If you haven’t been very much attune to the entertainment world for the last few years (you mean you’ve actually been productive during the pandemic?) you’d be forgiven for thinking the success of heavyweight super-series Squid Game and Oscar-scooping spectacular Parasite were just fleeting flukes. But thanks to significant investment by the country’s government, as well as streaming giants like Netflix, Korean pictures have been not-so-quietly booming on the small and big screens for the last few decades.
You’ve probably heard of K-dramas and assumed they’re the standout success out of the peninsula – with their swoon-worthy leads and meet-cute storylines – but seriously, few can outshine the Koreans when it comes to the quality of their horror and thriller output. But fear not, we’ve done the hard work for you. Featuring demons a-gore, zombie epidemics, revenge-charged true crime and a whole lot more, turn off the lights, kick off your shoes, grab the popcorn and dive right in.
5 films to check out
The Call (2020)
If you’re one of those very few (strange…) people that don’t actually mind making phone calls, let The Call show you exactly why almost everyone born after 1990 might prefer a simple text instead. The plot of this Park Shin-hye (#Alive, Stairway To Heaven) and Burning’s Jeon Jong seo-led offering centres around them as two young women who live in the same rural home, just 20 years apart. Out of the city and away from it’s amenities, Seo-yeon (Park) loses her cell and resigns, much to the delight of nostalgic viewers, to using her home phone instead. To Seo-yeon’s confusion, this landline allows her to speak with a dead girl who lived in her house decades previously.
At first, the similarly-aged pair strike up an unconventional friendship, trading music recommendations (fans of ’90s Korean hip-hop zeitgeist Seo Tae-ji, watch out for his cameo) and comparing the parallel states of the world – Park is even on hand to let troubled ’90s kid Young-sook know how her favourite TV shows ended. But things begin to take a chilling turn as one learns more about the other, with harrowing consequences. If you’re in the mood for something full of trepidation, at times supernatural and sci-fi-esque, all while managing to keep one foot in the real world – this one’s for you.
The Wailing (2016)
Reckon you’ve got the nerve to handle something filled with complete and utter dread for two-and-a-half hours? Then step right up to thrill seeking director Na Hong-jin’s (known for The Yellow Sea, The Medium) creative conjuring of everything most-evil, audience and critic favourite The Wailing. This one has it all – demonism and hysteria, with a side of murderous, blood-thirsty epidemic.
If your interest has been piqued by Korean entertainment and you’ve found yourself wanting to know more about the nation and its people too, then this is an obligatory watch, not just for the story itself – but there’s actually quite a lot of historical and cultural context on offer here (particularly around Shamanism, a long-practiced phenomenon within the peninsula). This movie is also so unpredictable and foreboding that it’s palpable, thanks in part to the completely pessimistic and uninviting landscapes of wintry, rural South Korea that backdrop most scenes.
Memories Of Murder (2003)
Directed by Parasite’s Bong Joon-ho and featuring Parasite star Song Kang-ho, you already know Memories Of Murder is going to be good despite being released almost 20 years ago. This movie has to be the leading cult classic in all of the titles here – it has a critic-praising resumé as long as both of your arms. Mark this one as an essential watch.
Darkly comedic, loaded with satire, but never cheap or without substance, the premise of this movie orbits a big-city detective who comes to help two small-fry cops solve the country’s most heinous crime to date. The film is loosely based on the infamous real-life Hwaseong serial killer case, and that’s also one of the reasons there are some similarities to Beyond Evil, a 2021 show also featured on this list.
The 8th Night (2021)
Korean horror frequently plays with religion, but the main difference here is the incorporation of Buddhism into the storyline. The set-up goes like this: A mythical monster, with the sole objective of creating eternal suffering in the world, has been torn into two “horcruxes” (for want of a better word) and buried by Buddha in separate caskets, thousands of miles apart.
The 8th Night depicts what happens when the demon appears to resurrect, and an exorcist, a defamed professor and a homicide detective have just eight days to join together and stop it from happening. Also, this list’s first Squid Game acting alumni klaxon! Keep your eyes peeled for fan favourite Anupam Tripathi (aka Ali) who also appears in The 8th Night. Edge of your seat stuff, this one.
Supporting my own personal belief that Burning’s Yoo Ah-in can do no wrong, or at least, that he is insanely good in everything he takes part in, comes 2020 dystopian-zombie flick #Alive. Playing the role of a lonesome gamer whose family have left him home alone, Ah-in finds himself at the centre of a dystopian nightmare, as a raging zombie virus wreaks havoc throughout Seoul.
Watching his own neighbours tear each other apart from quickly-crumbling sanctity of his high-rise view, Joon-woo (Yoo) meets savvy survivalist Yu-bin (Park Shin-hye is brilliant again here) when he needs her most. #Alive is a film so good that oddly, I guess Netflix felt they needed to release an English version with the imaginative title Alone only months later. Vulnerable, panicked, oddly endearing and perhaps at times a bit too close to home for our fragile pandemic-enduring selves, make sure the Korean version is the one you go for this Halloween.
5 TV dramas to check out
My Name (2021)
If Squid Game was your entreé to Korean entertainment, let noir drama series My Name be your main course. Despite only just premiering on Netflix earlier this October, My Name undoubtedly benefits in the sense that it so closely follows up the big one – already topping Netflix charts in many Western countries – but it’s also truly deserving of the international success it’s been met with in it’s own right.
The series revolves around Ji-woo (played by the sublime Han So-hee), who, driven by vengeance after the passing of her father, gets in with a prominent gang before eventually going undercover as a cop under their direction, seeking to avenge his death. Filled with blood, true grit and one of the best female leads in recent times, viewers have already been fervently begging the streamer for a second season on social media. Fingers crossed.
Beyond Evil (2021)
Grossly underrated on the international stage, Beyond Evil – or 괴물 (Monster) as its known in Korean – has to be the standout psychological drama to come out of Korea this year. The show marries a typical law-and-order style format with all of the grandiose and gore of a full-length horror film, backdropped with a classic whodunnit mystery.
It follows demoted but popular and somewhat loveable detective Lee Dong-sik (Shin Ha-kyun) and his newly appointed partner and superior, the immensely over-qualified and privileged Han Joo-won (Yeo Jin-goo, who starred opposite IU in Hotel Del Luna), as they together on a serial murder case taking place in their otherwise peaceful jurisdiction. Keep an eye out for a familiar face here too – Squid Game’s resident villain (Heo Sung-tae) offers a standout performance (but don’t blame us if this series makes you hate him even more).
Widely considered the network’s most anticipated drama of 2021, Jirisan has already scored tvN’s second-highest premiere rating in history – despite being released just a few days ago. Filmed against its literal name sake, the imposing Mount Jiri, the show focuses on employees at Jirisan National Park (Jun Ji-hyun and Ju Ji-hoon make for a brilliant lead pairing here), whose job it is to rescue lost climbers and survivors. As if that doesn’t sound precarious enough, there’s also a harrowing mystery that surrounds the fate of the peak’s visitors which the rangers must urgently decode. The drama is currently only in its first few episodes so there’s plenty of time to join the Jirisan train.
Oh, and bonus if you’re looking to get into Korean music, Jirisan’s OST benefits from some of the best vocalists in the game: Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon, Nell’s Kim Jong-wan and Infinite’s Lee Sungyeol, among others. BTS fans will be particularly delighted with the drama’s main theme song; it will be performed by none other than tenor-king Jin and is set to be released mid-way through the series, as per reports.
The Guest (손) (2018)
The Guest is another offering on this list that incorporates the historic practice of Shamanism in it’s storyline, and it does so excellently – however, at the same time it contextualises the comparatively new relationship Koreans have with the Catholic church, which also makes for an interesting watch.
In this OCN original, the protagonists are a priest, a psychic and a troubled young detective. They join hands to fight an ungodly power hailing from the sea, that takes refuge in the bodies of normal people and has them commit unspeakable crimes. Yes, The Guest has some of the tropes that Western outputs like The Exorcist, Insidious and The Conjuring have employed, but it’s the clever intertwining of Korean tradition and folklore within that sets it apart from any other religious horror you’ll find on the market.
Sweet Home (2020)
A slightly more niche offering at first glance, Sweet Home began as a webtoon before streaming giant Netflix’s adaptation for the small screen. Following the lives of residents living on top of each other in a run-down highrise where humans turn into monstrosities, the strange sense of community Sweet Home offers is also a big draw.
It’s great that episodes are packed chock-full with more action and imagination than you could shake a stick at, but this apocalyptic monster-thriller is elevated beyond its initial shock factor by the depth of relationships between protagonists. Performances from vulnerable lead Hyun-soo (played by fan favourite Song Kang, who stars in Nevertheless) and kick-ass Yi-kyeong (Lee Si-young) are particular highlights. The unlikely takeaway from this other-worldy drama is that humanity might actually prevail after all. Who knew? You’ll want to watch this one right away – a second season is reportedly in the works.