26 hidden gems of Korean cinema
Great movies you might have missed. Using a criteria of films with less than 1,000 members views on Letterboxd, here are the Korean crackers that deserve more attention
The vast societal issue of mental health and suicidal thoughts are portrayed with such genuine cinematic realism in Kim Ui-seok's somber debut that we are inescapably immersed in those dark topics. A schoolgirl goes missing in a suspected suicide and misgivings tilt towards her classmates’ role in the tragedy as her distraught mother and the police dig into the mystery.
There are moments when you wish this film will be over, when its dark patches seem too bleak, yet you will be thinking about it weeks later. The tragedy of suicide embalmed in the power of cinematic realism. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Owing a large debt to forerunners such as the US’ Random Hearts (1999) and Hong Kong’s In the Mood for Love (2000), we revisit the narrative thread of a man and woman discovering their partners are having an affair, this time the pair meet at the hospital where their partners are in a critical condition after being involved in a car crash together.
Stunningly crafted, tenderly portrayed and boasting true poetic depth, it tackles the big ticket emotions of love, loyalty, betrayal and even death in a measured and adroit fashion. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Once described as “the most controversial and ruptured film text in the history of Korea” by a Korean academic, Bad Movie is a chaotic, bacchanalian quasi-documentary on delinquent Seoul teens and their spiralling disillusioned recklessness. The lines blur between the real and the staged as we jump between various episodes and events.
Moralistically nihilistic, in what should be a period of youthful joy and discovery is portrayed as a fight for survival on the streets. Challenging, but purposefully so, this is teenage rebellion without limits. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
A heist film with a difference. While there are still plenty of heist genre aspects, the pacing is slowed and the mystery elements amplified instead. The film opens on the heist getaway, and then jumps around in time to piece together the heist’s pre-planning, its botched aftermath and the battle to solve the mystery of where the big swindle has actually taken place.
It is a film which requires a fair degree of close attention, as time frames scramble and characters become intertwined in each other’s fortunes, but overall it offers a breezy, mystery-focus heist flick addition. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Ounie Lecomte's affecting and powerful debut feature is a very personal story for the director and the audience are the beneficiaries of such a candid view of her childhood. A young girl is suddenly left at a rural orphanage by her father and natural emotions rather than sensationalised set-ups drive this personal story for Lecomte as this was once her fate.
Having lived the often heart-breaking reality of the situation, Lecomte is acutely aware of the deep narrative value of her story which is bought to life by a fine performance by Kim Sae-ron. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Clocking in at well over three hours, it is possible that Cafe Noir appear to be a flabby self-indulgent arthouse outing. That is not our view though. Instead we view it as a lusciously shot billet-doux to Seoul that profoundly portrays a melodramatic view of romantic angst. A masterpiece of cinematic skill and despite its tumefied length, manages to be consistently challenging and stupefying.
A debut feature of critic-turned-director Jung Sung-il which appears as an arthouse project that got out-of-hand, but one packed with such philosophical musings it never feels wasteful. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
“Even when life is hard, if someone’s on your side, it’s possible to go on”, we are told in this deeply affecting tale of family love, loss and retribution. A grandmother, played superbly by screen legend Youn Yuh-jung, is the primary carer for her granddaughter Hye-ji who goes missing in a Seoul market. 12 years later the pair are reunited, but Hye-ji's dark past is still following her.
Films such as Canola rely on us caring about the central characters and being able to relate our experience to their own, even when the narrative is so far removed from our direct lives. On this front, the film excels. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
This is a film that lingers with varying possibilities. You are left suspended as to whether it will tumble into a full-blown knife-stabbing gangster brawl, or simply a film about family connections and the bonds with our mothers. As such, it subverts the crime-gangster genre as a small-time city crook heads to the country to avenge the death of his crime boss.
As he waits for his victim, he meets a mother figure to him and the film turns to gentler themes. Its ability to lead us in one direction and ponder on another issue makes it a piece of profound, multifaceted filmmaking. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
This is the low-budget debut most aspiring filmmakers dream of making. Hyeok-jin has just broken-up with his girlfriend so he embarks on a disastrous seaside break filled with insobriety and loneliness. A superb script and understated performances combine to deliver a charming and humorous take on what a broken heart and too much soju can create.
The films plays out like a story a friend would chronicle in the bar to a pack of giggling listeners, one you regularly egg them on to retell once again. Funny, charming and a telling slice of Korean culture. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Slick shots, superb cinematography and a busy score gives this thriller a layer of genuine horror. Despite the film largely going under the radar, and borrowing from similar works of the same time, most notability The Housemaid (1960), it still finds its own ways to make its point. A chief surgeon has ambitions to run the hospital and seems willing to do anything to achieve this aim.
As the doctor's actions become darker and his greed grows, the film's score provides an amplified reminder of the horror of his actions. This psychological thriller-horror provides an eerie view of greed, guilt and lust. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Ji Suk has built a successful life and is a mother herself when she goes on a trip with her mother. Ji-suk’s mother is proud of her daughter, but continues to treat her as a young child. The pair spend time discussing their lives, alongside the regrets and the conflicts which have shaped their lives. We witness this mother-daughter relationship evolve into something new and more profound.
A film about how mothers never stop mothering their children, regardless of their age. About the complexities of that relationship, one that can be closed at time and too open at others.
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.
Beyond this, we also peer into the lives of the inhabitants of the title city Paju – located on the North/South Korean border – and facing forced gentrification and aggressive development. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
This was a horror that arrived in the wake of Korea’s most prolific period of output in the genre early the same decade. It does a fine job of picking up on some of the most prominent elements of that boom period and produce something deeply intriguing in its own right as college student Hee-jin returns home when her 14-year-old sister So-jin goes missing.
It provides a juxtaposition between the contemporary appeal of Christianity and the traditional allure of Shamanism, with a fanatical Christian mother living in an apartment block with a Shaman temple within. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
In this early 90s work, protagonist R manages to resembles a dark corner of wider society. The arrogant academic who believes himself better than anyone else, specifically female peers. He is the form of controlling, venomous misogynist that has sullied so many relationships as an extramarital affair descends into derogation and blackmail, with the charming J the victim of his abuse.
The film lures you in with a gentle opening that seems to be about relationship dynamics, but be prepared for its festering and expanding toxic nature, anchored by the increasingly vicious R. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
The cinematic character study, so often the source of focus in Korean cinema, is perfectly pitched here as we become deeply entwined in the fortunes of the cherub-faced Jeong-hye. In this absorbing portrayal of a forbearing post office worker we slowly learn the reasons for her self-imposed societal isolation as she focuses on work and a basic domestic life.
The film is melancholic and effecting, but it is also one of the best examples of the power of cinema to draw us into the life of a character and find ourselves so deeply invested in their fortunes. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Jeon Tae-il holds an important place in the history of the workers’ right movement in Korea and Park Kwang-su’s film finds a tactful and respectful way to show his life and its tragic end in 1970. Director Park was partly enabled to achieve this with one of the screenwriters being Lee Chang-dong (Burning, Secret Sunshine, Poetry) before he had started his own directing career.
A split story feature, part set further in the past as we follow the events before Tae-il’s (Hong Kyung-in) death and the other half as we follow his biographer Kim Yeong-soo (Moon Sung-geun) five years later. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
The film’s title means ‘goosebumps’ in Korean, and when paired with a certain verb means bloodcurdling, hair-raising, chilling and horrifying. This is a horror in a purely atmospheric sense, but what the film instead does is allow us to become so deeply entwined in the lives of the apartment inhabitants – as if it were us living in close quarters with them – that we feel a bond with their spiralling fortunes.
Yong-hyun moves into an old apartment building, learning the previous inhabitant had died in a fire there. The result is slow-burn horror mystery entwining us in the fortunes of characters tittering on the brink. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Soo-myung and Seung-min meet at a mountain-side mental hospital. Soo-myung has been institutionalised after a traumatic family event when we was 19. He is shy, nervous and rarely speaks, while Seung-min is a champion paraglider and first enters the hospital in a flurry of fists and head-butts. This odd couple form a bond which helps them navigate their harsh environment.
Both 25 years old, this chalk and cheese pairing that find commonality in the scars of their family interactions and we appreciate the extent to which someone’s family support dictates their mental health. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
There is a universal relatability to the emotional hub at the centre of The Shower as a pair of schoolkids connect on rain-soaked ramble. That young crush, the inaugural infatuation, a first love. Despite the improbably notion that such a young spark will do anything but fizzle out, to a youngster the inevitable lovelorn on the horizon seems unthinkable.
A film of postcard-perfect shots that offers a visually staggering portrayal of the raw excitement that young love can provide while showcasing the natural beauty of rural Korea. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Kang Yu-jin is a wealthy professor who meets Mi-ok, a young woman who is the daughter of a shaman priestess who recently died in a house fire. Yu-jin appoints Mi-ok as his new housemaid and brings her home to his wife Seon-hee who is instantly suspicious about the beautiful young woman who has mysteriously arrived and infiltrated her household.
Genuinely scary and superbly made, this is a psychedelic and hallucinatory outing, but it manages to paint obsession and paranoia in clear colours, aided by its visually-stunning cinematography. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
While Korean cinema has established its reputation for ultra-violence revenge thrillers, in Sunflower the gangster genre is, in the main part at least, subverted for a redemption story. The pervasive nature of the criminal world and the difficulties those within it face when attempting to leave provide an immovable weight round the neck of Tae-sik as he attempts to go straight after being released from prison.
It is about how our mistakes, especially those made when young, can translate into permanent transgressions and scars. Set in such a small town, these errors are seemingly inescapable for Tae-sik. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
This lively and engaging rom-com boasts several dramatic facets, when the secret relationship of two bank colleagues ends a toxic aftermath ensues. Interactions between the pair and their individual actions are churlish, selfish and outright malignant. Not just to each other either, but to those in the blast zone of their spiteful attacks too.
The debut feature for Roh Deok, a script editor for the wild and hilarious masterpiece Save the Green Planet! (2003), who demonstrates considerable directorial chops here and a willingness to blend styles. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Based on the true story of a Korean housewife imprisoned in Martinique after being accused of drug smuggling at a Paris airport, filming took place at a women's prison in the Caribbean island, a genuineness that run through-out the film. The film follows Jeong-yeon's struggle to get a trial in France, while the Korean embassy there show nothing but disinterest in her fate.
Directed by Bang Eun-jin, who starred in 301, 302 and Address Unknown, who manages to demonstrate the emotional pain of Jeong-yeon's situation and the torment of a mother kept thousands of miles from her child.
Death can be a more common theme of cinema than real life. Despite the unavoidable fate of the end of our lives, we often keep such concerns at bay by shelving them. Films like Wedding Dress challenge us to imagine what an early death may mean to us. It is uncomfortable, but great cinema often is as a single mother with terminal cancer seeks to teach life lessons to her head-strong young daughter
“Don’t die Mommy, you’re all that I have,” wails the young girl, So-ra. Anchored by fine performances from Song Yoon-ah and Kim Hyang-gi, this obviously play on our heartstrings achieves its aim. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
Despite the dark topic of a serial killer hunt, especially one that attacks young girls, director Cho Ui-Seok manages to muster something far more poetic and reflective. Keeping the serial killer and their acts largely hidden. Focusing instead on two leads with differing worldwide views and notions of reasons and evidence as a psychic and a detective both hunt the killer.
While the focus of evil is chiefly on the killer, there are an array of inner demons and tragic events which layer our characters. How remorse and pain can sculpt the people we become and our motivations through life. READ OUR FULL REVIEW
The man behind this meditation on Zen principles, Dongguk University professor and painter Bae Yong-kyun, spent seven years making the film, editing it by hand to its completion. He manages to perfectly frame the beauty of the wilderness in the search for human meaning between three Buddhist monks, orphan boy Hae-jin, young monk Ki-bong and Zen master Hye-gok.
Hardly a hidden gem in Korea, the film seems to have been missed by large slices of modern global audiences but is a work of enigmatic beauty and emotional depth. READ OUR FULL REVIEW