When it comes to bleak stylish thrillers and crime films, it’s hard to beat the South Koreans nowadays and all the movies listed below are fine examples of that statement. Whereas the South Korean film industry had been heavily state-regulated until the late eighties, the first fully non-government funded film, Marriage Story, appeared in 1992.
Although films started to suffer less from censorship, the state still placed strict limits on the number of foreign films which were allowed to be shown in the country which made the local film industry thrive.
In 1999 Shiri was released, a spy thriller which did so well that it sold more tickets than Titanic in South Korea that year. Due to this movie’s success, larger budget films started being produced and crime thrillers gained enormously in popularity. Two years later, the gangster coming-of-age drama Friend eclipsed Shiri’s earlier sales records but it wasn’t until Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy in 2003 that the stylish South Korean crime thriller really came of age and that critics in the West started paying attention.
Ever since, South Korea has been the undisputed champion of the genre as a plethora of films with intricate twist-filled screenplays, stunning production design and cinematography, dark themes, powerhouse performances and edge-of-your-seat storylines have found their way to the screen.
Whilst it should be noted that South Korea cinema produces far more than just crime films and thrillers, there’s no denying that the nation has a real knack for the genre and that it’s these movies which have gathered most attention abroad. If there have been two defining features of these films, they would have to be their über-stylish visuals and downbeat bleak themes.
All the movies listed below are prime examples of at least one, if not both, of these qualities and are essential viewing for those with a serious interest in thrillers or crime dramas.
15. The Berlin File (Seung-Wan Ryoo, 2013)
With its non-Korean setting (Berlin as you might have guessed from the title of the movie) and sweeping action set pieces, The Berlin File revolves around Jong-Seong, a North Korean agent who becomes exposed when an illegal arms deal goes wrong.
In the aftermath no one is sure whose side Jong-Seong and his wife, who is a translator at the North Korean embassy, belong to and soon the CIA as well as the North and South Korean intelligence agencies are all after them. Forced into a corner, Jong-Seong will need to make a decision as to where his royalties lie: his wife or his country.
Probably the most straight-forward action movie on this list, The Berlin File is maybe easiest described as a South Korean Jason Bourne film. A spy thriller with a clear emphasis on action setpieces and not so much the bleak thematic undercurrent of virtually all other films on this list,
The Berlin File is a great and easy introduction to Korean crime thrillers for Western audiences who might not be familiar with any of the films in this article yet. A clear commercial genre film, The Berlin File looks, feels and sounds great. The only thing letting this one down a bit is the convoluted plot and the sense that you have seen most of this before. Still, it’s well done and if you like spy thrillers, chances are you will not be disappointed by this action-packed spy flick.
14. Montage (Jeong Geun-Seop, 2013)
15 years ago a girl was kidnapped and never found. Just days before the case’s statute of limitations expires, someone places a flower at the scene of the crime, a location which was only known to the girl’s mother, the detective that took on the case and the kidnapper himself. Then, a few days later, another kidnapping occurs which bears striking resemblances to the 15 year old unsolved case.
Three people now all get involved in this new kidnapping, desperately trying to solve it: the grandfather whose grandchild was taken right from under his nose, the mother of the girl who was kidnapped 15 years ago and has never stopped looking for her and the detective who has been haunted by the 15 year old case which he has never been able to solve.
Montage starts out as your average suspense thriller and takes its time getting to the second part of the movie, tricking the audience into thinking that this is just your standard pot-boiler. But once the screenplay starts revealing more and some of the character’s motivations are brought to light, the film becomes a whole different beast and some of the events in the first half take on a totally different meaning.
A more quiet and pondering mystery than most of the other entries on this list, Montage is a well directed tense thriller with a lot more to say than one might initially expect.
13. I Saw The Devil (Kim Jee-Woon, 2010)
When Kyung-Chul, a serial killer, murders Joo-Yun on a snowy night and scatters her body parts, he doesn’t realise he couldn’t have selected a worse victim. Not only is her father a police squad leader, her boyfriend, Soo-Hyun, is a secret service agent of the National Intelligence Service, who becomes determined to track down the killer and make him pay.
Given leads on some suspects by his father-in-law, Soo-Hyun soon manages to locate the killer. But instead of bringing him to justice, he places a tracking device on him and keeps tormenting the killer, in the process even capturing a vicious cannibal and his girlfriend who Kyung-Chul has been supplying with victimes. But once the killer finds out how Soo-Hyun is tracing him and why, he decides to go after Joo-Yun’s family to exact revenge.
You know that things are going to get nasty when South Korea decided to censor I Saw The Devil for its extreme graphic violence. Kim Jee-Woon’s answer to Chan-Wook Park Vengeance Trilogy, the film suffers in comparison and never manages to reach the same heights. But if stylish brutal films are your cup of tea than there’s plenty to like here.
Violent, disturbing and with two of Korea’s greatest stars doing what they do best, I Saw The Devil is another noteworthy South Korean entry in the revenge movie genre and well worth seeing for lovers of these types of film, even though at times the story really doesn’t make all that much sense.
12. Mother (Joon-Ho Bong, 2009)
Do-Joon is a shy and mentally slow young man in his twenties who is looked after by his over-protective mother. Do-Joon hangs out with Jin-Tae a lot, who the mother sees as a potential bad influence on this easily swayed Do-Joon. One day a girl is found murdered and circumstantial evidence leads the police to Do-Joon.
The boy is arrested and easily convinced into signing a confession even though he doesn’t seem to recall having anything to do with the crime. His mother, convinced that her son could never have committed such a terrible act and that he might in fact be covering for Jin-Tae, starts trying to prove her son’s innocence but the deeper she digs, the more complicated the truth seems to become.
Jooh-Ho Bong’s follow-up to his international breakthrough hit, The Host, is a mystery crime drama in which the director once again manages to give his own personal twist to genre he’s working in. Featuring great performances from all involved and controlled direction by Bong, the film is filled with ambiguity and at times genuinely heartfelt. The movie was nominated for and went on to win a whole slate of awards at various international film festivals.
11. Breathless (Ik-Joon Yang, 2008)
Song-Hoon is an enforcer for a local loan shark. And as the man is basically rage personified, he’s damn good at his job. Violent, brutal, obnoxious, swearing incessantly and intimidating as hell, Song-Hoon is not to be messed with and will take down anyone for very little reason. One day he accidentally spits on a schoolgirl, who tells him to get lost, and true to his nature he proceeds to knock her out.
Sensing that he might have overreacted, he stays around till she wakes up and then offers to buy the still deviant girl a beer. From here on in the two develop a cautionary friendship and slowly but surely the girl manages to awake a gentler side in Sang-Hoon, which leads him to reconsider his life choices.
Breathless is without a doubt the most low-key and low-budget entry on this list. Directed, produced, written and edited by Jang Ik-June, who on top of all those duties also manages to star in the movie, Breathless is a triumph of independent and low-budget filmmaking.
Grim as hell and just as bleak as the larger productions found in this article, the movie refuses to give easy or crowd pleasing answers. Another festival favourite, the film managed to take home more than twenty awards at various international festivals.
10. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2005)
Lee Geum-Ja was in her early twenties when she was convicted for the kidnapping and murder of a young boy. Because of her age and innocent looks the case became a media circus and her story has been followed by many, even during her reduced 13 year prison sentence in which she became a model prisoner and made many friends on the inside.
As she leaves jail, a fan procession is awaiting her outside but Lee Geum-Ja pays them no mind and immediately starts working on a plan she has been preparing for the last 13 years: revenge.
The closing chapter of Chan-Wook Park’s critically acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is possibly the lightest entry in the series, which doesn’t mean we are not dealing with some serious sick subject matter here.
The film has a much brighter colour palette then the previous two entries in the trilogy and tones down the visceral and brutal violence but also feels like the most personal entry in the series. If Lady Vengeance seems to fall slightly short, it’s only because it lacks the intensity of the first two films. Taken on its own merits, this is a stunning and unique vision from a director at the top of his game.
9. The Chaser (Hong-Jin Na, 2008)
Jung-ho is a ex-policeman who has turned to pimping. Lately two of his girls have disappeared without clearing their debts and he is starting to suspect foul play. When he gets a call for another girl, he sends off Mi-jin but realises too late that the number belongs to the same man who hired the last girl who disappeared. His old detective skills kick in and he goes to investigate and actually manages to catch the suspect after a lengthy chase but both men are arrested and taken to the police station.
There the killer admits to murdering the women but police can’t hold him due to lack of any physical evidence. Now Jung-ho only has twelve hours to find Mi-jin, who might still be alive somewhere.
The Chaser was the debut for director Hong-jin Na, who delivered a very tense and elaborately plotted thrill-ride with his very first movie. The film took home a whole bunch of various Korean film awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Editing. Although it’s not as well known as Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, this movie comes just as highly recommended.