There’s a rampaging zombie on your train!
Quick, what’s your plan?!
Plus, your country’s at war, and the guy you’re about to shoot at looks just like your long-lost brother.
Are you still going to pull the trigger?
And, wait—you’ve magically become fifty years younger. What’s the first thing you’ll do?
These are just some of the exciting plots of Korean movies you’ll find in this post.
FluentU has carefully curated the best, the most influential, the highest-grossing and the most talked-about Korean films for your viewing pleasure.
We’ve got the perfect mix of comedy, drama, adventure, action, mystery and thriller. And it’s all for you—language learners and non-language learners alike.
So without further ado, here are the top 20 Korean movies you should be watching in 2021:
Top Korean Movies: 20 Can’t-miss Films to Watch in 2021
1. “Ode to My Father”
Korean Title: 국제시장
This is Korea’s version of Forrest Gump and is one of the most successful movies the country has ever produced.
It follows the life of a boy named Deok-soo whose family got separated during the Hungnam Evacuation of the Korean War. His father and sister got left behind in the North while he and his mother were able to flee south.
The movie depicts the dramatic moments in the country’s history from the 1950s to modern times. Deok-soo, as the lead character, experiences these turbulent times as he tries to lift his own family from poverty and at the same time build a family of his own.
Language learners will get a rich cultural and historical backdrop in this tearjerker of a film. You’ll get to witness the dramatic upheavals Korea experienced in the past decades and will come out with a new-found appreciation for Koreans and their inspiring narrative.
Korean Title: 태극기 휘날리며
This is the touching story of two brothers when they each get conscripted to fight in the Korean War.
Jin-tae, the older brother, has always looked after his younger sibling Jin-seok. When war breaks out, Jin-tae seeks to protect his brother by striking a deal with his commander that if he earns the highest military honors, his younger brother will be released from military service and sent home.
Jin-tae, without regard for life and limb, joins the most dangerous and suicidal combat missions. Will he win freedom for his brother?
Well, why don’t you see for yourself? And as a language learner, you might as well dive into the dialogues and slowly build your war chest of Korean vocabulary.
3. “Train to Busan”
Korean Title: 부산행
This movie was the certified hit of 2016, and it briefly resurrected the dying “zombie apocalypse” genre.
Seok-woo, a workaholic fund manager played by Gong Yoo, is on a train with his young daughter and headed for Busan—a port city 300 kilometers south of Seoul. The divorced dad is taking the child to see her mom as the kid’s birthday gift.
Just when the train doors are about to close, a woman with a bite wound steps onto the platform and into the train. She’s about to wreak havoc on every passenger inside…and so begins our movie!
“Train to Busan” has all the qualities of a great movie: interesting characters, good build-up and of course, zombies. The movie might be heavy on the gore, but it’s actually very light on the language. Beginners of Korean can have a field day learning the lines from this one.
By the way, if you want a quick taste before jumping into the full-length film, you can check out the trailer for “Train to Busan” on FluentU.
Each video comes with interactive subtitles in English and Korean, so you can follow along as you listen and watch.
Come across a word you don’t know? Just click on it, and you’ll find a definition and example sentences. You can even add any word to a customized vocabulary deck, or use the flashcard function to review new words.
If you love learning Korean through movies, FluentU is a great option. Check out the free trial today!
4. “Miss Granny”
Korean Title: 수상한 그녀
“Miss Granny” is a funny look into what sort of trouble a 70-year-old grandmother could get herself into if she suddenly reverted back to her 20-year-old self.
Mal-soon is a difficult old widow, living with her son and daughter-in-law. She’s a foul-mouthed, controlling mother-in-law constantly getting on the nerves of the couple. One night, after being told that her own son is going to leave her at a nursing home, Mal-soon wanders the streets, hurt and dejected. She finds herself in front of a mysterious photo studio that claims to take pictures that make one look young. She goes in to have her photo taken.
Mal-soon leaves the studio as a fresh 20-year-old. She can’t believe it at first, but soon, she resolves to make the most out of her situation. And so the fun begins…
Advanced language learners might have a ball hearing “old lady“ talk (with a regional accent) coming from a young face like that of Shim Eun-kyung.
Korean Title: 7번방의 선물
The film is a melodrama about a mentally challenged father who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
An innocent Yong-gu, due to a truly unfortunate turn of events, is sent to prison for the abduction, rape and murder of a young girl. He is placed in Cell No. 7, where the most hardened criminals are kept, and where he is welcomed most unkindly.
This is a story of unlikely bonds and friendships, of hardened criminals turning out to be softies, of strangers turning into family.
But will all this goodwill be enough, given that the girl who Yong-gu is accused of abducting and murdering is the Police Commissioner’s daughter?
Language learners will get a taste of prison talk in this one. But you should also pay attention to Yong-gu’s dialogues, which are simple enough for beginners of Korean.
Korean Title: 왕의 남자
You just made a deal with the royal court. You’ll make the king laugh, even once, with your performance, or it’ll be your head on a plate. (And guess what, you’re down to your last joke.)
The King and the Clown was the most watched Korean movie of 2005 and was the country’s official entry for the 2006 Academy Awards for Best Foreign-Language Film.
The movie has plenty of elements to make it interesting: a deranged king with unchecked powers, incredible theatrical performances, a love triangle composed of three men and social unrest brewing in the background.
As a period film, the language here is courtly and dated, but it doesn’t mean language learners won’t be able to pick up a host of useful vocabulary.
7. “Secretly, Greatly”
Korean Title: 은밀하게 위대하게
Three men come to live in a peaceful village in South Korea. There’s Bang Dong-gu, a carefree young man, Lee Hae-rang, an aspiring rockstar (who doesn’t know how to play the guitar) and Ri Hae-jin, a high school student.
But things aren’t what they seem. These men are actually highly-trained North Korean spies sent to infiltrate the South.
They’ve settled quite nicely in the village, getting to know folks and living a quiet and ordinary existence. (In truth, they are eagerly awaiting orders from the top.)
The long-awaited order comes, but it’s an order nobody ever expected.
“Secretly, Greatly” is a comedy-drama based on the webtoon “Covertness.” The movie broke several box office records when it was released in 2013. The film had the biggest one-day ticket sales and the biggest opening weekend for a Korean movie. It’s said that this is because of the strong showing in movie theaters by the nation’s teenage demographic.
If you want a movie with equal parts comedy, action and drama, and you want to pick up Korean vocabulary on the side, make sure you watch “Secretly, Greatly.”
Korean Title: 중독
Is it really possible for a spirit to possess another’s body?
In a freakish coincidence, two brothers, Dae-jun and Ho-jun, simultaneously suffer car accidents. Dae-jun crashes his car in a race, at the same time, somewhere else, his brother Ho-jun’s hired taxi drives straight into a truck.
Both brothers suffer comas, to the deep despair of their partners.
A year later, one of the brothers, Dae-jun, wakes up.
He immediately started acting very different and very strange. Ho-jun’s wife became gradually convinced that her husband’s spirit now resides in her brother-in-law’s body. They begin living together as man and wife. (Meanwhile, Ho-jun’s real body is still in coma.)
But hold on…Is it really possible for spirit to possess a man’s body?
(Or is there something sinister going on?)
Language students should note Lee Byung-hun’s superb and nuanced delivery as Dae-jun, and later, as “Ho-jun.”
9. “Christmas in August”
Korean Title: 8월의 크리스마스
Death and love are the themes of this film. How would you deal with one, when the other comes knocking on your door?
Jung-won runs an old photo studio that caters to the picture needs of the people in his neighborhood. He works with elders who want a well-framed photo for their funeral, and teens wanting a blow-up picture of their crushes. (Note: The movie came out in 1998, well before Instagram.)
Darim, on the other hand, is a traffic constable, whose work constantly brings her to the studio.
Gradually, feelings develop between these two.
When everything is perfect and at its best, Jung-won suddenly closes the studio and ceases all contact with Darim, leaving the later in absolute despair. Why, you may ask? Well, you’ll have to watch to find out.
“Christmas in August,” is perfect for beginners of Korean. The dialogues are light, easy to follow and paced just right.
10. “The Face Reader”
Korean Title: 관상
Nae-kyung’s talents for reading faces is unrivaled in all the land. He can look at the lines of someone’s face and predict their personality, habits and ultimately, their future.
Little does he know his odd talent will put him in the center of one of the biggest power struggles in Korean history.
Nae-kyung’s ability gets the attention of the King, who wants to use his services to point out the bad eggs in the royal court.
When the King suddenly dies, he finds himself in the middle of warring princes who wanted to take the vacant place of king.
Where do Nae-kyung’s loyalties lie? Find out in this period film that’ll give you a sense of how Korean might have sounded a few hundred years ago.
11. “Inside Men”
Korean Title: 내부자들
The film is one of the highest-grossing R-rated Korean movies of all time. It’s based on a popular webtoon “The Insiders” and tackles themes like political corruption and revenge.
Ahn Sang-goo is a political henchman out to seek revenge on Jang Pil-woo, a former ally who suddenly turned against him and tried to liquidate him. Jang is a consummate dirty politician using money, the media and goons to win the presidential race.
Meanwhile, Woo Jang-hoon, an ambitious prosecutor, is hell-bent on building a high-profile case and catching a big fish. Each one is motivated by revenge, power and fame. What will the aftermath look like?
The film has its grittier moments, but if you’re looking for a film to bring you a mix of political, legal and gang jargon, then “Inside Men” is your ticket to that world.
Korean Title: 명량
“The Admiral: Roaring Currents” is the most commercially successful Korean movie of all time—chronicling the nation’s celebrated naval victory against the invading Japanese in the Battle of Myeongnyang (1597). The movie even beat “Avatar” in ticket sales in Korea.
It’s the story of 13 ships against the Japanese fleet of more than 300. The small Korean contingent is led by Yi Sun-sin, a most revered naval commander who, through cunning strategy, is often is able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The movie has a “300″-ish kind of feel, so if that’s what you’re into, look no further.
If anything, language learners can just watch this for the great movie that it is. The scenes are epic, the battles are big and its star cast, led by the masterful Choi Min-sik as the title Admiral, is worth 127 minutes of your life.
13. “I Saw the Devil”
Korean Title: 악마를 보았다
In this film, you’ll see Choi Min-sik (the “Admiral” in the previous film) and Lee Byung-hun of “Inside Men” play cat and mouse with each other.
Choi Min-sik plays the psychopathic serial killer who coldly murders Byung-hun’s fiancée. The latter’s character is an agent to Korea’s National Intelligence Servis (NIS, the country’s CIA).
Lee Byung-hun decides that vengeance is best served one dish at a time, and so begins this gripping thriller.
But as one man tries to exact revenge, his opponent refuses to take things sitting down. And so you have this back-and-forth thriller that makes for a gory Friday night.
Language learners can take breaks from all the screaming and enjoy memorable lines straight from the pen of writer Park Hoon-jung.
Korean Title: 써니
And now, on to brighter things.
“Sunny” is the story of a group of high school girls who grew up in the ’80s. The girls named their clique “Sunny,” after Bobby Hebb’s 1963 hit of the same title.
The film jumps back and forth between two timelines, one in the 1980s when the girls were in high school, and another in the present day, when they’re middle-aged women living their own lives.
Chun-hwa is a successful businesswoman with terminal cancer. She only has two months to live. Her dying wish is to have the whole gang together again for the last time.
A private detective is hired to track down the members of “Sunny,” and one by one, the girls come out of the woodwork—a little bit older, but only a little different from who they were in high school.
Will Chun-hwa see all her friends together before it’s too late? See the movie to find out.
“Sunny” will make language learners bask in the sharp banter among teenage girls and smile at the witty repartee among old friends.
15. “The Housemaid”
Korean Title: 하녀
When a movie is considered by critics at Koreanfilm.org as one of the top three Korean films of all time, and makes it to the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” list, then it must be for a good reason.
“The Housemaid” is a cautionary tale about the fatal destruction that befalls an unsuspecting family when they welcome a psychotic monster into their home. This monster, of course, comes in the form of an alluring temptress who will make you momentarily forget your wedding vows. There are scenes of seduction, betrayal, revenge and death.
The language used, being a product of its time, is a little dated, but if a film makes Martin Scorsese feel like this, then it must be worth your time.
16. “Io Island”
Korean Title: 이어도
“Io Island” is a 1970s murder mystery that has so many layers and levels, one might just need an elevator to grasp all its cinematic beauty. It’s not a light movie, but one rich in symbolism, omens, flashbacks and juxtapositions.
Io is a mystic island south of the Korean mainland that has maintained its shamanistic rituals and traditions. And unlike the patriarchal system of the mainland, Io island is matriarchal in nature.
When one of the males of the island mysteriously disappears, the man suspected of the disappearance goes to Io island to investigate.
There he witnesses a world unto itself—almost like a psychedelic experience so bizarre, it’ll unnerve even the most stoic of viewers. Director Kim Ki-young knew what he was doing in this slow burn of a film, and language learners would do well to train their ears on the dialogues.
Korean Title: 베테랑
What happens when an “unstoppable” police detective crosses paths with an “untouchable” heir to a business empire?
Seo Do-cheol is a super cop who busts syndicates left and right. Jo Tae-oh is the sadistic heir to the Sun-jin group, a really despicable character who destroys lives for personal entertainment. When one of Do-choel’s cases leads to Tae-oh’s front door, the two men from opposite sides of the law come into contact.
Will the law catch up with money? Or will money, in the end, still prevail?
This movie has plenty of witty banter between the two leads. Just one of the many reasons why “Veteran” is one of the highest-grossing films in Korean history.
18. “Memories of Murder”
Korean Title: 살인의 추억
“Memories of Murder” is based on a spate of killings that happened in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province between 1986 and 1991.
Park Doo-man is a local detective who uses brute force and instincts over a careful analysis of evidence. Seo Tae-yoon, a detective from Seoul, is Doo-man’s opposite. He carefully pores over evidence to methodically catch a criminal.
But between the two of them is a growing number of bodies of women who’ve been brutally murdered and raped. The facts that tie the murders are: the killing happens on a rainy day, the victims always wear red and, on the night of the murder, a certain song is always requested to be played from the local radio station.
There’s a growing desperation from the detectives as the movie rolls. Can they get to the killer before another woman donning red loses her life?
This 2003 murder mystery from director Bong Joon-ho received some renewed interest in 2019 when Lee Choon-jae, 56, confessed to the murders. (DNA testing has conclusively linked him to at least five of the victims.)
Language learners, aside from playing detective, can listen and hunt for common Korean expressions used in this film and add them to their growing list of Korean words and phrases.
Korean Title: 달마가 동쪽으로 간 까닭은?
Now, let’s move to some more life-affirming things.
The title of this movie refers to Bodhi-Dharma, an Indian monk who did indeed move Eastward to spread the teachings of Zen Buddhism.
The movie is one of only two films (the other one is “The People in White”) by writer-director Bae Yong-kyun.
The film depicts three men who at different stages of enlightenment: Hae-jin, a boy who’s just beginning to see the physical wonders of life; Ki-bong, a young man vacillating between his old life and his life as a monk; and Hye-gok, an old Zen master, awaiting his death.
If you’re interested in philosophy and the teachings of Buddhism, you’ll love this film. More than picking up Korean vocabulary, you might just gain some insights about life.
Korean Title: 마더
Finally, we have the movie “Mother,” which tackles the lengths a mother would go to in order to prove her son’s innocence.
In a small Korean town lives a mother and her adult son, Do-joon, who has an intellectual disability. The mother dotes and fiercely protects her son, whom she supports by selling herbal medicine to local clients. Do-joon is normally timid and agreeable but often bursts into violence whenever someone points out his intellectual disability.
One night, a drunken Do-joon follows a girl into an abandoned building.
The next morning, that girl is found lifeless on the rooftop. Do-joon becomes the primary and convenient suspect when a golf ball with his name inscribed on it is found near the crime scene. The young man is then made to sign a confession that gives the police the right to detain him.
Certain of her son’s innocence, the mother embarks on a mission to save her son.
Get ready for a crime drama full of twists and turns.
Language learners, especially beginners, will appreciate the simplicity of the dialogue and will be able to follow along when the whole thing is unveiled.
That about wraps up our parade of Korean movies to watch this year. Thanks to many wonderful directors and actors, you have a full year of comedy, crime, drama, mystery and adventure ahead of you. Language learners and non-language learners alike will get to enjoy the highs of Korean cinema over the years.
So get that popcorn popping and the soda fizzing. It’s time to press play.
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