The South Korean film industry has been busy pumping out many of the best movies made over the last couple of decades. With Parasite’s best picture win shining a fresh spotlight on the SK film scene, we thought it would be helpful to offer a guide for newcomers to the best of South Korea’s cinematic output. Join us in counting down the 20 best Korean movies of all time.

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Best Korean movies of all time

20. The Villainess (2017)

Insane motorcycle sword fight in one of the top Korean films

The Villainess has some of the most jaw-dropping action sequences in recent memory. The standout sequence is most likely the motorcycle swordfight, which was lovingly homaged in John Wick Chapter 3. While the plot is more than a little convoluted and the story as a whole is more secondary, The Villainess is worth watching for the bloody action sequences alone.

60%
acting
40%
writing
80%
cinematography
70%
directing
63%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Motorcycle sword fight
  • 1st person shootout
  • Cool factor
  • Convoluted plot
  • Weak characters
  • N/A

Top Korean movies

Conclusion

The Villainess is an absolute must-watch for fans of the action genre. For more must-watch fights and shootouts, check out our list of the best action movies ever made.

Good Korean movies

19. The Wailing (2016)

Best Korean Films  •  The nature of evil in The Wailing

Set in a rainy, little village where a strange illness is spreading, and evil is afoot, The Wailing is a creepy horror/thriller that is absolutely dripping with atmosphere. The film also blends together a compelling mystery, goofy comedy, and shamanistic mysticism, and somehow manages to perfectly tie all of these disparate elements together.

This is a film that does not spell things out and may leave you scratching your head by the end, but you are likely to enjoy the ride.

70%
acting
70%
writing
75%
cinematography
70%
directing
72%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Atmospheric
  • Intriguing
  • Creepy & funny
  • Long runtime
  • A bit cryptic
  • N/A

Popular Korean movies

Conclusion

The Wailing doesn’t offer many answers but does pose a number of intriguing questions and successfully conjures up a nice, creepy atmosphere. 

Best Korean movies of all time

18. No Tears for the Dead (2014)

No Tears for the Dead is one of the best Korean films we've seen

From kick-ass action director Jeong-beom Lee, No Tears for the Dead tells a cliche story you’ve undoubtedly seen before, but tells it through creative and stunning action set-pieces and with style to spare. Dong-gun Jang is effortlessly badass in the lead role, and the film boasts a memorable trio of baddies for him to square off against.

Keep an eye out for the shootout that makes impressive use of three high-rise buildings and the razor-sharp knife fight in the middle of the film.

75%
acting
50%
writing
70%
cinematography
80%
directing
72%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Dong-gun Jang
  • Excellent action
  • Creative set-pieces
  • Stock plot
  • Cliche
  • Drags between action

Movies from Korea

Conclusion

If you can get past the stock plot, No Tears for the Dead is sure to wow you with creatively-orchestrated action set-pieces.

Top Korean movies

17. Burning (2018)

Burning  •  Prove that movies from Korea are worth watching

On its surface, Burning is a mystery-thriller but unlike any other you have seen before. Burning presents you with a potential answer to a mystery, then makes you question whether there really is any mystery to unravel at all. It is layered, complex, and bolstered by a trio of strong performances.

The sense of place, atmosphere, score, and cinematography are all incredibly powerful. Burning was a favorite at prestigious film festivals and awards shows throughout the international film community.

85%
acting
70%
writing
100%
cinematography
80%
directing
84%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Gorgeously shot
  • Enigmatic
  • Complex performances
  • Slow-moving
  • Cryptic
  • N/A

Best Korean films

Conclusion

Burning is a film that begs to be rewatched, studied, and analyzed. There is a great deal of depth and nuance to appreciate and explore.

Korean movies to watch

16. A Bittersweet Life (2005)

The making of A Bittersweet Life  •  Must Watch Korean Movies

Amongst the still thriving genre of South Korean gangster films,
A Bittersweet Life remains one of the most effective even 15 years after its release. From director Jee-woon Kim, A Bittersweet Life tells a straightforward story in as stylish a manner as possible.

The excellent Byung-hun Lee elevates the main character and provides a good sense of heart to hang all of the badass blood-shed upon. Standout scenes are the handgun-assembly race and the incredible ending shootout.

80%
acting
70%
writing
80%
cinematography
85%
directing
79%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Incredible finale
  • Stylish presentation
  • Byung-hun Lee
  • Simple plot
  • Minor 2nd act drag
  • N/A

good Korean movies

Conclusion

A Bittersweet Life is a great gangster-action flick. Well-worth seeking out for fans of the genre, of the director, or of the star. If you are a gangster-movie fan, be sure to peruse our list of the best gangster films ever made.

Famous Korean movies

15. The Host (2006)

The Host is one of the best Korean movies of all time

Not to be confused with the 2009 YA film The Host. Before introducing new audiences to South Korean cinema with Parasite, and before his English-language debut, Snowpiercer, director Joon-ho Bong made a number of top-notch, genre-hopping films.

One of these is the excellent monster movie The Host. The film stands head and shoulders above most monster movies by offering insightful social commentary and telling the story through deeper characters and with more emotion than most entries in this sub-genre typically receive.

80%
acting
75%
writing
80%
cinematography
90%
directing
82%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Social commentary
  • Fish-monster
  • The cast
  • Some dated CG (minor)
  • N/A
  • N/A

Must watch Korean movies

Conclusion

It’s a true testament to Bong’s craft as a filmmaker that his CGI fish-monster still looks better than most CGI creatures coming out today.

Top Korean films

14. The Man From Nowhere (2010)

The Man From Nowhere  •  Best South Korean Movies

Another action showcase from director Jeong-beom Lee. The Man From Nowhere is, unfortunately, another stock, cliche script, but features stunning action set-pieces, a badass protagonist, and just enough heart to keep you invested in the rehashed story.

If you’ve seen Leon the Professional or Man on Fire or even Lee’s own No Tears for the Dead, then you know exactly where the plot is going but the ride to get there remains incredibly satisfying.

70%
acting
50%
writing
80%
cinematography
90%
directing
75%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Action
  • Protagonist
  • Badass knife fight
  • Stock plot
  • Cliche overload
  • N/A

Amazing Korean movies

Conclusion

The Man From Nowhere might not do anything new, but what it does, it does exceedingly well.

Best Korean movies of all time

13. Joint Security Area (2000)

Joint Security Area  •  Top Korean Movies

Joint Security Area, also known simply as JSA, is a story of forbidden friendship and understanding through differences masquerading as a tense DMZ thriller.

An early film from one of South Korea’s masters of cinema, Chan-wook Park, JSA shows a strong grasp of the style he would later refine to perfection. A biting script provides good material for Byung-hun Lee and the always excellent Kang-ho Song to play off of each other.

90%
acting
80%
writing
75%
cinematography
85%
directing
83%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Cast
  • Subject matter
  • Directorial style
  • Cheesy book-ends
  • English-language dialogue
  • N/A

Popular Korean movies

Conclusion

An awkward framing device and some weak English-language scenes are all that hold back JSA from being a bonafide masterpiece.

Famous Korean movies

12. Train to Busan (2016)

Train to Busan  •  Zombie movies from Korea

The perfect blend of horror and action? Perhaps. Train to Busan is an exhilarating zombie film that delivers everything you want from the genre. Memorable characters, creative set-pieces, and impressive stunt work all add greatly to Train to Busan.

The zombies are performed in a particularly aggressive manner that is a joy to watch. The recently released sequel, Train to Busan: Peninsula, doesn’t impress quite as much so stick with the original and you are guaranteed to have a great time.

75%
acting
80%
writing
80%
cinematography
85%
directing
80%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Great zombies
  • Creative set-pieces
  • Likable characters
  • A bit tame for the genre
  • Relies on genre cliches
  • N/A

Popular Korean movies

Conclusion

Train to Busan proved to be a bigger hit with international audiences than it did at home but a sequel did get made.

For more zombie goodness, take a gander at our list of the best zombie movies ever made.

Top Korean movies

11. The Handmaiden (2016)

Best Korean Movies  •  Making of The Handmaiden

The latest feature film from master filmmaker Chan-wook Park. The Handmaiden is a beautifully presented and masterfully performed story of love and deception. The story is full of twists and turns and more than earns its 2.5-hour runtime which breezes right by while you’re caught up in the intrigue.

95%
acting
90%
writing
100%
cinematography
95%
directing
95%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Characters
  • Twisty plot
  • Romance
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Must watch Korean movies

Conclusion

The Handmaiden is an immaculately-constructed piece of filmmaking. Definitely give it a watch if you’ve never seen it before.

Good Korean movies

10. I Saw the Devil (2010)

Behind the scenes of one of the best Korean films

I Saw the Devil is a pitch-black thriller from seasoned director Jee-woon Kim. The excellent Min-sik Choi and Byung-hun Lee square off in a heated battle of layered vengeance. There are so many twists throughout this action-thriller that I Saw the Devil breathes new life into old revenge-movie tropes.

90%
acting
85%
writing
90%
cinematography
90%
directing
89%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Byung-hun Lee
  • Min-sik Choi
  • Bloody revenge
  • Minor shaky action
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Korean films

Conclusion

This dark, violent, revenge film will have you on the edge of your seat for the entirety of its duration.

Top Korean films

9. Parasite (2019)

Genre Shifting in Parasite  •  Subscribe on YouTube

If there’s a single South Korean film on everyone’s lips, it is undoubtedly Joon-ho Bong’s Parasite. The film broke out to worldwide audiences in a way no South Korean movies had done before and made history as the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Parasite deserves all of the love and admiration that has been heaped upon it. This is an expertly constructed film with laughs, thrills, and biting social commentary in equal measure. For further reading, take a look at our deep dive into the set dressing of Parasite or a complete breakdown of Parasite's themes.

95%
acting
90%
writing
90%
cinematography
100%
directing
94%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Cast
  • Social Commentary
  • The twist!
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Korean films

Conclusion

Parasite’s praise is well-deserved as one of the best South Korean movies. The universal themes of class division ring true for audiences all around the world. 

Korean movies to watch

8. My Way (2011)

South Korean movies tackling the horrors of war

My Way is one of two excellent World War II films from South Korean director Je-kyu Kang. The film is inspired by the true story of two friends, one Japanese and one Korean, who were photographed in France wearing German uniforms.

My Way is a gripping war film that sees our protagonists, through a wild series of events, forced to fight in battle for the Japanese, the Russians, and eventually the Germans. It’s a war film with a powerful message; that no matter which side you’re on, everyone loses in war.

85%
acting
90%
writing
90%
cinematography
90%
directing
89%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Message
  • Battle scenes
  • The Leads
  • Minor poor CGI
  • N/A
  • N/A

Amazing Korean movies

Conclusion

My Way is an exciting and harrowing WWII film told from a unique perspective with a powerful message.

Top Korean movies

7. Mother (2009)

Mother is one of the top Korean movies for good reason

Not to be confused with Mother!one of Darren Aronofsky's best movies, Joon-ho Bong’s Mother is a tightly wound mystery-thriller with a killer story, great characters, and clear directorial vision. Bong’s work behind the camera is stunning, as always, and the dark plot continues to twist in just the right way all throughout.

The lead performance is magnetic, and the supporting cast are all given their times to shine. The non-chronological opening does a wonderful job of crafting atmosphere and setting up a sense of intrigue even before the crime elements have been introduced. Mother is a masterfully made thriller in all regards.

85%
acting
95%
writing
90%
cinematography
100%
directing
93%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Plot
  • Bong’s directing
  • Atmospher & Tone
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Top Korean movies

Conclusion

If you’re a fan of David Fincher’s best movies, then you’re sure to love Joon-ho Bong’s Mother.

Good Korean movies

6. Memories of Murder (2003)

Best Korean Movies of All Time  •  The Memories of Murder x Zodiac connection

Yet another Joon-ho Bong film on this list, the guy has really been crushing it for years. Memories of Murder is a sweeping, serial-killer epic and stands amongst the absolute best the thriller genre has to offer and can easily go toe-to-toe with the best crime films of the genre.

Kang-ho Song is, again, excellent in the lead role, and the entire supporting cast are pitch-perfect in their parts.

85%
acting
95%
writing
90%
cinematography
100%
directing
93%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Kang-ho Song
  • Plot
  • Bong’s vision
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Korean films

Conclusion

Memories of Murder rewards repeat viewings and critical analysis. One of the best serial killer films out there.

Top Korean movies

5. Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)

Tae Guk Gi  •  Korean Movies to Watch Right Now

Je-kyu Kang’s other World War II epic. Tae Guk Gi rivals or exceeds all of the best WWII films. The two protagonists, brothers played excellently by Dong-gun Jang, who also starred in No Tears for the Dead seen previously on this list, and Won Bin, both have incredible arcs and leave lasting impacts long after the credits have rolled.

The battle sequences are likely the most chaotic and intense you will find in any war film. You can see every dollar of the budget up on the screen and the spectacle of Tae Guk Gi is unmatched.

85%
acting
95%
writing
90%
cinematography
100%
directing
88%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Dong-gun Jang
  • Battle scenes
  • Amazing finale
  • Some wonky CGI
  • N/A
  • N/A

Good Korean movies

Conclusion

Tae Guk Gi is a powerfully emotional and chaotically intense WWII film that is sure to impress.

Best Korean films

4. 3-Iron (2004)

Best Korean Movies of All Time  •  3-Iron

In the loosest terms, 3-Iron could be classified as a romance film but unlike any you’ve seen before. There is not a single word exchanged between our two leads, yet you feel their love so passionately and so completely that it stands tall as one of the most romantic films ever made despite the lack of dialogue.

3-Iron is a unique film with a wildly inventive presentation. The film’s director, Kim Ki-duk, specializes in this unique, neo-silent-film style of filmmaking.
3-Iron takes visual storytelling to the literal extreme and presents a deeply engrossing story without the need for language.

This is one foreign film you won’t need subtitles to watch.

90%
acting
90%
writing
80%
cinematography
100%
directing
97.5%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Wordless romance
  • Inventive presentation
  • Unique
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Top Korean movies

Conclusion

If you want to see a heart-warming and at times comedic romance like no other, then you must check out Ki-duk Kim’s 3-Iron.

Good Korean movies

3. The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008)

See how the massive set pieces were orchestrated in one of the best Korean movies

The final Jee-woon Kim film to make our list. The Good, the Bad, and the Weird is an endlessly entertaining western/comedy with a breakneck pace and massive, explosive action setpieces. As inspired by Tarantino’s Kill Bill as it is by its namesake The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Kim's film venerates all of the best spaghetti westerns.

Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, and Woo-sung Jung make the perfect trio of western archetypes to follow on a wild treasure/bounty hunt across 1940s Manchuria.

90%
acting
90%
writing
100%
cinematography
100%
directing
95%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Massive action spectacle
  • Sense of fun
  • The cast
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Korean films

Conclusion

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird is infinitely rewatchable. There’s so much variety that it’s the type of film you could rewatch from the beginning as soon as the credits roll.

Interested in checking out more Neo-Westerns? Then be sure to read through our ranked list of the best modern Westerns. 

Good Korean movies

2. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)

One of the top Korean movies

The second film from director Ki-duk Kim to make the top five, and another unique cinematic experience. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a beautiful film that offers a slow, thoughtful meditation on life and all that surrounds it.

The film is light on dialogue but heavy on themes and symbolism

This is a film with a lot to say that requires reflection and critical thinking to understand all that it has to offer. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a film that can be easily recommended to absolutely everyone.

80%
acting
100%
writing
95%
cinematography
100%
directing
94%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Symbolism and metaphor
  • Tone and pacing
  • Directorial vision
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Top Korean movies

Conclusion

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a meditative experience that reflects on life, Buddhism, the self, and more, all in an engaging, near-silent film.

Good Korean movies

1. Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy  •  Hands down one of the best Korean films ever

Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy is just about as perfect as a film can get. Do NOT confuse this with Spike Lee’s abysmal 2013 remake. Oldboy is adapted from a manga and is actually the middle film of Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance trilogy alongside Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance

The films in the trilogy are disconnected and can be watched in any order; all three are excellent and you can consider them sharing this spot on the list. Min-sik Choi gives one of the best performances of all time in the lead role and the rest of the cast all play their parts to perfection. 

Chan-wook Park’s directorial vision is stunning and the script gives everyone incredible material to work with… and that’s without even getting into how good the hammer fight is!

100%
acting
100%
writing
100%
cinematography
100%
directing
100%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Min-sik Choi
  • Park-chan Wook
  • Narrative and style
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Good Korean movies

Conclusion

If you’ve never seen the original Oldboy, do yourself a favor and rectify that situation posthaste. You’ll be glad you did.

UP NEXT

Dark Comedies you need to see

Nearly every movie on this list had some degree of dark comedy at play; it’s a staple of South Korean cinema. If you’re looking for more darkly comic films and television shows to add to your watchlist, then take a look at our list of hilarious dark comedies to watch.

Up Next: Dark Comedies →
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