Won Bin as Cha Tae-sik from The Man From Nowhere (Left) and the Kims from Parasite (Right)

The Best Korean Action Movies, Ranked

KDramas and Korean movies are known for their romcoms and their period pieces. But South Korea also has a lot of action films with diverse themes and great storytelling. There are many Korean action movies that are worth watching and they’re usually fast-paced, thrilling, and emotionally impactful.

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As critically acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho said, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Here are the best South Korean action movies that everybody should watch at least once.

10. Train To Busan

Train to Busan isn’t just another apocalyptic zombie movie. It’s a movie about a man who learns how to love others beyond himself, even as the world is falling apart around him. Seok-Woo, a callous businessman, has to navigate zombie-infested Seoul with his estranged daughter from a recent divorce. They try to make it to Busan, a safe zone free from zombies.

There is a lot going on in the film, including loads of zombie head-bashing but not in a campy way. People here are desperate to live for different reasons, and their choices affect the lives of other people who are also trying to survive the plague.

9. Burning

Aspiring author Jong-su runs into Hae-mi, a childhood friend he grew up with. What anybody might’ve thought would be a budding romance between the two would have their expectations subverted with the introduction of Ben, and the movie leans towards a crime, action drama. Burning is a movie adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning”, which explains the consistent use of metaphors as a means to tell a story.

Jong-su’s creative mind will have many audiences confused by the end of it all, and many fans still debate the movie’s real ending.

8. Mother

Mother, also colloquially known as “Madeo”, is another film by Bong Joon-ho. This movie will show how far a mother is willing to go to protect her child, even if it means treading on a morally dubious path. Do-joon is a mentally challenged adult who lives with his mother. On a normal day, a schoolgirl named Moon Ah-Jung is found catatonically bent on a terrace. The cops investigate the death of the girl, and Do-joon, a known troublemaker is investigated.

The movie centers around a mother who does everything in her power to prove her son’s innocence.

7. Lady Vengeance

Lady Vengeance is emotionally impactful, stylish, and unabashedly brutal. The story is centered around a woman named Geum-ja who was accused of murdering a five-year-old. The public is outraged and shocked that a beautiful and “angelic” looking woman could commit such a heinous crime. When Geum-ja leaves prison after serving for thirteen years, she locates the daughter she was ripped apart from and takes revenge on the real murderer.

It’s a film about revenge, but it also features themes of sexual grooming and sexual assault.

6. The Man From Nowhere

Think of Taken, but instead of saving his daughter, he’s saving a little girl from brutal drug dealers. He’s not obligated to do it because he’s not connected to So-mi by blood, but he does it anyway in Liam Neeson fashion. In The Man from Nowhere, Cha Tae-sik is a simple pawnshop owner, and Hyo-jeong, So-mi’s mother, entrusts him to keep the opium that she stole from a bigwig drug lord named Oh Myung-gyu. So-mi is held hostage along with his mother, and Tae-sik fights a bunch of dangerous gangsters to save them.

Why is a simple pawnshop owner able to fight excellently? The translated title The Man From Nowhere hints at it, but funnily enough, the home title of the film is “Ahjeossi.” The word refers to a middle-aged man in South Korea, but Tae-sik proves that he’s more than just a normal uncle managing a pawnshop.

5. Parasite

Academy Award-winning Parasite is a commentary on capitalism and social class. This popular film took the world by storm because of the universality of its message, even if the context is set in South Korea. The movie follows the impoverished Kim family, who lives in a basement flat apartment in Seoul. Ki-woo, the son of the Kim family, fakes his credentials so that the upper-class Park family hires him as an English language tutor for their daughter.

Soon enough, the whole family falsifies their resumes and is hired by the Park family for respective jobs in the house. What could possibly go wrong when this looks like a good stream of income? A lot and Parasite touches on the dual realities of people who live from different socio-economic strata.

4. Oldboy

Oldboy has a lot of plot twists, and there are themes of incest, torture, and attempted sexual assault. This is also a convoluted revenge plan, although it’s done in a psychologically damning way. The story is about a businessman named Oh Dae-su, who was arrested for drinking too much. He was about to leave the police station but was subsequently kidnapped and tortured for fifteen years. His wife was murdered while he was in captivity, and his daughter was adopted by another family as a result.

What appears to be a movie about an escape from a private prison turns out to be a revenge plot orchestrated by a man who held a grudge against Dae-su from many years ago.

3. Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder is another masterpiece from Bong Joon-ho, and it follows the perspective of a detective from a small town in 1986 South Korea. The detective named Park Doo-man was tasked to track down the rapist and murderer of two women in the town. The case is difficult to solve, and while there are clues and hints of the perpetrator, they seem to be good at cleaning up after their traces. There are themes of police violence, femicide, and implied sexual violence involved, which makes it a heavy watch.

From start to end, Memories of Murder is a piece about how easy it is to get away with sexual assault and the subsequent murder of women.

2. The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden took the world by storm upon its release. The actors and actresses were spectacular in their roles, and the theme of the movie was uncommon for South Korea. It featured an LGBTQ+ relationship between two women on screen, which is a rarity in South Korean films. Heiress Hideko lived in South Korea with her greedy uncle who had an insatiable hunger for rare books. Despite being the inheritor of a large fortune, she’s largely powerless and is soon to be married to her despicable uncle.

Sook-hee, a commoner girl from the countryside was recruited by a conman posing as a Japanese Count. He intended to swindle Hideko’s fortunes from her through Sook-hee, who was hired as Hideko’s handmaiden. The movie explores women’s sexuality and autonomy while set during the time of the Japanese occupation of South Korea.

1. The Host

The Host is a movie from 2006, but the sentiments it aired still ring true. It’s action-packed, but it also carries many other political and philosophical themes. A creature formed by dumped chemicals into the Han River emerges and kills people, and Park Gang-du attempts to flee with his daughter only to realize that he lost her amidst the chaos.

Although it’s about a monster in the Han River, it’s also a film about how bureaucratic measures fail common people. It’s also tackled misinformation and the inadequacy of government responses.

(featured image: CJ Entertainment)

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Vanessa Esguerra
Vanessa Esguerra (She/They) has been a Contributing Writer for The Mary Sue since 2023. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Economy, she (happily) rejected law school in 2021 and has been a full-time content writer since. Vanessa is currently taking her Master's degree in Japanese Studies in hopes of deepening her understanding of the country's media culture in relation to pop culture, women, and queer people like herself. She speaks three languages but still manages to get lost in the subways of Tokyo with her clunky Japanese. Fueled by iced coffee brewed from local cafés in Metro Manila, she also regularly covers anime and video games while queuing for her next match in League of Legends.