When it comes to bleak stylish thrillers and crime films, it’s hard to beat the South Koreans nowadays and all the movies listed below are fine examples of that statement. Whereas the South Korean film industry had been heavily state-regulated until the late eighties, the first fully non-government funded film, Marriage Story, appeared in 1992.
Although films started to suffer less from censorship, the state still placed strict limits on the number of foreign films which were allowed to be shown in the country which made the local film industry thrive.
In 1999 Shiri was released, a spy thriller which did so well that it sold more tickets than Titanic in South Korea that year. Due to this movie’s success, larger budget films started being produced and crime thrillers gained enormously in popularity. Two years later, the gangster coming-of-age drama Friend eclipsed Shiri’s earlier sales records but it wasn’t until Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy in 2003 that the stylish South Korean crime thriller really came of age and that critics in the West started paying attention.
Ever since, South Korea has been the undisputed champion of the genre as a plethora of films with intricate twist-filled screenplays, stunning production design and cinematography, dark themes, powerhouse performances and edge-of-your-seat storylines have found their way to the screen.
Whilst it should be noted that South Korea cinema produces far more than just crime films and thrillers, there’s no denying that the nation has a real knack for the genre and that it’s these movies which have gathered most attention abroad. If there have been two defining features of these films, they would have to be their über-stylish visuals and downbeat bleak themes.
All the movies listed below are prime examples of at least one, if not both, of these qualities and are essential viewing for those with a serious interest in thrillers or crime dramas.
15. The Berlin File (Seung-Wan Ryoo, 2013)
With its non-Korean setting (Berlin as you might have guessed from the title of the movie) and sweeping action set pieces, The Berlin File revolves around Jong-Seong, a North Korean agent who becomes exposed when an illegal arms deal goes wrong.
In the aftermath no one is sure whose side Jong-Seong and his wife, who is a translator at the North Korean embassy, belong to and soon the CIA as well as the North and South Korean intelligence agencies are all after them. Forced into a corner, Jong-Seong will need to make a decision as to where his royalties lie: his wife or his country.
Probably the most straight-forward action movie on this list, The Berlin File is maybe easiest described as a South Korean Jason Bourne film. A spy thriller with a clear emphasis on action setpieces and not so much the bleak thematic undercurrent of virtually all other films on this list,
The Berlin File is a great and easy introduction to Korean crime thrillers for Western audiences who might not be familiar with any of the films in this article yet. A clear commercial genre film, The Berlin File looks, feels and sounds great. The only thing letting this one down a bit is the convoluted plot and the sense that you have seen most of this before. Still, it’s well done and if you like spy thrillers, chances are you will not be disappointed by this action-packed spy flick.
14. Montage (Jeong Geun-Seop, 2013)
15 years ago a girl was kidnapped and never found. Just days before the case’s statute of limitations expires, someone places a flower at the scene of the crime, a location which was only known to the girl’s mother, the detective that took on the case and the kidnapper himself. Then, a few days later, another kidnapping occurs which bears striking resemblances to the 15 year old unsolved case.
Three people now all get involved in this new kidnapping, desperately trying to solve it: the grandfather whose grandchild was taken right from under his nose, the mother of the girl who was kidnapped 15 years ago and has never stopped looking for her and the detective who has been haunted by the 15 year old case which he has never been able to solve.
Montage starts out as your average suspense thriller and takes its time getting to the second part of the movie, tricking the audience into thinking that this is just your standard pot-boiler. But once the screenplay starts revealing more and some of the character’s motivations are brought to light, the film becomes a whole different beast and some of the events in the first half take on a totally different meaning.
A more quiet and pondering mystery than most of the other entries on this list, Montage is a well directed tense thriller with a lot more to say than one might initially expect.
13. I Saw The Devil (Kim Jee-Woon, 2010)
When Kyung-Chul, a serial killer, murders Joo-Yun on a snowy night and scatters her body parts, he doesn’t realise he couldn’t have selected a worse victim. Not only is her father a police squad leader, her boyfriend, Soo-Hyun, is a secret service agent of the National Intelligence Service, who becomes determined to track down the killer and make him pay.
Given leads on some suspects by his father-in-law, Soo-Hyun soon manages to locate the killer. But instead of bringing him to justice, he places a tracking device on him and keeps tormenting the killer, in the process even capturing a vicious cannibal and his girlfriend who Kyung-Chul has been supplying with victimes. But once the killer finds out how Soo-Hyun is tracing him and why, he decides to go after Joo-Yun’s family to exact revenge.
You know that things are going to get nasty when South Korea decided to censor I Saw The Devil for its extreme graphic violence. Kim Jee-Woon’s answer to Chan-Wook Park Vengeance Trilogy, the film suffers in comparison and never manages to reach the same heights. But if stylish brutal films are your cup of tea than there’s plenty to like here.
Violent, disturbing and with two of Korea’s greatest stars doing what they do best, I Saw The Devil is another noteworthy South Korean entry in the revenge movie genre and well worth seeing for lovers of these types of film, even though at times the story really doesn’t make all that much sense.
12. Mother (Joon-Ho Bong, 2009)
Do-Joon is a shy and mentally slow young man in his twenties who is looked after by his over-protective mother. Do-Joon hangs out with Jin-Tae a lot, who the mother sees as a potential bad influence on this easily swayed Do-Joon. One day a girl is found murdered and circumstantial evidence leads the police to Do-Joon.
The boy is arrested and easily convinced into signing a confession even though he doesn’t seem to recall having anything to do with the crime. His mother, convinced that her son could never have committed such a terrible act and that he might in fact be covering for Jin-Tae, starts trying to prove her son’s innocence but the deeper she digs, the more complicated the truth seems to become.
Jooh-Ho Bong’s follow-up to his international breakthrough hit, The Host, is a mystery crime drama in which the director once again manages to give his own personal twist to genre he’s working in. Featuring great performances from all involved and controlled direction by Bong, the film is filled with ambiguity and at times genuinely heartfelt. The movie was nominated for and went on to win a whole slate of awards at various international film festivals.
11. Breathless (Ik-Joon Yang, 2008)
Song-Hoon is an enforcer for a local loan shark. And as the man is basically rage personified, he’s damn good at his job. Violent, brutal, obnoxious, swearing incessantly and intimidating as hell, Song-Hoon is not to be messed with and will take down anyone for very little reason. One day he accidentally spits on a schoolgirl, who tells him to get lost, and true to his nature he proceeds to knock her out.
Sensing that he might have overreacted, he stays around till she wakes up and then offers to buy the still deviant girl a beer. From here on in the two develop a cautionary friendship and slowly but surely the girl manages to awake a gentler side in Sang-Hoon, which leads him to reconsider his life choices.
Breathless is without a doubt the most low-key and low-budget entry on this list. Directed, produced, written and edited by Jang Ik-June, who on top of all those duties also manages to star in the movie, Breathless is a triumph of independent and low-budget filmmaking.
Grim as hell and just as bleak as the larger productions found in this article, the movie refuses to give easy or crowd pleasing answers. Another festival favourite, the film managed to take home more than twenty awards at various international festivals.
10. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2005)
Lee Geum-Ja was in her early twenties when she was convicted for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy. Because of her age and innocent looks the case became a media circus and her story has been followed by many, even during her reduced 13 year prison sentence in which she became a model prisoner and made many friends on the inside.
As she leaves jail, a fan procession is awaiting her outside but Lee Geum-Ja pays them no mind and immediately starts working on a plan she has been preparing for the last 13 years: revenge.
The closing chapter of Chan-Wook Park’s critically acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is possibly the lightest entry in the series, which doesn’t mean we are not dealing with some serious sick subject matter here.
The film has a much brighter colour palette then the previous two entries in the trilogy and tones down the visceral and brutal violence but also feels like the most personal entry in the series. If Lady Vengeance seems to fall slightly short, it’s only because it lacks the intensity of the first two films. Taken on its own merits, this is a stunning and unique vision from a director at the top of his game.
9. The Chaser (Hong-Jin Na, 2008)
Jung-ho is a ex-policeman who has turned to pimping. Lately two of his girls have disappeared without clearing their debts and he is starting to suspect foul play. When he gets a call for another girl, he sends off Mi-jin but realises too late that the number belongs to the same man who hired the last girl who disappeared. His old detective skills kick in and he goes to investigate and actually manages to catch the suspect after a lengthy chase but both men are arrested and taken to the police station.
There the killer admits to murdering the women but police can’t hold him due to lack of any physical evidence. Now Jung-ho only has twelve hours to find Mi-jin, who might still be alive somewhere.
The Chaser was the debut for director Hong-jin Na, who delivered a very tense and elaborately plotted thrill-ride with his very first movie. The film took home a whole bunch of various Korean film awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Editing. Although it’s not as well known as Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, this movie comes just as highly recommended.
8. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2002)
Ryu is a deaf-mute who is working in a factory to support his ill sister who is in dire need of a kidney transplant. Unfortunately Ryu is not a match so he can’t donate one of his kidneys to her and on top of that he also loses his job. He decides to get a kidney of the black organ-trading market with his pay-out but the gangsters he deals with end up screwing him over and steal his money and kidney without giving him another kidney in return.
Only then is he contacted by the hospital as a suitable transplant has been found but now he lacks the money to pay for the operation. Ryu’s radical terrorist girlfriend than convinces him to kidnap a girl from a rich industrialist to pay for the operation. But things do not go according to plan and soon every single character in the movie is out for revenge on one another.
The first film in Chan-Wook Park’s acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the perfect date film if you want to ensure that you never go on a second one. Taking depressing and bleakness to whole new heights, the movie can be hard to sit through, especially for those who go to the movies to forget about their daily worries with some escapist entertainment.
This is also not an action film so if that’s what you like about Korean thrillers, this might not be the best selection on this list. But after all those warnings, let it be known that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a masterpiece in stylish pessimism and disturbing darkness. A nihilistic masterpiece.
7. The Yellow Sea (Hong-Jin Na, 2010)
Gu-Nam is a cab driver in Yanji city, located near the borders of China, Russia and North Korea and home to a great number of Chinese-Koreans known as Joseonjok. His wife left for Korea over six months ago to make some extra money but he hasn’t heard from her since and on top of this he also has some serious gambling debts.
So when the opportunity arises to go to Korea to carry out a well-paid hit for a local gangster, Gu-Nam grabs the opportunity, figuring he will also be able to look for his wife whilst he’s there. Upon arrival however it turns out that it’s all an elaborate set-up and soon the lonely Korean finds himself chased by the police, the South Korean mob, Chinese triads and a cold-blooded assassin.
After The Chaser (which we’ll find further down this list), director Hong-Jin Na delivered another action-packed thriller with The Yellow Sea. Whilst not as intricately plotted and tight as his previous effort, The Yellow Sea is a two-hour-plus gritty drama with some incredible suspense and action sequences.
Well choreographed and with stunning and moody cinematography, the movie captures the viewer in the first half as it sets up the plot and characters, only to go completely overboard during the second half, which seems to be one long violent outburst of endless fights and mayhem with handheld weapons due to South Korea’s extremely tough gun laws. Bleak, gritty, kinetic and intense, The Yellow Sea is an action thriller of the highest order.
6. New World (Hoon-Jung Park, 2013)
After having been undercover in South Korea’s largest crime syndicate, Ja-Sung has found himself in the position of being the right-hand man of the organisation’s second in charge, Jung Chung. But when the big boss is suddenly killed in a car accident, a power struggle develops between the second and third in charge and Ja-Sung, who has been desperate to leave his undercover life behind and start afresh with his pregnant wife, finds himself forced to stay as his commanding chief sees this as a prime opportunity for the police to gain full control of the organisation. And to make matters worse it’s abundantly clear that Jung Chung sees him as a genuine friend whereas his commanding officer is treating him like mere bait.
Basically the South Korean version of Infernal Affairs/The Departed, New World manages to present its often seen story of the deep-undercover cop in a criminal organisation, torn between loyalties between his gangster friends and police buddies, in such a confident and inspired manner that it still feels fresh.
If you liked Infernal Affairs or it’s American remake The Departed, New World is an absolute must-see movie. Director Hoon-Jung Park keeps building the tension masterfully as the film progresses but also manges to inject the proceedings with genuine emotional depth, even going for straight-up melodrama at times, without ever feeling forced. Whilst not the most original storyline, New World manages to be one of the best films in its genre and should not be missed.
5. The Man from Nowhere (Jeong-beom Lee, 2010)
Cha Tae-Sik used to be a special forces agent until his wife and child were violently taken from him. Nowadays he lives a solitary life as a pawnshop owner, shut off from the world and seemingly not very interested in ever rejoining society. That’s until he meets the young girl who lives next door.
Clearly neglected by her drug addicted mother, the two strike up an unlikely friendship. But when the mother makes the vital mistake of stealing drugs from a powerful crime lord, she and her daughter are taken by gangsters and it’s up to Cha Tae-Sik to set things straight. Initially striking a deal with the mob, Cha Tae-Sik soon finds himself besieged from all sides as both the police and various underworld figures are on his trail.
Bleak as hell and dealing with horrific themes like child abuse, organ trafficking, drug addiction, kidnapping and murder, The Man from Nowhere still manages to find a lot of heart and package the whole as a kinetic action thriller. If you like your action dark and violent and you haven’t seen this The Man from Nowhere, this movie should be on the top of your list.
4. A Dirty Carnival (Ha Yoo, 2006)
A Dirty Carnival tells the story of Byeong-Du, a small-time enforcer in a local triad, who seems to solely be in the business out of necessity to support his family. With no father around, a bunch of younger siblings and a mother who is terminally ill, all of them are on the brink of being evicted and it’s up to Byeong-Du to make sure this doesn’t happen.
When he sees a chance of climbing the ranks in his organisation by killing a corrupt prosecutor for his big boss, Byeong-Du grabs the opportunity but by doing so he also invokes the ire of his direct superior, who he bypassed by working directly for their organisation’s president.
Additionally he runs into an old friend from his high school days who is now a film director and who would love to get inside information on the triads in order to invigorate his film career. When Byeong-Du does so he further complicates matters for himself and his family.
A slick neo-noir and poignant melodrama, A Dirty Carnival does not glamorise the gangster lifestyle and clearly shows how for many it’s simply a dead-end career path. Just like in the previously mentioned The Yellow Sea, the action scenes are sudden and brutal as strict South Korean gun laws have made baseball bats, knives and axes the weapons of choice for small-time gangsters. A dark and sparse gangster film, A Dirty Carnival is a superior example of South Korean genre dominance.
3. A Bittersweet Life (Kim Jee-Woon, 2005)
A Bittersweet Life is basically the embodiment of a super stylish gangster flick. This fantastic film manages to go effortlessly from dramatic to violent to contemplative without ever skipping a beat.
The story involves a gangster’s right-hand man, who is given the seemingly simple task to look after the gangster’s younger lover in his absence, who he suspects is having an affair with a younger man. The normally cold and collected enforcer however starts to develop feelings for the young lady whilst at the same time getting in trouble with a rival gang.
Wonderfully shot and edited and featuring a great performance from the lead, Lee Byeong-Heon, whom western audiences might know from those awful GI Joe movies, A Bittersweet Life is yet another prime example of how Korea is completely on top of the crime film genre. The film also has a fantastic score which often offsets the brutality on screen. If you like gangster films, this is simply compulsory viewing.
2. Memories of Murder (Joon-Ho Bong, 2003)
A series of rapes and murders are occurring in a rural area in South Korea in 1986. The local small town cop assigned to the case, Park Doo-Man, has no idea how to handle the situation. After he arrests the wrong person an expert from Seoul , Seo Tae-Yoon, is sent over to help with the investigation.
Both men’s styles couldn’t be more different as the local cop is used to beating confessions out of his suspects whilst Seo takes a more pragmatic investigative approach. Initially Park isn’t even convinced he is dealing with a serial killer until Seo’s predictions come true and another woman is found raped and murdered. But as the investigation is not providing any results, both men seem to slowly be reaching the end of their tether.
Based on a real case which took place between 1986 and 1991 and which constituted the country’s first recorded serial killings, Memories of Murder was a huge critical as well as commercial success upon its release. It was also one of the films that really upped the ante for South Korean filmmaking at the time.
The film clearly deals with the rapidly changing political situation in South Korea in the late eighties as the country was emerging from a dictatorship as exemplified by the local police force’s brutal tactics. But despite the dark subject matter, the film also manages to be darkly humorous and it put its director, Jooh-Ho Bong, clearly on the map.
1. Oldboy (Chan-Wook Park, 2003)
The film deals with Oh Dae-su, a husband and father, who on the day of his daughter’s birthday is kidnapped and placed in solitary confinement in a hotel-like prison for reasons which remain unknown to him nor is he told how long he will be imprisoned. During his stay in the cell, he learns through the television in his cell that his wife has been murdered and that he is the prime suspect although his whereabouts are unknown to the police.
Then suddenly, after 15 years, he is released. He receives a cellphone from a stranger and then a call from his captor. When Oh Dae-su asks who he is talking to, the captor answers that the who is not important but that he should be thinking about the why instead. From there on in, it becomes a race against the clock to find his tormentor and exact revenge as he is only given a day to solve the mystery.
Oldboy is the middle film in Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, preceded by Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The films are thematically linked but not narratively, so there is no need to see the other movies to be able to enjoy Oldboy (although I still highly recommend to see all three of them, otherwise they wouldn’t all be on this list).
If there is one thing the Korean are good at, it’s making dark depressing and tense thrillers and amongst those Oldboy is probably the very best. It certainly is the film that got the West’s attention focused on the booming Korean film industry as Oldboy won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and a whole other string of nominations and awards worldwide. An obvious but deserving choice for the number one spot on this list, Oldboy is a modern classic.
Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.