There’s something so special about the darkest films produced in South Korea. Mainstays like Oldboy and I Saw the Devil descend into transgression while exploring themes like loss, vengeance, and redemption. When Parasite won best film at the Oscars, it demonstrated just how complex and subtle their brand of blurred crime, thriller, and horror can unabashedly go where many films simply wouldn’t risk it. And these films aren’t afraid of those risks.
One thing I love so much about South Korean film is how they defy easy categorization. A mystery film borders on thriller; a thriller contains horror undertones. It’s refreshing to dive into a film that feels like its own thing.
We delved into some of the best South Korean films of the last couple of years.
Decision to Leave
Among the best is Decision to Leave, the latest from Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden). Here we see Chan-wook return to crime with dark, moody undertones reminiscent of his work on the Vengeance trilogy, particularly Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In Decision to Leave, viewers meet a sleepless, strung-out detective named Hae-Jun who lives a very workaholic and joyless existence. After someone is found dead near a mountain, Hae-Jun is tasked with making sense of the mysterious death and after meeting with the deceased’s wife, now widow, Seo-Rae, he begins to suspect some malicious intent. As with any film by Chan-wook, Decision to Leave dives deep and manages to leave viewers with a strong, lasting impression. It was one of my most anticipated of 2022 and it did not disappoint!
You may recognize the actor playing the antagonistic role in Midnight. The scout of sorts responsible for enlisting contestants in Squid Game, Wi Ha-joon pulls off the serial killer performance with deftness and ease. Midnight is a nod to 2016’s Hush, wherein the protagonist, Kyeong-mi is a sign language counselor placed in a compromising situation. Ha-joon plays the serial killer, modeled after Jekyll and Hyde, and targets Kyeong-mi after she witnesses one of his kills. The film spirals into a dizzying chase between killer and would-be victim through desolate, late night empty streets. The comparisons to cult classic thriller The Chaser are apt, yet Midnight manages to be an equally original claustrophobic tale of deceit and urban terror.
The international success of Squid Game has caused quite a ripple throughout the industry, and here we see it give rise to Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae’s directorial debut, Hunt. Though many of the films on this list contain elements of horror, Hunt acts as yet another example of how South Korean film blurs the boundaries between nearby and tangential genres. Dense, dripping with espionage, and tension, Hunt is a bonafide spy thriller on steroids. Laden with the paranoia of the 1980s cold war, Jung-jae stars as Park Pyong-ho who along with his partner Kim Jung-ho work as KCIA agents tasked with protecting the president. After a sniper incident and series of leads, Pyong-ho and his partner learn that an assassination attempt on the president is in the works, there may be a mole among then, and true to a thriller aiming for peak paranoia, Hunt continues to add layers until the real fear is not knowing what to believe.
Project Wolf Hunting
From paranoid political espionage to a sci-fi action thriller, it’s pretty clear that almost anything goes in South Korean film when things get speculative. Project Wolf Hunting is about a convict transport gone awry. Many reviews have called it “Con Air on acid” and they aren’t wrong: The film does what it wants, exploring well-trodden thriller tropes yet managing to still make it absolutely insane. The convicts are being transported from the Philippines to South Korea and true to fashion they break out of their restraints, causing an insane and out of control riot on the ship. And then the horror kicks in, and tons of gore. Project Wolf Hunting seemingly came out of nowhere and ended up a nice action-fueled surprise.
The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil
A mashup of familiar vengeance tropes transformed to be a sort of homage while also going a step further into the kill, The Gangster, the Cop, and the Devil is a film involving the three characters hinted at in the title. The gangster narrowly escapes the serial killer, aka the devil, whose MO involves car accidents and subsequent homicide, and the cop is out to catch the serial killer. Both gangster and cop drop their allegiances and work together to take out the serial killer. The end result is a film whose tense and gritty atmosphere hearkens to what we’ve loved so much about South Korean horror and thrillers of the last decade or two: it’s transgressive and, though weird perhaps to say, it’s a lot of fun!
This one’s dripping with grief and the supernatural; Seire tells the melancholy tale of Woo-jin as he discovers his ex-girlfriend has passed away. When he plans on going to the wake, his wife pleads for him to avoid it, fearing that he might bring back a malicious spirit. The title of the film, “seire,” comes from the belief that the first couple weeks after childbirth, the newborn is vulnerable to spirits, particularly curses; naturally, Woo-jin goes to the wake, and soon after, things start to go… awry. Seire might seem like a film that you can see every narrative turn from a mile away but many will be pleasantly surprised that there’s more going on here, so much more, as is often the case with grief.