Contrary to popular belief, it’s never too late to discover a new passion. It doesn’t matter if you had never heard of South Korean cinema before Parasite stole our hearts and quite a few Oscars: nothing can stop you from diving into every ‘Best South Korean movies of all time’ lists ever uploaded on YouTube.
I myself fell in love with this country’s prolific film industry completely by accident only a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve been jumping from one of Park Chan-wook’s masterpieces to another, until I finally landed in what must be Heaven on Earth for us thriller addicts. There are so many titles worthy of recommendation – in fact, I’d recommend nearly everything I watched. I am particularly grateful to some of them for getting me out of my comfort zone and forcing me to explore a new side of myself as a viewer.
I’m thrilled (pun intended) to share what I now call some of my favourite thriller movies of all times. If Parasite didn’t keep you up at night, maybe one of these beauties will, so make sure you understand who you’re up against.
‘THE FIVE’ (dir. Jeong Yeon-shik, 2013)
Written and directed by Eong Yeon-shik, who originally created this story as a webtoon, this movie tells the painful story of a severely injured woman who survived the massacre that destroyed her family. She takes an unusual path to revenge involving four strangers, with very different lives and yet all fuelled by the same desperate determination, that says a lot about what’s wrong in our society – and that’s definitely more than a few loose serial killers. The violence is there, the action is there, everything is as dark and hopeless as in every other movie of this list. And yet, it couldn’t be more different: it’s one of those movies where each character has such a strong, believable backstory that you will find yourself desperately rooting for them before you know it, not in spite of their flaws, but because of them.
Warnings: there is a quite violent intro, genre-typical violence when fighting ‘the bad guy’, but it’s probably the tamest movie on the list.
‘THE CHASER’ (dir. Na Hong-jin, 2008)
I have a pleasant nostalgic feeling when I think about this movie, not because I watched it a long time ago, but because I remember the exact moment when I realised I was about to watch a good, old thriller, with chases, mind games, lying suspects and a countdown to save the victim. The protagonist is a former detective turned bitter and money-driven by life, and yet brave and selfless when it matters the most (old but gold, isn’t it?). He is forced to use all his skills and brains to find not just the killer, who is quickly captured thanks to a lucky move, but his latest victim – dead or alive, he has no way to know until he has found her.
Warnings: I expected Hell itself from the cover of my Tartan Asia Extreme DVD, but there are a few moments when the killings take place, easy to spot early enough to do whatever you do in those moments (e.g. I bury my face in my giant penguin plushie).
‘I SAW THE DEVIL’ (dir. Kim Jee-woon, 2010)
This movie has been like the secret crush I couldn’t ask to prom (if I have ever had a prom or a secret high school crush). For years, I had been showered with hysterical enthusiastic reviews, and I was completely terrified to end up traumatised for life or worse. The plot is simple: a detective comes up with a sick masterplan to take revenge on a serial killer, but he gradually loses himself in this game of revenge. I am almost embarrassed to say how much I loved the movie. I often wonder how we can distinguish between real art and a mere exploitation of violent images, and I also often forget that the answer is pretty simple: you’ll know it when you see it.
Warnings: although the large majority of on-screen violence is against the antagonist or between grown men, it is quite graphic and detailed; there also a few but very intense scenes of violence against female characters. Personally, I read every single warning and I still had zero spoilers.
‘OLDBOY’ (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2003)
The weird uncle you adore, although you probably wouldn’t move in with, but still everyone’s favourite relative to see at Christmas. As the bizarre lovechild of a side-scrolling beat ’em up video game and an urban fairytale, this movie is way too beautiful to pretend you find it overrated. An ordinary man goes full Count of Montecristo when he is locked up for years by a mystery man and, once released, he embarks on a journey to find out the reasons behind his incarceration. There is something achingly sweet about the mess the protagonist has to walk through and I can only wish my life were as aesthetically pleasing as any of Park Chan-Wook’s shots.
Warnings: think of any form of torture or a violent action – it’s probably featured in this movie.
‘MEMORIES OF MURDER’ (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
Easiest plot to summarise: the hunt for South Korea’s most infamous serial killer. It took me months of seeing this title at the top of every list and ranking to suck it up and spend £10 on a second-hand copy of the DVD (the best deal I could find). There is very little I can add to what has already been said and written anywhere: Memories of Murder is a painting of a precise place and time, so accurate and detailed it becomes almost ugly to look at. And yet, the story sucks you in, leaving you as lost, confused and angry as the protagonist(s). If you loved Parasite, you owe it to the man behind it to watch this one.
Warnings: This is probably the least graphic movie in the list, with genre-typical violence and crime scenes. My personal warning is for violence against a disabled character (relevant to the plot, but nevertheless distressing).