Since Parasite‘s incredible popularity, moviegoers have sought more South Korean film production. Unbeknownst to many, South Korea is known for crafting gritty, honest films that accurately represent the harsh realities of life, especially crime movies.
It’s no secret that crime movies are the most engaging to watch. Maybe it’s the way they blend the action with more severe issues like shady politics, racism, and criminal justice system corruption. Or perhaps it’s merely the joy of watching criminal masterminds carry out their master plans. Either way, they all make for fascinating stories. Thus, these are some must-watch South Korean crime thriller movies of the 21st century you can stream right now.
Updated on October 13, 2023, by Jessie Nguyen:
It could be the sincerity or the unapologetically exploring the worst aspects of society yet occasionally managing to give viewers hope that makes Korean crime movies so attractive to spectators. As a result, fans can check out many fantastic ones from the 20th century that this country has tirelessly produced.
20 ‘Kill Boksoon’ (2023)
Kill Boksoon is a recently released Netflix crime thriller that centers on renowned hitwoman Gil Bok-soon (Jeon Do-Yeon), a single mother who feels distant from her adolescent daughter Gil Jae-young (Kim Si-a) despite being the best at her job.
The movie is an incredibly entertaining action-thriller that more than makes up for its predictable flaws with a ton of fantastic set pieces, compelling domestic drama, and odd humor. Kill Boksoon has been compared to a female version of John Wick, however, with more humor and heartfelt scenes while also being able to criticize many societal concerns.
Watch on Netflix
19 ‘The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil’ (2019)
A serial murder case is being investigated in Cheonan, but it leads to nowhere. However, only Tae-suk (Kim Mu-yeol), a police officer, recognizes that all the murders are the work of the same assailant and begins an inquiry. Later, a strange man attacks Dong-soo (Ma Dong-seok), a gang boss, and Tae-suk suspects that this man is the serial killer K (Kim Sungkyu), and Dong-soo becomes K’s only survivor.
Thanks to Park Se-Seung‘s clean and vivid cinematography, the movie is visually appealing and is drenched in neon and dramatic lighting. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is, for the most part, a fast-paced, exciting crime-thriller with two fascinating leads. Also, it successfully tackles the gangster film clichés and combines the action thriller with the cop story in a novel way, which quickly draws in the audience.
Watch on Peacock
18 ‘Inside Men’ (2015)
Inside Men revolves around An Sang-Goo (Lee Byung-hun), a political henchman who becomes embroiled in a power struggle among corrupt politicians, prosecutors, and conglomerate leaders. After being betrayed and manipulated by his superiors, An sets out on a path of revenge, seeking justice and exposing the corruption that runs deep within society.
The movie is a biting, compelling exposé of the shady practices used in Korean society to control power and public opinion. Moreover, Inside Men stands apart in the crime genre because it doesn’t have a villain that viewers can cheer for and it isn’t afraid to criticize the corrupt aspects of society and the legal system.
Watch on Kocowa
17 ‘A Dirty Carnival’ (2006)
A Dirty Carnival follows Kim Byung-doo (Jo In Sung), a small-time gangster who aspires to rise through the ranks of the criminal underworld. He finds himself caught between loyalty to his friends and family and the increasing pressure to perform criminal activities for his boss. As Kim becomes entangled in a power struggle, he faces difficult choices that test his morality and ultimately redefine his relationships.
The film stands out among other neo-noir action movies due to its realistic portrayal of the gritty and violent world of organized crime. It also offers an unflinching look at the corrupt practices, power struggles, and betrayals that occur within this setting.
16 ‘The Yellow Sea’ (2010)
The Yellow Sea follows Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo), a taxi driver from the Chinese-Korean border region who is drawn into a life of crime and violence after accepting a perilous mission. Gu-nam agrees to take part in a kill operation in Seoul in order to pay off his rising debt and, hopefully, discover his missing wife.
The movie expertly combines noir and suspense elements, enveloping spectators in a world of shady connections, betrayals, and thrilling pursuits. Additionally, The Yellow Sea stands out for its ability to consistently convey a sense of suspense and desperation. It’s a suspenseful thriller with a menacing atmosphere that goes deeply into the minds of its characters, especially Gu-nam, the protagonist who struggles with moral dilemmas.
15 ‘No Mercy’ (2010)
No Mercy follows the leading forensic pathologist Kang Min-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) who is set to retire but when the dismembered corpse of a young woman is discovered, he decides to undertake one final job. A serial killer then threatens to kill his daughter if he is not granted bail when Kang is close to catching the murderer.
The film is straightforward and uncompromising in its depiction with numerous autopsy scenes and intimate sequences which are not intended to shock but rather to heighten the sense of anguish. Moreover, Sol Kyung-gu won Best Actor at the 18th Chunsa Film Art Awards for his performance.
14 ‘Forgotten’ (2017)
Forgotten follows Jin-seok (Kang Ha-neul), a young man who, along with his family, moves into a new home in the countryside after his brother Yoo-seok is released from a mental health facility in the movie. Jin-seok starts to wonder if his brother is not who he claims to be as he starts to unearth a string of odd and scary happenings.
The movie masterfully combines aspects of mystery, family drama, and psychological suspense to create a gripping story that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats throughout. In addition, the film’s tension is apparent as it reveals the layers of deception and intrigue. It is an engaging and thrilling investigation of the hazy boundaries between reality and illusion.
13 ‘Montage’ (2013)
Montage revolves around a cold case that resurfaces after 15 years when a kidnapping case, in which a child went missing and was later found dead, is reopened. The film follows the perspectives of the grieving parents of the victim, the detective who failed to solve the case originally, and a new investigator. They start a new inquiry when they start receiving enigmatic messages and pictures that appear to be from the kidnapper.
Montage artfully plays with the audience’s expectations, offering unexpected plot twists and revelations that keep viewers on the edge of their seats. It presents a web of interconnected characters, each with their own motives and secrets, and invites viewers to piece together the puzzle along with the characters on screen.
Watch on Roku
12 ‘Innocent Witness’ (2019)
Innocent Witness follows Soon-ho (Jung Woo-sung), a lawyer who is assigned to defend a girl with autism named Ji-woo (Kim Hyang-gi), who is the sole witness to a murder case. As Soon-ho investigates the case, he comes to the conclusion that Ji-woo’s testimony will be crucial in establishing the defendant’s innocence. However, he will have to deal with the difficulties of working with a witness who communicates differently.
The film is renowned for its moving examination of the nexus between justice and empathy, illuminating the difficulties of memory and communication as well as the significance of comprehending people who have cognitive disabilities. The movie also features an emotional and thought-provoking narrative that challenges viewers to reflect on the moral and ethical ramifications of the legal system as well as the ability for compassion in people.
11 ‘Decision to Leave’ (2022)
Decision to Leave centers on the insomniac investigator Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), who is tasked with solving the death of a man who died after falling to his death from a mountain’s peak. He then begins to suspect the deceased man’s wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei) was behind this. As he looks into the case more, he discovers that he is caught in a web of deceit and desire.
The film is a suspenseful murder mystery that also functions as a chic love melodrama, fusing the procedural and the emotional aspects with ease. Unquestionably, this is Park Chan-wook‘s most refined and mature work to date. It seamlessly integrates the genre with visually spectacular cinematography and matching soundtracks.
Watch on Mubi
10 ‘New World’ (2013)
Ja-Sung (Lee Jung-jae) has found himself in the position of being the right-hand man of the organization’s second-in-command, Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min), after going undercover in South Korea’s largest crime syndicate. When the boss is killed in a car accident, a power struggle breaks out among the gang. Ja-Sung, who hopes to leave his secret life behind and starts a new life with his pregnant wife, is forced to stay because his commanding chief wants to seize control of the organization.
New World may appeal to Martin Scorsese‘s The Departed fans because director Park Hoon-Jung masterfully builds tension as the film progresses and manages to inject genuine emotional depth into the proceedings. Moreover, along with the well-known plot twists, the movie features customary violence, anti-heroes, remarkable action sequences, and fashionable gangsters in suits.
Watch on Pluto
9 ‘A Bittersweet Life’ (2005)
A Bittersweet Life revolves around Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun), a stoic and loyal enforcer working for a high-end hotel owner. Suspicions emerge when he is given the responsibility of keeping tabs on the boss’s mistress, Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah), and this sets off a complex web of betrayal and retaliation.
The movie is praised for its elegant direction, thrilling action sequences, and a compelling storyline full of moral quandaries. As he makes his way through a dangerous underworld, the movie shows Sun-woo’s transition from a stoic enforcer to an angry force of nature. The film’s aesthetic appeal is also enhanced by the stunning cinematography and well-choreographed action scenes, and the complex plot keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.
Watch on Kanopy
8 ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ (2003)
Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is a deaf person who works in a factory to support his sick sister, who requires a kidney transplant. He decides to obtain the kidney from a black organ-trading market, where he is swindled. He then kidnaps a wealthy girl for ransom at his most desperate time. However, things do not go as planned, and every character begins seeking vengeance on the other.
The first installment of Park Chan-Wook’s critically acclaimed VengeanceTrilogy, the film can be challenging to sit through since it takes melancholy and bleakness to new heights. Park compels viewers to imagine a world where morally upright individuals behave badly, and awful things are dealt to them by fate. Yet, the film discovers unexpected and sad traces of humanity even in its worst times.
Watch on Tubi
7 ‘Lady Vengeance’ (2010)
In her early twenties, Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Yeong-ae) was convicted of kidnapping and murdering a small boy. She was given a 13-year sentence in prison, during which time she acquired a lot of new friends. She immediately begins planning her vengeance after being liberated.
Lady Vengeance, the final installment of Park Chan-Wook’s critically praised Vengeance Trilogy, is perhaps the lightest entry in the series, but that doesn’t mean the audiences will not receive some heavy subjects in this critically-acclaimed revenge movie. Even though it lacks the distinctive intensity of the first two films, the film remains a stunning and unique art piece from a director at the peak of his game.
Watch on Tubi
6 ‘The Man From Nowhere’ (2010)
Cha Tae-Sik (Won Bin) was a special forces agent until he was forcefully separated from his wife and child. He now works alone as a pawnshop proprietor, cuts off from the rest of the world, and seems uninterested in rejoining society. That is until he meets the young girl next door, whose mother has neglected her, and together they form a bond. When the mother makes the critical mistake of taking cocaine from a powerful crime lord, she and her daughter are kidnapped by gangsters, and it’s up to Cha Tae-Sik to restore order.
The Man from Nowhere is a bleak and emotionally draining movie that deals with awful issues like child abuse, organ trafficking, drug addiction, kidnapping, and murder. However, it still manages to transmit many familial moments and frame it as a kinetic action thriller. Despite its overall lack of novelty, the movie is very well-made throughout, with strong leading performances.
Watch on Peacock
5 ‘Mother’ (2009)
Do-Joon (Won Bin) is a meek young man with an intellectual disability who is cared for by his overbearing mother (Kim Hye-ja). Do-Joon spends a lot of time with Jin-tae (Jin Goo), whom the mother perceives as a negative influence. One day, the girl is found dead, and the police are led to Do-Joon by circumstantial evidence. This ordeal tests the unique mother-son bond in the movie.
Featuring outstanding performances from the cast and brilliant direction from acclaimed director Bong Joon-ho, Mother is full of ambiguity and heartbreaking scenes. The film was nominated and won a slew of awards at several international film festivals the year it was released.
Watch on Roku
4 ‘The Chaser’ (2008)
Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok) is a former cop who now works as a pimp. Two of his girls have recently vanished without paying their bills. With remaining detective skills, Jung-ho decides to investigate. After a long chase, he apprehends the culprit, but both men are caught and taken to the police station.
The Chaser was filmmaker Na Hong-jin‘s first film, and he delivered a suspenseful and intricately structured thrill ride in his debut. The film’s screenplay also sets out to expose the systemic factors that made these crimes and others like them possible. The Chaser won many prizes in Korea, including Best Film and Best Director.
Watch on Roku
3 ‘I Saw the Devil’ (2010)
When serial killer Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-sik) murders pregnant Joo-Yun (Oh San Ha) on a snowy night and dismembers her body, he has no idea that her father, a police officer, and her boyfriend (Lee Byung-hun), a National Intelligence Service secret agent, will go to any length to identify the perpetrator and bring him to justice.
Violent, upsetting, and starring Korea’s greatest actors in the game, I Saw the Devil is another noteworthy South Korean entry in the revenge movie genre and well worth seeing for fans of these types of films. Also, the movie is a masterpiece in every way, with exquisite direction and scriptwriting, intricate cinematography, and one of the most stunning cinematic endings ever.
Watch on Kanopy
2 ‘Memories of Murder’ (2003)
The film was inspired by a true event about ten women who were raped and murdered in a small hamlet in Gyeonggi province, south of Seoul, between 1986 and 1991. Memories of Murder begins when the first victim is discovered, with an inquiry led by two inexperienced local detectives, Park Doo Man (Song Kang-Ho) and Cho Yong Koo (Kim Roi Ha) and a Seoul-based detective, Seo Tae Yoon, that leads nowhere.
The film depicts the quickly changing political climate in South Korea in the late 80s when the country was emerging from a dictatorship, as seen by the ruthless tactics of the local police force. Despite the dark topic, the film manages to be darkly hilarious, cementing Bong Joon-ho’s reputation as a director and making it one of the best crime Korean movies of all time.
1 ‘Oldboy’ (2003)
Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a husband and father, is kidnapped and thrown in solitary confinement in a hotel-like prison on his daughter’s birthday for unknown reasons. After 15 years, he is abruptly released following receiving a phone call from his captor. From then, it’s a race against time to discover his tormentor and execute vengeance, as he only has one day to solve the puzzle.
Oldboy earned the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and a slew of other nominations and accolades worldwide, making it the first Korean crime movie that received Hollywood’s attention in the expanding Korean film industry. Oldboy still holds its own as a modern retribution masterpiece, packed with tremendous brutality and with an iconic shocking film ending, but with a plot that captures viewers’ interest and keeps them committed through every turn.
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