Blessed be! It’s my favorite time of the year. Around this time I like to reminisce on some of my favorite horror films. I’ve been a fan of the genre since my father sat me down in front of his television at the strapping, mature age of twelve and put a VHS of “Nightmare on Elm Street” in the VCR. He says to me, “I’m gearing you up to watch ‘The Exorcist.'” Such marvelous plans my father had for me so early on. He probably didn’t think I’d become as obsessed with the genre as I am now, but that’s the risk you take when you set your adolescent child up on a play date with Freddy Krueger.
My all-consuming passion for all things horror led me, naturally, to Japanese horror. I had truly found my niche! I had (and still do) exalted Takashi Miike for the genius he is. It was only a matter of time before I came across my first Korean horror film. Man, was I ever in for a shock!
So now, some nine years after seeing my first Korean screamfest, I’ve come full circle and now am sharing with our readers here at MACG Magazine my five favorite Korean horror films. Keep in mind, this is just from the films I’ve seen. I’ve in no way explored all of Korean horror. I could probably make a list of about 15, but that’s for another time, my loves. For now, these are the five that have left the greatest impact on me!
Now without any more stalling, here are Cy’s Top 5 Korean Horror Films!
Warning: There will be mild spoilers ahead. Nothing to ruin the plot, but enough to warrant the heads-up!
Honorable Mention Death Bell
Honestly, this film would’ve mad the main list if it weren’t for one glaring plot hole that had me literally (and I mean this in all honesty) screaming at my television. Two words: CATCH! HER!
Beyond that one point of ire for me, the film is a delicious slow-burn horror-thriller that really gets under the skin. Not necessarily because of the meticulously placed gore (which there’s plenty of), but because the truth in the story hits very close to home. One thing Korean writers and directors are masterful at is social commentary, particularly those who direct horror film. Horror when done right is meant to make you question everything you’ve ever known about yourself, about humanity. Korean purveyors of the craft seem to take that power to heart. “Death Bell” is a blatant commentary on the extreme nature of the education culture in the country. When the urge to be the best leads to murder, it’s clear it’s time for a little reevaluation. When the resolution finally comes, I was left with the harrowing feeling that I wasn’t sure who was the actual villain in this circumstance.
05 White: Melody of Death
Whatever glittery, heart-eyed notions you had about South Korea’s idol industry … you may as well just throw them in the trash and light the whole dumpster on fire. “White: Melody of Death” is the perfect film that break newcomers to Korean culture (via K-pop) in to the gritty reality of the beast. The film essentially grabs hold of whatever it is you think you know about the idol setup, throws your opinions in a blender, then looks you straight in the eye and says, “Oh, how cute,” while pressing frappe! It’s not just the ending that lingers with you long after the film’s over (though, gotta say, it’s a damn good one). It’s the way the film cracks away at the facade everyone, including wannabe idols, has seen of the industry, piece by piece. As the plot unfolds and crumbles, so do our actors.
04 Train to Busan
I know at this point it’s almost on-trend to herald “Train to Busan” as this genius marker of cinema. To be perfectly honest, that’s more to do with the utter sterility of the zombie subgenre over the past 20 years. Those who are fans of horror have been thirsting for a legitimate horror tale probably since 2002’s “28 Days Later,” which is honestly the last truly original interpretation of the zombie flick. What makes “Train to Busan” so breathtaking is its ability to meld emotion and action in a way that isn’t forced or contrived. It had all the trappings of what used to make zombies so frightening: these are beings that can’t be reasoned with, that can’t be stopped with physical strength. Yet they’re not intelligent beings, sentient (and ass-kickingly fast though they might be). More telling, however, are the familiar parallels drawn between the mindless, flesh-hungry brutes and the hive mentality of humanity. It’s a smart, fast-paced horror-drama that gives equal servings of both.
And plus … I mean … Gong Yoo.
03 I Saw the Devil
Warning: The following trailer is NSWF.
Who doesn’t love a good revenge story? Well, if that revenge includes mental and physical torture the likes of which has you questioning if the supposed protagonist might actually be the real sadist, you’ll absolutely adore “I Saw the Devil.” Not to get carried away, but I honestly think this may be Lee Byung-hyun‘s best performance in a film. His subtle and utterly unforgiving portrayal of a man seeking justice for the murder of his fianceé at the hands an actual psychopath (played with Choi Min-sik‘s signature chilling subtlety) is both harrowing and oddly relatable. You constantly question whether or not you side with Lee’s pact for vengeance, and if you do … what does that say about you? How far would you go to teach the person that destroyed everything you love a lesson that will follow them into the afterlife?
02 A Tale of Two Sisters
Okay, so if I hadn’t seen the movie at #1, this would’ve taken its place. The filming is so well done, the story so intricate. The acting is phenomenal. The landscapes, lighting, coloring. Everything about “A Tale of Two Sisters” is phenomenal. It’s a piece of film that deserves so much more than the moniker of “ghost story.” The terror in the film is heightened because of the emotional weight of each scene. When the resolution makes its appearance, I gasped. It doesn’t happen very often for me. Very little actually catches me off guard in horror these days. But that’s the power of Kim Jee-woon‘s story. His dexterity both with his pen and behind the camera shone in such stark beauty, his ability to both craft and realize a story so immense. He knows how to build a narrative and leave you so absolutely spellbound by its ending that you can’t help but feel emotionally wrung-out.
01 OldBoy (2003)
And here it is. The film that got me invested in finding all I could about Korean horror. Anyone who’s got more than a passing fancy in Korean cinema will be completely unsurprised to see Choi Min-sik twice on this list. Though I’d technically heard of “White: Melody of Death” first, I stumbled upon “OldBoy” while randomly searching for Korean horror back in college. While not horror in the strictest sense of the term, there’s absolutely no denying that the film is horrific. After all, the original definition of horror was simply a film that caused genuine terror in the audience. There’s nothing more terrifying than first waking up in an old apartment, then being stuck in that dingy room for 15 years, THEN coming to find out that the reason for your captivity was because of (mild spoiler alert) a grudge. By far and away the longest and most complex con I’ve seen in any horror film (and, yes, I’m including “Se7en,” because Lee Woo-jin‘s level of petty is God tier). When it reaches its conclusion it’s so shocking I was left utterly speechless. The buildup was so palpable, so intense that when the payoff comes I was both pissed off (because, seriously?!) and mortified. Without a doubt, “OldBoy” is the epitome of horror, picking at the mind and the skin like no other film I’ve ever seen before or since.
Now that you’ve seen my list, what Korean horror films really get to you? Let me know in the comments. I’m always looking for good horror and thriller films to fill my weekday!