Korean cinematography has significantly grown in the last two decades and became one of the leading outside Hollywood. Everything they make is a bit different, extremely intriguing and very interesting. From heartbreaking dramas to mind-blowing thrillers, their movies are definitely worth watching.
When we talk about action movies, we mostly think of Hollywood blockbusters with muscular actors and their martial arts skills or endless fighting scenes which mostly end with the victory of the good guy. But Korean action movies are somewhat milder, even though fast-paced and with a lot of violence. This is the list of the 15 best Korean action movies of all time, some of which can combine various genres.
Train to Busan (2016)
This movie is a combination of everything, it is an emotional family story, an edge-of-the-seat horror and an action-packed adventure where one of the biggest threats from the supernatural world is approaching humanity, zombies.
The story follows a busy father and his daughter who board a fast train from Seoul to Busan right at the beginning of an apocalypse when the majority of Earth’s population starts turning into zombies. This is when the nightmare begins and this one is even more dramatic since the main protagonists are in closed space, don’t know what’s going on out there and are constantly faced with danger lurking from outside, but soon inside, too.
Coming from South Korea and directed by one of its most acclaimed and popular directors of all time, Bong Joon Ho, but full of famous Hollywood stars such as Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer is one of the most gripping and talked about SCI-FI action movies of the last decade.
It is set in the future after a climate change experiment has killed everyone besides the people who boarded a train called Snowpiercer. It is a train that travels around the globe, where passengers are divided into classes and where everything starts to slowly change when these divisions end up in new class systems. Some of the passengers will strongly disapprove of those changes.
A Hard Day (2014)
Detective Go Geon-soo has had an awful day where everything happened in the last 24 hours: His wife sent him a divorce notice, his mother passed away and he and his colleagues are being investigated by police over possible embezzlement. And as if this wasn’t enough, this action thriller introduces us to a game of cat and mouse after Go Geon-soo commits a fatal hit and run and hides the body in his mother’s coffin.
He soon receives a mysterious phone call from a person who claims he’s seen everything and starts threatening him. As the plot begins to thicken, Geon-see is more and more involved in this nightmare of crime and bad choices.
The Man From Nowhere (2010)
One of the most popular action dramas coming from South Korea is this memorable movie about a lonely pawnshop keeper with a violent past. Tae-shick is an ex-special agent whose only friend and connection to the outer world is a little girl whose life is soon to be in great danger.
Her mother is a drug smuggler and she leaves the drugs with Tae-shick without letting him know anything about it. The gang finds out about her betrayal and kidnaps her and her little daughter. Soon, Tae-shick finds himself in a situation which he never imagined anymore, but he is the only person who might help this little girl after her mother is found dead.
Set in 1933, this action crime drama takes us back to the time when Korea was occupied by the Japanese army and when the Korean resistance started to plot against their enemies. Many of them have been sent to China and are now trying to act from afar. Their plan is to assassinate the Japanese Commander but their best sniper is Ahn Ok-yun who is serving her time in a Shanghai prison.
The resistance agent is sent to get her and her comrades out, but soon the Japanese find out about this plan and the Koreans figure out there is a traitor among them. This is when the real action begins, since Ahn Ok-yun doesn’t only need to flee the Chinese prison, but also face the Japanese army and a special hit-man who needs to kill her.
The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion (2018)
This somewhat underrated action mystery must be mentioned here due to its originality and excellent story. The plot is remarkable, it doesn’t let us rest for a second and we are constantly on our toes, eager to learn more. It is a well-known idea of a person who loses his/her memory and has to recall all the situations that happened in a certain period of time.
This time we follow a high school student with amnesia who must find out what has happened to her. She will uncover things that she has never imagined and realise that there is something much more sinister behind her memory loss than ever thought. Full of twists and unexpected solutions, this action-packed SCI-FI thriller won’t let you rest until its very end.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
One of the most popular and beloved Korean movies is undoubtedly I Saw the Devil, written by the same writer who wrote and directed the already mentioned The Witch. Part 1 and directed by one of the most acclaimed Korean directors, Jee-woon Kim. It is a crime drama about a skilful secret agent who decided to track a dangerous serial killer responsible for many gruesome murders.
Driven by his own personal motives and revenge, Soo-hyun will start a hunt where he will question his personal beliefs and views and even let them be changed, only to get his justice. Sometimes even the best of us can lose it and forget what they were and this movie is an excellent example of that and therefore is so beloved by the audience, due to its extremely realistic portrayal of a sad man who has lost everything.
A Bittersweet Life (2005)
Jee-woon Kim brings us another action masterpiece, another crime drama, this time dealing with a completely different topic than in I Saw the Devil and one of his most famous movies, The Tale of Two Sisters. It is a story about human’s feeling for what’s right and what’s wrong, of someone’s will to do rightfully.
Sun-woo has always been loyal to his boss and now, after seven years of service, he is one of the leading men and his boss’s right hand man. But his life is going to drastically change for the worse when he decides to disobey his boss’s orders. Things will start to go awry and culminate in warfare without mercy.
71: Into the Fire (2010)
This interesting action drama tells the story of outgunned student-soldiers who are given the task to try and protect a girls’ middle school at the beginning of the Korean war. The number 71 from the title refers to the 71 students who were caught up in the catastrophe of the real war.
This movie is based on true events and therefore even more difficult to watch. It is very realistic, making us feel uneasy and sad for those young boys who were taken by surprise and given a task too demanding for their age and experience. Since it is inspired by a true story and set in the time of war, we can predict its ending which was left true to the real happenings.
Space Sweepers (2021)
Maybe not as famous and acclaimed as the others on the list, Space Sweepers is still a movie worth mentioning, mostly due to its genre diversity and something we are not so used to seeing from the Korean cinematography.
Set in the year 2092, this adventure drama follows the crew of The Victory, a space junk collector ship that is responsible for cleaning a space full of dangerous garbage and leftovers. They are also looking for garbage they can use and make money off, but their mission will completely change when they encounter a humanoid robot Dorothy known to be a weapon of mass destruction.
New World (2013)
This is a crime drama that will mostly be interesting to all the lovers of American gangster movies, crime organisations and kingpins that need to be taken down. It is an interesting view on the Korea’s biggest crime organisation Goldmoon that is starting to spread its wings.
But in order not to allow it to expand its powers, the head of the police investigation planning development will recruit the undercover cop Ja- Seoung to become part of a project New World whose main goal is to take down Goldmoon. Soon, Ja-Seoung will have to decide which side to take and whether to follow his boss’s orders or stay loyal to the under-boss of Goldmoon.
The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019)
This is an interesting and intriguing crime drama about a crime boss named Jang Dong-su who has recently barely survived an attack by a serial killer. Driven by pride and justice, he will form an unusual bond with a local detective Jung Tae-seok to catch this elusive killer known by the nickname “K”.
This is a typical action-packed crime movie, with many fight scenes, exciting car chases and likeable characters which the audience will start rooting for at the very beginning. It is not a flick you will have the need to watch more than once, but it is two hours of good action you will definitely enjoy.
Extreme Job (2019)
Another detective story, but this time an action comedy about a group of detectives who go undercover and infiltrate themselves in a fried chicken joint in order to catch an organised crime gang. The seemingly serious matter will soon become a story full of funny situations when one of their recipes becomes the best selling dish in town and transforms this poor restaurant into one of the hottest places to visit.
This is a movie that all types of audiences might enjoy since it is both entertaining, thrilling, and full of mystery and at the same time, it promises two hours of good laugh and excitement. It is worth watching, especially if you want to see an action movie without blood and too many complications.
The Outlaws (2017)
A full blooded action thriller, based on true events, depicts a bit different Seoul, where street gangs rule some of its parts. It is about the 2007 real events that happened between a local gang in Guro District in Seoul and the Heuksapa gang from Yanbian, China.
We follow the growing turf war between these two gangs and the police attempts to slow them down and bring back peace to the neighbourhood. Action and fight lovers will definitely be satisfied with the amount of it in this movie since it is a true representative of its genre.
This is a fast paced movie full of twists and interesting situations that will definitely entertain the audience with its combination of comedy and action. The chemistry between the actors is excellent and it all ensures a great time.
Jo Tae-oh is a spoiled brat who tries to make his life more interesting by committing all kinds of crimes that he can think of and he always manages to get out of trouble by buying off everyone who catches him. But this time, the detective Seo Do-cheol won’t let it happen anymore. The game of cat and mouse begins, where one man seeks justice and the other revenge.