The 16 best South Korean films in Australia
South Korean films have become incredibly popular thanks to streaming platforms. Care to jump on the bandwagon? We have the ultimate list of titles currently available Down Under.
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Bold and visually daring, Korean films appeal to movie buffs thanks to their unique blend of action and emotion. We live in a world dominated by Hollywood blockbusters, with a huge focus on comic book adaptations, remakes and sequels.
It's slim pickings for those looking for something different from the US. However, if you expand your horizons you’ll notice that flicks coming from South Korea have gained tons of attention in the past couple of decades, and for good reason. Experimental and entertaining at the same time, these films aren’t afraid to push the boundaries of their genre. Plus, from romantic comedies to action-packed thrillers to sci-fi masterpieces, Korean cinema offers something for everyone.
Korean pop culture's growing popularity is partly due to the emergence of streaming platforms like Netflix, which allow people to experience foreign content that is otherwise inaccessible. However, the main reason why cinephiles are drawn to Korean exports is their quality.
Although budgets for Korean movies are generally smaller than for Hollywood flicks, there’s something fearless about how they manage to bend genres and tones, while also perfectly capturing emotion. When you’re watching a thrilling monster movie and realize you care more about a dysfunctional family than about the monster itself you know you’re experiencing something truly special.
Most Korean films currently available in Australia are on Netflix, but other streaming services are offering a taste as well.
Surprisingly, some of the most acclaimed Korean exports aren’t quite as accessible. Yet, you can find them on Kanopy – a free streaming service specializing in arthouse and indie films. It’s mainly aimed at students and allows you to watch with your library card, as long as your library is a partner. As an example, Kanopy boasts popular Korean titles like Oldboy, My Sassy Girl, A Tale of Two Sisters, Poetry and Oasis.
For everyone else, here are the most popular Korean films currently available to stream with a few of the best titles to get you started.
A twisted tale of crime and punishment, Pieta follows a loan shark who is forced to reconsider his unscrupulous lifestyle when a woman claiming to be his long-lost mother unexpectedly shows up. Coming from acclaimed director Kim Ki-Duk, the movie tells a haunting and unsettling story, one that’s hard to watch, yet brutally memorable.
Pieta tracks the main character’s transition from vicious loner to caring son, but don’t be fooled by this seemingly joyous premise. This isn’t a feel-good film, and Pieta’s dreadful atmosphere is a testament to that. However, viewers will find themselves moved by the film’s depth and character complexity.
Right Now, Wrong Then
This might be the worst trailer in movie history but trust us, Right Now, Wrong Then is very good. The movie's premise is simple enough: a film director falls for a young painter. However, its execution is where the flick’s brilliance comes from, as it delivers two different versions of the same story, one more agreeable than the other.
The first half follows the pair as they meet and spend the day together. The second part does the same thing, but the tone changes with the perspective. Some of the differences are subtle, others quite obvious.
Seen separately, the two halves don’t leave much of an impact. However, together they prove there’s a very thin line between a good day and a bad one.
If you’re on the lookout for a great monster movie, The Host is one of the best. The film effortlessly combines scares and satire, to a delightful and genre-bending result.
A giant monster emerges from the River Han to wreak havoc on Seoul and snatches a little girl away from her father. Consequently, the entire family sets out to hunt the creature and bring the girl back to safety.
The movie is a wild ride, ensuring viewers will experience a whirlwind of emotions through carefully-balanced horror scenes mixed with lighter, funny moments. It also throws a serious dose of quirkiness into the mix, so there’s zero chance you’ll get bored watching this one.
If you’re completely unfamiliar with Korean cinema, this is the perfect place to start. Snowpiercer is an English-language South Korean-Czech production, directed by Bong Joon-ho and starring Chris Evans.
When a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet, the survivors inhabit a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine. Once the lower-class passengers revolt against the elite, prepare for a tense fight for survival.
There’s plenty to love about Snowpiercer, from jaw-dropping visuals to its blood-pumping action scenes to its unique sense of humour.
Who’s ready to get on board?
Stream it on
Thirst isn’t your typical vampire movie. It’s stylish, dark and bloody. It’s brutal and erotic. Most importantly, it’s a masterfully-told tale of destruction, in stark contrast from the likes of Twilight or The Vampire Diaries.
The movie follows a priest who participates in a medical experiment to find a cure for a deadly disease, only to experience horrible consequences. He tries to keep his hunger in check, but starts to lose his moral compass after taking a lover.
Thirst has a delicious sense of humour and wins bonus points for touching on the priest’s inner struggle between his faith and his new urges. It’s a must for anyone interested in the vampire genre.
The Yellow Sea
This action-packed flick follows a man who travels from China to South Korea in order to look for his missing wife. He agrees to perform an assassination, but things go terribly wrong and he soon finds himself on the run. Gruesome scenes abound as gangsters and killers collide in a fight for survival.
Dark and gripping, the movie is long but your time in front of the screen will be worth it thanks to well-choreographed knife fights and unexpected psychological depth. However, the movie is also very dark and violent, so we wouldn’t recommend it to the faint-hearted.
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Loved Ocean’s Eleven? Then you’ll find The Thieves highly entertaining.
The stylish movie follows a merry band of robbers as they come together for a huge heist, attempting to steal a yellow diamond worth $20 million. Each thief brings their special skills set to the table; but whether they scale buildings or crack safes, their eccentric personalities are what make them memorable.
Clever and well-cast, The Thieves doesn’t sacrifice character for the sake of the story, while still managing to pull off strong action scenes and a convoluted plot. Fun fact: this is one of the highest-grossing films in Korean history.
Welcome to Dongmakgol
This engaging movie is set during the Korean War in 1950. We follow a group of soldiers from both the North and the South as they find themselves stranded in a remote village and mingle with the locals, who are completely unaware of anything going on outside their little corner of the world. Soon, the soldiers start to bond both among themselves and with the clueless villagers.
The beauty of Welcome to Dongmakgol is that, as with most titles on this list, it doesn’t limit itself to a single genre. It seamlessly transitions from goofy comedy to war parody to social commentary, all without feeling awkward or forced. The movie is uplifting and beautiful, while also providing some welcome insight into Korean culture.
Train to Busan
There’s no shortage of zombie movies out there, but Train to Busan is one of the best. The story centres on a group of terrified people as they’re trapped on a blood-drenched bullet train ride to Busan, a resort city rumoured to hold the dreadful zombie hordes.
Brimming with gripping action sequences and thought-provoking social commentary, this zombie flick dazzles by making great use of the cramped quarters and allowing the characters to take centre stage instead of focusing on gratuitous violence. At the end of the day, witnessing how people treat each other under these circumstances is just as interesting as finding out who lives and who dies.
Inspired by the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden swaps the setting from Victorian-era Britain to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Twisty and erotic, this psychological thriller is a complicated tale of love and betrayal.
A girl is hired as a handmaiden to an heiress who lives a secluded life. However, the handmaiden has a secret: she was recruited by a con man to help him seduce the heiress and rob her of her fortune. Everything seems to be going according to plan until the two women develop unexpected emotions.
In the end, The Handmaiden is an unpredictable and beautifully-acted film, boasting a compelling structure and just the right amount of dark humour. We wouldn’t dare to give away the exciting climax.
Based on a true story, this touching movie follows an autistic man, Cho-won, who trains and competes in a marathon. He starts by discovering he’s experiencing a sense of calm whenever he’s running, so his mother hires a coach to help him.
Although initially reluctant, the coach develops a bond with our hero while the mother begins to question her motives for pushing Cho-won to run.
The flick can get a bit cheesy at times, but its heart is in the right place. Marathon is a touching and inspiring story, which perfectly captures the fine nuances of human emotions.
A mysterious illness starts spreading across a quiet rural village after a Japanese stranger arrives. A policeman is drawn to investigate the strange disease, but when his daughter falls under the same savage spell, he needs some help to find the culprit and the disease's origin.
The movie clocks in at over two hours, but never bores. It’s a fascinating mix of horror, mythology and goofiness, as our cop isn’t quite the Sherlock type.
The Wailing has a lot going on, delivering some slow-burning thrills that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Joint Security Area
Following a shooting in the DMZ, the fortified border separating North and South Korea, an investigator of Korean-Swiss descent named Sophie Jean is sent to get to the bottom of what really happened. The military on both sides aren’t eager to cooperate, but Sophie begins to methodically sift through the evidence.
Everything points to some sort of cover-up; yet, she soon discovers that the truth is simpler and much more tragic. Turns out, simply drawing a line on a map isn’t enough to create enemies.
Based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-Yeon, Joint Security Area is a deeply human whodunit, suspenseful and heartbreaking.
Not convinced? Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite films to come out after 1992.
Ode to My Father
Ode to My Father follows a young boy whose vow to take care of his family marked the beginning of a lifelong promise spanning 60 years. After losing his father and youngest sister while escaping from a war-torn North Korea, Deok-Su struggles to make a living, but never forgets the weighty promise he made to his father – to always protect his remaining family.
The movie is heartwarming and compelling, with unexpected humour and brilliant performances. Its only flaw? It can get a tad too melodramatic at times.
Even so, it’s definitely worth the watch, especially if you’re after an emotional story that also serves as an odyssey through recent Korean history.
A Violent Prosecutor
A temperamental prosecution lawyer is framed and convicted for murder. Finding himself in prison, he tries to catch the real murderer with the help of a con artist, forming an unlikely alliance. Thanks to the chemistry between him and the con man, it’s easy to overlook the sometimes outlandish plot.
The movie delivers a grim portrayal of Korea’s political landscape, but its light tone makes it an enjoyable ride.
Directed by the same man behind Snowpiercer and The Host, Okja centres on the deep bond between a young South Korean girl and her adorable super-pig.
After caring for Okja for ten idyllic years, Mija is heartbroken when the American Mirando Corporation takes her pet to New York. As a result, she embarks on a touching journey to reunite with her best friend.
Heartwarming and satirical, the movie is well-acted and benefits from strong visuals. Fair warning: it may prompt you to give up meat.
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