9. Hide and Seek (2013, Jung Huh)
Seong-soo (Son Heyon-ju) is successful businessman with a wife and two kids. Despite having it all, Seong-soo is a bit of a germaphobe with a secret. One day, he receives a phone call about his brother missing, prompting Seong-soo to find him. After finding his apartment empty, he meets the neighbor Joo-hee (Moon Jung-hee), a woman who claims to have known his brother.
She asks Seong-soo to tell his brother to stop looking at her daughter, which naturally bothers Seong-soo. What’s even weirder is that people’s doors have these odd markings and symbols written underneath each doorbell. When he sees the same markings on his brother’s door, Seong-soo literally steps out of his comfort zone to uncover the truth.
I don’t watch many South Korean horror films, because most of them are pretty standard and generic (with a few notable exceptions). “Hide and Seek” starts like your typical slasher, a cold open to set the tone of the film. What follows is a creepy yet effective thriller that’s quite inventive, using a concept that not only feels new, but seems quite plausible in the real world.
That made it creepier for me. But “Hide and Seek” is also a great mystery as well, since Seong-soo’s main objective is to uncover what happened to his brother. The last act of the film somewhat goes off the rail, ratcheting up the violence and stakes in way that contrasts the slow, methodical film prior to the end. Still, “Hide and Seek” is a small, yet inventive little horror-thriller with great performances and unique story.
10. Out to the World (1994, Yeo Kyun-dong)
During a prison transfer, Sung-keun (Moon Sung-keun) and Kyoung-young (Lee Kyoung-young) accidentally get swept in when the other inmates escaping, almost without a choice. Their goal is to head North (assuming North Korea), and on the way, they are accompanied by a tough prostitute Hye-jin (Shim Hye-jin) to inform them about the many differences and advances in society since their incarcerations.
I first encountered this film in college as I had to do a power-point presentation regarding this film. In short, I stated that “Out to the World” is basically a Western road movie done through a Korean lens. It follows the conventions of the road movie and its episodic structuring, but uses characters and situations that are meaningful to a mid-90s South Korea.
Hye-jin’s character could’ve easily been relegated to support the male leads, but the character and Shim Hye-jin’s performance elevate her presence into the most capable and strongest of the three. She loosely compares their scenario with the classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” rather than picking a Korean road film.
I should also mention that “Out to the World” is actually a comedy with some weight. Whether it’s the convicts encountering a cellphone for the first-time, or fighting a group of young kids embracing western fashion and culture, the bits inform have purpose beyond just the laughs.
Although the ending might be tonally different than most of the film preceding it, “Out to the World” is a satire that comments on both the genre and a globalized South Korea, in a truly odd yet wonderful 90s film.
11. Public Enemy (2002, Kang Woo-suk)
Officer Kang (Sol Kyung-gu) is sort of a terrible cop. Investigated by Internal Affairs for taking bribes and drugs, Kang’s days only get worse as his partner commits suicide in front of him. On the flip-side is wealthy business and family man Cho Kyu-han (Lee Sung-jae). When Cho’s parents refuse to leave everything to Cho in their will, he returns one night and viciously murders them.
As Cho attempts to clean up the murder and dispose of the weapon, he happens to run into Kang on a stakeout, defecating on the streets. The awkward encounter leaves Kang with a slashed face. Determined, Kang searches to find Cho, but faces an uphill battle trying to convince everyone all those who despise him that Cho is guilty.
“Public Enemy” not only saw the return of renowned filmmaker Kang Woo-suk, but also launched Sol Kyung-gu to superstardom. “Public Enemy” might not seem that different from most gritty South Korean crime thrillers, but it has to be recommended since it’s simply a well-made film by a director who’s partly responsible in pioneering the image of the Korean male anti-hero with his “Two Cops” films.
It’s pretty violent and gory, but he’s able to draw out some black comedy here and there. The comedy is dangerously close to falling flat, but through Sol Kyung-gu’s wild performance, you can’t help laugh at this mad detective just slapping and beating his way to the truth.
It doesn’t reinvent the genre in any way, but “Public Enemy” is a great cat-and-mouse chase that’s sure to entertain. I can’t really say much for the two sequels that followed it (haven’t had the chance to see them), but “Public Enemy” is worth recommending for fans of the genre.
12. Daisy (2006, Lau Wai-keung)
Park (Jung Woo-sung) is an assassin for the Triads, living in Amsterdam. When he’s not out killing, he’s secretly watches over of Hye-young (Gianna Jun), a street painter and shop worker. Park knows Hye-young from the past, but Hye-young is unaware of Park’s existence.
As Park gets closer to act on his feelings, a customer by the name of Jeong-woo (Lee Sung-jae) grabs Hye-young’s attention, asking her to paint him. As Park struggles with the Jeong-woo’s presence, he slowly starts to realize that Jeong-woo’s arrival may not be as accidental as thought.
“Daisy” is a film that struggles with simply being a straightforward Romance film. It’s not unheard of, since many South Korean romance films are incredibly sad and melodramatic, finding ways to separate the characters rather than bringing them together.
Sometimes, it’s pretty clear that they add moments like that to appease male audiences watching these films. In this case, it’s a cat-and-mouse thriller between assassin and this stranger. Separately, the romance and action are well done, and the leads sell the hell out of both elements.
What makes “Daisy” recommendable is the gorgeous cinematography. Since Hye-young is a painter, the color and shots try their best to emulate her landscape oil-paintings, especially a during the scene that involve a field of the titular flowers.
For the most part, the rest of the Amsterdam scenes are beautiful as well, but they don’t compare to the landscape shots. While not incredibly memorable, “Daisy” is an uneven, yet beautiful film that leaves an impression.
13. The Yellow Sea (2010, Na Hong-jin)
Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is a cab driver in Yanji City, gambling away his earnings while waiting to hear back from his wife who left to Korea six months prior. Desperate, he’s introduced to Myun-ga (Kim Yeon-seok), a violent leader of a gang. He’s willing to take care of Gu-nam’s problems as long as Gu-nam takes care of one task: sneak into South Korea and kill a wealthy businessman, returning with his severed finger as proof.
Yanji City is a place in which Koreans, Chinese, and Russians all inhabit, near the East China Sea a.k.a. “The Yellow Sea.” Not many films take place in this region, and if they do feature elements of the “Yanbian” (people from that region) it’s usually in a condescending manner. In films, they’re portrayed as dirty, vile, and savage people.
So for a thriller about vicious axe-wielding gangsters and thugs, it’s perfect. While I do think Na’s debut “The Chaser” is a smarter, more fulfilling film in length, story and pacing, “The Yellow Sea” is still a spectacular thriller that outshines many other Korean entries for it’s sheer brutality and inspired action sequences.
It’s just a big jump in scope for Na, that — despite going over-budget — signals he can make bigger films. It’s a bit longer than his debut and the plot does get convoluted, but the chapter breaks do work in telling a fulfilling story.
The actors are phenomenal (both Ha Jung-woo and Kim Yun-seok return from “The Chaser”), and they play the Yanbian personality convincingly, especially Ha. The guy gives off a desperation and viciousness like a trapped dog — all done through his eyes. For fans of “The Chaser” and films like “I Saw the Devil,” “The Yellow Sea” is an absolute must.
14. My Girlfriend is an Agent (2009, Terra Shin)
The film opens with Jae-joon (Kang Ji-hwan) leaving a voicemail on his girlfriend Soo-ji’s (Kim Ha-neul) phone while at the airport, blasting her with a frustrating message essentially ending their relationship. By the time she arrives at the airport, Jae-joon is already gone. Soo-ji’s secrecy is valid, since she’s NIS field agent skilled in combat and known for undercover work.
Three years later, Jae-joon finds himself as a low-ranking field agent as well, due to his analytical work as an accountant. When a Russian criminal organization wants to apprehend a Korean scientist for nefarious reasons, the two find themselves meeting in awkward scenarios while on the job, keeping their true identities a secret.
As their chaotic relationship slowly resurfaces, both people find it difficult to complete their respective missions as certain feelings still exist between the two.
I wanted to add something incredibly light on this list, something fun and inconsequential. At first glance, “My Girlfriend is an Agent” gave me a “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” vibe, only not as great. I was shocked to find “My Girlfriend is an Agent” to be more of a comedy than something action-packed as Doug Liman’s film.
While there are shootouts and fight sequences in this film, they are mainly to set the stage for a funny gag to occur. And for the most part, it’s a pretty nutty comedy. Kang Ji-hwan and Kim Ha-neul work well off of each other. Ryu Seong-ryong plays Jae-Joon’s commanding officer and his straight-faced berating of Jae-joon leads to some of the films biggest laughs.
It’s an entertaining title that attempts at some truth regarding how couples behave in relationship. While nothing deep, and at times going all over the place tonally, “My Girlfriend is an Agent” is mostly a vibrant romantic comedy that should satisfy those basic needs.
15. Musa (2001, Kim Sung-su)
During a turbulent time between the Yuan and Ming Dynasty in the late 1300s, a small envoy/delegation of Korean individuals — soldiers, diplomates, slaves, etc. — travel across a desert to reach the head of the Ming Dynasty to ensure peace with Korea. Immediately suspected as spies, they are sent back into the desert, forced to face ambush by bandits and Yuan troops.
Upon defeating one group, they rescue a captured Ming Princess (Ziyi Zhang). Thinking this would prove to the Ming dynasty of their worth, the small group decides to take her back to the Ming Dynasty, hoping to be rewarded with a safe method home.
At the time, there was a lot of hype for “Musa”: it had a enormous budget with a stellar cast led by a pretty reputable filmmaker. While the film mostly disappointed audiences and critics on several counts, Kim was able to capture the look, spirit, and grandeur of the wuxia sub-genre while infusing Korean characters and history. Unlike most classic wuxia films, “Musa” is pretty gory, almost excessively so.
“Excessive” is actually an apt description in this film. There’s a dedication to almost every member of the Korean group — backstories and all — that overall hurts the pacing. It’s there to flesh out the characters, but unfortunately falls into camp and melodrama instead. Running at 158 minutes, you start to feel its length.
The violence is actually quite bloody and gory, with limbs flying off and people getting arrows in their necks. However, with an excellent cast, gorgeous cinematography, and stellar action sequences, “Musa” is fine, almost-pulpy adventure that’s worth the watch, especially when considering the deathly serious period-piece films coming out recently.
16. Confession of Murder (2012, Jeong Byeong-gil)
Detective Choi (Jeong Jae-yeong) was in charge of hunting down a serial killer who took ten women during 1986-1990. He got close enough, but ultimately lost the perp and scarred his face in the process. 17 yeas later — with the statute of limitation past expiration — a man named Lee Doo-seok (Park Si-hoo) appears and releases a tell-all memoir called “I am the Murderer,” detailing each of the crimes.
While Choi is uninterested at first — thinking it’s a fraud — he’s too bothered to let it go, especially when Doo-seok publicly taunts the detective, badgering him to meet on television.
While the film has some thriller-level set-pieces — especially the opening chase sequence — “Confessions of Murder” is at it’s best when it’s just Detective Choi trying to uncover the truth. Jeong Jae-young doesn’t get enough credit, but he’s one of South Korea’s most reliable leading men, and he doesn’t disappoint here.
It’s tough to talk about how great this film is without spoiling a huge revelation that happens nearing the final act, but suffice to say that it’s incredibly thrilling nonetheless. This film actually reminded me a lot “Frost/Nixon,” since Detective Choi and Lee square up not in a space for violence, but rather on a television broadcast.
It’s those moments that are truly riveting, and each new revelation just adds to the tension. There is a lot to be said on how this film comments on fandom and the media’s obsession with human tragedies, but that element becomes ridiculous and secondary to the main mystery as it nears the finale.
There’s a subplot involving the victim’s parents that’s tonally bonkers for this film — almost slapstick — but those scenes are well directed and somewhat brief that the nonsense is still exciting to watch.
17. Secret Reunion (2010, Jang Hun)
Han-kyu (Song Kang-ho) is a NIS agent who’s in charge of finally bringing down a notorious North Korean assassin by the name of “Shadow.” During the pivotal mission, both sides don’t realize that they had eyes on each other, specifically with the North having an skilled agent as well: Ji-won (Kang Dong-won).
Worse, they each fail to achieve their objective, causing Han-kyu to be fired, while Ji-won is deemed a traitor, trapping him in South Korea. Years later, Han-kyu is rescued by an angry mob during his P.I. job — retrieving mail-order brides — by Ji-won. Despite their pasts as opponents, Han-kyu decides to hire Ji-won as the two form an unexpected friendship.
In South Korea, “Secret Reunion” was a mega-hit the year it was released, coming in at second in the box-office, while racking up several award nominations in the country’s year-end ceremonies. First, the leads deservingly got nominations, both putting in some excellent performances, especially the ever-charismatic Song.
“Secret Reunion” has been available in many streaming platforms, but I wonder if many people have gravitated to that as they did to films like “I Saw the Devil” or “The Man from Nowhere.” While not as dark as those films, “Secret Reunion” is a great buddy action-comedy that gets serious enough for the audience to be invested in the lives of these characters, especially Ji-won.
Kang Dong-won has been criticized for being a one-note performer, but I think with the right role (especially playing villains), he can be effective like he is here. If you haven’t seen “Secret Reunion” but you’re familiar with the basic offerings of modern Korean cinema then I highly recommend checking it out. At the very least, you’re in for an entertaining film with quite a bit of heart.