A great film leaves an imprint on the mind and its beauty doesn’t wither through time. It continues to marvel and stimulate viewers as if watched for the very first time. It never fails to impress or spark excited conversations among friends or critics even after several years.
There are tons of great movies out there from any genre and even from international titles. Hollywood films are often most-talked about but language barrier is not an option when it comes to the appreciation of great films.
Korean cinema, to be precise, has been making waves among international viewers because of its ingenuity and beautiful cinematography. Filmmakers also have a way of captivating the audience with the storytelling.
The cinema boasts an extensive collection of must-watch films from any age (the classics and modern) and genre. Among those that usually live a lasting impression on viewers are the thrillers, and below you will find the 21 best Korean mystery thrillers of all time.
A man seeks revenge on the people who imprisoned him for over a decade without justifiable cause. His thirst for vengeance and desire to kill the culprit lure him into a web of conspiracy and into romance with a mysterious woman.
Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) returns to the outside world after 15 years of being locked up in a hotel. He only has one goal in mind and that’s to track his captors.
However, doing so puts him in various dangerous situations and traps him in a game of cat-and-mouse. He eventually agrees on a deal with his mysterious abductor even if it means putting his life on the line.
Director: Park Chan-wook – Screenplay: Park Chan-wook, Hwang Jo-yun, Im Joon-hyung – Cast: Choi Min-sik Yoo Ji-tae Kang Hye-jung Kim Byung-ok Oh Dal-su Lee Seung-Shin Yoon Jin-seo Ji Dae-han Oh Tae-kyung Yoo Yeon-seok Oh Gwang-rok Lee Dae-yeon Park Myung-shin Kim Su-hyeon – Run Time: 2h
A man’s past unknowingly haunts him in the present in this psychological film that revolves around the mystery of a murder.
This slow burn of a thriller digs into a man’s memories to uncover the truth about a murder that happened in the past. The search prompts a journey back in time into the deepest recesses of a person’s mind.
Jin-Seok is at the center of the investigation and he soon realizes that he has fallen into an elaborate plan of deception and that there is no escape. The loving family he thought was his is gone and those that remain are just actors with respective roles to fill.
Forgotten takes viewers on a quest for the truth where the doubts and questions propel the story forward. Meanwhile, flashbacks provide the answer and put an end to a man’s need for closure.
Director: Jang Hang-jun – Screenplay: Jang Hang-jun – Cast: Kang Ha-neul, Kim Moo Yeol, Na Young-hee, Lee Eun-woo, Moon Sung-Keun, Jung Chan-bi – Run Time: 1h 48m
This murder mystery film tells of a mother’s love for her child and her selflessness. It follows her quest to clear her son’s name of murder and free him from jail.
Yoon Do-joon, a mentally challenged teenager, is sent to jail for the murder of a girl. His mother insists that he is innocent and incapable of committing such a crime. However, circumstantial evidence places her son at the scene of the murder.
The mother goes through great lengths to protect her son; she hires a lawyer and does her own investigation. However, with the law against her and her son she resorts to unspeakable and brutal acts in her search for the truth.
This film makes you sympathize with the son and rally with the mother. However, the surprising end will leave you speechless and questioning your own judgment.
Director: Bong Joon-ho – Screenplay: Bong Joon-ho, Park Eun-kyo – Cast: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Moon Hee-ra, Yoon Je-moon, Song Sae-byeok, Lee Young-suk, Jeon Mi-seon – Run Time: 2h 9m
A doctor working at a colonoscopy clinic at a satellite town fears for his life when doubts about his landlord’s identity creep in. The man believes that he may be living at a murderer’s house.
Seung Hoon (Cho Jin Woong) rents a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of his landlord’s butcher shop. He leads a simple life until one day, the old man confesses to multiple murders while under sedation.
Coincidentally, dismembered bodies start showing up close to home and he suspects that his landlord may have told the truth. Seung Hoon thinks the man and his son may be killers and this belief torments him into a state of paranoia. Thus begins his determination to solve the mystery surrounding these murders before the father and son suspect that he knows something.
This film reeks of an eerie vibe and capitalizes on one’s own sanity to build the suspense, tension, and mystery. Seung Hoon’s hysteria leads him to question everything he sees and doubt the personality of the people around him.
Director: Lee Su-yeon – Screenplay: Lee Soo-yeon – Cast: Cho Jin-woong, Gu Shin, Kim Dae-myung, Lee Chung-ah, Yun Se-ah Jung Ah-Mi, Song Young-chang, Jo Jin Woong – Run Time: 1h 95m
Memoir of a Murderer (2017)
Byung-soo (Sol Kyung-Gu) is a retired serial killer who lives a quiet and peaceful life with his teenage daughter who has been taking care of him since his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He has not killed anyone in the past 17 years.
However, he soon finds himself doubting his capacity for murder when a series of dead bodies turn up near his town. He worries that he may have committed the acts during his memory lapses.
Byung-soo then meets a cop whose strange behavior sparks his interest. He suspects that the young man may be the culprit behind the murders and start to investigate.
However, his suspicions only draw the cop’s interest in him and his daughter. In order to protect his daughter, Byung-soo must learn to distinguish between what’s real and not, especially when his memories seem to betray him.
Director: Won Shin-Yeon – Screenplay: Won Shin-Yeon, Hwang Jo-Yoon – Cast: Sol Kyung-Gu, Kim Nam-Gil, Seol Hyun, Oh Dal-Su, Hwang Suk-Jung, Gil Hae-Yeon, Lee Byung-Joon – Run Time: 1h 58m
The Wailing (2016)
This film is a cocktail of genres: supernatural horror, mystery, thriller, and it explores man’s faith and his cultural beliefs. The story begins when a mysterious disease plagues a small village and turns those infected into cannibals.
The locals believe an evil entity is causing the spread of the illness and blames the mysterious Japanese man who is a newcomer to the village. Local cop Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) brushes the accusations as mere hearsay until his daughter gets infected too. At such point, he is pushed beyond human morals in his determination to find the truth.
The Wailing is intensely dark, eerie, and fills you with dread from the get-go. The slow pacing only adds to the tension and mystery. This film packs gore and graphic scenes of killings that may not be suitable for the faint of heart.
Director: Na Hong-jin – Screenplay: Na Hong-jin – Cast: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min, Jun Kunimura, Chun Woo-hee, Jang So-yeon, Baek Seung-chul – Run Time: 2h 36m
Perfect Number (2012)
One thing Korean films do best is the twists and turns and proper pacing of events that lead to an epic and mind-blowing climax. These properly summarize Perfect Number, which is based on the Japanese novel The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino.
This mystery crime thriller follows detective Jo Min-beom (Cho Jin-Woong) as he investigates a murder case. He pins the crime against Baek Hwa-sun (Lee Yo Won), the abused ex-wife, but even a polygraph test proves her innocence.
Hwa-sun has her mathematician neighbor Kim Seok-go (Ryu Seung Beom) to thank for creating the perfect alibi. The schoolteacher saw Seok-go accidentally kill her ex-husband during a violent encounter and used his math skills to come up with an ingenious cover-up.
The irony is that Seok-go is friends with Min-beom, who maintains his suspicions on Hwa-sun. However, the detective starts to doubt his suspicions when he realizes that his friend may be in love with the suspect.
This film leaves you speechless at the end as you watch it unfold not according to your expectations. The storytelling constantly keeps you on your toes as you try to decipher clues along with the detective. In the end, though, this movie is simply about the sacrifices one makes in the name of love.
Director: Bang Eun-jin – Screenplay: Lee Gong-ju, Lee Jung-hwa – Cast: Lee Yo Won, Ryu Seung Beom, Cho Jin-Woong, Kim Bo Ra, Lee Seok Jun, Kim Yoon Sung – Run Time: 1h 59m
The Yellow Sea (2010)
Infamous filmmaker Na Hong-jin brings another gripping story filled with his trademark gruesome violence, chaos, and explosions (see The Chaser, The Wailing) in The Yellow Sea. There’s never a dull moment in this over 2-hour film that digs into the human soul and the darkness that lies within.
This mystery crime thriller puts the narrative on Ku-Nam (Ha Jung-Woo), a taxi driver who frequents the gambling halls if he’s not toiling away on the road. His wife, who works in South Korea, has yet to send him money and he hasn’t heard from her since. Ku-Nam fears that she may be having extramarital affairs.
His life takes a drastic turn for the worst after he is fired from his job and the debt collectors take most of his severance pay. In order to survive, he accepts a hitman’s job from underworld crime boss Myung-Ga (Kim Yun-Seok) in exchange for a handsome fee.
Ku-Nam crosses the yellow sea for Seoul and takes this chance to find his wife. However, a string of unexpected events happens when it’s time to take out his target: he is framed for murder and chased down by the cops and a couple of assassins. What follows is a classic hunt between prey and predator as Ku-nam finds himself in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy involving betrayal and lies.
Director: Na Hong-jin – Screenplay: Na Hong-jin, Hong Won-Chan – Cast: Ha Jung-Woo, Kim Yun-Seok, Cho Seong-Ha – Run Time: 2h 36m
The Chaser (2008)
In his directorial debut, Na Hong-jin tells the story of Jung-ho (Kim Yun-Seok), a former cop turned pimp, who is on hot pursuit of a serial killer after his girls go missing. Jung-ho suspects his customer Young-min is the killer after his name appears on the calls the missing girls received.
His hunch is confirmed when his last girl Mi-jin goes missing too after Young-min called her. He also accidentally bumps into the man’s car and saw blood on his shirt. Jung-ho takes Young-min to the cops where the latter confessed to killing women and hints that Mi-jin may still be alive.
The cops only have 12 hours to detain the suspect so they begin their frantic search for the corpses. Jung-ho, on the other hand, searches for Mi-jin and any evidence to prove Young-min’s guilt.
This film lives up to its title with scenes of manic foot chases within a game of cat-and-mouse. Meanwhile, the gut-wrenching violence and graphic images of mutilation add to the dark premise.
The Chaser is based on a true story about the Korean serial killer and self-confessed cannibal Yoo Young-chul. He was convicted in 2005 for the murder of 20 women, mostly prostitutes.
Director: Na Hong-jin – Screenplay: Na Hong-jin, Jong Wo-Chan, Lee Shinho – Cast: Kim Yun-Seok, Ha Jung-Woo, Seo Young-Hee, Park Hyo-Joo, Jeong In-gi – Run Time: 2h 5m
The Vanished (2018)
A woman’s corpse disappears from the morgue of the National Institute of Scientific Investigation. The missing body belongs to Yoon-seol (Kim Hee-Ae), a rich and powerful woman who died of a heart attack.
A watchman discovers her up and running during his shift and the police is sent to investigate the odd case. Detective Woo Joong-sik (Kim Sang-Kyung) leads the investigation and brings in people for questioning.
One of those he questions is the woman’s young husband, whose anxious behavior only sparks his suspicion. The husband insists that his wife is not dead. Adding to the suspicion is the fact that the widower has a pregnant girlfriend.
This mystery thriller evokes a Hitchcock vibe as the detective pursues the investigation in the course of one night during a proverbial dark stormy night. Buried dark secrets soon unravel and both men’s resentment toward each other yields unexpected results.
Director: Lee Chang-hee – Screenplay: Lee Chang-hee – Cast: Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Kang-woo, Kim Hee-ae, Han Ji-an, Lee Ji-hoon – Run Time: 1h 41m
Confession of Murder (2012)
Serial killer Lee Doo-Suk (Park Si-Hoo) publishes a book about the murders he committed after the statute of limitations expires. The book becomes a best-seller and the perpetrator a celebrity.
The publicity stirs the attention of detective Choi Hyung-Goo (Jung Jae-Young) who investigated the murders 15 years ago. He takes this as his golden opportunity to catch Lee and searches for elusive killer. Likewise, Han Ji-soo, a mother to one of the victims, vows to avenge her daughter’s death.
However, things don’t go as planned for them as someone else out there also knows about these murders. Another killer appears, casting doubts to whether Doo-Suk is really a serial killer or if the real perpetrator is still on the loose.
This film has an unpredictable plot and gripping story that’s full of twists and turns. You’d think that when you start the film you already figured out how the story unfolds, which is quite contrary to the surprising end.
Director: Jung Byung-gil – Screenplay: Jung Byung-Gil, Lee Young-Jong, Hong Won-Chan – Cast: Jung Jae Young, Park Shi Hoo, Jung Hae Kyun, Kim Yeong-ae, Choi Won-young – Run Time: 1h 59m
White Night (2009)
A man recently released from prison is found dead in a derelict building at a remote town. The police see no sign of resistance and consider it as suicide instead of murder.
However, Detective Han Dong-Su (Han Suk-Kyu) discovers a connection to the incident to a 14-year-old unsolved homicide case. He suspects that it was no suicide and has his suspicions. The detective connects Yohan, the son of the victim from the homicide, to the man’s death.
Meanwhile, an investigation into Mi-Ho’s (Son Ye-jin) life prior to her marriage to a wealthy businessman yields surprising results that connect her to the homicide case. It turns out her mother was the prime suspect. Not surprising, she and Yohan share a hidden relationship.
Dong-Su works to uncover the truth as more murders occur. Meanwhile, Yohan and Mi-ho’s love for each other grows.
This film wields between the past and present to tell a story with flashbacks showing the events during and after the homicide. It is emotionally intense and twisted yet captivating at the same time.
Director: Park Shin-Woo – Screenplay: Park Shin-Woo, Park Yeon-Sun, Oh Sang-Ho – Cast: Han Suk-Kyu, Son Ye-Jin, Ko Soo, Lee Min-jung – Run Time: 2h 15m
A failed climate-change experiment wipes out living creatures on the planet and only a few people survived. These people, divided by a class system, are onboard the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe through a perpetual-motion engine.
This sci-fi mystery thriller follows the lives of those in the low-ranking class as they strive to live through their struggles and unjust treatment. They finally revolt against the elite who occupy the front of the train and what they discover there (kids used in replaced for extinct machinery) challenges their moral judgment.
Snowpiercer uses immersive visuals and raw emotions of despair and rage to grip viewers to the plight of the poor. Its steam-punk Apocalypse premise doesn’t deviate from obvious references to the actual happenings in the real world brought by climate change.
Director: Bong Joon Ho– Screenplay: Bong Joon Ho, Kelly Masterson – Cast: Ko Asung, Steve Park, Song Kang-ho, Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Ed Harris – Run Time: 2h 6m
Ryu Hae-Kuk (Park Hae-Il), who lives in the city, receives a call about his estranged father’s death in a country village. The son travels to the mysterious town to learn what happened, but the townspeople do not welcome his presence.
It seems the residents want him to leave town as soon as possible. They keep asking him when he returns to Seoul. No longer able to contain his curiosity, Hae-Kuk, a former detective, approaches the charismatic village leader for answers. The people soon change their treatment toward him when the leader accepts that he stays in the village.
However, the longer Hae-Kuk stays in the village the more suspicious he becomes of the locals. They seem to worship the village chief like a god. As his curiosity grows, the more he discovers about the town’s secrets and the history of his father.
Moss keeps the audience guessing about the local’s behavior and their motives throughout the story. The chilling suspense only enhances as the story unfolds and viewers can only wait to find out what really happened to the father.
Director: Kang Woo-Suk – Screenplay: Ji Woo Chung – Cast: Park Hae-Il, Jung Jae-Young, Yu Jun-Sang, Yoo-Sun, Yu Hae-Jin, Kim Sang-Ho, Kim Tae-Han – Run Time: 2h 43m
Memories of Murder (2003)
This crime mystery thriller follows the hunt for a serial killer who rapes and murders his women victims. Local detectives Jo Young-Goo (Kim Roe-Ha) and Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-Ho), and Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyung), a detective from Seoul, take charge of the investigation.
Two of the detectives do not see eye-to-eye because of their differing practices. Doo-Man uses violence to force a confession out of every small-time crook, while Tae-Yoon meticulously goes over documents related to the case to find clues.
However, with the bodies mounting up, they are forced to cooperate with each other and sets up a trap after Tae-yon notices a pattern among the victims’ profile. Their attempt is futile though when another body turns up dead. The detectives are forced to resort to rude measures to crack the case.
This film uses dark humor to downplay the horror but grips the audience with its provocative storytelling about real murders that occurred in the Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province from 1986 to 1991.
Director: Bong Joon-Ho – Screenplay: Bong Joon-Ho, Shim Sung-Bo, Kim Kwang-Rim – Cast: Song Kang-Ho, Kim Sang-Kyung, Kim Roe-Ha, Song Jae-Ho, Byun Hee-Bong, Ko Seo-Hee, Jeon Mi-Sun, Park Hae-Il, Park No-Shik, Seo Yeong-Hwa, Ryu Tae-Ho, Woo Ko-Na – Run Time: 2h 12m
The Neighbors (2012)
Middle-school student Yeo-Seon (Kim Sae-Ron) lives in a middle class apartment complex with her stepmother. One rainy day she walks home alone but goes missing and is not found until ten days after with her decapitated body in a red suitcase.
The young girl’s death sparks fear among the apartment residents and cast suspicions among themselves. They suspect Seung-Hyuk (Kim Sung-Kyun) as a killer but keep it to themselves even as the bodies pile up. Each resident has their personal reason for keeping it a secret despite the circumstantial evidence that link Seung-Hyuk to the murders.
Meanwhile, Yeo-Seon’s stepmom feels guilty over the girl’s death but is in for a great surprise when she encounters another girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to the deceased. Adding to the mystery is that the girl lives in the same apartment complex and her name is Soo-Yeo.
The Neighbors is different from other murder mystery in that the identity of the killer is revealed from the start. However, the storytelling doesn’t just revolve around the killings and the perpetrator but on each character. This film also uses humor and interesting elements to create a thrilling study of human values.
Director: Kim Whee – Screenplay: Kim Whee – Cast: Kim Sung-Kyun, Kim Yunjin, Kim Sae-Ron, Ma Dong-Seok, Cheon Ho-Jin, Do Ji-Han, Jang Young-Nam, Lim Ha-Ryong – Run Time: 2h 12m
A Hard Day (2014)
Detective Gun-Soo (Lee Sun-Kyun), a crooked cop, skips his mother-in-law’s funeral after he receives information of a bribery investigation into his squad. The intoxicated cop drives to the station and hits a homeless man who wanders onto the road, killing the man instantly.
Gun-Soo hides the body in his trunk, returns to the funeral, and secretly hides the body in the coffin. Days later, he crashes his car to give him a reason to visit the repair shop and hide incriminating evidence.
However, a criminal investigation leads him back to the real identity of the homeless man. Thus begins Gun-Soo’s troubles, as he scampers to hide any evidence that would put him behind bars. He also has to take care of an anonymous caller who claims to have witnessed the crash.
This visceral modern thriller takes the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock in that it makes you laugh and cry out in fear. The narrative incorporates humor to add comic relief to a series of disasters that takes viewers from one momentous ride to another.
Director: Kim Sung-Hoon – Screenplay: Kim Sung-Hoon, Lee Hae-Jun, Choi Kwan-Young, Jang Hang-Jun – Cast: Lee Sun-Kyun, Cho Jin-Woong, Jeong Man-Sik, Shin Jung-Keun, Kim Dong-Young, Joo Suk-Tae – Run Time: 1h 51m
I Saw the Devil (2010)
Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-Hun) vows to avenge his fiancée’s death even if it means going against protocols of the law. He tracks the murderer who decapitated his girlfriend and inflicts on him unbearable pain, but his plan of revenge is just beginning.
Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-Sik) is driven beyond mad when Soo-Hyun plays him around like a toy. The elite special agent does not intend to surrender him to the cops. Instead, he stalks him like his prey and pounces on him when the right time comes. The cycle goes on until the murderer starts to fear for his life.
This tense, gripping story of revenge is not for the faint of heart. It involves graphic scenes of torture and mutilation. Its raw, emotional thriller keeps you on edge every time. In the end, this film makes you wonder who the real devil is.
Director: Kim Jee-Woon – Screenplay: Park Hoon-Jung – Cast: Lee Byung-Hun, Choi Min-Sik, Jeon Kuk-Hwan, Oh San-Ha, Kim Yoon-Seo, Cheon Ho-Jin, Choi Moo-Sung, Kim In-Seo – Run Time: 2h 22m
No Mercy (2010)
This mystery crime thriller follows the trail of a murder investigation where the suspect seemingly holds the reins. Environmental activist Lee Sung-ho (Ryoo Seung-Bum) admits to the gruesome murder of a woman and is imprisoned. However, his account of the events contradicts the clues and this baffles the cops.
Meanwhile, Kang Min-ho (Sol Kyung-Gu) postpones retirement for one last job. He performs an autopsy on the victim, which proves to be a wrong decision on his part when he becomes too involved with the case.
The murderer happens to have his daughter hostage and threatens to kill her if he doesn’t get him out on bail within three days. Kang tampers with the victim’s corpse to clear Lee’s name and the latter is released.
However, the father doesn’t know that Lee has set up an elaborate plan of revenge against Kang for something he did in the past. In the end, Kang reunites with his daughter but not in the way he expects.
This is not your typical revenge story where you already see how the story ends. Instead, the ending shocks you and literally leaves you open-mouthed. The realization leaves a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach.
Director: Kim Hyung-Jun – Screenplay: Kim Hyung-Jun, Lee Jung-Ho – Cast: Sol Kyung-Gu, Ryoo Seung-Bum, Han Hye-Jin, Sung Ji-Ru, Nam Kyeong-Eup – Run Time: 2h 22m
This film is based on a true and unsolved case from the early 1990s about the disappearance of five elementary school students. The children told their parents that they were going to the nearby mountain to catch frogs and they never returned.
The request for a search went unnoticed until days later after elections. Police scoured the area for clues on their disappearance while the parents take their worry to the airwaves, hoping that their pleas for the boys’ return will capture the hearts of many.
Years passed and the boys’ disappearance remains a mystery. A detective suspects a man who may be the murderer, especially when he finds items belonging to children in his shack.
However, the statute of limitation on the murder case has already expired, which puts the investigation on a standstill. Add to that, there were no more crimes committed near where the children have disappeared and had there been, it would have served as a link to the old case.
What makes this film captivating is the show of raw and compelling emotions from the families as they go about dealing with their loss in their own way. The storytelling builds not just on the murder investigation but also on character development.
Director: Lee Kyu-maan – Screenplay: Lee Kyu-maan, Lee Hyeon-jin – Cast: Park Yong-woo, Ryu Seung-ryong, Sung Dong-il, Kim Yeo-jin, Kim In-seo – Run Time: 2h 12m
Voice of a Murderer (2007)
A nine-year-old boy from an affluent family is kidnapped for ransom and the perpetrator has specific instructions for the money. The parents, on the other hand, seek the help of the police to catch the culprit and rescue their son.
However, the kidnapper constantly outwits the cops by providing different instructions for the money drop. The investigation turns into days then into weeks and the parents become restless. The police’s only clue is the voice behind the calls, which belongs to an emotionless yet cultured man.
The abductor becomes relentless in his calls to the point that it becomes mental torture for the parents. The waiting gradually drew out the couple’s failures, regrets, and mistakes.
The film is based on the true abduction of Hyung-ho Lee in 1991. His body was discovered in the sewers of the Han River. The case is now closed and yet it remains unsolved.
Director: Park Jin-Pyo – Screenplay: Park Jin-Pyo – Cast: Sol Kyung-Gu, Kim Nam-Joo, Kim Young-Chul, Gang Dong-Won, Na Moon-Hee, Song Young-Chang, Kim Kwang-Kyu – Run Time: 2h 2m