I wish South Korea would make more genre films. It’s not that they don’t — in fact, they’ve made some great thrillers, action films, and have lately hit big with large-scale historical dramas. There are other genres, such as comedy and romance, but recommending a title from either of those is tricky.
I’ve found that most audiences who enjoy South Korean cinema found joy when those genres are cleverly infused in the aforementioned action or thriller. Humor is subjective, and recommending even an American comedy (my overall sense of humor) to someone in the states isn’t as easy as it seems. As for romance, I’m just not a fan of the country’s storytelling trend when it comes to those films.
Horror is a little different. Thanks to the success of (either version) “The Ring” or “The Grudge,” I feel that audiences today are familiar with horror done in the east (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Hong-Kong, etc.).
Despite South Korea making less horror films compared to other genres listed above, I found it doable than making a list of comedy films. So when my editor suggested the topic, I revisited and watched many South Korean horror films to find the ones that were quite special.
While I don’t think I fully succeeded in making a list featuring only gems, more than half of these horror flicks are simply amazing films, while the rest are simply entertaining and fun to watch. In my research, I’ve found that South Korea has made several horror anthology films, as well as have some features being included in anthologies by an outside, foreign company.
There are plenty of ghost stories, and those films usually featured a character with the ability to talk to a ghost. I’ve found many of the stories to connect on a human-level, as opposed to pure exploitation, with most of these stories putting much effort in character development. There are plenty of suicides. Lots and lots of suicide. Then there are the derivative titels. Some work, many don’t.
I don’t mean to frustrate readers, but several entries on the list will have loose explanation of why these films are great, but I’ll stop short to save readers from spoilers. If the film didn’t care about it, neither did I, but a lot of these meticulously build to some form of revelation to imbue meaning in all the bloodshed and frights.
Still, more than half of these films are not only horror movies, but just great films that are overall worth recommending. I would’ve liked to include more classics — from the 60s or 70s — but the handful I discovered in my research were difficult to track down. I know I forgot several picks, so definitely let me know in the comments below.
10. Flu (2013, Kim Sung-su)
A single mother named In-hae (Soo Ae) gets into a traffic accident, which results in her being rescued by a paramedic and rescue worker Ji-goo (Jang Hyuk). Ji-goo is attracted to In-hae, but she barely considers it due to her busy schedule. Mi-ra (Park Min-ha) is In-hae’s daughter, and while she chases a cat, comes into contact with an illegal immigrant named Moonsai. She notices that Moonsai is ill, causing her to locate Ji-goo.
Moonsai is actually the sole survivor of a cargo container filled with dead immigrants, assuming it was caused by some form of the avian flu. This is confirmed when one of the smugglers die, causing his brother to go on a rampage. Soon, the disease starts spreading, violently affecting the infected with basic flu symptoms, before turning into something much more sanguinary.
It isn’t long before the city and nation take the necessary quarantine measures to contain the outbreak, regardless of who’s ill or not. In the madness, In-hae and Ji-goo try their best to figure out what’s happening, while protecting Mi-ra from possible infection.
“Flu” is essentially South Korea’s “Outbreak.” “Flu” also spends quite some time with the character development. As it starts, it’s a pretty bright and lighthearted, seemingly like a romantic comedy. Then when the blood and gore start appearing, the film begins to escalate accordingly in tone and scope to fit the spread of the disease.
In hindsight, the build up definitely added to the tension of the later scenes, since we’ve already invested in the main characters. “Flu” was aimed to be a summer hit (“summer vacation” actually occurs early fall in Korea), and was designed accordingly, with broad characterizations and big set pieces to mainly satisfy as much as they could.
It forgoes hard science and replaces it with pulp elements. There are some inventive moments, mainly a bit with the soldiers and the conflict they face during quarantine. In other similar stories, the military has been seen as cold, faceless antagonist, so it’s quite refreshing to see a few with some agency.
“Flu” is more thriller, but the body horror and the obstacles they encounter make for an unnerving yet exciting little blockbuster. “Flu” won’t change the game or redefine the genre, but it’s far superior than the similar disease flick “Deranged.” For a film that has people dying through worms bursting out their anus, it doesn’t get as accordingly nuts and satisfying quite like “Flu.”
9. Bloody Reunion (2006, Lim Dae-wung)
The film begins with a dark sequence involving a childbirth. Two detectives enter a basement and finds two women amidst an absolute massacre, dead bodies surrounding them. The film flashes back and tells the story of the two women: Ms. Park (Oh Mi-hee) is a retired elementary school teacher with little time left, cared for by one of her former students Mi-ja (Seo Yeong-hie).
Ms. Park requests to see some former students in a small reunion, and is able to gather a small group of students to her seaside estate. As adults, some students remained the same while others have changed drastically. The festivities go as planned, until they start drinking, revealing that each student actually resents Ms. Park in one way shape or form.
Furthermore, it’s also revealed that Ms. Park gave birth to a deformed child that she kept at the school basement, forced to hide his appearance with a mask shaped as a bunny. As tensions boil and the reunion becomes awkward, one by one the guests start dying in gruesome fashion, hunted by a killer in a familiar bunny mask.
As a fan of B-movies, I watch a bunch of slashers. I’ve seen maybe a handful of South Korean slashers when I was a younger, but revisiting them years later just revealed their derivative nature. Films like “Nightmare” or “Record” were almost going to take this spot, but after seeing something like “Scream” and going back to the films that inspired it, the Korean ones lost a bit of edge.
Also, I found people enjoy the “Death Bell” series quite a bit, but I personally did not like those films. I decided to go with “Bloody Reunion” for it’s somewhat kitchen sink approach in making this a bit more than what it seems to be. There aren’t any ghosts or attempts at supernatural elements — this is a pure slasher.
The cold open clearly states it’s a horror flick, but “Bloody Reunion” spends a good amount of time fleshing out these characters and building tension before the first death. While I would also normally sell a slasher based on the creativity of the kills, “Bloody Reunion” plays it deathly serious with borderline torture-porn elements that are pretty tough to watch.
Its masked killer is pretty creepy, with a reveal so bonkers that I can’t help but think Lim is a fan of “Sleepaway Camp.” The big twist is bound to piss off many viewers, but I feel like this was Lim’s way of having his cake and eating it — mainly because Lim’s dedication to the genre conventions and the character work become divergent as the film progresses. This way, he ties both elements to admittedly mixed results.
8. Voice (2005, Choi Ik-hwan)
Young-eon (Kim Ok-bin) is an aspiring singer, training hard even after school. One night during practice, her throat’s mysteriously and violently slit. The following day at school, she realizes that people don’t see (literally passing through her) and hear her, except her best friend Seon-min (Seo Ji-hye). Seon-min initially freaks out, but soon accepts what’s happening to her.
The two attempt to uncover the mystery behind Young-eon’s attack, even befriending a loner who claims to hear the voices of the dead. After a small revelation regarding Yeong-eon’s disappearance, the three must hurry to uncover the truth before Young-eon vanishes completely.
“Voice” — much like “Memento Mori” — is another entry in the “Whispering Corridor” series of films, fourth in release. While the film doesn’t have the interesting depth as “Memento Mori,” I love how batshit this film becomes. Like many other South Korean films involving ghosts, the convention of a character acting as a medium between both the living and the dead would normally cause my eyes to roll over.
The fact that I was essentially watching a murder mystery in which one of the detectives is a ghost didn’t help. Part of why I like “Voice” is that the film starts with that angle, but then pushes the relationship in a somewhat inventive direction. In a way, it adds to the story but also keeps things moving.
Once certain secrets are revealed, I was on board. A lesser film would’ve ended with solving Young-eon’s murder, but the film goes beyond that moment. This is especially evident after her character’s backstory is slowly surfaces, affecting the way we perceive the relationships and the film. To my absolute delight, “Voice” even nails the landing.
7. Memento Mori (1999, Kim Tae-gong & Min Kyu-dong)
Min-ah (Kim Min-sun) finds an intricate and overall creative diary at her all-girl high school. The diary itself isn’t a straightforward read, unique in a way that there’s always something new to discover in and around the pages.
After spending some time on it, it’s revealed that the diary was made by two students, Shi-eun (Lee Young-jin) and Hyo-shin (Park Ye-jin). As Min-ah and the audience learn more about the relationship between the two creators of the diary, the book itself slowly starts to take over Min-ah’s mind, causing some unwanted visions.
“Memento Mori” is the second film in the series of South Korean horror series “Whispering Corridors,” centered on the all-female high school setting. While individual entries are all serviceable and entertaining films, “Memento Mori” is one that has some surprising amount of depth for a film series ostensibly designed to feature teenage ghosts and suicides.
“Memento Mori” starts becoming more of a horror film near it’s second half, to point where it almost gets a bit too crazy that it unbalances some of the great character work done in the beginning. While Min-ha is interesting enough as the audience cypher, it’s the relationship of the two girls that’s ultimately the big takeaway.
“Memento Mori” has a sympathetic eye for the pressures and humiliation that young women face regarding certain academic practices, a perspective that’s only superficial in the other entries. Those scenes are especially uncomfortable, because despite all the ghosts and hauntings, some of those school scenes are based in reality.
Considering that this film is also about female sexuality — a subject that’s still somewhat taboo in South Korean culture — I can’t help but applaud it for reaching those heights. It’s unsettling, and “Memento Mori” reworks those truths to tell a pretty engaging entry in this particular sub-genre.
6. The Uninvited (2003, Lee Su-yeon)
Jeong-won (Park Shin-yang) is a rising interior decorator with a loving fiancé. As he comes home after a long shift, he falls asleep while taking the subway. He awakes to find two children sleeping nearby, but fails to wake them before leaving at his stop.
At home, he finds that his fiancé has bought a new kitchen table, a table for four. Strange things start happening to Jeong-won, even seeing visions of the kids at the table. He later hears on the radio that the two children on the train were found poisoned and dead, bothering him immensely.
During a job redesigning a therapists office, he meets a woman named Yeon (Gianna Jun). He learns that she’s not only a witness in a murder trial, but can also see ghosts. As the hallucinations become worse, Jeong-won seeks Yeon’s to help solve what’s happening to him.
I would’ve never heard about this film unless directors Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung hadn’t mentioned it in a one-on-one interview. Both directors were quite inspired by this film, and I can definitely seem Kim borrowing the pacing and rhythm for “A Tale of Two Sisters.” “Uninvited” isn’t the most impressive horror film by many standards (it’s original title is the bland “Table for Four”), however there’s a lot to like.
The central mystery is engaging and quite creepy, in which Lee heightens with the introduction of Yeon’s character. Gianna Jun is one of the most bankable female actors in South Korea, both beautiful and talented. Her scenes in “The Uninvited” are the best, since you can feel her inner fragility during her scenes with Jeong-won, despite being able to speak to ghosts or whatever. Her introduction makes it geared toward psychological horror film.
The direction is incredibly subdued. The film looks like a standard drama, so I was shock to find myself taking it seriously despite certain trappings. I would even go as far as recommend this film solely for the moment we see Yeon’s therapy session visualized, because the filmmaking and camerawork is damn impressive.
I can understand South Korea not making these types of films if they lost money, but they shouldn’t too concerned with quality. “The Uninvited” shows that these psychological horror films can be great.
5. Thirst (2009, Park Chan-wook)
Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) is a devoted and selfless priest, helping hospital patients and respected by many in his community. Still unsatisfied, Sang-hyeon volunteers to test a vaccine for a deadly disease called the Emmanuel Virus. It fails, leaving Sang-hyeon ill, bloody, and deformed. However, after a blood transfusion, Sang-hyeon is quickly healed. This draws many to his congregation, even his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun).
Sang-hyeon is invited to his friend’s home to play mahjong, where he meets Kang-woo’s wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), falling for her. Sang-hyeon relapses back into the Emmanuel Virus, but quickly realizes that human blood is the solution to the problem, additionally causing other forms of vampirism to arise. Not only does Sang-hyeon have a newfound energy and vigor, but he’s conflicted between his faith and his newfound temptations.
A bit long and slightly slow in some areas, Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst” is still a solid horror and romance film that does world’s more with the conceit than films like “Twilight” and horror, young-adult genre fare. “Thirst” probably did a more accurate job than the “Twilight” films in selling a serious relationship between two (for the lack of a better term) thirsty bloodsuckers.
While I do think Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” or the original “Let the Right One In” have the better vampire romances, “Thirst” actually rests nicely in between those two films.
The relationship isn’t as refined as the couple in Jarmusch’s film, or as fresh as the two children in the latter film, but “Thirst” feels like two young irresponsible lovers that give into their carnal desires, only to disastrously realize that they’re wrong for each other. Just add the fact that they’re two bloodsuckers in a Park Chan-wook world, so expect things to be bloody, violent, and operatic.
4. Hansel and Gretel (2007, Yim Pil-sung)
After arguing with his pregnant girlfriend, a young salesman by the name of Eun-soo (Cheon Jeong-myeong) swerves off a winding country road and drives into the forest. After struggling to stay conscious, he’s awaken by a young girl named Young-hee (Shim Eun-kyung) holding a lantern.
A complete wreck, Eun-soo follows Young-hee to her home in the woods: a picturesque and warm two-story house straight out of a storybook. There, Eun-soo is greeted by Young-hee’s siblings — the youngest girl Jung-soon (Jin Ji-hee) and her older brother Man-bok (Eun Won-jae) — as well as the children’s parents. Eun-soo is welcomed into their beautifully decorative home, almost like it’s Christmas.
As he’s taken in by these people, Eun-soo is hesitant about his seemingly perfect setting, deciding to leave the following day. When Eun-soo tries to leave, he finds himself oddly circling back to the house. When Eun-soo notices something off about the parents, he begins to investigate the secret behind the children and this house.
“Hansel and Gretel” is probably my favorite discovery I made during my research. It takes the storybook, fairytale genre and turns it into something quite creepy and disturbing. Visually, a snapshot from this film feels like something one would see in a Christmas film — candlelit and warm.
That effect is cranked up to the extreme that it becomes almost sickening, which is appropriate, since the reveal behind the house’s secret is pretty fucking dark.
What’s great about “Hansel and Gretel” is that the film itself is one of those homages that act as both commentary and entry into the fantasy and haunted-house genre. I really love how Yim twists the moral dynamics usually found between children and adults in this story to make it his own, with an ending that’s both appropriate, but also poignant.
It’s like a lesser Guillermo del Toro film, minus the fantasy-heavy bits. Without spoiling several great reveals, this film will immediately remind western audiences about a certain “Twilight Zone” episode that has a similar setup. “Hansel and Gretel” is an absolute recommend for horror fans and for audiences who enjoy South Korean cinema.
3. Bedevilled (2010, Jang Cheol-soo)
Hae-won (Ji Sung-won) works at a bank and one day causes a scene. The pressures of work and a possible police investigation have become to much for her to handle. Hae-won to finally respond to the letter of an old friend, leading her on an impromptu vacation to a small island she used to frequent as a child. Upon arriving, she sees greeted by a tan and tired, but nonetheless ecstatic Bok-nam (Seo Young-hee).
It isn’t long before Hae-won notices that Bok-nam is the only young woman in town, with everyone being men or the elderly. Furthermore, Bok-nam is treated like the island’s slave and punching bag. Hae-won is disturbed by everything she’s witnessing, second-guessing her trip constantly. Bok-nam, however, wishes nothing more than to escape with her daughter, and sees Hae-won as her one opportunity.
South Korea has several films about secluded, mysterious islands. I’ve covered this specific topic before in other lists, whether it’s classic films such as “Splendid Outing” and “Iodo” or more modern choices such as “Paradise Island” and “Moss,” the filmmakers attempt to make these relatively foreign locations to be both ominous and creepy.
“Bedevilled” — much like “I Saw the Devil” and revenge films — is essentially the most extreme, be-all-end-all version of this conceit. There aren’t any malevolent spirits, ghosts, or creatures in “Bedevilled.” It’s horrible people doing horrible things to one person.
It’s a horror film in the same way “Misery” can be considered a horror film, only Kathy Bates is an entire town (or a twisted old lady) minus the adulation. It isn’t until the film’s final act that more recognizable conventions start to show, but “Bedevilled” takes the opportunity to subvert genre expectations in thrilling ways.
“Bedevilled” is the type of film that you only watch once out of appreciation, but can’t see yourself revisiting the film due to its sheer brutality. It affects you, leaving you quite shaken long after the credits roll.
2. The Host (2006, Bong Joon-ho)
Gang-doo (Song Kang-ho) is a buffoon who runs a small snack shack alongside the Han river with his father and daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung). One afternoon, a large, mysterious creature emerges from the Han river, attacking everyone along the riverbank. As the monster jumps back into the river, he snatches Hyun-seo in front of Gang-doo. He dives in after his daughter, but is unable to catch up to the beast.
As a result, his brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and his sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona) join him and their father in quarantine, mourning with the other families with them. When Gang-doo awakes one night and receives a call on his cell, he’s shocked to hear his daughter’s voice on the other end. Determined it wasn’t a hallucination, Gang-doo and the rest of the family team up to track down their youngest, and eliminate the monster.
South Korea hardly makes the creature feature, and understandably so, since they’re quite expensive to produce. This film’s budget is reported to be around 13 million (adjusted for inflation), and most South Korean budgets are usually half that number — unless it’s a reportedly large production. While I would’ve loved to have chosen an another monster flick, the few that are out there aren’t that great.
“Chaw” is alright, but mostly as a comparative exercise when paired with “Jaws,” while “Sector 7” and it’s impressive cast and creature design couldn’t help that dumb film. But leave it to Bong in taking what could’ve been a typical monster film and turn it into a meaningful and emotional family film.
As a sociologist, Bong’s films aren’t devoid in commenting on social hierarchies and systems, creating antagonists that at times worst than the creature itself. It’s action packed, but Bong shoots the scenes featuring the children trapped by using darkness, space, and editing to draw tension rather than simply unleash the damn beast. It’s economical and overall great filmmaking. If you haven’t seen “The Host,” definitely check it out.
1. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, Kim Jee-woon)
Returning from her stay at a mental institution, Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) is released to her father. Still affected, Su-mi slowly readjusts, but ultimately finds comfort when she’s with her younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young). The father brings the sisters to a secluded, yet gorgeous cabin by a lake.
There, Su-mi is greeted by her stepmother (Yum Jung-ah). Immediately, there’s some conflict between the sisters and their stepmother, even though the latter has planned the retreat to be about family. As tension between the three ladies only grows, things become more disturbing as if something is haunting them.
Based on the famous Korean fairy tale, “A Tale of Two Sisters” is probably my number one recommendation for South Korean horror film. Not only does Kim Jee-woon shoot this thing like a conventional horror flick, but does so with style and purpose that the movie is utterly engaging.
It’s gorgeous and colorful, whereas other films don’t take the effort to make the style more meaningful. The acting is pretty amazing in this film as well. Im Soo-jung and Su-yeon are both great as the sisters, and you really feel that their bond is the only thing keeping their fragile selfs together. However, Yum Jung-ah’s performance as the stepmother is probably the winner here, being so wickedly despicable without being too exaggerated (although at times, she gets there).
The film gets a lot of tension and mileage out of the three characters, rather than introduce a bunch of victims. I don’t wish to spoil the reveal for this film, but suffice to say that it does a decent job of explaining the odd occurrences that took place. This is simply a fantastic film, one you’ll remember as the end theme swells the film to a close.
Author Bio: Hanajun Chung is a geek and struggling writer. Once he got his degree, he found work mainly in post-production. But after studying journalism, he gained a newfound appreciation in writing about the things he loves, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.