Korean Films You Must See: A Guide to South Korea's Best Movies

Korean films have made their mark on the global cinema landscape with several historic award wins and nominations across the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs.

Here, we look at some of the most captivating and compelling Korean films to explore on your journey through more than 100 years of Korean cinema.

Parasite

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's dark comedy thriller follows the events that unfold as the Kims, a poor family living in a semi-basement house, begin working for the wealthy Park family under various different guises.

Following several dramatic and comic twists, the story takes a dark turn as the Kims find themselves caught between a web of lies and a point of no return.

Parasite won four of the six categories for which it was nominated at the 2020 Academy Awards.

It was also the first foreign film to win Best Picture in the history of the Oscars, and the first non-English work to win the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in Motion Picture. The film also bagged two of the four BAFTA Awards for which it was nominated.

Minari

This moving story of a Korean-American family who relocate to a farm in Arkansas in the 1980s was inspired by Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung's own rural upbringing on a farm within the state.

The film carries a quiet strength and intensity in the silent— and at times explosive—exchanges between Jacob (played by Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) in the face of several challenges.

The film's many accolades include an Academy Award win by Youn Yuh-jung, who became the first Korean to win an Oscar, for her supporting role as the grandmother in Minari. She also won a BAFTA and a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award for the role.

The movie earned several other Oscar nominations (including a Best Actor nomination for Yeun, the first Asian American to be nominated in the category) and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture - Foreign Language.

Oldboy

This mystery thriller is one of the most well-known works by acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook. It received a Hollywood remake in 2013 directed by Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Brolin.

Based on a Japanese graphic novel titled Old Boy by Garon Tsuchhiya, the film unravels the story of Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-shik, a veteran South Korean actor) who wakes up in a prison that looks like a hotel room. Oh embarks on a quest for answers as he attempts to discover who and what got him there in this ultimate revenge drama.

The film won the Grand Prix award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and received much praise from director Quentin Tarantino who served as the head jury that year.

The Handmaiden

This enticing erotic drama from Oldboy director Park Chan-wook is a dark tale of deception, betrayal and desire that unravels between Count Fujiwara, Japanese heiress Hideko, her maid Sook-hee and Hideko's uncle Kouzuki.

Inspired by the book Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, Park swaps the novel's Victorian England setting for Korea in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation era. The film takes viewers through a labyrinth of twists as the characters dance around a bed of lies.

The characters from "The Handmaiden" film.
The characters from "The Handmaiden" film. Magnolia Pictures

The Handmaiden won the 2018 BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film and was selected to compete for the top prize—the Palme d'Or award—at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

Burning

This masterful psychological thriller from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong is inspired by "Barn Burning," a short story from the book The Elephant Vanishes by Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

Jong-su (played by Yoo Ah-in) finds himself plagued by doubt and suspicion after encountering Ben, an enigmatic character with a mysterious charm (played by Minari's Steven Yeun).

A film still from "Burning."
A film still from "Burning." Well Go USA Entertainment

Dotted by several eerie moments of melancholy stillness, every scene feels like you are at the edge of something, with delicate lighting transitions by Hong Kyung-pyo, the cinematographer for Parasite and two other films by Bong (Snowpiercer and Mother).

Burning screened at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI International Critics' Prize and was in the running for the Palme d'Or award.

Mother

This murder mystery from Parasite director Bong begins with the sudden death of a young girl, which is blamed on a seemingly innocent man (played by Korean actor Won Bin) who happened to be at the scene of the crime.

The story follows the desperate attempts of a mother (played by Kim Hye-ja, another veteran of the Korean film industry) determined to clear her son's name.

A film still from "Mother".
A film still from "Mother". Magnolia Pictures

The haunting tale explores the extremes of a mother's primal love as she faces shocking truths and chaotic turmoil in her obsessive quest to track down the true killer.

The film premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Un Certain Regard award.

Train to Busan

This zombie action thriller from South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho—who is "redefining the future of Korean films"—follows a mysterious outbreak that turns people into zombies as a father and his young daughter travel on a train.

The film's highly-charged, time bomb-ticking feel takes shape within its first few minutes, with viewers immediately thrust into the thick of the apocalyptic chaos.

A film still from "Train to Busan".
A film still from "Train to Busan". Well Go USA Entertainment

Zombie-fighting blood and gore aside, this is ultimately a story about humanity—who we are and what we become in the face of great crisis, loss and tragedy.

Train to Busan premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, while its standalone sequel Peninsula was among the films of the Official Selection of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival.

Escape from Mogadishu

This engrossing drama from South Korean director Ryoo Seung-wan is set in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. The film is based on real events that happened in 1991 amid the civil war in Somalia when the South and North Korean embassies were battling for United Nations membership.

The rivaling embassies form an unlikely united front "solely in order to come out alive from this war field," in the words of South Korean ambassador Han Shin-sung (the real-life character played by Korean actor Kim Yoon-seok).

A film still from "Escape from Mogadishu".
A film still from "Escape from Mogadishu". Well Go USA Entertainment

The movie takes viewers on an emotional, heart-pounding ride, from narrow escapes to touching moments between the North and South Korean embassy workers.

Its star-studded cast also features Zo In-sung (known from several K-dramas and Korean films), veteran Korean actor Huh Joon-ho from the Netflix K-drama series Kingdom and Koo Kyo-hwan from Kingdom's "Ashin of the North."

Joint Security Area

Those who enjoy Escape from Mogadishu may also want to explore Joint Security Area, which also examines relations between North and South Korea. The film by Oldboy director Park Chan-wook is set in the DMZ, the demilitarized zone at the border.

The film looks at the complex relationship between the two nations beyond a political level, as a group of soldiers from both countries on border duties form a genuine friendship, but find their loyalties tested in an unexpected turn of events.

Among the film's lead roles is Lee Byung-hun, one of South Korea's veteran actors who has featured in Hollywood's The Magnificent Seven and G.I. Joe film series.

A Taxi Driver

This historical drama by South Korean director Jang Hoon is based on the real-life story of Jürgen Hinzpeter, a German journalist played by Thomas Kretschmann from films including Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Hinzpeter reported on the May 1980 Gwangju Uprising—a movement against the martial law government in place in South Korea at the time—with the help of a taxi driver (played by Parasite's Song Kang-ho in the film).

A film still from "A Taxi Driver."
A film still from "A Taxi Driver." Well Go USA Entertainment

The emotional retelling of this pivotal moment in South Korean history traces the taxi driver's attempts to get Hinzpeter—and the footage he recorded of the uprising—safely out of the country.

The movie was selected by the Korean Film Council as the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 90th Academy Awards in 2018.

Time to Hunt

This gritty crime thriller from South Korean director Yoon Sung-hyun is set in a dystopian world of poverty following a financial crisis.

The film sees a group of friends, including Parasite's Choi Woo-shik, step into a brutal "world outside the law" where heart-stopping drama ensues as they run from more than just their destitute lives.

Providing a soothing end to this pulsating thriller, the movie's hypnotic ending track—"스쳐가 (Passing By) (prod. Primary)" from South Korean artist ron—will keep you listening until the end of the credits.

Time to Hunt was the first Korean film to be featured as a special gala screening at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival in 2020.