Cinetropa's 100 Best Korean Movies of All Time

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Full title: 100 Best Korean Movies of All Time (Ranked) and Why They’re the Best in the World

By Dennis Clemente Jan 30, 2021

Korean cinema’s limited exposure over the years can be attributed to a language barrier, but did Parasite break it? If so, here are 100 of the best movies with an official link where to watch nearly 200 titles legally.

It’s hard to tell when exactly did people start acknowledging Korean cinema as a major force to be reckoned with. In 2008, author Christina Klein wrote in American Quarterly: After Hollywood, the South Korean film industry is “perhaps the most important in the world today.” Fast forward to 2020 when New Yorker’s film critic Richard Brody called it among the most exciting in the world today. The time gap is telling. Korean modern cinema has held our imagination captive for so long, from the time it all began.

The landmark action thriller Shiri came out in 1999, but it was in 2003 when two Korean movies — Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy and Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder thrilled film festival habitués. Word got around that a new film movement was born. It would be called the Korean New Wave.

Other Korean filmmakers who would keep the momentum of this movement going included Lee Chang-dong, Kim Jee-won, Hong Sang-soo, Kim ki-duk (who recently died of COVID-19 complications), Ha Yoo, Ryoo Seung-wan, Hu Jin-ho, and Choi Dong-hoon.

Today, modern Korean cinema has shaken up the pecking order of global cinema. It has become a transgressive force, with storytelling characterized by variances in tone and almost always with social commentary, even in a horror film like the commercial runaway hit, Train to Busan.

One can probably ascribe Train to Busan to how Korean cinema has taken us — on a wild ride to new ways of enjoying movies. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite was one wild ride that culminated at the Oscars. It didn’t just win four Oscars, including Best International Feature and Best Picture. It won over people averse to reading English subtitles.

The Hollywood-level mass appeal of Parasite may have indicated that the only thing blocking Korean cinema’s global domination all this time was language barrier, but the movie made that all irrelevant.

Many now look up to Korean cinema for making movies that Western cinema is not interested in tackling, especially Hollywood, which has chosen to stick to its conventions and staple genres. However, it doesn’t mean Korean cinema will not go the way of formulaic movies, if its recent big-budgeted monstrosity (The Peninsula) is a foretaste of things to come.

Korean film critic and historian Darcy Paquet has often said the rise of modern Korean cinema was inevitable. He tells more in his ultimate guide about Korean cinema’s transformation in his book and website. (Incidentally, he wrote the English subtitles for Parasite.)

It was just a matter of reviving its Golden Age in the 50s and 60s and moving on from its troubled past — wars, censorship and dictatorship in the 70s and onwards. Korean cinema’s vibrant cinematic period came to an abrupt halt in 1973 when its government censored the film industry. It took another 20 years for Korean cinema to revive its old glory.

For those curious about the old movies, they have been restored and nearly 200 of them are free to watch on the Korean Film Archive.

It’s time to list the best 100 Korean movies from the Golden Age to present-day Korean cinema (i.e., up to 2019). After all, Korea just celebrated its film centennial in 2019. With most moviehouses closed and streaming platform monopolies making mostly episodic content, it’s also hard to tell if movies will ever be the same, or if we are seeing the slow demise of great Korean cinema the way it’s been producing mostly hit-or-miss genre films lately?

Am I qualified to do this list, though? I first stumbled on Korean cinema in the late 90s and didn’t pay any strong interest until 2004 when I saw Oldboy. From thereon out, I thought something was afoot.

Where I lived in New York, I had access to a Korean DVD store, film festivals, the New York public libraries’ collection, and a colleague who supplied me with DVDs. I saw hundreds in nearly two decades, but that’s not enough, because I have only seen a few of legendary director Im Kwon-taek’s more than 90 movies — and some Korean movies are missing. But this list had to be written, so I can find out for sure what movies I’ve overplayed or neglected to mention.

As for my criteria for ranking Korean movies, it was not easy. I would say this was (and is) a work in progress. Again, I considered their storytelling’s transgressive force as one thing, their social commentary as another. Staying power and impact were also important considerations.

Yes, South Korea has also captured global attention with its K-Dramas. Clearly, the success of this genre has streaming platforms scrambling to produce their own kind of “binge-worthy” shows. Until Parasite won the most prestigious awards, many in the West thought Koreans only made “soap operas” or “melodramas” — and may prefer those shows.

But there’s a distinction and 100 of the best Korean movies listed here (50 are ranked; other half are unranked as they require more than one viewing) are supposed to introduce great Korean cinema to more people and even more significant perhaps (for those checking out the list but not finding the titles anywhere) to ask streaming platforms to make them widely available.

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  1. 1 new

    Gisaengchung

    2019 — a.k.a. Parasite, in 21 top lists
    Check
  2. 2 new

    Milyang

    2007 — a.k.a. Secret Sunshine, in 9 top lists Check
  3. 3 new

    Oldeuboi

    2003 — a.k.a. Oldboy, in 33 top lists Check
  4. 4 new

    Kimssi pyoryugi

    2009 — a.k.a. Castaway on the Moon, in 4 top lists Check
  5. 5 new

    Salinui chueok

    2003 — a.k.a. Memories of Murder, in 15 top lists Check
  6. 6 new

    Bakha satang

    1999 — a.k.a. Peppermint Candy, in 5 top lists Check
  7. 7 new

    Hanyo

    1960 — a.k.a. The Housemaid, in 8 top lists Check
  8. 8 new

    Madeo

    2009 — a.k.a. Mother, in 8 top lists Check
  9. 9 new

    Shi

    2010 — a.k.a. Poetry, in 7 top lists Check
  10. 10 new

    Oasiseu

    2002 — a.k.a. Oasis, in 5 top lists Check
  11. 11 new

    Boksuneun naui geot

    2002 — a.k.a. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, in 4 top lists Check
  12. 12 new

    Biyeolhan geori

    2006 — a.k.a. A Dirty Carnival, in 1 top list Check
  13. 13 new

    Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom

    2003 — a.k.a. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, in 13 top lists Check
  14. 14 new

    Ah-ga-ssi

    2016 — a.k.a. The Handmaiden, in 12 top lists Check
  15. 15 new

    Obaltan

    1961 — a.k.a. Aimless Bullet, in 6 top lists Check
  16. 16 new

    Woomuk-Baemi ui sarang

    1990 — a.k.a. A Short Love Affair, in 2 top lists Check
  17. 17 new

    Go-yang-i-leul boo-tak-hae

    2001 — a.k.a. Take Care of My Cat, in 3 top lists Check
  18. 18 new

    Beoning

    2018 — a.k.a. Burning, in 7 top lists
    Check
  19. 19 new

    Chugyeokja

    2008 — a.k.a. The Chaser, in 1 top list Check
  20. 20 new

    Haemoo

    2014 — a.k.a. Sea Fog, in 0 top lists Check
  21. 21 new

    Chunhyangdyun

    2000 — a.k.a. Chunhyang, in 7 top lists Check
  22. 22 new

    Mandala

    1981, in 6 top lists Check
  23. 23 new

    301, 302

    1995, in 1 top list Check
  24. 24 new

    Gyeolhoneun michinjishida

    2002 — a.k.a. Marriage Is a Crazy Thing, in 0 top lists Check
  25. 25 new

    Dalkomhan insaeng

    2005 — a.k.a. A Bittersweet Life, in 2 top lists Check
  26. 26 new

    Haebyeonui yeoin

    2006 — a.k.a. Woman on the Beach, in 2 top lists Check
  27. 27 new

    Hyuil

    1968 — a.k.a. A Day Off, in 2 top lists Check
  28. 28 new

    Iodo

    1977 — a.k.a. Io Island, in 3 top lists Check
  29. 29 new

    Gwoemul

    2006 — a.k.a. The Host, in 12 top lists Check
  30. 30 new

    Angae

    1967, in 2 top lists Check
  31. 31 new

    Seopyeonje

    1993 — a.k.a. Sopyonje, in 7 top lists Check
  32. 32 new

    Shi gan

    2006 — a.k.a. Time, in 1 top list Check
  33. 33 new

    Jayu buin

    1956 — a.k.a. Madame Freedom, in 3 top lists Check
  34. 34 new

    Ang-ma-reul bo-at-da

    2010 — a.k.a. I Saw the Devil, in 5 top lists Check
  35. 35 new

    Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA

    2000 — a.k.a. Joint Security Area, in 3 top lists Check
  36. 36 new

    Chungyo

    1972 — a.k.a. The Insect Woman, in 3 top lists Check
  37. 37 new

    Jug-yeo-ju-neun Yeo-ja

    2016 — a.k.a. The Bacchus Lady, in 0 top lists Check
  38. 38 new

    Dohee-ya

    2014 — a.k.a. A Girl at My Door, in 1 top list Check
  39. 39 new

    Chinjeolhan geumjassi

    2005 — a.k.a. Lady Vengeance, in 3 top lists Check
  40. 40 new

    Paju

    2009, in 1 top list Check
  41. 41 new

    Bakjwi

    2009 — a.k.a. Thirst, in 2 top lists Check
  42. 42 new

    Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal

    2010 — a.k.a. Bedevilled, in 1 top list Check
  43. 43 new

    Janghwa, Hongryeon

    2003 — a.k.a. A Tale of Two Sisters, in 5 top lists Check
  44. 44 new

    Sseo-ni

    2011 — a.k.a. Sunny, in 2 top lists Check
  45. 45 new

    Boo-dang-geo-rae

    2010 — a.k.a. The Unjust, in 0 top lists Check
  46. 46 new

    Taeksi woonjunsa

    2017 — a.k.a. A Taxi Driver, in 1 top list
    Check
  47. 47 new

    Mil-jeong

    2016 — a.k.a. The Age of Shadows, in 0 top lists Check
  48. 48 new

    Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da

    2015 — a.k.a. Right Now, Wrong Then, in 4 top lists Check
  49. 49 new

    Gokseong

    2016 — a.k.a. The Wailing, in 3 top lists Check
  50. 50 new

    Chilsu wa Mansu

    1988 — a.k.a. Chilsu and Mansu, in 4 top lists Check
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Last updated on Feb 18, 2021; source