I wish South Korea would make more genre films. It’s not that they don’t — in fact, they’ve made some great thrillers, action films, and have lately hit big with large-scale historical dramas. There are other genres, such as comedy and romance, but recommending a title from either of those is tricky.
I’ve found that most audiences who enjoy South Korean cinema found joy when those genres are cleverly infused in the aforementioned action or thriller. Humor is subjective, and recommending even an American comedy (my overall sense of humor) to someone in the states isn’t as easy as it seems. As for romance, I’m just not a fan of the country’s storytelling trend when it comes to those films.
Horror is a little different. Thanks to the success of (either version) “The Ring” or “The Grudge,” I feel that audiences today are familiar with horror done in the east (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Hong-Kong, etc.).
Despite South Korea making less horror films compared to other genres listed above, I found it doable than making a list of comedy films. So when my editor suggested the topic, I revisited and watched many South Korean horror films to find the ones that were quite special.
While I don’t think I fully succeeded in making a list featuring only gems, more than half of these horror flicks are simply amazing films, while the rest are simply entertaining and fun to watch. In my research, I’ve found that South Korea has made several horror anthology films, as well as have some features being included in anthologies by an outside, foreign company.
There are plenty of ghost stories, and those films usually featured a character with the ability to talk to a ghost. I’ve found many of the stories to connect on a human-level, as opposed to pure exploitation, with most of these stories putting much effort in character development. There are plenty of suicides. Lots and lots of suicide. Then there are the derivative titels. Some work, many don’t.
I don’t mean to frustrate readers, but several entries on the list will have loose explanation of why these films are great, but I’ll stop short to save readers from spoilers. If the film didn’t care about it, neither did I, but a lot of these meticulously build to some form of revelation to imbue meaning in all the bloodshed and frights.
Still, more than half of these films are not only horror movies, but just great films that are overall worth recommending. I would’ve liked to include more classics — from the 60s or 70s — but the handful I discovered in my research were difficult to track down. I know I forgot several picks, so definitely let me know in the comments below.
10. Flu (2013, Kim Sung-su)
A single mother named In-hae (Soo Ae) gets into a traffic accident, which results in her being rescued by a paramedic and rescue worker Ji-goo (Jang Hyuk). Ji-goo is attracted to In-hae, but she barely considers it due to her busy schedule. Mi-ra (Park Min-ha) is In-hae’s daughter, and while she chases a cat, comes into contact with an illegal immigrant named Moonsai. She notices that Moonsai is ill, causing her to locate Ji-goo.
Moonsai is actually the sole survivor of a cargo container filled with dead immigrants, assuming it was caused by some form of the avian flu. This is confirmed when one of the smugglers die, causing his brother to go on a rampage. Soon, the disease starts spreading, violently affecting the infected with basic flu symptoms, before turning into something much more sanguinary.
It isn’t long before the city and nation take the necessary quarantine measures to contain the outbreak, regardless of who’s ill or not. In the madness, In-hae and Ji-goo try their best to figure out what’s happening, while protecting Mi-ra from possible infection.
“Flu” is essentially South Korea’s “Outbreak.” “Flu” also spends quite some time with the character development. As it starts, it’s a pretty bright and lighthearted, seemingly like a romantic comedy. Then when the blood and gore start appearing, the film begins to escalate accordingly in tone and scope to fit the spread of the disease.
In hindsight, the build up definitely added to the tension of the later scenes, since we’ve already invested in the main characters. “Flu” was aimed to be a summer hit (“summer vacation” actually occurs early fall in Korea), and was designed accordingly, with broad characterizations and big set pieces to mainly satisfy as much as they could.
It forgoes hard science and replaces it with pulp elements. There are some inventive moments, mainly a bit with the soldiers and the conflict they face during quarantine. In other similar stories, the military has been seen as cold, faceless antagonist, so it’s quite refreshing to see a few with some agency.
“Flu” is more thriller, but the body horror and the obstacles they encounter make for an unnerving yet exciting little blockbuster. “Flu” won’t change the game or redefine the genre, but it’s far superior than the similar disease flick “Deranged.” For a film that has people dying through worms bursting out their anus, it doesn’t get as accordingly nuts and satisfying quite like “Flu.”
9. Bloody Reunion (2006, Lim Dae-wung)
The film begins with a dark sequence involving a childbirth. Two detectives enter a basement and finds two women amidst an absolute massacre, dead bodies surrounding them. The film flashes back and tells the story of the two women: Ms. Park (Oh Mi-hee) is a retired elementary school teacher with little time left, cared for by one of her former students Mi-ja (Seo Yeong-hie).
Ms. Park requests to see some former students in a small reunion, and is able to gather a small group of students to her seaside estate. As adults, some students remained the same while others have changed drastically. The festivities go as planned, until they start drinking, revealing that each student actually resents Ms. Park in one way shape or form.
Furthermore, it’s also revealed that Ms. Park gave birth to a deformed child that she kept at the school basement, forced to hide his appearance with a mask shaped as a bunny. As tensions boil and the reunion becomes awkward, one by one the guests start dying in gruesome fashion, hunted by a killer in a familiar bunny mask.
As a fan of B-movies, I watch a bunch of slashers. I’ve seen maybe a handful of South Korean slashers when I was a younger, but revisiting them years later just revealed their derivative nature. Films like “Nightmare” or “Record” were almost going to take this spot, but after seeing something like “Scream” and going back to the films that inspired it, the Korean ones lost a bit of edge.
Also, I found people enjoy the “Death Bell” series quite a bit, but I personally did not like those films. I decided to go with “Bloody Reunion” for it’s somewhat kitchen sink approach in making this a bit more than what it seems to be. There aren’t any ghosts or attempts at supernatural elements — this is a pure slasher.
The cold open clearly states it’s a horror flick, but “Bloody Reunion” spends a good amount of time fleshing out these characters and building tension before the first death. While I would also normally sell a slasher based on the creativity of the kills, “Bloody Reunion” plays it deathly serious with borderline torture-porn elements that are pretty tough to watch.
Its masked killer is pretty creepy, with a reveal so bonkers that I can’t help but think Lim is a fan of “Sleepaway Camp.” The big twist is bound to piss off many viewers, but I feel like this was Lim’s way of having his cake and eating it — mainly because Lim’s dedication to the genre conventions and the character work become divergent as the film progresses. This way, he ties both elements to admittedly mixed results.
8. Voice (2005, Choi Ik-hwan)
Young-eon (Kim Ok-bin) is an aspiring singer, training hard even after school. One night during practice, her throat’s mysteriously and violently slit. The following day at school, she realizes that people don’t see (literally passing through her) and hear her, except her best friend Seon-min (Seo Ji-hye). Seon-min initially freaks out, but soon accepts what’s happening to her.
The two attempt to uncover the mystery behind Young-eon’s attack, even befriending a loner who claims to hear the voices of the dead. After a small revelation regarding Yeong-eon’s disappearance, the three must hurry to uncover the truth before Young-eon vanishes completely.
“Voice” — much like “Memento Mori” — is another entry in the “Whispering Corridor” series of films, fourth in release. While the film doesn’t have the interesting depth as “Memento Mori,” I love how batshit this film becomes. Like many other South Korean films involving ghosts, the convention of a character acting as a medium between both the living and the dead would normally cause my eyes to roll over.
The fact that I was essentially watching a murder mystery in which one of the detectives is a ghost didn’t help. Part of why I like “Voice” is that the film starts with that angle, but then pushes the relationship in a somewhat inventive direction. In a way, it adds to the story but also keeps things moving.
Once certain secrets are revealed, I was on board. A lesser film would’ve ended with solving Young-eon’s murder, but the film goes beyond that moment. This is especially evident after her character’s backstory is slowly surfaces, affecting the way we perceive the relationships and the film. To my absolute delight, “Voice” even nails the landing.
7. Memento Mori (1999, Kim Tae-gong & Min Kyu-dong)
Min-ah (Kim Min-sun) finds an intricate and overall creative diary at her all-girl high school. The diary itself isn’t a straightforward read, unique in a way that there’s always something new to discover in and around the pages.
After spending some time on it, it’s revealed that the diary was made by two students, Shi-eun (Lee Young-jin) and Hyo-shin (Park Ye-jin). As Min-ah and the audience learn more about the relationship between the two creators of the diary, the book itself slowly starts to take over Min-ah’s mind, causing some unwanted visions.
“Memento Mori” is the second film in the series of South Korean horror series “Whispering Corridors,” centered on the all-female high school setting. While individual entries are all serviceable and entertaining films, “Memento Mori” is one that has some surprising amount of depth for a film series ostensibly designed to feature teenage ghosts and suicides.
“Memento Mori” starts becoming more of a horror film near it’s second half, to point where it almost gets a bit too crazy that it unbalances some of the great character work done in the beginning. While Min-ha is interesting enough as the audience cypher, it’s the relationship of the two girls that’s ultimately the big takeaway.
“Memento Mori” has a sympathetic eye for the pressures and humiliation that young women face regarding certain academic practices, a perspective that’s only superficial in the other entries. Those scenes are especially uncomfortable, because despite all the ghosts and hauntings, some of those school scenes are based in reality.
Considering that this film is also about female sexuality — a subject that’s still somewhat taboo in South Korean culture — I can’t help but applaud it for reaching those heights. It’s unsettling, and “Memento Mori” reworks those truths to tell a pretty engaging entry in this particular sub-genre.
6. The Uninvited (2003, Lee Su-yeon)
Jeong-won (Park Shin-yang) is a rising interior decorator with a loving fiancé. As he comes home after a long shift, he falls asleep while taking the subway. He awakes to find two children sleeping nearby, but fails to wake them before leaving at his stop.
At home, he finds that his fiancé has bought a new kitchen table, a table for four. Strange things start happening to Jeong-won, even seeing visions of the kids at the table. He later hears on the radio that the two children on the train were found poisoned and dead, bothering him immensely.
During a job redesigning a therapists office, he meets a woman named Yeon (Gianna Jun). He learns that she’s not only a witness in a murder trial, but can also see ghosts. As the hallucinations become worse, Jeong-won seeks Yeon’s to help solve what’s happening to him.
I would’ve never heard about this film unless directors Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung hadn’t mentioned it in a one-on-one interview. Both directors were quite inspired by this film, and I can definitely seem Kim borrowing the pacing and rhythm for “A Tale of Two Sisters.” “Uninvited” isn’t the most impressive horror film by many standards (it’s original title is the bland “Table for Four”), however there’s a lot to like.
The central mystery is engaging and quite creepy, in which Lee heightens with the introduction of Yeon’s character. Gianna Jun is one of the most bankable female actors in South Korea, both beautiful and talented. Her scenes in “The Uninvited” are the best, since you can feel her inner fragility during her scenes with Jeong-won, despite being able to speak to ghosts or whatever. Her introduction makes it geared toward psychological horror film.
The direction is incredibly subdued. The film looks like a standard drama, so I was shock to find myself taking it seriously despite certain trappings. I would even go as far as recommend this film solely for the moment we see Yeon’s therapy session visualized, because the filmmaking and camerawork is damn impressive.
I can understand South Korea not making these types of films if they lost money, but they shouldn’t too concerned with quality. “The Uninvited” shows that these psychological horror films can be great.