I feel Korean revenge movies have been raising the bar on ingenuity for a while now. This is especially true given their artistic take on the genre, which has led to their enduring appeal to viewers. Clued up in dramatic storytelling, audacious acts, and opulent visuals, the instances that follow are prime examples: 10 must-watch Korean revenge movies.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) – Park Chan-wook
This gory revenge thriller has an ailing sister, a caring brother, an irrational lover, an innocent target, a distraught father, and a crime. It’s a twisted, tense story of a deaf-mute, sacked factory worker (Shin Ha-kyun) hunting cash for his sister’s life-saving kidney transplant. In a desperate move, he and his lover (Bae Doona) take a big-shot businessman’s (Song Kang-ho) daughter hostage. In the scheme of things, though, the plan goes amiss, triggering vengeance where there’s no mercy.
Old Boy (2003) – Park Chan-wook
Physiological shocks abound in Old Boy, director Park Chan-wook‘s masterpiece—one of the best in Asian cinema history. Choi Min-sik has Oh Dae-su, imprisoned for fifteen years in a chamber. He is clueless as to who held him captive or why. After getting emancipated, he still finds himself ensnared in a vicious web of lies and incidentally, his wrath backfires on him when he falls for a gorgeous chef.
A Bittersweet Life (2005) – Kim Jee-woon
This film combines brutal reprisal and violence to tell an eerie tale in a dark cinematic style. Lee Byung-hun is Sun Woo, a goon devoted to his mafia boss Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol). Sun Woo is tasked with following Shin Min-a‘s Hee Soo, his young mistress, whom Kang believes is having an illicit affair, but when he declines to take out Hee Soo, Kang turns him into his chosen victim, and everything explodes into madness.
The Man from Nowhere (2010) – Lee Jeong-beom
It was the 2010 highest-grossing movie in South Korea—as aesthetically hitting as it is brutal and roiling with fury. We get a peek at Won Bin as an ominous and intriguing man who embarks on a murderous rampage in a bloody bid to free a kidnapped child. This account will not let you down if you’re seeking a slick drama of action, an engaging narrative, stellar acting, and a sexy action hero.
I Saw the Devil (2010) – Kim Jee-woon
I Saw the Devil precisely captures the meticulously planned gory pandemonium and heart-stopping suspense of Korean horror films while still being incredibly emotive. A secret agent (Lee Byung-hun) and a crazy serial killer (Choi Min-sik), who kills the agent’s fiancée, engage in a game of cat and mouse, seeking retribution. The film stands out in the canon of Korean revenge films thanks to its incredibly innovative making.
Pietà (2012) – Kim Ki-duk
Pietà‘s vendetta becomes so vivid, grave, and dismal that it can make you anxious and heartbroken. It follows a loan shark (Lee Jung-jin as Lee Kang-do) who must reconsider his ruthless ways upon meeting a mysterious woman (Jo Min-su as Jang Mi-seon) who claims to be his long-lost mother.
Biblical parallels prevail in this artistically minded thriller, which takes its name from the Italian Pietà, a reference to depictions of the Virgin Mary bearing Jesus’ body. Explicit sex, a horrific rape scene, self-harm, brutal killing, and more sins are everywhere in this Kim Ki-duk film, but perhaps that’s what the much-lauded Pietà is meant to be about.
The Handmaiden (2016) – Park Chan-wook
It draws on Fingersmith, a 2002 novel by Welsh author Sarah Waters, which Park Chan-wook deftly handles in the solid storytelling of The Handmaiden, his one-of-a-kind erotic thriller of treason and vengeance. We see an impostor (Ha Jung-woo) con an affluent Japanese woman (Kim Min-hee) by enlisting a pilferer (Kim Tae-ri) as her aid. At the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, it garnered a standing ovation alongside winning a range of prestigious honors amid severe criticism for oversexed scenes between the two female leads.
The Villainess (2017) – Jung Byung-gil
In the highly acclaimed The Villainess (2017), Kim Ok-vin had an explosive appearance as the titular character, asserting her charm and skill as the definition of an action heroine. As an expert executioner, Sook-hee (Kim) undertakes an armed and vindictive mission for her own freedom and harrowing past. It is crammed with wildly exciting elements oriented towards an erratic and ruthless act of retribution.
Hard Hit (2021) – Kim Chang-ju
A mystery call is received on a phone that a Busan bank manager, Seong-gyu (Jo Woo-jin), finds in his glove box while driving to work with his daughter and son. The caller informs him that there is a bomb beneath his seat that will go off if he dares to get out. For his family, this is the beginning of the end. The film is a remake of the 2015 Spanish action thriller Retribution, directed by Dani de la Torre. Watch for Hard Hit‘s emotions, anxiety, trepidation, and a hitherto unseen Ji Chang-wook.
Ballerina (2023) – Lee Chung-hyun
In this impulsive action flick, Jang Ok-ju (Jeon Jong-seo) pursues her revenge with flair. Ok-ju, a former VIP bodyguard, tracks down Choi Pro (Kim Ji-hoon), a sex trafficker who filmed her best friend Choi Min-hee (Park Yu-rim), and demands money for the footage. Min-hee’s death under duress turns Ok-ju into a weapon of destruction, causing her to devise and execute brutal attacks. The fight scenes in Ballerina liven up the story, rendering it an engaging watch.