runs deeper and darker than ever expected.
241. Monstrum (2018)
Aided in its international recognition by featuring on horror streaming service Shudder, this period action film is set in 1527 during King Jungjong’s reign. A plague is spreading in Joseon and the rumour mill is suggesting a mysterious vicious creature named ‘Monstrum’ is roaming around the country.
240. Spider Forest (2004)
A mysterious film on the power of the subconscious, it leaves the minds of the characters and audience equally disorientated. A young filmmaker called Kang-min enters a sinister forest and stumbles towards a secluded cabin. He sees the aftermath of a horrific crime, gets himself knocked out and emerges with unexplained wounds.
239. A Violent Prosecutor (2016)
The directorial debut for Lee Il-hyung, who more recently made #Alive (2020), features the always engaging Hwang Jung-min as an ill-tempered prosecutor Jae-Wook who is determined in his pursuit of the truth. However, when a small-time crook is found dead, Jae-Wook is found guilty and sentenced to 15 years inside.
238. Very Ordinary Couple (2013)
Lively and engaging rom-com with dramatic facets, Very Ordinary Couple features the much-loved screen beauty and heart-throb combo of Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden) and Lee Min-ki. When the secret relationship of two bank colleagues ends, a toxic aftermath ensues between the pair that proves deeply damaging.
237. A Ball Shot by a Midget (1981)
Based on the novel of the same by Cho Se-hui, this film adaptation by Lee Won-se takes a view of the effects of urbanisation in Korea at the time. A little person and his family live in a shack in rural Korea. They are forced out of their house by a real estate agent and the family face an impossible and helpless battle.
236. M (2007)
A dream-like film which incorporates unique visual effects and innovative camerawork, this psychological drama focuses on author Min-woo who is suffering writer’s block alongside regular nightmares and hallucinations. Reality and fantasy start to blur and Min-woo’s paranoia continues to fester and grow.
235. The Duelist (2005)
A visually unique film praised for its cinematography, Lee Myung-se's seventh film follows detective Nam-soon who goes undercover with her partner Detective Ahn to investigate counterfeit money. A pale-faced henchman named Sad Eyes is key to the case, but Nam-soon must front him and her feeling towards him.
234. New Trial (2017)
One of several films on the list based on real-life court cases, New Trial concerns the Yakchon Intersection murder case which took place in August 2000 in Iksan. A high school student comes across a taxi driver with stab wounds and after being arrested he is wrongly convicted. 10 years later he still has debts to pay the victim’s family and seeks belated justice.
233. Missing (2016)
A gripping mystery film starring Uhm Ji-won and Gong Hyo-jin, Ji-sun is a workaholic mother stacking up the hours at a PR firm. She hires a new nanny, Han-Mae, to care for her one-year-old daughter, Da-eun. The new nanny shows an early ability to calm her daughter, but Ji-sun returns home one day to find both of them missing.
232. Windstruck (2004)
Starring Jun Ji-hyun of My Sassy Girl (2001) fame in another melodramatic romance, once again directed by Kwak Jae-yong. A police officer in Seoul chasing a purse snatcher accidently captures a physics teacher at an all-girls school instead. Despite this strange first meeting, the pair start to fall for each other.
231. Perfect Number (2012)
Adapted from Keigo Higashino’s novel The Devotion of Suspect X, Perfect Number takes the third part of that series and weaves this nuanced thriller. Seok-go is a mild-mannered high school maths teacher who overhears his neighbour kill her abusive ex-husband. He then decides to use his smarts to cover up the crime.
230. Coin Locker Girl (2015)
Screened in the International Critics’ Week section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Coin Locker Girl follows Il-young after she gets abandoned in a coin-locker box #10 of a subway station as a baby. As a 10-year-old she is sold to a figure known as ‘Mother’ in Chinatown, the boss of a loan shark and organ trafficking crime ring.
229. The Suspect (2013)
Gong Yoo endured a tough dieting regime to drop body fat and learned Russian martial art Systema to prepare for the role of North Korean special agent Dong-chul. Abandoned by his government, Dong-chul goes on the run and attempts to find his wife and daughter who have been sold into slavery in China.
228. The Vanished (2018)
A remake of the 2012 Spanish film The Body, this suspenseful psychological thriller sees the body of a recently deceased woman disappear on the day of her funeral. As a detective investigates the mystery, he starts to engage with the woman’s suspicious professor husband who was having an affair with a student before his wife’s death.
227. Attack the Gas Station (1999)
Hammy and daft but so much fun it does not matter, this cult classic from the 90s returns to the reoccurring cinematic theme of Korea’s disenfranchised youth. No Mark, Bulldozer, Rockstar and Paint have robbed and destroyed a gas station and, out of boredom, decide to do it all over again.
226. Green Chair (2005)
Perhaps a surprise entry on this list considering it was shelved after being made initially but was saved from obscurity and found itself on the international festival circuit, a trend which still continues today. Divorcee Mun-hee has fallen in love with high school student Hyun, resulting in her being arrested for having sex with a minor.
225. Tunnel (2016)
Arriving in the wake of a flurry of Korean disaster movies, Tunnel manages to separate itself by being filled with suspense and surprise. Plus Bae Doona is in it, which generally makes films better. A car salesman gets trapped inside a tunnel as it collapses. Stuck inside his car under tons of concrete, he must find a way to escape.
224. Treeless Mountain (2008)
Two breathtakingly brilliant performances are found in Treeless Mountain by young performers Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee Kim. Jin is a young girl living with her mother and younger sister, Bin. One day the family moves in with “Big Aunt”, their paternal aunt, while their mother disappears to search for the girls’ birth father.
223. War of the Arrows (2011)
A fast-paced period action film filled with eye-bulging combat scenes, Kim Han-min's third film garnered critical and box office success on its release. Set after the Second Manchu invasion of Korea, we follow an archer who risks his life to save his sister from slavery, held together by a strong cast including Park Hae-il, Ryu Seung-ryong and Moon Chae-won.
222. Come Come Come Upward (1989)
The first film on the list from prolific master director Im Kwon-taek is on a familiar Im theme of religion and Buddhism. Winner of the best film at the Grand Bell Awards at the time, we witness the divergent lives of two young women who are still linked by their faith and specific affiliation with a certain Buddhist temple.
221. Miss Granny (2014)
Before Squid Game provided international acclaim, Hwang Dong-hyuk made this comedy-drama starring screen legend Na Moon-hee. Mal-soon is a 74-year-old woman who finds herself in the body of her 20-year-old self (Shim Eun-kyung) after having her picture taken at a photo studio. The film’s stellar success spawned a series of remakes across Asia.
220. Once Upon a Time in High School (2004)
Prior to A Dirty Carnival (2006) and Gangnam Blues (2015), poet-screenwriter-director Yoo Ha made this raw coming-of-age drama. Hyun-soo is a model student but transfers to the notorious Jungmoon High School. Set in 1978, the school is filled with brutal bullies and teachers with a thirst for severe corporal punishment.
219. A Short Love Affair (1990)
Also known as The Lovers of Woomook-baemi, it stars Park Joong-hoon two years after the seminal Chilsu and Mansu. Bae Il-do runs away from his rural home and becomes a tailor. He has a jealous wife and the arrival of the young and attractive Gong-rye drives a wedge between them as the pair start an affair.
218. Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission (2019)
Set in the 1940s during Japanese occupation, this is a film about the evolution and formation of the Korean language. Pan-Soo, who has spent much of life imprisoned, is illiterate. With the teaching of Korean in schools banned, he meets a representative of the Korean Language Society and they attempt to publish a Korean dictionary.
217. A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003)
While the family unit is such an important part of Korean cinematic output, the often provocative Im Sang-soo offers a highly dysfunctional view of it here. Yeong-jak is a busy and successful lawyer while his wife Ho-jeong raises their young adopted son. However, we see the pair get their sexual thrills elsewhere.
216. Ashfall (2019)
Lee Hae-jun & Kim Byung-seo
A disaster movie featuring the star power of Lee Byung-hun and Ha Jung-woo, this blockbuster proved to be a box office hit. An active volcano on the China-North Korea border suddenly erupts, causing severe earthquakes in both North and South Korea. With the Korean peninsula under further threat, unlikely allies carry out a secret mission to stop it.
215. Mother and her Guest (1961)
Before he was kidnapped by North Korea to produce films there, Shin Sang-ok produced some of South Korea’s most important cinema. This is considered his magnum opus, poignant with flickers of humour. It focuses on young girl Oak-hee and her extended family, taking on the taboo issue of an attraction between Oak-hee’s widow mother and their artist lodger.
214. Steel Rain (2017)
Based on the webtoon of the same name and afforded worldwide distribution through Netflix, Yang Woo-suk followed up the success of The Attorney (2013) with this lively action thriller. A top agent from North Korea escapes to the south and is assigned a mission designed to prevent the escalation of war between the countries.
213. Finding Mr. Destiny (2010)
Hit musical 'Finding Kim Jong-wook' is given the big screen rom-com treatment here starring Im Soo-jung and Gong Yoo. Ji-woo wants to track down her first love and enlists the help of a new company which specialises in such aims run by Gi-joon. He is desperate to succeed for his first ever client, but must find him from 1,108 men with the same name.
212. My Brilliant Life (2014)
Based on the 2011 novel My Palpitating Life by Kim Ae-ran, this touching outing from E J-yong manages to balance its tinges of sadness with feel-good notions. Two teenagers fall pregnant and when their son arrives he has a rare genetic disorder called 'progeria' which causes him to age dramatically faster than usual.
211. Repatriation (2004)
A powerful documentary, Repatriation won the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and Best Documentary Award at the 19th Fribourg International Film Festival. It tells the story of six ‘unconverted long-term prisoners’ – North Korean loyalists imprisoned in South Korea who never renounced.
210. Sunset in My Hometown (2018)
The 13th film from Sunny (2008) and Hope (2013) director Lee Joon-ik is light-hearted and dramatic in equal measures. A failed rapper in Seoul receives a call from his hometown that his father has been hospitalised. He returns home where he gets the chance to reunite with old friends before becoming embroiled in a phishing scam.
209. Silmido (2003)
The first film with a box office audience of over 10 million in South Korea, set in 1968 there are 31 North Korean commandos who infiltrated South Korea in a failed mission to assassinate President Park Chung-hee. In retaliation, the military in South Korean assemble a team of 31 criminals on the island of Silmido to kill Kim Il-sung.
208. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (2019)
This stylish action thriller combines a range of classic crime genre tropes, including serial killer chases, maverick cops and revenge-thirsty gangsters. Set in 2005, the title ‘devil’ is serial killer “K”, our cop Tae-suk is ambitious but angry, while the gangster is played by Ma Dong-seok. It seems an unlikely cop and gangster pairing is needed to track down our devil.
207. Believer (2018)
A remake of Johnnie To’s 2012 film Drug War, it features the final performance of Kim Joo-hyuk before his tragic death in October 2017. Won-ho is a detective determined to bring down Asia’s latgest drug cartel run by a man called Mr. Lee. To achieve this he must work with a low level drug dealer called Young-rak.
206. The City of Violence (2006)
Ryoo Seung-wan produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in this crime-action outing opposite long-term collaborator Jung Doo-hong. Friends are bought together by their pal’s funeral and decide his demise seems suspicious. Some of the group opt to investigate his death, leading them to the criminal empire responsible.
205. The Outlaws (2017)
Filled with an iconic feature of modern Korean cinema – the hulking figure of Ma Dong-seok repeatedly punching people. Based on real events that happened between in 2004 and 2007 labelled the ‘Heuksapa Incident’, a turf war breaks out between a Seoul gang and rivals from China, with police called in to keep the peace.
204. Chihwaseon (2002)
Winning Im Kwon-taek the Best Director award at 2002 Cannes, this is a solemn take on the tortured artist format. Choi Min-sik plays Jang Seung-eop, a nineteenth-century Korean painter who is accredited with changing the direction of Korean art. We witness his rise as a painter and his often hostile behaviour during vital events in the history of Korea.
203. Canola (2016)
Chang (Yoon Hong-seung)
A film of vast emotional depth that is somehow equally heart-breaking and heart-warming, a grandmother is the primary caregiver for her granddaughter and the pair have a deep bond. The girl goes missing in Seoul but they are reunited several years later. A film mixing the tranquil beauty of Jeju Island versus the darker corners of Seoul’s underbelly.
202. Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death (1978)
Brimming with stunningly shot surrealism, this is a madcap tale which descends into fear-filled views of death, disease and resurrection. A dejected young man manages to encounter a series of obscure characters, including elderly book salesman and a 2,000-year-old female corpse. Bonkers, but brilliant.
201. Antique (2008)
Based on Japanese Manga Antique Bakery, Jin-hyuk is the well-bred heir to a corporate fortune, but despite his looks and riches he is unable to find love. To meet his dream woman he sets up a cake shop and hires talented patissier Sun-woo, ex-boxing champion Gi-beom and a hapless bodyguard called Su-young.
200. Cart (2014)
The fifth film from Boo Ji-young propelled her into the global film festival circuit, tapping into her interest in issues related to women and labourers in South Korea, championing the importance of workers’ rights. It focuses on employees of a retail supermarket who band together when the contract workers are laid off.
199. R-Point (2004)
Dread-filled and exquisitely shot, the horrors of war provide the backdrop here. Set in 1972 during the Vietnam War, a South Korean base there receives a radio transmission from a missing platoon that has been presumed dead, resulting in a group of soldiers marching into a supernatural threat.
198. No.3 (1997)
With plenty of tough Korean gangster films to enjoy, those notions are instead parodied here in this action comedy feature a young Song Kang-ho. Tae-Ju is a blundering gangster starting out for the powerful Do Ka Gang. Tae-Ju is then promoted to No.3 after he inadvertently saves his boss’ life during an assassination attempt.
197. Pandora (2016)
Another disaster movie entry on the list, combining the threat of a nuclear power plant catastrophe and an earthquake. Jae-Hyeok lives with his family in rural Korea and works at a nuclear power plant. When an earthquake hits, it causes explosions at the plant and the situations soon escalates out-of-control to cause national concern.
196. Salut d’Amour (2015)
Funny, sad and poignant, Salut d’Amour tackles big issues in a uniquely Korean cinema fashion. Sung-chil is a grumpy 70-year-old man living alone while working part-time at the local supermarket. Scared of change, Sung-chil then meets Geum-nim who runs a flower shop and might be capable of changing Sung-chil’s ways.
195. The President's Last Bang (2005)
Director Im rarely takes prisoners, so when he decided to make a black comedy from the assassination of former president Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea between 1963 and 1979, he landed himself in resulting lawsuits and censorship disputes. Here we see the authoritarian president’s final moments satirised.
194. Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000)
Simply titled as Oh! Soo-jung in Korea, it provides a deeply realistic view of romantic encounters. It follows scriptwriter Soo-jung, producer Young-soo and wealthy gallery owner Jae-hoon. The trio become involved in a complicated web, where the friendship between Young-soo and Jae-hoon is stretched as they both pursue the innocent Soo-jung.
193. Juror 8 (2019)
Based on a true story, Juror 8 is set in 2008 as South Korea held its first criminal trial by jury. Boasting the star power of Moon So-ri, of Oasis (2002) and A Good Lawyer's Wife (2003) fame, it shows a case suspected to be straightforward in nature. However, matters are complicated when one young juror begins to question everything.
192. The Client (2011)
This engaging courtroom thriller is held together by a series of fine leading performances. Chul-min returns home to find his apartment complex filled with police and his wife missing, soon after being arrested for her murder. Prosecutor Min-ho is convinced of Chul-min’s guilt but an investigator and defense lawyer are determined to prove otherwise.
191. Hot Young Bloods (2014)
For a brief period during the 1980s, school uniforms were abolished due to a ‘free school uniform policy’ and students had the freedom to express their own fashion desires. We head to that period in Hot Young Bloods in a rural town where feared female gang leader Young-sook has developed a crush on school playboy Joong-gil.
190. Green Fish (1997)
The debut feature from master auteur Lee Chang-dong treads a more formulaic path to much of his later work, all of which features on this list. Mak-dong has just been discharged from the military and finds himself directionless on returning home. After meeting gang boss Bae Tae-gon he falls into the criminal underworld.
189. Guns & Talks (2001)
A black comedy with a stellar cast featuring Shin Hyun-joon, Won Bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Jung Jae-young and Jung Jin-young. A peculiar foursome of killers in Seoul all have unique skills. They serve a wide range of public clients, from high school kids to pregnant women, but a sharp prosecutor is now on their tail.
188. Spellbound (2011)
A horror rom-com that manages to carry its strange set-up with endearing confidence. A street magician meets a strange girl and offers her a role in his magic show. As they spend more time together a friendship blooms, but more serious feelings starts to grow, but the girl is harbouring is a secret which plagues her daily.
187. Bedevilled (2010)
A mesmerising Seo Young-hee performance elevates this slow-burn-turned-bloody revenge tale. Hae-won is forced to take leave from work and heads to see her old friend Bok-nam (Seo) who lives on a small Southern island. However, Bok-nam is trapped in an abusive relationship and her bleak existence is driving her to breaking point.
186. Cold Eyes (2013)
Cho Ui-seok & Kim Byeong-seo
A remake of the 2007 Hong Kong film Eye in the Sky, this high octane thriller bursts out of the traps with its explosive opening scene. That rapid pace is largely maintained as it follows a special crime unit which provides surveillance on high profile criminals, targeting a particularly malevolent crime organisation leader.
185. A Boy and Sungreen (2018)
Assisted by featuring a series of such likable characters, this is a coming-of-age story that finds its own ways to feel fresh and original. It provides a lucid portrayal of a special friendship when Bo-hee, a timid middle school student, discovers that his birth father is still alive and teams up with his best friend Nok-yang to find his father.
184. Memento Mori (1999)
Kim Tae-yong & Min Kyu-dong
One of the best examples of a sequel outdoing the original, this follow-up to the highly influential Whispering Corridors is more stylish and refined than its forerunner. High school students Shi-eun and Hyo-shin find that their taboo relationship pushes them to the fringes of school life, eventually triggering a darker passage of events in the school.
183. Scandal Makers (2008)
The first film from Kang Hyeong-cheo, who would go on to craft the highly popular Sunny (2011) and Swing Kids (2018), but cut his teeth for box office-ready offerings with this endearing comedy drama. Former teen idol Hyeon-soo now works as a radio DJ when a single mother Jeong-nam sends in her stories to the station.
182. Hahaha (2010)
Blithe, clever and littered with abstruse bursts of farcical conflict, we see two friends reminisce over their journeys to the same coastal town of Tongyeong. As filmmaker Moon-kyung and his friend Joong-sik down soju and discuss their experiences, it becomes apparent they met the same people on their trips.
181. Pursuit of Death (1980)
A film boasting a great plot, some wonderful cinematography and a series of fine performances. This feud film centred on two mortal enemies, Song and Chakko. We are given a series of flashbacks to see this rivalry, but eventually we witness the pair in the twilight of their lives as they start to understand each other in fresh ways.
180. Public Enemy (2002)
Sol Kyung-gu won Best Actor at both the Grand Bell Awards and Blue Dragon Film Awards for his lead role in this cat and mouse thriller. A classic cinematic case of loose-cannon cop versus psychopathic killer, with the cop an obvious wildcard while the killer stays under the radar as a well-dressed businessman.
179. Dark Figure of Crime (2018)
Based on true events, one of several crime thrillers on this list sees serial killer Kang arrested for his seventh murder. Kang agrees to work with narcotics officer Kim in locating the other six bodies. This process leads Kim down a dark path of discovery, but it is unclear if Kang’s cooperation motives are honest.
178. Shiri (1999)
Korea’s first ever big budget blockbuster is a star-studded North vs South high-octane action thriller. Set in 1992, for longer term fans of Korean cinema, it saw the mouth-watering prospect of Choi Min-sik playing an army commander from the North versus Song Kang-ho and Han Suk-kyu as agents in the South.
177. The Bow (2005)
Screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, on a fishing boat a 60-year old man has been raising a girl since she was a child and plans to marry her when she soon turns 17. They are used to a quiet life on the sea, but the arrival of a student onboard turns the girl’s head.
176. Crying Fist (2005)
Unique and superbly performed, this split narrative boxing tale with emotional punch stars Ryoo Seung-bum and the perfectly cast Choi Min-sik. Sang-hwan (Ryoo) is a local thug and petty thief who finds redemption in the ring while the older Tae-shik (Choi) is a former Asian Games silver medalist in boxing, now jobless and besieged by creditors.
175. Herstory (2018)
Korean ‘comfort women’, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army, has gained the cinematic attention of Korean filmmakers in recent years. Herstory is based on real life events of trials which took place in the 1990s as a group of Busan-based women are engaged in a legal conflict for justice.
174. After My Death (2017)
Grim and unyielding but very powerfully crafted throughout, the vast societal issue of mental health and suicidal thoughts are portrayed with such genuine cinematic realism here. Misfit schoolgirl Kyung-min disappears in a suspected suicide and misgivings tilt towards her classmates’ role in the tragedy.
173. The Thieves (2012)
Director Choi Dong-hoon had previously demonstrated his crime caper crafting skills in The Big Swindle (2004) and Tazza: The High Rollers (2006) when he created this box office smash. A rip-roaring action heist film sees a Korean master criminal and his crew head to Macao for job to snare a $20-million jewel.
172. A Single Spark (1995)
Real-life activist Jeon Tae-il holds an important place in the history of the workers’ right movement in Korea and this film finds a tactful, respectful way to show his life and its tragic end in 1970. A split story feature, part set further in the past as we follow the events before Tae-il’s death and the other half as we follow his biographer Kim Yeong-soo five years later.
171. Montage (2013)
Later remade in both India and China, this tense crime thriller focuses on a kidnapper who disappeared for 15 years after killing a child despite receiving the ransom money. When a new kidnapping takes place with a similar method to the old case, it is suspected that the original criminal has returned once again.
170. A Petal (1996)
A film about the long-term ruination of the psyche of not just a young girl, but an entire nation in the wake of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. An unnamed girl tracks a loutish and violent man. Despite his horrific abuse of her, she continues to follow him home. We learn how this once happy girl has managed to reach this point through flashbacks and animations.
169. Chunhyang (2000)
Director Im changed the face of Korean cinema by focusing on films with distinctly Korean themes and stories. Set in the 18th Century, a governor’s son named Mongryong marries the beautiful Chunhyang, the daughter of a courtesan. Failing to get approval from his powerful father soon complicates this young love though.
168. Our Twisted Hero (1992)
Based on the Korean novel of the same name, Our Twisted Hero features a young Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) in one of his first roles. A college lecturer recalls his life, starting back 30 years prior. This involving recalling how his city family were relocated to the countryside and getting himself embroiled in various confrontations at school.
167. Pluto (2012)
A film which returns to the high school angst and pressure issues that are seen in other Korean films, Pluto centres on the top one per cent of students at a fiercely competitive high school. Grades are all that matter here, with even murder and suicide seeming to be of secondary importance compared to those exam performances.
166. Way Back Home (2013)
Directed by Bang Eun-jin, who starred in 301, 302 (No.149), Way Back Home is based on the true story of a Korean housewife imprisoned in Martinique after being accused of drug smuggling at a Paris airport. The movie follows Jeong-yeon's struggle to get a trial in France, while the Korean embassy there show nothing but disinterest in her fate.
165. 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. They meet Yeong-ja and Sun-ja, with the foursome forming a friendship, but there are darker clouds on the horizon.
164. The Shower (1979)
A visually staggering portrayal of the raw excitement of young love and the natural beauty of rural Korea. We witness the short but powerful love between country boy Seok-ee and the city girl who has moved rural, Yeon-ee, featuring one of Korean cinema’s most iconic scenes as the pair get caught in a heavy rain storm.
163. Dongju: The Portrait Of A Poet (2016)
Yun Dong-ju was a poet born in China who was known for his resistance poetry against the Japanese colonialism during Japan’s occupation of Korea. Lee Joon-ik's film follows his eventful life and eventual imprisonment by the Japanese government for being involved in the Korean independence movement.
162. Hometown in My Heart (1949)
A successful play before it was incarnated cinematically, this is a film of true lyrical beauty. Yong Yong-kyu only produced a handful of films but stakes a claim for producing one of the finest classics of Korean cinema here. It follows Do-seong, a child monk, who lives in a peaceful mountain temple. After becoming attached to a young widow she looks to adopt him.
161. Paju (2009)
Director Park Chan-ok manages to progress her story here, jumbling the time passages we see in the process, while chiefly focusing on the cerebral aspects of our characters’ fortunes. She inverts notions of skipping any psychological aspects, instead placing such angst front and centre as we explore a young girl’s complex relationship with her sister’s husband.
160. The Fake (2013)
Between The King of Pigs (2011) and Seoul Station (2016), Yeon Sang-ho produced another bleak animated drama with The Fake. A convict returns to his rural home town and unleashes his toxic presence on his family once again. The locals are focused on building a new church with a religious leader postulating a rapture.
159. Yourself and Yours (2016)
The 18th film from Hong Sang-soo followed up the successful Right Now, Wrong Then and once again returns to the dynamics of relationships. Couple Yeong-soo and Min-jeong have a fight and decide to take a break in their relationship, but the next day Min-jeong disappears without a trace before her near doppelganger suddenly shows up.
158. The Insect Woman (1972)
Well before she was winning Oscars, Youn Yuh-jung worked with master director Kim Ki-young on this bold and sordid offering. Ja is suffering mental health issues and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital. We then see the inclusion of a schoolgirl made to work as a concubine as The Insect Woman unpacks various notions of morality.
157. Marathon (2005)
Playing an important role in the public understanding of autism, Marathon focuses on a young autistic man named Cho-won who finds freedom in running. His mother encourages his passion and pulls together the funds for a former marathon champion to train her son, but the new coach brings his own personal baggage.
156. Samjin Company English Class (2020)
Featuring Bong Joon-ho’s former starlet Go Ah-sung (The Host, Snowpiercer), this dramedy is set in 1995 as we meet three female high school-grad office workers studying English together to get work promotions. However a polluted waste water leak starts the group investigating corruption at the company.
155. My Love, Don't Cross That River (2013)
One of the most commercially successful Korean independent films of all time, married couple 95-year-old Jo Byeong-man and 90-year-old Kang Kye-yeol are the stars of this touch view of love and death. Filmed at the couple's mountain village in Hoengseong County, we follow their every day lives for 15 months.
154. Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (2012)
Dubbed “the Korean mob film Martin Scorsese would be proud of” by Time magazine as it received international acclaim. Set in the '80s and ’90s in Busan when corruption and crime was rife and the government decides action must be taken, resulting in a corrupt customs official joins forces with a venomous gangster.
153. Bad Movie (1997)
Labelled “the most controversial and ruptured film text in the history of Korea” by academic Kyung Hyun Kim, this is challenging cinema, but purposefully so. The back-end of 1990s Korean cinema often threw a lens on the economic strife in the country, including this quasi-documentary on delinquent Seoul teens and their spiralling disillusioned recklessness.
152. The Way Home (2002)
Simple, poignant and affecting, The Way Home was a domestic and international smash. It centres on a city-born grandson who suddenly goes to live with his rural grandmother. Unimpressed by rural life without his city comforts and KFC meals, his anger is then softened by the unrelenting love of his grandmother.
151. Moving On (2019)
The family unit is an important topic for Korean cinema and in Yoon Dan-bi's debut feature we are given a natural view of how families interact daily as they deal with festering anxiety and loss. Okju and her younger brother Dongju move into their grandfather’s house along with their single father. It takes time and effort to settle into their new environment.
150. Grass (2018)
The sixth collaboration between actress Kim Min-hee and director Hong Sang-soo, Grass is another black-and-white Hong, premiering at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival. Just 66 minutes long, we witness Areum (Kim) sat in a coffee shop tapping away on her laptop while eavesdropping on the drama of other coffee sippers.
149. 301/302 (1995)
Phobia, compulsion and the baggage of our pasts that creates these monsters are superbly unpacked in Park Chul-soo's most accomplished outing in a highly active directing career. Two obsessive-compulsives, brash home cook Song-hee and shy anorexic writer Yoon-hee see their worlds collide and even bond over their dark pasts.
148. Tazza: The High Rollers (2006)
A gambling thriller that is not scared to flip from comedy to violence, a group of drifters are involved in the Korean card game Hwatu. Go-ni is a small-town gambler who has lost all of his money. Determined to win it back he starts training under one of the country’s best gamblers but matters soon start to complicate.
147. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)
Finding a way to make the overpopulated ‘found footage’ horror film genre interesting again, this is more a ‘live-streamed’ horror, playing into the social media and streaming obsessed nature of Korea’s young people. After two teenagers disappear within the long-abandoned Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital, the owner of a YouTube channel decides to explore.
146. Friend (2001)
The highest grossing Korean film ever at the time of its release, it is a semi-autobiography view of director Kwak Kyung-taek’s experiences with friends in Busan. We follow the lives of four childhood friends, leader and mob boss son Joon-seok, the undertaker’s son Dong-su, class clown Jung-ho and smart student Sang-taek.
145. Tale of Cinema (2005)
A low-key mediation on obsession and a love of the big screen, it contains all of the domestic realism you could expect from a Hong film, including drunken nights with too much soju and regretful hook-ups. A film in two distinct parts, as we first meet Sangwon, a rudderless college student, and then cinemagoer Tong-su and actress Yong-sil.
144. Secretly, Greatly (2013)
An action comedy-drama which enjoyed an international release and a prolonged festival stint, a group of North Korean spies infiltrate the South posing as a village idiot, a rock musician and a high school student. Waiting for orders from the North they settle into rural life in the South, before receiving an unexpected new mission.
143. Woman on the Beach (2006)
The love-sick pathetic men, beach-side blues and look-alike characters, the seventh film from Hong Sang-soo back in 2006 has several of the Hong trope that would litter his entire prolific career. A filmmaker in a creative slump convinces his friend to take a seaside trip, but when the friend’s girlfriend joins them he has his head turned by her instead.
142. Nowhere to Hide (1999)
This highly-stylised action crime outing was seen as Korea’s answer to Hong Kong’s dominance of the genre during the 1990s. It would be Korea that would go on to establish itself as the mainstay of such films today, but much can be traced back to Nowhere to Hide where an obsessive detective chases an elusive killer.
141. 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. When there she bonds with Sun Do-hee, a timid and abused 14-year old.
140. Breathless (2008)
Winning a host of awards at various international film festivals at the time, Yang Ik-june produces a star-turn as Sang-hoon – a gangster trapped in a sequence of violence and crime. One day he meets troubled high school student Yeon-Heui and after an initial confrontation the pair form an unlikely bond together.
139. Innocent Witness (2019)
The odd couple pairing of the ambitious defense lawyer and autistic schoolgirl combine to great effect thanks to the performances which punctuate this feel-good drama. Jung Woo-sung plays Soon-ho, a talented but morally conflicted defense lawyer, while Kim Hyang-gi is Ji-woo, the atypical teen with a fierce intellect but severe social anxiety.
138. Always (2011)
The opening film of the prestigious 2011 Busan International Film Festival, this romantic drama represented a departure for Director Song from his 2004 horror-drama Spider Forest (No. 240). Ex-boxer Chul-min cuts a surly figure who is indifferent to the world until he meets a sweet blind telemarketer called Jung-hwa.
137. The Terror Live (2013)
More list success for Korea’s recent flurry of modern disaster movies, this time demonstrating the perils of front-line journalism. Ha Jung-woo plays an ambitious news anchorman who has been relegated to smaller-time radio coverage when a terrorist calls his shows and threatens to blow-up the Mapo Bridge on the Han River.
136. The Tiger (2015)
A film that received wide critical praise, but more tepid box office takings has enjoyed a belated rise in popularity. Set in Japanese-occupied Korea in 1925, a hunter called Man-duk, played by Choi Min-shik, lives with his son, but has vowed to never hunt again after a tragic accident, but soon becomes obsessed with killing possibly the last remaining tiger in Korea.
135. Confidential Assignment (2017)
Afforded an international cinematic release, Hyun Bin, Yoo Hae-jin and Kim Joo-hyuk star in this action film once again about North-South issues. A special investigation team officer in North Korea must work with his counterpart in the South to catch a crime boss, but old suspiions between the nations threaten to derail the case.
134. Oki’s Movie (2010)
The 11th film from Hong Sangsoo is comprised of four short films, or chapters: ‘A Day for Incantation’, ‘King of Kisses’, ‘After the Snowstorm’ and ‘Oki's Movie’. Oki is a college student majoring in film production and finds herself torn between an older cinema professor and a younger fellow budding filmmaker.
133. The Last Witness (2001)
An adaptation of the novel of the same name, Hwang-seok is a political prisoner released after 50 years of solitary confinement. The next day when a body is found, Detective Oh investigates the death and determines the body is that of a former soldier. As his investigations continues, clues begin to point towards a link with Hwang-seok.
132. The King (2017)
A visual feast of a film, Han Jae-rim followed-up his 2015 The Face Reader with this slick political crime drama. Tae-soo was born into a poor family and climbs to become a prosecutor. However, as he reaches the upper echelons of the legal system he begins to witness the cruelty that wealth and power can produce.
131. Moebius (2013)
Even among his controversial and often outright problematic filmography, Moebius protrudes as an especially challenging outing from Kim Ki-duk. Initially banned in Korea, it was eventually released and shows a jealous mother who discovers her husband is having an affair, resulting in her castrating her own son in revenge.
130. The Beauty Inside (2015)
Spawning a TV series in 2018, it was the debut directorial feature for Baek Jong-yul, often known as ‘Baik’, who has production credits on the likes of Oldboy (2003) and Snowpiercer (2013). On his 18th birthday, Woo-jin wakes up in another body. This starts a daily procession of transforming into another person every day across genders and nationalities.
129. The Foul King (2000)
The dynamic connection of director Kim Jee-woon and Song Kang-ho may have ignited in the filmmaker’s clever debut The Quiet Family (1998), but it takes a slapstick turn for the better here. A much-maligned and failing banker finds meaning in the wrestling ring in this smartly shot comedy with plenty of heart.
128. On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002)
One of Hong Sangsoo’s earlier films, his fourth overall, but it is already very Hong-like in its structure and themes, chiefly around how we consume art. Gyung-soo is an actor who has been passed over for a role and decides to leave Seoul. On his trip he meets a friend and then a dancer named Myung-sook who quickly hit it off.
127. Take Care of My Cat (2001)
An understated 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.
126. Nobody's Daughter Haewon (2013)
Dramatic clashes combined with comedic moments, gawkiness, human connections and romantic follies from the Hong palette here. A college student called Haewon previously had a secret affair with Seongjun, her professor. With her mother immigrating to Canada, Haewon is feeling low and reaches out to Seongjun again after a long hiatus.
125. A Dirty Carnival (2006)
A film that is more reflective than the average gangster yarn, it still features a series of brutal baseball-swinging, knife-thrusting brawls. Byung-doo is 29 and an established member of a crime organisation, but financial strains for his family and concerns over his mother’s health has him worried for his future. In desperation, he offers to kill a corrupt public prosecutor.
124. The Day After (2017)
Selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, this is another Hong view of relationship angst. Bong-wan is a book publisher, but his marriage is on the rocks after his wife discovers his affair with his assistant. With the relationship with the assistant also ending, a new assistant is left to navigate the fallout.
123. Mandala (1981)
A contemplative and lyrical work from Director Im, 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.
Both melancholy and beautiful, while also slipping into the outright surreal in some dream-like sequences. 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.
121. Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989)
The first South Korean film to receive a US theatre release in 1993, 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.
120. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Director Bong’s debut feature is a black comedy which somehow succinctly blends slapstick with distressed dogs to produce a characteristically quirky social satire. Out-of-work academic Ko Yun-ju lives in an apartment block with his pregnant wife Eun-sil and finds himself increasingly annoyed by a barking dog from another apartment.
119. Sea Fog (2014)
Co-written by Bong Joon-ho, who also paired up with Shim Sung-bo when penning Memories of Murder (2003), Sea Fog is based on the true story of 25 Korean-Chinese immigrants who suffocated to death in the storage tank of a fishing vessel. Here we witness the litany of natural forces which plagued the ship on its voyage.
118. Hill of Freedom (2014)
Director Hong hodgepodges timelines and scrambles events in a funny and engaging view of a will-they-won’t-they romance. Kwon has a stack of letters from Mori, a Japanese language teacher and her former lover, but she drops the various communications, causing the letters, and the film itself, to slip into a sporadic order.
117. The Last Princess (2016)
Director Hur Jin-ho was enchanted by the real-life Princess Deokhye after watching a documentary about her on television. In his film, set in 1925 during the Japanese occupation of Korea, we witness the 13-year-old princess being forced to move to Japan to attend school there. This extradition only signals the start of her mistreatment.
116. Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days (2018)
The sequel 2017’s Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds, which finds itself higher up on this list, the fantasy action returns here with added Ma Dong-seok this time. As with the first instalment, three after-life guardians must guide a soul through a series of trials in the pursuit of resurrection back to the living world.
115. Confession of Murder (2012)
Before crafting The Villainess (2017), Jeong Byeong-Gil mustered this action-thriller starring Jung Jae-young and Park Si-hoo. A detective rues letting a series killer get away years prior. When the statute of limitations on the case expires, a man publishes a book titled ‘I'm A Killer’ which becomes a best seller.
114. Pawn (2020)
Korean cinema is filled with superb child performances and Park So-yi deserves special mention for her portrayal of the sweet Seung-yi. Two debt collectors, Doo-seok and Jong-bae take the nine-year-old girl Seung-yi as ‘collateral, or as a ‘pawn’, from her mother, an immigrant with residency issues of her own.
113. Beasts Clawing at Straws (2020)
The full tour-de-force of crime genre characters and set-ups get an outing in Kim Yong-hoon inauguration in the director’s chair. Desperate schemers see their lives intertwined by a bag of cash, including sauna worker Jung Man, Tae Young who finds himself at the mercy of ruthless loan sharks, while Mi Ran does dead-end work as a bar hostess.
112. The Battleship Island (2017)
Yet another film on this list set during Japanese occupation, Director Ryoo created this period action film after Veteran (2015). During World War II, a group of over 400 Koreans suffer horrendous forced labour on Hashima Island off of the South West coast of Japan. Willing to risk their lives, the group attempt a daring escape.
111. No Mercy (2010)
Another entry to the Korean crime-thriller stable, it is better enjoyed with as little prior knowledge as possible. All we will say is forensic pathologist Kang is called in to examine the body of a female murder victim. A detective Min suspects a fanatic environmentalist as the primary suspect, but matters soon spiral out-of-control between Kang and Min.
110. Gyeongju (2014)
Funny and moving, Gyeongju won Best Director for Zhang Lu at the 34th Korean Association of Film Critics Awards. A Beijing professor heads to Korea for a friend’s funeral. He then roams Gyeongju before visiting a tea room where he speaks to the owner and a relationship starts to bloom between them.
109. The Isle (2000)
A film that makes it impossible to look at fishing hooks in the same way again, The Isle is often gruesome but startlingly beautiful too. Hee-jin is a mute fishing resort operator, which is a rather grandiose way to describe renting out tiny floating huts. When Hyun-shik, a criminal on the run, comes to stay, a near-silent bond is formed between these two lost souls.
108. Lucky Chan-sil (2019)
After several years as producer to Hong Sangsoo, Kim Cho-hee emerged from his shadow to make this simple yet deceptively profound first film. After the death of her director, film producer Chan-sil meanders through the aftermath of the event. She moves to humbler living arrangements and attempts to seek a future in film somehow.
107. The Face Reader (2013)
Winning six awards at the 50th Grand Bell Awards, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor, Song Kang-ho plays Nae-gyeong, the son of a disgraced noble family during the Joseon dynasty. He can assess the personality, mental state and habits of a person by looking at their face, eventually leading him to the royal courts.
106. Café Noir (2009)
Traversing well north of three hours in run time, Café Noir is a lusciously shot billet-doux to the city of 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.
105. The Battle: Roar to Victory (2019)
This period action film portrays the Battle of Fengwudong which took place in 1920 as Korean independence militias battled the Japanese forces who still occupied Korea. The brutal battle takes place over a four-day period, with the militia boasting master swordsman Hwang Hae-Cheol and expert marksman Lee Jang-Ha.
104. Night in Paradise (2020)
Hushed moments are disrupted by blood-splatted violence in this gangster tale with a romantic sub-plot. Gangster Tae-goo is forced to flee over to Jeju Island where he meets Jae-yeon, a terminally ill woman, as he waits to be transferred elsewhere while the gang war intensifies. The pair slowly grow closer, despite their frosty and hard exteriors.
103. Hotel by the River (2018)
Often quiet and gentle, this Hong entry riffs on that big ticket issue – facing death and squaring the balances before the final curtain. Here we see poet Young-Hwan, who believes he is dying, invite his two squabbling sons to an isolated hotel by the Han River for a last goodbye. Also at the hotel is A-reum, a young woman visited by a concerned friend, Yeon-Jo.
102. Architecture 101 (2012)
Director Lee Yong-ju has an architecture degree from Yonsei University and used that prior knowledge to craft this romantic melodrama. In the film, while Seung-min was studying architecture he met music student Seo-yeon. Several years later, the pair are reunited as Seo-yeon asks Seung-min to rebuild her father’s old house.
101. Assassination (2015)
A series of fine performances hold together this espionage action film from the director of Tazza: The High Rollers (2006) and The Thieves (2012). A resistance group in Korea during Japanese occupation plot a plan to assassinate a highly ranked Japanese officer but paranoia and double-crossing looms large.