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7 best South Korean movies, ranked

A man whispers into a woman's ear in Parasite.
Neon

South Korean media have become popular parts of international pop culture, with K-pop and K-dramas attracting countless fans around the globe. The country’s movies have similarly captivated audiences from all nations, with South Korean cinema’s bold storytelling, rich characters, and innovative filmmaking techniques garnering attention from fans and critics, not to mention award-giving bodies.

From twisty thrillers like Oldboy and Memories of Murder to global sensations like Parasite and Decision to Leave, South Korean cinema has become a staple for cinephiles. Its best movies span a variety of genres and come from different generations, with each one highlighting all the different aspects and unique elements that make the country’s films worth discovering and celebrating.

7. Burning (2018)

The main characters from Burning.
CGV Arthouse

Directed by Lee Chang-dong, Burning is a must-see psychological thriller with a deceptively simple plot. The film follows Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young aspiring writer who reconnects with his childhood friend, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Hae-mi asks Jong-su to take care of her cat while she travels to Africa, but upon her return, she introduces him to Ben (Beef‘s Steven Yeun), a rich man she met during her trip. Jong-su soon becomes suspicious of Ben’s intentions and relationship with Hae-mi, especially as they learn about the stranger’s bizarre hobby.

Burning is a slow-burn movie, with the thriller taking its time to build an atmosphere that’s both mesmerizing and uneasy during its first half. By the time its more dramatic events unfold, viewers are likely already completely immersed in the haunting film’s world. The 2018 movie takes its time to tell its story that’s inextricably linked with class and wealth disparity, rewarding patient audiences with an unexpected ending they will remember.

6. The Handmaiden (2016)

The characters from The Handmaiden.
CJ Entertainment

The Handmaiden is a gorgeous psychological thriller set in 1930s South Korea. In it, a young Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), meets her new handmaiden, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri). Unbeknownst to Lady Hideko, Sook-Hee is part of a scheme orchestrated by a charming conman posing as a count, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who intends to steal her inheritance. What nobody expects is the genuine love that Lady Hideko starts to develop for Sook-Hee, who begins to feel conflicted about the plan.

Director Park Chan-wook is known for his talent for visual storytelling, with The Handmaiden being among the greatest examples of his skill. Aside from being a visually stunning film, the thriller is also full of deliciously dark humor and surprisingly intense and emotional depictions of romance, betrayal, and sexual desire. It’s a stylish and provocative work full of surprises that can shock or impress, depending on who’s watching.

5. Oldboy (2003)

Choi Min-sik wielding a hammer in Oldboy.
Show East / Show East

Director Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a renowned neo-noir action thriller centered on a man named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who is one day kidnapped and then mysteriously imprisoned in a cell for 15 years for seemingly no reason. Upon his sudden release, he makes it his mission to discover who was responsible for his suffering, only to find himself walking into a conspiracy that could be much worse than his confinement.

Oldboy is one of the most violent action movies ever, with its flawlessly choreographed fight sequences and bloody interactions involving torture being unflinching all throughout. One particular hallway scene has become popular for the exhilarating way Oh Dae-su takes down several goons with a hammer. Of course, the 2003 movie is best known for its infamous plot twist, which leaves viewers with an incredibly disturbing ending that they won’t see coming.

4. Memories of Murder (2003)

Park Doo-Man in "Memories of Murder."
CJ Entertainment

Before the international hit that was Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho was already crafting intriguing thrillers like Memories of Murder. The 2003 neo-noir crime thriller is centered on a messy investigation led by detectives Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) following gruesome murders in rural South Korea. They race against the clock to capture the unknown serial killer who targets young women.

Memories of Murder is difficult enough to watch at times, but it becomes even more unsettling when viewers learn that it’s based on a real string of crimes from the 1980s known as the Hwaseong serial murders. An expertly made crime movie, Memories of Murder greatly benefits from Bong Joon-ho’s direction, as the filmmaker infuses it with his trademark meticulous visuals and a ton of dark humor that doesn’t take away from the gravity of its story.

3. The Wailing (2016)

A man and woman sitting outdoors in The Wailing.
20th Century Fox

The Wailing is a genre-busting work by director Na Hong-jin, with the 2016 movie revolving around a small village plagued by a mysterious illness and a series of brutal murders. Police officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) investigates the bizarre and dangerous events but soon encounters a sinister shaman (Hwang Jung-min) and a mysterious stranger (Jun Kunimura) rumored to be behind the chaos.

Director Na Hong-jin’s film is a fantastic blend of several horror and thriller subgenres, as it’s a possession, zombie, police procedural, drama, and even comedy all at once. It’s a slow-burn movie that showcases familiar horror tropes used in unfamiliar ways, making full use of clever cultural references and even mythology to weave its suspenseful story. Whichever way audiences want to look at it, The Wailing undeniably offers a wholly original viewing experience that horror fans will especially appreciate.

2. The Housemaid (1960)

Jin Kyu Kim and Eun-shim Lee in The Housemaid (1960).
Kuk Dong Seki Trading Co.

One of South Korea’s classic movies worth streaming today, 1960’s The Housemaid is a provocative domestic horror film that follows the chaos that unfolds after a middle-class family hires a young housemaid, Myeong-sook (Lee Eun-shim). She soon has an illicit affair with the family’s patriarch (Kim Jin-kyu), leading to a series of shocking and tragic events that cause the entire family to unravel.

Directed by Kim Ki-young, The Housemaid was a groundbreaking and subversive masterpiece that challenged societal and gender norms in South Korean society. Its sexually predatory femme fatale is a cleverly written and wonderfully portrayed character that embodies the unfair pressure put on women, particularly those from lower-class backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, these themes helped the film hold up incredibly well, with its message remaining relevant in any country today. It also spawned a trilogy that would explore similar subjects, with its sequels titled Woman of Fire and Woman of Fire ’82.

1. Parasite (2019)

Mrs. Park covering her mouth with her hand in Parasite.
CJ Entertainment

Parasite is a modern masterpiece that needs no introduction. A satire, thriller, and comedy, it tells the story of the Kim family, who are used to poverty but soon find a way to temporarily escape it and experience the way the other side lives. Each family member achieves this by posing as a skilled worker for the affluent Park family, which is a scheme that seems flawless for a while, at least until the midpoint revelation.

The influential thriller with an infamous twist quickly turned director Bong Joon-ho into a household name following its premiere in 2019. After gaining international acclaim, Parasite also broke new ground in Hollywood by becoming the first ever non-English-language movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The cinematic landmark has received numerous accolades and praise for its novel eat-the-rich narrative told with stylistic visuals, witty, dark humor, and scathing social commentary.

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Saab Hannah
Saab whips up SEO-optimized articles as a writer for Digital Trends and updates top-performing articles on Collider.
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