14 Korean Movies to Watch Before an American Remake Ruins Them

14 Korean Movies to Watch Before an American Remake Ruins Them
Screenshot: Parasite/Neon

To quote Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho, “…once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Fortunately, in the streaming area, a great many of those amazing films are more readily available than ever before — certainly there’s no shortage of great films from Bong Joon-Ho’s own South Korea available at the tap of a button. It’s easy (very easy) to complain about a lack of originality in popular movie culture — but there’s a whole world of movies waiting to be streamed, with style and perspectives that are striking and distinct.

Naturally, American producers have their eye on all of that, and are plotting, as we speak, to create English-language remakes designed to make these foreign-language films “more accessible” to American audiences. Which usually means removing everything that makes them unique cultural artifacts and replacing it with Chris Pratt.

Train to Busan (soon to be Last Train to New York) is the latest to receive that treatment, and, honestly…you can just watch Train to Busan. It’s excellent. Maybe the remake will be good, but there’s a reason the original was popular enough to inspire a remake. That’s true of many South Korean films that are being eyed by hungry Hollywood producers (and TV shows, too — the excellent Crash Landing on You, which was a bit of a streaming phenomenon earlier this year, is getting an American version soon.)

Some of these films have remakes in the works, some are being actively speculated upon, and the rest are popular enough internationally that someone, somewhere, is undoubtedly thinking of a way to domesticate them. Every one of them is worth watching before Hollywood gets its mitts on them.

Train to Busan (2016)

Before Parasite, Yeon Sang-ho’s film was, perhaps, the biggest South Korean film to break into the American market, setting off an immediate bidding war for remake rights eventually won by New Line. The upcoming American version, somewhat generically titled Last Train to New York, may well be perfectly fine, but the title suggests some of the subtext of the original will have been lost. Busan, for example, was a haven for refugees during the Korean War — and it’s hard to imagine an American film carrying over the original’s critiques of capitalism and nods to working class solidarity. I can’t really conceive of a remake improving on this thoughtful, heartfelt, bloody zombie masterpiece.

The Villainess (2017)

If we’re not exactly seeing through the eyes of enigmatic killer Sook-hee (played by OK-bin Kim), we’re still drawn in with a level of kinetic, sometimes frantic, you-are-there immediacy. In July, it was announced that Amazon Studios is working on an English-language TV series based on the film, but director Jung Byung-gil brings a unique, visceral, and bloody style to the original that will be hard to replicate, and tougher to improve upon.

Night in Paradise (2020)

There’s a noir quality to writer/director Park Hoon-jung’s bloody tale of a gangster on the run who develops a relationship with the terminally ill niece of an arms dealer. It’s an interesting blend of ultraviolence and quiet rumination (over many elaborate and exquisitely presented meals), though there’s a dark inevitability to the whole thing that would make a remake either appealing in its rare and complete refusal to offer an easy way out…or a complete turn-off for doing just that.

Psychokinesis (2018)

Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho followed up that zombie film with another genre reinvention, tackling superhero movies with a similar eye toward redefinition. There’s no spandex on display here, just a delinquent dad who drinks some meteorite infused water that gifts him with the ability to move things with his mind. With the ever-growing stakes of major superhero movies, it’s not unwelcome to find one that follows a middle-aged schlub who decides to use his powers to save his daughter’s trendy, but failing, chicken restaurant and the other tenants in her neighbourhood being pushed out in favour of a new mall. It’s not quite up there with Busan, but it is a refreshingly lighthearted take on an increasingly serious genre.

Extreme Job (2019)

You want another action comedy centered around a chicken restaurant? No problem. Director Lee Byeong-heon’s Extreme Job sits somewhere near the top of all-time Korean box office records, so, naturally, Universal Pictures is interested in a remake. The premise is amiably silly, but clever: a group of narcotics officers are given one last chance to stop fucking up their assignments. They manage to secure a great stakeout location in a local chicken restaurant, only to find that the business is going under. The only solution? Save the business by taking over operations — a plan that develops unexpected consequences when their new marinade becomes a sensation.

Space Sweepers (2021)

It doesn’t entirely reinvent the wheel, but there’s a refreshing focus on the underclasses of the future, without edging too far into the dystopian. I’m not the first to make a comparison between Space Sweepers and Cowboy Bebop, but, given the recent and speedy failure of Netflix’s live-action version of that cartoon, it’s not going too far to say that you’ll find a better encapsulation of Bebop’s spirit of rag-tag found family and its outer space western milieu here then in the live-action show that bore its name. What this one lacks in originality, it makes up for in engaging characters and extravagant special effects. It’s also nice to see a less American-centric perspective on the future — something that would inevitably be lost in a remake.

The Box (2021)

Another film that was wildly popular when it dropped earlier this year, the jukebox-style musical The Box already has an international flavour: in it, a wise and up-and-coming singer sets out on a cross-Korea road trip with a washed-up producer (think A Star is Born, without the doomed love story). In the course of their journey, they either perform or encounter modern Korean pop songs, along with American standards and contemporary-ish hits from Coldplay, Billie Eilish, Pharrell Williams, etc., proving that you don’t have to remake something for it to cross borders and connect with audiences.

Pandora (2016)

Pandora has much of the classic disaster movie about it: It’s a loud, crowded, and slightly bloated story of a small group of everyday people heroically fighting to avert a nuclear meltdown. The perspective, though, is where the movie will stand out for (particularly) American audiences. More interested in (some genuinely spectacular) action set pieces, Pandora doesn’t go quite as hard on government incompetence and class as Korean productions tend to, but there is  a not-subtle undercurrent of anti-capitalist social commentary throughout the film.

The Day After (2017)

With shades of Scenes from a Marriage, prolific director Hong Sang-soo’s movie tracks the decline of a relationship in the wake of a case of mistaken identity. It might not be at the top of anyone’s list for a remake, but it’s a good reminder that Korean cinema isn’t all about high-concept genre films — those are just the most heavily marketed overseas. Hong’s quiet, emotional drama is as emblematic of what Korean cinema is capable of as any action thriller or horror film.

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

I would say that this one’s more a case of Korean filmmakers playing with western found footage horror tropes…except that there’s an American remake in the works, so. Gonjiam, the original, was incredibly popular in South Korea, and deservedly so: the format is familiar, but it’s a particularly effective and well-made example of the sub-genre. The key here, as in real estate, is location, location, location: director Jung Bum-shik and the rest of the filmmakers meticulously recreated the real-life Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital in Gwangju — by reputation, one of the most haunted locations in Korea. It’s an incredibly freaky setting for undoing of the film’s doomed web series crew.

#Alive (2020)

This one, released back in June of 2020, has already seen its American remake come and go (sort of): both #Alive and the Tyler Posey/Donald Sutherland-starring Alone (streaming on Prime Video) were produced at around the same time from the same script. This one is about a charming gamer (Yoo Ah-in) who triesy to ride out a zombie apocalypse by locking himself away (aka quarantining) inside his apartment, eventually forging a connection with a woman in the apartment across the way. If you’ve got both Netflix and Prime Video, you can make a double-feature of it. (If you’ve also got Hulu, you can watch a confusingly unrelated 2020 thriller also called Alone, but I’m not sure what that gets you.)

Night Flight (2014)

To be fair, American producers probably aren’t desperate to remake this queer melodrama, but they could probably learn a thing or two from the boldness of gay director Leesong Hee-il. Pushing boundaries with his films that others were unwilling to push, his Night Flight, which follows the shifting relationships between three middle school friends when one of the boys is revealed to be gay, made clear that there’s a decent market in Korea for LGBTQ+ content. In portraying the costs of social stigma, the movie winds up dramatizing some of the darker tropes of cinematic gays, but nevertheless opened doors for Asian filmmakers.

The Wailing (2016)

Though things have been quiet on the remake front for a couple of years, it could still happen: Ridley Scott’s production company immediately cast its eye on The Wailing when it first came out in 2016. A commercial and critical success, the horror movie tracks the spread of a rage-inducing plague that impacts a remote village — a plague with extraterrestrial origins. The concerns expressed by the film’s producer at the time remain legitimate: the religious undertones of the movie are based in Korea’s religious pluralism, making a direct translation tough, if not impossible.

Parasite (2019)

You might have heard of this obscure film, but only if you watch a little independent film award show called “the Academy Awards.” Adam McKay (The Big Short) is working on an HBO TV series adaptation with the input and cooperation of Parasite’s director, Bong Joon-ho. He’s promising an original story based on the film, but Bong is such a singular filmmaker, and his brand of deeply cutting social satire is so specific, that it’s tough to understand the appeal of an Americanized side-quel. It sounds a bit like the TNT series based on Bong’s Snowpiercer — a show that’s OK, sure, but lacks much of the focus and bite of the original.

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