Our favorite 10 Korean films of 2016

Korean cinema in 2016 was a great year, as it had several strong movies. Which films on our top 10 Korean films of 2016 have you seen?


By Jason Yu
Last updated on

As fireworks and New Years balls dropped on Jan 1st, it signaled another year’s ending. With confetti falling from the sky, people around the world knew there was no going back to 2016.

As we start 2017, we take a look at last year and see the state of Korean cinema of 2016. Fortunately, Korean films in 2016 were awesome.

Korean films of 2016 -- 1

Time Regenades is Kwak Jae-young’s newest film.

The theme of 2016 had to be the return of the big directors. From Kwak Jae-young’s (My Sassy Girl, Windstruck) new movie Time Regenades and Kim Jae-woon’s (A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil) Age of Shadows to Park Chan-wook’s (Oldboy, Snowpiercer as a producer, Joint Security Area) The Handmaiden and Na Hong-jin’s (The Chaser) The Wailing, the brand name directors came out in full force.

The movie class of 2016 also introduced Korea’s finest zombie movie in Train to Busan (and a spinoff in Seoul Station), as well as release one of Korea’s more erotic films in The Handmaiden.

Korea came out with two zombie films in 2016 with Seoul Station (above) and Train to Busan (not shown).

As always, we couldn’t see every film Korea had to offer in 2016. But like in our favorite Korean films of 2015, we tried our best in seeing as many as we could.

This list is also NOT based on movie scores or ratings on IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, or Metacritic. Rather, it’s based off our personal opinion on three main criteria: did the movie have a solid story, did the movie suck us into the environment like we were there, and did it entertain us.

A Violent Prosecutor became one of the highest selling movies in Korean film history (15th highest grossing as of Jan 2017).

Before we get into our top 10 Korean movies list, an honorable mention must be given to A Violent Prosecutor. This film was extremely popular in Korea, as of January 2017, it is the 15th highest grossing Korean movie.

With all that out of the way, on with our top 10 Korean films of 2016!

Our video of the our favorite 10 Korean films of 2016

Note: The video does talk about the trailer previews, so to some, that could be considered spoilers.

10. Missing You

When Hee-joo’s father is murdered working on a serial case, seven-year old Hee-joo is devastated. Her father was stabbed in the neck and died the day before Hee-joo’s birthday.

Her father was a detective and on the hot trail of a murderer.

The killer, Ki-bum, is eventually found and arrested. However, when Ki-bum’s sentence was read aloud, the audience screamed it was unfair for his crimes. Kim-bum was only arrested for one murder and not the murder of Hee-joo’s father. His sentence was 15 years in jail.

However, Detective Dae-young was Hee-joo’s father’s partner and has not forgiven Ki-bum. He wants to push for the murder conviction of his old partner.

Fifteen years later, Ki-bum is released from prison. Hee-joo, now 22 years old, has waited for his father’s killer to be released and has plans of her own.

9. Time Renegades

Directed by Kwak Jae-young, who’s most known for his 2000 romantic comedies My Sassy Girl and Windstruck, his 2016 film Time Renegades deals with time travel.

A cop from 2015 one day realizes he’s been getting thoughts from a high school teacher 22 years ago from 1983. When the high school teacher also receives thoughts from the cop in the future, the two men soon learn that they are linked from different eras.

Making the link even stronger, the two men find out that the events happening in 2015 are directly related to 1983, as well as one woman’s fate.

Time Regenades does a great job in juggling the two time eras of 2015 and 1983. Since this is a Kwak Jae-young film, there is a lot of time travel elements, as they were was in My Sassy Girl. The references of technology used back in 1983, such as having a home ring phone, and now having smartphones in 2015, are also used to great effect.

But the best part of the film is, of course, how the events of 1983 directly affect what happened in 2015. During the movie, viewers will slowly discover the secrets behind the two eras, as well as why the high school teacher from 1983 and cop from 2015 are linked.

8. The World of Us

The World of Us blew us away as one of the sleeper movies of the year. The film explores the relationship between two 10 year-old girls and how they endure their school life.

Director Yoon Ga-eun shows just the contrast between rich and poor kids, how peer pressure affects kids, and bullying. The movie’s strength lies in both the real life, relate-able themes of the kids, as well as the kid actor’s superb acting.

The movie also resonated with me as well. When I used to teach young kids here in Korea, I saw how a lot of the Korean kids experienced the very themes this movie presents. If you grew up in Korean schools or are a teacher yourself, you may very well relate to this film too.

7. Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet

Based on a true story, the movie follows two schoolmates, Dongju and Mong-gyu, and their friendship and friendly rivalry in academics.

While Dongju is more into poetry, Mong-gyu is more of a literary, essay writer type.

Yet, during the early 1920s and 30s, formal writing was more widely accepted, so Dongju’s poetry wasn’t appreciated by his peers. His strict father wants him to abandon poetry in favor of being a doctor. His peers dismiss his poetry as a waste of time. But Dongju wisely stays the course and continues his poetry.

The two friends’ lives start to diverge after high school. The Japanese occupation of Korea is in full swing and both Dongju and Mong-gyu are thrust in the middle of the growing Korean independence movement.

While Dongju is more of the quiet type and passively opposes the Japanese, Mong-gyu is a lot more vocal and aggressive in his protest of Japan.

6. The Last Princess

Our review of The Last Princess

This movie will most likely make you cry. Or close to it.

After all, her story is one of tragedy.

This film follows the story of the Joseon Dynasty’s last princess: Princess Deokhye.The Last Princess is about how she was forced out of her native Korea as a teenager and banned from returning for 37 years.

Even though Koreans know how her story ends through history books, seeing the princess’ life being recreated on film gives new meaning on the tale of Deokhye. The newer generation of Koreans, as well as foreigners watching the movie, will see how she influenced Korea’s independence movement and shows the finale of the Joseon Dynasty.

This film is highly recommended to learn why Princess Deokhye’s influence in modern Korean history, as well as why she is highly regarded among Koreans today.

5. The Truth Beneath

If there are two highly recommended, recent Korean films that unravel the dark side of Korean politics, it’s last year’s Inside Men (2015) and this film, The Truth Beneath.

The story focuses on a wife, Yeon-hong, who’s married to a powerful politician, Jong-chan. Her husband is running for the Korea Party, but on the first day of his campaign, her daughter was kidnapped.

Yeon-hong, played wonderfully by Son Ye-jin, begins searching for her daughter right away. But her husband, Jong-chan, concerned that her missing daughter will damage his campaign, holds off on telling the public for another day.

The film does a great job in pitting the dilemma of finding their daughter vs. saving face in pursuing an office position. Director Lee Kyoung-mi and co-writer Park Chan-wook show how the wife, Yeon-hong, sees the secrets her daughter surrounding her, as well as the dark side of politics and power.

The full truth is slowly revealed in small doses, while the movie’s twists will keep viewers guessing.

As a commentary on Korean politics and a mystery-thriller film, The Truth Beneath does an outstanding job at both.

4. Age of Shadows

Our review of Age of Shadows

One of the movies getting much hype in 2016 is the action-spy thriller Age of Shadows. Boasting an array of star power, an impressive setting, and slick action scenes, it definitely has blockbuster written all over it.

Taking place in the 1920s in Japanese-occupied Korea, the movie starts off in a bang, quite literally. A horde of Japanese military police fire upon a Korean freedom fighter in Seoul, as they are in close pursuit of him.

As he’s running, the Korean freedom fighter gets shot in the foot, crawls into a building, and soon surrounded by the military police. He talks to Lee Jung-chool, a Korean who’s working as a Japanese police captain.

Bleeding from being shot all over, the freedom fighter says to the Korean-turned-Japanese officer, “you betray your country to shun Korean independence?” To which Jung-chool says “Korean independence is a lost cause”, as the freedom fighter dies from the bleeding after.

But this was just the beginning for the Korean freedom fighters in their fight against Japanese occupation.

The film’s success is apparent from its ticket sales and foreign recognition. Age of Shadows was the 11th highest selling film as of January 2017. The action-spy thriller was also South Korea’s 2016 entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards.

3. The Handmaiden

Director Park Chan-wook never ceases to amaze, nor shock us.

He came out with one of the most talked-about and erotic films this year in Korea with The Handmaiden. The viewer can expect plenty of sexual innuendo and ahem… naughty scenes.

Based off the novel Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters, The Haidmaiden follows three characters: a female thief, a con man, and a rich heiress.

Kim Tae-ri (left) and Kim Min-hee star in The Handmaiden.

The female thief and con man plan to convince the wealthy woman to marry the con man. The thief will pose as a handmaiden, being the heiress’s best friend and confidant, while the con man will act as a rich nobleman. Once the two succeed in marrying the con man to the heiress, the two plan to confine the heiress to a crazy asylum.

However, as with all of director Park’s movies, the plan doesn’t go as smoothly as it should. As the story slowly unravels, differing view points are seen, the true motives of each character are explored, and of course, twists appear to throw off the “marriage” plan.

The great blend of dark, psychological, erotic themes of The Haidmaiden make it both a Park Chan-wook film and of the top Korean movies this year.

2. Train to Busan

Our review of Train to Busan

A Korean sci-fi movie, let alone zombie film, that’s actually good? Yup, that’s Train to Busan and it exceeds expectations.

When an infected human-turned-zombie jumps onto the departing KTX train at the last zombie, you knew things would to get real crappy fast. Only mere seconds later, hell breaks loose and pandemonium soon breaks out on the train.

As helicopters, police cars, and the military are heard around the city at an alarming rate, the train passengers have a more pressing problem. They’re suddenly forced to survive the ever-growing zombie outbreak within the confines of their own train.

Train to Busan became a huge hit not only in Korea and Asia, but even had a following in many Western countries as well.

Zombie movies and TV shows are a big hit in Korea. But these shows were exported from the west. After all, Korea hasn’t made a quality zombie film until Train to Busan.

For years, Koreans have religiously watched the hit US TV show, AMC’s The Walking Dead. So it’s no surprise when a homemade Korean film, Train to Busan, came out with Gong Yoo as the lead, it would sell.

With it’s own take of zombies, a ton of suspense, colorful characters, and the theme of survival vs. helping others, Train to Busan is one zombie movie to check out.

As one can imagine for a good zombie movie, Train to Busan was a wild success. As of January 2017, the film has sold over 10 million tickets and made over $99 million USD worldwide.

This naturally led Hollywood to come knocking. French studio Gaumont’s LA division bought the remake rights for an English remake. So get ready for a “Train to LA” or “Train to NY” in the future.


In case you’re interested: Video Review: An in-depth look at Train to Busan

1. The Wailing

One of the most talked about movies this summer had to be The Wailing. Everywhere in Seoul, it felt that people were talking about this film.

After seeing the film, there was good reason this movie was so hyped. It’s that good. Director Na Hong-jin will have viewers on the edge of their seats with his film.

When a series of gruesome murders happens in a remote village called Goksung (the Korean title of the film), people start to become worried. An investigation is soon launched to find the murderer, as local cop Jong-gu arrives late to the scene.

As the list of suspects start emerging, the police become more confused. When more murders that are similar are discovered, Jong-gu know that this won’t be an easy case to crack.

One of the most talked about mystery-thrillers in 2016 is The Wailing.

Between investigations, demonic possessions, exorcisms, and nightmares, the murder case has on a fantasy take to it. While the movie’s plot about possession can be nonsensical at times, director Na somehow makes it work. The film’s title, which in Chinese characters means “the sound of weeping”, is well-deserved from its plot.

When more people in the village start acting weird and becoming possessed, the movie will keep you guessing “who will be possessed next”?

What makes The Wailing more unique as a thriller / horror film, it does not really use any jump scares, nor use obvious sounds to foretell what will happen next. The film also has some influences from The Exorcist, as The Wailing modernizes the 1973 classic and makes it even darker.

Throughout its two and 36 minute length, it’s safe to say that The Wailing provides one of the most engaging, epic thriller murder stories in recent years.

What’s your favorite Korean films of 2016?

To recap, here are our picks:

10. Missing You
9. Time Renegades
8. The World of Us
7. Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet
6. The Last Princess
5. The Truth Beneath
4. Age of Shadows
3. The Handmaiden
2. Train to Busan
1. The Wailing

Making a best movies of the year list is never easy. For this list, I actually kept swapping the top four around with Age of Shadows, The Handmaiden, Train to Busan, and The Wailing.

As with all top X lists, we’re sure we left out some films that you liked. But no worries, we’d love to learn your favorite Korean films in 2016.

(Do check out our counterpart list of our favorite Japanese films of 2016. If you missed last year’s awesome films, check out our favorite Japanese films of 2015 or last year’s top Korean films).

So now, it’s over to you.

What do you think? What are your favorite Korean films of 2016? Let us know in the comments below!


About the Author

Jason Yu

Twitter

Jason is all about Asian films, as he especially likes the horror, thriller, crime, and war genres. For some odd reason, he likes bad movies too. When he's not watching Asian movies, he's playing video games or working in the Korean music industry as media in Seoul, Korea. If you're interested in Korean music, check out his other site at Popsori.

  • Gotchagold

    Jason, Happy Holidays to you and yours! So glad to hear from you.
    Joe and I have been broadening our choices and have watched alot of Chinese series including the one we are watching now, “The Three Kingdoms” which is amazing. We are only up to chapter 46? but we know we have a way to go. We plan to rewatch “Redcliff” again just to see the different take the movie has on the events. We also are currently watching the Korean series “Goblin” which we are really enjoying. I am surprised about that since my husband is such a historical nut that I was shocked he was even willing to watch modern show. He even laughs out loud once in awhile. Amazing. But back to movies, the big news for us is we got to watch “Empire of Lust”. We were soo excited and it was definetly worth finding it. I got to watch “Manhole” which was surprisingly good. And I am not always into “women in peril” movies but it was pretty good.We viewed and enjoyed the Man in High Heels which we thought was very brave for the actor and production company. I wouldn’t have thought that film would have been well received. But we liked it. Rewatched Pirates again with my brother in law and his wife on Christmas. (one of my favorites) We may have made a convert! I have to do some more research to give you our favorite movie list and also what we have seen recently.
    As far as the list you have given us, one, I hope alot are being shown on Youtube cause we have now been going to that site for most of our shows lately and two, you have to have patience with us to catch up since I am the computer person of the two of us, so it is on me to ferret these films out. The ones we have heard of but are on our list to watch are “Train to Busan”, “The Wailing”, “The Handmaiden” (we may have seen that one.”) The Last Princess” looks good for us early history buffs and I will have to check out the others when I can find them.
    I hope to get back to you with our list in the very near future. Off the top of our head I can say “The Admiral” and “War of Arrows” are two of our very favorites.
    Jason, I have a question that maybe you can answer. I almost don’t want to ask it but, I am a big, big horse lover and I was wondering if you know anything about the protection they may have in Korea and China during filming. The US is very concerned with it’s animal actors (My favorite HBO show “Lucky” was canceled when two horses died during the filming of the show. Many people felt that the deaths, while sad, were not caused by the filming. So when we see these war scenes I was wondering if you could give me an idea what may be happening. Is it real, is it CG? Any info would be appreciated.
    Anyway will be hoping to hear from you soon and happy to let you know what’s happening with us. Stay safe in this scary world we live in and we will be sending you our list soon.
    peaceandlove,
    Rose and Joe

    • Hiya Rose,

      It’s great to hear from you again! Happy holidays to you too!

      As for TV dramas, it’s awesome that you keep up with them. I heard “Three Kingdoms” is epic and is around 95 or so episodes. I remember I use to binge watch a lot of those longer dramas years ago. I gotta get back to that 🙂

      “Red Cliff 1 & 2” are great movies. I feel they’re classic and always recommend that movie to history / war buffs.

      “Goblin” is the new hot drama here in Korea. I know a lot of my friends overseas absolutely adore this drama and can’t stop talking about it. I’m so behind in dramas. I think I only watched like two in 2016.

      I’m glad you two got to see “Empire of Lust”, “The Admiral: Roaring Currents”, and “War of Arrows.” I feel that Korea has been pumping out some great war movies these days. I feel that many foreigners, such as myself, learn a lot more about Asian history watching these films.

      If you and Joe can, I would definitely try to watch “The Last Princess.” It’s a really good watch and just an underrated story on the tragic life of Princess Deokhye.

      As for the other movies of 2016, if you two can catch “Train to Busan”, “The Wailing”, or “The Handmaiden”, those three movies are highly recommended. I can’t get enough of those three films.

      And your last question about horse treatment, I don’t know much about horse standards in movies. But I can guess that they’re treated well, as if they’re not, there would be a lot of animal rights groups on those movie production companies. I would think most horse scenes are real horses (and not CGs).

      In addition, I feel that the Korean movie industry is slowly becoming like Hollywood, in terms of high pay, the glitz and glamour of the actors, and treatment of animals and actors.

      I hope this answers your questions. Thanks for the awesome comment Rose and can’t wait to see your movie list!

      • Gotchagold

        So Jason we have been thinking about our top ten and I think that I will put this down in no real order since we are talking about two people’s choices and so I will just let you know our collective top ten.
        Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (It started our love of Asian-english subtitled films)
        Hero
        The Departed
        The Road Home
        The Admiral
        The War of the Arrows
        Masquerade
        The King and the Clown (only me)
        Divine Move
        The Attorney
        The Warrior (only me)
        The Curse of the Golden Flower
        It seems that there alot of Chinese films, but we love them both. There are too many to list and I am sure there are some we left out. (The Face Reader,Treacherous are others.).
        We now have Youtube so hopefully we will get to see more. We seem to get just a lot of trailers on there, but I will figure it out unless you have a suggestion. Tonight we will watch the Wailing (I think)
        We will keep in track. (oh, yes we are planning to go to the Asian Film Festival in NY this summer. We couldn’t go other years because my elderly mom was ill)
        peaceandlove
        Rose and Joe

  • shazwagon

    The Wailing is a knockout!

  • eno

    The Wailing is by far the best movie of 2016 not only koreean movie

  • Theyn Smith

    What the I just saw The Wailing and I don’t really remember when was the last time I found utter dumb ass fucking retarded fuckwit of characters like this. I movie was just getting more and more infuriating as it went on. How are people liking this movie the fuck?

    • XB

      is the movie good or bad ? in overall ? you are saying he s bad but the two comment below is totally the opposite xD