South Korea has submitted 30 titles for Best Foreign Film consideration at the Academy Awards over the years, and has come up empty 29 times. This year’s candidate, Lee Chang-dong’s beautiful Burning, might have the buzz to finally change South Korea’s Oscar fortunes, but as Vulture’s E. Alex Jung recently pointed out, the country’s 0-for-everything streak with the Hollywood establishment is “a curious historical omission (embarrassing more for the Academy than it is for Korea) when you consider the country’s filmmaking stature in the world.” Park Chan-wook, Na Hong-jin, Kim Jee-woon, Bong Joon-ho, director Lee, and so many more have spent the last 20 years turning out some of the most adventurous, aesthetically arresting cinema in the world. And if you’re a horror-movie fan, they’re the crop of directors par excellence when it comes to executing the genre-blending style that defines this modern wave of critically acclaimed art-house horror.
Directors du jour like Ari Aster and Julia Ducournau have cited South Korean filmmakers when discussing their most impactful cinematic contemporaries, and the immaculate art direction of creatives like Park — paired with a heavy emphasis on mood and twisted family dramas — can be seen bleeding through the screen in movies like Raw and Hereditary. But what happened in the last 20 years to spur such a cinematic renaissance? Well, the laws around film censorship in Korea were dramatically altered, allowing filmmakers to create without fear of government meddling.
Back in 1963, the country’s constitution included an article that said “censorship of films and entertainment to defend public morals and social ethics is permissible.” Strict rules were put in place dictating how many films a company could produce each year, and what was appropriate to show people at all. There were also very specific guidelines around how many foreign films could be imported. And while film policies did slowly become more liberal over the years, it took a political regime change in the late 1990s to finally shove censorship out the door for good.
Thus, the boom in Korea’s cultural economy was born, igniting the Korean Wave. If you’d like to know where some of the best horror films in the world are coming from, below is a 15-film tour of how genre cinema fits into the Wave. Consider it your starter pack for the South Korean horror experience, and perhaps your introduction to some of the boldest voices in Asian film. Be advised: Things get pretty brutal in here.
Whispering Corridors (1998)
Whispering Corridors is an important entry in modern Korean horror because it was part of the first wave of commercially successful films that catalyzed the regional cinema boom at the turn of the 21st century. President Kim Dae-jung pledged to abolish censorship practices when he ran for office in 1997, and upon his election in 1998 started following through on that promise, implementing a policy of “provide support, but do not interfere.” A rise in violent genre films followed. Corridors tells the story of a highly regimented all-girls school that’s terrorized by the ghost of a dead student who returns every three years to wreak havoc on the staff. Besides just being a tale of haunts, Corridors is also a critique of the authoritarian structures within the education system, a hangover from the years South Korea spent under military dictatorship. It also kick-started a five-movie-deep franchise, which includes standout entries like Memento Mori and Voice.
Tell Me Something (1999)
Another pioneering film in the Korean film wave, Chang Yoon-hyun’s Tell Me Something is an early entry in the regional cinema surge that incorporates one of the strongest elements of the country’s genre cinema: crime! South Korea has an outstanding tradition of intense crime thrillers, and Tell Me Something follows a disgraced detective tasked with solving a series of terrible murders. A killer is terrorizing Seoul, cutting up his victims with surgical precision and leaving their parts scattered around the city. The movie is dark, bleak, and the way the detective moves through the rainy, gloomy city calls to mind a Se7en sensibility. (If you want a little less horror and a little more action in your Korean crime stories, check out movies like The Man From Nowhere, New World, The Chaser, or The Merciless.)
This supernatural thriller directed by Yoon Jong-chan follows a young taxi driver who moves into a rundown apartment building and ends up living in a unit where the previous tenant mysteriously died. A complicated relationship with another tenant leads to Yong-hyun, the occupant of the cursed room, helping to cover up a serious crime, and as the young man goes farther down a dark path, he has to decide if the evil in the building is connected to a ghost — or to the people he lives next to.
Into the Mirror (2003)
Get ready for more mysterious murders! After a police officer is involved in the accidental death of his partner, he quits the force and becomes head of security for a major shopping center. A massive fire closed the mall for renovations years ago, and shortly before the grand reopening, mall employees start dying in strange and hideous ways. A cop at heart, the man is unsatisfied with the way police handled the crime, and so takes it upon himself to investigate. But the more he learns, the less believable the truth becomes.
Save the Green Planet! (2003)
The marketing for Save the Green Planet! wants you to know that it’s not a comedy, or a horror film, or science fiction — in fact, it’s all three (and so much more). In the feature debut of writer-director Jang Joon-hwan, an odd, amphetamine-powered bookkeeper named Byun-gu (whose girlfriend is a tightrope walker) kidnaps a powerful businessman after becoming convinced that he is part of an alien plot to destroy the world. Byun-gu is certain that his prisoner has the information required to halt Armageddon, and so embarks on a long process of torture and interrogation in the name of saving Earth. But is Byun-gu’s motivation really so heroic, or does he have a vendetta against the businessman? And will he be apprehended by a team of cops trying to stop a serial kidnapper they’ve been tracking? It’s all just part of the demented adventure in Save the Green Planet!
If you don’t know any other names in South Korean cinema, you probably know Park Chan-wook. He’s given us the entire Vengeance Trilogy; the brilliant, should-have-won-an-Oscar The Handmaiden; and even an English-language film in 2013’s Stoker. But for the purposes of horror, we will focus here on Oldboy. Like so much of Park’s work, it’s a tale of forbidden love and revenge. Choi Min-sik stars as Oh Dae-su, a man imprisoned in a dull hotel room for 15 years, and who spends the entire time plotting his future revenge. Once he finally escapes, Oh Dae-su proves to be an almost unkillable machine in his pursuit of street justice, but the discovery of a difficult truth will test his will — and lead to one of the most memorable climactic scenes of the century. One of the best aspects of modern horror is the freedom with which filmmakers are blending genres, and South Korean directors stand out for their willingness to make romantic, violent, and meticulously art-directed horror pictures.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
The first film on this list from director Kim Jee-woon is loosely based on the folktale of “Jangha and Hongryun,” about two girls left with their father and cruel stepmother after their real mother dies. At the start of Two Sisters, a pair of sisters return home after a period of hospitalization to cope with the death of their mom. In their absence, their father remarried, and before too long one of the sisters becomes haunted by disturbing visions, eventually becoming convinced that the stepmom is keeping a dark secret from the family. Two Sisters was a massive hit both critically and commercially, and it cemented the rise of director Kim as one of South Korea’s top filmmaking talents.
Spider Forest (2004)
Did you say you wanted more people being hacked to pieces? Oh, good! Because Song Il-gon’s amazingly titled Spider Forest begins with a man waking up in the middle of the woods and finding a couple who have been cut to ribbons in a hideous crime scene. And that’s just the lead-in. An accident lands the man, Kang Min, in the hospital, where he’s named as a murder suspect. From there, we go to flashbacks of Kang Min’s life and watch him deal with tragedy, self-medicate with booze, and eventually make his way to the haunted Spider Forest — a cursed place he may have his own mysterious connection to.
R-Point combines the horrors of both the supernatural and war when a group of soldiers sets out to find a missing patrol unit. Set amid the brutal slog of the Vietnam War, a South Korean army base starts receiving transmissions from the long-missing patrol team, and an emotionally frayed and physically worn-down group of soldiers is sent to investigate the signal origin, located in what everyone assumes is lifeless area called R-point. In fact, life does remain, but it’s just not human, and the men on a rescue mission end up fighting for their own survival against a malevolent force.
The Host (2006)
There are two movies that will come up when you search The Host. Ignore the 2013 movie based on a Stephenie Meyer book, and click on the 2006 film from director Bong Joon-ho. Starring the very famous Song Kang-ho, The Host is a creature feature about what happens after a massive monster springs out of the Han River and starts terrorizing the surrounding community. The scene when the sea beast makes landfall is a thrilling action sequence that blends high suspense with just the right amount of classic monster-movie camp, but The Host is more than just set pieces. Director Bong, who has skewered the perversions of modern life with films like Snowpiercer and Okja, used the story to critique the cold bureaucracy of Korean government policies, environmental abuse, and the presence of American interests in his country. There’s a giant fish mutant, but there’s also a message.
Living Death (2009)
Also known as Possessed, Living Death centers on a college student named Hee-jin, who comes home from school after her teenage sister gets into a terrible car accident and then goes missing. Hee-jin’s zealot mother refuses to work with the police investigating her daughter’s disappearance, turning to prayer instead. But the case of Hee-jin’s sister is only one of the terrible mysteries she has to confront, as her neighbors begin to kill themselves — and she starts wondering if her sister is connected to the wave of death. The film, from director Lee Yong-ju, is notable for its critical handling of religious themes, which was not a common practice in Korean cinema at the time.
This Korean hit comes by way of Jang Cheol-soo in his feature debut, which he made after working with the prominent director Kim Ki-duk on films like Samaritan Girl and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring. The story centers on two women who grew up together in a rough island-bound community, and are brought together again when one of them leaves her life in the city to return home. Oppressed by the regressive community and her abusive husband, the friend who stayed on the island is pushed to her breaking point one day and goes on a bloody vengeance spree. The brutality of men is largely ignored by the women on the island, creating a festering patriarchy in the closed society. And when the woman snaps, even her old friend’s life might be in danger.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
If you love hard-core revenge cinema, there is truly no country producing better films than South Korea — see the aforementioned Vengeance Trilogy — and director Kim Jee-woon makes his second appearance on this list with I Saw the Devil. Things start simply enough: A highly trained secret agent named Kim Soo-hyeon discovers that his fiancée has been brutally murdered and left for dead in a river, and he becomes obsessed with hunting down her killer. But there’s a twist in I Saw the Devil. Kim catches the killer, Kyung-chul, early on in the film, and sets him free after administering a truly savage beating. The remainder of the run time is an operatic marathon of violence in which Kim repeatedly catches and brutalizes the murderer before letting him go to start the game over again. And at about 140 minutes long, that’s a lot of time to see blood spilled in new and shocking ways. Kim Jee-woon is one of Korea’s modern masters (check out his movie A Bittersweet Life for yet more revenge), and the legendary Min-sik Choi delivers a gruesome performance as the twisted taxi driver.
The Wailing (2016)
A drama, a dark spiritual odyssey, a story of contagion with some undead, too — The Wailing is a gorgeous two-and-a-half-hour experience that feels like melting into a wandering nightmare. Director Na Hong-jin’s slow, slow burn about a rural village plagued by mysterious murders is a great example of how adept Korean directors are at crafting immersive, long movies that avoid feeling bloated or navel-gazing. (Think I Saw the Devil or select films from director Lee Chang-dong, including Poetry, Secret Sunshine, or the outstanding Burning.) The Wailing will reward the patient viewer as they follow the story of an average Joe police officer tasked with investigating a troubling surge in both death and illness in his small community. The atmosphere of this one is heavy with dread, and director Na deftly repurposes popular horror tropes to make them feel like fresh concepts.
Train to Busan (2016)
Flat out, Train to Busan is one of the best zombie movies ever made, and it was one of the best movies to be released in 2016. What lifts South Korean horror so consistently above its peers in genre is the weight of the relationships at the center, and no matter how fast the action gets in Busan — which takes place almost entirely aboard a moving train — the characters feel complete almost as soon as they arrive onscreen. Things ramp up fast in this movie, with a father and his estranged daughter getting trapped on a train just as a zombie outbreak sweeps across the landscape. But amid the flesh-eating zombie madness, you feel the heartbreak of loss when good characters go down and the swelling rage when the selfish ones doom others to die. Train to Busan is an expertly shot adrenaline rush that will punch you right in the feelings, too.