By now you probably already know that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite made history as the first non-English language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. If you haven’t seen Parasite yet, not to worry—we won’t be giving away any spoilers, except to say that you should definitely check it out. It lives up to the hype!
Parasite defies easy classification, but it certainly contains thrilling and perhaps even horrific moments. Here at The Lineup, we’re particularly fond of thrilling horror films, and Korea has been serving up some of the best and most intense installments in the genre for years now.
If you’ve already seen Parasite and have found your appetite for Korean cinema merely whetted, or if you’re looking for an aperitif before the main course, we’ve gathered some of the best Korean horror movies for you to feast upon.
The Host (2006)
Well before he got the Academy’s attention, Bong Joon-ho exploded onto the international film scene with this 2006 flick about a rampaging monster and the family that has to stand up to it. That may be a little ironic, since The Host is also pointedly critical of the U.S. presence in South Korea (not to mention the Korean government), taking as its jumping-off point a real-life incident in which the U.S. military ordered a Korean mortician to dump formaldehyde down the drain.
Memories of Murder (2003)
While The Host was the film that brought Bong Joon-ho to the attention of many genre film fans in America, it was the success of his previous feature, Memories of Murder, that made Bong Joon-ho a major name in his native country and helped solidify the clout necessary to make his subsequent films. Based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, Memories of Murder is considered one of the best South Korean films of all time and has been compared to David Fincher’s Zodiac. Along with Parasite, Memories of Murder is slated for a Criterion release here in the United States.
Before Parasite or even The Host, the form of Korean cinema that most English-speaking genre fans were familiar with was the so-called “Korean revenge film.” And probably the most famous iteration of that unique subgenre, even today, is director Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. The middle installment in Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” Oldboy garnered international attention thanks to its intense, twisted plot and unique set pieces, including a hallway fight which has influenced countless films since. An American remake directed by Spike Lee was released in 2013, starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olson.
Park Chan-wook followed up his “Vengeance Trilogy” with a handful of very different films, including 2006’s I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK and the unusual vampire film Thirst, which won the 2009 Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s about a Catholic priest who turns into a vampire after a medical experiment—and who also falls in love with his friend’s wife. As is typical for Korean cinema, Thirst has a lot of sharp tonal shifts, not to mention some jaw-dropping displays of vampiric strength.
The Handmaiden (2016)
For his eleventh film, Park Chan-wook returned to Korea—and to the revenge subgenre—with 2016’s The Handmaiden, an erotically-charged film of double- and triple-crosses loosely adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters. While Fingersmith was set in Victorian Britain, however, The Handmaiden moves the action to Korea at the turn of the 20th century, when the nation was still under Japanese rule.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
The first Korean horror film to ever be screened in American theaters, 2003’s A Tale of Two Sisters sits on many lists of the most frightening movies ever made, even today. Directed by Kim Jee-woon, this haunting, startling ghost story is adapted from a Korean folktale and was remade in the United States as The Uninvited (not to be confused with the many other movies that share the same name) in 2009. However, if you want visceral scares, intense family drama, and real emotion, skip The Uninvited and go straight for the Korean original.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
I Saw the Devil is one of the most intense Korean revenge films of all time. Director Kim Jee-woon teamed up once again with actors Lee Byung-hun (American audiences know him as Storm Shadow in the G.I. Joe movies and T-1000 in Terminator: Genisys) and Choi Min-sik, who played the lead in Oldboy. I Saw the Devil follows an NIS agent (Lee) whose wife is murdered by a serial killer (Choi). Driven first by grief and then by obsession, the agent sets out to get revenge on the killer in this grim, unrelenting film that was chosen by Rolling Stone as one of the 20 “scariest movies you’ve never seen.”
Confession of Murder (2012)
The premise of Confession of Murder is a bold one: Years after a series of serial murders, the statute of limitations expires, making it impossible for the killer, who was never caught, to be prosecuted for the crimes. An individual claiming to be the killer then comes forth, having written a confessional book with detailed knowledge of the crimes. When a televised debate between the confessed killer and one of the cops who worked on the case draws the attention of protestors, vengeful family members, and a mysterious individual who may be the actual killer, things get very tense very quickly. It helps that the action set pieces in Confession of Murder—which was directed by Jung Byung-gil, who had previously helmed a documentary about stunt men called Action Boys—are absolutely bonkers.
The Wailing (2016)
Mysterious murders. An unknown illness. Ghosts. Demons. These are the elements that director Na Hong-jin melds together in his horror epic The Wailing. At nearly three hours, it’s one of the longest movies on this list, but for those who have the patience for it, this heady cocktail of possession and serial killer tropes is a horror film like no other. You don’t have to take our word for it, either. The Wailing premiered to almost universal acclaim, enjoying a whopping 99% on Rotten Tomatoes!
Train to Busan (2016)
A blockbuster in its home country, Train to Busan set records for audience attendance during its theatrical release. It’s not hard to see why. This bold reinvention of the zombie genre not only manages to make zombies visceral and scary again, but its messages about who we are and how we react to refugees feels as topical and timely today as any of the greatest zombie films out there.
Of course, this list is just scratching the surface when it comes to Korean horror and crime flicks, let alone Korean cinema in general. If you get through all these and still aren’t sated, we have even more recommendations that couldn’t fit on this list. Some other notable Korean horror and thriller movies that are available in the U.S. include The Doll Master, Chawz, R-Point, The Quiet Family, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, Mother, and many more.
Featured still from "The Wailing" via 20th Century Fox