“A thriller” normally refers to a movie genre which involves elements of suspense, tension, black humor, mystery, crime, shocking twists and endings that capture, excite and perplex its audience.
For this article, I’ve introduced just 5 Korean movies that I’ve watched and enjoyed over the years that fall in the category of any or all of the elements just mentioned. The three of these listed movies are well-known and commercially successful mega-hits, while the other two failed to become as big. However, I would not hesitate to recommend any of these movies.
*All the listed movies are not suitable for viewers under 15 years of age due to the nature of the contents.
Director: Park Chan-wook
(Release date: July 29, 2005 – South Korea)
If you enjoy black comedy, vengeance, crime mystery, satire and various genres that complete a great thriller movie – this would mostly probably be a good movie for you.
Lady Vengeance is the third movie from The Vengeance Trilogy by Korea’s favorite director and screenwriter, Park Chan-wook.
Since Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003) from the trilogy did so well at the box office and received much praise from the critics domestically and internationally, Lady Vengeance garnered a lot of buzz from the public even before its release. Actors Choi Min-sik and Yoo Ji-tae who played the main characters in Oldboy also feature in this, although the role for Yoo is quite unnoticeable and limited.
Lee Young-ae plays the main character, Geum-ja, who has been released from prison after serving 13-year-sentence for kidnapping and murdering an infant. In the first scene, Geum-ja walks out of prison alone, in a pompous manner, wearing a summer frock with a pair of dark sunglasses when it is evidently snowy winter.
Geum-ja gets a job at a bakery since she mastered the art of baking in prison and prepares to avenge her ex-lover, who turns out to be the real culprit who should have been imprisoned in her place. The reason why she let herself become “the fall guy” is later revealed in the film and as Geum-ja carries out her long-awaited plan, much blood is shed and some of these scenes shown are very explicit and graphical.
The color, red is also seen throughout the whole movie: the eye shadow Geum-ja applies, the lanterns lit in her room and the cake she brings out to the parents of the murdered children are all bright red. Although Geum-ja succeeds in getting her well-planned vengeance to fruition, the ending scene shows her telling her young daughter to live a good life but she laments over her own words since she cannot seem to find atonement for herself.
Director: Min Kyu-dong
(Release date: November 13, 2008 – South Korea)
This Korean movie is based on Japanese manga artist Fumi Yoshinaga‘s manga, Antique Bakery.
Antique may not be conventionally categorized as a thriller but it does have elements of mystery, crime and suspense as the movie progresses due to the unsolved mystery that is intertwined with the characters’ trauma and tension from the past.
The main character, Jin-hyuk (Ju Ji-hoon) detests sweet pastry – due to a traumatic experience of being forced to consume so many sickly cakes when he was once kidnapped during childhood.
But this doesn’t deter him from opening his very own cake shop in his neighborhood in any way, because his goal is to attract female customers. He has all the funds that he needs, since he has affluent and supportive parents to rely on for investment but hiring a skilled chef who can produce the same type of delicacies that a top notch pâtissier can accomplish, is a difficult assignment.
With much difficulty and persuasion, he ends up hiring Sun-woo (Kim Jae-wook) a prodigy chef who seems to have all the tools necessary to run a very successful cake business.
It turns out that Sun-woo is also a homosexual who used to have a crush on Jin-hyuk when they were in high school. Sun-woo’s former lover named, Jean (Andy_Gillet) visits from France and the movie covers quite a lot of same-sex love scenes.
This film managed to attract one million viewers in Korea within the first two weeks of its release, making it one of the most commercially successful Korean movies ever.
Director: Kim Han-min
(Release date: February 19, 2009 – South Korea)
Seung-min is a boisterous and hard-working celebrity manager who is in a lot of debt but trying hard to make ends meet; hoping to make a career breakthrough with the actress that he’s representing. Ji-na is on the verge of making a name for herself but fate abruptly turns for the worse when Seung-min receives a sex clip via his phone; sent from Ji-na’ ex-boyfriend as blackmail.
The clip shows a content that would ruin Ji-na’s career and reputation if it ever got leaked. Seung-min is livid but succeeds in tracking the culprit – only to end up losing his own mobile phone.
(The term, Handphone is refers to a cell phone in Konglish.)
The moment Seung-min loses his phone, everything from his job to his relationship with his wife head south and he’s faced with so many other issues.
A certain man calls and claims to have found Seung-min’s cell phone. He tells Seung-min’s wife meet him to collect it but fails to show up despite being contacted numerous times, which leaves Seung-min very frustrated. He tries everything in his power to get his phone back (since it contains stuff that shouldn’t get exposed) but the only information he has about the mysterious man, is his voice. After being manipulated and blackmailed for some time and having to sort out other complicated problems, Seung-min is nearly out of his mind.
The setting of the movie is around 2009, and locating the mobile phone was not as easy as it is today. The moral of this movie is evident as it is written on its poster – Never lose your phone. However, once it is lost; retrieving it isn’t easy in this particularly movie.
Director: Jo Min-ho
(Release date August 6, 2009 – South Korea)
Eight random people are personally invited to enter a reality TV show, for a chance to win a prize of a sum equivalent to about a million U.S dollars.
None of the contenders know each other and they also have no idea why they were chosen to participate in such a show.
They are informed by the TV director that if one of them can succeed in surviving one week in the Australia, one winner can claim the cash. This seems like a fair offer so the contenders are eager to win and become competitive, until they find out one person gets ruthlessly killed during every task.
They are made to believe the first few killings were accidents at first, however, this cruel routine continues, so the surviving contenders attempt escape to save their lives but this proves to be a near-to-impossible task since the scene takes place at an outback in Australia.
They had no idea that this reality show is a life-threatening trap planned by the crazy TV director who wished them all dead for one reason, which is not revealed until the very end.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
(Release date: May 28, 2009 – South Korea)
If you wish to find a thriller that is well-scripted, funny and heartbreaking at the same time, this should be a good watch for you.
A widow, played by veteran actress Kim Hye-ja, resides in a rural town with her only son, a mentally challenged(?) young man named, Do-jun (Won Bin).
She makes a living by selling herbs and secretly practicing acupuncture without a license to treat people who are sick or infertile. The overall scenery of the neighborhood is very bleak and outdated and it could’ve easily been a convincible setting in the 60s.
Do-jun is probably in his 20s but can just about hold a conversation of a 5-year-old, or possibly younger. He and his best pal, Jin-tae who is a neighborhood thug, hang out regularly to end up usually at the police station. Their actions grieve Do-jun’s mother but she’s always right there to rescue her son. Because Do-jun can’t effectively stand-up for himself, he is often manipulated and teased by the people around him.
One late night, Do-jun tails a high-schooler named, Ah-jung, bothering her if she wants to spend time with him. The next day, the whole neighborhood sees her corpse hanging over the balcony of an abandoned home. People immediately point the blame on Do-jun because a golf ball he was carrying around (with his name on) is found at the location where the girl had been killed.
Certain neighbors witnessed Do-jun stalking(?) Ah-jung that very night, so the detectives are convinced they’ve caught the right man. Do-jun quickly becomes the prime, or possibly the only suspect of the crime. But a rumor goes around that a lunatic (?) has escaped the priory, but the police don’t pay much attention since they think they have the killer.
Due to the inattentive policeman’s driving, the police car carrying Do-jun, gets into an accident. No one is hurt, but I reckon that this was the point where Do-jun recovered some of his forgotten, childhood memories. Do-jun gets locked up but this all seems like a game for him because he clearly fails to realize what trouble he got himself into – or he was just acting?
Do-jun’s mother goes out to attempt everything (and anything) so she can do to clear his name. I mean, anything.
Since she is convinced of her son’s innocence, she crashes the dead girl’s funeral to defiantly inform her relatives that her son didn’t kill anyone and with much persistence, manages to hire a snobby lawyer (whom she couldn’t afford) only to hear him say that they should let Do-jun serve minimum of 4 years in prison since there is no way out for him. Desperate but not let down by the circumstances, Do-jun’s mother sets out to find anything concerning Ah-jung and obtains information that she was reluctantly prostituting herself to support her senile grandmother. She also learns from a high-schooler (whom she and Jin-tae tortured) that Ah-jung kept all the photos of the boys on her flip phone.
I’d hate to ruin the movie by divulging the overall plot for those who haven’t seen this movie, however do check the few vague but vital points below.
*Do-jun had never any displayed physical violence or cruelty, except when someone called him, “stupid” – he’d lash out and do the unthinkable if anyone did.
*Do-jun’s mother carried a tin of acupuncture needles wherever she went, and would say that by inserting a needle into an area of the thigh, unwanted memory can be forgotten.
*While Do-jun’s mother visited her son frequently at the prison, his best-friend, Jin-tae never once came to visit him.
*Do-jun’s charges are later dropped and he’s released from prison because someone else confessed to the murder. The question is, who?
*Towards the end, Do-jun doesn’t act as “dim” as he was at the start of the movie and claimed to remember something that happened to him when he was 5 years of age.
the vengeance trilogy is my fav.
Mother is my personal favorite. The acting’s really amazing.