This particular genre is the one that propelled Korean cinema to its current international status, since the country’s filmmakers seem to have an uncanny ability to produce masterpieces in the category. These films excel in terms of script, direction, acting and overall production values, resulting in highly entertaining outcomes that also have great depth and artistic value, in contrast to the general rule of the genre.
Furthermore, the genre was the one that instigated Hollywood to transfer some of its most distinct filmmakers to shoot films in the US, as was the case with Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho.
Korea seems to produce similar pictures constantly, a tendency that resulted in hundreds of entries in the category. The following are the best among them.
20. Secret Reunion (Jang Hoon, 2010)
Ji-won and Han-gyoo are special agents for North and South Korea, respectively. The two of them exchange glances during a North Korean assassination attempt of Kim Jong-il’s second cousin, which fails due to Tae-soon’s betrayal. Shortly after, Han-gyoo is discharged for mishandling the case and Ji-won takes the blame for Tae-soon, subsequently going into hiding from his commander named Shadow. Six years later, Ji-won and Han-gyoo meet again.
Jang Hoon, a former assistant of Kim Ki-duk, directs a thriller that benefits the most from its fast pace and the impressive action scenes, including car chases, lots of shootouts, blood, and some artfully choreographed brawls.
Song Kang-ho is once more magnificent as Han-gyoo, in a role that requires him to appear as a hero, an everyday man, and a clown, a difficult task that he executes with distinctive ease. Lastly, his chemistry with Kang Do-won, who plays Ji-won, is one of the film’s greatest assets, although the difference in their acting abilities is obvious.
19. The Man from Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)
This is probably the most action packed film on this list, with the direction and script having many similarities with older John Woo films and the protagonist with Chow Yun Fat, accordingly.
Cha Tae-sik operates a small pawnshop while living a quiet and lonely life, having as his sole company a little girl named So-mae. Her mother, who is a drug addict, steals drugs from a dealer and hands them over to Tae-sik without him knowing. When the dealer’s gang discovers the perpetrator, they kidnap her and her daughter and turn against Tae-sik.
Lee Jeong-beom directs a film that chiefly focuses on action, which is thunderous from a point on, despite the fact that the beginning is a bit slow. His prowess in directing action scenes is evident all throughout the film, with tension and agony emitting from every moment the action takes place and the frequency of them hiding the mediocre script.
Won Bin is impressive as the silent vigilante Cha Tae-sik, although the one who steals the show is 10-year-old Kim Sae-ron, who plays So-mae like a true professional.
18. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
The first part of “The Revenge Trilogy” revolves around Ryu, a deaf-mute worker in a factory desperate to arrange a kidney transplant for his dying sister.
His situation takes a turn for the worse when he is laid off from his job and a black market organ dealer tricks him into giving him all his severance money and his own kidney. Seeing Ryu in that situation, his girlfriend Yeong-mi suggests kidnapping the daughter of his boss, an executive named Dong-jin.
Park Chan-wook presented the extremes an individual can reach when they find themselves in desperate situations. However, he refrained from graphically depicting the violence, ensuing in probably the most “shy” film of the trilogy. His distinct irony is once more evident in a number of scenes as is his black humor, which would later become one of his most distinct characteristics.
The cinematography is once more spectacular, particularly in the fight scenes, and Shin Ha-kyun as Ryu, Bae Doona as Cha Yeong-mi and Song Kang-ho as Ryu’s boss are great in their respective parts.
17. Confession of Murder (Jung Byung-gil, 2012)
In another Korean film that has the statute of limitations as his base, serial killer Lee Doo-seok publishes a book titled “I’m a Killer”, which describes the crimes he committed, after the aforementioned law has rendered his acts unpunishable. The book becomes a bestseller and the gorgeous Doo-seok becomes very popular among teenage girls.
Detective Choi Hyung-goo, whose failure to capture the serial killer 15 years ago has led him to alcoholism, is now set to finally capture him.
Despite the uncommon script, Jung Byung-gil shot a film that stands apart due to some social remarks about the pop culture and the media’s obsession with ratings. The fact that Doo-seok becomes popular due to his general appearance, despite murdering a number of women, is a clear mockery of the aforementioned tendencies.
Jung Jae-young as Choi Hyung-goo and Park Si-hoo as Lee Doo-seok portray their rivalry elaborately, with the latter’s depiction of a self-conscious celebrity being one of the film’s biggest assets.
16. J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000)
“JSA” is one of the films that inaugurated the new era in Korean cinema. In style, it was one of the first in the genre; in its cast, it established the careers of Park Chan-wook, Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun; and in technique, it was the first in the country shot with a Super 35 camera, which is commonly used in Hollywood blockbusters.
The script is based on the novel “DMZ” by Park Sang-yeon and takes place in the demilitarized zone, on the border between the two Koreas.
Two North Korean soldiers are killed in a guardhouse in the DMZ and moments later, a South Korean sergeant named Lee Soo-hyeok attempts to cross the bridge in the middle of the zone back to his country. The North Koreans open fire against him, but his compatriots manage to save him. However, the cease-fire is now hanging by a thread.
Two days later, Major Sophie E. Jean of the Swiss Army arrives at the area to investigate the case for NNSC. The two sides have opposite theories about the facts, supported by Lee Soo-hyeok and Sergeant Oh Kyung-pil, respectively. The case is further complicated by the fact that Major Jean is the daughter of an expatriated Korean.
Park Chan-wook used flashbacks splendidly to slowly reveal exactly what happened, keeping the tension all through the film. He presents the general atmosphere and the depiction of the conditions in one of the most unstable areas in the world with realism, but without failing to entertain in equal proportion, particularly through some comedic moments, as the scene where the two protagonists spit at each other across the line that separates the two countries.
The minor flaws of the film lie with the moments where the protagonists speak almost inconceivable English, and with the performances by the western actors.
Song Kang-ho as Oh Kyung-pil and Lee Byung-hun as Lee Soo-hyeok are both magnificent, to the point where the spectator cannot pick a side among them. The two of them, along with the direction and the cinematography, are the film’s biggest assets.
15. A Hard Day (Kim Seong-hun, 2014)
Detective Ko Gun-su is a troubled homicide detective. His mother recently died and the Internal Affairs are investigating his department over bribery charges. Furthermore, as he is driving to his mother’s funeral, he runs over a man and because he cannot take any more drama, he puts the body in his trunk and continues his course.
Unfortunately, he is stopped by traffic policemen, an encounter that leads to pepper spraying, tasing and eventually slapping. His worst idea comes a bit later, when he decides to hide the body in his mother’s casket.
Kim Seong-hun directs a film that constantly lingers between dark comedy and thriller, succeeding in the portrayal of both and thus creating a highly entertaining picture.
The general pace is rapid and is shot in many close-ups, a technique Lee Sun-kyun, who plays Gun-su, exploits to the fullest in order to present a character who seems resourceful, but ends up failing every time. Cho Jin-woong, who plays his “enemy”, is also very convincing, emitting cruelness despite his exterior that suggests otherwise.
The various fights between the two are as magnificent as they are agonizing, in a film that mainly excels because it does not take itself very seriously.
14. The Yellow Sea (Na Hong-jin, 2010)
Gu-nam is a truly weather-beaten ethnic Korean who lives in China and works as a taxi driver. His obsession with gambling has led him to owe a large sum to the local mafia, who takes a big proportion of his already mediocre income. His wife, who has gone to work in South Korea with the ulterior motive of sending him money, has not contacted him in a long time and he thinks she has abandoned him.
Not being able to provide for their daughter, he has left her with his mother, a foul-mouthed woman who constantly curses at him. Eventually, he is fired and the mafia takes the largest part of his compensation.
Being utterly desperate, he agrees to the proposal of local mob leader, Myung-Ga, to kill a man in South Korea, in order to erase his debt. However, the case becomes complicated when a South Korean gang also gets involved with his mission, while he also tries to find his disappeared wife.
Na Hong-jin maintained here most of the elements that made an impression in his debut film “The Chaser”, by incorporating great characters, desperation and agony, and impressive fighting scenes. In particular Gu-nam’s transformation from a fate-beaten, poor individual to a bloodthirsty murderer is the most impressive element of the film, an accomplishment that benefits the most from Ha Jung-woo’s performance.
13. Children (Lee Kyu-man, 2011)
The film is based on an actual unsolved case that shocked the nation for over a decade, and regarded the disappearance of five kids, from 9 to 13 years old, in the Daegu Mountains in 1991. Their bodies were eventually discovered in 2002.
The script stays very close to the facts, though it adds some elements of fiction. In that aspect, “Children” revolves around Kang Ji-seung, a celebrated documentarian who is ostracized from Seoul to Daegu when a fraud is revealed regarding his works.
The aforementioned incident takes place during his first days in the area, and he decides to shoot a documentary on the subject, despite the objections of the channel’s director.
During his investigation, he stumbles upon Hwang Woo-hyuk, a professor of psychology who teaches at the local university and has a theory regarding the incident that nobody wants to utter. Due to a strange call received by the parents of Jong-ho (one of the kidnapped), he is convinced that they are the perpetrators, a theory Ji-seung also embraces after meeting with them.
Lee Kyu-man directed and co-wrote a film that excels in the depiction of the various characters, particularly Jong-ho’s parents, the whole concept of the grandmother character, and Hwang Woo-hyuk, who at times appears as the most tragic figure of all.
The continuous flashbacks he presents are not tiresome, but helpful in the progression of the plot. At some points, he obviously over-dramatizes the situation, though that is justified, with a case that shocked the whole nation.
The script has some flaws, particularly in the last part where it strays from the actual case, though not to a degree to ruin the rest of the 132-minute film.
The most impressive performances come from Ryu Seung-ryong as Hwang Woo-hyuk, and Sung Ji-ru and Kim Yeo-jin, who play the father and mother of Jong-ho, respectively.
12. Montage (Jeong Keun-seob, 2013)
Ha-kyung’s daughter was kidnapped and killed 15 years ago in a case that never got solved, leaving her and detective Chung-ho, who was in charge of the investigation, devastated.
Now, five days before the statute of limitations applies, Chung-ho discovers a recently-placed white flower at the crime scene, a location that only he, the police, and Ha-kyung knew about. The two of them decide to revisit the case, despite the lack of time, as another girl is snatched under very similar circumstances while she was playing under her grandfather’s watch.
Despite the unoriginal main idea, with the notions of the statute of limitations and children’s kidnapping extensively used in Korean cinema, Jeong Keun-seob managed to create an original film due to its skillfully constructed story and the depth of the three main characters.
The thorough attention to detail and the artful use of the flashbacks are two other points of excellence in the film, which help in building and sustaining the suspense throughout its whole duration, as the story is presented from different perspectives and the secrets are gradually revealed.
Uhm Jung-hwa as Ha-kyung, Kim Sang-kyung as Chung-ho, and Song Young-chang as the grandfather give wonderful performances and manage to emit agony in a highly realistic fashion.
11. No Mercy (Kim Hyeong-joon, 2010)
When the police discover a dismembered body near a river, they call the coroner Kang, one of the leaders in the field. Coincidently, Min, a former student of Kang’s, is also part of the police team investigating the crime.
Every piece of evidence they discover points toward the extremist environmentalist Lee and the case seems to close when he is arrested. However, things become complicated when Kang’s daughter is kidnapped.
Kim Hyeong-joon signs a magnificent debut in both direction and scriptwriting. His style is characterized by directness, without any compromises in depiction, as it becomes evident with the scene of the autopsy and a number of sex scenes, whose purpose is not to shock, but to strengthen the element of agony.
Sol Kyung-gu as Kang and Ryu Seung-beom as Lee are great in their parts, with the film benefitting the most from the scenes where the two of them “duel”. Another point of excellence, which only Korean filmmakers seem to include so frequently in their films, is that the culprit is known from the beginning and the film focuses on the effort for his conviction rather than the search for the guilty one, as is usually the case in Western productions.
10. New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013)
Ja-sung is an undercover police officer, who has ascended the ranks of the crime syndicate to which he was assigned, to the point of becoming the right hand of the number 2 in the hierarchy, named Jung Chung.
However, when the number 1 is killed, the syndicate engulfs in a power struggle for the top position, between Jung Chung and Joong-gu, which eventually escalates into war. Ja-sung, who was to retire soon, must now keep acting in his role, since his operator named Kang Hyung-chul is set on influencing the leader’s selection, putting a puppet of his in the top of the syndicate. The fact brings tension between the two.
Park Hoon-jung directs an agonizing crime thriller, which contains the usual violence, anti-heroes, impressive action sequences, and stylish gangsters in their suits, along with the much-loved plot twists. However, the film’s main point of excellence is its characters, with each of the main protagonists performing their respective roles magnificently.
In that aspect, Lee Jung-jae plays the perpetually anxious Ja-sung, who has to maintain his cool composure when he is in the company of Jung Chung, acted with brio and overall artfulness by Hwang Jung-min, in both his calm moments and his outbursts. Choi Min-sik is great as always in the role of a cop that is not so much different from the people he is after.
9. National Security (Chung Ji-young, 2012)
“National Security” is a unique entry in the field, because apart from the thriller element, it could only be described as sociopolitical exploitation, since for the most part it consists of scenes of a man being tortured.
The script is based on the memoir by Kim Geun-tae, a democracy activist who was kidnapped and tortured by national police for 22 days, and who later on became a minister of the government. It describes the facts before, but mainly during these 22 days when he was tortured in the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, initially by “police officers” and later by a head interrogator nicknamed “The Undertaker”.
Chung Ji-young directs a cruel film, which takes place almost exclusively in a claustrophobic environment that consists of a cell and a torture room. He pulls no punches in the depiction of the various tortures, thus resulting in a truly grotesque spectacle. Furthermore, he focuses on the psychosynthesis of the torturers, in a rare tactic for characters like that.
The film is largely based on the performance by Park Won-sang, who is magnificent in the role of a man who is prosecuted by the whole system, due to his ideology.
Lee Geung-young is also impressive as the cruel and relentless “Undertaker”, with his cold-blooded composure and the joy he seems to derive from the tortures he submits the prisoners.
8. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005)
The third part of “The Revenge Trilogy” revolves around Geum-ja, a woman found guilty for the kidnap and murder of a child, who has waited patiently in prison for 13 years in order to avenge those responsible for her unjust conviction.
Park Chan-wook focused on a female character this time, and created a unique amalgam of black humor, violence, and liberating humanism, chiefly depicted in the final sequence of collective revenge.
His extensive use of flashbacks, which chiefly appear in the first part, is artful once more, as is the way he presents the bloodthirsty demands of Geum-ja in the second part.
Lee Young-ae is great as the protagonist, as is Choi Min-sik, who, this time, portrays the victim.
7. A Dirty Carnival (Yoo Ha, 2006)
Byung-doo is a low-level gangster who tries to take care of his few subordinates and his sick mother and smaller siblings. His financial situation is awful, with his family being on the threshold of eviction and his direct superior, named Sang-cheol, not caring for his problems.
Having no other choice, he bypasses him and goes directly to the boss of the gang named Hwang, an act that leaves him with a mission to get rid of the district attorney Park, who is on the hunt for his boss.
As his fate seems to change for the better, an old friend named Min-ho resurfaces, who has become a director and in his wish to shoot a gangster film, he wants information from actual professionals. This meeting leads to a second one, with an old flirt of Byung-doo named Hyun-ju.
Yoo Ha directs and pens a film seemingly in the usual motif of the rise and fall of a criminal anti-hero inside a gang. However, he enriches it with plenty of drama and he focuses, in essence, on the repercussions of violence and criminal life in the psychosynthesis of the main character, and the way these two aspects keep him from taking care of his family and living a “normal” life.
Additionally, he avoids creating a character who only seeks out revenge and creating chaos in his path, but instead one who simply tries to improve his life, initially for financial reasons rather than for authority, and lastly for survival.
The film takes a realistic approach toward the crime world presenting its members with all of their flaws, and at the same time, it satirizes the largely failed effort of the film industry to portray the essence of life in organized crime.
Jo In-sung is magnificent as Byung-doo, particularly in the scenes where he attacks his opponents, where he appears truly terrifying. In the more sentimental scenes, his appearance helps him the most to portray his character’s vulnerability. However, his best moment comes when he describes to Min-ho the sentiment of stabbing someone, in a cruelly realistic scene.
6. Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (Yoon Jong-bin, 2012)
The film is set in the Korean port city of Busan during the reign of organized crime in the 80s and the subsequent declaration of war toward it in the 90s by President Roh Tae-woo.
Choi Ik-hyun is a corrupted Busan customs officer, who is not averse to taking bribes or pilfering goods. Eventually he discovers a shipment of crystal meth, which leads him to kingpin Choi Hyung-bae, who is also a member of the same Choi family clan. Due to that tie and their common interest, the two of them form a peculiar alliance, since they are radically opposite characters, both in appearance and character.
Yoon Jong-bin presents a highly realistic and entertaining depiction of the crime world of the aforementioned decades, and creates a truly masterful crime thriller with constant plots, intrigues, betrayals, and violence.
He bases much of the film upon the differences of the two main characters, with Choi Ik-hyun being annoying, filled with pettiness and ridiculous looking, and Choi Hyung-bae being the exact opposite, and their complex relationship that becomes even worse during the prosecutions in the 90s. Both of the characters, though, are actually evil and prone to walk over dead bodies in order to accomplish their goals.
Choi Min-sik is magnificent as Choi Hyung-bae, capturing both the comical and the serious side of his character, and Ha Jung-woo as Choi Hyung-bae is quite persuasive, to say the least.
5. Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
The titular character is a widow who leaves with her mentally deficient son, Do-joon. In order to provide a living for both of them, she sells pharmaceutical herbs and performs acupuncture, despite not having a legal license for the latter.
Her son spends most of his time hanging out with Jin-tae, the “delinquent” of the area, who regularly takes advantage of and causes trouble for him, a tendency that creates many problems for both of the family members.
One day, a high school student is found murdered on a roof of an abandoned house, and the largely incompetent police force arrest Do-joon for the crime. “Mother” has now to face a plethora of financial and social obstacles in order to save her son, as she searches for the true murderer.
Bong Joon-ho did a wonderful job on both the script and the direction. His primary virtues lie with the use of humor that at times, makes the film seem like a black comedy. The analysis of the characters and the development of the plot are also utterly impressive.
Kim Hye-ja is spectacular in a very demanding role as “Mother”, proving in her 70s that talent and competence know no age.
4. The Chaser (Na Hong-jin, 2008)
Eom Joong-ho is an ex-cop who currently operates a prostitution ring. Recently, some of his “girls” have mysteriously disappeared, while they still owe him money, putting him in a difficult financial position. Due to the lack of girls, he is forced to send the sick Mi-jin to a customer, despite her strong objections.
However, a little later, he realizes the other two girls that disappeared had a “date” with the same customer, named Je Yeong-min. Assuming the particular individual resells the girls, she orders Mi-jin to inform him of the place they will meet. However, the things she discovers when she arrives there is much more dangerous than what Joong-ho could ever conceive.
Na Hong-jin gave a clear sample of his quality as a filmmaker with his debut film, artfully directing this utterly agonizing thriller. He directs in a way, presenting just as many indications of what is about to come as is needed to keep the spectator tense in all of the title’s duration. He accomplishes that by making clear from the beginning what the protagonists should do in order to solve the case, though presenting very convincing reasons why they do not.
Na Hong-jin has also done a wonderful job in the character’s outline, whose antithesis is depicted on the axis of conscience. There is a total lack of it from the murderer’s part and a gradual disclosure of it on the hunter’s side.
The South Korean did a great in both the direction and the script, which is based on an actual case of a serial killer. Kim Yoon-seok is magnificent as the anti-hero Eom Joong-ho, with his biggest achievement being that he succeeds in emitting true humanity from a character who initially seems utterly despicable.
The performance by Ha Jung-woo as Je Yeong-min is at least equal, as he portrays a bloodthirsty, impenitent psychopath in one of the best and most chilling renditions by an evil character.
3. Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
Based on the true incident of the first serial killer ever to appear in South Korea, the film begins in October 1986, when the deceased body of a raped woman is discovered in a ditch next to a field. A little later, another similar body is discovered. Two local detectives, Park Doo-man and Cho Yong-koo, are responsible for the investigation, but are obviously out of their depth, as is the whole police department since the events are unprecedented in the area.
Detective Seo Tae-yoon arrives from Seoul to assist in the case, who proceeds on vitiating the claims of the aforementioned detectives for the perpetrator, thus changing the whole course of the investigation.
Bong Joon-ho, who directs and writes, studied the facts thoroughly and presented a film that stays very close to the actual case and the turbulent times South Korea was experiencing at the time. This is largely benefited by the gorgeous cinematography, which presents realistic images of rare beauty from the life in South Korea in the 80s.
Furthermore, he focuses on the antithesis between the simpletons of the local department and the “intellectual” from the city, which is depicted with humor, without depriving the subject from its seriousness.
Song Kang-ho as Park Doo-man proves once more why he is considered one of the top actors in the country, with his talent of being entertaining while cursing or hitting people becoming largely evident here.
Kim Sang-kyung is also great as Seo Tae-yoon, with his biggest achievement being the metamorphosis from an individual who is “smooth” and detached from the tactics of his colleagues, to a thing much worse, due to his growing despair for his continuous failure.
2. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
This second installment of Park Chan-wook’s trilogy regarding revenge is undoubtedly the film that turned global interest toward Korean cinema.
Based on the homonymous Japanese manga, the film focuses on Dae-su, a family man, who, for no apparent reason, is abducted and forced to live in the same room for 15 years. When he is unexpectedly released, he is set on extracting revenge, although the sole evidence in his possession is the fact that he must accomplish this in five days.
Park Chan-wook directs an elegy of revenge that touches on the depth of an ancient tragedy through the humiliation and ensuing catharsis that eventually lead to repentance.
Choi Min-sik as Dae-su gives one of the greatest performances of his career and the overall acting is sublime, as is the direction, scriptwriting, and cinematography, in one of the most thrilling films of international cinema.
1. I Saw the Devil (2010, Kim Jee-woon)
Kyung-chu, a sadistic murderer, assassinates special agent Soo-hyun’s fiance, Joo-yun. A few days later, the police discover parts of her dismembered body in a river. Jang, the police chief and father of the girl, gives Soo-hyun a list with suspects, and he proceeds in investigating the crime in order to exact revenge.
Kim Jee-woon presents another grotesque masterpiece, where revenge is the driving force for almost everything occurring on screen. Initially the film looks like a battle between good and evil, but as the revenge procedure extends, the borders between the two stop being visible, thus resulting in the spectator doubting who the evil one actually is.
Furthermore, as Soo-hyun initially seems justified in his actions, he manages to make acceptable a number of acts that would regularly be considered as utterly appalling.
He reproaches violence and sadism by presenting them in utterly graphic fashion, thus transforming the film in exactly what he reproaches. This technique is not original, though it is the first time that it is stretched to such extremes.
Lee Byung-hun as Soo-hyun and Choi Min-sik as Kyung-chu give a true acting recital in one of the most impressive one-on-one duels ever to appear in cinema.
“I Saw the Devil” includes sublime direction and scriptwriting, artful cinematography and editing, and one of the most shocking endings ever to appear on film.
Author Bio: Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic who focuses on the cinema of East Asia. He enjoys films from all genres, although he is a big fan of exploitation.