The Rise of Korean Cinema: Top Korean Films to Watch

The Rise of Korean Cinema: Top Korean Films to Watch

South Korea has given the world some of the scariest, most thrilling, and best films in existence. Today we'll look at the rise of Korean cinema. We'll also highlight top films to watch and why they matter to a modern audience.

Korean Films: Then and Now

First, we need a brief history lesson. Korean cinema has gone through many changes, both due to the political climate and evolving film technology. Let's get right into it!

Silent Films (Pre-1920s-1934)

Western (non-Korean) films and Korean kino-dramas (filmed plays) were first screened in Korean theaters in the late 1890's or early 1900's. The first Korean feature film was either The Righteous Revenge (1919), a kino-drama; Chunhyang-Jeon (1922), the first sound film; or Plighted Love Under the Moon (1923, below).

A man touching woman's shoulder while two men sit against a wall

Image Credits:¬†Image via MUBIÔĽŅ

1926-1930 is Korea's "Golden Era of Silent Films." Leading the pack was Arirang (1926), directed by Na Woon-gyu who also played the lead. Unlike previous movies, Arirang criticized the Japanese government in power at the time. It's considered the first Korean nationalist film; like almost all Korean silent movies, it's believed to be lost.

Film poster for Korean silent film "Arirang"

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

After¬†ÔĽŅArirang¬†ÔĽŅcame many more silent films, including Na Woon-gyu's¬†ÔĽŅIn Search of Love¬†(1929, below)¬†and Shim Hun's highly acclaimed¬†Mondongi Tultte¬†(1927).

A mountain climber carrying another man on his back

ÔĽŅImage Credits:¬†ÔĽŅImage via Wikipedia

There were two other developments for Korean cinema. One was the founding of Korean-owned film studios, since all of them were previously Japanese-operated. The other was the use of byeonsas (narrators) who introduced the films' characters and settings and made parallels between the onscreen world and the viewers' world. 

Sound Films, Censorship Part I, and Liberation (1935-1954)

In the early 1930's, the Japanese authorities imposed harsher restrictions on filmmakers. They required films to be submitted to a censorship board for approval, rooting out any Korean patriotism. The last truly nationalist film from this time was Lee Gyu-hwan's The Ownerless Ferry Boat (1932).

A man and woman dressed in peasant clothing looking forlornly into the camera

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Chunyang-jeon (1935), another film based on the popular romance, was Korea's first sound film. Because of the spoken dialogue, which made byeonsas obsolete, these newer movies faced greater censorship.

A film strip from lost film 1935's Chunhyang-jeon

Image Credits: Image via IMDB

Korean-language films were officially banned during World War II. Japanese-language and pro-Japanese films (like 1943's Suicide Troops of the Watchtower) were made instead by the Korean Colonial Cinema Unit. Many Korean silent and early sound films were either destroyed or lost due to neglect.

A Japanese soldier and Korean woman holding guns

Image Credits: Image via Ameba

Following Korea's liberation in 1945, many Korean films were made to celebrate. Choi In-kyu's Viva Freedom! (1946) was the first of them; its story follows freedom fighters and their battles leading up to Japan's surrender. 

A film poster for "Viva Freedom!"

Image Credits: Koryo Film Co., Ltd. via Wikipedia

During the Korean War (1950-1953), few films were made, and none of them have survived. To save the Korean film industry, President Syngman Rhee made it exempt from taxes. Paired with new film technology from foreign aid programs, Korean filmmakers were soon able to return to the craft that they loved.

The Golden Age (1955-1972) 

This era produced some of South Korea's biggest stars, most talented directors, and best films. The 1950's saw a slow increase in domestic production. The most-watched films were another retelling of Chunhyang-jeon (1955) and Madame Freedom (1956, below).

Movie poster for "Madame Freedom" (1956)

Image Credits: SamSeong Film via Wikipedia

According to critics, two of the best Korean films came out of the 1960's: Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (1960) and Yu Hyun-mok's Obaltan (1961, below). Obaltan was banned by the South Korean government for being too depressing, but it was soon released and later screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Movie poster for "Obaltan" (1961)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Kang Dae-jin's The Coachman (1961) won the Berlinale's Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize, the first international award won by a Korean film. Meanwhile, Shin Sang-ok produced many critically and commercially successful films, including A Flower in Hell (1958) and The Houseguest and My Mother (1961, below).

Movie poster for "The Houseguest and My Mother"

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia 

The most famous film stars at the time were Shin Seong-il and Um Aing-ran. Both an onscreen and real-life couple, they starred in 58 films together and eventually married in the first "wedding of the century."

A black-and-white film still of Shin Seong-il and Um Aing-ran

Image Credits: Image via allkpop

However, things were getting dark again for the Korean film industry. The Motion Picture Law came in effect in 1962, limiting the imports of foreign films and the production of domestic films. And it didn't stop there.

Censorship Part II and the Road to Recovery (1973-1996)

After establishing the Yushin System in 1972, Park Chung-hee tightened his control over all aspects of media. Filmmakers couldn't criticize the government or its policies, otherwise they lost their license (like Shin Sang-ok did) or even went to jail. 

A man with a movie camera surrounded by crew

Image Credits: Korean Film Archive via Google Arts & Culture

The Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation (later the Korean Film Council) was established in 1973. It only allowed "policy films," or propaganda, to be released. Oddly enough, "hostess films" about bargirls and prostitutes (like 1977's Winter Woman) were allowed and, in fact, thrived during this period.

Poster for "Winter Woman" (1977)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Non-propaganda hits¬†include¬†Lee Jang-ho's Heavenly Homecoming to Stars¬†ÔĽŅ(1974), Lee Man-hee's The Road to Sampo¬†(1975), countless films by Kim Ki-young, and Ha Kil-jong's The March of Fools (1975, below).

Five college students drinking pints of beer

Image Credits: Image via BLARB

After Park Chung-hee's assassination in 1979, government restrictions started to ease. Independent films were made again and the ban on foreign films was finally lifted in 1988. Korean films started gaining greater international attention, especially those directed by Im Kwon-taek, including the Grand Prix-winning Mandala (1981, below) and The Surrogate Woman (1986).

Two Buddhist monks walking through grain field

Image Credits: BFI via Pinterest

Park Kwang-su was another big name to emerge from this era. His directorial debut Chilsu and Mansu (1988) showed the struggles of contemporary Koreans, who were still dealing with government restrictions and unemployment. It inspired other directors to make political films in the same vein.

Movie poster for "Chilsu and Mansu" (1988)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

With more foreign films allowed into South Korea, domestic films faced stiff competition. There were a few stand-outs, though. Kim Ui-seok's Marriage Story (1992, below) was the first film by a chaebol. Meanwhile, Im Kwon-taek's Seopyeonje (1993) was the first Korean film to attract over one million viewers and renewed interest in pansori (traditional Korean storytelling). 

Movie Poster for "Marriage Story" (1992)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Between the easing of restrictions and increased international interest, including the founding of distribution studios for companies like Columbia, the Korean film industry was able to recover from its war wounds. It was time for a new chapter: the Korean Wave, or Hallyu.

Hallyu 1.0 (1997-2007)

In 1997, South Korea was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis. Its film industry was still able to produce some box office sensations. The two highest-grossing films that year were Lee Jung-gook's The Letter (below) and Chang Yoon-hyun's The Contact. 

Movie poster for "The Letter" (1997)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Then came Kang Je-gyu's Shiri (1999). It was a global success and one of many popular action movies to follow. Other major releases that year included Memento Mori (the second film in the Whispering Corridors series); Tell Me Something (below); and Nowhere to Hide.

Movie poster for "Tell Me Something" (1999)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia  

Most Korean films from this era were action thrillers, romances, or horror. They kick-started or boosted the careers of beloved actors and actresses like Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Byung-hyun, Jeon Do-yeon, Won Bin, and Song Kang-ho.  

Movie poster for "Memories of Murder"

Memories of Murder¬†(2003) with Song Kang-ho /¬†CJ Entertainment via WikipediaÔĽŅ

Several famous directors debuted during Hallyu 1.0: Park Chan-wook, who came out with Joint Security Area (2000, below) and Oldboy (2003); Kang Je-gyu, responsible for Shiri and Taegukgi (2004); and Bong Joon-ho, whose films at this time included Memories of Murder and The Host (2006).

Movie poster for "Joint Security Area" (2000)

Image Credits: CJ Entertainment via Wikipedia

Another major development came through a revision of the Motion Picture Promotion Law in 1999. It saw an increase in financing for film production, which in turn increased the quality and output of domestic Korean movies. 

Hallyu 2.0 (2008-Present)

We now come to the New Korean Wave, where K-pop, K-dramas, and K-cinema quickly spread thanks to the rapidly changing technology. This included the evolving Internet and the switch from VHS to DVDs to online streaming.

Kocowa logo

Image Credits: Image via Audiovisual Identity Database

The most-represented genres continued to be horror and thrillers. 2016 saw the release of two of the biggest Korean horror films (we'll get to them later). Meanwhile, 2010 had both thrillers and horror, including The Man from Nowhere (below), I Saw the Devil, and a remake of The Housemaid.

Movie poster for "The Man from Nowhere"

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

A-list film actors were a mix of old and new names, such as Song Kang-ho (below), Lee Byung-hun, Lee Jung-jae, Choi Min-sik, and Gong Yoo. Meanwhile, big-name actresses included Chun Woo-hee, Jeon Do-yeon (below), Jung Yu-mi, Cho Yeo-jeong, and Lee Jung-eun. 

Song Kang-ho and Jeon Do-yeon winning awards

L-R: AP via India TV News / AFP via Korea JoongAng Daily

Korean filmmakers continued to outdo themselves. Bong Joon-ho directed Mother (2009), Snowpiercer (2013), Okja (2017, below), and Parasite (2019).

 Movie Poster for "Okja"

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Park Chan-wook came out with several hits including The Handmaiden (2016) and Decision to Leave (2022). Lee Joon-ik followed up The King and the Clown (2005) with more films such as The Throne (2015, below). Other big directors included Kim Jee-won (The Good, The Bad, the Weird, 2008) and Lee Chang-dong (Burning, 2018). 

Movie Poster for "The Throne" (2015)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Korean film studios also collaborated with Western studios. The best example is Snowpiercer, which has mostly English dialogue and a cast of mainly non-Korean actors. 

Movie poster for "Snowpiercer" (2013)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

More Korean films were nominated for and won international awards. Secret Sunshine (2007) was nominated for the 2007 Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or and earned Jeon Do-yeon the Best Actress award. 

Movie poster for "Secret Sunshine"

Image Credits: CJ Entertainment via Wikipedia

But the proudest moment of all came in 2020, when Parasite became the first non-English film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Parasite also won Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Foreign Language Film.

The cast and crew of "Parasite" celebrating wins at the Oscars

Image Credits: Reuters via The Atlantic

South Korean films continue to reach global audiences through streaming services such as Netflix. They also appear at award ceremonies and film festivals, both domestic and international. We can't wait to see what the future holds for Korean cinema!

Top Korean Films to Watch

The world of Korean cinema is a big one, and you might feel overwhelmed after all that history. We've chosen some groundbreaking films and classics for you to watch if you want to break into the Korean movie scene.

Warning: Some of these plots and trailers contain mature or disturbing content. 

The Housemaid (1960)

Theatrical poster for "The Housemaid" original film

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

The plot - a housemaid becomes the mistress of a piano teacher through manipulation and fear - doesn't seem particularly new. But for Korean audiences in 1960, The Housemaid was shocking due to its femme fatale character and disharmony in the main household. The first big hit by Kim Ki-young, it was remade in 2010 and later inspired Bong Joon-ho's Parasite. 

The Barefooted Youth (1964)

Poster for "Barefoot Youth" (1964)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

If you want a taste of the chemistry between Shin Seong-il and Um Aing-ran, look no further than this film. The Barefooted Youth is a star-crossed romance between a gangster with a heart of gold and a diplomat's daughter. Spoiler alert: don't expect a happy ending.  

Whispering Corridors (1998)

Poster of Whispering Corridors film

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

The first film in the Whispering Corridors series, Whispering Corridors is more than just a horror film set in an all-girls school. It's a critique of South Korea's contemporary education system at a time when it was very authoritarian. Later movies would break more taboos. Whispering Corridors also popularized urban legends associated with Korean schools. We recommend starting with this film or Memento Mori.

Shiri (1999)

Movie poster for Shiri (1999)

Image Credits: Samuel Goldwyn Films via Wikipedia

Our first action film on the list, but definitely not the last. Taking inspiration from Hong Kong action cinema,¬†ÔĽŅShiri¬†ÔĽŅpits elite South Korean secret agents against ruthless North Korean terrorists. One of the highest-grossing South Korean films ever made,¬†ÔĽŅShiri¬†ÔĽŅbroke several box office and audience number records. (More people saw it in Korean theaters than¬†ÔĽŅTitanicÔĽŅ!) It also inspired the k-drama¬†Iris¬†ÔĽŅ(2009).¬†

One Fine Spring Day (2001)

Movie poster for "One Fine Spring Day"

Image Credits: Cinema Service via Wikipedia

This movie¬†brought¬†"Do you want to eat ramyun?" to the world.¬†ÔĽŅOne Fine Spring Day¬†ÔĽŅtells the story of a couple (Yoo Ji-tae and Lee Young-ae) in love - but will it last? Winning two Best Director awards for Hur Jin-ho and three Best Film awards,¬†ÔĽŅOne Fine Spring Day¬†ÔĽŅwill have you feeling nostalgic for lost love or hopeful for a new beginning.

My Sassy Girl (2001)

Movie poster for "My Sassy Girl" (2001)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

One of the Korean Wave's biggest films,¬†ÔĽŅMy Sassy Girl¬†ÔĽŅinspired a sequel, TV dramas, and remakes in various countries including the U.S. and India. Starring Jun Ji-hyun (ÔĽŅMy Love from the Star) and Cha Tae-hyun (2 Days & 1 NightÔĽŅ), it¬†follows Gyeon-woo and his unhinged girlfriend, known only as The Girl. If you're looking for something to make you laugh hysterically, then¬†ÔĽŅMy Sassy Girl¬†ÔĽŅis the film for you.

The Way Home (2002)

Poster for The Way Home (2002)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes we need a feel-good film.¬†ÔĽŅThe Way Home¬†ÔĽŅis about Sang-woo (Yoo Seung-ho) who is sent to live with his mute grandmother (Kim Eul-boon) in the country. The spoiled Sang-woo is¬†initially upset, but he grows to love and appreciate his grandma.¬†Winning several awards (including Best Picture at the Grand Bell Awards) and praise from many critics,¬†The Way Home¬†will warm you up¬†and remind you of how much your grandmother loves you.¬†

Oldboy (2003)

Poster for 2003's "Oldboy"

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

When you're watching a Korean thriller, be prepared for relentless action, gut-wrenching plot twists, and some gore. The best example is Oldboy, a loose adaptation of a Japanese manga. Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is imprisoned for 15 years without any explanation. After being suddenly released, he embarks on a rage-filled hunt for his captors. Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival the following year and is considered one of the best films of all time. 

Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)

Movie poster for "Taegukgi"

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Now for¬†a war film. Following two brothers (Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin) who are¬†conscripted during the Korean War,¬†ÔĽŅTaegukgi¬†ÔĽŅwas popular both inside and outside South Korea. One reason is its lack of sugar-coating, showing¬†the brutal nature of both the North and South Korean armies. If¬†you're interested in¬†Korean War history, we¬†suggest that you watch this film.¬†

The Host (2006)

Movie poster for "The Host" (2006)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

After a monster kidnaps his daughter, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) embarks on a twisted journey to rescue her. The first Bong Joon-ho film on this list, The Host is more than your average monster flick. Based on real accounts of formaldehyde being dumped into the Han River, the movie contains environmental themes and criticism of both the South Korean and American authorities. It's a fantastic movie from one of South Korea's best directors.

Mother (2009)

"Mother" (2009) poster

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

A mother will do anything for her child. Case in point: this movie. The unnamed Mother (Kim Hye-ja) fights to free her intellectually disabled son (Won Bin) after he's imprisoned for the murder of high school student. Featuring an electrifying performance by Kim, Mother won critical and commercial success in and outside Korea and can be found on many "best-of" 2010's film lists.

Silenced (2011)

Film poster for 2011's "The Silenced"

Image Credits: CJ Entertainment via Wikipedia

Somtimes films spark a change in law. Silenced is one of them. Here, a teacher (Gong Yoo) tries to bring to light the sexual abuse of Deaf children at his new school. Based on real accounts of assaults at the Gwangju Inhwa School for the Deaf, the film resulted in national outrage, the punishment of involved individuals, and the passing of the Dogani Law. Silenced is not an easy watch, but we encourage readers to check it out if they want to learn more about this difficult topic.

Train to Busan (2016)

Poster for "Train to Busan"

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

When it comes to Korean horror films, Train to Busan is at the top of the list. One of the most famous Korean zombie films ever made, it was the highest-grossing box office film in South Korea and a commercial hit in various other countries. It's a simple premise - zombies trap passengers on a train headed to Busan - but it features shocking twists, realistic effects, and some amazing performances from Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, and others. Add this movie to your watchlist!

The Wailing (2016)

Film poster for "The Wailing" (2016)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

If you didn't find Train to Busan scary enough, then put on The Wailing. Set in a village where people are going crazy and killing their families, it follows police officer Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) tasked with solving the mystery. He meets a mysterious woman (Chun Woo-hee), a charismatic shaman (Hwang Jung-min), and a sinister stranger (Jun Kunimura), racing against time to save his daughter (Kim Hwan-hee) from becoming the next victim. Don't watch it before bed!

The Handmaiden (2016)

Movie poster for "The Handmaiden" (2016)

Image Credits: Image via Wikipedia

Part¬†thriller, part historical film, and part¬†lesbian romance,¬†ÔĽŅThe Handmaiden¬†ÔĽŅhas something for everyone.¬†It tells the story of¬†Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and her maid Nam Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as they navigate deception and betrayal in¬†Japanese-occupied Korea. It won Best Film Not in the English Language at the 71st BAFTAs and was ranked number 1 on¬†ÔĽŅGuardian's list of modern South Korean films. Don't take their word for it - go watch The Handmaiden!

Parasite (2019)

Movie poster for "Parasite" (2019)

Image Credits: CJ Entertainment via Wikipedia

For many viewers (including this author),¬†ÔĽŅParasite¬†ÔĽŅwas their first Korean film. The story of a poor family who infiltrates a rich family's household, it's both a satire and a black comedy where things go absolutely berserk.¬†ÔĽŅParasiteÔĽŅ's¬†cultural impact can't be stated enough, and it's definitely one of South Korea's greatest films.

Decision to Leave (2022)

Poster for Decision to Leave

Image Credits: CJ Entertainment via Wikipedia

2022¬†had some amazing movies, including¬†ÔĽŅBrokerÔĽŅ,¬†ÔĽŅHuntÔĽŅ, and¬†ÔĽŅThe Roundup.ÔĽŅ However, we wanted to give a special shoutout to Decision to Leave,¬†ÔĽŅwhich won Park Chan-wook Best Director at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. In this riveting mystery, a detective (Park Hae-il) falls for a woman (Tang Wei) suspected of killing her husband. Prepare to be blown away by the cinematography, story, and acting.

Have you seen any of these films? Which one is your favorite? Comment below which ones you liked and any recommendations for movies we didn't include on this list. We hope there are some new titles that you're planning to watch for your next date or family night. (Or by yourself!)

Red box with snacks and merch on a yellow spring background

 Image Credits: Image via Seoulbox

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