Thanks to South Korea’s relatively competent coronavirus response, 2020 still saw a number of Korean films hit theaters and streaming sites—though obviously much fewer last year.
You might be wondering: what are the Best Korean Movies of 2020?
Cinema Escapist‘s staff have curated this list of the top 13 Korean films from 2020 to help answer that question. We chose these 13 Korean movies based on their entertainment value, narrative innovation, craft, and sociopolitical significance. When available, we’ve included links to stream movies on services like Netflix.
This list includes films from genres including action, romance, comedy and more—some movies even include timely pandemic themes. Fans of Korean stars like Park Shin-hye, Hwang Jung-min, and Lee Byung-hun will also find those actors adequately represented. Even if a coronavirus-stricken 2020’s Korean film lineup finds it hard to compete with 2019’s (a.k.a. the year of Parasite), there’s still some decent entries.
Let’s take a look at 2020’s best Korean movies!
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13. Hitman: Agent Jun
Korean Title: 히트맨 | Director: Choi Won-sub | Starring: Kwon Sang-woo, Jung Joon-ho, Hwang Woo-seul-hye | Genre: Action, Comedy
Once upon a time, a renowned Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent named Jun fakes his death in order to become a webtoon artist. However, his drunkenly created hit webtoon series accidentally reveals classified information—and his past comes back to haunt him.
Welcome to the absurd and fun story of Hitman: Agent Jun. This action-comedy feels like a cousin to the 2019 hit K-movie Extreme Job, which had a similarly preposterous premise around undercover cops who accidentally create a successful fried chicken restaurant. If you appreciated Extreme Job’s blend of quirky comedy and fight scenes, then you’ll probably enjoy Hitman. The film also innovates by blending animation and live action, staying true to its protagonist’s webtoon desires.
12. Honest Candidate
Korean Title: 정직한 후보 | Director: Jang Yu-jeong | Starring: Ra Mi-ran, Kim Mu-yeol, Na Moon-hee | Genre: Political, Comedy
What if a politician couldn’t tell lies? This is the premise of Honest Candidate, a political comedy who focuses on a National Assembly member who gets afflicted with an inability to lie just as she needs to run for re-election. It’s like a Korean version of Hollywood’s Liar Liar (starring Jim Carrey), but with a political twist.
Honest Candidate won’t blow anybody’s mind with its storyline. However, it does offer an accessible look into South Korea’s electoral politics. The film leans more heavily into emotional appeal than policy discussions, and lead actress Ra Mi-ran gives an excellent performance. Honest Candidate is also a member of an increasingly rare breed: the uplifting (as opposed to dark) political comedy.
11. The Woman Who Ran
Korean Title: 도망친 여자 | Director: Hong Sang-soo | Starring: Kim Min-hee, Seo Young-hwa, Song Seon-mi, Kim Sae-byuk | Genre: Drama
Hong Sang-soo is one of Korea’s most renowned art house directors, and he returned in 2020 with The Woman Who Ran. The film screened at numerous international festivals (ex. 2020’s New York FIlm Festival) despite COVID, and stars Kim Min-hee—who global audiences might know from The Handmaiden, and stalwart Hong Sang-soo aficionados will know frequently collaborates with the director
While Hong’s films usually depict the relations (often in the form of affairs) between men and women, The Woman Who Ran offers a uniquely female focus. The movie contains three scenes in which its female protagonist visits three other female friends, and reflects upon her life in the process.
Given its artistic leaning, The Woman Who Ran isn’t for everyone. However, if you’re a fan of Hong Sang-soo, it’s a fitting capstone to his oeuvre thus far.
Learn more about The Woman Who Ran in our full-length review.
10. Deliver Us From Evil
Korean Title: 다만 악에서 구하소서 | Director: Hong Won-chan | Starring: Hwang Jung-min, Lee Jung-jae, Park Jung-min | Genre: Action, Thriller
The “tough fatherly guy protects younger girl” story is a staple of global cinema (think Taken, Leon The Professional, and more), and Korea offers its take on the subgenre with Deliver Us from Evil. Starring three highly bankable actors—Hwang Jung-min, Lee Jung-jae, and Park Jung-min—the movie supplies fistfights and gunfights aplenty.
While Deliver Us from Evil doesn’t contain the same soulfulness as other Korean action movies like A Bittersweet Life, it does innovate on some other fronts. For instance, Park Jung-min plays a transgender character—which builds upon other Korean media (ex. hit drama Itaewon Class) that give non-negative depictions of minority groups.
9. Time to Hunt
Korean Title: 사냥의 시간 | Director: Yoon Sung-hyun | Starring: Lee Je-hoon, Ahn Jae-hong, Choi Woo-shik, Park Jeong-min, Park Hae-soo | Genre: Thriller, Action
Time To Hunt was another 2020 Korean film that made it to the international festival circuit, including a slot at the Berlinale. However, this isn’t some highfalutin art house mood piece; it’s an action thriller that takes place in a bleak, post-capitalist dystopian Korea. The movie also stars recognizable actors, including Choi Woo-shik of Parasite fame.
In Time to Hunt, a group of young men steal money from an underground casino. The heist goes well, but puts a mysterious assassin on their tails—whom they must evade or die trying.
Besides action and suspense, Time to Hunt provides yet another take on the economic anxieties that underlie South Korean movies like Parasite. It directly draws from lingering trauma of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis (known in Korea as the “IMF Crisis”), a historical event that has reared its head in numerous Korean blockbusters and dramas (ex. City Hunter).
Learn more about Time to Hunt in our comprehensive review, and stream it on Netflix.
Korean Title: #살아있다 | Director: Cho Il-hyung | Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Park Shin-hye | Genre: Zombie, Action
With the success of 2016’s Train to Busan, Korean zombie films became a hot topic worldwide. While Train to Busan’s 2020 sequel Peninsula wasn’t particularly great, another Korean zombie movie caught our eye this year: #Alive.
Starring top actors Yoo Ah-in and Park Shin-hye, #Alive depicts a zombie apocalypse in Seoul from the perspective of two millennials who live alone in high-rise apartments. As the city descends into chaos around them, the two bond through technology and begin collaborating to survive.
Though the film isn’t a piece of philosophical enlightenment, #Alive presents a narrative that’s not only action-packed but also sociopolitically resonant. In the coronavirus locked-down world of 2020, a story about people finding new ways to live resilient lives using technology feels exceptionally relevant. Millennials will especially relate the #Alive’s protagonists’ struggles, and feel seen in this zombie film that seems tailor-made for the COVID era.
#Alive is also available for streaming on Netflix worldwide.
7. Samjin Company English Class
Korean Title: 삼진그룹 영어토익반 | Director: Lee Jong-pil | Starring: Go Ah-sung, Esom, Park Hye-su | Genre: Comedy, Drama
Despite its name, Samjin Company English Class isn’t really about learning English. Instead, it’s a socially conscious comedy about three female employees of the Samjin Company who stumble upon unethical business practices and strive to find the culprits. Along the way, they contend with corporate hierarchies and persistent gender discrimination; the movie’s title comes from a requirement that Samjin employees score at least 600 points on the TOEIC test in order to get promoted.
South Korea has come out with some good feminist films lately (ex. Kim Ji-young, Born 1982), though they tend to lean more towards the dramatic side. Samjin Company English class expands the repertoire of Korean feminist flicks with its more lighthearted and approachable—but no less incisive—take. The film’s relatable characters will pull you in, and its investigatory narrative will keep you engaged until its final moments.
Korean Title: 도굴 | Director: Park Jung-bae | Starring: Lee Je-hoon, Jo Woo-jin, Shin Hye-sun | Genre: Heist, Comedy, Drama, Adventure
Imagine if Hollywood’s famous Indiana Jones franchise was Korean, and had a lot more humor. You’d probably end up with something pretty similar to Collectors, whose Korean title directly translates to “Grave Robbers.”
In this Korean movie, a team of antiquities (including a character literally named “Dr. Jones”) thieves aspire to retrieve an ancient royal treasure buried in a tomb beneath Seoul. The movie is very action-packed and fast-paced, and sprinkles jokes all throughout to keep the mood light. If you enjoy heist and “tomb raiding” subgenre movies, you should consider Collectors.
5. Steel Rain 2: Summit
Korean Title: 강철비2: 정상회담 | Director: Yang Woo-seok | Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Kwak Do-won, Yoo Yeon-seok | Genre: War, Political, Action
In 2017, we recommended Korean political thriller Steel Rain on that year’s list of best Korean movies. This year for 2020, we’re recommending its sequel, Steel Rain 2: Summit.
While Steel Rain 2 isn’t a direct sequel to the original Steel Rain, its spirit of dramatizing inter-Korean politics in a blockbuster manner remains consistent. The film takes major inspiration from US President Donald Trump’s peace attempts with North Korea. Accordingly, it depicts how a South Korean President, North Korean supreme leader, and US President must reconcile their differences when a coup d’etat traps them aboard a North Korean nuclear submarine.
Political junkies and war movie fans will love Steel Rain 2. It depicts military hardware that no other movies have ever shown, and offers a fascinating lens into how South Korea—especially those on its political left—perceived inter-Korean diplomacy during the Trump era.
Korean Title: 담보 | Director: Kang Dae-gyu | Starring: Sung Dong-il, Ha Ji-won, Kim Hee-won | Genre: Drama
Those who enjoy tear-jerking human dramas should check out Pawn, a 2020 Korean film belonging to that subgenre. The movie centers on two debt collectors who take a young girl as “collateral” from her illegal immigrant mother, only to form a family-like bond as they live together.
If you think this feels a lot like the hit 2013 K-movie Miracle in Cell No. 7, you aren’t alone—Pawn has many tonal similarities. Like the daughter in Miracle, the girl in Pawn (thanks to a great performance by child actress Park So-yi, who also stars in Deliver Us from Evil mentioned above) steals the show. This is a movie that’ll make you laugh and cry, and is recommended watching if you are together with family.
3. The Call
Korean Title: 콜 | Director: Lee Chung-hyun | Starring: Park Shin-hye, Jeon Jong-seo | Genre: Thriller, Horror, Mystery
Besides #Alive, Netflix snapped up another 2020 Korean movie starring Park Shin-hye: The Call. This dark thriller became one of the most widely streamed Korean films on Netflix during 2020, and got rave reviews.
In The Call, Park Shin-hye plays a young woman named Seo-yeon who gets connected through a mysterious telephone with another woman named Young-sook. It turns out Young-sook belongs 20 years in the past. Seo-yeon at first befriends Young-sook, but soon discovers that Young-sook has a taste for murder that may have deadly, time-transcending consequences for the present day.
Well-designed gothic visuals and a suspenseful storyline help make The Call a highly entertaining experience. Special praise also goes to Jeon Jong-seo, who plays the utterly chiling Young-sook in what is only her second feature film role (after starring as Hae-mi in 2018’s Burning).
2. Beasts Clawing at Straws
Korean Title: 지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들 | Director: Kim Young-hoon | Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Jeon Do-yeon, Bae Sung-woo, Youn Yuh-jung, Jeong Man-sik, Shin Hyun-been | Genre: Crime, Thriller
Movies in which characters chase after money are a dime a dozen. Though Beasts Clawing at Straws uses this formula, the film executes it magnificently. In this film, top Korean stars like Jung Woo-sung and Jeon Do-yeon star as an assortment of strangers who end up lusting after a Louis Vuitton bag full of money. Despite the large number of characters, the movie has a tightly woven plot that never gets too confusing or boring.
Beasts earned spots at numerous international film festivals (ex. Rotterdam), and got acquired for releases in numerous countries like the United States. It’s easy to see why: the movie has a blend of dark humor, violence, and mystery that feels reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s films, meaning audiences worldwide can get easily hooked.
1. The Man Standing Next
Korean Title: 남산의 부장들 | Director: Woo Min-ho | Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Lee Sung-min, Kwak Do-won, Lee Hee-joon | Genre: Political, Historical, Drama
Our very best Korean movie of 2020 is The Man Standing Next.
We at Cinema Escapist enjoy analyzing films with political significance; The Man Standing Next is the most politically significant movie on this entire list. The film dramatizes one of modern South Korean history’s most famous events: the 1979 assassination of authoritarian President Park Chung-hee.
In The Man Standing Next, superstar actor Lee Byung-hun plays Kim Jae-gyu, the man who killed President Park; the film depicts Kim as a Shakespearean tragic hero. Through intricate artistry, the film offers a re-examination of Kim’s legacy that offers a lens into Korean politics. Today, South Korea’s liberals see Kim positively, while conservatives don’t. We’ll let you watch the film and make your own conclusion as to what side it leans more towards.
While history buffs and political junkies will love the historiographical implications of The Man Standing Next, general K-movie fans will likely enjoy it for Lee Byung-hun’s acting. Regardless, strong box office performance and critical reception likely motivated South Korea to select The Man Standing Next as its 2020 Best International Feature Oscar submission.
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