Top 10 modern South Korean directors
10. Yeon Sang-ho
A master of the often-underrated South Korean animation scene, Yeon launched onto the directing landscape with The King of Pigs (2011). The gripping and confronting film was a piece of highly-stylised violence where Yeon provided direction, screenwriting, animation and even voice acting. However, it was 2016 that announced Yeon as a director of serious mettle with horror film Train to Busan and its animated prequel Seoul Station. The former was an international phenomenon, utilising rapid-hunt zombies to reinvigorate the entire genre. The release of Peninsula, the follow-up to Train to Busan, achieved a selection at Cannes Festival in 2020 and proved another box office smash, setting up Yeon for further big budget projects into the future.
Top three films: Train to Busan (2016), The King of Pigs (2011), Seoul Station (2016)
9. Lee Joon-ik
A prolific and consistent filmmaker, Lee has a knack for creating crowd-drawing films with simple but powerful plot devices. After his 1993 debut Kid Cop, Lee turned his hand to producing before returning to the director’s chair a decade later in 2003 with the war comedy Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield. Since then he has directed a further 11 features, including one of the highest grossing films in South Korean history in King and the Clown (2005). In 2013, he created his best piece of work in Hope, based on the harrowing attack of an 8-year-old girl and the family’s attempts to heal her, which won Best Film at the 34th Blue Dragon Film Awards. His 2016 black-and-white biographical period drama Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet also got its fair share of awards recognition.
Top three films: Hope (2013), King and the Clown (2005), Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (2016)
8. Im Sang-soo
It takes confidence to remake the most famous film in your country’s history, but that’s exactly what Im did when he remade The Housemaid in 2010, offering a contemporary and evolved view of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic. At times a divisive director that can split reviewer and audience reactions, actress and constant collaborator Youn Yuh-jung describes Im as “provocative and daring”, a product of his unique view of the world. His biggest cage-rattling outing was 2005’s The President's Last Bang, offering a less-than-flattering depiction of Korean president Park Chung-hee before his assassination. Having twice competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, in 2010 with The Housemaid and 2012 with The Taste of Money, Im has secured the status of a director with international acclaim.
Top three films: The Housemaid (2010), The President's Last Bang (2005), The Taste of Money (2012)
7. Na Hong-jin
With just three features to his name, Na would initially appear too high on this list considering the directors with more packed resumes behind him. That just demonstrates the power of the three features he has produced so far. His debut was the 2008 action thriller The Chaser, inspired by a real-life Korean serial killer, it is a bloody and frantic debut outing. This was followed by The Yellow Sea in 2010, an action-filled gangster thriller, which screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. His most recent film is by far his best though as The Wailing has genuine claims as one of the best horrors in the history of Korean cinema. Unsettling, scary and an international smash on release, it alone is enough to propel Na up this list.
6. Hong Sang-soo
Hong claims he is fascinated by the detail of social interactions, what he terms “the surface of the everyday”. His films are a product of this obsession, feeling almost like fly-on-the-wall documentaries. His 1996 debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well instantly introduced him as an important filmmaker. Since then he is a regular on the international film festival circuit, while his 2004 Woman Is the Future of Man and 2005 Tale of Cinema provided back-to-back hits. A prolific filmmaker, he has made 15 films in the last decade alone, including comedy-drama Hahaha in 2010, the internationally acclaimed Right Now, Wrong Then in 2015 and 2017 Palme d'Or competitor The Day After.
5. Kim Jee-woon
Petrifying horrors, stylish gangster flicks, genuinely funny comedies, polished period dramas and even an homage to spaghetti Westerns, Kim is the Swiss Army knife of South Korean directors. Across nine features Kim has flexed his range and produced a stack of memorable screen moments. His debut was the hilarious The Quiet Family in 1998, featuring a host of future Korean stars. His 2003 horror A Tale of Two Sisters is a creepy and subtle tale of tragedy, while the 2005 A Bittersweet Life was a refreshing blast of ultra-violence. Often utilising Korean acting royalty in stars such as Choi Min-sik, Lee Byung-hun and Song Kang-ho, such combinations create a heady mix of talent and originality that have made Kim’s films some of the best in modern Korean cinema.
4. Kim Ki-duk
If we could be afforded the opportunity to separate the man from his art in the wake of personal allegation in 2017, Kim produces stylish and beautiful films with considerable panache. Those of a squeamish disposition will struggle with The Isle (2000), which features some disturbing scenes of animal cruelty, or his even more infamous 2003 Moebius. With 24 features to date, Kim has a conveyor belt of powerful films. However, it is a purple patch of films between 2003 and 2005 where Kim produced his best work. His 2003 Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring about events in a Buddhist monastery floating on a lake in a remote forest is one South Korea’s greatest ever films. The haunting and near-silence 3-Iron in 2004 and symbolic 2005 drama The Bow create a trio of masterpiece films.
Top three films: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003), 3-Iron (2004), The Bow (2005)
3. Bong Joon-ho
When Director Bong's all-conquering Parasite (2019) stormed the international awards season, including winning four Oscars, there was a feeling something had changed for good. Bong has never made a bad film, even his box-office flop debut Barking Dogs Don’t Bite (2000) is a still a dark and sweet tale. However it was his 2003 follow-up, Memories of Murder, that had Bong on top form. It also introduced us to Bong’s genre-bending style of perfectly blending comedy with drama and even horror. His 2006 monster movie The Host and 2009 drama Mother were followed up by two English language outing in Snowpiercer in 2013 and Okja in 2017. In 2019, Parasite made him one of the world’s most famous filmmakers and further enhanced the international reputation of Korean cinema.
2. Lee Chang-dong
Lee Chang-dong has only made six films and every single one of them is superb. A considered filmmaker, choosing his projects wisely, he blends emotional subtlety with human suffering in consistently unique results. The consummate auteur, Lee has no formal training in filmmaking, yet creates films of impossible technical beauty. He was busiest near the turn of the millennium, creating Green Fish (1997), Peppermint Candy (1999) and then Oasis (2002). Since then the directorial projects have been sparser, with tragic drama Secret Sunshine in 2007, the poignant Poetry in 2010 and perhaps his best film, Burning, in 2018. That latest effort saw Lee combine his characteristic portrayal of psychological trauma with a streak of thriller and shock, serving up a jaw-dropping finale.
Top three films: Burning (2018), Poetry (2010), Secret Sunshine (2007)
1. Park Chan-wook
While it is Park’s overall filmography that sees him named the best modern South Korean director, it is because the same director created the blood-splattered Vengeance Trilogy and the stylish period The Handmaiden which proves that Park has a range of talent that no other local director can match. Park combines slick violence, black humour and an impeccable talent for perfect framing to create his work. A perfectionist, shooting of his films frequency run well beyond the shooting schedule. The Vengeance Trilogy — Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005) — are visceral assaults on the senses and truly unique tales. The Handmaiden (2016) a stylish, twist-heavy drama. And he even has a brilliant horror in his back catalogue in Thirst (2009).
Top three films: Oldboy (2003), The Handmaiden (2016), Lady Vengeance (2005)