Skip to content

15 Great South Korean Crime Films That Are Worth Your Time

30 April 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Emilio Santoni

best south korean crime films

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)

The Berlin File

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)

Upcoming-Korean-movie-montage

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)

i-saw-the-devil

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)

mother 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)

Breathless

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)

Sympathy-for-Lady-Vengeance

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. Memories of Murder (Joon-Ho Bong, 2003)

memories-of-murder

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.

 

 

Pages: 1 2


   

Other Brilliant Movie Posts On The Web
   

Like Our Facebook Page and Get Daily Updates
   
  • Pete Howell

    Poetry

  • Jung Hoon Yee

    I would recommend Green Fish (1997), The Rules of the Game (1994) and Nowhere to Hide (1999) as well.

  • Arya Bima

    Personally I would change Berlin File, TMFN & Montage with Pieta, Secret Sunshine & Cruel Winter Blues. More heart wrenching.

    • Garth Vader

      YES! Pieta<3

    • rubikjazz

      I LOVE Secret Sunshine, it’s one of my favorite films but I wouldn’t consider it a crime/mob genre. It’s more overall drama.

  • Andrew lowry

    Brilliant list. Well done.

  • Nice list! I watched some of them. Memory of a murder and a bittersweet life are my favorite.

    I also like OLDBOY!

  • OnECenTX

    “I Saw The Devil” and “Mother” should be in the top 5!? Also, Oldboy is overrated, still a great film but not as great as the hype of people telling you to go see it because of how great it is.

    • RVJ

      Thank you for Saying ” Oldboy is overrated”. I couldn’t agree more.

      • Guest

        Have you ever consider the assumption that the movie is not necessary over rated but simply too deep and artistic for your knowledge of cinema? The point is that Art film become entertaining in function of what you know about cinema. In the other hand, I Saw the Devil and Mother are way more easy to watch.

      • Ankur Deb

        Wow, Oldboy is overrated?
        I bet you are the kind of guy who watches Korean movies just because the movies are in Korean and not for the actual story and content.

    • Lewis C

      I saw the devil is horribly over-rated. I could tell what the point of the movie was by just looking at the title and the trailer – the technicality of the film is excellent but it hammers its message in your face for over 2 hours – reminds me a bit of “Funny Games” in that respect. Still its a decent movie.

      Man from Nowhere is another one which was good but people rave about it, I enjoyed it but found it slightly underwhelming.

      Memories of Murder is the best Korean film ive seen ever, its a very special movie with all sorts of different aspects to it.

      Oldboy is also very good even if it isnt quite as good as the fanatics would believe.

    • 15 years in prison and suddenly he is free..Now he has to find who did this to him….Finally you come to know that he has fucked her own daughter in the process of finding his captors…and you say this thing is OVERRATED??? wow…Too dark and bleak for your taste I think..I was fucking shocked…I literally kept my mouth open for minutes in shock…Now thats how you make a film

    • Chef Tournel

      I never consider these articles as ranking the movies in an order according to quality or “greatness”. Just collecting a number of good suggestions re: the topic. As a consequence, I’m more interested in the ones I haven’t seen than what I already know.

    • Dezsire

      Mother maybe , “I Saw the devil” wasn’t that great . “Oldboy” isn’t overrated it gets what it deserve , on the other hand “I Saw the Devil” and “The Chaser” are

      • Garth Vader

        mmmmaaaaybe……I don’t really think so, however

  • RVJ

    Private Eye and Confessions of Murder Need to be on this List!!!!!

  • karakaondzula

    Oasis must be on this list, Peppermint Candy too.

    • rubikjazz

      Those two are one my favorite films but I wouldn’t consider them a crime/mob. They’re overall drama.

  • abhijit

    mother , the man from nowhere ,old boy just love those experiences..

  • Sophia Patel
  • quickone

    Anyone looking for a real gem, see Save the Green Planet! One of my favorites (and I’ve seen most of the films on this list).

    • Keshav

      Okay I was going to watch chaser but seeing you are the top comment I am gonna go with ‘save the green planet’

      • peter mckain

        i thought save the green planet was a let down it could have been so much more but it didn’t go anywhere until the end of the film

        • Keshav

          Yes same here

    • Dani Rooney

      yes! my favorite korean film by far. i only come on to this site for the suggestions in the comments lol.

  • Shubhendu Singh

    My god Korean movies are fucked up and i love them for this !!

  • Megan

    Awesome list. For people wondering where to watch these films, you can find most of them here: http://www.koolyplay.net.

    • Garth Vader

      Hey, I don’y understand that website, is it supposed to have live streaming? where? I can’t seam to be able to find link to live stream any films….help please!

  • As

    Please make a happier list with Sunny, Miracle in cell 7, and for me, a must-see… Castaway on the Moon!

  • Pingback: Filmspanar-tema: Regn | Jojjenito – om film...()

  • Someone suggested me Oldboy and I watched it..I was blown away..GREAT LIST

  • Vinashak

    I generally like your lists but this was disappointing…
    Chaser so high?… it should not be in top 10… The Host shud be there along with A Tale of Two Sisters… and you guys have not seen any Kim ki Duk film?

    • Garth Vader

      YES
      YES
      and
      YES

    • Aux L

      The list is focusing on crime films.

      • Vinashak

        got it… but some of them do qualify as crime… and Chaser still cannot be higher than MoM

        • Aleksandar Šurbatović

          You are apsolutely wrong. Chaser is masterpiece and should be on the top of the list. And Duk couldnt be on on this list even with twice more killed people in his movies. Its the same like looking for horror elements in Chaplin’s movies

  • Maximo Cunillera

    Great list sr.!

  • Basil Alias

    i watched oldboy ,its awsome..

  • Roberto

    MY TOP 3 in this list: The Chaser, Oldboy, I Saw the Devil. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is also very raw and sad.
    In the other hand I really can’t see what’s special with A Bittersweet Life, i didn’t enjoyed that much.

  • scrollworm

    I liked Mother.

  • Dave

    Korean movies are unique in that they are seriously seductive, when you watch one you’ll start looking for more and more, its too bad every damn list is always the same movies lol! Oldboy blew my mind, some people can’t appreciate it and I understand why, its not for everyone but it is a masterpiece. I notice something new each time I watch it, the attention to detail is insane, just the way they both hallucinated ants — Mido saw a big humanoid ant where Oh Dae Su saw tons of tiny ants, little things like that, hallucinations are different for each individual, I can’t pick it apart or find holes in it anywhere even though the story is as crazy as it can get. It is perfect for what it is, that is why it gets so much praise. The photo album reveal was a stroke of GENIUS! He totally caught me with it and I got out my seat like WTF!!! I was just extremely happy that I didn’t see the ending coming for once, I can’t even remember the last time where a movie caught me so effectively. The director practically hypnotized me with imagery keeping me at bay until the perfect moment. The way he shot the hypnotist scene at the end where the tree becomes a pillar, so smooth! The acting in the movie is incredible which goes without saying. Even after the movie ended it had a profound effect on me, I suddenly started remembering all the mean things I said when I was younger, lmao I could end up in a small room somewhere someday, brilliant movie. If you’re into crime movies you should try “A Dirty Carnival”, possibly the best gangster movie I’ve ever seen, slick. “The Yellow Sea” is also a badass movie directed by the same man who filmed “The Chaser”, both worth watching. Of all the Korean movies I watched my absolute favorite movie is “Castaway On the Moon”, its not a thriller or horror either, its just so quirky and crazy and I can relate to both characters, I highly recommend you give it a chance because its worth the watch, trust me^^

  • Sam

    One of the more comprehensive lists I’ve seen on the subject, although I can’t understand I Saw the Devil being anywhere outside the top three! Here’s a few more titles on Netflix streaming for those interested in South Korean thrillers: http://monsterattheendofthedream.com/2015/12/10/killer-korean-thrillers2/

  • Sam

    “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the perfect date film if you want to ensure that you never go on a second one.” Great line.

  • Fabienne McCallister

    what about hard day ?? it’s a masterpiece !

  • Ravi Teja

    I might be in the minority here but I found A dirty carnival pretty boring and also bit puzzled by placing of The Yellow Sea before sympathy for mr.vengeance and memories of murder. Anyway, here’s my top 5 list.
    1.Memories of Murder
    2.Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
    3.Oldboy
    4. Mother
    5. Joint Security Area

  • dear sunggyu

    If you wrote these all by yourself, You sure made some great synopsis. I’m impressed.

  • Pamela Fernandes

    Montage is my favorite of the list. What about The case of itaewon homicide, it ends as a cliffhanger, but it was based on a true story!