Aside from the excellent directors out of Mexico – Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Inarritu, and Gullermo del Toro, etc. – the filmmakers of South Korea are among the best in the world. We saw the great Bong Joon-ho make history by not only winning Best International Film for Parasite but Best Picture as well, something that has never happened before.
But Bong is not alone. His Korean contemporaries like Kim-jee Woon, Chan-wook Park, and others have been turning in great work for years and may follow Bong’s footsteps at the Oscars one day. To give you an idea of the high caliber of their work, check out the 10 best South Korean thrillers from the past decade!
10 The Yellow Sea
In the gory and hyper-violent Yellow Sea, a simple taxi driver is hired to travel from China to South Korea to assassinate a professor. Yet through an unforeseen circumstance, the target is turned and the taxi driver must run for his life!
Directed by Hong-jin Na, The Yellow Sea blends big, broad action with personal drama in ways rarely seen. As the taxi driver evades a series of violent attacks, he tries to mend the strained relationship with his estranged wife. With a hair-raising finale, few Korean thrillers of the past decade have been this effective!
9 The Housemaid
For a torrid and thrilling romantic melodrama, look no further than Sang-soo Im’s lusty Housemaid!
Aside from the slick direction and convincing performances, what makes the movie so great is the twisty premise. When a young housemaid named Eun-yi is hired by a wealthy couple, things look bright. But when the father of the family seduces Eun-yi, the matriarch of the family finds out. Tables turn and allegiances shift as the women in the family plot to ruin Eun-yi’s life.
8 The Age Of Shadows
Jee-woon Kim is among the top three Korean moviemakers working today, joined only by Chan-wook Park and Bong Joon Ho. As such, his period-thriller The Age of Shadows demonstrates why!
Starring Parasite‘s Kang-ho Song, the film centers on a group of Korean resistors who, in retaliation of the Japanese government’s severe oppression, conducts a bombing campaign with stolen explosives. The resistors seek to raze the Japanese properties that threaten to squeeze local Koreans out of business.
7 The Man From Nowhere
Not to be confused with the 1966 spaghetti-western of the same name, Jeong-beom Lee’s The Man From Nowhere is one of the most thrilling action flicks to come out in the last ten years, regardless of the country!
The premise finds a Korean mother involved in a drug-smuggling operation. When she is caught stealing from her bosses, the woman’s young daughter, So-mi, is kidnapped. So-mi happens to be the only human connection to Cha Tae-sik, a gruff special agent who takes it upon himself to find the girl and deliver her home safely.
6 The Handmaiden
While most famous for shaking up the world with his 2003 revenge tale Oldboy, in 2016, Chan-wook Park turned in a sultry and deeply duplicitous romantic thriller in The Handmaiden!
Set in 1930s Korea, the film tracks Soo-kee, a hired handmaiden, to look after a rich Japanese heiress named Hideko. However, Soo-kee is really a cunning thief who has been hired by a man to help seduce Hideko and bilk her fortune. Soo-kee enlists her boss, posing as a Japanese Count, to do the seducing. Of course, nothing goes as planned!
5 Train To Busan
Even among the tiresome trend of trampled zombie movies and shows of the past decade, Train to Busan soars as a refreshing genre exemplar. It’s simply one of the best movies to come out of South Korea in the last few years!
The reason why the movie works so well, aside from the awesome FX and gruesome zombie action, is the strong relationship between the two leads and the performances by the actors cast. When a somewhat neglectful father (Yoo Gong) allows his young daughter to travel via Seoul to Busan on the KTX train, he has no idea a zombie apocalypse is about to break out. He must not only defeat scores of undead ghouls but save his daughter as well.
From one train to another! Bong Joon Ho is such a talented filmmaker that you can make a case for all three of the thrillers he made between 2009-2019. While Mother just misses the cut, Snowpiercer cracks the top five!
Set in a dystopian future following an environmental catastrophe, Earth’s population has been quarantined in a giant train called Snowpiercer that circles the globe. Classes are divided between the various compartments of the train, with the rich and powerful upfront and the disenfranchised in the back. The movie is so good TNT turned it into a TV show!
3 The Wailing
One of the lower-profile Korean thrillers happens to be one of the absolute best. Indeed, The Wailing almost plays like the South Korean cousin of Se7en!
Written and directed by the super talented Hong-jin Na, the film follows a police detective who investigates a spreading sickness in a small fishing village that has something to do with a mysterious stranger that’s new to town. With great performances, splendid photography and a spine-chilling revelation by the end, see this movie ASAP!
2 I Saw The Devil
In terms of brutal revenge films, nothing can outdo Jee-woon Kim’s unflinchingly violent and hugely satisfying I Saw the Devil. Not in South Korea or anywhere else!
The film tracks a sadistic psycho-killer who slaughters several women and children in Korea. One of the killer’s latest victims, Joo-yeon, was married to a skilled secret agent named Soo-hyun. Vowing revenge, Soo-hyun tracks down the killer, pulverizes him too a bloody pulp, allows him to escape, only to chase him all over again and repeat the process.
To simply label Parasite a thriller is not only lazy, it’s a reductive insult. Bong’s masterpiece transcends genre and defies category in ways we’ve not seen before. It’s funny one moment, thrilling the next, dramatic one moment, horrific the next, all of which build up to a gut-punching finale.
But the real strength of the film is the socioeconomic commentary it sharply observes, highlighting the class divisions and financial inequality that plagues our time.
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