Thanks to Parasite winning the Academy Award for best picture, the mainstream movie community is starting to discover the wonders of Korean cinema. But horror fans have long been familiar with Korean horror, which most of us became acquainted with during the interest in Asian horror movies following American remakes of iconic Japanese horror films like The Ring and The Grudge.
There are a lot of common themes in Korean horror films that make them unique. Center to many of them is the Korean concept of Han (한.) Theologian Su Nam-dong described Han(한.)as the “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” Much of this cultural emotion comes from the nation's often traumatic history and is represented on-screen as murderous rage and tales of revenge. This also means many Korean horror films are at best bittersweet, with doomed protagonists and Pyrric victories a-plenty.
Korean culture is experiencing the "Korean wave," where their pop music, movies, food, soap operas, and other aspects of the culture are seeing a surge of interest around the world. This is called Hallyu (한류) and the success of Parasite will no doubt extend the the reach of this wave deeper into mainstream culture.
Most of my experience with Korean culture (aside from consuming my own weight in Korean food each month) comes from Korean horror films. There are going to be a few familiar ones on this list. My boss didn't want me to put Train to Busan on here, but I don't see how you can do a list of good Korean horror without movies like Train to Busan or The Host or Oldboy.
Here are my favorite Korean horror films.
Park Chan-wook's masterpiece of gothic revenge is many people's first introduction to Korean horror. A perfect film for the COVID-19 lockdown, the story features Oh Dae-su, an everyman who is kidnapped and locked in a room for 15 years. His sanity degenerating and his rage becoming more dangerous over the years, he eventually is freed only to find out that his unseen enemy's plan for him is only just beginning.
This film is famous for its exceptional action scenes, including a fight in a hallway between Oh Dae-su and a legion of goons. It's an amazing film and should be seen by anyone interested in the genre.
Another one of the most popular Korean horror films ever made, this host is an old-style monster movie about American interventionalism. After a monster is created from formaldehyde and other chemicals recklessly dumped into the water by American scientists working in a military base in Korea, it rampages along the waterways and takes a little girl back to its sewer hideout. The girl's family, a motley collection of misfits and outsiders, band together to rescue her and end the menace.
An ostentatious and energetic film, The Host was Bong Joon-ho's best-known work before Parasite.
Train To Busan
Korea's most well-known entry in the overcrowded zombie genre, Train to Busan is a relentless and entertaining movie about a zombie outbreak on a high-speed train. The hero is Seok-woo, a hedge fund manager who doesn't spend enough time with his daughter. As he's traveling with her to the city of Busan to return her to her mother, the outbreak hits and he's forced to defend his daughter.
Train to Busan is an incredible zombie film. The film gets tighter and more suspenseful every minute, while the pathos between the father and daughter keep you hooked to its ending.
A lesser-known but deeply influential film, the Whispering Corridors films sparked the resurgence of Korean horror in the early 1990s. The films all take place in high school and feature vengeful spirits, with the first one tellig the tale of a teacher returning to her former high school in time to witness a bunch of mysterious deaths.
Many of the elements most associated with Asian horror, like long-haired spirits and buried secrets, are in prominent display in Whispering Corridors. It's a great film that lays the groundwork for the rest of the genre.
A Tale Of Two Sisters
A strange and wonderful combination of fairytale and gothic tragedy, A Tale of Two Sisters is based on a folk tale and tells the story of two sisters who return from a mental health facility to a gloomy home with an evil stepmother and a ghost. It's a weird tale that feels like something out of an 18th century gothic horror novel.
I Saw The Devil
Probably my favorite film on this list, I Saw the Devil is a deceptive wish fulfillment fantasy that quickly spirals into a good man's damnation.
After a serial killer kills the fiancé of a James Bond-style government agent tracks him down. It's quickly apparent that the grubby, crude killer is no match for his sleek opponent, but the righteous avenger quickly begins to seem less and less righteous as the film goes on. One of the most visceral examples of Han (한) in cinema, I Saw the Devil is an antidote to every over-the-top revenge story we've ever seen in cinema.
After a plague of violent crime descends on a small rural hamlet, a dopey police officer sets his sights on a Japanese man who had just arrived in town and has been seen stalking the woods and eating animals alive. He's assisted (?) by a mysterious young woman who may or may not be a spirit of the forest.
The Wailing will appeal to fans of Stephen King-style small town horror and features the Korean version of an exorcism.
Themes of Catholicism and Christianity are a big part of Korean cinematic culture, and Thirst tells the tale of a Catholic priest who is turned into a vampire. Like many modern vampire films, it's a tragic tale of a character trying to fight the monster that they had become, especially when he falls in love with a timid woman who becomes a joyful killer after she becomes a vampire. A glorious and romantic tragedy, Thirst is one of my favorite vampire movies.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum
Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital is a real-life abandoned hospital and supposed haunted locale that has captured the imagination of parapsychologists around the world. It's also the subject of Korea's most famous found-footage horror film. A group of people set up a streaming broadcast of their exploration of the hospital and things quickly begin to go wrong the deeper they get into the hospital. It's a creepy good time and I'm actually gonna watch it again tonight.
White: Melody Of The Curse
Most younger people know the Hallyu (한류) from K-pop, the bubblegummy, highly-choreographed musical genre that has captured the world. It was only a matter of time before K-pop would be the subject of a horror movie.
White: Melody of the Curse (also known as White: Melody of Death) is a creepy little movie about a K-pop group that suffers violent accident after violent accident. It turns out that the disasters befalling the group comes from them performing a cursed song that was created years before and never released.
The world of K-pop is very weird and White: Melody of the Curse captures the stress, hard work, jealousy, and inhuman pressure that these young manufactured celebrities go through. The music is catchy, the film is pretty to look at, and the death scenes are ghoulish. It's not going to win any awards, but it's a fun flick to watch.