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The best South Korean movies you need to watch

On February 9, 2020, the Academy Awards made history by awarding Best Picture, the crown jewel of the ceremony, to Parasite, marking the first time a non-English language film took home the evening's top honor. Directed by South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, Parasite triumphed over contenders like 1917, Joker, and The Irishman while winning Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, reaffirming that international cinema can be a big part of the conversation in a real way.

International cinema definitely shouldn't be overlooked, and from France to Mexico to Italy, countries around the world continually offer excellent films that any movie lover can enjoy, language barriers notwithstanding. South Korea actually has one of the busiest film industries in the world, and if you're curious about the rest of the nation's offerings after Parasite, there's plenty more where that came from.

Parasite, 2019

A list of outstanding South Korean films wouldn't be complete without mentioning Parasite. Bong Joon Ho's capitalist critique and modern masterpiece is one of the most original and exciting films to hit any theater worldwide in recent memory, so it's no wonder that it surged ahead of a crowded field to take home the coveted Best Picture trophy.

The story of the Kim family — who are played by veteran actor and frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang Ho alongside Choi Woo Shik, Park So Dam, Chang Hyae Jin as his grown children and wife — Parasite casts a stark light on financial inequality, especially when it comes to the struggling Kim clan. When Ki-woo (Shik) gets the chance to work for the wealthy Park family (played by Lee Sun Kyun and Cho Yeo Jeong), the family concocts a plan that could help them trade squalor for luxury.

The twists and turns of Parasite are way too good to spoil here, so if you haven't caught this film yet, we won't spoil it for you. In any case, Parasite, which began its awards run by winning the Palme d'or at Cannes and closed it out by winning Best Picture, certainly earned its spot on the list of best South Korean films.

Poetry, 2010

One of South Korea's most highly rated films is also its most touching and heartfelt; specifically Poetry, which was released in 2011. Written and directed by Lee Chang-dong, this family drama centers on Yang Mi-ja — played by storied South Korean actress Yoon Jeong-hee, who came out of retirement specifically for the role — as a woman in her 60s who finds herself afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. As she struggles to deal with her illness, as well as her difficult grandson, Mi-ja finds herself using poetry to help her make sense of her constantly changing world.

From there, the story takes several turns, including an upsetting plot about Mi-ja's troubled grandson Wook (Lee David), who may be responsible for an attack on a girl in his class. Ultimately, Mi-ja handles the situation and finds peace, despite her faltering memory. Upon its release, Poetry was entered into the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and won an award for its screenplay, proving that small, intimate stories resonate regardless of national origin.

Oldboy, 2003

Parasite made major waves for South Korean cinema on the international stage, but for cinephiles across the world, 2003's Oldboy was a classic long before. Directed by Park Chan-wook and based on a comic book of the same name by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, what many viewers might not know about Oldboy is that it's also part of the "Vengeance Trilogy," right in the middle of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance.

The story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a man imprisoned for 15 years before escaping prison only to be drugged and abducted, Oldboy is packed full of twisting, violent turns, especially as Dae-su tries to figure out the identity of his captor, as well as navigate a new romance and escape a group that's still hunting him down. The final twist is as unsettling as anything you've ever seen on the big screen, but thanks to careful direction by Park, Oldboy still stays away from gratuitous shock value and violence to create a gripping tale of vengeance and bloodshed. The film inspired a Spike Lee-helmed remake in 2013, though that version was ultimately much less popular than its predecessor.

Mother (Madeo), 2010

Bong Joon Ho broke into the American market with films like Snowpiercer and Parasite, but you shouldn't overlook some of his earlier films, like 2010's Mother (titled Madeo in South Korea).

Korean actress Kim Hye-ja stars as Mother, who sells acupuncture to people in her small town (even though she doesn't have a license) and is extraordinarily protective of her only son, Do-joon (Won Bin), who suffers from severe mental disabilities and is prone to violence if provoked. After a series of unfortunate events, Do-joon is accused of murdering a young girl, and Mother must find a way to clear his name and acquit him of what she believes are wrongful charges. However, there's still a lot about Do-joon that Mother has yet to learn, which pushes her to the breaking point as she keeps trying to protect him.

Mother premiered at several film festivals — including Cannes — earning critical acclaim, and initially received a limited release in the U.S., later netting a wider release as a part of a retrospective on Bong's work in 2015. It performed extraordinarily well in South Korea, becoming one of the country's highest-earning films.

Burning (Beoning), 2018

Based on "Barn Burning," a short story by prolific and popular writer Haruki Murakami, Burning, or Beoning, was released in 2018 to considerable acclaim and attention across the globe. Directed and co-written by Lee Chang-dong, the film tells the story of Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young novelist who reconnects with a woman from his past, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who asks him to feed her cat and watch her home while she goes on a trip to Africa. Their relationship grows complicated, and when she returns from Africa with a new boyfriend named Ben (The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun), everything gets a lot stranger and more complex for Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben.

Critics across the world praised Burning for its intricate plot and slow build. In 2018, the film was shortlisted for consideration at the 91st Academy Awards, and though it didn't make the cut, it became the first ever South Korean film to ever be considered by the Academy.

The Handmaiden, 2016

Inspired by Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook's 2016 film The Handmaiden changes the original source's setting from Victorian England to Korea when it was under Japanese control. Told over three parts, the film focuses on Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a rich heiress targeted by a con man, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Hellbent on marrying her to steal her fortune, he hires a pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), to infiltrate her life, but it turns out that Hideko knows a lot more than she lets on, leading Sook-hee on a wild ride as he learns more disturbing details about her past. The Handmaiden is definitely a thriller worth the journey.

Praised for its careful direction, stunning visuals, and complex plot, The Handmaiden performed extraordinarily well with critics and topped several best-of lists for 2016, later winning Best Film Not in the English Language at the 71st Annual BAFTAs.

The Host, 2006

Before Snowpiercer and Parasite, Bong Joon Ho's biggest hit internationally was The Host, a 2006 supernatural thriller that kept audiences on the edge of their seats. Inspired by a local news piece about a deformed fish found in a Korean river, Bong crafted a narrative focused around a slow but good-hearted man named Park Gang-du (played by frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho) who runs a modest food stand by the Han River and experiences a horrifying, otherworldly incident on an otherwise uneventful day. One day during work, an enormous monster emerges from the river, and though Gang-du tries to save his daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung) from the monstrosity, he grabs the wrong girl, and his daughter is taken. Alongside the rest of his family, he must try and rescue his daughter and figure out exactly what this monster even is.

The film, which explores a worst-case scenario of government interference with natural resources, received overwhelming acclaim, thanks to Bong's now signature combination of satire, dark comedy and horror. Clearly, this director had much more to offer, but The Host was certainly an excellent indicator of great projects to come.

Train to Busan, 2016

Zombie films have long been popular around the world, and South Korea is no exception, as proven by the success of 2016's Train to Busan. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, the movie takes place almost entirely on a train, where a routine trip is interrupted by news of a horrifying zombie apocalypse that threatens humanity. The train is infected as well thanks to a rogue passenger, and suddenly, the entire population of the train is at risk as they wait for word from their loved ones on the outside. The train eventually stops at a station, and the passengers must find another way to Busan.

Clearly, this thrilling film captured the imagination and attention of filmgoers in South Korea; after its release, it became the first Korean film of 2016 to crack 10 million moviegoers. Thanks to its simple premise and developed, relatable characters, it also attracted worldwide critical praise, marking yet another victory for South Korean cinema.

Memories of Murder, 2003

Long before Parasite, Bong Joon Ho's first big critical splash came with 2003's Memories of Murder, a Se7en-style saga based on a real string of serial murders in South Korea throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bong tells the story through two detectives — Park (Song Kang-ho) and Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) — who must find the person responsible for brutal sexual crimes and murders. Despite their very different methods, Park and Seo have to work together; unfortunately, their hard work takes several disturbing twists and turns that ultimately offer up few conclusions.

With only his second film, Bong caught the attention of directors like Quentin Tarantino — a fact Bong acknowledged during his emotional acceptance speech for the Best Director statue at the 2020 Oscars — and earned international acclaim as well as adoration within South Korea, putting him firmly on the map as a filmmaker to watch.

The Age of Shadows, 2016

In 2016, director Kim Jee-woon blew international audiences away with The Age of Shadows, an action thriller about government resistance and betrayal. The story focuses on powerful Korean police captain Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), who is charged with reporting members of the resistance to the Japanese government (which controlled South Korea during the early 20th century); as the film goes on, he's unexpectedly shaken by the death of one of his classmates, who led part of the resistance. Even though he's sold out allies before, the resistance tries to take this opportunity to bring Jung-chool back to their cause, resulting in a push and pull between Jung-chool and his former friends.

The first-ever South Korean production from Warner Bros., The Age of Shadows proved a resounding success, performing incredibly well at the South Korean box office and winning over critics and audiences across the globe. Clearly, the studio's investment paid off, opening the door for more Korean dramas to be distributed around the world.

On The Beach at Night Alone, 2017

Sometimes, the simplest stories are the most effective, which is perfectly exemplified by the 2017 South Korean film On the Beach at Night Alone. Directed, written, and produced by prolific filmmaker Hong Sang-soo — who has made over 25 films in South Korea — this gripping narrative is about, well, a woman on the beach at night alone. Young-hee (Kim Min-hee), a beautiful young actress, takes to the beach by herself one evening to muse over her difficult relationship with a married man. As she wonders if he misses her as much as she misses him, Hong explores themes of love, loss, and betrayal.

On the Beach at Night Alone was praised by critics as a departure from Hong's style that still retained his "singular sensibilities," resulting in one of the director's most personal and gorgeous projects.

My Sassy Girl, 2001

One of South Korea's most popular comedies, 2001's My Sassy Girl is based on a real set of blog posts by an aggrieved boyfriend about his beautiful but troubled girlfriend. Jun Ji-hyun stars as "The Girl," who meets her eventual boyfriend Gyeon-woo (Cha Tae-hyun) when he saves her from drunkenly falling in front of a train. As it turns out, she has a complicated and rather tragic romantic past, and throughout the film, she keeps Gyeon-woo on his toes constantly, to put it lightly. The two eventually figure out a way to make their relationship work, despite every possible hurdle being thrown in their path — and since this is a romantic comedy, those hurdles often turn out to be pretty amusing.

My Sassy Girl remains one of the country's most beloved films, performing well with critics and kicking off a new wave of Korean films becoming popular across the world. If the name sounds familiar, it may be because the U.S. remade the film in 2008 with Elisha Cuthbert and Jesse Bradford — but it's definitely worth it to watch the original first.