The history of horror cinema has jumped all around the globe. In the 1950s and 60s horror cinema was pushed forward by European production companies, especially in Italy and the UK. Following NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), and HALLOWEEN (1978), American horror flew into mainstream consciousness and launched hundreds of franchises in the 1970s and 80s. But by the 1990s the world of horror cinema was a bit stagnant in the West. Slashers and sequels were getting a bit tiresome. So horror aficionados turned to the emerging Asian horror market.
The Japanese horror surge began in the late 90s with classics like CURE (1997), AUDITION (1999), and RINGU (1998). These films shaped horror for the 2000s decade. Soon other Asian countries began producing horror films with global releases, countries like Thailand, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Of these, South Korean has remained the only prevalent force in the global world of horror cinema.
While not as popular as Japanese horror at first, South Korean cinema has produced a steady stream of horror classics for over two decades now. Korean horror is marked by two things: a generally extreme nature, and quirky genre combinations. Korean films are often gory and disgusting, even when not horrific. Present day classics like PARASITE (2020) and THE HANDMAIDEN (2016) are not horror films, but both have a lingering horror influence and some truly disturbing violence. Mixing up genres is also a common idea in modern day Korean cinema. Many horror films are hard to pin down. Some consider BEDEVILLED (2010) a horror film, some consider it more a social thriller. Some say SAVE THE GREEN PLANET! (2003) is a horror film, others consider it a sci-fi comedy thriller. Korean cinema defies classification more often than not.
So, while there is not always an easy way to define horror in Korean cinema, here’s a list of five fantastic films that are indisputably horror and generally considered modern horror classics. This is far from a definitive list, but these are the real highlights from the large list of horror works made in recent years.
A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003)
Director Kim Jee-woon is one of Korea’s most prolific horror directors. His debut film was THE QUIET FAMILY (1998), a film that starred two of Korea’s most respected actors – Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik – before they became famous. It was later remade by Takashi Miike as the popular horror musical THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001). Kim is also responsible for I SAW THE DEVIL (2010), one of the nastiest and most acclaimed horror films of the 2010s. However, his breakthrough movie is the creepy and beautiful A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003).
Inspired by a popular Korean folktale, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS is a wonderful film built on a simple horror foundation. Like many horror films, it centres on a family disturbed by a series of unexplained events. However, what follows is a twisty tale that is thoroughly shocking and bizarre. To some extent, the film folds in like a house of cards as more is revealed, but few films build such a creepy atmosphere and present such a ridiculous concept through both the supernatural and psychological.
THE HOST (2006)
Bong Joon-ho may now be the most popular Korean director in the world given his recent success with PARASITE, but his work has always been interesting and should all be explored. Bong has a mind always focused on class consciousness and his anti-capitalist streak can be seen in films like OKJA and SNOWPIERCER (2013). However, way back in 2006, he was given a huge budget (by 2000s Korean standards) to create his only horror film. With that, he produced the GODZILLA style monster film THE HOST, and maintained his penchant for critiquing capitalism and America specifically.
THE HOST follows a family caught up in a monster attack when a giant creature emerges from the Han River and starts eating people. Metaphorically the film deals with companies polluting waterways and American interference in other countries to contain the disasters of capitalism. The film is also comedic, allowing a lot of the commentary to run as satire against Korean government bureaucracy and naive protestors. But, above all, it’s just a damn good monster movie. It has likeable characters, stakes that are easy to invest in, and cool monster action. What’s not to like?
Before Bong Joon-ho was the most successful Korean filmmaker on the global stage, there was Park Chan-wook. Park is a less political filmmaker, interested more in genre films as explorations of characters. Recently THE HANDMAIDEN was a great success for him. However the films which really made his name were dubbed the Vengeance Trilogy, consisting of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002), OLDBOY (2003), and LADY VENGEANCE (2005). These early-2000s masterpieces are some of the darkest, bleakest cinema ever made. They made Park a filmmaker to watch. So, in 2009, he released his vampire film, THIRST, to great anticipation. It went on to win prizes at Cannes and receive high acclaim.
THIRST is an unconventional vampire film, rooted in modernity and not anything gothic. It follows a Catholic priest, played by Song Kang-ho, who becomes a vampire through a medical procedure and must confront his pain and guilt. As always in Korean horror, it ends up partially about family. THIRST is also unbelievably gory, filled with blood and broken bones against brightly lit backdrops. There’s unlikely to be a nastier vampire film out there. THIRST is a different kind of movie, but infused with a uniquely Korean sensibility making it a must-watch for anyone interested in a bloody yet cerebral horror flick.
THE WAILING (2016)
Horror films tend to be short. Ninety minutes of murder and terror, and then that’s it. THE WAILING, by director Na Hong-jin, clocks in at over two and a half hours. Yet the remarkable thing about this film is that the terror is constant. There’s not a lot of plotting, just a single central storyline. The film has been reduced by some to the Korean version of THE EXORCIST (1973), just because it features a possessed girl and an exorcism. However there is a lot more to it. This isn’t rooted in Christian values and the devil, but Korean folklore and the demons of their mythology. Moreover, there exists a cultural and political angle to the film that extends beyond the supernatural. The film’s Japanese character is presented as an evil stranger, symbolic of the conflict between the Japanese and Korean peoples. Xenophobia and demons are swirled together equally among all the rituals and contortions.
THE WAILING also really highlights some key features of popular Korean horror films. It does not feature redemption or happiness towards the end. It has family as a central focus of all the motivations and themes. It is extremely brutal and disgusting in the moments of real horror. THE WAILING is almost a quintessential example of what Korean art horror is. Yet it is also one of the best in quality and a great film by itself.
TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)
Zombies have become a worldwide horror staple at this point. It is hard to believe that the modern conception of them is barely fifty years old. TRAIN TO BUSAN was Korea’s answer to the zombie flicks of the West. Released in 2016, it doesn’t exactly break new ground for the genre, however it is also probably the greatest zombie film since the classic Romero flicks. Everything about TRAIN TO BUSAN is smoothly executed and well considered. It is a horror film that nails every scare and every bit of suspense. The simple premise re-locates the zombie film to just a situation where there’s a zombie outbreak on a train, but this genius allows for maximum tension as the zombie carnage explodes in a confined space.
TRAIN TO BUSAN was a huge success for director Yeon Sang-ho, whose previous feature films were animated. Following TRAIN TO BUSAN, an animated prequel called SEOUL STATION (2016) was released, and a live-action sequel called PENINSULA (2020) has just had its Korean release. TRAIN TO BUSAN is a modern update to a classic horror premise and a smart attempt to produce a high-class horror film on a budget. This is blockbuster horror, made with real skill and an admirable dedication to craft.
Korean horror has proved very versatile and popular over recent decades, as the Korean Wave gains more and more traction. This list of five barely even scratches the surface. Older films like THE HOUSEMAID (2010) and WHISPERING CORRIDORS (1998) are considered landmarks. Popular directors like Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook have associations with various other Korean horror films like ANTARCTIC JOURNAL (2005), THE ISLE (2000), and THREE… EXTREMES (2004). Plus there are also the vaguely titled lesser-known horror films that have a decent following, like THE CAT (2011), PHONE (2002), and THE MIMIC (2017). Korea may be just one peninsula, but there’s a whole world of disgust to discover!