In 2023, Korean movies continued captivating audiences throughout not just Asia, but also beyond.
Therefore, you may ask: what were the Best Korean Movies of 2023?
Cinema Escapist has compiled this list of the top 11 Korean films from 2023 to answer that question. We selected these 11 Korean movies based on their narrative quality, entertainment value, production prowess, and degree of societal significance. Depending on availability, we’ve also included links to watch these films on streaming platforms like Viki and Netflix.
This year’s list of K-movies includes titles from genres like action, comedy, thriller, musical and more. We’ve also made sure to choose not just mainstream blockbusters but also indie gems. Those who like to make their movie-watching decisions based on cast will find selections featuring stars like Song Joong-ki, Lee Byung-hun, Kim Da-mi, Song Kang-ho, Krystal Jung, and more.
Let’s dive into 2023’s best Korean movies!
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Korean Title: 화란 | Director: Kim Chang-hoon | Starring: Song Joong-ki, Hong Xa-bin, Kim Hyoung-seo (Bibi) | Genre(s): Thriller, Neo-Noir, Gangster
Heartthrob actor Song Joong-ki marks his big screen return with Hopeless, a rather bleak film with a streak of social realism. Song doesn’t play the protagonist in Hopeless though—that job falls to Hong Xa-bin. Hong depicts a teenager named Yeon-gyu, who faces abuse both at home and school and ends up forming a connection with Chi-geon (played by Song), a local mid-level gangster. Meanwhile, singer Bibi also makes her film debut as Yeon-gyu’s sister, Hayan.
Helmed by first-time director Kim Chang-hoon, Hopeless combines indie sensibilities with gratuitous violence and moody darkness. Song Joong-ki apparently agreed to appear in the film for free, and lent his star power to its promotion. However, Hopeless apparently underperformed at the box office; some viewers found its plot overwrought and rather ambitious. The film still scored slots at the 2023 Cannes and Busan Film Festivals though, and garnered four nominations for the Blue Dragon Awards.
10. Project Silence
Korean Title: 탈출: PROJECT SILENCE | Director: Kim Tae-gon | Starring: Lee Sun-kyun, Ju Ji-hoon, Kim Hee-won | Genre(s): Action, Thriller, Horror, Sci-Fi
Another one of 2023’s Cannes selections from Korea is Project Silence. This action-thriller has a rather odd premise, in which government-engineered mutant dogs start attacking people traffic-jammed on a bridge in Seoul.
Project Silence contains decent cinematography and action scenes, taking full advantage of its foggy bridge setting to create a sense of foreboding. However, the movie is almost too lavish, filled with a multitude of twists, character backgrounds, and subtle political jabs. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a chaotic thriller with non-stop action, Project Silence does well enough.
Korean Title: 미망 | Director: Kim Tae-yang | Starring: Seong-guk Ha, Suji Jung | Genre(s): Drama, Indie
In Korean, the word “mimang” has at least three meanings. It can refer to the sense of being unable to forget what you want to forget, the act of searching far and wide, or failing to make sense of something. The indie film Mimang takes its title to heart and traces two characters across three distinct acts, which roughly mirror “mimang’s” various meanings.
Mimang feels rather reminiscent of the American film Past Lives, as it centers on two friends of the opposite gender who reunite after long absences and reminisce about their relationship to each other. Anglophone critics have also compared it to an aggregated Korean analogue to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight). Beyond American comparisons though, Mimang offers a light and wistful look at Seoul through its beautiful photography; the city looks different from how it usually appears in other Korean movies and dramas.
8. The Childe
Korean Title: 귀공자 | Director: Park Hoon-jung | Starring: Kim Seon-ho, Kang Tae-joo, Kim Kang-woo, Go Ara | Genre(s): Action, Thriller, Neo-noir
Neo-noir action movie The Childe features relative newcomer Kang Tae-joo as Marco Han, a boxer of mixed Korean-Filipino descent. In order to find funding for his sick mother’s medical care, Marco decides to go to Korea to look for his estranged father—but encounters a mysterious assassin (played by K-drama heartthrob Kim Seon-ho of Start-Up and Hometown Cha-cha-cha fame) who gets in his way.
Arguably, Kim Seon-ho’s assassin character steals the show in The Childe with his sense of cool. The film is full of twists, and remains suspenseful throughout with fight scenes aplenty. Those who are fans of Kim Seon-ho, or appreciate other boxing-themed Korean media (ex. 2023 drama Bloodhounds) will find The Childe likable.
Korean Title: 소울메이트 | Director: Min Yong-keun | Starring: Kim Da-mi, Jeon So-nee, Byeon Woo-seok | Genre(s): Drama, Romance
In 2016, we at Cinema Escapist reviewed the Chinese movie Soul Mate, which traces a close friendship between two girls as they move from adolescence to adulthood (and teased viewers with vaguely sapphic promotional materials). Now, we’re back with a listicle entry about Soulmate, which is the 2023 Korean adaptation of that original Chinese movie.
The Korean Soulmate stars Kim Da-mi (of Itaewon Class fame) and Jeon So-nee as two women both born in 1988, who (just like their counterparts in the original Chinese movie) become close friends after meeting at age 13. Many audiences found the relationship between the two leads immensely touching; the movie has many emotional ups and downs and ultimately leaves viewers with a lasting emotional impact.
6. Killing Romance
Korean Title: 킬링 로맨스 | Director: Lee Won-suk | Starring: Lee Hanee (Honey Lee), Lee Sun-kyun, Gong Myoung | Genre(s): Musical, Romance, Comedy, Mystery
When Killing Romance first released in Korea, it didn’t do particularly well at the box office. However, social media buzz about the film picked up, and it became a cult hit in both South Korea and abroad.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Killing Romance would become an international cult favorite. The film is a quirky musical-romance-comedy, one whose cinematography evokes Wes Anderson and whose musical numbers are unlike anything ever featured in Korean cinema before.
Killing Romance centers on a washed-up actress (played by Lee Hanee) who tries to escape her toxic marriage with an eccentric real estate mogul (played by Lee Sun-kyun of Parasite). In order to accomplish that goal, she collaborates with her teenage neighbor on various attempts to murder her husband through unconventional means.
Given the number of recent Korean movies that are either some form of brooding action-thriller, formulaic action-comedy, or wistful indie mope, Killing Romance comes as a massive breath of fresh air for those who want something different.
Korean Title: 잠 | Director: Jason Yu | Starring: Lee Sun-kyun, Jung Yu-mi | Genre(s): Black Comedy, Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Lee Sun-kyun appears yet again on our list of 2023’s best Korean movies, but this time in the horror film Sleep. Lee plays a struggling actor named Hyeon-soo, who recently married and impregnated his office worker wife Soo-jin (played by Jung Yu-mi). One night, Soo-jin discovers that Hyeon-soo is sleepwalking in a rather creepy manner—and this sets off an escalating series of incidents and worries that put Sleep down a dark path.
Sleep’s director Jason Yu was Bong Joon-ho’s assistant director on Okja, and Sleep received high praise from Bong as the most unique horror film that he’d seen in the past decade. Sleep received screening slots at both Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, and won Jung Yu-mi the best actress award at 2023’s Blue Dragon Film Awards.
Korean Title: 거미집 | Director: Kim Jee-woon | Starring: Song Kang-ho, Park Jeong-su, Krystal Jung, Oh Jung-se | Genre(s): Black Comedy, Drama, History
As we’ve explored in numerous articles on Cinema Escapist, South Korea was an authoritarian dictatorship for the first few decades of its existence. It’s against this backdrop that the 2023 Korean movie Cobweb occurs.
Set in the early 1970’s, the film stars Song Kang-ho (Parasite, The Host, etc.) as an obsessive movie director named Kim Ki-yeol. Kim has just finished an eponymous film-within-the-film named Cobweb, but suddenly feels that he should remake the ending. He drags the reluctant cast and crew back onto the set for some emergency reshoots, but government censorship begins to thwart his plans.
Apparently, Cobweb’s depiction of the 1970s Korean movie scene were so authentic, and its black comedy so sharp, that the family of Kim Ki-young—one of Korea’s best-known Cold War era directors, most known in the West for 1960’s The Housemaid—sued because they thought Kim Ki-yeol was too much of an unflattering likeness to Kim Ki-young.
Regardless of any legal troubles, those interested in the behind-the-scenes of Korean cinema, or Korean history, should enjoy Cobweb.
Korean Title: 밀수 | Director: Ryu Seung-wan | Starring: Kim Hye-soo, Yeom Jung-ah, Zo In-sung | Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama
The 1970s seem to be featuring prominently in this list, for Smugglers also occurs during this time period. Directed by Ryu Seung-wan (Escape from Mogadishu, Battleship Island, The Berlin File), this rollicking movie centers on six haenyeo—female divers—who get into smuggling after a chemical plant threatens their livelihoods in their seaside town. Jo Chun-ja (Kim Hye-soo) is the female smuggling group’s de facto leader; when she encounters a nationally renowned smuggler in Seoul, she decides to rope her comrades into even more ambitious adventures.
Filled with twists and innovative aquatic sequences, Smugglers serves up ample entertainment throughout its two-hour runtime. Its gender dynamics are especially refreshing compared to other Korean action movies. Smugglers ended up winning Best Film at 2023’s Blue Dragon Film Awards, not to mention a slot at the Toronto and Locarno International Film Festivals.
2. 12.12: The Day
Korean Title: 서울의 봄 | Director: Kim Sung-su | Starring: Hwang Jung-min, Jung Woo-sung, Lee Sung-min | Genre(s): History, Political
Despite releasing relatively late in 2023, 12.12: The Day quickly rose to become the second-highest grossing film at South Korea’s domestic box office for the year. Starring heavy hitters like Hwang Jung-min and Jung Woo-sung, the movie dramatizes events around the December 12, 1979 coup that launched the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan.
Those interested in Korean history and politics will likely enjoy this film the most, as it continues South Korea’s steady track record of using cinema as a medium to navigate historical memory about the country’s authoritarian period. What’s interesting though is the areas in which 12.12: The Day takes dramatic liberties, for example in depicting a battle in Seoul’s famous Gwanghwamun Plaza. Such choices not only make the film worth examining as a piece of political narrative, but also make it more entertaining for general audiences.
Indeed, 12.12: The Day generated such buzz upon its release that it pulled the South Korean box office out of a multi-month slump. Schools even brought students to watch the movie given its historical value, whilst far-right organizations nostalgic for Chun Doo-hwan protested such phenomena.
1. Concrete Utopia
Korean Title: 콘크리트 유토피아 | Director: Um Tae-hwa | Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Park Seo-joon, Park Bo-young | Genre(s): Disaster, Thriller
In Seoul, owning an apartment is a status symbol—but only a lucky few may be able to afford a home in Seoul amidst South Korea’s oft-filmed realities of economic inequality. Our final selection for 2023’s best Korean movies, Concrete Utopia, occurs amidst this context.
Concrete Utopia is set in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake which has flattened all but one apartment complex in Seoul. The residents of this complex (called the Hwang Gung, or “Imperial Palace” in English) band together and resolve to keep outsiders out of their relative safe haven. Charged with enforcing this rule, and maintaining order amongst the complex, is a man named Yeong-tak—played by veteran actor Lee Byung-hun in a superb performance which won him a Blue Dragon Award for Best Actor.
Beyond captivating thrills and character dynamics, Concrete Utopia offers valuable social commentary around South Korea’s economic landscape, and thus lands itself on our 2023 top Korean movies list. The film is also South Korea’s selection for 2023’s US Academy Awards, and garnered not only international festival selections but also significant box office earnings.
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