Korean Films Flashback

Korean cinema was not very prominent in the international industry at first, with its known history only dating back to the mid 20th century. Early films were heavily focused on realism, with hidden commentary on the Japanese occupation during the early 1900s, before new genres began to emerge, such as criminal mind dramas, war action and spy films. Separating them from Japanese influence was the main characteristic of Korean films to be very emotionally direct with a hint of melodrama. Even though Korean cinema wasn’t always on an international level, the Academy Awards this year saw Korean film, Parasite (2019), making history and winning four Oscars, which shows their newfound prominence in the industry.

Check out CulturalPulse’s shortlist of the best Korean films over the past 70 years below.

80's

Last Witness (1980)

Genre: Action
IMDB Rating: 7.0
Director: Doo-yong Lee
Stars: Myeong-jung Ha, Yun-hie Jeong, Bool-am Choi, Kil-su Hyeon
Synopsis: Ji-hye, the daughter of an army captain, receives a treasure map from her father just hours before he is killed by communist guerillas in the mountains near their home. While the communists… See full summary »

Mandala (1981)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.5
Director: Kwon-taek Im
Stars: Sung-Ki Ahn, Mu-song Jeon, Jong-su Kim, Michelle Okkyung Lee
Synopsis: A story that follows the lives and interactions of two Buddhist monks living in South Korea. See full summary »

The Surrogate Woman (1987)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.0
Director: Kwon-taek Im
Stars: Soo-youn Kang, Gu-sun Lee, Yang-ha Yun, Eun-jin Han
Synopsis: Shin, a nobleman, had been trying to conceive a male heir to pass his family name. Unable to provide a male heir, Shin’s wife gives her … See full summary »

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Genre: Drama, Animation, War
IMDB Rating: 8.5
Director: Isao Takahata
Stars:Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Shinohara
Synopsis: A young boy and his little sister struggle to survive in Japan during World War II. See full summary »

Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.5
Director: Yong-Kyun Bae
Stars: Yi Pan-Yong, Sin Won-Sop, Hae-Jin Huang, Su-Myong Ko
Synopsis: About three monks in a remote monastery; an aging master, a small orphan and a young man who left his city life to seek Enlightenment... See full summary »

90's

The Black Republic (1990)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.1
Director: Kwang-su Park
Stars:  Jin-hui Kim, Min-oe Kim, Il-woo Lee, Seong-kun Mun
Synopsis: In a mining village layered in gray dust, a man posing as Kim Ki-Young finds refuge from winter and the law. Wanted by the police for an offense he commited under the authoritarian rule of … See full summary »

Our Twisted Hero (1992)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.1
Director: Jong-won Park
Stars: Min-sik Choi, Kyoung-In Hong, Goo Shin, Jeong-hoo Lee
Synopsis: A fifth-grade classroom takes on a political structure which reflects Korea’s history of coups and dictatorial regimes. See full summary »

Sopyonje (1993)

Genre: Drama, Music
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Kwon-taek Im
Stars: Myung-gon Kim, Jung-hae Oh, Kyu-chul Kim, Sae-kil Shin
Synopsis: Despite its falling popularity, a father teaches his two children the Korean musical tradition of Pansori (one singer accompanied by one drummer). See full summary »

A Single Spark (1995)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.1
Director: Kwang-su Park
Stars: Kyoung-In Hong, Bo-kyeong Kim, Sun-Jae Kim, Seong-kun Mun
Synopsis: The film intercuts two stories, one in black and white, one in color. From 1965 to 1970, we follow Jeon Tae-Il, a poor young man who quits street vending to work in a garment factory. Amid … See full summary »

A Petal (1996)

Genre: Crime
IMDB Rating: 7.1
Director: Sun-Woo Jang
Stars: Jung-hyun Lee, Seong-kun Mun, Yeong-ran Lee, Sang-mi Choo
Synopsis: A young girl is caught up in the 1980 Gwangju massacre, where Korean soldiers killed hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters who opposed the country’s takeover by the military the year … See full summary »

Taekwondo (1998)

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Seung-wook Moon
Stars: Sung-Ki Ahn, Pawel Burczyk, Ewa Gawryluk, Bartosz Opania
Synopsis: Kim (Ahn Sung-Kee) left his homeland, wife and daughter 13 years ago to roam Europe, finally settling in Poland, where he opened a taekwondo school. Solitary by nature and perhaps atoning … See full summary »

Christmas in August (1998)

Genre: Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 7.7
Director: Jin-ho Hur
Stars: Suk-kyu Han, Eun-ha Shim, Goo Shin, Ji-hye Oh
Synopsis: Hahn Suk-Kyu suffers from a fatal disease. He meets Shim Eun-Ha and falls in love with her. What will be the fate of this love – will it be a tragic ending?… See full summary »

Autumn Tale (1998)

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 7.6
Director: Éric Rohmer
Stars: Marie Rivière, Béatrice Romand, Alain Libolt, Didier Sandre
Synopsis: A widow’s best friend tries to find her a new husband, but the ad posted in the newspaper attracts more than one possibility. See full summary »

Peppermint Candy (1999)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Stars: Kyung-gu Sol, Yeo-jin Kim, Jung Suh, So-Ri Moon
Synopsis: Consists of five phases of a man’s life about why he committed suicide in the end. See full summary »

The Harmonium in My Memory (1999)

Genre: Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 7.4
Director: Young-jae Lee
Stars: Do-yeon Jeon, Jae-in Kim, Namhee Kwon, Byung-Hun Lee
Synopsis: Hong-yun is a high school girl in a little mountain village who falls head-over-heels for a handsome new school teacher, Mr Kang. What with taking care of her youngest baby brother for her … See full summary »

00's

My Sassy Girl (2001)

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Jae-young Kwak
Stars: Tae-Hyun Cha, Ji-hyun Jun, In-mun Kim, Wok-suk Song
Synopsis: A young man sees a drunk, cute woman standing too close to the tracks at a metro station in Seoul and pulls her back. She ends up getting him into trouble repeatedly after that, starting on the train. See full summary »

Oasis (2002)

Genre: Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 8
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Stars: Kyung-gu Sol, So-Ri Moon, Nae-sang Ahn, Seung-wan Ryoo
Synopsis: An irresponsible and childish ex-con befriends a girl with cerebral palsy and develops a progressively stronger bond with her. See full summary »

Old Boy (2003)

Genre: Action, Drama, Mystery
IMDB Rating: 8.4
Director: Chan-wook Park
Stars: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang, Dae-han Ji
Synopsis: After being kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years, Oh Dae-Su is released, only to find that he must find his captor in five days. See full summary »

Memories of Murder (2003)

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Stars: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim, Jae-ho Song
Synopsis: In a small Korean province in 1986, three detectives struggle with the case of multiple young women being found raped and murdered by an unknown culprit. See full summary »

A Moment to Remember (2004)

Genre: Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: John H. Lee
Stars: Woo-sung Jung, Ye-jin Son, Jong-hak Baek, Seon-jin Lee
Synopsis: A Korean love story about a young couple’s enduring love, which is tested when 27 year old Sun-jin is diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease. See full summary »

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)

Genre: Action, Drama, War
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Je-kyu Kang
Stars: Dong-Gun Jang, Won Bin, Eun-ju Lee, Hyeong-jin Kong
Synopsis: When two brothers are forced to fight in the Korean War, the elder decides to take the riskiest missions if it will help shield the younger from battle. See full summary »

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical
IMDB Rating: 7.9
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Stars: Miki Nakatani, Eita, Yûsuke Iseya, Mikako Ichikawa
Synopsis: When Matsuko dies of murder, her nephew Sho gets to progressively unveil many details of her mysterious past, discovering she wasn’t only a forgotten outcast but led a very interesting yet bizarre life. See full summary »

Lake Effect (2009)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.8
Director: Alex Holowicki
Stars: Chris Kotcher
Synopsis: A young Korean girl and a troubled high school student struggle to preserve their friendship as ethnocentric social forces in West Michigan hurl them towards tragedy. See full summary »

Castaway on the Moon (2009)

Genre: Drama, Romance
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Hae-jun Lee
Stars: Jae-yeong Jeong, Ryeowon Jung, Yeong-seo Park, Mi-kyeong Yang
Synopsis: A failed suicide attempt leads a heartbroken man to live a life in the wilderness. See full summary »

10's

The Man from Nowhere (2010)

Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Jeong-beom Lee
Stars: Won Bin, Sae-ron Kim, Tae-hoon Kim, Hee-won Kim
Synopsis: A quiet pawnshop keeper with a violent past takes on a drug-and-organ trafficking ring in hope of saving the child who is his only friend. See full summary »

Poetry (2010)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Stars: Jeong-hie Yun, Da-wit Lee, Hee-ra Kim, Nae-sang Ahn
Synopsis: A sixty-something woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class. See full summary »

I Saw the Devil (2010)

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Stars: Byung-Hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Joon-Hyuk Lee, In-seo Kim
Synopsis: A secret agent exacts revenge on a serial killer through a series of captures and releases. See full summary »

The Man from Nowhere (2010)

Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Director: Jeong-beom Lee
Stars: Won Bin, Sae-ron Kim, Tae-hoon Kim, Hee-won Kim
Synopsis: A quiet pawnshop keeper with a violent past takes on a drug-and-organ trafficking ring in hope of saving the child who is his only friend. See full summary »

Silenced (2011)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Dong-hyuk Hwang
Stars: Yoo Gong, Yu-mi Jung, Hyeon-soo Kim, Kim Jee-Young
Synopsis: Based on real events, this film depicts the story of a school for the hearing-impaired where young deaf students were sexually assaulted by the faculty members over a long period of time. See full summary »

A Mere Life (2012)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Sanghun Park
Stars: Minjoon Jeong, Jinkoo Jeong, Liu Jang, Yeongwoon Jeon
Synopsis: Park Il-rae dreams of a better life for his family, but is cheated out of his entire family savings. In deep despair, Il-rae decides to commit suicide together. See full summary »

Hope (2013)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.3
Director: Joon-ik Lee
Stars: Re Lee, Kyung-gu Sol, Ji-won Uhm, Hae-sook Kim
Synopsis: Tragedy of a 8 year old girl coping with a gruesome rape damaging her internally and affecting emotionally tries to overcome all obstacles that are about to happen in her life aftermath of … See full summary »

Miracle in Cell No. 7 (2013)

Genre: Comedy, Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.2
Director: Hwan-kyung Lee
Stars: Seung-ryong Ryu, So Won Kal, Dal-su Oh, Man-sik Jeong
Synopsis: A story about love between a mentally-ill father and his lovingly adorable daughter. Accused of murder and rape, her father’s home is prison. See full summary »

Queer Movie Butterfly (2015)

Genre: Drama
IMDB Rating: 8.4
Director: Inkyu Baek
Stars: Daeyoung Kim, Yeongdeok Lim, Gwangmu Moon, Seungu Nam
Synopsis: This is a story about gay host bar, shedding a more humane light on the hosts and focusing on their stories. See full summary »

The Handmaiden (2016)

Genre: Drama, Romance, Thriller
IMDB Rating: 8.1
Director: Chan-wook Park
Stars: Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-Woong Cho, So-Ri Moon
Synopsis: A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her. See full summary »