Want some action in your life? Korean cinema might be a good place to start. South Korea makes some of the best action movies in the world, oftentimes beating out Hollywood (which seems to be clogged with unoriginal sequels as of late).
Want to know which of these movies is worth your time? Check out this list of the Best Korean Action Movies. We’ve curated a selection of movies that represent a broad range of action — from gangsters fighting with axes to spies shooting at each other, and even zombies. While we’ve updated this list for 2020 and most films are from within the past few years, we also suggest a couple movies from the early 2000s that you’ll still want to watch.
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11. The Berlin File
Korean title: 베를린 (Bereullin)| Year Released: 2013 | Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Han Suk-kyu, Ryoo Seung-bum, Jun Ji-hyun
If you like action-packed espionage thrillers like the Jason Bourne series, you’ll probably like The Berlin File. Shot completely in Europe, this Korean movie stars Ha Jung-woo and Jun Ji-hyun (of My Sassy Girl) as a North Korean spy couple stationed in Berlin.
When an arms deal with Middle Eastern terrorists goes wrong, the couple go rogue to avoid being punished by the North Korean government. Soon, both South and North Korean spies start chasing after them, while other agencies like Mossad and the CIA also get involved. The Berlin File contains gunfights, fistfights, rooftop chases, large explosions, and pretty much anything you’d expect from a top-notch spy movie.
10. The Chaser
Korean title: 추격자 (Chugyeokja)| Year Released: 2008 | Starring: Kim Yoon-seok, Ha Jung-woo, Seo Young-hee
Filled with thrilling action and compelling characters, The Chaser offers darkness and violence at a relentless pace. The movie’s main character is Eom Jong-hoo (played by Kim Yoon-seok), a former police detective who’s now a pimp. When one of his girls goes missing, he goes looking for her — and encounters a horrifying serial killer (played by Ha Jung-woo, also in The Berlin File) in the process. As time ticks away, Eom must stop the serial killer before it’s too late.
Yes, The Chaser has blood and gore — but it’s not tasteless or excessive. The film constantly keeps you at the edge of your seat; it builds, releases, and then rebuilds tension with great care. Eom Jong-hoo also has a great sense of dry humor, which acts as a release valve for tension and allows you to build empathy with his complex personality.
9. A Hard Day
Korean title: 끝까지 간다 (Kkeutkkaji Ganda)| Year Released: 2015 | Starring: Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Jin-woong
You might start to notice: corrupt cops are a common trope in Korean movies. A Hard Day features a corrupt detective named Ko Gun-su as its protagonist. When Ko accidentally kills a homeless man in a hit-and-run, he covers it up. However, it turns out that the homeless man is a convicted murderer, and Ko is assigned to find him.
Backed into a corner, Detective Ko starts to realize he’s embroiled in a conspiracy larger than himself. He encounters drug deals, explosions, blackmail, and hidden money stashes — enough to keep you as a watcher constantly entertained.
Korean title: 쉬리 (Swiri)| Year Released: 1999 | Starring: Han Suk-kyu, Choi Min-sik, Yunjin Kim, Song Kang-ho, Hwang Jung-min
Don’t let its 1999 release date deter you. Shiri remains one of the best Korean action movies of all time, and marked an important moment in South Korea’s cinematic history. If you want to get into Korean movies, you have to watch it.
In Shiri, South Korean spies are hot on the tail of a female North Korean assassin. The plot thickens when the South Koreans discover North Korean spies affiliated with the assassin have planted dangerous explosives around Seoul. As South Korea’s capital waits in fear, the spies chase and fight each other in a nail-biting series of encounters.
Shiri was the first Hollywood-style action blockbuster ever made in South Korea. The movie draws heavily from the styles of Western spy movies (like the James Bond series) and Hong Kong action movies, combining them into a familiar yet still uniquely Korean setting.
With high production quality and a compelling plot, Shiri showed the world that Korea could make movies that appealed to both critics and mass audiences. If you think about how successful Korean cinema is today — it all started with Shiri‘s success. Many of South Korea’s most famous actors and filmmakers starred in or drew inspiration from Shiri, including Choi Min-sik (Oldboy), Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, A Taxi Driver), and Hwang Jung-min (Ode to My Father).
7. Steel Rain
Korean title: 강철비 (Gangcheolbi)| Year Released: 2017| Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Kwak Do-won
Here’s another North Korea-related espionage thriller. In Steel Rain, a North Korean spy named Eom Chul-woo (played by Jung Woo-sung) ends up in South Korea after his country experiences a coup d’etat. Eom must team up with Kwak Chul-woo, a South Korean bureaucrat, in order to halt a conspiracy that threatens to trigger nuclear war on the Korean peninsula.
Steel Rain had great release timing — it came out right as North Korea-US tensions came to a boiling point in December 2017. The movie reflects these tensions quite well, including characters from the CIA and State Department as well as featuring a multitude of American weaponry. Ultimately though, the movie remains Korean at heart, and offers one of the most up-to-date and entertaining dramatizations of North-South conflict.
Korean title: 베테랑 (Beterang) | Year Released: 2015 | Starring: Hwang Jung-min, Yoo Ah-in
As the highest-grossing Korean movie of 2015, Veteran is definitely a crowd-pleaser. The film stars Hwang Jung-min as an unconventional detective named Seo Do-cheol who starts investigating an arrogant chaebol (conglomerate) heir named Jo Tae-oh (played by Yoo Ah-in).
Jo’s your classic bad boy fueled by daddy’s money. He drives fast cars, and seems to get away with all his crimes despite the everyman Detective Seo’s best efforts. In essence, he’s an embodiment of the nut-raging elites that many South Koreans have come to despise.
Veteran offers a relatable story of common man v. rich prick, and offers plenty of fights, chases, and witty banter in the process. The movie’s far more lighthearted than many of the others on this list; it’s officially an action-comedy. Therefore, if you want laughs along with your fights, Veteran‘s worth a watch.
5. The Good, the Bad, the Weird
Korean title: 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈 (Jo-eun nom nappeun nom isanghan nom)| Year Released: 2008 | Starring: Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung
Like Westerns? Well, Korea has an excellent Western: The Good, the Bad, the Weird. If the movie’s title sounds familiar, that’s because it’s inspired by Sergio Leone’s famous 1966 Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Rather than the American West in the late 1800s, the movie takes place in Japanese-occupied Manchuria right before World War II (Korea also under Japanese occupation then). If you’re a historian of modern East Asia, this is super interesting; the film offers a great reflection of how Japanese imperialism emulated many aspects of Western imperialism. In a way, Manchuria was the Japanese Empire’s “Wild West”, a purported “settlers’ paradise” that ended up attracting outlaws and violence as well.
For those who aren’t historians, just think of The Good, the Bad, the Weird as a movie that has a lot of outlaws and violence. Three of South Korea’s most renowned actors play its main characters: Jung woo-sung (a bounty hunter who’s “The Good”), Lee Byung-hun (a hitman who’s “The Bad”), and Song Kang-ho (a thief who’s “The Weird”). In the film, they compete against each other and the Imperial Japanese Army in order to uncover the secrets of a treasure map.
“Compete” is an understatement: the movie has gunfights, train robberies, horse chases, motorcycle chases, and more. The stuntwork is amazing; the characters’ unique quirks combine with a rollicking soundtrack to make the film’s entire 2 hours 19 minutes one of the most entertaining cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.
4. Train to Busan
Korean title: 부산행 (Busanhaeng)| Year Released: 2016 | Starring: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok
If you prefer your action in undead form, look no further than Train to Busan. Released to great box office success in 2016, this is South Korea’s first big-budget zombie movie. In the film, a workaholic hedge fund manager named Seok-woo promises to bring his daughter Su-an from Seoul to Busan. However, while on the high-speed train to Busan a zombie apocalypse breaks out throughout South Korea.
Fighting both zombies and the darker instincts of fellow passengers (especially an asshole-ish corporate executive), Seok-woo vows to get Su-an to safety. Train to Busan isn’t just a zombie movie; it also offers a story of father-daughter bonding, not to mention social commentary about uncaring elites and government incompetence in Korea. This is a film with ample action, seat-of-your-pants thrills, and great emotional depth.
To learn more about Train to Busan, check out our review!
3. The Man From Nowhere
Korean title: 아저씨 (Ajeossi)| Year Released: 2010 | Starring: Won Bin, Kim Sae-ron
The Man From Nowhere is like Liam Neeson’s Taken, but better. The movie stars Won Bin as an ex-special forces soldier named Cha Tae-sik. Cha lives a quiet life as a pawn shop owner; his only friend is a young girl named So-mi who lives next door. One day, a group of vicious gangsters kidnaps So-mi after her heroin addict mother steals drugs.
Bereft at the absence of his only friend, Cha takes it upon himself to rescue So-mi. In the process, he stumbles upon a dark underworld of exploitative drug dealers and must utilize his full range of special forces skills. Despite his capability for immense violence, Cha is a man with a heart. This gives The Man From Nowhere a degree of empathy and nuance that most action movies lack. Don’t get me wrong: the movie still has lots of well-choreographed fight scenes. However, having such a complex and altruistic character makes all that fighting much more meaningful.
Korean title: 올드보이 (Oldeuboi)| Year Released: 2003 | Starring: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung
If you haven’t seen Oldboy yet, you’re missing out — it’s one of the best (and most well-known) Korean movies of all time. It helped put Korean cinema on the map, and further solidified the careers of director Park Chan-wook and lead actor Choi Min-sik. The film won praise from Quentin Tarantino upon its release, and Hollywood did a 2013 remake starring Josh Brolin (the original is still better).
For 15 years, businessman Oh Dae-su was imprisoned in a hotel room, with no idea why. At the start of Oldboy, Oh gets released — and tries to uncover the mysteries behind his incarceration. He soon stumbles upon a dark web of conspiracy that encompasses violent gangsters and a figure from his past.
That’s all fine and dandy, because Oh did a lot of shadowboxing while imprisoned — so he’s in tip-top fighting shape. Oldboy isn’t for the faint of heart: there are some really bloody combat scenes (ex. this exceptional axe fight), not to mention extremely not-safe-for-work plot elements. Nevertheless, Oldboy has stunning cinematography, excellent narrative structure, and compelling character development — putting it in the top echelon of neo-noir hits like Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction (now you know why Tarantino liked it).
If you’ve already seen Oldboy, don’t forget it’s part of the “Vengeance Trilogy”. Director Park Chan-wook made two other movies touching upon similar themes of revenge: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. While they aren’t as famous as Oldboy, they’re still pretty darn good.
1. A Bittersweet Life
Korean title: 달콤한 인생 (Dalkomhan insaeng)| Year Released: 2005| Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Kim Yeong-cheol, Shin Min-ah, Hwang Jung-min
Topping off our list is A Bittersweet Life, a Korean action movie that won’t just entertain you — it’ll touch your soul. Renowned actor Lee Byung-hun launched his career by starring as this film’s protagonist, a mob enforcer named Kim Sun-woo. Kim lives a quite life, unquestioningly doing his boss Mr. Kang’s bidding. One day, Mr. Kang suspects his mistress of having an affair, and sends Kim to tail her.
At first, Kim approaches the assignment with his usual unemotional air — but soon becomes enthralled by the woman’s beauty and emotional depth. Realizing how lonely and empty his own life feels compared to hers, Kim starts to reassess the nature of his existence.
A Bittersweet Life is a movie that has fist, brain, and heart. Its fights are phenomenal, aided by exquisite cinematography, choreography, and set design. Every shot is a painting, and each instance of combat feels like a dance. There’s not a lot of dialog, but whatever words you hear have meaning; A Bittersweet Life deploys voiceovers to reflect the otherwise silent Kim Sun-woo’s poetically philosophical musings. At its core, the film explores the duality between beauty and brutality, and wonders how the two relate to and coexist with each other.
All in all: this is a film that’ll provide you with action-packed entertainment, and then leave you thinking about the meaning of life after you’re done watching. It’s one of those rare movies you can view again and again, getting something more out of it every time.
If you want to learn more about A Bittersweet Life, read our full-length review of the movie.
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