A neighborhood kid crouching in a windy field staring at something. From those first few frames of Memories of Murder, I knew that I was watching something special.
Great Korean films don’t belong to any genre. Instead, they blend thrills, comedy, romance, and tragedy into engrossing and highly original stories.
So if you have a favorite movie, know that there’s likely a Korean counterpart that will subvert your expectations. Here’s five films to get you started.
1. Like Zodiac? Watch Memories of Murder
A few incompetent detectives investigate a series of murders in a small town. Every frame of this film drips with atmosphere, from the rain falling on the rooftops to shadows lurking in the grass. Director Joon-ho Bong has built an international reputation, but this is still his masterpiece.
2. Like the Departed? Watch New World
If you thought The Departed and Infernal Affairs were unpredictable, wait until you watch New World. The director of this movie openly admits that he has seen The Godfather more than 200 times. But instead of being derivative, New World constantly surprises you with shifting allegiances and memorable set pieces. This is Korea’s “epic gangster movie” and shouldn’t be missed.
3. Like buddy cop movies? Watch Veteran
Veteran begins with slapstick comedy to make you feel at ease. It then introduces possibly the most easy to hate bad guy since Ramsay Bolton — a rich, sadistic son of a top executive. Such princelings are widely reviled in Asian culture, so it’s incredibly satisfying to watch a downtrodden cop try to take the brat down. The climax in Korea’s crowded Gangnam district will leave you feeling high all day.
4. Like Mad Max? Watch War of the Arrows
It might seem strange to compare Mad Max to a movie about the 2nd Manchu invasion of Korea, but both are essentially about one long chase. War of the Arrows shows why Koreans are #1 in archery as one man defies highly skilled Mongol invaders to try to save his family. The odds feel insurmountable and you’ll find yourself holding your breath as arrows whiz across the screen.
5. Like family drama and comedy? Watch Scandal Makers
Unlike the other films in this list (which admittedly skew towards action thrillers), Scandal Makers is a film about family. Specifically, it’s about a bachelor who finds out he has a daughter who also has a son. Sounds a little contrived, but it’s hilarious and heartwarming to see this dysfunctional trio come together. The kid alone is worth the price of admission.
The five films above all have one thing in common — they start in a familiar genre before evolving into surprising, highly unpredictable stories. From monster movies (The Host) to mysteries (Mother) to revenge tales (Man from Nowhere), there’s a wealth of great Korean cinema to discover.
Don’t miss out!
🔥 Join 1,000+ others who are subscribed to my newsletter about product management, tech trends, movies, and more. My goal is to provide as much value as possible in no more than one or two emails a month.