Earlier this year, the action movie Time to Hunt made history, becoming the first South Korean film to play as part of the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival’s special screenings lineup. The critically heralded film imagines a not-so-distant dystopian future, in which a financial crisis pushes young men to turn to crime to survive.
Prescient and promising, Time to Hunt was set to debut on Netflix yesterday. Unfortunately, some legal snags have indefinitely postponed the release of Yoon Sung-hyun’s thrill ride. But while we wait, let’s kill some time watching the 10 best South Korean action movies that are now streaming.
The Host (2006)
In the Han River of Seoul lurks a massive monster born of pollution and American military arrogance. Once this beast bursts forth from the waters, it’s already too late. Rampaging through the streets, it leaves a path of destruction and grief, snatching a schoolgirl from her family. The Park family is a band of misfits, shopkeepers and archers, who bicker and bungle. But they will unite to try to rescue their lost child from the gaping maw of this vicious creature.
Today, Bong Joon-ho is South Korea’s most famous filmmaker, thanks to his three Academy Award wins for the acclaimed black comedy Parasite. But back in 2006, he was breaking through internationally, awing international critics with this suspenseful, strikingly funny creature-feature that became the highest-grossing South Korean film of all time. His countrymen were already hip to Bong’s unique flair for blending suspense, comedy and horror thanks to Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder. Now, though, international audiences were getting wise to him, and would go on to champion his disturbing crime-drama Mother, his action-packed English-language debut Snowpiercer and the bittersweet fantasy adventure Okja. (Watch on Shudder.)
The second entry in Park Chan-Wook’s heralded Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy centers on a businessman (Choi Min-sik) whose drunk night out spins into a hellish nightmare. He’s abducted, imprisoned and tortured without having any idea why. Fifteen years later, he’s let free with vengeance on his mind and a hammer in his hand. That’s enough for an epic fight scene that had action fans worldwide awestruck by Park’s bold and brutal brand of action.
While critics raved, this neo-noir’s biggest fan might be Quentin Tarantino. As jury president for the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, the American auteur campaigned hard for Park’s work to take a top honor, and Oldboy ended up being awarded the Grand Prix. At the time, Tarantino declared Park, “One of the most exciting action cinema directors out there.” He’s not wrong. (Watch on Shudder; the Vengeance Trilogy’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance are also streaming.)
Train to Busan (2016)
Want an action movie with bite? Consider this heralded zombie-horror offering about a motley crew of strangers fighting for their lives on a train headed to the bustling metropolis of (you guessed it) Busan. Yeon Sang-ho’s savage thrill ride centers on a workaholic father (Gong Yoo) who has promised his young daughter (Kim Su-an) a trip to see her mother. However, this promise becomes much harder to keep once a zombie-bit passenger barrels on board. Along the way, father and daughter will rely on the help of a bat-wielding high school baseball team, a pair of elderly sisters, a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi) and her besotted and very brawny baby-daddy (Ma Dong-seok) to survive.
The action in this one is the stuff of nightmares. Sure, you’ve seen zombies before, but nothing like Yeon’s undead. Dancers and contortionists bend their bodies in horrific ways while hurtling into frenzied battles as if they feel no pain, only a gnawing hunger for carnage. Carnivorous brawls, breath-snatching escapes and a jaw-dropping sequence involving an escalator made Train to Busan one of the most celebrated horror movies of 2016 as well as a smash hit, pulling in $98.5 million worldwide. (Watch on Netflix.)
The Outlaws (2017)
Based on the 2007 “Heuksapa Incident,” this Kang Yoon-sung-helmed crime-thriller delves into the criminal underbelly of Seoul’s Chinatown, where rival gangs went to war for territory and dominance. Forget The Departed and its hammer-to-hand scene — these gangsters up the ante by busting out a sledgehammer to smash the appendages of those who cross them. Knives and axes spring out to stab and hack in karaoke bars, back alleys and public streets. And only one man can stop the chaos.
In Train to Busan, swaggering scene-stealer Ma Dong-seok (also known as Don Lee) broke out as a beefy dad-to-be who could smash a zombie’s jaw as if it were a teacup. In The Outlaws, he steps into the spotlight as a captivating leading man. His burly bravado makes him an action hero in the 1980s Lethal Weapon/Die Hard mold. With a crooked grin and an alluring confidence, he plays by his own rules and doesn’t get ruffled by knife fights in the streets. With hands like mallets, I can’t stress enough how fun it is to watch him belt down baddies! Resolutely, this Herculean cop works his way up the criminal ladder to a slick villain with no mercy (Yoon Kye-sang) in a showdown that’s smashing and sensational. (Watch on Prime Video.)
A Taxi Driver (2017)
Parasite’s Song Kang-ho stars as the titular cabbie whose drive for quick cash leads him into a life-changing journey he couldn’t imagine. Mr. Kim (Song) is a widowed single-father who drives a cab to provide for his darling daughter, but no matter how many hours he works, he’s constantly in debt. So when he hears about a long-drive client that’ll bring in a big fare, he’s quick to jump on it. However, in his haste, Mr. Kim doesn’t realize he’s driving German photojournalist Jürgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann) into the dangerous heart of the violent Gwangju Uprising of 1980.
Based on real events, Jang Hoon‘s historical action-drama features grim scenes of soldiers firing on civilians, car chases and hostage scenes. However, there’s an earnest humor and humanity thread throughout, courtesy of Song’s radiant performance. His Mr. Kim begins the film as a bit of a goofball and a brashly apolitical man, whose only interest is providing for his family. However, through his journey with Jürgen, a bravery and rebellion is sparked that pushes him to inspiring heroics. The curious part is that little is known about the real Mr. Kim, so herein lies a blend of fact and fiction that imagines how an average cabbie became a nationally recognized — yet anonymous — hero. (Watch on Hulu.)
The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)
As you might have guessed from the title, this film was inspired by Sergio Leone’s classic 1966 Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in which three gunslingers face off — and sometimes team up — to capture an incredible treasure. In Kim Jee-woon’s version, the story is set in the deserts of 1939 Manchuria, where a steely bounty hunter (Steel Rain’s Jung Woo-sung), a suave train robber (The Magnificent Seven remake’s Lee Byung-hun) and a bombastic thief (A Taxi Driver’s Song Kang-ho) cross paths, ruffle egos and battle in a ruthless showdown.
Kim’s action-packed Western has got it all. It boasts a charismatic cast, with Jung delivering stoic machismo, Lee strutting with a steamy menace and Song slaying with pratfalls and raucous one-liners. Cinematographer Lee Mo-gae pays tribute to the Western genre with camera moves that swing smoothly, revealing harsh landscapes, itching trigger fingers and cowboy close-ups of eagle-eyed shootists. The soundtrack zings with familiar twangs and much gusto. But best of all is the outstanding action: There’s a daring train heist, a horse chase led by a speeding motorcycle, popping parkour, gunfights galore and much, much more. (Watch on Hulu.)
I Saw the Devil (2010)
This twisted tale of cat-and-mouse also offers a star power showdown. Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik stars as a savage serial killer who targets pretty young women stranded along a deserted road. The Good, The Bad, The Weird’s Lee Byung-hun stars as a dashing secret agent whose fiancée was brutally slain by that madman. So, this heartbroken hero not only tracks down the sinister sicko who murdered his love, he does so violently, again and again, releasing and capturing his prey, each time extracting an increasingly horrid vengeance.
Director Kim Jee-woon is a master of twisting genres into unexpected realms. His A Tale of Two Sisters gave a mind-bending twist to haunted horror, while the aforementioned The Good, The Bad, The Weird brought a wild spin to the Western. With I Saw The Devil, Kim combined two archetypes, mixing crime-thrillers with elements of slasher-horror to make a movie that’s stomach-churning in its gore, nerve-scratching in its suspense and heart-poundingly haunting in its final moments.
Seriously, this movie scared me so intensely that I experienced fight-or-flight in the theater, kicking out my foot in instinctive self-defense against the onscreen slayer. Consider yourself warned. (Watch on Crackle.)
The Villainess (2017)
Poised with a rifle, in a lace wedding dress, she is a vision of feminine grace and unbridled violence. Not exactly a villainess, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) is more an anti-heroine on a mission. More specifically, she’s an assassin forced to kill under contract for 10 years to earn her freedom. Her story is one of vengeance, heartbreak, soap-opera twists and much, much blood.
Director Jung Byung-gil kicks off The Villainess with a fight sequence that’ll leave action fans hyperventilating. Shot in first-person perspective, Sook-hee starts as a pair of ferocious limbs that hack, slash and shoot through a labyrinth of foes as if they were wet tissue paper. This POV puts audiences in the shoes of this rampaging killer in the way of first-person shooter games. With adrenaline racing, audiences are thrown so close to the action that you might check yourself for blood spatter. (Watch on Hulu.)
The Man From Nowhere (2010)
If you love the Liam Neeson thriller Taken, you won’t want to miss Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man From Nowhere, which has a familiar premise. At first glance, Cha Tae-sik (Mother’s Won Bin) seems like a meek pawnshop owner, the kind of guy who’s practically invisible to the world around him. His only friend is So-mi, the ragamuffin next door (Kim Sae-ron). So when the kid is kidnapped by a vicious gang of organ-harvesters, this dude from nowhere will use his special set of skills to get her back.
This man-on-a-mission thriller is studded with twists and literally eye-popping action. For our hardened hero, it begins by disarming a cocky drug dealer, using only his wallet and lightning fast reflexes. From there, foot chases lead to hatchet fights, street shootouts, a bomb made from hard drugs and this spine-tingling threat made before the final faceoff: “I’ll keep the gold teeth!” (Now on Prime Video.)
Set sail for an audacious adventure on the high seas! Set in 1388, Lee Seok-hoon’s Pirates brings together a collection of colorful characters as rowdy rivals quest for the royal seal, a McGuffin lost at sea, swallowed by a mythic whale. Whoever can reclaim the seal will be granted power and fortune. Thus, a tenacious female pirate (Son Ye-jin), a cocky bandit (Kim Nam-gil), a one-eyed soldier (Kim Tae-woo) and a vicious captain (Lee Geung-young) collide and collude on land and sea.
This one is basically South Korea’s answer to The Pirates of the Caribbean. And of everything on this list, it’s the one most likely to be enjoyed by the whole family. A jaunty soundtrack, a zany ever-seasick sailor and a rollicking pace keep the vibe light, while scads of gonzo action make this adventure thoroughly thrilling. Pirates delivers slow-motion sword fights, stunning hand-to-hand combat and some epic action set pieces that are as enthralling as they are imaginative.
Sure, Captain Jack Sparrow is fun, but has he ever ridden a runaway cart through a bustling street while facing off against a massive wheel that would crush him and a waterslide-riding crossbow-shooter, with his only defense being a firework cannon? I don’t think so. (Watch on Hi-YAH!)