The late 90s were a turning point for Korean cinema. Kim Ki-duk’s debut feature Crocodile in 1996 signaled the first wave of change. But, it wasn’t until the 2000s that this new brand of Korean cinema was recognized by cinephiles globally. On one hand, Korean film industry saw profound artists like Kim Ki-duk, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong rise to prominence. On the other, genre-deconstructing masters like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-hoo, Kim Jee-woon ascended to limelight. With the recent global success of films like The Handmaiden, Train to Busan and Parasite, the first foreign film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, Korean cinema remains one of world’s vital contemporary film industries. So, here’s what I consider the best Korean movies of the 21st century:
1. J.S.A. (2000)
Director Park Chan-wook, before delivering cult hits like Oldboy, led the Korean New Wave with a straightforward thriller titled J.S.A. The title indicates the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Lee Byung-hun plays South Korean soldier who is accused of killing two North Korean soldiers. South Koreans accuse a North Korean soldier (played by Song Kang-ho) for kidnapping Lee. Lee is alleged to have killed the North Koreans to escape. A neutral investigator is called in to find the truth. Park’s humanist touches and two terrific central performances make this a fascinating murder/mystery.
2. Failan (2001)
Choi Min-Sik, the magnificent performer, plays the role of washed-up, third-rate gangster named Kang-jae in Failan. Kang’s status, over the years, has diminished among the fellow thugs. A young Chinese woman named Failan arrives to Korea to live with her relatives after her parents’ demise. But, Failan, whose relatives have immigrated to Canada, is now compelled to marry a stranger, to stay. The narrative of this atypical romance moves in a non-linear fashion brilliantly revealing the faint love, Kang and Failan shared before the tragedy.
3. My Sassy Girl (2001)
Kwak Jae-yong’s endlessly charming romantic comedy subverted all the clichés of the genre, and with a simple plot line. It’s a boy-meets-girl story, but the silly, unconventional scenarios the romantic pair drums up are beyond words. The chemistry between the lead pair Cha Tae-hyun and Jun Ji-hyun is incredibly amazing. They make up for the minor flaws and clichés in the narrative. The first half is a little scattershot with great moments of slapstick comedy. The second half of the film boasts strong emotional element and is slightly melodramatic. Despite a series of unbelievable coincidences in the latter half, the performances move us nonetheless.
4. Painted Fire (2002)
The visually and thematically rich Painted Fire chronicles the life of a celebrated artist Jang Seung-ub. The illustrious artistic fire of Jang paved way to powerful paintings. However, the fire within also turned him into a restless individual. Popular Korean actor Choi Min-sik plays Jang. He possesses an incredible ability to bring out the character’s inner agony and primal instincts. Director Im goes beyond creating a mere hagiography. He profoundly explores the self-doubting existence of a genius artist.
5. Turning Gate (2002)
The works of Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo may not be instantly likeable, but the more we reflect on it the more insightful it is. All Hong’s films have a limited setting: cold climate, café, bars, and may be a tourist spot. The characters are mostly young men and women. They smoke, talk a lot, embarrass themselves, and gradually drift apart. Turning Gate takes place in a popular vacation area called Kangwon province. This 4th feature from Hong realistically deals with a romantic relationship that’s marked by desire as well as rejection. Like all Hong’s films, Turning Gate is aesthetically satisfying and withholds the director’s trademark theme of reincarnation.
6. Oasis (2002)
An ex-convict falls in love with a woman, affected by cerebral palsy. They both are abandoned by their respective families. The heartfelt love between the two main characters never strays from dealing with taboo subjects, fearing viewers’ reactions. There is one unsettling scene, which might scare away the conventional romantic cinema lovers. The two lead actors brilliantly tackle the challenges of the flawed roles. Eventually, it’s a realistic love story that forces us to consider our preconceptions and prejudices about societal misfits.
7. The Way Home (2002)
This sweet, sentimental tale is set in a tiny mountain village. An unruly 7-year old city boy is dumped by his workaholic mother in his mute grandmother’s home. The slow days of the serene village entwine the kid with feelings of genuine love and trust. There are no big dramatic turns in the narrative, but it’s filled with some very charming small moments. The director wonderfully captures the simple activities of rural life. In the vein of neo-realist films, he takes a unique social backdrop and uses non-professional actors to tackle universal themes.
8. Vengeance Trilogy (2002, 2003, 2005)
Park Chan-wook’s acclaimed films – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance – have a common thread even though they tell different stories. Oldboy is the most haunting of the three. It captures an act of revenge in its most primeval form. Park’s formalist designs compliment Choi Min-sik’s raging performance. Lady Vengeance is the most slick and thematically heavy feature in the trilogy. Park’s trilogy stands apart from other revenge flicks, in how it makes the vital act so unsettling. Unlike American movies, the bloodbath doesn’t bestow a cathartic experience for the viewers.
9. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
The profound horror mystery has the premise of a fairy tale. Two adolescent sisters return home from hospital after an extended mysterious illness. The girls’ father and step mother want them to be a happy family unit. But the sisters are intent on exposing the mother’s evil nature and free their father. The film offers a bewildering experience, largely due to the labyrinthine narrative approach. It’s a very subtle study of a disturbed mind. The film holds up very well in repeat viewings. The horror element is infused through dark sense of dread than using jumpscares.
10. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter……….and Spring (2003)
Kim Ki-duk’s brilliant meditation on the cycle of life and death is blessed with a magical atmosphere – a floating temple in the middle of a lake. A wise old man and a young student are the inhabitants of the temple. Each season denotes complex life stages of the boy. From carrying burden on the heart after tying rocks to triumvirate of forest creatures to the awkward sexual awakening and the eventual accomplishment of spiritual enlightenment, the film unravels with zen-like calmness. Despite a bare plot structure, director Kim thickly lays meaningful symbols, provoking great range of interpretations.
11. Memories of Murder (2003)
Fritz Lang’s M & Immamura’s Vengeance is Mine are rare, profound crime films that tackle the subject of serial killings to deftly look into the moral squalor of the modern society. Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder belongs to that small list of crime masterpieces. It is based on the series of unsolved sex murders that happened between 1986 and 1991 in the mid-western region of Korea. The foremost surprise of this thriller is the characterization of incompetent detective protagonist. Bong’s subtle visual compositions demand repeat viewings to fully contemplate the thematic complexities. Among the best Korean movies of all time, Memories of Murder could also be seen as a mesmerizing study of chaos constantly winning over order.
12. 3-Iron (2004)
Kim Ki-duk’s unusual romantic drama revolves around an oppressed woman and a young drifter. The woman is caught in an unhappy marriage. The young guy freely breaks into houses of vacationing residents and lives there for few days. The fascinating aspect of their relationship is they don’t necessarily need words to communicate. Although the film could be divided into three acts, it’s not plot-centered. 3-Iron’s hypnotic power and idiosyncratic characters often remind me of Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang’s films. Kim and Tsai frequently offer transcendent film experience, however inconsequential their storylines are.
13. Samaritan Girl (2004)
Samaritan Girl didn’t receive much acclaim compared to Kim ki-duk’s Spring Summer…., The Isle, 3-Iron, etc. But it’s a highly contemplative feature on the controversial subject of teen prostitution. Unlike some of Kim ki-duk’s deliberately shocking features, Samaritan Girl is profoundly substantial at its core. The story revolves around two adolescent students from a middle-class family, who wish to travel to Europe. To fulfill their dream, one girl works as a prostitute, while the other sets up the clients. Director Kim follows a set narrative, although he invites interpretations on the psychology behind each character’s behavior. Kim also makes us care about the existential pain of these doomed characters.
14. A Moment to Remember (2004)
The tear-jerking love story is about a 27-year old fashion designer Kim Su-Jin afflicted by a rare form of Alzheimer’s. Kim’s husband (Chul-Soo), pained over his wife’s ordeal, tries to find a perfect and lasting moment of their love. The film has quite a lot of emotionally manipulative scenes. Yet, it doesn’t fail to ask haunting questions about feelings of love, in the absence of memories. Director John meticulously builds his two central characters for the viewers to constantly empathise and fret over the young couple’s fate.
15. The President’s Last Bang (2005)
It’s a satirical account of the 1979 assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The director does a great job establishing the political atmosphere of the time. The politics are easily understandable even for those with zero knowledge about Korean history. The frenetic pace and editing of the film pays tribute to classic genre works like Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate. The mordant humor and bloody explosions in the latter half may not work for all. Nevertheless, it’s a swiftly entertaining study of the volatility of the powerful individuals.
16. Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005)
Park Kwang-hyun’s charming war drama is set during the 1950 Korean War, right after the landing of UN Allied Forces. North Korean soldiers, who have survived an ambush and a couple of isolated South Korean soldiers, wander through the same woods. They stumble upon a tiny mountainous village called Dongmakgol. The good-hearted villagers aren’t even aware about the war. They cheerfully welcome soldiers of both sides – a wounded American pilot already resides in their hut. To the villagers, the warring soldiers’ ideological rift and authoritative behavior looks plainly ridiculous.
Of course, the nasty outsiders pose a threat to this paradise. The movie doesn’t make a subtle commentary on war and politics, yet it is undeniably charming with plenty of funny situations.
17. A Bittersweet Life (2005)
The filmmaker takes a simple gangland story and transforms it with arresting imagery and emotional depth. Lee Byung-hun plays the calm but efficient mob enforcer Kim Sun-woo. The boss asks Kim to keep tabs on his young girlfriend. He finds himself fall under her spell and soon his allies turn out be the worst enemies. Director Kim’s film-form blends together John Woo’s frenzied display of violence and Jean-Pierre Melville’s introspective character work. Bittersweet Life lacks emotional development in the latter half, yet its exploration of themes like desire and fate remains interesting.
18. The Host (2006)
Bong Joon-ho’s reinvigorated monster movie is much more complex than effects-heavy escapist Hollywood features. Even the familiar conventions of the genre are shot with a formidable style. Song Kang-ho plays the dim-witted protagonist, whose beloved teenage daughter is carried off by a giant mutant, dwelling in the polluted Han River. The family’s misfits come together to rescue the 13-year old girl. They also have to fight the incompetent, arrogant bureaucrats in protective suits. The Host is part family comedy and part political satire. Director Bong astoundingly balances absurd humor with genuinely scary situations.
19. Secret Sunshine (2007)
He is one of the best contemporary filmmakers to intimately address the internal conflicts of the grieving. Secret Sunshine tells the tale of Shin-ae, a widow who has moved to a small town Milyang with her young son. She attempts to forge a fresh start after the death of her beloved husband and all seems well as she strikes a friendship with a local mechanic. However, an incident opens up a void within her and burgeoning grief envelops Shin-ae. The director’s lyrical visual language examines the widow’s torment with stirring details. Jeon Do-yeon’s majestic performance in the central role is another big plus.
20. Breathless (2008)
Yan Ik-june directs, writes and plays the central role Sang-hoon in this unsettling gangland flick. Sang-hoon is a petty gangster who works for a loan shark. The violence has fully taken control of his self that even a simple gesture of love has ferocious edge to it. The possible salvation for Sang-hoon arrives in the form of a compassionate young girl. Although Breathless looks like a simple slice-of-life drama, it’s an impeccable piece of work in terms of writing and direction. The emotional backdrop and the gritty visual language stand it apart from run-of-the-mill gangster movies. It’s a meticulous examination of the cyclical nature of violence.
21. The Chaser (2008)
Na Hong-jin’s directorial debut is a brilliant edge-of-the-seat thriller that transcends the police procedural motifs. The protagonist is a former detective-turned-pimp whose girls go missing before clearing their debts. All those girls seem to have met the same man before their disappearance. Things become a mess as the pimp decides to meet the client. Raw violence is one of the staple elements of Korean thrillers and the narrative set-up abounds with brutality. While The Chaser isn’t as multi-layered as Memories of Murder or Oldboy, it delivers a very chilling experience.
22. Castaway on the Moon (2009)
Mr. Kim, after judging that his situation in life is hopeless, throws himself into the Han River. Even suicide doesn’t go his way and he is washed up ashore. Alas, he washes up on a tiny piece of unpopulated land with no connection to the city, except for an unclimbable bridge pier. Kim can’t swim. He becomes a Robinson Crusoe-like figure gazing at the skyline of Seoul. A young woman (also named Kim) who has shut herself in her high-rise apartment accidentally glimpses at Kim through her telephoto lens. A distinct relationship blossoms between these two societal outcasts. The director strikes a perfect balance between funny and poignant moments. In this age of standardization, this film creatively examines the need to celebrate individuality.
23. Mother (2009)
There’s no greater love in this world than one between a mother and her child. Director Bong Joon-ho uses this simple idea in his violent, apathetic world to create a spellbinding murder mystery. As always, he strikes the right balance between dry comedy and suspense. The story revolves around a mentally challenged young guy Do-jun and his old, over-protective single mother. Do-jun is arrested in the murder case of a local school girl. The mother sets out to find the truth that may set her son free. In the same vein as his crime masterpiece Memories of Murder, Bong immaculately builds up a sense of dread. Kim Hye-ja’s sensitive performance as the helpless mother is remarkable.
24. Thirst (2009)
Park Chan-wook’s bloody horror mixes vampire mythology with the basic story of Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin. Emile Zola wrote about lust and the madness it provokes. Director Park, also keen to explore tales of individuals losing themselves to lunacy, adds a touch of vampirism. The protagonist is a good-hearted priest who is afflicted with a grisly skin disease. He volunteers for a medical experiment, coughs up lot of blood, and dies. But miraculously the priest is born again. All he has to do is fulfil his appetite by feasting on blood. The priest’s morality begins to wane when he meets an oppressed young housewife. Although Thirst is way too long, it’s a lot fascinating than a standard vampire horror. Park’s gothic atmosphere and pitch-black comedy offers brilliant moments.
25. The Yellow Sea (2010)
Na Hong-jin’s sophomore effort is as viscerally thrilling as his debut film The Chaser. The protagonist Gu Nam is a Joseon-jok, a name given by South Korean to millions of ethnic Korean people living outside the Korean peninsula (in China). Gu Nam works as a taxi driver squandering the little money he earns in gambling. It’s been six months since he last heard from his wife, who has gone to work in South Korea. Desperate for money, Gu Nam accepts the offer to murder a professor in Seoul. Yellow Sea is a mix of two sub-genres: neo-noir and black comedy. It packs unbelievable coincidences and characters, driven by rage and vengeance. The only flaw is that it takes some time to figure out multiple layers and motives in the story.
26. Poetry (2010)
A sobering metaphysical work, Poetry tells the tale of a lonely elderly woman, caught in a circle of guilt. The old woman develops fresh interest in poetry as she struggles with the onset of Alzheimer’s. Poetry becomes a device for her to enunciate the existential panic. And, there’s a woeful irony in this. A woman learning the language of poetry while forgetting basic words. The film is also a fine study of a rigid patriarchal system, where women’s words largely go unheard and compassion often unreciprocated. Veteran Yun Jung-hee offers a sublime central performance. Her unforgettable face equally overflows with disappointments of the past and hope for fresh possibilities.
27. I Saw the Devil (2010)
The revenge thriller is well known for its notorious violent sequences and murky moral engagement. A sadistic serial killer, who has long evaded the lawmen, brutally kills the fiancee of a special agent and daughter of a retired police chief. The special agent easily locates the serial killer. But his social experiment to inflict prolonged pain on the serial killer results in a murderous rampage. Kim Jee-woon brilliantly visualizes the cat-and-mouse scenarios. The film is more about the protagonist seeing the ‘devil’ within himself than encountering the monstrous killer. The mid-part of the film packs contemplative themes, which question the nature of revenge.
28. Silenced (2011)
Silenced leaves us speechless due to its haunting depiction of sexual, physical and corporal abuse, inflicted on the young, hearing-impaired students. The film draws from real-life events, depicted in the controversial online novel Dogani. Popular Korean actor Gong Yoo plays the central role of a teacher, who relocates to a small town. With the help of a human rights activist, he unearths sleazy crimes committed by a school’s headmaster and admin head. A prolonged legal battle ensues. And the judicial system seems as twisted as the pedophiles’ mind. Silenced is a painful experience. The only thing that bothers me about the film is the explicitly graphic depiction of child abuse.
29. The Wailing (2016)
Korean filmmakers have perfected their skills to create impeccable visual designs to portray disorder or chaos. Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing only proves nobody can outdo them in that space. Among the best Korean movies of all time and the best horror movies of the century, it’s a fine mix of horror and murder/mystery genre. The film revolves around random killings in a small town and an inept police officer trying to solve the complex mystery. It has terrifying set-pieces and coated with layers of ambiguity. The bone-chilling visceral thrills perfectly compliment the thematic weight of the narrative. Altogether, a rare genre film that keenly explores the themes of doubt and fear.
30. The Handmaiden (2016)
Park Chan-wook chose Sarah Waters’ provocative novel Fingersmith to return to the Korean movie industry after a 6-year hiatus. The Handmaiden, like Park’s earlier masterworks, is filled with sumptuous imagery, while keeping its touch of humanistic core. He sets the narrative in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. It revolves around the forbidden love between Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) and crafty young girl (Kim Tae-ri). From a figurative and literal perspective, the narrative and its characters are spectacularly twisted. On the whole, The Handmaiden is an elegant Gothic masterpiece about oppression – masculine as well as colonial.
31. Parasite (2019)
Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winning social satire tells a timeless about the rich and the poor. But the brilliance lies in the layers of fascinating details that offers a unique viewing experience. The narrative is centered on two nuclear families in Seoul, one poor and one rich. The poor Kim family cons their way to work for the wealthy Park family. The horrors of economic disparity wreak havoc on both the families. Parasite largely unfolds in grey zones without assigning blame to a particular class. It shows how antipathy is rooted in both sides and the villain here is the stratified system.
That’s my pick of the best Korean movies of the 21st century. What are your favorites? What did I miss out? Tell me your rankings. Let’s talk in the comments below.