25 South Korean Movies to Watch Before a Remake Ruins Them

25 South Korean Movies to Watch Before a Remake Ruins Them

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 said films are more readily available than ever—and certainly there’s no shortage of great films from Bong Joon-Ho’s own South Korea available at the tap of a button.

Naturally, American producers are well aware, and plotting to create English-language remakes that will make these foreign-language films “more accessible” to American audiences, which usually means removing everything that makes them unique cultural artifacts. As evidence I present: the Korean A Tale of Two Sisters became the American The Uninvited, Il Mare became The Lake House, Oldboy became…Oldboy, but worse. A Train to Busan remake called Last Train to New York has been in the works for some time, but honestly, you can just watch Train to Busan. It’s excellent.

Remakes can be good, sure, but there’s usually a reason the original was popular enough to inspire a remake. Some of these 25 South Korean films have remakes in the works, some are being actively speculated upon, and the rest are popular enough internationally that someone is undoubtedly thinking of a way to domesticate them. Every one of them is worth watching in its original version.

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 (maybe) upcoming American version (it’s been delayed), 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.

Badland Hunters (2024)

Ma Dong-seok, supporting MVP of Train to Busan, stars as a hunter in a post-apocalyptic Seoul, scavenging for the resources necessary to keep his small community afloat. The village is just barely scraping by as it is when a young girl is kidnapped by a scientist looking for test subjects for his radical experiments. While not entirely novel in its take on a brutal, violent wasteland this is an effective survival story nonetheless, with hints of humor that keep things moving along. (It’s an entirely standalone sequel to Concrete Utopia, which is also good, but much harder to find on streaming.)

Exhuma (2024)

This spooky supernatural horror film follows a shaman and her protégé as they’re called upon to help a rich Korean American family uncover the source of their newborn’s illness. Its deep dive into traditional Korean shamanistic practices, blended with a modern and convincingly realistic feel, earned rave reviews and sold a ton of tickets; it’s in the top ten films of all time at the South Korean box office. Americans love remaking Asian horror films, and the success of this one doubtless has it in someone’s crosshairs.

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.

I Saw the Devil (2010)

Action movie? Thriller? Raw horror? Yup. Cult classic I Saw the Devil hits all those notes, balancing genuinely grisly torture porn with solid emotional beats. Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) stars as Gyeong-cheol, a serial killer who chooses his latest victim rather poorly: Her boyfriend Soo-hyeon is an intelligence officer and when he figures out who killed her, he has no intention of turning the killer over to the authorities. Instead, he plans to torture Gyeong-cheol with a stomach-churning cat-and-mouse game. Given its cult status and its similarity in vibes to Oldboy, it’s surprising American filmmakers haven’t taken a shot at this one. Yet.

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.

The Call (2020)

This timey-wimey sci-fi thriller involves Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) visiting her childhood home in 2019, only to discover that an old cordless phone still works, and connects her to Young-sook (Jeon Jong-seo), living in the house in 1999. The two bond over shared experiences, but things go wrong when Seo-Yeon tells the other young woman about the future, and influences her to make changes. Some events, it seems, are best left alone. Clever and disturbing, with a solid high-concept.

Alienoid (2022)

Silly title aside (and I have no idea if it’s any better in Korean), Alienoid is a very effective thrill ride, even if the convoluted plot (involving multiple overlapping timelines, aliens, shamans, cat people, and robots) is often hard to follow. It all kicks off when warrior monks attempt to retrieve a holy sword in 1380, only to cross paths with alien hunters from 2012 via a time portal. If you dig what’s on offer here, it’s followed directly by a 2024 sequel. Move the past action from the Goryeo Dynasty to, say, medieval France, and you’ve got your remake (not that I’m encouraging it).

Broker (2022)

The feel of this sweet, sensitive road movie will be familiar to fans of American indie road movies (think Little Miss Sunshine), so a remake really isn’t out of the question. Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Snowpiercer) stars as the owner of a laundry with a grim side-hustle: He occasionally collects babies from a church drop-off box and sells them on the adoption market. He doesn’t have a lot of scruples about it until he’s approached by a mother who’s had second thoughts about giving up her baby. With his sidekick, they set off to find the baby’s adoptive mother, with a couple of detectives on their heels.

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)

An arthouse take on Groundhog Day, romantic drama Right Now, Wrong Then follows a famous film director who strikes up a flirty relationship with a young painter while visiting a small town for a film screening. It goes well, until the drinks start to flow and the painter gets wind of his reputation for womanizing. Then the day starts over again, and he gets another shot—but this isn’t the kind of movie that traffics in pat resolutions, blending its high concept with real human drama.

Decision to Leave (2022)

Like most of writer/director Park Chan-wook’s films (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, The Handmaiden), this one’s tough to classify by genre. It alternately feels like a romance, a thriller, and a mystery—or all three at once. Insomniac detective Jang Hae-jun doesn’t miss a clue, until he starts to fall for (and then become obsessed with, Vertigo-style) a recently widowed woman who doesn’t seem all that upset about her husband’s death. The mysterious and gorgeously directed film won Park Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022.

Miss Granny (2014)

A cute fantasy comedy that did major business in South Korea, the U.S. is just about the only country that hasn’t (yet) tried to remake it—seriously: China, Japan, India, and Mexico are just some of the countries that have made their own versions. Oh Mal-soon is a 74-year-old widow living with her son and daughter-in law. She’s controlling and generally mean, so much so that her son plans to put her in a nursing home to get her away from his increasingly depressed and anxious wife. One day, while looking to have anticipatory funeral pictures taken, Mal-soon stumbles upon a mysterious photo studio…and walks out of it a 20-year-old woman. Her new lease on life forces her to confront her outlook on life and the challenges of youth.

Silenced (2011)

Based on real events, Silenced is a challenging but effective drama about a new teacher at a school for the Deaf who gradually uncovers an insidious pattern of physical and sexual abuse that the school has tried to cover up. It started a national conversation about child sexual abuse in private schools, and inspired new laws removing statutes of limitations for victims to make legal claims. Tragically, I’m sure there are similar cases in the United States that deserve the spotlight.

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 neighborhood being pushed out in favor 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 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)

Wildly popular upon its South Korean release, the jukebox-style musical The Box already has an international flavor: 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 remakein 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 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. Might or might not be fun to make a double-feature of it. (You can watch a confusingly unrelated thriller also from 2020 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.

Midnight (2021)

Squid Game‘s Wi Ha-jun is chilling as a serial killer playing a cat-and-mouse game with Kim Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo), a deaf woman working late at a call center. Ha-jun stalks first Kyung-mi and then her mother, while the brother of a former victim tries to find the murderer and stop him from killing again. With a plot that unfolds over the course of a night and is packed with tricky twists, it’s well worth a watch.

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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