Korean thriller movies have proven to be their own genre, similarly to Japanese horror. From the beginning of contemporary Korean film history, directors like Kim Ki-young made movies like The Housemaid, While these movies are time capsules into an era long gone, they establish the beginning of a unique cinematic style that seemingly can only demonstrate characteristics of Korean national cinema.
As funding and opportunities increased for domestic filmmakers and censorship eased off as the dictatorships fell in favor of democracy, thriller movies from the peninsula country have only gotten better. While Korean movies like Parasite have only begun to get mainstream attention, this is only the beginning. These are the best Korean thrillers released so far.
8 The Housemaid
Kim Ki-young’s 1960 movie The Housemaid was instantly a classic in Korean cinema. It is a staple for Korean film fanatics, and several remakes have been made. An upper-middle-class family lives a peaceful life in a big home — something uncommon for the time, as Korea was still rebuilding after the Korean War. When his pregnant wife becomes too exhausted to do daily chores anymore, Dr. Dong-sik Kim hires a new housemaid to take care of everything for her. But this housemaid comes with a deadly price, as she and the husband begin to engage in an affair, exposing her unpredictable jealous streak.
7 The Chaser
The 2008 action thriller The Chaser was inspired by a real-life serial killer active around Seoul, as outlined by Koreaboo. A pimp was a former detective with the police force, but one day, two of his workers are missing. He tracks down the client that had them last, and he prepares to get them back, but that comes with a major hitch as he realizes this particular customer is a serial killer. What then ensues is a bloody, brutal chase with a major sense of urgency.
6 The Villainess
The Villainess premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2018 and, per Soompi, received a four-minute standing ovation at the festival. A young woman is trained to become an assassin by the government after the murder of her father. She has a grudge against whoever killed her father and is willing to hunt them down eventually. When she is released from her training, she is given assignments by the agency, but she learns that she wants to walk away from this life. Full of action, blood, and a healthy dose of romance, The Villainess places a female protagonist into a trope largely dominated by men before her.
Park Chan-wook’s 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 mythos is built around the fact he survived, but, in reality, he has become a vampire. Due to the fact he is very religious, this creates a strange series of circumstances that questions his moral compass, especially when he kills his childhood friend and gets together with his wife. Thirst does not revolutionize the vampire film, but offers a series of philosophical questions about being a vampire with faith.
Basically based on a Haruki Murakami short story titled “Barn Burning,” Lee Chang-dong’s Burning stars Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, and newcomer Jeon Jong-seo in a slow burn. A lonely writer (Yoo) runs into a childhood friend working outside a department store one day, and as they rekindle their relationship, he meets a strange foreigner (Yeun) full of mysterious secrets. Burning was the first Korean film to make the shortlist for Best International Feature at the Oscars, a feat that would only be matched when Parasite swept the Oscars the following year.
3 I Saw the Devil
Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik star in the movie I Saw the Devil, a violent movie 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 cat and mouse game between the serial killer and his victim’s lover. Beautifully shot, I Saw the Devil unleashes everything it has with its main character’s rage.
Park Chan-wook’s movie oldboy is not for those with weak hearts. It was the second movie in his Vengeance Trilogy, and while it toned down the senseless murder present in the first movie, it is still pretty intense. A man (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped one day after work and is held captive for 15 years. After he is released from his confinement, he dreams of finding the person who did this to him and letting all his anger out. oldboy 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 well-loved around the world for a variety of reasons. It does not start as a thriller, but slowly spirals into that territory as the plot exposes and twists in on itself. As the Kim family emerges from the depths of their sub-basement home to leech off Korea’s wealthiest families, they find themselves in a sticky situation when the other poor worker fired from her position comes back to retrieve something she left behind.
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