Compared to before coronavirus, South Korean cinema was in a less illustrious state during 2021, with theaters closed for much of the year due to local outbreaks. Despite this, some Korean films still managed to debut.
You might be wondering: what are the Best Korean Movies of 2021?
Cinema Escapist‘s staff have curated this list of the top 11 Korean films from 2021 to satisfy your curiosity. We chose these 11 Korean movies based on their narrative craft, entertainment value, and societal significance. We’ve also included streaming links when movies are available on global platforms like Netflix.
Our selections include films from genres including comedy, action, romance, horror, and more. K-celebrity trackers will also find titles featuring top stars like Seo Ye-ji, Im Yoon-ah (Yoona), Byun Yo-han, Jo In-sung, and Jeon Yeo-been.
Let’s dive into 2021’s best Korean movies!
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11. Hard Hit
Korean title: 발신제한 | Director: Kim Chang-ju | Starring: Lee Jae-in, Ji Chang-wook, Jin Kyung | Genre: Thriller
One day, the head of a bank branch in Busan gets a restricted phone call that warns him that a bomb will go off under his car seat and kill him if he stops the car. Thus begins the 2021 Korean thriller movie Hard Hit, which stars Jo Woo-jin as the aforementioned bank head.
Not that many thriller films came out in Korea during 2021, which likely helped Hard Hit gain significant traction with Korean audiences. It hit #1 at the box office upon its release, and is the fifth highest grossing Korean movie of 2021. With pumping background music and high stakes, Hard Hit does create a dynamic atmosphere that should get you excited at least for its first portions.
Korean title: 유체이탈자 | Director: Yoon Jae-geun | Starring: Yoon Kye-sang, Park Yong-woo, Lim Ji-yeon | Genre: Action, Mystery, Fantasy
Fantasy-action movie Spiritwalker centers on a man who’s lost his memory and awakens in a new body every twelve hours, forced to rediscover his identity each time. Soon, he meets a woman who says she recognizes him—and begins to realize that a mysterious organization is chasing after him.
Filled with dynamic action sequences tinged with comedic elements, Spiritwalker feels like an intriguing blend between Memento and The Beauty Inside. Korean audiences gave the film a warm reception upon its theatrical release in November 2021; Spiritwalker topped Korea’s box office for two weeks in a row.
9. Waiting for Rain
Korean title: 비와 당신의 이야기 | Director: Jo Jin-mo | Starring: Kang Ha-neul, Chun Woo-hee, Kang Sora | Genre: Romance, Melodrama
Waiting for the Rain chronicles the romance of a man named Young-ho and a woman named So-hee. The two meet by chance through the mail, and begin to develop a connection through the regular exchange of handwritten letters.
With this mail-based premise, Waiting for the Rain distinguishes itself from other Korean romances. It does a good job of tracing the evolution of a relationship over time and distance, as opposed to serving up romance in a hurried saccharine explosion. Furthermore, the film’s ability to evoke nostalgia is worth noting; it’s actually somewhat reminiscent of top Chinese tragi-romances like Us and Them.
8. On the Line
Korean title: 보이스 | Directors: Kim Gok, Kim Sun | Starring: Byun Yo-han, Kim Mu-yeol, Park Myung-hoon | Genre: Crime, Action, Mystery
Phone scams afflict people all over the world, South Korea included. 2021 action movie On the Line imagines what might happen if victims of such scams decided to take revenge.
The film stars Byun Yo-han (famous for his role in K-drama Mr. Sunshine) as a former detective named Seo Joon, who now runs a construction site. When phone scammers target him and his fellow workers, he vows retribution. Seo manages to track down the head of the syndicate (played by Kim Mu-yeol) who targeted him, and unravels a bigger operation than he had even imagined.
There are many Korean movies involving ex-cops taking revenge, so On the Line treads on established territory. However, its premise about phone scams and fast pace should satisfy many audiences, just as YouTube videos of people getting revenge on scammers often go viral. Indeed, On the Line did quite well at South Korea’s box office during 2021, ranking fourth overall for earnings.
7. Mission: Possible
Korean title: 미션 파서블 | Director: Kim Hyung-joo | Starring: Lee Sun-bin, Kim Young-kwang | Genre: Action, Comedy
If you’re looking for a blend of fun and action, check out Mission: Possible.
This comedy-action movie centers on a secret agent named Yoo Da-hee, who is tasked with stopping an arms smuggling operation in South Korea. Yoo is supposed to cooperate with a South Korean secret agent, but she instead links up with a hapless detective named Woo Soo-han due to a case of mistaken identity. When some key witnesses to the arms smuggling case end up dead, this odd couple must cooperate to survive and find justice.
In their roles as Yoo and Woo, lead actors Lee Sun-bin and Kim Young-kwang have great chemistry. The movie is full of action and doesn’t require a lot of intellectual investment; it provides solid entertainment for its two hour runtime.
Korean title: 내일의 기억 | Director: Seo Yoo-min | Starring: Seo Ye-ji, Kim Kang-woo, Yeom Hye-ran | Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Hot on the heels of her success in last year’s hit K-drama It’s OK to Not Be OK, actress Seo Ye-ji headlined the 2021 mystery-thriller Recalled. In this film, Seo stars as a woman who wakes up one day to find that she’s lost her memory. When she begins experiencing hallucinations that portend murderous future events, she realizes not everything is as it seems.
Recalled is a highly suspenseful affair, one that reconstitutes many familiar K-entertainment tropes but in a novel way. It doesn’t take much effort to enjoy this entertaining movie, especially if you enjoy plot twists. Learn more about Recalled in our full-length review!
Korean title: 싱크홀 | Director: Kim Ji-hoon | Starring: Cha Seung-won, Kim Sung-kyun, Lee Kwang-soo | Genre: Disaster, Comedy
After eleven long years, an office worker named Park Dong-won has finally saved up enough to buy a home in Seoul. However, the night of his housewarming party, a large downpour plunges his new house into a massive sinkhole. Together with his antagonistic neighbor Jeong Man-soo, Park must find a way to get his housewarming guests to safety.
Such is the premise of Sinkhole — which became the second-highest grossing South Korean movie of 2021. This disaster comedy is full of hilarious moments, and also offers jabs at sky-high housing prices in Seoul. Altogether, Sinkhole is a bit reminiscent of Exit, which combined comedy, disaster, and veiled social critiques successfully enough to be one of 2019’s top Korean movies.
4. Night in Paradise
Korean title: 낙원의 밤 | Director: Park Hoon-jung | Starring: Uhm Tae-goo, Jeon Yeo-been, Cha Seung-won | Genre: Action, Revenge
Park Hoon-jung is most known for directing 2013 gangster-themed hit New World and writing 2010’s renowned action thriller I Saw the Devil. In 2021, he returned to direct Night in Paradise—a moody gangster revenge film that you can easily stream on Netflix.
The movie focuses on a gangster enforcer named Tae-goo, who gets exiled to the “paradise island” of Jeju after going on a bloody stabbing spree of a rival gang. On Jeju, Tae-goo ends up living with an arms dealer and his niece, a young woman named Jae-yeon. Tae-goo soon discovers there’s more to Jae-yeon than meets the eye, and the two begin to form a bond that gets tested when the consequences of Tae-goo’s prior violent actions catch up to him on Jeju.
With stylistic color grading and cinematography, Night in Paradise is a visual feast. It contains loads of action, and its unique setting of Jeju should prove intriguing especially for Asians more familiar with the island’s touristic reputation. Learn more about Night in Paradise in our complete review.
3. Miracle: Letters to the President
Korean title: 기적 | Director: Lee Jang-hoon | Starring: Park Jeong-min, Im Yoon-ah (Yoona), Lee Sung-min | Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Comedy, Romance
Fans of the hit K-pop girl group SNSD may be pleased to see member Yoona (Im Yoon-ah) continue her acting career unabated in Miracle: Letters to the President. Those who aren’t K-pop fans should still be able to enjoy this heartstring-tugging movie as well.
Miracle is set during the 1980’s, in an isolated village within South Korea’s North Gyeongsang Province. It centers on a young man named Joon-gyeong (Park Jeong-min), who aspires to establish a train station to serve the village.
Joon-gyeong sends many letters to South Korea’s President in an attempt to get the government to build the station, but fails. However, at school he meets a girl named Ra-hee (Yoona) — who start collaborating on other creative ways to build the station.
What makes Miracle worth noting is how it doesn’t get totally bogged down in romance. While it has cutesy tones, it leans more towards comedy than saccharine love. The movie also does a pretty good job of reflecting the 80’s in a nostalgic fashion (despite the fact that the real South Korean president in the 80’s probably spent more effort massacring people than receiving random letters). K-drama stalwarts might even see Miracle as a more rural counterpart to the hit drama Reply 1988.
2. Book of Fish
Korean title: 자산어보 | Director: Lee Joon-ik | Starring: Sol Kyung-gu, Byun Yo-han, Lee Jung-eun, Jung Jin-young | Genre: Drama
Director Lee Joon-ik has a knack for Joseon-era movies, for example The King and the Clown and The Throne. In 2021 he returned with Book of Fish. This film examines the unlikely friendship between an exiled scholar and an ambitious fisherman in a rural fishing village during the Joseon dynasty.
The movie is greatly entertaining, and excels in its depiction of everyday life in rural Korea. It also offers intriguing explorations about Confucianism versus Western thought, and taps into a rich historical context with references to real events. If you’re interested in artistic, thoughtful movies set in the Joseon period, then check out Book of Fish.
1. Escape from Mogadishu
Korean title: 모가디슈 | Director: Ryoo Seung-wan | Starring: Kim Yoon-seok, Jo In-sung, Heo Joon-ho, Kim So-jin | Genre: Action, War
Our selection for the #1 best Korean film of 2021 goes to Escape from Mogadishu.
This action movie is “inspired” by real events in which South Korean and North Korean diplomats had to cooperate in order to flee the Somali Civil War in 1990. It became the highest-grossing South Korean movie of 2021, and is also South Korea’s submission to the 2022 Oscars for Best International Feature.
From Joint Security Area to Crash Landing to You, lots of South Korean movies and shows depict relations with North Korea. Escape from Mogadishu is especially worth highlighting because it depicts those relations in a more realistic manner compared to many other stories.
Learn more about why this is the case in our full-length review of the movie!
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