Best Korean Classic Movies, Ranked


While Korean movies today are enjoying their own Renaissance on the global stage, the film industry in South Korea has constantly been going through constant changes. From the birth of film and its arrival into the peninsula, the medium has been affected by politically charged events, as Korea was annexed by the Japanese Empire in 1910, putting it under harsh colonial rule for several decades. Even after Korea was granted its freedom at the end of World War II, the peninsula would be split by war into two different countries based on ideologies, and South Korea would be ruled by a series of dictatorships until the nineties.



Despite all the censorship in place during this time, South Korea’s film industry has been vibrant, pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and storytelling to create unique experiences through movies. Up until the presidency of Park Geun-hye, filmmakers have managed to maneuver around censorship and blacklists, and even the likes of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Lee Chang-dong were on the government blacklist. But before they were active in the industry, Korean cinema’s classics were paving the path for the films we now know and love today. If you haven’t seen these Korean classic movies already, you’re in for a treat.

12 The Surrogate Woman

The Surrogate Woman
Shin Han Films

Im Kwon-taek came out with The Surrogate Woman in 1986, and it gained attention all over the world, especially at the Venice Film Festival. Taking place in the Joseon Dynasty, a nobleman named Shin has been trying, and failing, to have an heir in order to continue the family name. When his wife decides she can probably not give him the son he wants, she grants him permission to find a surrogate so that they can finally have a son in the family. He decides on a 17-year-old with quite the attitude, but when she’s brought into the house, it changes up everyone’s dynamic.

11 Seong Chunhyang

Seong Chunhyang
Shin Films

Before Im Kwon-taek’s 2000 version of Chunhyang took the world by storm, the 1961 adaptation, Seong Chunhyang, of the classic myth was a hit with local audiences. The daughter of an entertainer, or a kisaeng, Chunhyang must grapple with her social position. When she falls in love with a man, Lee Myong-nyong, who is of a higher social status than him, she is let susceptible when he leaves temporarily with her father. Jailed after rejecting a man, she has to continue surviving until her lover returns to rescue her from the situation she’s been forced into.

10 Pursuit of Death

Pursuit of Death
Samyeong Films

1980’s Pursuit of Death is the perfect example of post-war cinema in South Korea, as both of its protagonist are living in the shadow of the Korean War. Once enemies, they now have reunited years later, much older than when they were youths fighting for their nation. One is a cop, the other a guerrilla fighter who was on the side of communism. But brought together in rehab, the film flashes back to their lives leading up until this point, showing how they became who they are today. The movie was directed by Kwon Im-taek.

9 A Day Off

A Day Off
Daehan Films

A Day Off is a fascinating movie in Korean history, as it was created in 1968, but the director, Lee Man-hee, was prevented from ever releasing it due to the strict laws during the Park Chung-hee dictatorship. Decades after his death, it was found in a warehouse at the Korean Film Archive and screened in 2005. Set in Seoul during the 60s, the movie follows two lovers struggling with the changing circumstances of the country. At the same time, the woman wants an abortion. The film was banned because the director and screenwriter refused to make a happier ending.

8 The Seashore Village

The Seashore Village
Daeyang Movies

Kim Soo-yong’s The Seashore Village captures a way of life that has largely disappeared in South Korea. Set in a village by the sea, the women in this village have come to expect that there is a great possibility their husbands and sons may never come home. There’s a high sea level in this part of the country, and many of the boats that go out don’t return. The film focuses on a woman in the village who experienced this, and how she begins an affair in her husband’s absence.

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7 A Hometown in the Heart

A Hometown in the Heart
Dong Seo Films

An older film that was released right before the sparks of war began in the Korean peninsula, A Hometown in the Heart found its way into the world in 1949. It is about the story of Do-seong, who lives at a temple in the mountains. Despite being quite young, he is prepared to learn the ways of Buddhism from the head monk. But when a widow comes to the mountain for prayers, she convinces the head of the monks to let Do-seong come live with her as her son.

6 Woman of Fire

Woman of Fire
Kim Ki-young Productions

Kim Ki-young came out with Woman of Fire in 1971, and it was a remake of his movie The Housemaid, which had released in South Korea almost a decade before. There’s one remarkable characteristic about this movie: it served at the film debut of Academy Award-winner Youn Yuh-jung, who plays quite the temptress in the film. When a woman and a man are found stabbed to death by a farm, the movie delves deeper into why this might’ve happened to then. As it turns out, this is a story of betrayal and revenge.

5 My Mother and Her Guest

My Mother and Her Guest
Shin Films

My Mother and Her Guest was directed by Shin Sang-ok, and, back in 1961, was South Korea’s official entry for the Academy Awards. When an artist from Seoul comes to the countryside to see the widow of one of his friends, who recently passed, it opens up an entirely new can of worms. The women who live in the home are widows, and the artist arrives, it sets off entire conversations and hard feelings, especially when they begin discussing the current state of society and its expectations at Korea during this time.

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4 Chilsu and Mansu

Chilsu and Mansu
Dong-a Exports Co. Ltd.

Although Chilsu and Mansu was not a massive hit when it first came out in South Korean theaters, it marked a turning point in Korean cinema when it came to censorship and what filmmakers could legally put out there. Set during 1988, the year of the Seoul Olympics and mass protest, the film is about a painter, Chilsu, and a man haunted by the shadow of his communist-leaning father, Mansu.

When Chilsu quits his job and looks for something new to do with his life, he ends up befriending Mansu. What happens next is a turning point in expression due to how it depicts how hopeless youths felt during this time in South Korea.

3 Aimless Bullet

Aimless Bullet
Korean Film Company

Aimless Bullet, which is also known as Obaltan, is a tragedy made in 1960. In post-war South Korea, an accountant is struggling to raise a family and keep his own together. He has a major toothache he refuses to get fixed, but when things end up getting worse, decisions have to be made. As the characters and their relationships are explored and go deeper throughout the movie, elements of tragedy and despair are woven into the narrative, making this one a difficult, but necessary watch at times to how Koreans were struggling in the years after war.

2 Sweet Dream

Sweet Dream

Released in 1936, Sweet Dream is a fascinating movie to look at from a historical lens. Not only was it made during the Japanese occupation and is thus a product of their censorship, but it shows rapidly shifting ideals and expectations on women in its content. A woman leaves behind her husband and daughter for another man, but when she moves into a hotel with the new man, she learns he wasn’t who he says he was. But because this is a movie about the anxieties and modernity of women, she ends up getting punished by the narrative because of her actions as well.

1 The Housemaid

Woman stands out window; family plays piano inside.
Kuk Dong

Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid is considered one of the best Korean movies ever made, and scenes from even inspired contemporary movies like Parasite. A middle class Korean family decides to bring in a housemaid when the wife becomes pregnant, as the patriarch believes it will help alleviate the burden of chores around the home. However, the woman they end up selecting proves to be a certain kind of poison for their home. When she begins an affair with the husband, her dance turns deadly, creating a movie that definitely spurns some questions, debates, and discussions among audience members.

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