Korean thrillers have proven to be their own genre, much like Japanese horror. From the beginning of the history of contemporary Korean cinema, directors like Kim Ki-young have made films like The maid. Although these films are time capsules from a bygone era, they establish the beginning of a unique cinematic style that apparently can only demonstrate the characteristics of Korean national cinema.
As funding and opportunities grew for domestic filmmakers and censorship eased as dictatorships fell in favor of democracy, the peninsula country’s thrillers only got better. While Korean films like Parasite have only begun to attract mainstream attention, this is just the beginning. These are the best Korean thrillers released so far.
8 The maid
1960 film by Kim Ki-young The maid was instantly a classic of Korean cinema. It’s a must-watch for Korean movie fanatics, and several remakes have been made. An upper-middle-class family leads a peaceful life in a large house – something unusual at the time, as Korea was still rebuilding itself after the Korean War. When his pregnant wife becomes too exhausted to perform daily chores, Dr. Dong-sik Kim hires a new maid to take care of everything for her. But this maid comes at a deadly price, as she and the husband begin to engage in an affair, exposing her unpredictable jealous streak.
7 The hunter
The 2008 action thriller The hunter was inspired by an actual serial killer active around Seoul, as described by Koreaboo. A pimp was a former police detective, but one day two of his workers go missing. He tracks down the client who last had them, and he prepares to get them back, but it comes with a major hitch as he realizes that particular client is a serial killer. What ensues is a bloody, brutal chase with a major sense of urgency.
6 The meanie
The meanie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 and, according to Soompi, received a four-minute standing ovation at the festival. A young woman is trained to be an assassin by the government after her father is murdered. She has a grudge against whoever killed her father and is willing to hunt them down eventually. When she is released from her training, the agency gives her assignments, but she learns that she wants to get away from this life. Full of action, blood and a good dose of romance, The meanie places a female protagonist in a largely male-dominated trope before her.
5 The thirst
Park Chan-wook The thirst unfolds like a fever dream. A Catholic priest (Song Kang-ho) volunteers to become a patient for a trial vaccine, and he shows miraculous healing abilities. A cult-like myth is built around the fact that he survived, but, in reality, he became a vampire. Due to the fact that he is very religious, this creates a strange set of circumstances that challenge his moral compass, especially when he kills his childhood friend and reunites with his wife. The thirst doesn’t revolutionize the vampire movie, but does offer a series of philosophical questions about being a vampire with faith.
Originally based on a short story by Haruki Murakami titled “Barn Burning”, Lee Chang-dong Burning stars Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, and newcomer Jeon Jong-seo in a slow burn. A lonely writer (Yoo) one day meets a childhood friend working outside a department store, and as they rekindle their relationship, he meets a strange stranger (Yeun) full of mysterious secrets. Burning was the first Korean film to make the shortlist for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, a feat that would only be matched when Parasite won the Oscars the following year.
3 I saw the devil
Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik star in the film I saw the devil, a violent film about revenge. A bus driver (Choi) murders a woman on the side of the road, which turns out to be a big mistake. Her fiancé (Lee) is a member of the National Intelligence Service and happens to be present when her body is discovered. He has a taste for revenge, so begins the game of cat and mouse between the serial killer and his victim’s lover. Beautifully shot, I saw the devil unleashes everything he has with his main character’s rage.
2 Old boy
Park Chan-wook’s film Old boy is not for the faint of heart. It was the second film of his Revenge Trilogy, and while it’s toned down the senseless killing present in the first movie, it’s still pretty intense. A man (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped one day after work and is held captive for 15 years. After leaving confinement, he dreams of finding the person who did this to him and unleashing all his anger. Old boy is a distinct departure for those interested in the classic Hollywood thriller, offering lessons in calculated violence and the human psyche.
Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece Parasite is well known and appreciated around the world for various reasons. It doesn’t start out as a thriller, but slowly turns into that territory as the plot unfolds and twists on itself. As the Kim family emerges from the depths of their basement to take over Korea’s wealthiest families, they find themselves in a sticky situation when the other poor worker fired from their job returns to retrieve something she left behind.
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