With Bong Joon Ho‘s recent double-Oscar win for class-conscious Korean thriller Parasite, it’s more crucial than ever that we pretend to have been watching Korean cinema this whole time. If you’re worried about the normies challenging your horror credentials, Vampire Squid is here to help! Here are 9 great K-horror films to get you started.
Aspiring K-horror nerds will be quick to notice that Korean cinema often features schools as backdrops for tales of the macabre. Notable examples include Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong’s Memento Mori (1999), Tun Jae-yeon’s Wishing Stairs (2003), Choi Ik-hwan’s Voice (2005) and Lee Jong-yong’s A Blood Pledge (2009). What makes 2008’s Death Bell different is its interesting generic mashup between Korean school horror imagery and the ‘Torture Porn’ that was in vogue in the American cinema mid-00s. Cribbing a lot of ideas from the Saw franchise, Death Bell differentiated itself from its competition with its fast pace and flashy visuals.
A few days after the completion of their mid-term exams, the highest-scoring pupils of a high school gather for what they believe to be an elite study group. However, they find themselves, along with a handful of staff members, captives at the mercy of a psychopath. Now they must face a new exam, and failure means death.
Written by Yoon Hong-seung, a former music video director, and starring K-Pop star Nam Gyu-ri in her first acting role, the film is predictably stylish but somewhat lacking in substance. However, while the kills and thrills might not be the most enthralling, the central mystery of the film constitutes a vicious take-down of Korea’s brutal school exam system and broader issues of class and inequality.
Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing earned itself a place on our best of the decade list, so you best be sure it’s making this one. Epic in length as well as in scope, this multi-faceted film should be a lumbering behemoth, yet time spent watching The Wailing flies by.
When a seemingly peaceful village called Gokseong is beset by a plague of sudden and violent deaths, authorities believe that a strain of poisonous or hallucinogenic mushrooms may be the cause. Sent to investigate, detective Jong-Goo soon discovers that there may be something more supernatural at work. What follows is an odyssey into a shadow world that mixes Korean folklore, Catholicism and shamanism together in a nihilistic brew.
Visually breathtaking and nail-bitingly tense, this film advertises itself as a descent into hell and does not disappoint. The central performances are stellar, and even the odd comedic scene is well-handled, providing much-needed counterpoints to the tension without being distracting. The same can be said of the juxtaposition of violent action and psychological thrills. The masterful blend of different conventions and tones throughout keeps the audience constantly on the edges of their seats.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum
Although it falls squarely into the category of found footage horror, a category that was a bit past its sell-by-date in 2018, Gonjiam had a few interesting tricks up its sleeve. It takes the form of a live-streamed investigation of an infamously ‘haunted’ asylum. Ha-Joon commands a team of YouTube paranormal investigators from the relative safety of a nearby tent as they explore the ruin alongside some guests that they have invited along for the experience. Playing out like a subtler version of Grave Encounters, the team initially set out to heighten the drama with some cheap tricks, but soon find themselves in the grips of something all too real.
Gonjiam is very much a part of the second wave of ‘self-aware’ found footage films. These films used the limitations of their medium to explore notions of ambiguity and heighten tension and claustrophobia, as opposed to simply doing found footage because it was cheap and easy. However, it doesn’t totally escape the cringe factor and suffers, as almost all found footage films must, from a tacked-on, unsatisfying ending.
On the other hand, in terms of playing to the format’s strengths, Gonjiam plays a blinder. The setting is stifling and creepy, expertly lit to deepen and lengthen every shadow. The cinematography is expert, using the limitations of the handheld format to set up shots in which the audience is constantly on edge, straining to see the horrors they are sure lurk just out of frame. The cast are good too. The film used relative unknowns to heighten the realism, and gains some relevance points by examining internet fame and the lengths that some will go to to attain it.
Before Bong Joon Ho stuck Oscar gold with Parasite, this monster movie took the world by storm. Like Parasite, The Host centres around a compellingly quirky family, and like Parasite, it uses genre conventions to engage in some biting social commentary.
Narcoleptic shop-manager Gang-du’s only real ambition in life is to save enough money to upgrade his daughter’s cell phone. Unfortunately, a giant monster has other ideas. Created by pollution caused by the US military, this grotesque bipedal fish monster (modelled in part, the director claims, on Steve Buscemi) is ripping through Seoul. For a series of absurd reasons, it falls to Gang-du, his alcoholic brother and failed Olympic archer sister, to take on the nuclear menace. His daughter, and the future of Seoul, are at stake.
It’s a rip-roaring and extremely comedic adventure, with characterisation and physical performances so strong that you could more than get by without even turning the subtitles on. It also has a lot to say about American intervention and ongoing political control of the region. The US military chemical dump that creates the monster is based on a real incident that took place in 2000. The depictions of US military figures as brutish, arrogant and inept belies an underlying sense of injustice and resentment.
The film also has socioeconomic critiques to make. South Korean culture is portrayed as soulless and materialistic, with neo-liberal policies creating staggering inequality and inhumanity. Many of the central characters were politically active in their youth, but now find themselves disillusioned and bereft. It’s easy to dismiss The Host as a funny monster movie throwback, but there’s great depths to explore here, and that’s where monsters lurk.
I Saw the Devil
Kim Jee-woon‘s stylish and brutal thriller I Saw The Devil is one of the most uncompromising revenge films ever created. More explicitly horrific than Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, this serial-killer-hunting opus takes the ‘he who fights monsters’ idea to its logical conclusion.
Kim Soo-hyun is a detective with a devoted fiancee. However, when her life intersects with that of insatiable serial killer Jang Kyung-chul, Soo-hyun becomes obsessed with deadly vengeance. This isn’t your regular revenge tale, though. Soo-hyun isn’t interested in merely killing his target. He wants to inflict suffering, following him around and brutalising him repeatedly. It’s a relentless portrayal of violence that is not for the faint of heart, and becomes almost unbearably tense when Jang Kyung-chul decides to try and turn the tables on his tormentor.
It’s also a morally ambiguous tale. By indulging in his revenge fantasy of repeatedly assaulting Kyung-chul and then letting him go, Soo-hyun gives his quarry the opportunity to kill more victims. He even meets up with fellow serial killers at one point, leading to an intense showdown with several psychopaths in a blood-soaked lair. By the final act, Soo Hyun seems every bit as inhuman as his target.
Choi Min-sik, most famous in the west for his starring turn in Oldboy, is electrifying as the coldly misanthropic Kyung-chul. His performance as a man with absolutely nothing to lose and a pathological hatred of mankind is terrifying. The level of violence is almost at odds with the stylish visuals of the film, and when this film goes all in, it goes all in. Blood and adrenaline flow in equal measure.
Train to Busan
In an over-saturated genre, Train to Busan differentiates itself from its recent competition by creating a zombie narrative that forefronts the victims rather than the shamblers. With a combination of incredible casting and astounding action choreography, Train to Busan outclasses its zombie movie peers at nearly every turn.
A father, Seok-Woo, is travelling by train so that his daughter Su-An can be with her mother for her birthday. When a passenger falls ill and starts biting people, you best be sure it’s zombie time.
What separates this film from the usual fare is its emotional weight. Sure, there’s the central focus on the fractured relationship between Seok-Woo and his family, but what’s extraordinary is how quickly and efficiently director Yeon Sang-Ho gets us to care about even minor characters.
The action scenes are incredibly accomplished. Characters have to work together to exploit the weaknesses of the zombies in concert with the limitations and opportunities of their unique environment. Seok-woo’s evolution from a self-interested, insular character to a blood-streaked humanitarian makes for compelling viewing.
Much like the dystopian epic Snowpiercer, the film also uses the train’s structure to symbolise economic disparity. Wealthier passengers are protected by their status in sealed first-class compartments. Some critics have also pointed to scenes of family members being separated as being a nod to North and South Korea’s troubled history.
Borrowing only sparingly from Charles Perrault‘s fairy tale, Bong Man-dae‘s take on Cinderella is a cautionary paranormal parable about plastic surgery. Closer to a family drama than a straight horror film, Cinderella nonetheless contains some scenes of shudderingly unsettling body horror.
Yeon-su is a high-school student and the only daughter of Joon-hee, a well-known plastic surgeon. Joon-hee’s patients are Yeon-su’s classmates, and at first yeon-su enjoys the attention and popularity that her mother’s work affords her. However, when the girls begin to die through apparent suicides, slashing their own faces open, Yeon-su must uncover a dark family secret with horrifying implications.
With shades of Eyes Without a Face, Cinderella‘s core is a story about obsessive parenting and vanity that manages to be genuinely moving at times. The supernatural element, with a ghost stalking the customers of Joon-hee, is well-handled. Strikingly visual moments, such as the scene in which a clay sculpture is accidentally slashed only for the wound to appear on the subject’s face, are set to subtle classical music. The end result is unsettling and immersive. The film could be accused of over-reliance on flashback sequences, which often come out of nowhere and break up the narrative, but it is certainly not the worst offender in this regard.
Darkly erotic and hazily dreamlike, Chan Wook-Park‘s follow-up to smash hit Oldboy was one of the shots in the arm that revitalised the vampire genre in the mid/late 2000s.
Song Kang-ho plays Sang-hyeon, a devout catholic priest who feels powerless to save his flock from the ravages of a plague that is sweeping Korea. Desperate, he volunteers for a dangerous medical experiment with the aim of finding a cure. He survives, just, but finds himself full of carnal desire and an overwhelming urge to drink human blood.
For the moral Sang-hyeon, this is a terrible moral quandary. But for repressed housewife Tae-ju, whose marriage is little more than indentured servitude, it represents escape from drudgery. The two begin an affair and eventually become children of the night together.
The characters never truly escape their responsibilities, though. Throughout the film they are hemmed in by societies expectations, even though they spend their nights breaking into hospitals to drink blood from coma patients. There’s a subversive take on the hypocrisies of the Catholic church at play here too, as Sang-hyeon slakes his unchristian desires while desperately trying to find moral justifications for his actions.
Although its run time of two hours is a bit overlong, Thirst is one of the more interesting takes on the vampire mythos. It manages to marry surreal and grotesque imagery with very real-world concerns and relatable characters. In this sense, it makes an ideal companion piece with Let The Right One In, released only a year before.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Kim Jee-woon‘s modern-day fairy tale is inspired by the ancient Korean folktale Jangha and Hongryun. Two young girls, Su-mi and Su-yeon, are mourning the loss of their mother. Their father has remarried a woman, Eon-Joo, who the sisters absolutely despise. Against the backdrop of the families isolated lake house, Eun-joo becomes cruel, violent and controlling. She even locks Su-yeon in the closet in which her mother hanged herself. Su-mi becomes plagued with twisted, violent visions, and becomes convinced that Eun-joo is keeping a terrible secret.
Yeom Jeong Ah gives a stellar performance as the archetypal evil stepmother, overbearingly friendly at first but increasingly unhinged and malevolent as the film progresses. It would be fair to say that this one is a slow-burn psychological thriller, but it is replete with enough twists and turns to keep its audience hooked.
The film slowly teases apart layers of familial trauma, guarding its shocking secrets closely until an explosive final act. The sense of mounting dread is expertly achieved, as the director introduces ambiguity and unreliable viewpoints to create paranoia and uncertainty. Exquisitely shot and boasting some very capable performances, this is a tense viewing experience that deserves to be seen as widely as possible.