8. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2002)
Ryu is a deaf-mute who is working in a factory to support his ill sister who is in dire need of a kidney transplant. Unfortunately Ryu is not a match so he can’t donate one of his kidneys to her and on top of that he also loses his job. He decides to get a kidney of the black organ-trading market with his pay-out but the gangsters he deals with end up screwing him over and steal his money and kidney without giving him another kidney in return.
Only then is he contacted by the hospital as a suitable transplant has been found but now he lacks the money to pay for the operation. Ryu’s radical terrorist girlfriend than convinces him to kidnap a girl from a rich industrialist to pay for the operation. But things do not go according to plan and soon every single character in the movie is out for revenge on one another.
The first film in Chan-Wook Park’s acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the perfect date film if you want to ensure that you never go on a second one. Taking depressing and bleakness to whole new heights, the movie can be hard to sit through, especially for those who go to the movies to forget about their daily worries with some escapist entertainment.
This is also not an action film so if that’s what you like about Korean thrillers, this might not be the best selection on this list. But after all those warnings, let it be known that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a masterpiece in stylish pessimism and disturbing darkness. A nihilistic masterpiece.
7. The Yellow Sea (Hong-Jin Na, 2010)
Gu-Nam is a cab driver in Yanji city, located near the borders of China, Russia and North Korea and home to a great number of Chinese-Koreans known as Joseonjok. His wife left for Korea over six months ago to make some extra money but he hasn’t heard from her since and on top of this he also has some serious gambling debts.
So when the opportunity arises to go to Korea to carry out a well-paid hit for a local gangster, Gu-Nam grabs the opportunity, figuring he will also be able to look for his wife whilst he’s there. Upon arrival however it turns out that it’s all an elaborate set-up and soon the lonely Korean finds himself chased by the police, the South Korean mob, Chinese triads and a cold-blooded assassin.
After The Chaser (which we’ll find further down this list), director Hong-Jin Na delivered another action-packed thriller with The Yellow Sea. Whilst not as intricately plotted and tight as his previous effort, The Yellow Sea is a two-hour-plus gritty drama with some incredible suspense and action sequences.
Well choreographed and with stunning and moody cinematography, the movie captures the viewer in the first half as it sets up the plot and characters, only to go completely overboard during the second half, which seems to be one long violent outburst of endless fights and mayhem with handheld weapons due to South Korea’s extremely tough gun laws. Bleak, gritty, kinetic and intense, The Yellow Sea is an action thriller of the highest order.
6. New World (Hoon-Jung Park, 2013)
After having been undercover in South Korea’s largest crime syndicate, Ja-Sung has found himself in the position of being the right-hand man of the organisation’s second in charge, Jung Chung. But when the big boss is suddenly killed in a car accident, a power struggle develops between the second and third in charge and Ja-Sung, who has been desperate to leave his undercover life behind and start afresh with his pregnant wife, finds himself forced to stay as his commanding chief sees this as a prime opportunity for the police to gain full control of the organisation. And to make matters worse it’s abundantly clear that Jung Chung sees him as a genuine friend whereas his commanding officer is treating him like mere bait.
Basically the South Korean version of Infernal Affairs/The Departed, New World manages to present its often seen story of the deep-undercover cop in a criminal organisation, torn between loyalties between his gangster friends and police buddies, in such a confident and inspired manner that it still feels fresh.
If you liked Infernal Affairs or it’s American remake The Departed, New World is an absolute must-see movie. Director Hoon-Jung Park keeps building the tension masterfully as the film progresses but also manges to inject the proceedings with genuine emotional depth, even going for straight-up melodrama at times, without ever feeling forced. Whilst not the most original storyline, New World manages to be one of the best films in its genre and should not be missed.
5. The Man from Nowhere (Jeong-beom Lee, 2010)
Cha Tae-Sik used to be a special forces agent until his wife and child were violently taken from him. Nowadays he lives a solitary life as a pawnshop owner, shut off from the world and seemingly not very interested in ever rejoining society. That’s until he meets the young girl who lives next door.
Clearly neglected by her drug addicted mother, the two strike up an unlikely friendship. But when the mother makes the vital mistake of stealing drugs from a powerful crime lord, she and her daughter are taken by gangsters and it’s up to Cha Tae-Sik to set things straight. Initially striking a deal with the mob, Cha Tae-Sik soon finds himself besieged from all sides as both the police and various underworld figures are on his trail.
Bleak as hell and dealing with horrific themes like child abuse, organ trafficking, drug addiction, kidnapping and murder, The Man from Nowhere still manages to find a lot of heart and package the whole as a kinetic action thriller. If you like your action dark and violent and you haven’t seen this The Man from Nowhere, this movie should be on the top of your list.
4. A Dirty Carnival (Ha Yoo, 2006)
A Dirty Carnival tells the story of Byeong-Du, a small-time enforcer in a local triad, who seems to solely be in the business out of necessity to support his family. With no father around, a bunch of younger siblings and a mother who is terminally ill, all of them are on the brink of being evicted and it’s up to Byeong-Du to make sure this doesn’t happen.
When he sees a chance of climbing the ranks in his organisation by killing a corrupt prosecutor for his big boss, Byeong-Du grabs the opportunity but by doing so he also invokes the ire of his direct superior, who he bypassed by working directly for their organisation’s president.
Additionally he runs into an old friend from his high school days who is now a film director and who would love to get inside information on the triads in order to invigorate his film career. When Byeong-Du does so he further complicates matters for himself and his family.
A slick neo-noir and poignant melodrama, A Dirty Carnival does not glamorise the gangster lifestyle and clearly shows how for many it’s simply a dead-end career path. Just like in the previously mentioned The Yellow Sea, the action scenes are sudden and brutal as strict South Korean gun laws have made baseball bats, knives and axes the weapons of choice for small-time gangsters. A dark and sparse gangster film, A Dirty Carnival is a superior example of South Korean genre dominance.
3. A Bittersweet Life (Kim Jee-Woon, 2005)
A Bittersweet Life is basically the embodiment of a super stylish gangster flick. This fantastic film manages to go effortlessly from dramatic to violent to contemplative without ever skipping a beat.
The story involves a gangster’s right-hand man, who is given the seemingly simple task to look after the gangster’s younger lover in his absence, who he suspects is having an affair with a younger man. The normally cold and collected enforcer however starts to develop feelings for the young lady whilst at the same time getting in trouble with a rival gang.
Wonderfully shot and edited and featuring a great performance from the lead, Lee Byeong-Heon, whom western audiences might know from those awful GI Joe movies, A Bittersweet Life is yet another prime example of how Korea is completely on top of the crime film genre. The film also has a fantastic score which often offsets the brutality on screen. If you like gangster films, this is simply compulsory viewing.
2. Memories of Murder (Joon-Ho Bong, 2003)
A series of rapes and murders are occurring in a rural area in South Korea in 1986. The local small town cop assigned to the case, Park Doo-Man, has no idea how to handle the situation. After he arrests the wrong person an expert from Seoul , Seo Tae-Yoon, is sent over to help with the investigation.
Both men’s styles couldn’t be more different as the local cop is used to beating confessions out of his suspects whilst Seo takes a more pragmatic investigative approach. Initially Park isn’t even convinced he is dealing with a serial killer until Seo’s predictions come true and another woman is found raped and murdered. But as the investigation is not providing any results, both men seem to slowly be reaching the end of their tether.
Based on a real case which took place between 1986 and 1991 and which constituted the country’s first recorded serial killings, Memories of Murder was a huge critical as well as commercial success upon its release. It was also one of the films that really upped the ante for South Korean filmmaking at the time.
The film clearly deals with the rapidly changing political situation in South Korea in the late eighties as the country was emerging from a dictatorship as exemplified by the local police force’s brutal tactics. But despite the dark subject matter, the film also manages to be darkly humorous and it put its director, Jooh-Ho Bong, clearly on the map.
1. Oldboy (Chan-Wook Park, 2003)
The film deals with Oh Dae-su, a husband and father, who on the day of his daughter’s birthday is kidnapped and placed in solitary confinement in a hotel-like prison for reasons which remain unknown to him nor is he told how long he will be imprisoned. During his stay in the cell, he learns through the television in his cell that his wife has been murdered and that he is the prime suspect although his whereabouts are unknown to the police.
Then suddenly, after 15 years, he is released. He receives a cellphone from a stranger and then a call from his captor. When Oh Dae-su asks who he is talking to, the captor answers that the who is not important but that he should be thinking about the why instead. From there on in, it becomes a race against the clock to find his tormentor and exact revenge as he is only given a day to solve the mystery.
Oldboy is the middle film in Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, preceded by Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The films are thematically linked but not narratively, so there is no need to see the other movies to be able to enjoy Oldboy (although I still highly recommend to see all three of them, otherwise they wouldn’t all be on this list).
If there is one thing the Korean are good at, it’s making dark depressing and tense thrillers and amongst those Oldboy is probably the very best. It certainly is the film that got the West’s attention focused on the booming Korean film industry as Oldboy won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and a whole other string of nominations and awards worldwide. An obvious but deserving choice for the number one spot on this list, Oldboy is a modern classic.
Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.