In 2019, South Korea maintained its status as East Asia’s cinematic powerhouse. Beyond a certain film that gained unprecedented international buzz (keep reading if you don’t know which), Korean cinema produced over 150 features during the year.
Out of all those, which are the Best Korean Movies of 2019?
We here at Cinema Escapist have compiled this list of the top 11 Korean films from 2019 to help you answer that question. These 11 Korean movies include both blockbusters and indie gems; they also represent a variety of genres including drama, comedy, thriller, romance, and action. Let’s take a look!
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11. The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos
Korean Title: 나쁜 녀석들-더 무비 (Nappeun Nyeoseok-deul: Deo Mubi) | Director: Son Young-ho | Starring: Kim Sang-joong, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Ah-joong, Jang Ki-yong | Genre: Action, Comedy, Crime
2019’s list of best Korean movies kicks off with The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos. While it doesn’t reach classic status, this action flick swept Korea’s box office upon its release.
Based off an eponymous TV show, The Bad Guys stars A-listers including Ma Dong-seok and Kim Ah-joong as a group of criminals recruited to help bring a yakuza kingpin to justice. The film mixes dynamic fight scenes with moments of clumsy amusement. This, combined with a timely anti-Japanese tilt, likely endeared the film to Korean theatergoers.
To learn more about The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos, read our full-length review.
10. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil
Korean Title: 악인전 (Ak-in-jeon) | Director: Lee Won-tae | Starring: Ma Dong-seok, Kim Mu-yeol, Kim Sung-kyu | Genre: Action, Thriller
Action aficionados may also enjoy The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil. The film’s unique premise sees a beefy gang boss (Ma Dong-seok) ally with a washed-out police detective (Kim Moo-yul) to hunt a demented serial killer (Kim Sung-kyu).
Suspense pervades The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil. While our titular gangster and cop have the same goal, they employ vastly different methods towards that goal—it’s not clear until the end who might succeed. True to his reputation as a muscular action man, Ma Dong-seok throws many mean punches that keep the film’s momentum going. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil also got international attention. It screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and Sylvester Stallone wants to do a Hollywood remake.
To learn more about The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, read our full review.
9. Innocent Witness
Korean Title: 증인 (Jeungin) | Director: Lee Han | Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Kim Hyang-gi | Genre: Drama, Crime
Innocent Witness begins with a purported crime. After her depressed elderly client dies, a housekeeper named Mi-ran gets charged with his murder. The only witness to this supposed act is Ji-woo (Kim Hyang-gi)—a 15 year old girl on the autistic spectrum.
Enter heartthrob actor Jung Woo-sung as Mi-ran’s defense attorney Sun-ho. A former human rights lawyer who sold out for big bucks, Sun-ho defends Mi-ran pro bono to curry favor with his boss. After realizing Ji-woo may hold the key to proving Mi-ran’s innocence, Sun-ho tries to befriend the teenage girl. In the process, he learns about what it means to be a “good person.”
It’s refreshing to see Jung Woo-sung in a non-romantic role, and actress Kim Hyang-gi does a great job of sensitively portraying an autistic character. While Innocent Witness might not have Miracle in Cell No. 7 levels of popularity when it comes to Korean films that blend developmental disorders with quests for justice, it evokes a similar heartwarming feel.
Korean Title: 생일 (Saeng-il) | Director: Lee Jong-un | Starring: Sol Kyung-gu, Jeon Do-yeon | Genre: Drama, Family, Tragedy
In 2014, the ferry MV Sewol sank near South Korea’s coast. 304 people died, including 250 students. The tragedy plunged South Korea into a state of intense national soul-searching, as it surfaced issues of cronyism and government incompetence. While Korean filmmakers have made multiple documentaries about the Sewol disaster, 2019’s Birthday is the first dramatic feature that explores the incident.
Produced by master filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, Birthday follows a family who lost their eldest son Su-ho to the Sewol disaster. As Su-ho’s birthday approaches, father Jung-il and mother Soon-nam struggle to raise their surviving daughter Ye-sol in the shadow of their son’s memory.
Unlike the Sewol-focused documentaries, Birthday focuses less on the accident itself than its emotional aftermath. This is a strikingly mournful movie that looks at the tragedy from a single family’s perspective. Those looking for a slower-paced, poignant exploration of loss will find meaning in Birthday.
7. Another Child
Korean Title: 미성년 (Mi-seong-nyeon) | Director: Kim Yoon-seok | Starring: Yum Jung-ah, Kim So-jin, Kim Hye-jun, Park Se-jin | Genre: Drama, Family
Broken families take center stage with Another Child. In this unexpectedly entertaining family drama, two teenagers named Joo-ri (Kim Hye-jun) and Yoon-ah (Park Se-jin) discover their father and mother, respectively, are having an affair. Together, they face the mess their family lives have become.
This premise might sound trite at first. However, Another Child executes it superbly. The film proceeds at an engaging pace, and blends humorous moments with serious contemplations on the nature of family. Every major character gets fleshed out properly, and excellent acting helps audiences empathize with each of them, regardless of their flaws. The actresses who play our teenage protagonists especially stand out; Joo-ri’s actress Kim Hye-jun even won the 2019 Blue Dragon Award (Korea’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best New Actress.
Korean Title: 엑시트 (Ek-si-teu) | Director: Lee Sang-geun | Starring: Jo Jung-suk, Im Yoon-ah | Genre: Disaster, Comedy, Action
Fans of K-pop supergroup Girls Generation ought to see Exit, which stars member Im Yoon-ah (popularly known as Yoona). Those who aren’t K-pop fans can also enjoy this dynamic action movie, which mixes high entertainment value with biting social commentary.
In Exit, Yoona and Jo Jung-suk star as two downtrodden Korean millennials named Yong-nam and Eui-ju. When a toxic gas cloud creeps through Seoul, they must use their rock climbing skills to reach safety. While this premise might sound a bit ridiculous, Exit injects it with great suspense and humor.
As our two leads scale Seoul’s labyrinthine urban landscape, Exit also starts feeling like an extended metaphor for millennial Koreans’ existential misery. Despite their expertise in a quintessentially millennial sport, Yong-nam and Eui-ju constantly lose out to privileged brats and baby boomers when rescue helicopters come along. When they do catch any breaks, it’s thanks to fellow downtrodden millennials who fly drones and leverage social media.
Exit became 2019’s third highest grossing Korean movie, and this degree of societal relevance likely helped. When your country is a “hell with no exit,” a movie called Exit sounds pretty appealing.
To learn more about Exit, read our complete review.
Korean Title: 돈 (Don) | Director: Park Noo-ri | Starring: Ryu Jun-yeol, Yoo Ji-tae, Jo Woo-jin | Genre: Drama, Crime, Thriller
If you liked the American movie Wall Street, 2019 Korean film Money might be up your alley. In this tale of high Korean finance, a young stockbroker named Jo Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol) gets involved with a mysterious insider trading scheme. Dogged securities regulator Han Ji-chul (Jo Woo-jin) catches wind of this scheme—and a rollicking game of cat and mouse ensues.
Reminiscent of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street, Money deftly deploys humor and suspense to weave a story about hubris and ostentatious materialism. Ryu Jun-yeol’s convincing performance as a countryside youngster with something to prove also drives Money forward. Along with last year’s Default, Money shows Korea can make finance-driven flicks that rival Hollywood peers.
Learn more about Money in our comprehensive review.
4. Extreme Job
Korean Title: 극한직업 (Geukan Jigeop) | Director: Lee Byeong-heon | Starring: Ryu Seung-ryong, Lee Hanee, Lee Dong-hwi, Gong Myung | Genre: Comedy, Action
One of Korea’s best comedies, Extreme Job dominated 2019’s box office and became the second most watched Korean movie of all time. Almost a third of South Korea’s population saw it in theaters, and Hollywood plans an American remake.
The film centers on a squad of five bumbling anti-narcotics detectives. To maintain cover during a stakeout, they end up buying and operating a fried chicken restaurant. Thanks to a young detective’s secret recipe, the restaurant becomes unexpectedly popular. As fried chicken orders pile on and social media influencers stream in, the squad must balance culinary success with their ultimate goal to bust a major drug trafficking ring.
It’s impressive how far Extreme Job runs with this unique premise. Buddy cop jokes and well-crafted fight scenes become complementary ingredients that help the film maintain audiences’ interest. The detectives also enjoy good chemistry and a surprising amount of character development. Extreme Job is like a plate of Korean fried chicken—it’s not haute cuisine, but its hearty taste will leave you satisfied.
3. House of Hummingbird
Korean Title: 벌새 (Beol-sae) | Director: Kim Bora | Starring: Park Ji-hoo, Kim Sae-byuk | Genre: Drama, Coming-of-Age, Romance
Though House of Hummingbird premiered in October 2018 at the Busan International Film Festival, we’re including it in this list of 2019’s best Korean movies, as its main theatrical release came in 2019. Inspired by director Kim Bora’s childhood, the film occurs in the year 1994 and centers on a 14 year-old girl named Eun-hee. She hails from a dysfunctional working-class family on the margins of society, and lives a lonely, muted existence.
As Seoul industrializes around her, Eun-hee comes of age. A new cram school teacher becomes a mentor, and Eun-hee also starts exploring her sexuality with both boys and girls. Her life feels simultaneously bleak yet peppered with flares of human connection. In a way, she’s like the titular hummingbird—fluttering from flower to flower, searching for the nectars of life. Those who enjoy Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s movies like Shoplifters and Nobody Knows will find resonance in House of Hummingbird ‘s tender ruminations on family, independence, and the nostalgic travails of adolescence.
2. Kim Ji-young, Born 1982
Korean Title: 82년생 김지영 (82nyeonsaeng Kimjiyoung) | Director: Kim Do-Young | Starring: Jung Yu-mi, Gong Yoo | Genre: Drama
At Cinema Escapist, we value films that have societal significance. That’s why Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 made it onto our list of 2019’s top Korean movies. The film raises important questions about gender dynamics in Korean society, and has generated more heated opinions and political discourse than any other film in this article.
Based off an eponymous bestselling novel, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 centers on a woman named Kim Ji-young (Jung Yu-mi). Kim has the most popular female name for Korean babies born in 1982, something that cements her status as an “everywoman.” Slowly paced and low key, the film follows her life as an ordinary mother. Along the way, it highlights the everyday indignities she suffers in professional, public, and family settings due to conservative gender expectations.
Millions of Korean women found Kim Ji-young‘s portrayal of patriarchy highly relatable. The film topped Korean box offices upon its release thanks predominantly to female viewers. Men, however, did not find it so fantastic.
The film’s feminist message comes at a time where the #MeToo movement has not only inspired many South Korean women to speak out about misogyny, but also sparked virulent backlash from Korean men. Kim Ji-young further intensified this debate around South Korea’s gender expectations—and apparently even caused breakups. To us, that’s evidence of Kim Ji-young‘s status as a societally impactful piece of art.
Learn more in our full-length review of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982.
Korean Title: 기생충 (Gisaengchung) | Director: Bong Joon-ho | Starring: Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam | Genre: Thriller, Black Comedy
To no cinephile’s surprise, Parasite tops our list of 2019’s best Korean films. A rare gem that manages to achieve the holy trinity of box office, awards, and critical success, Parasite might be the most internationally renowned Korean movie thus far. Beyond US$120 million in theatrical takings, Parasite won the Palme d’Or at 2019’s Cannes Film Festival, and has Oscars nominations for Best Director, Screenplay, and International Feature.
What makes Parasite so great? Well, it achieves another rare holy trinity: it’s entertaining, artistic, and socially relevant. Parasite director Bong Joon-ho imbued the film with a rollicking story about a poor family who scams their way into becoming the household staff of a rich family.
While this premise sounds simple, it has superb execution. Parasite blends meme-able dark humor, memorable acting, and even catchy jingles with top-notch cinematography and intricate set design. The film taps perfectly into South Korean anxieties around income inequality, and makes them globally relatable. It’s rare you have people from West Virginia to Saudi Arabia united in praise about a Korean movie. Yet, Parasite has made that happen.
To learn more about why the film is such a hit, read our full article about Parasite.
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